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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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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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Ménage by Alix Kates Shulman

Heather and Mack McKay’s marriage is in trouble–not overtly, and on the surface of things, they may seem to lead an enviable life, but when Alix Kates Shulman’s witty, intelligent comedy of manners Ménage begins, the rot is creeping into the foundations. Mack, at 36, is phenomenally successful & wealthy.  The CEO of his own company, he’s moved his wife, Heather away from her New York career, to their ecologically designed  ‘dream home’ in Wildbloom, New Jersey, built in homage to her “green ideals.” Heather, who once had pretensions to a writing career, has shelved those ambitions and now runs her home (and two children with the appropriate hired help) while soothing her ego with ecology articles for an online journal, The Ecology of Everyday Life. Mack’s continuing absences, facilitated by a small private plane, have left Heather marooned on the mountaintop home, resentful that she abandoned her career, and suspicious that Mack is having affairs:

Not that Mack flaunted his affairs or was indiscreet; he was so discreet that she had virtually nothing to confront him with. Still, there were too many signs to ignore: guilty gifts to her; his evasive behaviour when he returned from a trip; the way he disappeared in his plane every Sunday of the increasingly rare weekends when he was home; and most tellingly, her inability to reach him, though he knew it made her anxious when he turned off his phone.

Mack flies to L.A often and his continual “jabbering” about the glamorous sexually rapacious Hollywood-connected Maja Stern, leads Heather to suspect that Maja is Mack’s latest conquest, but she’s only partially correct. Following Maja’s typically dramatic break-up with has-been Balkan writer, Zoltan Barbu, she commits suicide. Mack misses out on his intended affair with Maja, and although he flew to L.A. to have dinner with Maja (hopefully followed by a passionate session in bed,) he finds himself, instead, attending Maja’s funeral as she had “chosen instead to dine alone on Seconal.” So by page 25, Mack runs into Zoltan Barbu at Maja’s funeral, and Zoltan suspects Mack must be Maja’s latest and final conquest:

Now that Maja was in no position to contradict him, Mack was tempted to use the traditional male prerogative of claiming the sexual victory that had so far eluded him but that he hoped to perhaps secure that very night. On the other hand, there was undoubtedly a certain moral benefit attached to proclaiming fidelity to one’s wife. He didn’t know which response was more likely to win Zoltan’s admiration and confidence. Which was more appropriate to the circumstances? Mack whipped out his handkerchief and coughed into it for the full thirty seconds it took to weigh the pros and cons of each response before saying, “Just friends.”

Zoltan, down on his luck, penniless, and about to be evicted from his grotty apartment accepts Mack’s seemingly kind offer of a plane ticket to New Jersey and a room in his home where Zoltan can write his next magnum opus undisturbed. It’s an open-ended offer–one which comes with no expiration date, but Zoltan is intelligent enough to understand that Mack, a man he considers a philistine, must be getting something out of the deal too. And of course, he is. Mack is delighted by the prospect of Zoltan moving in–after all, he thinks that a writer on the premises, a cultural trophy,  may help inspire Heather, and also Zoltan’s intellectual presence in the home helps assuage Mack’s guilt about leaving. Does Mack, who triumphantly carries Zoltan to his home rather as one might bring home an exotic new pet, see Zoltan as a substitute?

Deception, self-deception, shifting alliances and multiple mis-readings are all part of this deliriously witty novel. A marriage is an impenetrable relationship at the best of times, and in Ménage, author Alix Kates Shulman creates three characters who are all unhappy with their lives for various reasons, and who each see someone else in this delicately awkward triangle as the solution to their problems. Will Zoltan heal and revitalize the McKays’ marriage or bury it? The plot’s light and wise humour is assisted by the fact that none of the three main characters are pleasant people: There’s the hopelessly crass Mack who believes problems are solved by throwing money around, and then there’s Heather who’s idiotic enough to pride herself on being environmentally friendly even as she lives in her mountaintop mansion whose solar panels allow her to bury the fact that her husband is hardly saving the planet with his solo flights to L.A to catch a meal with an attractive woman. And then there’s Zoltan…part fraud, part hipster. Is he using the McKays or are they using him? And the answer to that question is entirely in the hands of the reader.

A throughly enjoyable read, Ménage is a novel version of the best of Woody Allen films, and I’m specifically thinking Husband and Wives (it can be no coincidence that Woody Allen is mentioned in the novel). The politics of any marriage are delicate; add a third person and the results can be unpredictable. While my favourite section occurs when Heather and Mack’s friends, Barbara and Abe Rabin arrive as “witnesses,” one of my favourite quotes is this:

Everything Heather said plunged Zoltan deeper into confusion. He feared that her eyes, bright with passion, would fill up and overflow again. The tears he had found charming his first night in this house now seemed as dangerous as Maja’s. Were all women the same? What he needed was solitude; what she needed was company: irreconcilable differences. She was daily becoming less fascinating and more terrifying, like a North American Madame Bovary: self-destructive, incapable of foresight, in love with danger

Author Alix Kates Shulman is considered an early radical feminist, and she’s arguably best known for her novel (which I haven’t read) Memoirs of a Prom Queen. When I first started reading Ménage and scrapped away the surface of Heather’s thwarted career, I thought I was about to read a fairly typical story of a woman who sacrifices self to the many demands of home life. Well yes in a way that’s true, but Shulman’s novel is far cleverer than that, and with wicked humour, the plot explores the delicate politics of marriage and its unspoken, treacherous negotiations.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, Other Press.

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Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo

“I’ve unleashed an architectural mental case.”

Calling Mr King by Ronald De Feo is the story of a hit-man who discovers a life beyond his work, and for someone who’s been traveling the globe assassinating a fair number of people, this intellectual  ‘awakening’ begins to cause problems. De Feo’s clever character-driven plot follows the hit-man as he steps away from his unexamined life and begins to discover a world beyond his weapons. The result is an excellent, unusual and intense character study which combined with the book’s unexpected dark humour makes Calling Mr King one of my finds of the year.

The book’s title is actually the modus operandi with which the shadowy organisation called the Firm keeps in contact with their top hit-man. This American-born assassin who hails from New York state has one talent, and it’s a talent he marketed when he had nothing else to sell. He’s a superb shot, and this makes the hit-man a valuable commodity.  Hits are conducted for the Firm on a world-wide scale, and during the course of the tale, the hit-man travels to Paris, London, New York and Barcelona. When given a new job, he hops a plane to his destination, and then waits in a hotel room for the phone call. An anonymous caller will ring and ask to speak to Mr. King. That’s the signal for the hit-man to find the nearest public phone, call his contact and receive instructions for his next hit.

When the book begins, the hit-man is in Paris. The city is wasted on the assassin; he dislikes the French (but then he dislikes people in general), and at one point he tells a Parisian taxi driver to “go choke on a snail.” Paris may be a tourist destination, but to the hit-man, it’s just another hotel in another town, with another man to kill–the sooner the better:

All these people around us were of absolutely no importance. They didn’t really exist anymore. They were part of the scenery. They were nothing. Paris now contained only him and me.

He’s known for his efficiency in tracking his target and establishing a pattern of behaviour, even forming a strange sort of “bond” with the victim as he gets to know his routines and some aspects of his life. This time it’s different; the killer finds his Parisian target “exhausting.” The hit-man tracks his victim day after day as he “bounced around Paris”  for appointments, shopping, dates with friends, a meeting at an art gallery, and an evening at the opera. The hit-man realises that there’s no clear established pattern of behaviour this time–his victim who’s like a “damn kangaroo” is packing his day with appointments and activities:

I became absolutely convinced that he knew his days were numbered. And since he knew, he wanted to get a lot of living done before the end. What I was watching then, all of this peculiar energy, was simply a pathetic attempt at a last fling.

As the days multiply without a clear, safe opportunity for assassination, something begins to happen to the hit-man. He becomes extra cautious, and he begins to wonder if he’s losing his edge. While the Firm is impatient for the contract to be completed, the hit-man begins to wonder about his victim. Was it “last-minute curiosity? A kind of softening.”

When he returns to London, the hit-man, who’s given the name Peter Chilton, by the firm, is a little shaken by the events in Paris. The next hit takes place in Derbyshire, and once again, Chilton hesitates, and this hesitation–a sort of emotional involvement or interest in his victim–leads to some complications. As far as the Firm is concerned, Chilton screwed up big time:

You see, if you had fucked up this way in the city, I don’t think it would have caused such a stink. After all, city life has its hazards. You wanna live here, you gotta take your chances. Sometimes people get caught in the cross fire. Sometimes they’re hit by stray bullets. It doesn’t happen here like in New York, which is the fuckin’ Wild West, but it happens. And, of course, we have all those crazy mick bastards running loose blowing off heads, legs, dicks and time they feel like it. But it’s all part of living in good old London. You understand.  

Like I said, if this old man had been shot here, I don’t think it would’ve been noticed so much. Nobody would’ve been  happy, of course, and there would’ve been some bad press, but the fact is it wouldn’t have been unusual enough to make a really good story. He was an old bugger too, so it wasn’t as if he had years ahead of him. ‘Old Man Killed in Street Shoot-Out.’ That would have been it. But what happens instead? The old bugger gets his head blown off in some fuckin’ field in Derbyshire. You see the drama here? The oddness? When was the last time you heard of a pensioner being gunned down in a field in Derbyshire, or, for that matter, in any bloody country place? You get my drift? Nothing much ever happens in places like Derbyshire. Mostly what they get in the counties are serial lunatics. And that’s because of boredom more than anything else. You stay in the country long enough and either you grow brain dead or else you turn into a fuckin’ madman. You begin to hate your wife or girlfriend or maybe even your very own mum. And before you know it, you’re roaming the countryside chopping up women. Very sick, but there it is. And yet when you look at it, these lunatics are pretty rare. Maybe one turns up every two years, three years. Maybe that’s because most people get so brain-dead in the country they don’t even have the energy to go crazy.

As a result of his screw up, he’s sent on a ‘holiday’ back to New York by the Firm. This seems like punishment, or it just may be until things calm down, but deciding that his future with the firm is murky, Chilton plunges into his holiday with a great deal of enthusiasm, delving into his new-found interest in Georgian architecture. Soon Chilton begins resenting his work as it interferes with his reading, and when the Firm orders him to leave the city, he takes a trip back to his old home town–now withered and gutted by a lack of industry. In this bleak town, Chilton’s memories reveal a bleak childhoodwith zero chance for personal enrichment.

As Chilton moves across the globe, this man whose original identity has been eradicated, begins to form another self. Chilton tells himself that “except for my somewhat destructive occupation, I was a pretty decent sort,” and really treads into unreliable narrator territory.  There’s a definite splitting as Chilton, the killer, morphs or at least reinvents himself as Peter Chilton, English gentleman of leisure and taste and even  the genteel, urbane Sir Peter Chilton at one point:

I stopped in at the Rizzoli Bookstore, which was wood-paneled and had a kind of English feel to it. Chilton seemed to fit in here. Wealthy snobs roamed about with their wealthy little shopping bags–Tiffany, Gucci, Bergdorf, Goodman, Bally. Fashionable foreigners jabbered to one another. I noticed a couple of well-dressed wops jawing away over some wop fashion magazines–they always sounded so damn dramatic, like ham actors. Calm down, I felt like telling them. How in hell can you get so worked up over a few dumb magazines? Chilton suddenly stepped in here. They’re always amusing these Italians, he thought, remembering his various trips to Rome and Venice. Spirited. Fun-loving. Yes, good old jolly Italians. You can always count on them when you’re feeling a little down.

As Peter Chilton fabricates an imagined life–complete with country estate, a posh flat in London, and a third home in Nice, he continues to absorb architectural facts and begins to feel the birth of an interest in art. How will the hit-man–a man who’s disinterested in everything and everyone align his old self with his new interests? Can both sides of this man live within one skin?

Look at these poor excuses for town houses, he thought, I thought, we both thought.

Copy courtesy of the publisher, Other Press, via netgalley. Read on my kindle

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The Vices by Lawrence Douglas

The rapid descent to alpha male dominance was complete.”

The Vices by American author Lawrence Douglas is both an intense character study and an exploration of the nature of identity and authenticity. The novel begins with the knowledge that the main character, 41-year-old philosophy professor, Oliver Vice, has disappeared while a passenger in a Cunard ship sailing from London to New York. Evidence strongly suggests that Oliver threw himself overboard, but with no suicide note left by a man who was an eternal thinker and chronicler, the story’s unnamed narrator is left with the puzzling question: why did Oliver commit suicide? 

And this is how the book begins:

On July 18, 200-, at 18:00 GMT, the Queen Mary 2 left Southampton with 2,912 passengers and roughly half as many crew. She arrived at the Brooklyn dockyards on the morning of July 24, with 2,911 passengers. In a brief wire service piece, the New York Times identified the missing passenger as “Oliver Vice, 41, a professor of philosophy at Harkness College in western Massachusetts.” He was also my closest friend, and remained so, even after he ruined my marriage.

This seemingly simple passage establishes several things: Oliver’s disappearance, the strange nature of the relationship between Oliver and the unnamed narrator, and the idea that while facts and figures may exist around the perimeters of life, numbers and facts don’t offer explanations.

With the knowledge of Oliver’s disappearance, the unnamed narrator begins to introduce shades of Oliver’s complex personality. A symbolic funeral is held for Oliver (the body was never found) which is attended by Oliver’s five “widows” who are “drawn from various spots on the globe” to mourn for the man they all loved:

The ‘widows’ cried openly, but not in competition. I doubt they knew fully of each other. Like members of a terrorist cell, each lover had knowledge limited to one degree of separation, a blinkered picture of Oliver’s romantic entanglements.

From that point, the narrator goes back to his first meeting with Oliver which took place about 12 years earlier when they met in a book shop. Oliver, an independently wealthy philosophy professor considered “aloof” and “arrogant” by colleagues, was a “hot commodity” in the academic world. He was extensively published and was hired with immediate tenure at Harkness College where he enjoyed celebrity status. The narrator, with just one novel under his belt, is also at Harkness on a temporary position as the writer-in-residence . While the two men are about the same age, they are a study in contrasts. Oliver comes from old money;  he’s suave, popular and polished, and while we don’t know much about the narrator’s background, he’s under considerable financial constraints (enough to worry about book purchases). As the two men become unlikely friends, the narrator is introduced to Oliver’s glamorous and eccentric family. Gradually the narrator begins to resemble Oliver. This is due in part to the fact that the narrator copies Oliver’s style of dress and even wears his cologne. But curiously, the narrator is mistaken for Oliver–it’s never the other way round. This is one of the most intriguing aspects of the book. We have a central character who’s no longer there, and then there’s the ghost of a narrator, a hollow cipher who attaches himself as an identity parasite rather like Nick in Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

The narrator charts his relationship with Oliver Vice, and although the narrator marries, has a career and children, his focus is squarely and obsessively on Oliver, so while there’s a top-layer story here–Oliver’s many love affairs, his bizarre extra-curricular activities, his strained relationships with his overbearing Hungarian mother, Francizka Nagy and his “gargantuan fraternal twin” brother Bartholomew, and the over-growing mystery concerning Oliver Vice’s background, there’s also an unexplored undercurrent. Why is the narrator so fascinated by Oliver? Why does the interest in Oliver swamps every other aspect of the narrator’s life?

Identity is a major theme in the novel, and the narrator seems to be a fairly colourless, nebulous personality  in contrast to the larger-than-life Vice family. The narrator is exposed to Oliver’s insane home life in which the past is rolled out at every opportunity by Oliver’s mother–a woman whose terrible stories about suffering and betrayal don’t add up. Oliver appears to be a well-defined person, a vegetarian and avid art collector with definite political opinions that he is willing to risk his career for, but in reality Oliver is a morass of contrasts and contradictions who devotes a lot of energy to projecting the image that he’s created for himself. On one hand, in his professional life he is “a creature of Kantian firmness, intolerant of excuses or embellishments or missed deadlines,” and yet in his private life, he’s incapable of making the simplest decision. This dichotomy of personality is held together by a very fine and fragile web of projected persona which is eventually challenged by the events that take place. Oliver’s major book, Paradoxes of Self, is the physical detritus of his secret struggle with self-identity. At the time of his death, Oliver, plagued by writer’s block was working on another book, The Fakea book that promised to wed his philosophical and art historical interests.” His colleagues at Harkness considered Oliver a “wunderkind who, after an early splash, had drifted into premature irrelevance.”

If Oliver has a hero, then that person is Wittgenstein (a telling selection). Oliver’s book  Paradoxes of Self  is heavily influenced by Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and what’s more Oliver quotes Wittgenstein frequently. But the Oliver Vice-Wittgenstein connection goes beyond philosophy. According to Oliver’s troubled lover, Sophia, Oliver is “like his hero, Wittgenstein. Brilliant but incapable of some pretty basic stuff.”  Here’s Oliver explaining why he’s been fired by his therapist:

He became so fed up with my endless frantic rehashing of the same problems, so dis spirited by my compulsive tendency to seek advice which I then ignore or declare myself incapable of implementing, so perplexed by my penchant for self-examination without profitable end, and so alarmed by my inability or refusal to restrain my thoughts, which overheat and go nowhere, like bats flapping around a closed attic, that he began last week’s session with the simple declaration, ‘I don’t think I’m helping you. I don’t think I’m capable of helping you.’ He apologized and we shook hands; I even tried to cheer him up–he did as good a job as anybody could have…

My only complaint about the novel is that I guessed one key element, but then again, perhaps I was supposed to. This put me in the position of being one step ahead of the narrator who’s blinded, after all, by his proximity to the Vice family.

The Vices is not a novel of action or dialogue. Instead this is an intriguing and complex study of one troubled man by another. This multi-layered novel comes highly recommended for fans of Michael Frayn.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, Other Press, via Netgalley. Read on my kindle.

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Filed under Douglas Lawrence, Fiction