A Crime by Heinrich Mann

2014

 

For German Literature Month 2012 I read Heinrich Mann’s novel, Man of Straw, a book which follows the life of an ultra-patriotic, pompous, proto-fascist petty bourgeois. There’s a film of the book, The Kaiser’s Lackey, and both the book and the film are highly recommended.

Der Untertan

Earlier in 2012, I read The Blue Angel–also known as Professor Unrat. This is the story of a professor, a widower, who teaches at a boy’s school in a small provincial town.  He discovers that some of his pupils are hanging around a disreputable club known as The Blue Angel and he takes it upon himself to catch the boys. While on his moral quest, he runs into the nightclub singer, Rosa (Lola Lola in the film) and so begins a self-destructive obsession.  The book and film differ in significant ways with the book allowing the professor to exact his revenge against the inhabitants of the town while the film version, from director Von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich, is tragic. My favourite scene in the marvelous film version is Marlene Dietrich singing “Falling in Love Again.” This is the scene where the professor loses himself to the singer, but the scene is extraordinary for the presence of the delicious Marlene Dietrich. There’s a moment at the end of the song, as she’s sitting on the chair, and she gazes into the camera. She knows she nailed the scene.

blue-angel-marlene-dietrich-1930

I’m bringing up these two books (both made into excellent films) written by Heinrich Mann for a couple of reasons: 1) Thomas Mann seems to the Mann brother most talked about and 2) I found a short story by Heinrich Mann available for the kindle. 99c for 10 pages–well there’s an argument both for and against the purchase (hours of work for very little compensation vs I was hoping for a novel…), but since I loved both Heinrich Mann novels I’ve read, plus the fact I’m reading a Goebbels biography (almost 1000 pages) in which Heinrich’s books were part of the book burning ceremony, well, it only seems appropriate that this author should make an appearance for German Literature month. So here’s the short story : A Crime.

The story opens with a retired cavalry officer, Captain von Hecht giving some words of advice about women to a younger man, and from the way he’s talking, we know he has some experiences in mind.

As far as great passion is concerned, the problem is that it never happens to be equally great on both sides. If it’s greater on your side, it’s a misfortune, but here one can say: activity wards off sorrows, or at least it often does. If, on the other hand, a woman’s passion becomes too great, you are seeking rest at the foot of a volcano: a shower of sulfur will bury you.

Then von Hecht goes back to 1882 and tells the story of being stationed in the small town of M. He quickly discovers that the only house worth visiting belongs to a merchant named Starke who has a beautiful wife:

I had seen her on the street, only from behind, to be sure, but she exaggerated the swaying of her hips as she walked. She had an overly short and thus perfectly round waist and striking thick brown hair. Her nose, in addition, was of a delightful fineness, with slightly mobile nostrils. When she smiled, she would bite her blood-red lips with her sharp white teeth as if she were biting into a peach, and her gray eyes would flash with dreamy, veiled curiosity. Later, in moments of transport, I saw silvery serpents flicking out their tongues in them.

There’s some wonderful imagery in that quote which tells us a lot about Annemarie, the wife of the merchant. She’s beautiful, she’s passionate and she’s bad, bad, bad. She’s one of those kamikaze women, a term coined by Woody Allen in the film Husbands and Wives: I’ve always had this penchant for what I call Kamikaze women… I call them kamikaze because they crash their plane right into you. You die with them.”

One look at Annemarie and Von Hecht is hooked. Perhaps the attraction is bolstered by boredom or lack of choices in the small provincial town, but whatever the motivations, von Hecht can’t help but feel sorry for Annemarie’s poor clueless husband. Of course, he’s not so sorry for the husband that he keeps his hands off the man’s wife. The unattractive, seemingly thick Starke is obviously outclassed in the marriage–not by his wife’s status (she has none) or her dowry (she was penniless), but he’s outclassed by her slyness and avarice. She’s a demanding wife, and, of course, she’s also a demanding mistress–one of “those women who take possession of even the slightest fragment of their lovers’ private lives.” With her extravagance and love of finery, Annemarie reminded me of Madame Bovary, and when von Hecht “inadvertently calls her Emma” neither he nor the reader is surprised by the connection. But there’s also an Anna Karenina connection here:

Once a woman whose rightful lot had been to be the mother in a conventional family has set off down the wrong path, she takes madder leaps than any other.

Those ‘mad leaps’ are at the heart of the story, but that’s as much as I’m going to give away. After finishing the story, I ran a search on the translator’s name (thanks for translating Heinrich Mann) and came across many more stories from this translator available for the kindle, including a dual language version of one Stendhal title. I’ll be digging through the list, hoping for more Heinrich Mann but open to whatever’s there.

Original title: Ein Verbrechen: translated by Juan LePuen

 

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The Filthy Truth by Andrew Dice Clay (with David Ritz)

The Diceman Cometh… back.

“I wanted to show the world that a comic could be as big as a rock star.”

There was a time in the late 80s when I swore that one day I’d see Andrew Dice Clay in concert. In those years he was everywhere–the raunchy hottest comedian around; his shows were rude, crude and lewd–the sort of comedian bound to offend someone. In fact, even saying that you were an Andrew Dice Clay fan raised eyebrows. No matter, I love a good laugh and my sense of humour has always been in the gutter.

the filthy truthIn spite of my intentions to one day attend a Diceman concert, it never happened. Most of Dice’s fans are aware of the ‘controversy’ that buried Dice’s career–Dice was slated to appear on SNL (yes, that supposedly cutting edge comedy programme) when one of the cast members boycotted the show. The boycott was joined by Sinead O’Connor, and then MTV slammed a lifetime ban (lifted in 2011) on Dice following the 1989 MTV awards (come on, if you make Dice a live prime-time TV presenter what the hell do you think is going to happen?) and then the Puritanism snowballed from there. Dice, at the top of his game and able to sell out tens of thousands of seats in minutes, suddenly became a hot PC potato. He disappeared, reappearing briefly in a sadly harnessed performance for a drab television sitcom.

Frankly, it was startling to see how Dice’s career was eviscerated practically overnight. William J Mann’s book Tinseltown documented the witchhunt that threw Fatty Arbuckle to the ‘moral reformers’ and ruined his career. Perhaps we could expect scapegoating in the 1920s–those days of imminent film censorship, but it is startling to see the same sort of thing occur again in the 90s. And let’s not forget that Fatty Arbuckle was accused of rape and murder before emerging, an innocent man, from no less than 3 trials. The most Andrew Dice Clay can be accused of is bad taste, and I bet he’d gladly admit it.

If the press didn’t understand that the Diceman was a character who amplified certain attitudes that millions of people had–not only amplified those attitudes but actually made fun of those attitudes by making fun of himself–then the press had its head up its ass.

I’ve missed Dice over the years, but I’ve had the occasional Dice Nostalgia Night with a rewatch of one of the many Dice concerts or even his cult film: The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and I was delighted to see Dice in the role of a disgruntled ex-husband in Woody Allen’s 2013 film Blue Jasmine. Could this mean that the Diceman is back?….

The Filthy Truth, Andrew Dice Clay’s memoir, begins with Dice at the lowest point of his life. He’s “lost millions” and with two marriages behind him, “broke, grinding through the toughest decade” of his life, is about to play to an audience of 16 in the back room of a Las Vegas sushi bar–a far cry from the days when he sold out two consecutive days at Madison Square Garden–the only comic in history to do so. Dice says of the experience in the back room of the sushi bar,  “that night was the beginning of the ride back,” The book then moves from Dice’s childhood in Brooklyn, through the beginnings of his comic career, the formation of his Dice persona, the struggles, the successes, the marriages, the pinnacle of his success and his fall.

The book includes details of several sexual encounters, and this is when the book is at its weakest. Unlike Dice’s jokes, these encounters don’t come with a punch line, and the stories just read as titillation rather than interesting or even erotic. The details of Dice’s family, known as the Originals are wonderful; you just knew that he had to come from some pretty extraordinary people, and Dice’s parents (his mother especially) come to life in the pages. There’s the sense that Dice had an incredible career that was unique for a number of reasons, and Dice always seemed to be able to gauge the right moves at the right moment–that is until he drastically underestimated the power of Moral Righteousness and “the orchestrated campaign” which finally dragged his career into the undertow.

I ran down to the newsstand on the corner and picked up the paper. And right there, in a five-word description of the Diceman Cometh, I read, “The Demise of Western Civilization.”

I was half amused, half amazed that the Times took me so fuckin’ seriously. But I wasn’t upset. I was actually glad for the attention. Let the press write whatever the hell they wanna write. I work for the fans, not the press. All the press could do was bring me more fans. I didn’t see then–and remained blind to for months to come–the power of the press to fuck me up.

It’s clear that Dice, born and raised in Brooklyn, was always a ‘character,’ as we read of his childhood (he was a “third-rate student and a first-rate clown,”), how he “dated” his mother’s fur coat, his first and last trip to a bordello (“the madam looked like Bela Lugosi in drag,”) and worked at a men’s clothing shop selling cheap suits “a little better than papier-mâché.” But it didn’t take long for Dice to realize that he was not going to have a traditional career, and so we follow how he developed his first act and made the decision to move to L.A. where he built his routine at the Comedy Store. Reading the book gives the impression that Dice is in the room telling his story complete with frank admissions of mistakes and failings, and there’s the sense that a fall will occur as we hear about the houses bought, the huge gambling losses, the purchase of a car for sixty-nine thousand in cash, and the night he played Vegas with three-hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth of chips stuffed in his pocket.

Included in the book are snapshots of various celebrities who befriended Dice or gave him a kind word along the way–including  Rodney Dangerfield, Eddie Murphy, Mickey Rourke, and Eminen.

The Filthy Truth will appeal to all the fans out there who’ve missed Andrew Dice Clay and are still cheering for him. Those familiar with Dice will know what to expect in terms of language and subject matter, so readers can’t bitch when they find the first four letter word. Dice’s role in Blue Jasmine signals his triumphant return, but his fans never forgot him in the first place.

I got up onstage and I took my sweet fucking time lighting my cigarette with a flick of the Zippo and an over-the-shoulder back of the-head drag. I opened with the nursery rhymes.

Review copy

 

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The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann

2014

 

What would German literature month be without E.T.A Hoffman? I recently read Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson which I thoroughly enjoyed, and since the collection opened with Hoffmann’s short story, The Sandman, it seemed a perfect addition to German Literature month.

The story is just 30 pages and begins as an epistolary. A very troubled young man named Nathanael writes a letter to his friend, Lothar, but in emotional turmoil, he makes the mistake of addressing the letter to Lothar’s sister, Nathanael’s love interest, Clara. The letter details Nathanael’s childhood exposure to tales of the Sandman;

He’s a wicked man who comes to children when they don’t want to go to bed and throws handfuls of sand into their eyes; that makes their eyes fill with blood and jump out of their heads, and he throws the eyes into a bag and takes them into the crescent moon to feed to his own children, who are sitting in the nest there; the Sandman’s children have crooked beaks, like owls, with which to peck the eyes of naughty human children.

Yes, a wonderful thing to tell children especially at bedtime.

Nathanael relates a childhood in which a strange visitor he identifies as the Sandman (a creature who, according to Nathanael’s mother, does not exist)  periodically visits his father. These mysterious visits throw an atmosphere of gloom over the family and are accompanied by foul-smells suggesting the practice of alchemy. One terrifying night, Nathanael, after getting a good look at the Sandman, realizes that the Sandman in none other than Coppelius, an “old advocate.”

Years later, in the letter to Lothar, Nathanael, now a student, is convinced that he has met Coppelius again…

After 3 letters, the narrator of the tale takes over, and we shift from the Sandman as a major threat to Nathanael falling in love with Olimpia, the strange daughter of professor Spalanzani.

We could take the tale at face value or we can, from a psychological viewpoint, consider this a tale of obsession and madness. Clara, who believes that the “demon” exists only in Nathanael’s mind,  offers her fiancé some sensible advice:

If there is a dark power which malevolently and treacherously places a thread within us, with which to hold us and draw us down a perilous and pernicious path that we must never otherwise have set foot on–if there is such a power, then it must take the same form as we do, it must become our very self; for only in this way can we believe in it and give it the scope it requires to accomplish its secret task.

Nathanael is annoyed with Clara and considers her unfeeling, but no matter, to Nathanael, Olimpia seems to be the perfect woman–she sits and listens, never argues, never expresses an opinion of her own, and it seems only a small flaw that she can’t dance well. …

At around 30 pages, this is a short tale, and for its psychological elements,  I much preferred this to Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scuderi. Nathanael makes an interesting main character and while we can sympathise with him, it’s easy to see that he’s his own worst enemy–a man who, haunted by childhood demons, seems to rush with both arms open towards his own fate.

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All Days Are Night by Peter Stamm

2014

Back to German Literature Month 2014 hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. I’ve mention already in my review of Silence that although I had a year to pick books to read for this event, I had no concrete plans other than to read something by Joseph Roth. As luck would have it, a blogging friend sent me an unwanted review copy of Swiss author Peter Stamm’s All Days Are Night. I’d been meaning to read something by Peter Stamm, and since it’s German Literature Month, this was a perfect opportunity.

Titles can give a hint about content, and in the case of All Days Are Night–a book which landed on my doorstep, and a book I knew absolutely nothing about, I had the impression that I was going to read something about sad, lonely people. I was right.

All Days are nightAll Days Are Night is mainly the story of Gillian, a successful, beautiful television personality whose life, as she knew it, is wiped out in a moment by a drunk driving incident. Gillian survives with her face badly damaged while her husband Matthias, is killed. No one, except Gillian, knows the details of the fight or why Matthias was driving home from a party in a drunken rage, and when she wakes up from the accident in the hospital, moving back and forth in a semi-hallucinogenic, heavily medicated state,  she doesn’t initially remember what happened:

Gillian tries to concentrate. Everything depends on her reply. She wants to be herself, to get up, but she can’t. She can’t move her legs; it’s as though she has no legs. The radio stops, the nurse walks over to the window and draws the curtains. Gillian remembers; the rain, the low-pressure area. There must be a connection.

You should try and get some rest.

Rest from what? Something has happened. Gillian is hovering around it, the memory, she is moving closer and then getting farther away from it again. When she puts out her hand, the pictures disappear, and the blue water comes instead, the blue water and the empty space. But the other thing is there all the time, waiting for her. She knows there is a way out, and she will take it. Later.

After Gillian realizes what happened that night, she keeps the truth about the fight with Matthias to herself. She must go through a series of surgeries to repair her face, but her life in front of the cameras it is gone. Gradually the backstory about exactly what Matthias and Gillian were fighting about floats to the surface. She has a lot to feel guilty about….

That’s really as much of the plot as I’m willing to give away, but I will say that the second part of the book brings in artist Hubert to the central stage. Both Gillian and Hubert have breakdowns for different reasons, and the story follows the connections between these two characters and how they deal with their problems.

Veering away from the plot, I’ll focus on Hubert’s art–he’s known for his photos of naked women. That may sound salacious, and indeed many people try to make Hubert’s work sound salacious, but the photos are of women mostly performing everyday tasks … naked:

In the next tray were pictures of a small woman with wide hips and large, pendulous breasts. She had short blond hair and hairy armpits. Both her posture and her facial expression had something theatrical about them. She hung washing on a low rack in a tiny bathroom, baby things and men’s socks. She took a book from a shelf, hunkered down on the floor, and swept up with a small broom, maybe crumbs from biscuits she had given her child. The apartment was cluttered and untidy. In the last pictures, the woman looked close to tears.

She looks terribly lonely, said Gillian. Do you have any idea what you put these women through?

They agree to take part, said Hubert, switching the trays. Even in their nakedness they try not to reveal themselves. They hide behind their movements, their smiles, their way of exhibiting themselves.

Identity and authenticity are central themes in the book, and all of the main characters seem to be trying to find authenticity in their lives by various means. Gillian, with her badly damaged face, can no longer appear in front of the camera, so she loses her career, but even before the accident, she begins to feel that she’s “playing a part in a bad film” or “speaking lines from a script.” After the accident she looks in the mirror, sees a fragmented self and later realizes that her life “before the accident had been one long performance.”

It’s easy to see how an artist would constantly strive for authenticity, but in Hubert’s case, his drive is different. He feels like an “imposter” when he teaches, and when he asks his models to remove their clothes it’s as if in so doing, their nakedness will reveal an absolute truth–a tactic which fails, of course. Perhaps he’s driven to seek authenticity for another reason. His girlfriend (later in the book they’re married) is a seeker of some sort of deeper truth, but she’s hollow and superficial:

Astrid pursued her interest in energy and the body. Hubert wasn’t impressed by the esoteric life-help scene she started to move in. He passed occasional ironic remarks, to which she reacted so violently that he didn’t say anything the next time she registered for a weekend course in psychodrama or breathing therapy.

There’s also a terrific sense of emptiness and abandonment in this novel which is partly achieved through a complete absence of quotation marks (see the first and second quotes), but also Stamm’s spare style in this unpredictable, melancholy, yet ultimately optimistic story underscores a deep void which runs through the lives of his lonely, troubled characters.

Gillian clicked on “Gallery.” There were five pictures of unoccupied rooms: an office, a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. In all the pictures it was nighttime, and the rooms were dimly lit. Although not much could be seen, Gillian still had the sense that there was someone in all the rooms, hiding in a corner or else behind the onlooker.

Translated by Michael Hoffman. 182 pages.

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New Orleans: a quote from Gary Krist’s book, Empire of Sin

A quote from Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist:

According to one early historian, “Disorderly soldiers, black sheep of distinguished families, paupers, prostitutes, political suspects, friendless strangers, unsophisticated peasants straying into Paris–all were kidnapped, herded, and shipped under guard to fill the emptiness of Louisiana.”

French jails and hospitals were ransacked for potential colonists, while men with an opportunistic bent were enticed with promises of free transportation, free land, and the fabulous riches derived from a  region of unimaginable abundance. To deal with a chronic shortage of women, prospective wives were also imported from the Old Country, among them eighty-eight inmates from a Parisian house of correction known as La Salpêtrière. As a result, the town was–already famous as a den of iniquity, a place “without religion, without justice, without discipline, without order, and without police.”

My kind of town….

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Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist

Some cities have an aura of glamour–Paris, Venice, Vienna, St Petersburg, Budapest … perhaps that disappears when you live there, but for this armchair traveler, the city of New Orleans also makes the list of glamorous cities. Of course, the images of New Orleans took a hit with Hurricane Katrina–a natural disaster which lifted the lid on some very ugly behaviour. I’ll never go to Mardi Gras, and I’ll never go to New Orleans, but I’m interested enough in the history of the city to pick up Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist.

I expected an extraordinary history of this city. I expected a lot of vice & crime, and in this, the book, although occasionally dry, did not disappoint. Author Gary Krist presents a convincing portrait of a unique city built on vice. Eventually, as the title suggests, the powers within the city split into two camps–those who wanted to clean the place up (partly for tourism, partly for business reasons, and partly for the moral crusade), and those whose vested interests lay in Vice, and who knew that at least a large portion of the tourists were there to party!

Empire of sinThe prologue begins in 1918 with the mysterious axe-man murders (which are returned to later in the book), and then it’s back to the 1890s. A large part of the book explores the city’s history of Vice with some of the most infamous names of the day: Josephine Lobrano, one of the more successful brothel owners who’d been “driven into prostitution as an eleven-year-old orphan,” Lulu White, & entrepreneur, restaurateur and brothel owner Tom Anderson whose rise and fall mirrors the ascent and curtailing of the vice elements within the city. Josephine Lobrano seems to be one of New Orleans more colourful characters who decided to “turn over a new leaf” not by retiring but by upgrading her brothel to attract higher end clients. This was considered “going respectable” which says a lot about the place and the times.

Krist explains that this was the “era of High Victorianism” and that not even New Orleans was “impervious to the stringent ideals of the day,” and argues that “in nineteenth-century New Orleans, however, respectability was arguably more difficult to achieve and maintain than in almost any other place on the continent” as “threats to decency were everywhere, and the city’s lax cosmopolitan ethos hardly conformed to mainstream American norms of behaviour.” This seems to be the book’s main thesis–what passed as normal in New Orleans was certainly not normal elsewhere in most of America (San Francisco was pretty wild, I’d argue), and that due to the “unique history” of New Orleans, the city “scarcely seemed American at all.” Krist states that the city at the time was “largely Latin, Catholic

a strange and disturbing place to many–a place where married white men attended ‘Quadroon Balls’ to find mixed-race concubines, where macabre voodoo rituals occurred in shanties and back alleys, and where even prominent politicians might meet in City Park to duel with pistols or épées at dawn. In the city’s notorious tenderloin districts, brothels specialized in all manner of interracial mixing and arcane sexual practices, while narcotics, alcohol, and loud degenerate kinds of music filled the salon’s and dance halls, promoting deviant behaviour of all kinds.

The city was founded as a “French outpost in the early 1700s” but by the “latter half of the eighteenth century” was under Spanish rule. There’s a brief history sketched of the city’s shifting population, and I would have liked more, but the point is well made that New Orleans was a “confluence of races and ethnicities” that was decidedly different from other protestant, Lutheran or Baptist cities in America. I recently read 10 North Frederick by John O’Hara, and The Murder of Dr. Chapman, and even though both books (one fiction, the other non-fiction) were set in different centuries, the very fundamental protestant nature of the setting (Pennsylvania) was made quite clear.

Krist argues that by the end of the nineteenth century “respectability had become [such] a burning preoccupation among the ‘better element’ in New Orleans.” And although “gambling, prostitution, street violence, and bawdy entertainment had been a prominent feature of the city’s life for its entire history” many citizens wanted things to change. Part of the problem was that post-Reconstruction, “vice areas” had spread to both residential and commercial neighbourhoods, and it was not unheard of for a family to buy a home in a ‘decent’ neighborhood, but then wake up one day to find a brothel had sprung up next door.  By the “late 1880s, criminality of all types in the city seemed virtually out of control” with blacks and Italians frequently “scapegoated” for the rampant spread of crime.  Crime and Vice added to a corrupt city government burdened with debt left New Orleans, with open sewers and only a few homes with running water, “hopelessly backward, at least in terms of urban development.” The election of Joseph Shakepeare voted in on promises of reform began the “equivalent of an all out civil war” for the city.

There were plenty of casualties in the war, including police chief David Hennessy who’d cracked down on the wave of crime amongst Italians. This led to the infamous Parish Prison lynching–an incredible event–not only in its execution but in its complete lack of consequences in this so-called “spontaneous uprising of the people.” This is hardly the first or the last instance of vigilante justice in American history, but it’s certainly an extraordinary tale for the sheer number of people involved and the lack of anonymity in the face of frustration with the legal system.

Another large portion of the book, and for this reader the most interesting section of the book, follows the history (and the more famous inhabitants) of Storyville–an eighteen block area in which prostitution wasn’t legalized as much as it was made illegal outside of these limits. Also covered quite extensively is the rise of Jazz. Louis Armstrong’s memories of playing music in the brothels of Storyville are wonderful. Other salient sections include the exploits of the Black Hand and the crime spree of Robert Charles.

These are wild times, and of course, we know as we read the book that the wild times had to end. The demise of Storyville was celebrated by many, but there’s still a pervasive sense of desperation when we read about the secondhand dealers who flocked to Storyville to pick up antiques and opulent furnishings from “distressed prostitutes and madams.”

Louis Armstrong was there to witness the exodus. “It sure was a sad scene to watch the law run all those people out of Storyville,” he wrote years later. “They reminded me of refugees. Some of them had spent the best part of their lives there. Others had never known any other kind of life.”

Review copy

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No Strings by Mark SaFranco

“You know how it is. You hatch an idea, then grind it in your brain until it makes perfect sense. Until all the pieces fit–like when you finish off a big, elaborate jigsaw puzzle, except that you’re not playing a child’s game.”

No Strings from American author Mark SaFranco is a tightly focused claustrophobic tale which places us in the mind of a sociopath. 40-year-old Richard Martzen is married to the much older Monica, has a teenage daughter and lives in New Jersey. When the novel begins, would-be writer, Richard who works as a consultant with an ad agency, bored with his life, and fed up with looking at the cellulite on his wife’s legs, is planning on having an affair, but instead of just going out and actually doing it, Richard stages his plan. See the main problem is that Richard doesn’t want to put his cushy life with the very-wealthy Monica at risk. Trips to Europe, a swanky tudor-style mansion, and a black BMW convertible are some of the perks of being married to Monica, and Richard, the son of a dirt-poor coal miner from Pennsylvania, isn’t about to “downsize” by depriving himself of the goodies. First he deliberately “run[s] up the red flags of infidelity” and then after his wife’s suspicions are proven unfounded thanks to the efforts of an expensive PI agency hired by Monica, he strikes out on the internet. Using a fake name he places an ad for a ‘no strings’ relationship in Personal Connections, a “high-end, semi private newsletter that circulated throughout the entire metropolitan area.” Then he waits for the babes to reply with photos. The responses pour in…

It quickly got to the point where I could spot the mental cases a mile off, and right then and there I shredded their letters and pictures. The fatties and the anorexics, they went too.

Out of the stack of replies, Richard makes his top five choices, and then using a new e-mail address, he makes contact with his first choice, Gretchen–a looker who’s married to a much-older, wealthy Long Island estate attorney. To Richard, the set-up is prefect. Gretchen just wants hot sex and doesn’t want to lose her sugar daddy, and Richard wants afternoon adventures with no repercussions. What can go wrong?

No stringsThe single biggest problem with this novel is that Richard is so slimy, no downright nasty that the unpleasantness of being in his mind challenges the reader’s desire to read the story. He’s an absolute narcissist, self-focused, and repellent. The shell provided by Monica’s dough–fancy clothes, expensive wheels and the best address in New Jersey barely covers the machinations of this lowlife opportunist. For this reader, I knew Richard was going to get what he deserved, so I was committed to the ride. All of Richard’s self-congratulatory bragging about how clever he is in arranging for this ‘no-strings’ affair only builds the comeuppance we know awaits this slimeball.  The author never loses sight of Richard’s rock-solid-rottenness and so embellishes the tale with loads of darkly humorous details. Here’s a quote from Richard concerning Gretchen:

The last thing I wanted was a high-maintenance model on my hands full-time, and judging from her wardrobe alone, she required the best of everything. Good old Leonard was doing a better job of seeing to Gretchen’s needs than I ever could.

And here’s Richard, who perpetually sees himself as the victim of women, on why he can’t get published:

That’s what American editors and agents seemed to go for–foreigners. “Fresh voices,” they liked to call them. I guess that’s why I’d never gotten anywhere with my work–I was stale. I was white. I was American. I was a male. Publishing was run by women. Women were the agents. Women were the editors. Women were the readers.

Reminiscent of the works of Jason Starr, and written in a natural, straight-forward style, this was a quick read which slid along. In these days of the mega blockbuster Gone Girl (which annoyed me) and Before I Go To Sleep, both domestic thrillers which have been turned into films, No Strings, capitalizing on the visuals should make the Big Screen too.

Review copy

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Silence by Jan Costin Wagner

2014

I am delighted that Lizzy and Caroline decided to host yet another German Literature Month—a blogging event I looked forward to all year, but even though I’ve had a year (since GLM 2013) to select books, I found myself with no concrete plans except the promise to read some Joseph Roth. Then a few weeks ago, Caroline, in a lead-up to the month, made a post with a few book suggestions. There was a name on the list… Jan Costin Wagner, a German writer of crime novels set in Finland….

I ordered Silence, and when the book arrived the cover was different from the one expected. Not a big deal, but the cover of my edition is the film tie-in version, and guess what, I’d seen the film which was excellent btw. I’d seen the film a few years ago, but it was one of those films you’d don’t forget, and the plot didn’t disappear into the ether the minute I turned off the DVD player. So my main concern, after seeing the film version, was that I’d feel a total lack of suspense when reading Silence.

Set in the small Finnish town of Turku, the novel focuses on the disappearance of a young girl who simply vanishes one summer day while on her way to volleyball practice. The thought that a human being can vanish without a trace is eerie, but in this case, it seems that history has repeated itself. The missing girl’s bicycle is found in a field right next to a makeshift shrine to yet another young girl who vanished from the same spot 33 years earlier. It’s impossible to not connect the two crimes. The first girl, raped and murdered, was eventually found in a remote lake, and of course, the police and the community fear that a similar fate awaits the second girl. Is the same killer, possibly now geriatric, responsible for the fate of the two girls? Or is this a copy-cat crime?

silenceSilence begins back in 1974 and within a few pages we know exactly who the killer is. The suspense, and there’s a lot of it, is generated by the unknown fate of the second girl, 33 years later, and whether or not the police will solve the two crimes. Interestingly the film diverged from the book in several ways. The plot is still recognizable, but the film includes some bold differences. The film is a much more traditional investigation, with an emphasis on the visual (some of the more painful details not flushed out in the book), and the book’s cover indicates one of the crucial clues missed in the first investigation and not touched on at all in the book. The book is quite different (you’ll see why if you watch the film too),  and the inner lives of the detectives following the case are a main focus. Ketola was a young policeman, new to the force when the first girl, a thirteen year old named Pia was murdered, and even though he retires shortly after the novel begins, he cannot forget the case and even drags a model of the crime scene, made in 1974, back to his home in case staring at it all day will wake up some dormant clue.

Another policeman on the case is Kemmo Joentaa, a widower who lives in a home that’s basically become a shrine to his dead wife, Sanna.  Joentaa sees exactly the same presence of the dead when he goes to question Pia’s mother, Elina. People are surprised that she stayed in the same house, and there’s an unspoken criticism that she chose to do so, but Joentaa understands all too well how hard it is to let go.

The girl in the photograph was laughing. A peal of laughter, thought Joentaa, those were the words that had occurred to him when he saw the picture of the girl. Pia Lehtinen.
Joentaa stood in front of the photograph and felt a tingling sensation at the idea that it had been hanging there for decades. Just as Sanna’s photos would still be in the same place. decades from now.

“That’s Pia,” said Elina Lehtinen, who had come to his side. She was carrying a tray with cups, plates and a blueberry cake still steaming from the oven.

“I know,” said Joentaa.

“Of course. You have a photograph in your files,” said Elina Lehtinen.

Joentaa nodded.

“It’s incredibly long ago,” she went on, without taking her eyes off the photograph. “I was thinking about that yesterday, and I was surprised to realize that today Pia would be a woman of forty-six. Hard to imagine.” She looked at him and smiled.

Elina Lehtinen’s  daughter was murdered 33 years earlier, but the parents of missing Sinnaka Vehkasalo are enduring the agony of a missing daughter who’s feared murdered. Elina and her husband divorced after the murder of their daughter, and Pia’s father still can’t talk about it. We see Sinnaka’s parents travelling down the same path as they blame each other over various aspects of their daughter’s disappearance. The contrast of these two sets of parents is interesting and subtle. Elina has managed to attain a certain serenity but we know that it was hell getting there.

“Once I really did have a great fit of laughter,” continued Elina Lehtinen and she was laughing again now as she saw Joentaa’s face.

“An extraordinary fit of laughter, it’s my most vivid memory. On the day my husband left me. He said he was going now, and I started laughing and couldn’t stop until that evening, and the next day I rang my neighbour’s doorbell and they took me to a hospital, and I spent  a long time having treatment there. Is the cake alright?”

“It’s very good,” said Joentaa.

“My most vivid memory,” she repeated. “Everything else is almost just a  … well, a feeling of everything being over. It’s sometimes close, sometimes further away. You talk to people, that sometimes helped me. And now it’s ages ago, but it’s beginning all over again.”

“You mean the missing girl, Sinikka?”

“Yes. It’s repeating itself. When I saw the police officers I wasn’t surprised. Because I’d always expected it to happen again, somehow. Do you understand?”

Joentaa didn’t answer. He didn’t know whether he understood or not.

“I always knew that couldn’t have been all, because some time everything comes to an end, but this never really did. I’m afraid I can’t explain it better.”

The pain and difficulty of parenthood is evident through the glimpses we have of these distraught parents, but there’s also Ketola who’s coming to terms with the fact that his son is mentally ill. There’s some unfinished business at the end of the book. Ketola is obsessed with Pia’s murder–the case he never managed to solve during his long career, but something also gnaws at the corners of Joentaa’s mind.

The silence of the title refers to the things left unsaid–the thoughts we cannot express to people, the spaces left by the dead, and the silence of waiting for answers. The book’s intriguing premise is more than matched by the characters, and I’m delighted to learn that Joentaa appears in other books from this author.

Thanks for the tip, Caroline.

Translation by Anthea Bell

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Filed under Fiction, Wagner Jan Costin

Us by David Nicholls

Regular readers of this blog are aware of my fascination with books set against the backdrop of holidays. There are, of course, reasons for this. People cast adrift from their usual surroundings will sometimes test the boundaries of their behaviour–in other words, they behave in ways they wouldn’t at home, and that can make for an interesting story. But there’s another facet to holiday books I enjoy–if you send a family with problems away on holiday together, chances are the pressures of a confined space and 24/7 intimacy will make the cracks in the family relationships blow wide open, and this is the scenario in the engaging novel Us from British author David Nicholls.

UsDouglas Petersen and his wife Connie have been married for almost 3 decades when she announces, without warning, that the “marriage has run its course” and that she “think[s] she wants to leave him.” 54-year-old Douglas, the narrator of the novel, is stunned at the news. He’d thought that the marriage was happy, but with their only son, Albie, about to leave for a three-year photography course, Connie argues that their son is the reason why they’re together.

“I try to imagine it, us alone here every evening without Albie. Because he’s maddening, I know, but he’s the reason why we’re here, still together…”

Was he the reason? The only reason?

“…and I’m terrified by the idea of him leaving home, Douglas.

I’m terrified by the thought of that … hole.”

What was the hole? Was I the hole?

“Why should there be a hole? There won’t be a hole.”

“Just the two of us, rattling around in this house …”

“We won’t rattle around! We’ll do things. We’ll be busy, we’ll work, we’ll do things together–we’ll, we’ll fill the hole.”

“I need a new start, some kind of change of scene.”

“You want to move house? We’ll move house.”

“It’s not about the house. It’s the idea of you and me in each other’s pockets forever more. It’s like … a Beckett play.”

I’d not seen a Beckett play, but presumed this was  a bad thing. “Is it really so … horrific to you, Connie, the thought of you and I being alone together? because I thought we had a good marriage…”

I loved that quote because it reveals so much about the marriage and the dynamics between Connie and Douglas. He’s the product of a very reserved conservative, undemonstrative home, while Connie grew up in a large noisy, supportive family. These two people are completely unalike, but their marriage worked–at least for a while, but there’s always been the sense–agreed upon by both spouses–that Douglas was ‘lucky’ to get someone like Connie. The quote also reveals that Connie is the power figure in the marriage; she calls the shots and Douglas scrambles to catch up. Not only has she declared that she thinks she wants to end the marriage, but she fully expects Douglas to participate, without any awkwardness and no demands, in the last family holiday before Albie leaves home. Given Albie’s interest in Art (Connie is a failed painter and now works in a museum), Connie has organized what she calls the modern equivalent of the Grand Tour to “prepare” Albie “for the adult world, like in the eighteenth century.”  This month-long holiday includes stops in Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Padua, Verona, Florence and Rome.

Douglas’s first reaction to the news that Connie wants a separation is to cancel the holiday which he predicts will be like a “funeral cortege” with the imminent separation “hanging over” the marriage. Connie argues that it will “be fun,” and that Douglas should not be “melodramatic.” Albie isn’t thrilled by the holiday either and argues that “if it’s meant to be a great rite of passage and you’re both there, doesn’t that sort of defeat the object?”

Of course there were further sleepless nights, further tears and accusations in the lead-up to the trip, but I had no time for a nervous breakdown. Also, Albie was completing his ‘studies’ in art and photography, returning exhausted from screen-painting or glazing a jug, and so we were discreet, walking our dog, an ageing, flatulent Labrador called Mr Jones, some distance away from the house and hissing over his head in fields.

Common sense should tell these people to cancel the trip, but as you probably guessed, the Holiday from Hell begins…

The story goes back and forth in time with scenes of this miserable holiday contrasted with the history of Connie and Douglas’s life together. We see how Douglas, a shy man, almost 30 and a responsible scientist with no social life met Connie through Douglas’s wild and uninhibited sister, Karen. The fact that Karen (“Love was Karen’s alibi for all kinds of aggravating behaviour,“) can’t cook doesn’t stop her from throwing parties which include vile tuna casseroles, and it’s at one of these parties that Douglas meets Connie. We could say that Connie, who’s had a series of unreliable boyfriends in her checkered, exotic past, is out of Douglas’s league. She’s outgoing, drinks like a fish, and is ready to sample all the drugs passed her way–unlike Douglas who has no interest in drugs whatsoever. Douglas is a dud at parties and Karen says that “he had skipped youth and leapt straight into middle age.” The scenes at the party, when somehow Douglas finds himself competing for Connie against an aggressive hairy, circus performer are hilarious.

Jake, the trapeze artist was a man who stared death in the face, while most nights I stared television in the face. And this wasn’t just any circus, it was punk circus, part of the new wave of circus, where chainsaws were juggled and oil drums were set on fire then beaten incessantly. Circus was now sexy; dancing elephants had been replaced by nude contortionists, ultra violence and explained Jake, ‘a kind of anarchic, post-apocalyptic Mad Max aesthetic.’

As the story continues and Douglas relates the history of his marriage and the crises he and Connie faced, we also see how Douglas tries to keep up the pretense of a happy holiday amidst his laminated itineraries and Connie setting the rules about intimacy.

I loved this novel. Nicholls captured the dynamics of a dying marriage–a marriage which met the needs of one spouse while another felt stymied and bored. Nicholls also nails the subtle idea that one person in a family can so often be the low man on the totem pole, and, of course in this case, it’s Douglas. Many scenes underscore the intimacy between Connie and Albie which leave Douglas as an outsider (“Connie took to twisting her finger in the hair at the nape of his neck. They do this, Connie and Albie, grooming each other like primates“), and while Douglas is a conservative individual who lacks an ounce of spontaneity, this is how he was brought up. There’s another scene at a restaurant in which Albie and Connie shut Douglas out entirely and he becomes the butt of some rather malicious humour.

Due to its well-drawn characters who exist on opposite planes of values, Us may be the sort of novel to polarize readers. I had no sympathy for Connie and thought her a remarkably selfish human being who makes the dramatic announcement that the marriage is over and then expects Douglas to play Happy Families for four weeks for the course of an expensive holiday. Readers may also have a range of reactions to Albie’s behaviour. Douglas has moments of authoritarian fantasies, but there’s never any doubt that Connie is the one firmly in charge of the marriage, and one parent can afford to be lax as long as there’s someone else on the scene who tries to enforce some sort of reasonable behaviour. Nicholls also shows how we marry people knowing what they are, with no illusions, and then we rail at those very characteristics –at one point we learn, for example, that Connie makes snarky comments about Douglas reading nonfiction–“fascism-on-the-march” books as she calls them and not fiction which is her choice. The very characteristics that drew Connie to Douglas–stability, reliability, and security, are elements that Connie then rails against in her 50s.

My sympathy was with Douglas all the way, and for me both Connie and Albie behave atrociously  (Albie insists on taking his guitar on holiday and guess who gets to carry it around). The disastrous Holiday from Hell does have its good points as it becomes the impetus for self-realization for Douglas. Us is a brilliantly clever, witty, insightful examination of power dynamics in a marriage and in a family, but even beyond that Nicholls questions the attributes valued by our society–a society in which experience and risk-taking are valued over restraint. At one point, I was very concerned that Nicholls was leading me down the PC path to cliché, but I was spared… . Us, incidentally, made the longlist for the 2014 Booker prize, and this goes to prove once again, how I prefer the Booker Losers.

Incidentally, I’ve read a few articles recently that delved into the issue of post-50 divorces. One article stated that since the 90s, the divorce rate for people over 50 and older has doubled. I initially thought, to be honest, that that was a little weird. After all, haven’t people worked out their differences by then? I asked a divorce lawyer I know if she was seeing more post-50 divorces and she replied, ‘yes, absolutely.’ I asked why this is on the rise and she said that, in her experience, she’s seeing people who don’t want to live in retirement with the current spouse. She said she has female clients who come home and see the husband sitting on the couch watching TV and they say “I can’t take 20 years more of this.”

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Nicholls David

Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffman to Hodgson Edited by Darryl Jones

“But there are men, sane men, who are entirely of the opinion that it is quite within the bounds of reason to suppose that there may be what the world commonly calls spiritual manifestations–dealing with the seen and the unseen. Of such men, I avowedly, am one.”

A severed hand with murderous intentions, a portrait that drips blood, a husband out for revenge, opium-fueled dreams, and a locked bedroom in which a brother turns into a monster… yes all this (and more) occurs in Horror Stories: Classic tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson from Oxford University Press. The book, a review copy sent to me from a friend who chose not to read this, comes with a fantastic intro from editor Darryl Jones.  I would not call myself a fan of horror and typically avoid the gore of modern horror novels–although for some reason I have a weakness for a handful of films that fall under that heading: The Shining, The People Under the Stairs, Nightbreed, and Hellraiser. And this brings me back to the informative intro which adds a great deal to the selected stories.

Horror is a phobic cultural form, both in the sense that it is designed to produce a specific reaction–fear and loathing–but also in the way that it is produced by and directly reflects cultural preoccupations, fears and anxieties at any give moment, which it renders obliquely, in displaced and often highly metaphorical guises, as monsters, madmen, ghosts. A very clear example of this can be seen in the rise of colonial horror in the later nineteenth century. As the British Empire and the other empires of nineteenth century Europe reached their zeniths, so appeared the ‘reverse-colonization’ narrative, a paranoid cultural form in which conquered or oppressed colonial subjects return to the West (or to the Western officials in the colonies) to wreak terrifying revenge.

There are several examples of this ‘reverse-colonization’ in this wonderful collection, and I doubt that I would have made the connection but for this savvy intro which also explores the nineteenth century emergence of fascination with spiritualism, the “elements of terror,” the “contradictions” of Horror, and the “terror/horror binary.” Darryl Jones states that “the long nineteenth century was the great age of the ghost story,” and that the ghost story “represents a significant breach in the Victorian narrative of progressivism and modernity.” Jones, who obviously took a great deal of care in making his selections for this collection, points out that Stephen King, “by far the most prominent living horror writer” acknowledges The Monkey’s Paw (included here) as a “quintessential example of the tale of terror.” 

Horror storiesThe 29 stories in this collection are from the period 1812-1916, and while many of the author names are expected (Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson,) many are unexpected–Zola (The Death of Olivier Bécaille), and Balzac (La Grande Bretêche) are just two examples of authors I didn’t expect to find here.

As I read the stories, I was struck by how the authors keyed into our deepest primal fears. In Sheridan Le Fanu’s Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter, for example, the narrator explains how he came across this strange story through his acquaintance with a military man who owns a disturbing painting by the long-dead painter Schalken. The painting seems to capture a horrifying moment, and the owner of the painting relates the tale of a beautiful young woman claimed by a dead man. Yet another terrifying painting plays a role in E.H Benson’s creepy The Room in the Tower–the story of a man who has a recurring dream which involves being left to sleep in a tower room. Inevitably, of course, the person who suffered a lifetime of bad dreams finds himself relegated to the tower room which contains … a painting which drips blood. I’d run for the hills, but our narrator spends the night almost as though he cannot resist this moment. Zola’s The Death of Olivier Bécaille tells the tale of a young man who falls ill and enters some sort of coma state, and of course eventually he faces another of our primal fears: being buried alive. Yet another deep rooted fear is the centre of W. F. Harvey’s August Heat– the story of a man who learns the date of his death.

One of the biggest surprises of the collection was Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Case of Lady Sannox. A childhood exposure to Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes created a lack of curiosity in Arthur Conan Doyle as an author, but I loved this clever story, and perhaps some of my enjoyment can be explained by my newfound recognition of ‘reverse-colonization.’ This is, of course, one of the best aspects of reading a collection from several authors–we are inevitably exposed to someone we’ve never read before.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s  The Case of Lady Sannox, Douglas Stone “one of the most remarkable men in England” is embroiled in a passionate affair with the notorious Lady Sannox. Stone is a “high-handed, impetuous” man, one of the most famous surgeons in London.

Those who knew him best were aware that famous as he was as a surgeon, he might have succeeded with even greater rapidity in any of a dozen lines of life. He could have cut his way to fame as a soldier, struggled to it as an explorer, bullied for it in the courts, or built it out of stone and iron as an engineer. He was born to be great, for he could plan what another man dare not do, and he could do what another man dare not plan. In surgery none could follow him. His nerve, his judgment, his intuition, were things apart. Again and again his knife cut away death, but grazed the very springs of life in doing it, until his assistants were as white as the patients.

Lady Sannox, a former actress, has many lovers in her past, and there’s a degree of speculation as to whether her mild-mannered husband is clueless about her affairs  or “miserably wanting in spirit.” But when Douglas Stone becomes Lady Sannox’s latest lover, there’s no attempt to hide the affair which very quickly becomes a subject of scandal and threatens Stone’s career.

As I noted earlier, I would not classify myself as reader of Horror fiction, but I am certainly a fan of Gothic fiction and the supernatural. The book’s title: Horror Stories: Classic tales from Hoffman to Hodgson may possibly alienate potential readers, and that’s a great shame. Gothic or Supernatural Stories may have a wider appeal, and yet as the intro emphasizes, Gothic “is a term with a bewildering variety of referents.” After reading this excellent collection, the use of “Horror” in the title seems most appropriate as we move from anticipated dread (which in Gothic fiction may not materialize) to the horror of our fully realized fears.

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Filed under Balzac, Blackwood Algernon, Dickens Charles, Fiction, Hodgson William Hope, Hoffmann, Jacobs W W, James M R, Machen Arthur, Stevenson Robert Louis, Stoker Bram, Zola