Tag Archives: infidelity

Puffball by Fay Weldon

With its emphasis on fertility, infidelity, bad parenting and the ancient magical pull of Glastonbury Tor, Fay Weldon’s novel Puffball illustrates the human capacity for creating turmoil. The drama begins when Liffey and Richard, childless Londoners who’ve been married for seven years stumble upon Honeycomb Cottage during a weekend in the country.

Many people dream of country cottages. Liffey dreamed for many years, and saw the dream come true one hot Sunday afternoon, in Somerset, in September. Bees droned, sky glazed, flowers glowed, and the name carved above the lintel, half hidden by rich red roses, was Honeycomb Cottage and Liffey knew that she must have it. A trap closed around her.

And so all the trouble begins. At first Richard, the breadwinner, insists that they can’t leave London, but Liffey, an office temp and the possessor of a small inheritance, argues that at last she’ll be able to write that novel. Eventually a deal is struck between Liffey and Richard; they’ll buy the cottage if she’ll have a baby, and he’ll stay in London and return on the weekends. The rational reader knows, of course, that this is a recipe of disaster, but since this is a Fay Weldon novel, we also know that we’re in for some fun as the characters scramble around and make a mess of their lives.

puffballOn the day Liffey and Richard discover the seemingly idyllic cottage, they romp around in the grass for a quickie. Little do they realize that they’ve attracted the attention of the neighbours Mab and Tucker.

“Isn’t she skinny,” said Mabs, watching through field glasses from the bedroom of Cadbury Farm. Her husband Tucker took the glasses.

“They grow them like that in the city,” he said. They both spoke in the gentle, caressing drawl of the West Country, mocking the universe, defying its harshness. “You don’t know they’re from the city,” Mabs objected. “They’re not from round here,” said Tucker. “No one round here does it in public.”

Liffey, eager to begin her new life in the country decides to rent the London flat, a wedding present from Richard’s parents, Mr & Mrs Lee-Fox to a couple she’s known for a short time. Liffey, already established as an impractical character with little sense of finances, imagines that the rent (which she immediately discounts) from the flat will cover the cost of rent for the cottage and that there’ll be a profit besides. Fat chance of that happening….

Mory and Helen moved in a couple of hours after Richard and Liffey had left. With them came Helen’s pregnant sister and her unemployed boyfriend, both of whom now had the required permanent address from which to claim Social Security benefits.

With Liffey stashed in the country in the life of her dreams, everything begins to go to hell. Richard, resentful and on the loose in London, begins a period of sexual experimentation. Liffey, pregnant and stranded, relies on the help of her neighbours Mabs and Tucker. Mabs, at Cadbury Farm, is the daughter of Mrs Tree, a herbalist, and whereas Mrs Tree’s concoctions are supposed to heal various ailments, Mabs, who has more than a streak of malevolence, fancies herself as a bit of a witch. Mabs sees Liffey as a “candy on the shelf of a high-class confectioner’s shop. Mabs would have her down and take her in and chew her up and suck her through, and when she had extracted every possible kind of nourishment, would spit her out, carelessly.” With her husband and gaggle of half-starved, neglected children in her thrall, Mabs, who “seemed to have a hot line to the future,” dominates the farm and tends to get her way. Liffey and Richard’s friends Bella and Ray who “wrote cookery columns and cookery books” in the throes of mid-life crises have marriage problems of their own, and while they actively encourage the move to the country, behind Liffey’s back they ridicule country life.

I really liked the way Fay Weldon sets up the story of a seemingly happily married couple whose lives are derailed by Liffey’s desire to move to the country. This decision creates a fissure in the marriage, and then most of  the other characters exploit the situation in one way or another. There’s the sense that the universe is somehow out of balance, but all throughout the marital mayhem, the presence of Glastonbury Tor in the distance seems to provide a positive influence, and when Liffey is tuned in to her unborn child, a healthy almost supernatural force comes into play.

One of Fay Weldon’s favourite themes is the viciousness of women towards each other, while men, little more than troubling nuisances who philander their way in and out of women’s lives, are the prizes women battle over. That theme is dominant here too with Mabs feeling threatened by Liffey, and Liffey’s friends Bella and Helen ripping Liffey’s life to shreds behind her back. It’s as if Fay Weldon tells us that if women would only cease squabbling over male spoils, then the world would be a much more productive, albeit less interesting place.

Another theme here is fertility seen through Liffey’s pregnancy which is recorded in almost excruciating gynecological detail. You could definitely hand this book to someone as a 101 on pregnancy.  Nature, in the world around us, is seen to be an unstoppable force, but there’s also human nature with its powerful sex drive, and the desire to nest and raise a family. By the time the novel concludes, there’s the sense that much of our behaviour is defined by powerful hormonal drives.

This is the second reading of Puffball for this die-hard Weldon fan. The first time I was busy laughing at the way these characters almost insanely wreck their lives (the sub-plot which follows the renters/squatters in Liffey’s old flat is hilarious). This time I paid more attention to the various examples of parenting in the book. Liffey’s mother, Madge, a “lean, hard-drinking prematurely white-haired teacher of chemistry in  a girls’ school in East Anglia,” is a ‘hands-off’ parent. She’s sees motherhood as a type of trap, an obligation, and agrees to visit her daughter reluctantly  “I suppose it is the kind of thing a mother is expected to do. Once you’re given a label you never escape it.”

Richard’s mother is a bundle of “nervous energy,” and the news of an impending grandchild spurs her to action, “as if some trouble, pacing for years behind at a steady distance, had suddenly broken into a jog and overtaken her. She started knitting at once, but there was a tenseness in her hands, and the nylon wool cut into her fingers.”

Continuing on the spectrum, Bella and Ray are benignly neglectful parents. If they can fob their children off on other people, they’re happy. The presence of an au pair releases them to pursue their self-indulgent affairs, and their children appear to grow up in spite of their parents–although their diet deteriorates drastically when the au pair leaves. Mabs and Tucker have differing views on parenting. He thinks it’s ok to kick the poorly-fed dog whereas she’d rather whack her poorly fed children. Of course all these examples of less-than-perfect parenting (another favourite theme from this author) makes you wonder why people have children in the first place, but they are the natural fall-out of the confused coupling of the adults. In spite of the fact that this is a comic look at marriage and parenthood, the book is full of Fay Weldon’s wise, cryptic humour. She boldly rips the shallowness of female friendships, the inauthenticity yet convenience of the office affair, the results of a parent who fails to love a child, and so often in a Fay Weldon novel, chaos must be endured before any sort of rationality can be achieved.

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The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt

“It’s always the memories you comb through the most avidly that fade the fastest, that are eclipsed  by–what to call it–? a sort of memory-fiction. Like a dream. Whereas the things we forget totally, the things that sneak up on us in the middle of the night, after thirty years–they’re so uncannily fresh.”

Sometimes reading choices are serendipitous, and that is definitely the case with David Leavitt’s excellent novel The Two Hotel Francforts as it turned out to be a perfect companion piece to a novel I read earlier this year: Transit. While Transit (which is highly recommended, by the way) depicts desperate Jewish refugees trying to exit Marseille, The Two Hotel Francforts depicts two affluent couples–one American, the other Anglo-American–in Lisbon in no particular hurry to embark on the SS Manhattan for New York.    

We met the Frelengs in Lisbon, at the Café Suiça. This was in June 1940, when we were all in Lisbon waiting for the ship that was coming to rescue us and take us to New York. By us, I mean, of course, us Americans, expatriates of long standing mostly, for whom the prospect of returning home was a bitter one.

The narrator is Pete Winters, a General Motors executive stationed in Paris, who is married to the very high-maintenance, temperamental and neurotic Julia. Being married to Julia is like devoting oneself to a cause, but since Pete acknowledges that “she was never satisfied, my Julia,” it’s a thankless, wearying task. When pursuing Julia, he “disregard[ded] every warning sign” which included Julia’s own mother who told Pete “I beg you to reconsider” when he indicate his desire to marry her daughter. Now, the marriage isn’t about passion, love or even friendship–it’s about one person absorbing the other’s demands, neediness and neuroticism:

All my life, I saw, I had been looking, in the absence of any pressing desire of goal, for a purposefulness outside myself on which I might, as it were, ride piggyback. It could have been a religion, it could have been a political party, it could have been a collection of musical instruments made from shoeshine boxes. Instead it was Julia.

As the background of this couple is teased out, we learn that Julia and Pete have lived in Paris for 15 years now in a mausoleum of a showcase apartment. They moved to Paris at her insistence, and “she had sworn” that she would never return to America. Julia intended to be a writer, but “she could only write first chapters. The middle, the vast middle, defeated her.” Instead, she’s become an empty woman who shops and decorates endlessly and is terrified that her many relatives will swoop into her home. She claims to see various relatives in various places and these sightings cause her to panic & run into hiding. Pete, who is used to dealing with Julia’s hysteria, isn’t convinced that these sightings are legitimate.  It’s with a sense of defeat and a low-grade panic that Julia counts the days until the SS Manhattan arrives. Julia schemes to stay in Portugal, and there’s the hint, from this story that’s narrated about the long-ago past, that something goes terribly wrong:

And how funny to think that when all is said and done, she was right and I was wrong! For we would have been perfectly safe in Portugal. Well it is too late for her to lord that over me now.

With money and the appropriate papers, Lisbon is a decent place to wait for a ship sailing for America. After all, “everything that was scarce in France and Spain was plentiful here: meat, cigarettes, gin. The only trouble was overcrowding.” As the refugees pour in, “hotel rooms were nearly impossible to come by.” As a consequence, there’s a desperate end-of-the-world air to Lisbon, with some people staying up all night long at the casino. The Winters are the lucky ones. They have somewhere to go and the papers to ensure they get there.  They are also lucky enough to secure an excellent room at the Hotel Francfort, but with Julia insisting that she doesn’t want to leave, there’s a great deal of tension between Pete and Julia. Then the Winters meet Iris and Edward Freleng and their elderly dog, Daisy. Meeting the Frelengs is a welcome distraction for Pete Winters, but Julia dislikes them. Iris begins to absorb some of Julia’s demanding fitfulness, and this gives Pete a little respite from Julia’s 24-7 care. The meeting seems fortuitous, and the Frelengs offer Pete, at least, interesting intelligent company for the week or so before their ship arrives. But just what is the Frelengs’ game? ….

the two hotel francfortsStrong on characterization, the novel sets the scene by showing how Pete feeling “almost giddy with relief and gratitude,” leaps at the apparent lifeline thrown to him by the Frelengs. Pete is mentally exhausted by herding the unwilling Julia to Lisbon, and the Frelengs, who are peers in the same socioeconomic status, appear to absorb some of Julia’s neediness. Julia’s impossible personality does not deter the Frelengs who seem determined to ‘buddy up,’ and the very first time the Winters meet the Frelengs, Iris drags an unwilling Julia off to see the vet blatantly ignoring Julia’s protests and disgust with Daisy.

It seems natural, at first, that the Frelengs, who write detective novels under the name Xavier Legrand, should want to spend the next 7-10 days in the company of the Winters, but then again, Julia doesn’t exactly attract friends. Her petulant self-focus is expressed almost the moment she meets the Frelengs and the two couples exchange thoughts about the war that has ripped their life plans apart:

“Us?” I said. “Oh we’ve been lucky.”

“And just how is that, pray tell?” Julia said.

“Well, we’ve made it this far without getting killed, haven’t we? A ship’s coming to rescue us. And when you think what some of these poor devils wouldn’t give to have a ticket on that ship–“

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see why their having to leave their homes is any worse than our having to leave our homes,” Julia said.

“Oh, but it is,” Iris said. “Because we’ve got somewhere to flee to, haven’t we? Whereas all they have to look forward to is exile–that is, if they find a country willing to accept them.”

“But it’s exile for us, too,” Julia said. “France was our home, too.”

It’s impossible not to draw parallels between The Two Hotel Francforts and Ford Madox Ford’s excellent novel The Good Soldier, for while the setting is different, both novels examine two marriages and the problematic relationships sparked between the two couples years after the events take place. Leavitt’s intriguing title, The Two Hotel Francforts hints at the duplicity at play in the novel, and that duplicity exists on several levels. No one is quite what they seem and everyone reveals what they want people to see–no more than that.

For Edward, his broad shoulders notwithstanding, was mercurial. You could reach for him, and sometimes you would grab hold of him. But sometimes all you would grab hold of was a reflection of a reflection in a revolving door.

The ‘rules’ and dynamics of any marriage are impenetrable to outsiders, and both the Winters and the Freleng’s marriages are pathological, but in very different ways. While we know almost immediately how toxic the Winters’ marriage is, just what keeps the Freleng’s marriage together isn’t apparent at first–although the dog Daisy is arguably part of the visible gel that bonds Iris and Edward. Their lives appear to coalesce around Daisy, and it’s because of her they declined to take a ship to England. As these two couples wait for the ship that will take them to New York, the foundation of European civilization is in a state of upheaval; people are running for their lives, and here, just as the Winters and the Frelengs appear to have reached safety, their lives are ripped apart by duplicity and will never be the same. The four main characters, whose actions are clouded with desire, desperation and selfishness, are thrown together by circumstance as the world spins from unbridled fascism. They all lie to each other and to themselves, and as Iris tells Pete:

Poor thing, you’re such an innocent in some ways. Such a novice. You think there’s a protocol to all this … But there are no rules here. We’re beyond rules.

While the narrator of Ford Madox Ford’s novel, The Good Soldier, is classically unreliable, the narrator of The Two Hotel Francforts appears to be reliable. But after I put the book down, I chewed that decision over, and concluded that Pete Winters, in the depths of the lies he contrives, could possibly be unreliable in his version of events. Was his marriage to Julia quite how he portrayed it with him as the unhappy factotum for his wife’s neurotic demands? After all, we only have his version of things decades later. If you can’t already tell, I loved this novel for the way in which Leavitt depicted the complexities of these two toxic, brittle marriages–both kept together by a set of unspoken rules.

Review copy

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (spoilers)

Recently, I read and thoroughly enjoyed M.E. Braddon’s book, The Doctor’s Wife. It was her take, if you like, on Madame Bovary, a novel of, in Braddon’s opinion, “hideous immorality.” Personally, I don’t believe that she really thought the book was immoral (people in glass houses, etc), but since Madame Bovary wasn’t in wide circulation in England at that particular time, her ‘moral outrage’ was a great excuse to fly on Flaubert’s coat-tails. Reading Braddon’s book led to a discussion here regarding the source material, and as a result,  Emma  and I decided to re-read Madame Bovary. This is either my fourth or fifth rereading, but it’s been at least a decade since the last sweep, and every time I re-read, I always wonder, will I enjoy the book as much this time?

I’m a believer in re-reading favourite books. Every 5 years or so, I re-read Jane Eyre, and it seems to be different every time I read it. Of course, the book hasn’t changed, and so my responses to the book tell me about myself more than anything else.  After this latest re-reading, I could write a series of posts on Madame Bovary; Baudelaire was right when described the novel as “essentially suggestive, and capable of inspiring a whole volume of commentary.” Originally serialized in 1856, Madame Bovary was published in book form in 1857 and sold 15,000 copies in two months.

Madame BovaryI’m not going to spend a great time of time on the plot–most of us know it because even if we haven’t read Madame Bovary, it’s one of those books with a plot that’s widely referenced, but for the benefit of this post, briefly, this is the story of Emma Bovary, a farmer’s daughter, convent-educated and with an unfortunate love for finery, who lands a widower, mediocre doctor Charles Bovary for a husband. It’s a wild mis-match with Emma, beautiful & passionate, flitting through her short life like a doomed firefly. Her dullard of a husband isn’t a bad man, but he never understands Emma, and allows her so much freedom that she destroys them both with her financial decisions.

After reading Madame Bovary hard on the heels of The Doctor’s Wife, there are inevitable comparisons, but I was struck by the dissimilarities more than anything else. Braddon’s characters are much better people–much less selfish and self-indulgent.

Charles Bovary is a weak man. His life has always been directed by someone else–first his mother who manages his education (and a good thing too) and who then marries him off to a shriveled, supposedly wealthy widow. We only get brief glimpses of the first Mrs. Bovary (someone I paid more attention to for some reason this time), and none of them are good.

She had to have her chocolate brought to her every morning, and expected to be waited on hand and foot. She was for ever complaining of her nerves, of the state of her lungs, of her many and various ailments. The noise of people moving about made her feel ill, but no sooner was she left alone than she found her solitude unbearable. If anyone came to see her, it was, she felt sure, because they wanted to make certain that she was dying. When Charles came home of an evening, she would bring her long skinny arms from beneath the bedclothes, clasp them about his neck, make him sit on the edge of the bed, and then tell him of her woes. She accused him of neglect, of loving someone else, and always ended up by asking for something to take for her health, and a little more love-making.

Poor Charles Bovary. No wonder, then, that he plunges off the deep end and decides to marry for love the second time around. Too bad that Emma doesn’t feel the same way, but as her father considers “that she had too good a mind for farming,” Bovary looks like a good match, and since the Rouault farm isn’t exactly overrun with suitors, a match is made. Emma has successfully established a foot up in society. Emma’s marriage to Charles is followed by extensive feasting, and two days later, Charles returns to his practice.

The couple in Braddon’s novel, The Doctor’s Wife, Emma and Charles Bovary’s literary counterparts, are Isabel Sleaford and George Gilbert. While Charles Bovary is a bit dense and weak, Braddon’s George Gilbert is a genuinely good man, from good stock, and much loved by his patients. Charles Bovary’s parents on the other hand are problematic–his father is essentially a wastrel, saved from the gutter by his steely-spined wife, and he opts out of involvement for most of the book. Isabel and George Gilbert at least have a honeymoon, but it’s a fairly miserable one with George counting pennies and pledging no more than a 10 pound note on the event. And then there’s the matter of poor Isabel’s wedding dress, picked out by her future husband: brown. It’s dull and a horrible disappointment. It’s impossible to imagine Emma Bovary wearing a brown wedding dress or allowing Charles to make the choice.

The two novels also differ on the issue of out-of-control consumerism. After the honeymoon is over, Braddon’s Isabel Gilbert wistfully attempts to beautify her drab home and add some decorative touches. All her ideas are immediately nixed by her husband and Isabel retreats once more into her beloved books. Emma, as we know, goes wild with credit.

And what of books? Emma Bovary is influenced by the novels of Walter Scott:

she grew enamoured of historic scenes, and dreamed of old oak chests, guard-rooms and medieval minstrels. She would have loved to spend her days in some ancient manor-house like the damsels in long-waisted gowns who dawdled away their time beneath Gothic traceries, chin in hand, their elbows resting on stone sills, watching white-plumed horsemen come galloping from afar on sable chargers. At that period of her life she cultivated a passion for Mary Stuart, and indulged in an enthusiastic veneration of all illustrious and ill-starred ladies. Jeanne d’Arc and Heloise, Agnes Sorel, La Ferronnière the beautiful, and Clémence Isaure, shone for her like comets from the dark immensities of history

Emma certainly loves finery, and we know she studies “descriptions of furniture” in the novels of Eugène Sue. Emma turns to books “seeking in their pages satisfaction by proxy for all her longings.” Charles’s mother sees Emma’s reading as the root of the problem, and tells her son that reading isn’t helping Emma at all:  “reading novels–a lot of wicked books full of quotations from Voltaire which hold priests up to ridicule.”  Braddon’s Isabel Gilbert reads constantly too–it’s her one escape from a dull life, but in Isabel’s case we learn about specific characters she admires: Ernest Maltravers, Steerforth, Henry Esmond, and Florence Dombey. Isabel Gilbert’s husband doesn’t mind if his wife reads all day long–even if he doesn’t understand the attraction. It’s fairly easy to conclude that while Isabel and Emma are both bored and trapped in loveless marriages, Isabel’s temperament allows her to accept her life and find solace in books. Emma, however, beats against the bars of her marital prison, and as her life spirals out of control, she seems far too restless to read. Then again, there’s the sneaking idea… could Emma ever be happy? What would have happened if she did run off with Rodolphe? Something tells me Emma is born to be restless and discontent.  She’s one of those kamikaze women.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Emma Bovary and Isabel Sleaford is passion–Emma is a woman who desires sex while Isabel does not seek sexual gratification outside of marriage. There are several passages that reference Emma’s sexual appetite. After her wedding night, for example, guests note that Charles acts as though he’s the virgin while Emma “gave no indication that anything had happened to her.” Emma is a passionate, sensual woman and through her affairs and her secret life, she is unleashed from her bourgeois upbringingIsabel’s love, on the other hand, is very cerebral–much more the embodiment of courtly love. Emma, however, gets down and dirty. While she’s seduced by Rodolphe, her first lover, by the time she gets to Léon, she’s the seducer. Flaubert isn’t shy about letting us know that Emma craves sex.

All the time she was playing the part of the virtuous wife her mind was on fire with memories of the familiar head with its black hair falling in curls over a sun-tanned brow, of the figure at once so strong and so elegant, of the man who combined intellectual experience with such fervent desire.

And:

He became her mistress far more completely than she was ever his. Her kisses and her tender words stole away his heart. Where had she learned the arts of a power to corrupt which was so profound so well disguised, that it appeared to be almost disembodied?

And:

when next she saw him, she was more on fire, more exigent, than ever. She flung off her clothes with a sort of brutal violence, tearing at her thin stay-lace so that it hissed about her hips like a slithering snake.

Another element of the novel that struck me this time is how expertly Flaubert shows that Emma’s affairs do not occur in a vacuum. Rodolphe is compared (favourably of course) by Emma to Bovary, and then when the affair dips, her hopes rise in her husband through the surgery he intends to perform on the unfortunate human guinea pig, Hippolyte. When the surgery fails, and all of her ambitions for her husband are crushed, Emma returns to the affair with even more abandon.

Flaubert, IMO, is a better stylist than Braddon. There are many stunningly beautiful passages in the novel:

The round crimson moon was coming up on the horizon beyond the meadows. It rose rapidly between the poplar branches, which obscured it here and there like a ragged black curtain. Then it emerged, brilliantly white, lighting up the empty sky; moving more slowly now, it let fall on the river a great splash of brightness which broke into an infinity of stars. The silver gleam appeared to turn and twist upon itself as though it had been a headless snake covered with shining scales. At other moments it resembled some monstrous candelabra scattering from each long arm a rain of melted diamonds.

For this read, I decided to pick a favourite scene, and the award goes to the segment in which Emma and Léon arrange to meet at the cathedral. Emma writes a letter cancelling the  “arrangement for the meeting,” and then she decides to personally deliver the letter which really, almost comically and certainly preposterously, undermines the sham of her fragile moral stance. This little diversion shows us that Emma isn’t being entirely honest with herself, and that she loves to add drama to the intrigue. Plus this maneuver has the benefit of making Léon work a little harder to ‘seduce’ Emma. I loved this scene for the way in which the verger insists on giving the tour while the lovers can’t wait to get away from him. Plus the presence of the verger and his lecture serves as the backdrop of morality for our soon-to-be lovers, so it’s appropriate that Diane de Poitiers is referenced. No doubt she’d be someone Emma admired. I loved the way Léon hustles Emma out of the cathedral into the hired carriage practically panting the whole way, and it’s here of course, that their first sexual encounter takes place. Not too surprising that the sex-in-the-carriage scene should end up being one of the most scandalous scenes in the book, and one that even his publisher suggested Flaubert should cut.

While of course I remembered how Emma died, I’d oddly enough forgotten how she gobbled the arsenic. She rushed to her death as she rushed to her lovers. It’s a desperate scene and one that made me pity Emma–a woman who never understood herself.

Flaubert’s masterpiece, incidentally, was inspired by the all-too real story of Eugène Delamare, a medical man who, like Bovary, was blind to his second wife’s extravagances and flagrant infidelities.

See here for Emma’s post

Translated by Gerard Hopkins

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On the Edge by Markus Werner

“I’m talking about the marriage ladder, where you climb down from desire to liking, to pleasant habit, to listlessness, all the way to aversion and possibly hatred. Then comes the hour of professional or non-professional counselors, and maybe a see-through negligee or a desperate tanga provides a last few sparks, and then it’s the lawyer’s turn.”

on the edgeOn the Edge, a novel from German author Markus Werner  is told by 35 year-old bachelor, Clarin. He’s travelled to his small vacation home in Agra with the plan to work on an article for a professional law journal. The subject is “marriage law,” and Clarin has a self-confessed interest in the subject–especially from the historical perspective. Clarin, who in his work has seen the very worst of human nature, has very definite ideas about marriage, but then again as a divorce lawyer, he probably can’t escape an attitude that’s squarely against the institution of marriage. Stopping at the Hotel Bellevue, the place Clarin contemplated exactly how to dump his mistress Valerie with the least trauma to himself, he meets a man in his 50s named Loos, and there’s something about the man–some elusive quality that he finds intriguing

Most people you can classify in a basic way after fifteen minutes, even if they don’t say a word; you can at least rank them as sympathetic or unsympathetic. But with him I couldn’t determine even this much. I only knew that he interested me. He made me think of Valerie, her opaqueness, which fascinated me at the beginning, but ended up putting me off.

Over a meal, the two men strike up a conversation with Clarin working hard at first to engage his moody dinner companion in conversation. Eventually Clarin learns that Loos has lost his wife, and the subjects of marriage and divorce emerge:

“…it must be very disillusioning for you to be constantly confronted with divorce cases. Doesn’t it tempt you to regard marriage as impracticable?”

Tempt, I said, wasn’t the word; the right one was convince. I was positively compelled by the constant torment I saw couples in to regard marriage as a mistake, or at least a simple overburdening of human nature, which seems too wayward to allow itself to be permanently tamed or to be able to accept the few rules that might make marriage possible, if they were followed. It defied all description, I said, what couples did to each other once they got divorced, whether by continuing to act the same way they acted during the marriage or by denigrating their former happiness. But the craziest thing was that people couldn’t keep from marrying, despite the fact that one of every two marriages already ended in divorce, and it was even crazier that more than twenty percent of divorced couples get remarried.

Loos who had listened so attentively that I would gladly have gone into more detail, interrupted me  and said, “You’re a bachelor, then.”

That passage occurs very early in the novel, and it’s at this point, I knew I was in for a grand read. There was something so intriguing about the set-up. Here are these two very different men at different phases of their lives–one, melancholy and missing the love of his life, a much cherished wife, and the other, a man who will not contemplate marriage as he sees it as largely an impossible institution that asks too much of the average human nature. Put these two men in the same table, and lively discussions will ensue, and that’s exactly what happens.

“For me it was home.” I tried to catch his eye, but he was looking across the valley. “What was?” I asked. “Marriage,” he said. “Was?” He nodded. “Are you widowed?” He drank. “You know,” he said, “I’m not unfamiliar with your statistics. I even know that there are two million dust mites rioting in every marriage bed, and I’ve learned from an even more disturbing study that after six years of marriage German couples speak to each other an average of nine minutes a day, and Americans four point two.”

“Exactly, exactly,” I said.

“And now I ask you,” he continued,”whether this finding permits conclusions about human nature or perhaps not rather about the nightly TV ritual, among other things.”

“Both presumably,” I said, “for if we accept that couples’ increasing reticence depends on increasing TV consumption, the question remains why the TV screen is preferred to an hour of conversation. It isn’t true–I hear this as a lawyer–that people don’t talk because they’re watching television. No, people talk television because there’s nothing more to talk about, at least nothing new or interesting. ‘It’s gone dead’–that’s the expression I hear most often; and from that I conclude that human nature craves diversion and colour, and can’t really get used to habit.”

“You’re all too right to be right,” Loos said, “and, as I said, my experience was different. Your health!”

The men meet twice, and each seems to be intrigued with the other. While they don’t set out to change the other’s opinion, nonetheless they are both prepared to argue their cases and that means the sharing of experiences. Loos, a teacher of “dead languages” is disillusioned and uncomfortable with modern life, but he’s a believer in love and marriage. He appears to be at the hotel for sentimental reasons–his wife was a patient at a local health spa after recovering from the removal of a brain tumor. A great deal of the discussion spins around the question of why some marriage partners appear to need novelty or change, while for others, deep-rooted routines are cherished. This isn’t exactly an unanswerable question since it addresses the differences between some natures vs others, belief systems, opportunity etc. (just to cover a few reasons), but nonetheless there is no one definitive answer: some people probably should do the world a favour and never marry or produce children if they are more suited to bachelor life. This idea certainly emerges through the conversations between Loos and Clarin; they are very different types of men, and while Clarin loves lightly and moves on, Loos does not.

He asked how it happened that people sat happily in front of the TV, evening after evening, craving the same thing over and over, their series for example, their quiz shows and so forth, whose popularity obviously consisted in their constant and unremitting repetition of the familiar. How did it happen that hundreds of thousands of people were fixated on a moderator’s or talkshow host’s moustache and that a howl would sweep through the nation when he suddenly appeared without it? How could it be explained that the desire for the most inane uniformity was felt only in front of the television screen and not in the rest of everyday married life? But no sooner did people get up from their chairs than they started thinking about divorce, just because their partners were brushing their teeth and gargling the same way they did the day before. “What Mr Clarin, is our nature really after?”

I’m adding these rather long quotes to give a sense of the novel. A great deal of the plot is composed of these encounters between the two men and the discussions they have, but I also want to convey the philosophical nature of the content. There were many points at which I put the book down and mulled over my own opinions as if I were at silent third at the discussions between Loos and Clarin. Of course, apart from these lively debates, there’s a story, a love affair in all of its various stages: the initial throes of passion all the way to boredom and the desire to escape told by Clarin, and it’s this tale that forms the mystery at the heart of the tale. I really enjoyed the book–not just for its two main characters who are perfectly drawn opposites–one man who appears to be the marrying type, and the other a permanent bachelor, but also for its rather bleak look at marriage and the questions raised about its sustainability given the mercurial aspects of human nature, the inexplicable nature of attraction and the selfishness of desire.

Translated by  Robert E Goodwin. Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Werner Markus

Climates by André Maurois

I’ve been picking away at a Balzac biography by André Maurois, so I curious to read the novel Climates (1928). Maurois, who “kept a secret cupboard filled with Balzac novels” was clearly a Balzac devotee and expert, and I decided that given the Balzac connection, his novel would be, at the very least, interesting. Climates, also known as The Climates of Love, is the story of a man,  Philippe Marcenat and his two marriages, and through the novel, we get a fascinating look at two very different, and yet with the slight shifting of roles, oddly similar relationships. The novel explores some of the unanswerable questions about love: why do we chose to love one person and not another? Why are some relationships satisfying while others are not? Do we tend to fall in love with the same sort of person? Are we more comfortable with some relationship roles than others?  What does the selection of who we love say about who we are and what we need? And perhaps the most intriguing question of all: why do we love people who aren’t good for us?

ClimatesRegular readers of this blog know that I am a film fan, and while I watch a great deal of foreign film, French film seems to excel at exploring the philosophical depths and treacherously difficult nuances of relationships. Certainly the same is also true of French fiction, and after reading Climates, I have to agree with a statement in the wonderful introduction by Sarah Bakewell that French writers are “more than usually observant and often merciless with themselves. They reveal every power game, every change of emotional weather. Every powerful and embarrassing moment is needled out for us on the page.” This is most definitely the case with Climates, a novel in which one man’s relationships are scrutinized and rather painfully analyzed, and we see that even though our protagonist, Philippe perfectly understands himself, his actions, his desires, and his choices, in this case, self-knowledge does not bring happiness or success in personal relationships.

 Philippe Marcenat comes from a rather staid, conventional and respectable background in the provinces. His father owns a paper mill, and when the novel begins, Philippe is a child set to run and inherit the paper mill in the distant future. The family is well off and live in a nineteenth century Château, the Château de Gandumas–an idyllic if provincial setting. You could say that his family is rather predictably boring, caring a great deal about appearances, but to say that doesn’t really do justice to the fact that Philippe’s family are very nice, decent people but somewhat repressive and eminently respectable. As a child, Philippe develops an image of the ‘ideal woman’ after reading a book called Little Russian Soldiers, and clearly his imagined role with this fantasy woman is to be a sort of devoted slave who aims to please and is rewarded with a smile. This seemingly small experience appears to set the tone for Philippe’s later adult relationships, for while he has numerous affairs, his first really serious relationship is with a young, beautiful, emotionally elusive girl called Odile he meets against the backdrop of a romantic Italian holiday.

Structurally, according to the author,  this is a very simple story: “Part 1 -I love and am not loved. Part 2-I am loved and do not love.” Part 1 which takes the form of a letter to his second wife is narrated by Philippe and is the story of his courtship of Odile and their subsequent marriage. After his first glance at Odile, he is completely entranced:

Why did I feel such a sense of perfection? Were the things Odile said remarkable? I think not, but she had what all the Marcenats lacked: a lust for life. We love people who secrete a mysterious essence, the one missing from our own formula to make us a stable chemical compound. I may not have known women more beautiful than Odile, but I knew plenty who were more brilliant, more perfectly intelligent, yet not one of them managed to bring the physical world within my grasp as she did. Having been distanced from it by too much reading, too much solitary meditation, I now discovered trees and flowers and the smell of the earth, all sorts of things picked by Odile every morning and laid in bunches at my feet.

While Odile Malet brings “the world of colors and sounds” to Philippe (and we can really feel how entranced he is with her fey qualities), he gives her the stability she lacks. Odile’s home life is less-than-respectable. Her father is a failed architect, and this is Odile’s mother’s third marriage. Odile is inadequately chaperoned, goes into society freely, and her mother takes lovers. Ultimately to Philippe’s mother, the Malets are “not people like us.” Since Philippe and Odile both bring to the marriage the elements the other person lacks, it’s entirely possible to imagine that this couple will enjoy a happy marriage. But almost from the moment this relationship gets off the ground, tiny fault lines form between them (her flirtatiousness, attraction to fake jewelry, “puerile” novels and the fact that Philippe isn’t “much fun,“) and these fault lines widen.

I do not regret those times, although they were fleeting. Their last chords still resonate within me, and if I listen carefully and silence the noise of the present, I can make our their pure but already doomed sound.

We are taken through every stage of this marriage including “the first knock to send a fine crack through the transparent crystal of my love. An insignificant episode but one that prefigured everything to come.” Our narrator, Philippe does not spare himself as he details the disintegration of the marriage, and this is somewhat unusual, as so often the narrator–especially in the matters of love–will tell a slightly slanted story. Not so here. Philippe admits that in the marriage he finds himself in an unusual position, and one that he does not care for. In the past, he’s the one who loved lightly and decided when his relationships with various mistresses were to end. Now the tables are turned, and Philippe acknowledges that Odile has the power in the relationship. Yes, he’s male and has the money, and in theory should be the one in power, but his adulation of Odile dictates his amount of tolerance which is accompanied by overwhelming jealously and a sense of powerlessness.  At the same time, he also admits that “as early as the second month of our married life I knew that the real Odile was not the one I had married.” Odile brings a lot of emotional baggage to the relationship, and while it’s emotional difficulty that Philippe craves, it also erodes the foundations of their marriage.

Part 2 is written by Philippe’s second wife in the form of a letter to her husband–along with quotes from his diaries. Here we see Philippe in his second marital relationship. This wife is all the things that Odile was not, and yet the opposite is also true. Philippe’s attraction is partially explained by the similarities he makes between the two women “rather like hanging a garment on a peg.” Outsiders might predict that Philippe’s second marriage would be far more successful than the first, yet is it? He has a wife who worships him and is content just to be in the same room together, but is this the sort of relationship Philippe wants?

In the novel, Maurois argues that each relationship creates a climate, an environment, physical, mental and emotional, and that these climates alter as we move from one relationship to another. One climate may not suit while another may be preferable, and one of the difficulties presented by marriage and examined in the book is the undeniable fact that  “one cannot just transfer one’s personality intact from one environment to the next” (Bakewell).  One of the first annoyances Philippe encounters after returning from his honeymoon with Odile is her choice of curtains, and it’s no coincidence that domestic details are given a fair amount of attention in the novel.

It’s impossible to read this novel without contemplating the power of memory. Philippe’s early memories shape his later life, and are his memories of Odile accurate or has she improved in the frequent replays of their life together?

Why do some images remain with as clear to us as when we first saw them, while others that might seem more important grow hazy and fade so quickly?

The introduction discusses some aspects of the author’s personal life and those autobiographical elements that entered the novel. The character of Odile, strangely sad at times in spite of her love for life, seems to be so alive in these pages–almost as if she could step, laughing, from the pages. I take that as a tribute to the author’s love for the woman who was the basis for the character. Authors often write in order to answer unresolved questions in their lives. How gratifying it would be, in theory at least, to be an author who had the talent to write and then solve some of the issues in life. In the case of Climates, this superb novel does not appear to bring any ease to Maurois or chase away the ghosts that haunted him. In fact, if anything, there’s a lingering discontent, an acknowledged hopeless regarding his shortcomings and a strong, overpowering sense of loss.

Review copy. Translated by Adriana Hunter.

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The War Between the Tates by Alison Lurie

The unwelcome thought comes to Brian that two women who were in reasonably good shape when he met them are now, somewhat as a result of his actions, on the verge of nervous collapse.”

In Alison Lurie’s novel, The War Between the Tates (1974),the disintegration of a marriage is set against the backdrop of a society in flux with battles waged at home and abroad. Set in the late 60s, Feminism, a “conflict of generations,” sexual liberation, LSD,  abortions, the Vietnam War, and student protests are topical issues addressed in these pages, and the content conclusively seals this novel as an important read of the era. Not only does Alison Lurie explore some of the controversial elements within American society, but she also examines the fate of one family as traditional morality is challenged by a new value system.

The War between the TatesAt 39, Erica Tate, who’s written, illustrated and published a handful of children’s books, is a bored housewife and a frazzled mother of two demanding, obnoxious teenagers:  Jeffrey 15 and Matilda almost 13. The Tates moved to upstate New York eight years previously after  husband Brian secured a position in the Political Science department at Corinth University. They purchased a “deserted, sagging gray farmhouse miles out of town,” and they seemed to be set for an idyllic upper-middle class life. That life is under assault, and the onslaught simultaneously comes from several directions: the children are no longer sweet little tots,  and the family’s peaceful isolation is violated by the emergence of a new housing estate with uniformly built ranch homes which spoil the Tates’ view–effectively “blocking their sunset.” But that seems minor when compared to the rot which has set into the Tates’ marriage. In spite of moderate academic success, at 46, Brian who holds the prestigious “Sayle Chair of American Diplomacy” is nonetheless a “dissatisfied and disappointed man.” Brian Tate always imagined that he’d have a career similar to that of his hero, diplomat, adviser and Political Scientist George Kennan. Although Brian is admired and respected by his colleagues and is a frequent public speaker on American foreign policy, Brian considers himself a “failure.”

Why he asks himself sourly, is he speaking on foreign policy instead of helping to make it? Why does he still discuss other men’s theories, instead of his own?

 Brian is in middle-age and nursing secret disappointments, when a young Social Psychology graduate student named Wendy Gahaghan enters his life : “a small hippie-type blonde in his graduate seminar on American Institutions.” Clearly infatuated with her professor, the emotionally volatile Wendy lays siege to Brian, and while he stops short of telling her to go away and mentally fabricates a number of reasons/excuses for not having an affair, the truth is that he finds her complete worship of everything he says and does flattering. This appeal to his ego eventually breaks down his flimsy defenses, and Brian begins an affair with Wendy. To Brian, Wendy, whose ambition is to “go into the wilderness and live in a commune based on mutual cooperation and mystical philosophy”  is a refreshing change. To Wendy, Brian is a “great man, a hero” and she believes that the book he’s trying to complete will change America’s foreign policy and possibly even save the planet.

And Brian would look across the table–or the bed at his wife, who had never given herself completely to anyone; who merely lent herself. Graciously and sometimes enthusiastically, yes. But like an expensive library book, Erica had to be used with care and returned on time in perfect condition.

This frequently funny campus novel explores academic life through the fallout of Brian Tate’s affair. Erica’s best friend, Danielle is a casualty of divorce, and she thinks that “men will do anything they can get away with.” With her ex, the libidinous Leonard, a former Corinth professor back in New York, Danielle begins teaching French part time, engages in an extraordinary number of sexual encounters, and is part of a “campus discussion group named Women for Human Equality Now; Brian refers to them as hens.”  Soured by men and at the same time exploring new boundaries to her behavior, Danielle’s “new hobby-horse [is] the awfulness of men.”  Once Erica considered Danielle tainted by her marital experience with Leonard, but in light of Brian’s affair, she finds herself agreeing with her friend’s opinion of men–a sex who will “do anything they can get away with.”

As the relationship between Brian and Wendy becomes suddenly much more complicated, Erica find herself faced with a moral dilemma. The decision she makes involves a large chunk of the story, and this is one of those books in which the reader becomes silently involved through questioning what we would do if we were in Brian or Erica’s shoes. Much of the novel concerns people behaving badly: there’s Brian lying about the affair, Wendy who supposedly wants to merely breathe the same air as Brian, and Erica who begins to feel ostracized by the academic community yet stalked by men who think she’s desperate for a quickie. Meanwhile social unrest and student protests against the Vietnam War hit the Corinth campus right around the time a group of militant feminists decide that one misogynistic professor has gone too far….

The War Between the Tates has a fascinating subtext regarding perceptions. Brian for example, is seen as some sort of god by the gormless Wendy, but Erica’s opinion of Brian has hit an all-time low. Erica perceives herself as an attractive, much-sought after woman, until the mirror shows a reflection that is far from Erica’s idealized image of herself. Erica flounders for a great deal of the book, and that’s partly because she’s no longer sure who she’s supposed to be.

That is the worst thing about being a middle-aged woman. You have already made your choices, taken the significant moral actions of your life long ago when you were inexperienced. Now you have more knowledge of yourself and the world; you are equipped to make choices, but there are none left to make.

Having lost her identity as a happy wife and mother, Erica feels unsure about what’s left and she feels like a “character in a cheap farce.” Danielle drags Erica off to feminist meetings, but Erica doesn’t relate at all to the feminist movement. She considers the “whole feminist campaign … a mistake” particularly when it comes to the issue of sexual liberation. Danielle’s attitude towards sex has undergone a seismic shift since Leonard’s departure, and since she is no longer in a supposedly monogamous relationship, there appear to be no boundaries. She tells a horrified Erica :”I used to think, if they only want one thing, the poor bastards, why not give it to them.” Erica, however, is appalled by the notion of casual sex and thinks that women are doing themselves no favours.

Today, everywhere, Erica thinks, men must be laughing uproariously as they see us dismantling our own defenses from within–removing the elaborate barbed-wire entanglements of etiquette, tearing down the modest walls which for so long shielded our privacy, and filling in the moat of chastity with mud.

Brain is led astray by Wendy’s questionable allure, and so it would seem predictable that perhaps Erica will follow Danielle’s lead in her pursuit of feminism. Author Alison Lurie doesn’t take the predictable route, so instead we see another strange character emerge who becomes the counterbalance or seductive foil to Wendy–Zed, a former acquaintance of Erica’s who makes his way to Corinth and establishes the floundering Krishna bookshop in town. The bookshop is a popular hangout for some of the students–including Wendy. Zed appears to understand Wendy very well and with a totally different perception of the emotionally needy Wendy he argues that “Weakness can be a strategy just like any other.” Yet just what is Zed’s role in Wendy’s life.?Is he truly as disinterested in the Tates’ marriage as he professes to be? Highly entertaining, amusing and yet fraught with cruel realities about aging not being a defense against acting foolishly, The War Between the Tates presents a rich tableaux of characters set adrift in a shifting moral landscape. 

Review copy

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Life is Short and Desire Endless by Patrick Lapeyre

I’ll admit that thanks to its title I wasn’t sure about Patrick Lapeyre’s novel Life is Short and Desire Endless (La Vie est Brève et le Désir Sans Fin). I’ll back up and say that I’m not much of a romantic and largely consider such storylines as twaddle, but I decided to give the book a go as I am a sucker for the complex ideas of French cinema. French books, French cinema…there has to be a common ground there somewhere, right?

While ostensibly this is a novel about two men who are obsessed with the same elusive woman, there’s much more at play here than the classic love triangle. The novel begins with forty-one-year-old married translator, Parisian Louis Blériot on his way to visit his parents who live way out in the boonies. His cell phone rings and it’s Nora, a British woman he had an intense affair with two years before. They didn’t exactly break up, but rather Nora ‘moved on,’ and as it turns out, this is an established pattern of behaviour.

Nora is, apparently, back in town. Just as she swoops back into Blériot’s life without warning, she also left her London-based, American financial services lover, Murphy Blomdale in a similar fashion. Blomdale comes home to the “chilling sense” that Nora is gone, and he’s right. So we have two men on edge: one, Blomdale, dumped without an explanation, and the other, Blériot, picked back up after a two-year-absence by Nora who acts as though she might have stepped outside for five minutes to go collect the post. She’s back, she says, to begin a career as an actress, and when she runs low on funds, there are no less than two men (Blomdale and Blériot) to fund her venture and extravagant spending.

If it sounds as though I didn’t like Nora, then you’ve guessed correctly. I didn’t. But I loved the book and the way the author competently explores complex relationships between people who are behaving badly. This is not a common variety of love triangle with two men panting over one woman. Instead the story line expands to other people who are impacted by Nora’s behaviour–Blériot’s wife, Sabine whose sangfroid is propped up by her superior financial position, and then there’s also Laura, a former friend of Nora’s who never quite recovered from their teenage friendship.

The novel goes back and forth in time to crucial moments in the relationships between the characters, including the day Blériot met Nora, the day Blomdale met Nora, scenes of Blériot’s marriage and the occasions various characters meet to try and make sense of what happens and just why, precisely, two men allow Nora to wreck their lives. Here’s Blériot trying to get sympathy from his gay friend Léonard who acts as “spiritual advisor” and “dissolute priest“:

“You see, my lovely, I’m afraid I don’t really understand your heterosexual misery,” says Léonard. “I really must be from a different species, with different pleasures and different kinds of suffering.”

“On top of all that,” Blériot continues, not believing a word of what Léonard has said, “I now find myself the proud owner of the sum total of two shirts, one pair of shoes, and fifty-seven euros in my bank account.”

“I left you some bills in the dresser drawer, but if it’s not enough, you can ask me for whatever you want.” Léonard tells him, apparently convinced this is a case of monomania.

“Would five hundred be too much?” asks Blériot at the precise moment that, in a London park, Nora’s tapping into Murphy’s pocket–they could be a couple of professional cadgers in action.

Léonard who “adores issues of conjugal sophistry” has problems of his own with desire. He’s ill for one thing, and his current lover is Rachid–a man who’s relegated to the kitchen and forbidden to talk to visitors. Having hot-tempered Rachid in the kitchen doesn’t stop Léonard from desiring other men, and he admits that as his disease progresses all he can think about is “sex and more sex,” as if he’s trying to pack in experiences in the short time he has left.

By far my favourite character here is Blériot “who amazes himself with his psychotic ability to lead this double life.” He’s arguably the most flawed of the bunch in terms of culpable behaviour–even surpassing Nora (for reasons I can’t expose). He has a good sex life with his wife–a woman who gives him a lot of rope even if it’s frozen with ice, and yet Blériot desires Nora who is unstable, unreliable, unfaithful, and a spendthrift:

he married the most intelligent and devoted of women, the one best equipped to make him happy, and if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t hesitate for a moment.

His conjugal affection has never actually been as vehement as he claims, and their relationship, despite intermittent bonds of complicity and tenderness, has become more or less incomprehensible.

Blériot describes his wife as having “her finger hovering over the red button for years.” Is part of Blériot’s problem in the marriage that his wife is wealthy and immensely successful? It’s certainly not a relationship of equals and Blériot’s erstwhile occupation as a translator is mainly hobbled together and partially serves as a cover to stay at home and do nothing much at all. We are told that Blériot has experienced “confiscated credit cards, frozen bank accounts” There’s still undeniable passion between Blériot and Sabine, and yet Nora seems to fulfill Blériot’s need to be irresponsible.

It’s incredible, he realizes, just how much damage this girl can do to him. You would think she was one of those hallucinogenic substances that dilate our perceptions while simultaneously destroying our nerve cells.

Some scenes yield glimpses of Blériot’s parents, and here’s another pathological marriage  with unaddressed complexities that in some ways echo Blériot’s relationship to Sabine. Blériot’s father experiences “expiatory humiliations constantly inflicted on him (preferably in public)” and these “have broken his last scraps of resistance.” As a result he spends an inordinate amount of time in a basement room, and Blériot suspects that “one day the old boy will sneak down there with his sleeping bag and never come back up.”

The novel explores, as the title promises, the subject of desire. Why do we desire what is bad for us? Why do we pursue someone we desire when common sense screams otherwise? Lapeyre seems to argue that desire has its own logic and its own timetable. The novel is not without wicked humour, and most of this comes from Blériot’s frantic efforts to keep both his unhappy marriage and his turbulent affair–which is not grounded in reality–afloat.

Some of the back and forth in time was a little difficult to follow, and Blomdale is not a fully realised character, but those quibbles aside, author Lepeyre captures the insanity of an affair, the pathological aspects of a marriage in crisis, and the highly addictive aspects of desire. Somehow I suspect that our reactions to the novel may say a great deal about who we are. Translated by Adriana Hunter. Review copy from the publisher.

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The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

“What was it in the human heart that made you despise a man because he loved you?”

Several events led me back to W. Somerset Maugham, a great favourite, and in my opinion much underappreciated. I selected The Painted Veil to reread–in some ways a very strange unfathomable novel that tells the tale of a thoughtless pretty, self-centred frivolous woman who commits an act that condemns her in society, and who then undergoes some form of redemption. I use the term Redemption a little awkwardly as this usually have some sort of religious connotation, and while religion does have a place here in the novel, Maugham doesn’t use religion in any traditional sense, but more of that later.

The Painted Veil (and yes it’s been made into a film) is the story of Kitty Fane–or Kitty Farstin as she is named before her marriage. Kitty is the eldest of two daughters, the product of Bernard Garstin and his insufferable social-climbing wife, “a hard, cruel, managing, ambitious, parsimonious, and stupid woman.” Mrs Garstin, the daughter of a Liverpool solicitor,  married her husband, not for love, but because she thought he would “go far. He hadn’t.” Mrs Garstin’s bitter disappointment and frustrated ambition at her lack of social position festers and then contaminates her relationships with her two daughters. The youngest, Doris, is plain, but Kitty is a beauty, and it’s on Kitty that Mrs. Garstin’s ambitions and energies rest.

Her first season passed without the perfect suitor presenting himself, and the second also; but she was young and could afford to wait. Mrs Garstin told her friends that she thought it a pity for a girl to marry till she was twenty-one. But a third year passed and then a fourth. Two or three of her old admirers proposed again, but they were still penniless; one or two boys younger than herself proposed.; a retired Indian Civilian, a K.C.I. E., did the same: he was fifty-three. Kitty still danced a great deal, she went to Wimbledon and Lord’s and Ascot and Henley; she was throughly enjoying herself; but still no-one whose position and income were satisfactory asked her to marry him. Mrs Garstin began to grow uneasy. She noticed that Kitty was beginning to attract men of forty and over. She reminded her that she would not be any longer so pretty in a year or two and that young girls were coming out all the time. Mrs Garstin did not mince words in the domestic circle and she warned her daughter tartly that she would miss her market.

With the prospect of an ever-diminishing shelf life, combined with the embarrassing reality that her plain sister makes a brilliant match, Kitty in a “panic” accepts the first halfway suitable proposal that comes along. The proposal is made by the very quiet, very shy Walter Fane, a bacteriologist doctor who’s stationed in Hong Kong.  And so Kitty finds herself, in a bit of a daze, living in Hong Kong with a man she doesn’t know, doesn’t understand and doesn’t particularly like.  

Stuck in a mis-matched marriage, Kitty falls madly in love with a married man, an ambitious but gregarious official, who seems to be more her speed. Leaving some blanks here, I’ll just say that Walter whisks Kitty off to a remote rural area–to the middle of a cholera epidemic.  

One of Maugham’s frequent themes is relationships between unequals. In Of Human Bondage, the inequality is class, and in The Painted Veil, one of Maugham’s most complex novels, the inequity between Walter and Kitty is morality; they are simply two very different people. Kitty Fane isn’t a bad person, but she is shallow, thoughtless, and frivolous. Walter is a man of great integrity, capable of deep, lasting emotions, and theirs is a hellish match as they are destined to make one another deeply unhappy. Here’s Walter arguing with Kitty:

“I had no illusions about you,” he said. “I knew you were silly and frivolous and empty-headed. But I loved you. I knew your aims and ideals were vulgar and commonplace. But I loved you. It’s comic when I think how hard I tried to be amused by the things that amused you and how anxious I was to hide from you that I wasn’t ignorant and vulgar and scandal-mongering and stupid. I knew how frightened you were of intelligence and I did everything I could to make you think me as big a fool as the rest of the men you knew. I knew you’d only married me for convenience. I loved you so much, I didn’t care.”

A simpler story would utilise religion as a source of redemption, and while Kitty finds herself in proximity to religion through the convent in the cholera-stricken city, Maugham does not take the easy way out by granting Kitty some sort of succor in religious redemption. Kitty admits to Waddington, a strange character who often acts as Kitty’s moral sounding board:

I’m looking for something and I don’t know what it is. But I know that it’s very important for me to know it, and if I did it would make all the difference. Perhaps the nuns know it; when I’m with them I feel that they hold a secret which they will not share with me.

Kitty’s redemption comes finally, not through religion, but from an ultimate realisation of the sort of person she is. She acknowledges her human weaknesses and knows that she must struggle against these characteristics all her life.  Her last visit to Hong Kong yields a final humiliation, and she is forced to acknowledge something she’s rather forget.

My Penguin copy includes a preface from Maugham in which he explains that at age 20 he was on a trip to Florence when he became struck with a line from Dante’s Inferno. He states that “this is the only novel I have written in which I started from a story rather from a character.” He goes on to explain that “the characters were chosen to fit the story I gradually evolved.” Due to legal issues, he changed Hong Kong to “an imaginary colony of Tching-yen,” but for this edition, it’s altered back to Hong Kong. Published in 1925.

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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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Where Do We Go From Here? by Doris Dörrie

As part of Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature month, I chose Doris Dörrie’s novel: Where Do We Go From Here? Dörrie is one of my favourite German filmmakers, but unfortunately not all the films she’s made or the books she’s written are available in English. If you are at all familiar with her films, you know that her off-kilter work sometimes includes Buddhism (Cherry Blossoms, Enlightenment Guaranteed).  I should mention that Dörrie is a buddhist, so she’s certainly qualified to set the novel Where Do We Go From Here? in a Buddhist retreat. I’ll admit that I had some concerns that perhaps Dörrie’s beliefs might weaken the novel as veiled attempts at ideological conversion can ruin a novel. My concerns, however, were not realised, and Where Do We Go From Here? is a warm, witty, and wise look at the frailties of the human condition told through the eyes of a middle-aged man in crisis.

The man in crisis is Fred Kaufmann. He and his eminently organised, admirable, and practical wife Claudia owned a chain of vegetarian restaurants which they’ve now sold. The void in their lives left by the sudden departure of business responsibilities reveals that they’ve grown apart, and their marriage is on the rocks. Claudia turns to Buddhism,  he has a wild affair, and a weekend in London to repair their relationship serves only to reveal just how bleak things are. Meanwhile their only child Franka has announced that she’s in love with a Buddhist lama named Pelge. When the book begins, Fred leaves Munich with 16-year-old Franka in order to deliver her to a Buddhist retreat in the south of France. There Franka is supposed to reunite with Pelge before they leave for India together. The plan is for Fred to monitor Franka and bring her back to Munich when she comes to her senses. Nothing goes as planned….

Before Fred and Franka get to the retreat, they find themselves reluctantly picking up a depressed passenger, middle-aged hen-pecked-husband Norbert who decides he needs some time at the retreat too. While Fred is initially annoyed by this turn of events, he finds it somewhat reassuring to be confronted with a peer who’s in an even worse state of mind.  As it turns out, the retreat is packed with dozens of similar people–middle-aged lost souls, haunted by lost dreams, broken by failed careers & wrecked by bad marriages. Everyone is there for answers or some sort of peace of mind. There’s a strange other-world atmosphere at the retreat: there are those who are unhappy with the spartan accommodations, and others who appear to thrive on the hours of meditation, vow of silence and the meagreness of a rice diet. Fred is one of those who’s horrified by the sight of what’s in store:

I know we’ve come to the right place, because we’re already passing some of them.

They’re worse than my wildest dreams. Men with long, sparse hair in pale green tracksuit bottoms, women with massive buttocks in baggy lilac pants, their pendulous, braless boobs wobbling beneath faded pink T-shirts, children with fringes in front and page-boys behind. So these are the Enlightened Ones–or the candidates for Enlightenment.

Since Claudia has managed to effectively tune out Fred through her Buddhist meditation, he arrives at the retreat ready to loathe the suckers who’ve lined up to receive wisdom from Lama Tubten Rinpoche, author of How to Transform Happiness and Suffering into the Path of Enlightenment: How to be Happy When You Aren’t. Fred and Norbert are given a daily schedule and shown to a bleak room which holds three smelly foam mattresses. Here’s the schedule and the rules:

5:00 Getting-up time

5:30 Meditation

7:00 Breakfast

9:00 Lectures

12:30 Lunch

14:00 Working Meditation

18:00 Supper

19:30 Meditation

21:30 Lights Out

Please observe noble silence. We request you, during your retreat, to abstain from tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and sex.

You won’t find that too hard, I say to Norbert.

Not where three out of the four are concerned, he replies with a grin, and this time I get a chance to put an admonitory finger to my lips. Norbert gives a start and peers around anxiously, as if scared of being arrested on the spot.

To give away too much of what happens would spoil the experience for any potential readers, but I am going to include a quote which captures some of this wonderful novel’s flavour:

After fifteen minutes the monk strikes the gong once more. Everyone jumps up at once, chattering, and goes to get a bit more brown rice.

I get up too, intending to take my plate over to the plastic sinks, when the telephone in the kitchen rings and something quite extraordinary happens. They all come to a halt in mid-movement and fall silent as though transfixed, as though the sound has put them into a Sleeping Beauty trance. I see Franka standing there with a broom in her hand, more erect than I’ve seen her for years, because she usually keeps her head down so her hair hides her face.

Nobody seems to be going to the phone. I don’t know what to do. Embarrassed to be the only one in motion, I also halt with the plate in my hand. At children’s birthday parties in the old days we used to play a game in which we had to freeze suddenly, whatever we were doing at the time. If someone in the big tent were fucking–which god forbid–would they have to stop short and wait?

After the phone has rung seven or eight times, everyone abruptly comes back to life and carries on as if nothing had happened. I make a beeline for Franka.

You might at least have explained the rules, I say reproachfully. I feel like an absolute idiot. What the devil happened just now?

You’ll find out, Dad, she whispers.

This eternal whispering is getting on my nerves, I say loudly. She simply laughs and turns on her heels.

It seems we each have to wash up our own plate at the series of sinks. We dip it in the malodorous, lukewarm broth and hand it to our neighbour, who dips it in some slightly less malodorous broth and hands it on in turn. Meantime, we go to the end of the washing-up queue, take our plate, and dry it on an already sodden and not particularly clean drying-up cloth. The local hygiene leaves a lot to be desired.In my bagel cafés I’d have had the health inspector breathing down my neck a long time ago.

A bacterial paradise, I mutter to myself.

The story is loosely divided into thirds–with the trip to and from the retreat framing the time spent in France. The book follows Fred’s struggles with the retreat’s rules as he sneaks off for cigarettes and food, tries to meditate and mingles with people he feels he has nothing in common with. Over time Fred discovers that he shares more with the other guests than he initially realised, and alone with his thoughts he must confront the truth about his failed film director career and his marriage to Claudia. With piercing wit and a generous view of human nature Where Do We Go From Here?  explores how the unrealised dreams of youth reappear to haunt us, how we try to imbibe our lives with meaning as we try to adjust our lives to what they’ve become, and just how easy it is to blame others for the choices we’ve made.

Translated by John Brownjohn

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