Tag Archives: 20th century literature

A Way Through the Wood (Separate Lies) by Nigel Balchin

“For there is nothing awe-inspiring about a personal mess. It is a thing for the sensible man to forget, rather than to try to remember.”

I was very impressed with Mine Own Executioner , a tale of a psychologist and his patient set in London, post  WWII from British novelist Nigel Balchin, so I turned to A Way Through the Wood–also known as Separate Lies. A Way Through the Wood is a psychologically complex, Graham Greenesque tale that explores the moral tug-of-war that takes place between three characters.  There’s a film version of Separate Lies, featuring Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson and Rupert Everett, and while it’s an excellent film, it’s quite different from the book. Mine Own Executioner and A Way Through the Woods are a fascinating study in contrasts; the former book with its almost claustrophobic intensity begins as the marital and professional trials and tribulations of a London therapist but ends up as a thriller. While A Way Through the Woods may ostensibly be about a crime, the novel ultimately focuses on the moral fallout of a man’s death. The plot goes global as its characters trot around the world in a vain attempt to solve their problems: Venice, Spain, Paris–all these glamorous exciting places, but they serve as mere background noise to the central character’s internal drama as he wrestles with a difficult moral dilemma which challenges his conflicting obligations to class, duty, love and justice.

A Way Through the Wood is narrated by 39-year-old James Manning, who would appear to be, when the novel begins, a very lucky man and the envy of his peers. He’s survived WWII intact, and he’s been married for eleven years to his beautiful wife, Jill. While James has a stellar, lucrative career in London, he lives in the country, and commutes from his large manor house, Crossways. James is one of those true-blue characters–dependable, strait-laced, conservative and someone who prides himself on his position of magistrate within the community. James would appear to have the perfect life, but there are a few distant rumblings of trouble and these faint signs are manifested in the very public roles Manning and his wife, Jill, a shallow, superficial woman, assume with the locals during the village Easter Fete. Manning excels at playing lord-of-the-manor, but Jill is neither interested in nor capable of playing Lady Bountiful to the locals. Manning’s role with Jill is fatherly and corrective rather than passionate, but as is so typical with relationships, it takes both people to play their roles and so while Manning is the disapproving father, Jill is the naughty child to be scolded, but also spoiled & indulged. This sort of arrangement has apparently worked for some years, and according to Manning, Jill simply “has never picked up the knack of living in the country. ” This is a polite way of explaining her crass behaviour with some of the locals.  This seemingly small crack in the Manning’s marriage rapidly expands into an unbreachable fissure when a local man, Joe, the husband of the Manning’s cleaner Elsie, is found in ditch following a hit-and-run accident.

At first, Manning, true to form, is determined to discover the identity of the driver who left Joe dying in a ditch. He reasons that it can’t be too difficult to track down the owner of a large car that careened down that isolated country road. Manning suspects that the driver is Bill Bule, and Manning’s quest for justice is at least partially motivated by the fact that he loathes Bule–an irresponsible playboy who is the antithesis of Manning.

Balchin involves the reader initially by presenting the crime and then we are committed to its solution, sharing Manning’s outrage at the callousness of the hit-and-run accident. As Manning makes subsequent choices, it’s inevitable that  most readers will come to a parting of the ways with the decisions he makes. However, Manning ultimately remains true to himself, and that is the issue at the heart of this marvellous novel. Here’s a quote which captures the tepidness of the Mannings’ marriage. This is Manning on a trip to Paris with his wife who “has always been a confirmed buyer-of-tickets-to-somewhere-else”:

We went to Paris. it wasn’t very imaginative of us, but we went there because it was a place where we had always been happy and very much together. There must be a lot of people who still go to Paris, just as they used to go to Vienna, not because of what it is, but because of what it was when they were younger. Indeed, I can imagine that if you take your happiness with you, Paris would still be a very nice place to sit and enjoy it, just as any field is a delightful place for lunch–as long as you have remembered to bring the lunch. But it is no good just going to a field and expecting it to provide the lunch for you; and it is no good going to Paris nowadays, if it ever was, and expecting to be able to order happiness at a cafe. You can still nearly do it in some other parts of France. But you can’t do it in Paris.

A Way Through the Wood explores how our certainty regarding moral positions is a mere chimera until that position is tested, and when competing moral obligations clash, Manning enters a private hell as he shoulders toxic knowledge about the crime. Through the three characters: Jill, Bule and Manning, Balchin shows how some people sail through life untouched by their actions while others in their sphere pay a heavy price–it’s contamination by association. But A Way Through the Wood, an extremely clever, multilayered novel also shows that Manning’s interest in Joe’s death is hardly self-interested as he intuitively suspects Bule and also intuitively sees Bule as a threat to his marriage. Also as the plot unfolds, it’s certainly arguable that Jill’s immaturity is at least partly the result of Manning’s insistence on acting as a father-figure. There’s simply no room in their relationship for Jill to be anything other than a child, so who do we hold responsible when she continues on with her feckless choices? As the story unfolds, Balchin strips away the layers of deceit in his character’s lives, and what’s underneath is not pleasant. It’s all done with infinite politeness and good manners, and perhaps it’s all the more chilling for the utter lack of passion.

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Mine Own Executioner by Nigel Balchin

People in my job nearly always get sent the wrong half of a marriage.”

I read an article in which the name of author and screenwriter Nigel Balchin (1908-1970)  is mentioned–along with the claim that he’s one of the most undeservedly neglected writers of 20th century British fiction. Well that’s certainly true in my case as I’ve a number of his books on my shelf–all unread. I’ve been interested in Balchin for some time, and I’m drawn to his books not so much for the neglected contributions to British literature idea, but because a few of his books have been made into films. And a couple of them are noir films, so I finally pulled one of those books off my shelf and read it.

I’d say for about the first 2/3 of Mine Own Executioner, I enjoyed what seemed to be a decent, but fairly average, novel. This is the tale of a London psychologist, a few of his patients, and his troubled relationship with his wife. At about the point of the last 1/3 of the book (just guessing here as I didn’t mark the actual turning point), the novel evolved into something else entirely. I was ambushed by the book’s turn, didn’t see it coming,  and by the book’s conclusion, I was ready to believe that there’s something to this business that Balchin is a greatly neglected writer.

The protagonist of Mine Own Executioner is London psychologist Felix Milne, a man who splits his working time between treating wealthy patients who bore him to tears and poor patients who have a range of serious problems. When the book begins, it’s clear that while Felix  is busy devoting himself to the problems of others, he has a number of unresolved problems of his own. In a typical ‘physician heal thyself’ manner, Felix is often unfairly short-tempered with his pleasant, far-too understanding wife, Patricia, even while he extends endless, patient sage counseling to those who seek his advice.  Felix’s marriage is in trouble–nothing terribly dramatic, but there’s the sense that the spark has long gone, and what’s left is an old, tired machine that just barely manages to do its job. Felix and Patricia are at the point of acknowledging that their marriage may be over. The domestic situation isn’t helped by the fact that Felix is attracted to Patricia’s long-term friend, the very dangerous blonde Barbara. This attraction is painfully obvious to Patricia while Barbara’s patsy of a husband, Peter, remains oblivious to the warning signs. He’s so idiotically oblivious, in fact, that he corners Felix and asks him to take Barbara on as a patient in order to discuss her “sex complex.”

Whoa! Sex complex? Isn’t it a bit unethical for a psychologist to agree to accept a friend (he lusts after) as a patient? Well this took place on page 17, so I was expecting the novel to concentrate on Felix’s unhappy personal life and the dangerous relationship he has with man-eating Barbara. While the novel delves into Felix’s rather bad behaviour, for the most part the novel focuses partly on the inner politics behind the scenes at the Norris Pile Clinic where Felix works for a pittance treating charity cases. Another large section of the novel concerns one of Felix’s most disturbing cases, the very damaged Adam Lucien.

Lucien was shot down while flying a spitfire during WWII. He ended up as a prisoner of the Japanese, and after a long period of torture, interrogation, and imprisonment, Lucien managed to return home, but according to his wife, he’s different. He has a permanent leg injury, but the mental damage is far worse, and Mrs Lucien pleads for Felix’s help after Lucien tries to strangle her. Felix agrees to take on Adam Lucien, a tricky subject, as a patient, but he has serious reservations. Mainly Felix is concerned that he may be out of his depth….

I have a weakness for novels that include therapists, so Mine Own Executioner had a special appeal for me.  Here’s Felix discussing the benefits of therapy to Barbara:

Barbara took her cup and lit another cigarette. “seriously, though, Felix, what do you do to people? I’ve always wanted to know.”

“Well, it’s like this,” said Milne slowly. “The theory of the thing, very roughly, is that in most of us there are two people. One is the natural person, that has various desires and instincts; and the other is the conventional person that believes in the law, and morality, and religion and so on. So there tends to be a scrap between what we want to do and what we know we ought to do.”

The irony of that little speech, of course, is that while Felix can see this in other people and help them resolve their problems, he cannot manage to help himself. He sees his relationship with Patricia as appealing to one side of his nature while Barbara appeals to the dark side, and he tries to explain away this attraction to his wife:

“There’s a bit of me,” he said slowly, “that’s never grown up. It stays at about mental age twelve. Most of the time I’m very grown up indeed. If I weren’t, I couldn’t do my job. But outside the job I come up against this thing. It takes all sorts of forms. You know most of them. I get fun–and not such very nice fun–out of teasing and bullying you. I sulk if a certain sort of thing happens that I don’t like. All sorts of things like that. You know them, don’t you?”

“Some of them, I think.”

“Yes. Well this business with Barbara is a part of that thing. The thing that attracts me about Bab is that it’s so obvious–a sort of deliberate childish wantonness. When she throws herself at your head, she does it like a naughty kid trying to get another kid to be naughty. I know that sounds awful, but I don’t mean that there’s anything charming about it at all–not to an adult. People always talk about a ‘naughty child’ as if it were something too, too sweet. A naughty child isn’t sweet at all. It’s usually rather ugly and a nuisance. But it’s often attractive to other children.”

Patricia said, “And of course Bab does it all very well. It’s always been her technique.”

“I don’t know. In my saner moments it always seems too crude for anything. But it exactly rings the bell for my twelve-year-old bit.”

He sat for a moment in silence.

“What I’m trying to show you is why it happens, and yet why I’m so sure it doesn’t matter fundamentally. It happens because Barbara exactly appeals to a messy twelve-year-old, which is what I am in some ways. And  it doesn’t matter because there’s nowhere it could possibly lead. It’s simply a childish game whose whole point is that it’s forbidden.”

That’s Felix’s rationalisation, presenting his attraction to Barbara, in a nutshell. While he tells his wife it’s innocent and childish, he calls Barbara a “bad little slut” to her face. Wonder how he’d handle a patient stuck in the same dilemma. While the novel begins with Felix dwelling on his own problems, he soon faces the greatest challenge of his career when he tries to treat Lucien.

Since this was published in 1945, there are some derogatory references to the Japanese. But aside from that, Mine Own Executioner really is a terrific novel, a wonderful example of WWII British noir. The film version cuts out some of the uglier (interesting) aspects of the book–I doubt that the 40s were quite ready for some of the aspects of this tale, but in spite of the fact that the film is bleached for public consumption, it’s well worth watching–especially if you’re drawn to noir or tales which involve aspects of psychology.   

For more information on Nigel Balchin, check out the website http://www.nigelmarlinbalchin.co.uk/

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A Tale Told by Moonlight by Leonard Woolf

“But who ever felt the sun set or rise in London or Torquay either? It doesn’t: you just turn on or off the electric light.”

Yes, a collection of shorts by Leonard Woolf aka Mr Virginia Woolf, the man with the famous missus. A Tale Told by Moonlight is one of those delicious little gems from Hesperus Press–3 short stories and two extracts from Woolf’s memoir Growing: An Autobiography of the Years 1904-1911. Woolf (1880-1969) was a civil servant in Ceylon during this time, so the extracts of the memoir along with the stories are bundled together appropriately and are Conradian in tone. This volume also includes an excellent foreword from Victoria Glendinning. Glendinning’s name added to the attraction of this slim volume. She’s an excellent biographer (she’s written bios on Leonard Woolf and Anthony Trollope amongst others), and she’s also written a number of novels including the very, very funny Grown-Ups).

The three short stories are: A Tale Told by Moonlight, Pearls and Swine, and The Two Brahmans. The first two are superior, I think, but I prefer Pearl and Swine.

A Tale Told by Moonlight begins with a group of middle-aged and elderly men who are gathered at the home of a novelist called Alderton. Mrs. Alderton is not at home, so it’s an evening of men, for men:

It was a piping hot June day, and we strolled out after dinner in the cool moonlight down the great fields which lead to the river. It was very cool, very beautiful, very romantic lying there on the grass above the river bank, watching the great trees in the moonlight and the silver water slipping along so musically to the sea. We grew silent and sentimental–at least I know I did.

As the men sit in the cool of the evening, two lovers walk by, and their presence sparks a discussion on the subject of love. This is then, a tale within a tale. There’s the narrator who recalls an evening spent in the company of other men, and then the narrator relates a tale told by one of the men– Jessop, a man “many people did not like.”

 The conversation turns to first loves as the men “looked back with regret, with yearning to our youth and to love.” The men discussed “love, the great passion, the real thing which had just passed us by so closely in the moonlight.” Jessop, however, is initially silent, but is provoked to speak when it seems he can stand the talk of romance no longer. Jessop insists that real love is rare:

It’s you novelists who’re responsible, you know. You’ve made a world in which everyone is always falling in love–but it’s not this world. Here it’s the flicker of the body.

I don’t say there isn’t such a thing. There is. I’ve seen it, but it’s rare, as rare as-as-a perfect horse, an Arab once said to me.

According to Jessop, he’s only seen two cases of “real love.” He argues:

It’s only when we don’t pay for it that we call it romance and love, and the most we would ever pay is a 5 pound note.

A singular view indeed. But Jessop then rewards his listeners with the story of one of the two cases of “real love” and it isn’t pretty. He recalls knowing a man he calls Reynolds–a man he’d known in school:

There seemed to be in him something in him somewhere, some power of feeling under nervousness and shyness. I can’t say it ever came out, but he interested me.

After the two men left school, Reynolds became the successful author of a number of romantic novels, and Reynolds and Jessop kept in touch. One day Reynolds arrives in the Ceylon and Jessop takes him under his wing and commits to giving him a taste of life in the East. Inevitably they visit a brothel and Reynolds becomes obsessed with one of the young girls there.

A Tale Told by Moonlight is a tale within a tale, and it seems to be the complex story of love in which the tale teller, Jessop, claims a story of ‘real love” without really understanding what he’s talking about. This is a tragic tale which echoes shades of Pechorin’s love affair with Bela–the relationship and clashes between two cultures with the dominant culture (British in the case of Reynolds and Jessop) labouring under the tragic illusion that only a so-called ‘superior’ culture is capable of finer feelings.

Pearls and Swine has a similar sort of set-up–a room full of men harping on about their favourite subject. In this story, the narrator is on a week’s holiday in a “large gaudy uncomfortably comfortable hotel” in Torquay. It’s evening, and the male guests have gathered in the “smoking rooms” and are drinking before going to bed. The subject at hand is colonialism, “Indian unrest” and how the colonies should be ‘managed.’ Each man has his own theory of what should be done, and pomposity, ignorance, and hypocrisy are thick in the air that night, until finally a man who’s lived in Ceylon for years weighs in. He tells a horrific story of pearl harvesting:

Well, we rule India and the sea, so the sea belongs to us, and the oysters are in the sea and the pearls are in the oysters. Therefore the pearls belong to us.

The man describes the pearl harvesting operation which involves the British government taking 2/3 of the oysters hauled up and leaving 1/3 to the men who takes all the risks bringing the oysters up from the sea. The man describes how a young British man named Robson–a man with “views” is sent out to manage the oyster farming camp:

Yes, he had views; he used to explain them to me when he first arrived. He got some new ones I think before he got out of that camp. You’d say he only saw details, things happen, facts, data. Well, he did that too. He saw men die–he hadn’t seen that in his Board School–die of plague or cholera, like flies, all over the place, under the trees, in the boats, outside the little door of his own little hut. And he saw flies, too, millions, billions of them all day long buzzing, crawling over everything, his hands, his little fresh face, his food. And he smelt the smell of millions of decaying oysters all day long and all night long for six long weeks.

The man who tells this dire tale relates what happened one horrible, unforgettable night, and through this tale he hopes to illustrate that “views” fall apart when faced with the ugly reality of colonial life in the East.

In the foreword, Victoria Glendinning writes that Leonard Woolf’s literary works are eclipsed by his wife’s accomplishments. He published his two novels A Village in the Jungle and The Wise Virgins before Virginia’s first novel was published. Glendinning states that Leonard’s friend Lytton Strachey did not think that Leonard was “cut out to write fiction.” And for this reason, combined with the need for money and “recognition of his wife’s gift,” Leonard Woolf stuck with “political books” along with journalism and some editing. These gems in this slim edition hint at an untapped talent.

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The Summer House by Alice Thomas Ellis

 “For if it is not possible to be free, perhaps to be hidden is the next best thing.”

The Summer House by British author Alice Thomas Ellis (real name Anna Haycraft) is a story built around the events that take place before an impending wedding. The novel is a trilogy and it’s divided into three parts: The Clothes in the Wardrobe, The Skeleton in the Cupboard, and The Fly in the Ointment. Don’t be put off by the idea of the trilogy as my Penguin edition has a mere 339 pages.

I throughly enjoyed this comedy of manners for its playful yet dark approach to some favourite themes–the gathering of family and friends, the subtle politics of relationships, and various shades of mis-behaviour politely tolerated or ignored. One of the most delightful aspects of The Summer House is the way that everyone manages to silently engage in a unilateral conspiracy to ignore bad behaviour until that behaviour becomes so outrageous, it can no longer be overlooked. The story, with lavish dollops of generous humour,  is told through the eyes of three very different narrators, young bride-to-be, Margaret, the exotic, promiscuous half-Egyptian Lili, and the elderly Mrs Monro.

The novel revolves around what should–under better circumstances–be considered a joyous event. Margaret who lives with her divorced mother, Monica in the well-to do, safe, yet fussily staid part of Croyden, is engaged to marry Syl–a man who lives next door. With his mother. If that gave you pause, you’re heading in the right direction. But there are more problems here than just Syl’s living arrangements. Syl, a lawyer, is old enough to be Margaret’s father, and his previous, innumerable engagements have failed, for vague reasons, to end in marriage. There are hints that Syl leads a double life, but worse than that, Margaret is not in love with Syl. In fact, she loathes him:

I spent as little time with Syl as I possibly could. He didn’t seem to mind. He had few friends but many acquaintances. He played tennis and golf and sometimes went swimming, determined to give no appearance of succumbing to time, to age, I saw that he could not marry a woman of his own generation, for that would double his chances of seeming old. It was sad for me, I thought, that I was the only girl in the world sufficiently stupid to permit herself to be sacrificed to his vanity.

So why is Margaret, a privileged young girl who has no worries or pressures about employment or money marrying a man she loathes? The reason is not immediately apparent, but in Part I: The Clothes in the Wardrobe, Margaret, who is depressed, narrates a tale that reveals an enormous and confusing sense of guilt for an incident in her past. She travelled to Egypt to spend some time with one of her mother’s old school friends, Marie Claire, and something (revealed in time) very bad happened there. Margaret simply no longer cares what happens to her, and she drifts towards her wedding day hoping that something or someone will intervene and save her from Syl.

Part II: The Skeleton in the Cupboard is narrated by Syl’s mother, Mrs Monro. While Mrs Monro hopes to see her son “settled” before she dies, she has serious misgivings about the wedding. Naturally in spite of his faults, she loves her son, and she’s appalled by Margaret’s obvious disinterest in Syl. Mrs Monro, whose main companion after Syl is her overweight elderly Pug, feels powerless to intervene even though she knows that the marriage will be an unmitigated disaster.

Part III: The Fly in the Ointment is narrated by the flamboyant, “vividly alive” middle-aged Lili who arrives with her artist husband in Britain in order to attend the wedding. Lili, who was one of Monica’s best friends in school in Egypt, moves in ostensibly to help with the wedding preparations. Lili, however, has a checkered past, and that leads to confidences from Mrs Monro and desperate hints for help from Margaret.

Here’s Mrs Monro on the unforgettable Lili:

I was disproportionately pleased to see her. She had the effect of an open window on a frosty room, ice in a lukewarm drink, wind on a sullen sea, She was free of the shaming curbs of expedient morality. She would never smell of milk, or the urine of infants, or laundry-steam rising from linen indiscriminately washed. She wasn’t a mother, and if she was a wife, she was, by conventional standards, a gloriously bad one.

Here Mrs Monro discusses memory and aging:

Looking in the mirror, I could see no trace of the girl whose life I had been reliving. Old age seemed to me not so much a natural progression as a disguise: a suit of unsuitable clothes, ill-fitting and inappropriate.

As the wedding draws near, the attempts to cover Margaret’s joylessness, dread, and sense of impending doom become harder and harder to conceal, and there’s an atmosphere of increasing almost intolerable pressure. Margaret’s mother is determined to make Margaret see it through as she views marriage as some sort of social and moral obstacle course fraught with martyrdom and duty.

Author Alice Thomas Ellis competently creates a wonderful tale that steers a course between some characters who realise things are terribly wrong, other characters who are determined to ignore the warning signs, and finally a few who are oblivious to things going on right under their noses.

It’s a tribute to the skill of the author that she decides to slice the tale into three narratives–a device which allows us to see different facets of the characters involved in the drama. Through Margaret’s eyes, old Mrs Monro is boring and doddery, but then we get Mrs Monro’s narration and see that she’s an extremely sympathetic character, and Syl may be unpleasant and vain, but he is a good son. Lili’s robust narrative reveals a woman who shares her doubts only with her reflection while she plays a close, duplicitous hand with everyone else. While a great deal of the book’s focus is on the various misdeeds of men (adultery &  immaturity), the women are not without their share of faults. There’s the marvellously amoral and predatory Lili–a woman who’ll sleep with a gallery director to seal the promise of a show, but there’s also the pathologically prim Monica–a woman who’d drive any spouse to insanity. Lili secretly calls Monica a “grabber,” a woman who’s grabbed so much of her ex-husband’s assets that he, his dull new wife and their two pale “dressed up dead chicken” children live in straitened circumstances. Some of the most delightfully wicked passages concern domestic paragon Monica’s gloating attitude and “angelic forbearance”  towards her ex’s miserable second marriage and the questionable talents of his hopeless second wife.

She had been outraged when her husband left her for another woman, had addressed him with religious vehemence and spoken of hell, but as time passed she had realized that life was very much more pleasant without him, that he was generous with money, and so she had, not forgiven, but ceased to revile him; and I know she found grim amusement in my stepmother’s harassed countenance and the irritating ways of her two small children. They would come sometimes for my birthday, or at Christmas, and my mother, whose material circumstances were very much more comfortable than those of my father and his new family, would patronize them and condole with my stepmother on my father’s drinking habits and the undisciplined weeping of her little boy. The girl bade fair to be pretty but fortunately was extremely dim.

For anyone interested, The Summer House was made into a highly entertaining film starring Jeanne Moreau, Julie Walters, and Joan Plowright.

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My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

There are some women, Philip, good women, very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster. Whatever they touch somehow turns to tragedy. I don’t know why I say this to you, but I feel I must.”

Why is one book from an author’s considerable body of work remembered more than others? I don’t think it’s necessarily because that book stands out for its excellence. In the case of Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, often termed her masterpiece, seems to be the book she is best remembered for. The Hitchcock film version helps, no doubt, and then there’s the remake with Diana Rigg. Plus there’s that unforgettable first sentence: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

This brings me to My Cousin Rachel, a book du Maurier published in 1951–13 years after Rebecca. There’s also an excellent film version of this book, but as I write this post, the film is OOP. My Cousin Rachel, is, I think, the superior book, at least in my opinion. Rebecca is much more traditional, but it’s a wonderful book, and perhaps part of its success can be traced to the way du Maurier makes the reader feel the presence of a character who isn’t there. We feel the presence of the enigmatic Rebecca everywhere–as does the new, very different Mrs de Winter. Curiously, a surface examination of the plots of both novels yields some similarities. Both are set in du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall, and in both novels men marry women they hardly know while they are holidaying in Europe.

But enough of Rebecca. What of My Cousin Rachel? It’s easy to define the plot, but not so easy to describe what is actually going on. This is a novel that explores the dark ambiguities of human nature and the toxicity of jealousy.

It’s the 19th century, and the narrator is Philip, an orphan, who is brought up by his cousin Ambrose. There’s about a twenty year difference between Philip and Ambrose, and no small degree of hero-worship is directed towards Ambrose, “god” of Philip’s “narrow world.”  We only see Ambrose through Philip’s memories, but he’s larger than life, a good man, but a man with some peculiarities.  Ambrose is a confirmed bachelor, and laughs at the notion of marriage and producing an heir as he argues that Philip is a “ready-made heir” for his extensive Cornwall estate. Ambrose is considered “eccentric perhaps, unorthodox,” but he’s much-loved by everyone. Philip is influenced by Ambrose’s eccentricity. He’s taught the alphabet by using swearwords, and they live in an all-male household as Ambrose will brook no female servants.

Ambrose begins to winter abroad due to his severe rheumatism, and he turns the time to collecting plants from abroad and bringing them back to Cornwall:

The first winter came and went, likewise the second. He enjoyed himself well enough, and I don’t think he was lonely. He returned with heaven knows how many trees, shrubs, flowers, plants of every form and colour. Camellias were his passion. We started a plantation for them alone, and whether he had green fingers or a wizard’s touch I do not know, but they flourished from the first, and we lost none of them.

So there are some benefits to Ambrose’s exile. Until the third winter….

For his third winter away in Europe, Ambrose decides to travel to Florence. In his first letter from Florence, Ambrose mentions that he’s met “a connection” of the family. This connection, a distant cousin, is the recently widowed Contessa Sangalletti–also known as Rachel. Ambrose’s letters continue to mention Rachel and the information that she’s burdened with her husband’s debts.  Then a letter arrives in which Ambrose announces that he’s now married to Rachel. This would be news indeed from anyone, but coming from Ambrose, a confirmed bachelor in his 40s who generally dislikes the female sex and swore he would never marry, the news is unexpected. Philip is shocked and feels displaced by the news. Meanwhile the locals are titillated by the thought of a new bride on the estate, and everyone looks forward to Ambrose’s imminent return:

What shamed me the most was the delight of his friends, their real pleasure and true thought for his welfare. Congratulations were showered upon me, as a sort of messenger to Ambrose, and in the midst of it all I had to smile, and nod my head, and make out to them that I had known it would happen all along. I felt double-faced, a traitor.  Ambrose had so tutored me to hate falsity, in man or beast, that suddenly to find myself pretending to be other than I was came near to agony.

Spring moves into summer, then autumn and finally winter. Still Ambrose stays abroad kept by constant delays, and finally after more than 18 months abroad strange, incoherent letters from Ambrose begin to arrive. Philip decides to go to Italy and determine exactly what is going on, but he arrives too late. His beloved cousin Ambrose is dead, and Rachel has disappeared. There are some very peculiar circumstances to Ambrose’s death, but the will, which had been changed to Rachel’s favour remains unsigned.

Some time later, Philip receives word that Rachel is coming to visit. This will be an awkward visit as Philip is now master of the estate while Rachel inherited nothing. Philip is determined to hate her, and yet when she arrives, she is nothing as expected….

My Cousin Rachel is essentially a mystery, and the mystery surrounds Rachel herself. What sort of person is she? Is she evil incarnate,  is evil unfairly ascribed to her, or does she land somewhere in the middle–a flawed human being with a few bad habits? That’s for the reader to decide as we line up evidence and argue for each case. Also, can we rely on Philip’s observations? Is he an unreliable narrator? Philip is certainly not as overtly unreliable as McGrath’s Edward Haggard in Dr Haggard’s Disease, but he’s emotionally involved with the situation. Is he capable of making clear judgements?

My Cousin Rachel is a marvellous novel–much more complex than it initially appears. This is a story that tells no absolutes and guilt rests only on impressions:

I wondered how it could be that two people who had loved could yet have such a misconception of each other and, with a common grief, grow far apart. There must be something in the nature of love between a man and a woman that drove them to torment and suspicion.

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Filed under du Maurier Daphne, Fiction

The Old Maid by Edith Wharton

Several times in 2010 I told myself I’d get back to Edith Wharton. I didn’t. But after writing my Best of 2010 list, I decided it was about time I got back to the books and authors I’d intended to revisit. That’s the good thing about compiling a list; it made me face all the reading I didn’t do.

So back to Edith Wharton–one of my favourite American authors. I’ve read her biggies: Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence, House of Mirth, and a couple of others–including The Reef. It was time for something else, and I selected The Old Maid. Part of this selection rested on the 1939 Bette Davis film. I decided to read the book and then follow-up immediately with Bette. A good plan as it turns out.

The Old Maid is part of a series of four novellas intended by Wharton to depict Old New York in various decades: False Dawn (the 1840s), The Old Maid (the 1850s), The Spark (the 1860s), and New Year’s Day (the 1870s). Collectively these four novellas depict the codes and customs of New York society; these four novellas were published as  Old New York in 1924, but The Old Maid was written in 1921 and serialized in 1922. If you’ve read Edith Wharton before, you are familiar with the manner in which she places the individual in society–with characters sometimes trying to break the rules of society such as Countess Olenska in The Age of Innocence, or The House of Mirth’s Lily Bart–a spectator to the society she loathes and yet strives to be a part of. Thus in Wharton’s tales, what is often at stake is individualism vs. society. Perhaps that explains why The Custom of the Country’s opportunistic Undine Spragg is my all-time favourite Wharton female character.

The Old Maid is not an exception to Wharton’s premise–that society seems to be an organic being that will always further its own agenda with its members ready to winnow out the rebels for the collective good of society. The rebel in The Old Maid isn’t someone who fights against society’s rules, but rather someone who falls foul of socially acceptable behaviour and pays for it for the rest of her life.

The story opens with an introduction to the best families of New York society–in particular, the boringly respectable Ralstons:

In the old New York of the ‘thirties a few families ruled, in simplicity and affluence. of these were the Ralstons. The sturdy English and the rubicund and heavier Dutch had mingled to produce a prosperous, prudent and yet lavish society. To “do things handsomely” had always been a fundamental principle in this cautious world, built up on the fortunes of bankers, India merchants, shipbuilders, and shipchandlers. Those well-fed, slow-moving people, who seemed irritable any dyspeptic to European eyes only because the caprices of the climate had stripped them of superfluous flesh, and strung their nerves a little tighter, lived in genteel monotony of which the surface was never stirred by the dumb dramas now and then enacted underground. Sensitive souls in those days were like muted keyboards, on which Fate played without a sound.

A beautiful paragraph to start off a marvellous story. Then we are introduced to Delia Ralston née Lovell, “one of the handsomest and most popular young matrons.” Her self-satisfaction at her marriage to Jim Ralston, her pride in her beautiful home and her 2 perfect children is only occasionally troubled by “secret questioning” of the choices she made. Delia was once terribly in love with Clem Spender– “tolerant, reckless, indifferent to consequences,” he’s an unreliable, unpredictable member of New York society, so it’s probably a good thing he left and now lives permanently in Europe as an artist.

Delia’s peace of mind is shattered when her cousin, Charlotte Lovell begs for help. Charlotte is about to make an excellent, unexpected match with Jim Ralston’s cousin Joe.  Joe is Charlotte’s long-term suitor, but the courtship appeared to end when Charlotte was sent away for her health a few years before. She seemed relegated to the colourless life of spinsterhood, and this role is underscored by Charlotte’s devotion to a gaggle of poor children she tends in an old stable. Charlotte is particularly devoted to one orphan in particular, Clementina.

With the upcoming wedding, Joe Ralston asks his bride-to-be, Charlotte to abandon the children for fear of contagion. In desperation, Charlotte goes to Delia, and confessing that Clementina is her illegitimate baby, begs for Delia’s help and intervention.

That’s the opening premise of the story, and then the rest of the novella is concerned with the fallout: the relationships between Delia, Charlotte and Clementina.

The film version is moved ahead to the 1860s, and the Civil War plays a role in sanitizing some of the darker elements of Wharton’s tale. Clem Spender is portrayed as an aggrieved, depressed and rejected lover who impulsively enlists in the Union Army and is subsequently killed, and this death makes him a dead hero and takes away some awkward questions. I prefer Wharton’s byline: painful rehabilitation of Clem by a persistent, annoying relative. The film is structured around three weddings–beginning with Delia’s wedding to Jim Ralston, Charlotte’s wedding to Joe Ralston, and finally Clementina’s wedding.

The film shows Delia and Charlotte in conflict with each other over possession of Clementina (a peevish brat in the film version), and misses Wharton’s delicate positioning of society within the narrative. Whereas Charlotte (played by Bette Davis) comes out as the heroine–maligned and misjudged by all, in the novel Wharton seems to say that Delia’s actions are equally brave. By standing by Charlotte, Delia (whatever her motives are) also pays a price. The rest of New York society considers her a little eccentric, and eventually, by her later actions, Delia alienates her two children.

Wharton’s novella The Old Maid isn’t the story of two women who struggle for the love of a daughter, but the story of two women who want to exist within their society while breaking the rules of good conduct, and as such their choices are limited. Delia is at first motivated by her sense of what’s right and proper; she’s outraged and shocked by Charlotte’s secret, and yet she doesn’t thrown Charlotte to the wolves; she concocts a way for Charlotte and Clementina to stay together within the society they strive to remain a part of:

Social tolerance was not dealt in the same measure to men and to women, and neither Delia nor Charlotte had ever wondered why: like all the young women of their class, they simply bowed to the ineluctable.

The film is well-worth catching–not just for the story and the excellent acting, but for an exercise in contrast.

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Orwell: Life and Art by Jeffrey Meyers

Orwell spent five years as a policeman in Burma, and he was responsible for the kicking, flogging, torturing and hanging of men. He saw the dirty work of Empire at close quarters and “the horribly ugly, degrading scenes which offend one’s eyes all the time in the starved countries of the East” where an Indian coolie’s leg is often thinner than an Englishman’s arm.

By the end of the five years, writes Orwell, “I hated the imperialism I was serving with a bitterness which I probably cannot make clear… it is not possible to be part of such a system without recognizing it as an unjustificable tyranny….I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate.” (from Orwell: Life and Art by Jeffrey Meyers)

A few years ago I read the marvellous non-fiction book, Finding George Orwell in Burma. The author, Emma Larkin (a pseudonym) travelled to Burma (now Myanmar) to trace Orwell’s life in that British colony. The book became one of the best books I read that year and confirmed my interest in Orwell–a writer I’ve always intended to get back to. This brings me to Orwell: Life and Art by Jeffrey Meyers. The book is a compilation of twenty-one essays on the life and work of Orwell.  Meyers also authored A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell, George Orwell: The Critical Heritage, the heavy-duty title George Orwell: an Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, and Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation, a biography of Orwell written by Meyers as a response to a sense of dissatisfaction with other Orwell bios. I should add that Meyers has written forty-three books to date, but it’s clear that Orwell is one of the greatest interests of his life. The range of this author’s knowledge on the subject of George Orwell makes an irrefutable argument for specialisation.

The essays in Orwell: Life and Art were published, according to the introduction, “over a period of forty years,” and they cover Orwell’s life and work, analyses of his novels, and one essay even compares various Orwell bios. Since the essays were written at separate times for various audiences, some of the information is repeated, but for anyone interested in Orwell, the essays really are marvellous and substantial reading. Moreover, while the essays are by no means light reading matter, neither are they too esoteric. Meyers is extremely familiar with Orwell, his life and his work, and he isn’t afraid to make judgments at key points. Each of the essay is prefaced with some explanation from Meyers.

Orwell is, according to Meyers, a writer whose work “has had–still has–extraordinary political and cultural influence.” Reading the essays gives a strong sense of who Orwell was and the lifelong demons he struggled with. Meyers argues “we need Orwell more than ever,” and I couldn’t agree more. Here’s a quote from Meyers encapsulating Orwell’s work:

Orwell’s books deal with two dominant themes–poverty and politics–or as he put it, “the twin nightmares that beset nearly every modern man, the nightmare of unemployment and the nightmare of State interference.

Meyers admits that he’s “particularly interested in the life in the work, in the relations between biography, politics and literature,” and the essays approach Orwell from that angle. Meyers covers Orwell’s life from his childhood to his death, tracing elements of his life in these essays and always seeking to understand this strangely elusive, troubled author.

While I was familiar with some of the outlines of Orwell’s life, these essays gave a great deal of insight. One essay compares Orwell’s early years to “those of Thackeray, Kipling and Durrell in India, and to Dickens and Joyce in Britain.” Orwell’s father worked in the Indian Opium Department which Meyers describes in the essay’s foreword:

The production, collection and transportation of opium to China was the most vicious and indefensible kind of imperialistic exploitation.

Meyers adds that Orwell’s father’s profession added to Orwell’s innate sense of guilt. Orwell’s school years are outlined, and it’s difficult to narrow down a quote or two from this marvellous book, but here’s one that stuck with me:

Probably the greatest cruelty one can inflict on a child is to send it to a school among children richer that itself. A child conscious of poverty will suffer snobbish agonies such as a grown up person can hardly imagine.

My  favourite essays concerns Orwell  living ‘down and out in Paris and London,’ Orwell’s short-lived career as a BBC propagandist during WWII, and Orwell as a film critic. I was fascinated by Orwell’s poverty-stricken life in Paris, and one section of the essay mentions how Orwell noted the French reaction to the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, marked by massive street protests while a British bank employee wasn’t particularly concerned with guilt or innocence but thought that all anarchists should be hanged. There are some wonderful slices of Orwell’s life as a lowly employee in a posh hotel where he experienced an entirely different life from the one he’d led in Burma. Here’s another choice quote regarding the sharp divide between classes–those serving and those being served in:

“the luxury and squalor of the grand hotel where the splendid customers sit just a few feet away from the disgusting filth of the kitchen workers. The only connection between these two worlds is the food prepared by one for the other, which often contains the cook’s spit and the waiter’s hair grease.”

Orwell made an odd film critic, and Meyer notes that Orwell “rarely mentions the directors and is not interested in film as a distinct form of art.” Instead he was interested in “the political, social and moral content of film; their propaganda value; the way they reflect the progress of the war; and the difference between English and American cinema.” He loathed “american escapist films” but was fascinated by the reactions of the audience.

On a final note–I particularly liked the anecdote about Henry Miller saying that “it’s a pity” that Orwell didn’t write a “down and out in Shanghai.”

Review copy from the publisher courtesy of netgalley . Read on my kindle.

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Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

“Did I drive them away, all these people, or did they withdraw from me?”

 

John Self   in the Asylum loved Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters while Tom at a Common Reader found it pointless. I wondered how I would feel about Bernhard and when the chance came to review Concrete , I grabbed it. Full review over at Mostly Fiction.

I’m not going to repeat the review, but I will say that Concrete is the closest thing I’ve ever read to the first section of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground. Concrete (and the meaning of the title is horribly obvious by the end) is a 156 page rant narrated by a forty-five year old man named Rudolph who lives in Peiskam, Vienna. He suffers from sarcoidosis and is hopped up on prednisolone. Rudolph is the ultimate procrastinator who blames everyone else for his lack of progress on his masterpiece about Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Anyway for the full review go here.

Notes from Underground is wonderfully described by translator Richard Pevear as the “dialectic of isolated consciousness.” Thomas Bernhard’s Concrete is another example of  the “dialectic of isolated consciousness,” and by  its fundamental nature such a dialectic is contradictory, logically flawed, and repetitive.  How can 156 pages of bitching and complaining be so funny? Here’s Rudolph ranting about dogs (btw, this is mid-rant; he’s already been at it for about a page when this quote takes place.)

People keep a dog and are ruled by this dog, and even Schopenhauer was ruled in the end not by his head, but by his dog. This fact is more depressing than any other. Fundamentally it was not Schopenhauer’s head that determined his thought, but Schopenhauer’s dog. It was not the head that hated Schopenhauer’s world, but Schopenhauer’s dog. I don’t have to be demented to assert that Schopenhauer had a dog on his shoulders and not a head. People love animals because they are incapable even of loving themselves. Those with the very basest of souls keep dogs, allowing themselves to be tyrannized and finally ruined by their dogs. They give the dog pride of place in their hypocrisy, which in the end becomes a public menace. They would rather save their dog from the guillotine than Voltaire. The masses are in favour of dogs because in their heart of hearts they are not prepared to incur the strenuous effort of being alone with themselves, an effort which in fact calls for greatness of soul. I don’t belong to the masses, I’ve been against the masses all my life, and I’m not in favour of dogs. What we call our love of animals has already wrought such havoc that if we were to think really hard about it we should be positively frightened to death. It isn’t as absurd as it may first appear when I say that the world owes its most terrible wars to its rulers’ love of animals. It’s all documented, and one ought to be clear about it for once.

There’s about 2 more pages ranting about dog ownership.

Here’s another quote mid-rant about a sortie Rudolph made into society with his sister. His sister  announces to the “assembled company” that Rudolph is writing a book about Mendelssohn:

This evoked uproarious laughter from all these brainless people sitting in their repulsively soft armchairs, and one of them, a specialist in internal medicine from the neighbouring town of Vocklabruck, actually asked who Mendelssohn Bartholdy was. Whereupon my sister, with a devilish laugh, blurted out the word composer; which brought forth yet more sickening laughter from these people, who are all millionaires and all brainless, among them a number of seedy counts and sterile barons who go about year in and year out in leather shorts, the stench of which has been building up for decades, and occupy their pathetic days with gossip about society, illhealth and money.

Rudolph never stops. He’s always ranting about something, moving seamlessly from one rant to another. If you were trapped in a corner by this person, the rant wouldn’t be funny–it would be rather alarming, but here it’s funny. After ranting, repetitively (as ranters are wont to do) about whether or not to go on holiday Rudolph describes himself as “a man of quick decisions”  and when there’s a slight delay in his plans, he notes to himself: “A damper has been put on your murderous impetuosity.”

If this is typical Bernhard style (and from reading other reviews, it sounds as though it is), as much as I loved Concrete I won’t want to read another novel too soon. To do so would be to spoil the flavour of Bernhard, and it’s probably time to step away from the loony. That said, The Lime Works will be my next Bernhard. It sounds even more demented than Concrete, if that’s possible. Now I’m ready for something completely different–a very rational set of essays about George Orwell.

My review copy is from Vintage with a translation from German by David McLintock.

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The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati

I was trawling through books on the internet when I  came across the title The Tartar Steppe. The cover immediately drew my attention, but at the same time the title rang a distant bell. Then after reading the book’s description, I realized why it seemed familiar. Yes! The book was made into a film called Desert of the Tartars, and this was a film I’d enjoyed. While both the film and the book are blistering indictments of militarism, the book has a hypnotic, surreal quality which emphasizes the ephemeral nature of life.   

The Tartar Steppe is the story of a young man named Giovanni Drogo. When the book begins, he’s a newly commissioned lieutenant and is just posted to the remote outpost, Fort Bastiani. Drogo has looked forward to this day for years, and he naively imagines that his military life is going to be the beginning of freedom and adventure:

He thought of the drab days at the military academy, remembered the bitter evenings spent at his books when he could hear people passing in the streets–people who were free and presumably happy, remembered winter reveilles in the icy barrack rooms heavy with the threat of punishment. He recalled the torture of counting one by one the days to which there seemed to be no end.

Drogo says goodbye to his mother and his friend and begins the long journey to Fort Bastiani, located on the Tartar Steppe. It’s here that the novel first begins to show surreal qualities. Drogo’s journey drags on and on, and at several points Drogo imagines that the Fort “couldn’t be much farther,” but of course it is. While on his journey he experiences a “subtle uneasiness,” and he stops and asks people how much further it is to the Fort. One person says the Fort has been closed for years while another directs him farther on. Finally Drogo arrives at the Fort.

When Drogo first arrives, he grasps that this is an assignment he doesn’t want, and so he considers leaving. He’s more or less conned into staying, and while he’s told that he may leave, at the same time he’s told it would look better if he stayed for four months. Four months becomes four years and then years become decades….

Fort Bastiani is a peculiar place. It’s the remotest outpost of the Empire and it faces the empty desert. It’s supposed to have a strategic value, and the troops are kept in a state of constant readiness for the long-overdue enemy attack. Passwords are changed daily and strict rules and regulations are adhered to faithfully. These rules–which are supposed to keep everyone ‘safe’ are frequently carried to an illogical extreme. Mindless adherence to rules and regulations even leads to the avoidable death of a soldier, and this meaningless death is later followed by the death of another young officer–one of the few people Drogo has a relationship with.

As the young officers mature and then become middle-aged, their hunger grows for conflict. War, after all, will give their lives meaning and prove that their efforts haven’t been futile, but it’s impossible to untangle the myths from the memories, and it seems plausible that legends of mysterious Tartar warriors may have been fabricated over the years. Later the Fort’s strategic value is downgraded, and military life becomes even more absurd.

The film Desert of the Tartars has a very concrete presentation of the absurdity, incompetence, and strict hierarchy Drogo encounters, but the book’s surrealism is mostly achieved through the presentation of the passage of time. Staring out at the desolate, shimmering red sands becomes a mesmerizing pastime for Drogo, and militarism creates an alternate reality at the Fort which is achieved through indoctrination. This explains why newcomers see the absurdities of being stationed at the Fort, but then, in time, they begin to believe that there really is a constant threat ‘out there’ that might just sneak up to the Fort at any moment. As the days and the years merge into each other, trivial events are magnified while conversely significant occurrences are trivialized and rewritten to follow the army’s script.

When Drogo first arrives at the Fort, he’s horrified by one of the Fort’s permanent fixtures, Sergeant-Major Tronk:

The relief of the sentries coming off duty had taken place with meticulous precision under the eyes of Sergeant-Major Tronk, who was an expert on rules and regulations. He had been in the Fort for twenty-two years and now did not stir from it even on leave. There was no one who knew as he did every corner of the fortifications and often the officers came on him by night making a round of inspection, when it was as dark as pitch, without a light of any kind. When he was on duty the sentries did not lay down their rifles even for a second nor lean against the ramparts–they were careful not to stop pacing up and down, for rests were granted only exceptionally; Tronk did not sleep all night, making the rounds with silent tread, causing the sentries to start. “who goes there? Who goes there? they challenged, bringing their guns to their shoulders.

and later:

Drogo looked at him in amazement and horror. After twenty-two years in the Fort what was left of this soldier? Did Tronk still remember that somewhere there still existed millions of men like himself who were not in uniform? who moved freely about the city and at night could go to bed or to an inn or to the theatre, as they liked? No, you could see at a glance that Tronk had forgotten other men–for him nothing existed but the Fort and its hateful regulations. Tronk had forgotten the sweet sound of girls’ voices, what a garden was like, or a river or any tree but the stunted bushes scattered around the Fort.

The newly-arrived Drogo sees the Fort’s atmosphere as poisonous, and life at the Fort waiting for an unseen enemy to attack as pointless and trivial. At first he wants to get away, but the militaristic life–with its emphasis on security gained through rules and regulations–gradually seeps into his blood until it becomes acceptable, and it’s what he’s comfortable with. Drogo considers his old life: 

 a world of strangers where his place had been easily filled. He looked at it from without now, looked at it with regret; to go back would have been awkward–new faces, different habits, new jokes, new expressions, to which he was unaccustomed. It was no longer his life, he had taken another path. It would be stupid and pointless to turn back.

Drogo waits for his life to have meaning; he waits for something important to happen, and in many ways Drogo’s military life is a highly condensed account of any failed life. For the soldiers who live out their futile lives at the Fort, passwords, rules and regulations provide a veneer of ‘meaning’ that will finally be authenticated when the enemy attacks.

 The Tartar Steppe was a bit of a depressing read–mainly because I have a difficult time with passive characters who allow life to roll over them (that can be funny but obviously in this novel, there’s no humour).  I just kept hoping that Drogo would stop drinking the Kool-Aid, but this is definitely an excellent  novel to be read as one of the greats on the subject of militarism.

The Tartar Steppe was published in 1945. My version is from Godine Books, and translated by Stuart C. Hood. Just to clear up any point of confusion, on the back cover the main character’s name is Giovanni Drago, but inside the name is Giovanni Drogo.

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Damage by Josephine Hart

The surface remained untroubled, but the ground was beginning to be less firm under my feet. A fault long hidden was being revealed. There was the smallest, briefest tremor, barely worth recording. But the pain that shot through me was so intense, I knew real damage was being done.

When it comes to films based on books, I don’t expect the film version to doggedly follow the book. Under the best of circumstances, the film version will capitalise on certain elements–the visual for example, to build mood or perspective while adding depth & understanding to the source material.  Some characters are minimized for the narrative ; others are expanded while some disappear entirely. When I say that I am often disappointed in the film versions of book, I expect I’m fairly typical, but the frequent disappointment doesn’t dim my enthusiasm. When there’s a payoff there’s usually a big payoff, and that brings me to Damage by Irish author, Josephine Hart.

The film version of Damage had all the elements that led me to believe I’d really enjoy it: director Louis Malle, a seductive Juliette Binoche and a suitably tortured Jeremy Irons.  This film has its fans, but for some reason, I’m not one of them. I didn’t care about the characters and I was hoping they’d get it over with, do me a favour and just shoot themselves. So I approached the book with a little skepticism. Would I dislike it as much as I disliked the film? Amazon reviews were a preponderance of 5 star reviews, but the readers who loathed the book expressed sentiments that I connected to the film. This nailed the decision that I had to read Damage.

Damage is narrated by a fifty-year-old married doctor who has a London-based practice and a fairly new political career. His attractive wife Ingrid is the daughter of a very wealthy, very conservative politician Edward Thompson, and the narrator and his wife have two adult children together–Martyn and Sally. While the narrator’s marriage is a success according to all definitions of the word, to the narrator there’s something missing….

That something–which could be described as a gap or a need–appears to be met when the narrator meets his son’s older girlfriend, Anna. Twenty-five-year-old Martyn has had a regular “blatantly casual” stream of girlfriends but Anna is different. Physically she’s not Martyn’s usual type (in the past he’s gone for blondes while Anne is brunette) but there’s some undefinable quality to her. Is there an air of secretiveness? Ingrid tells her husband that Anna makes her feel “uneasy” and she expresses the hope that Anna is just another girlfriend passing through.

But the narrator, who’s never named, makes a silent connection with Anna the moment they meet, and the two soon fall into a passionate, insane affair. Given Anna’s relationship to Martyn, it’s fairly easy to predict that this affair is going to have disastrous consequences, and the story of what happens builds with a sense of impending doom. The narrator and Anna are appallingly cruel and selfish to all the people they supposedly care about. They justify every deception and continue their corrosive affair even while Martyn announces his engagement to Anna. 

The novel is intimately narrated by the unnamed doctor in flashback mode through short chapters stuffed full of romantic and sexual hyperbole. The use of language underscores the idea that the narrator thinks he’s involved in some great, grand passion, when the reality is really something quite tawdry. Damage is so intensely interesting because of its naked, unflinching honesty. That honesty is at times repellent, but it’s still unsparing in its details of the narrator’s utter selfishness, his complete obsession and unrestrained self-destructive plunge into a strange, ultimately unsatisfying affair with a “damaged” young woman. The narrator is a character who’s managed to avoid unpleasantries for first fifty years of his life, a man who’s always made the so-called ‘right’ decisions and to the outside world he seems to be the epitome of ‘stable’:

I never faced a serious moral dilemma. Nothing that I felt or said was extreme or left me out on a limb.

One of the subjects the narrator discusses early in the novel is his ability to be dominated and manipulated. While he describes himself as largely untouched by emotion (which explains his lack of familial attachment) he admits that “I acted those parts required of me, like some professional member of a good English repertory company.” His father, a wealthy businessman, bragged that his success was due in no small part to his willpower, but it seems that the narrator inherited little of his father’s fortitude.  He recalls how he was manipulated by Ingrid and his father-in-law into politics. As with every other aspect of his life, he is tepid about politics, but his father-in-law and Ingrid appear to have colluded to get their wish. After he’s agreed to enter politics, the narrator wonders:

 After years of carefully watching every move I made in order to avoid being dominated by the own father, I now found myself about to embark on a whole new course of life, because my  father-in-law had flattered me into it.

And later:

Had they found me so easy to manipulate? Or was my guard so low with them, as with everyone, because I thought myself unknown by anyone and unthreatened?

The affair with Anna starts with very little defined relationship between the two participants. They meet, have wild sex, and soon Anna is setting the rules and boundaries of the affair. While she claims that the narrator is her “master,” she manipulates and controls her married lover until he’s little more than her randy ill-behaved pet dog.

In gut-wrenching passages the narrator describes his anguish at being apart from Anna, but he never stops to think about how his behaviour may impact the other compartments of his life–his marriage, his role as a parent, and his professional and political careers. Instead the narrator increasingly loses control of his life as all other aspects, except the affair, fade into insignficance. His appalling lack of attachment to his family is more than made up for by his dogged pursuit of Anna. Here’s the narrator and Anna as he rather pathetically tries to negotiate some control over the relationship:

“But you spoke of surrender, of being ruled.”

“It is my surrender that makes you ruler. You must accept this. If you fight, or try to change the pieces on the board, or to design a scenario more acceptable to you, you will be lost. Kneel down before me now, and I shall be your slave.”

And so I did, in the room in which I had first lain with her. Is it important which way I tried to take her? Which entrance? And whether with tongue or hand or penis? Did she lie or stand? Was her back to me or to the wall? Were her hands free or bound? Did she see my face or not?

The emphasis on details–or lack thereof–underscores the narrator’s desire to freeze the scenes in his memory, but at the same time he appears to acknowledge that the details really matter little or even blur. Some of the very best scenes in the book involve Anna’s relationships with her family. She makes her father uncomfortable, and her mother devolves into giddy stream-of-consciousness conversation giveaways. Anna’s stepfather, a famous writer, is the only relative who doesn’t have an urge to run, but this seems to stem from his interest in her as a study in human behaviour.

One of the other characters in the novel asks if Anna is “mad or evil?” And I think most readers will land on one or other of those definitions. Some readers might find the narrator’s choice of language which is fraught with romantic clichés annoying–I didn’t. The narrator seems to think he’s telling the confessional tale of an aged Romeo and his Juliet, and while that’s misguided, the narrator’s language is a window to his muddied thinking. Then again there are so many things the narrator doesn’t ‘get.’  I loathe romances, but Damage doesn’t qualify as a romance; it’s an exercise in deception, self-deception, manipulation and self-loathing. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to have known an “Anna” (and I’ve watched three in destructive action as they’ve moved like hurricanes through the lives of innocent bystanders), then Damage hits a nerve. Ultimately Damage is a study in human nature,  a tremendously compelling, compulsive read that explores sexual obsession and the attraction to destructive relationships.

On a final note, the book reminded me of a quote from Woody Allen’s film Husbands and Wives. One of the characters, a male depressive called Gabe (played by Woody Allen) admits that he’s “always had this penchant for kamikaze women…I call them kamikaze because they crash their plane into you. You die with them.” Was Anna the narrator’s accident-waiting-to-happen? Did he in some dark devious way liberate himself from a life to which he had no emotional attachment? Was Anna his rebellion? There is little sympathy from this reader for the narrator but then again, I don’t think he expects it or needs it.

 Damage is courtesy of the publisher Open Road Media through Netgalley (an e-book read on my Kindle)

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