So You Don’t get Lost in the Neighborhood: Patrick Modiano

After reading several Modiano novels, I decided to take a break, but a recent foray into the TBR stacks led to me selecting So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood. This is a short novel (my copy runs just over 150 pages) and it’s a typical Modiano novel concerned with memory and identity. The book opens with a strange phone call to the protagonist, Jean Daragane. We are dropped into Jean’s isolated life with no explanation, and the phone call (it’s the first time the phone has rung in months) is from a man who says he’s found an address book that belongs to Jean. The man, Gilles Ottolini, insists on meeting Jean to return the book, and there’s something here that makes Jean uncomfortable. Gilles has a slightly threatening manner, and he’s certainly pushy, but then again perhaps Jean, who isn’t used to human contact, feels that his space and privacy is invaded.

The two men meet and it soon becomes clear that Gilles wants something from Jean. Gilles begins asking about a name in the address book, a “certain” Guy Torsel, but Jean has no memory of the man that belongs to the name, and a glance at the outdated telephone number in the address book “means nothing.” Gradually over the course of a short time, Jean begins to recall, slowly, how he met Guy Torsel and the significance of the man and a circle of other long forgotten people.

Gilles and a young woman begin to penetrate (invade) Jean’s life. There’s a surreal quality here as Gilles hints that Jean knows more than he’s letting on, and Jean seems to have no idea what Gilles is talking about. Of course all the answers lie in the past, and the path to the past is through memory. As Jean’s memory gradually peels back time, details emerge from the forgotten recesses of his mind, and this is where the novel is strongest.

These words had travelled a long way. An insect bite, very slight to begin with, and it causes you an increasingly sharp pain, and very soon a feeling of being torn apart. The present and the past merge together, and that seems quite natural because they were only separated by a cellophane partition. An insect bite was all it took to pierce the cellophane. 

Jean has forgotten chunks of his past and along with those memories, he’s also let slip thoughts of people he once knew, people who inhabited Jean’s life, or perhaps passed through briefly. There’s a point at which Jean tries to search on the internet for people from his past, but he can’t find them.

The rare people whom he would have liked to trace had succeeded in escaping the vigilance of this machine. They had slipped through the net because they belonged to another age.

Modiano’s approach to memory is fascinating. He chews over this subject, noting every nuance, every angle, every sensation. Rather uncannily, I recently came across an old address book, and found a name or two I couldn’t tie to anyone I remembered. For a brief moment, I thought I was living in a Modiano novel. The author certainly nails the descriptions of memory, shards of memory, and how sometimes, in order to remember, we have to burrow into a time and a place that have long since been forgotten. Still at the end of the novel, I was left wanting a bit more plot.

On a final note, remember that Hemingway parody contest? 

Not to denigrate Modiano, but has anyone heard of a Modiano parody contest?

In the end we forget the details of our lives that embarrass us or are too painful. We just lie back and allow ourselves to float along calmly over the deep waters, with our eyes closed.

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Early Work: Andrew Martin

“Most of my friends were superficial and unpleasant.”

I’m a sucker for certain literary themes: and the flailing writer/academic is a great favourite, so Andrew Martin’s debut novel, Early Work, drew me in.  Protagonist Peter Cunningham is supposedly working on a novel, but … it’s not working out well.

Early work

The novel opens with Peter attending a party at the home of a “New Age-leaning woman named Anna whose family, through what specific brand of plunder I don’t know, owned a gigantic house out in horse country.”

Anna was magnificently curly-haired and just shy of troublingly thin, with a squished cherubic face that seemed to promise PG-13 secrets. She’s grown up in the area and had recently moved back for somewhat mysterious reasons, possibly involving a now ex-boyfriend’s arrest for dealing prescription drugs. She radiated the kind of positivity that suggested barely suppressed rage.

Anna’s “family compound” has the look of a “nouveau hunting lodge,” and Peter, who arrives solo as his long-term girlfriend, medical student Julia, is working, gets a good look at one of the guests through a kitchen window. The woman, Peter soon learns, is Leslie, and once they meet, an immediate banter flows:

Leslie grinned at me, the full-toothed thing, which, maybe, was the first tentative step into the abyss of the rest of my life, or whatever you want to call, it. Love.

Leslie is also a writer, and so the connections between Peter and Leslie are solidified. Peter disregards his current relationship and finds himself competing for Leslie’s attention over the dinner table. Quite soon, it’s clear that Peter’s relationship with Julia is problematic. He doesn’t care if she’s “thinking about someone else,” during sex, and while Peter considers that he’s “intellectually compatible” with Julia, he admits that “neither of us quite expected not to” have sex with “anyone else for the rest of our lives.” 

Dig a little deeper and there are failed ambitions on all sides here. Julia writes poetry, but has plunged into a medical career. Peter met Julia in college, but then he later moved onto Yale and discovered that the PhD program was, for him, a horrible mistake. Deciding “novelists don’t need PhDs. They don’t need shit,”  he dropped out and moved to Virginia to join Julia who was attending med school. The plan was that Peter would write the Great Novel, so as a couple, they’ve become each other’s complex excuses: his drop-out school war chest money supported Julia, and he will have the literary career Julia has turned away from. But as we all know, it’s just not that easy to write a novel let alone sell it:

the book was really a handy metaphor for tinkering with hundreds of word documents that bore a vague thematic resemblance to each other, but would never cohere into the, what, saga of fire and ice that were they imagining.

So this is why we find Peter teaching at a women’s correctional facility and chafing at his relationship with Julia.

I enjoyed parts of this novel and its take on career failures and failures in love. Peter’s voice was sharp and witty but occasionally grating. The main problem was that I really disliked the foul-mouthed Leslie and failed to see her charm. She’s a walking disaster (one of Woody Allen’s Kamikaze Women), but then when was love ever logical? Beyond that, the ending was wobbly, and it was difficult to connect with the characters who are a fairly privileged, vacuous spoiled lot.

review copy

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Helping with Inquiries: Celia Dale

“The slivers of ice which were her buried resentments against Leonard strangely hardening rather than melting in her astonishingly found new climate.”

I can’t remember where I first heard the name of author Celia Dale, or how I came across her books, but a recent dig through the TBR stacks led me to grab Helping With Inquiries, a novel from 1979. At first I thought I was reading a police procedural, but no, this is a deeply psychological character study–a tale of bitterness, isolation, control and motivation for murder.

helping with inquiries

Helping with Inquiries (and what a great innocuous title that is) begins with Leonard Henderson, a married man in his 60s, a creature of absolute rigid habit, an advertising manager at an old-fashioned dying company, arriving back home after a day’s work. Leonard and his wife, Enid live in a pleasant, semi-detached home in a quiet, middle-class neighbourhood. It’s a terrible shock, then, for Leonard to return home to Cherrywood Crescent and find his wife Enid, a woman that no one seems to really know or talk to, battered to death in the front room.

The Hendersons have lived next door to the their neighbours, the Thorpes for over 20 years, and although they share a “thin party-wall” the two couples only ever exchanged a nod or the few odd words. The Thorpes heard nothing, saw nothing, and are in a state of shock that something like this could have happened in their quiet street.

D.S Simpson and DI Hogarth, two very different men with two very different styles investigate the case. There’s a definite good-cop-bad cop game afoot with Simpson’s strong social skills and affability and the laconic Hogarth who prefers to ambush suspects and witnesses with rudeness. Whereas Simpson is “delighted” by human nature “as intriguing manifestations of the bizarre,” Hogarth is interested in motive only in as much as it furthers the investigation

This view of his profession gave him a majestic insensitivity which was often useful, outraging or stunning people into shows of emotion that under gentler handling they might have controlled. While they erupted or collapsed, a mind as shrewd if not as intelligent as any judge’s ticked away inside Hogarth’s balding head. If there were something to be noticed, assessed, slotted into place, Hogarth would do it.

As the police detectives poke around the Henderson home, they discover that while no one seems to really know Enid (she has no friends, no social life) she was a magpie, “her untidiness had been concealed, stuffed into drawers and cupboards.”  According to Leonard his wife was “a middle-aged woman, –a domesticated, simple, not very clever housewife,” and yet someone hated her enough to beat her to death. But is this a random crime? There’s an alley that runs along the back of the houses. Did some “maniac” wander into the home and murder Enid? 

As the novel unfolds, a couple of suspects emerge. Leonard is required to make a written statement, and Leonard’s short, succinct sentences are then juxtaposed with the history of Leonard’s miserable childhood, dominated by a cold, cruel and domineering woman while Leonard’s father cringed in the background. As Leonard’s statement later continues to explain how he met Enid, author Celia Dale cleverly reconstructs their courtship and married life. Enid is dead when the book opens, and yet her character is constructed in detail, so that just who she really was is clearly evident.

Yes, this is a crime book, but it’s brilliantly constructed with Dale showing just how much can be accomplished by a crime novel, and while bulky DI Hogarth may not care about motive, readers do. Dale creates a fascinating picture of domestic life and an inexorable case of murder.

Finally, Dale can write. There are some marvellous moments here–most I can’t include due to spoilers. At one point, Leonard lands a job, after the war, at Forbes’ for Furnishing.

Behind their majestic frontage decline and fall could be sensed. The Board was ageing, the holding company impatient for them to be gone; real estate was more real now than Forbes’ for Furnishing. There was no future there and Leonard knew it with a bitterness that burned deeply behind his cool facade. The Advertising Department consisted of no more than Leonard himself, whatever trainee youth was going through the store, and a typist. The advertisement copy was written by an outside agency and appeared mainly in appropriate local and provincial newspapers. It was, he knew sourly, a dead end job. But at least, he was, at last, Manager.

Enid’s happiness was tactlessly great. She brought a bottle of sparkling white wine with which to celebrate his first week, kissed him and pressed her face against his for a moment. ‘I’m so glad for you Lenny darling. It’s such a relief. I know how anxious you’ve been all these months. And being in an old-fashioned firm’s much nicer really, isn’t it. even if it’s not quite so important.’

In a way she was right. Shutting his mind to everything he might have preferred, he sank himself into the work, treating his tiny department as though it were the most important in the firm, himself its ruler. So the years settled in Cherrywood Crescent, muffling all sounds. 

The book is also a snapshot of its times with reference to Mrs Woodhouse, Women’s Lib and bottom-pinching considered normal behaviour at work.

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The Bear and the Paving Stone: Toshiyuki Horie

“There is nothing more dangerous than a stupid friend. A wise enemy is far better.”

In The Bear and the Paving Stone Japanese author Toshiyuki Horie gives us three tales which explore friendship, the importance of shared memories and the elusiveness of human motivation.

The Bear and the Paving Stone

The Sandman is Coming

In the Old Castle

In The Bear and the Paving Stone, a young Japanese translator meets his friend Yann in Normandy. The two men haven’t seen each other in some time, and Yann, a “perpetual freelancer, unbound by a company schedule,” works part of the year and uses his wages to travel and take photographs. Yann has the tendency to drop out of sight, and this time the translator catches Yann, who is living in a remote cottage miles from the closest village, just before he leaves for Ireland. The two young men spend some time together reminiscing about their shared past, and discuss a range of topics including Bettelheim, Littré  and the holocaust. At one point, Yann puzzles over the question why people don’t flee when war moves close to their homes, and the narrator ponders on the subject:

In the limited reality that I knew, I’d never have to flee for my life, and it was unlikely to happen now. If I went somewhere, I always returned. I left Paris and came to this village; soon enough I would go back to Paris, then I would go back to Tokyo. But in a way I was always at home. If you were to make a contact sheet of all my journeys. and looked at them retrospectively, it would be clear that all my travels were return trips, and that I never drifted anywhere. In that sense, Yann and I were different. Even though there’s something about us that’s connected, we’re moving in different directions, and we’re never going to collide. 

The Bear and the Paving Stone is a philosophical novella which captures conversations between two men who share values. The talks not only reveal shared opinions but also reveal, possibly, the reasons behind Yann’s restlessness and his interest in war photography. In arguably the novella’s best scene, Yann offers his guest a photograph as a gift, but it’s a gift the translator doesn’t want. He would prefer “a quieter image.”

When Yann travels to Ireland, the translator spends time with Yann’s landlady,  and again a few casual conversations reveal a great deal of pain. By the conclusion of the story, the translator begins to understand why his friendship with Yann works so well.

The bear and the paving stone

In The Sandman is Coming, another very interior tale (even though it’s set on a beach), the narrator meets a woman walking on the beach with her daughter. The narrator used to be a friend of the woman’s brother, but 18 years have passed, and during that passage of time, the brother has died after a long illness. The woman, who once seemed to have the possibility of a good career, dropped out of school and married, but the marriage ended in divorce.

It’s the second anniversary of the death of the narrator’s friend, and he’s come to visit the family, and he finds himself taking a walk with his friend’s sister on the beach. There’s something melancholy about a deserted beach–especially if the day isn’t bright.

The third story: In the Old Castle, a translator takes a train to meet an old friend. The friend. “had always had trouble finding a girlfriend,” but now he supposedly has found “the one.” The new girlfriend isn’t quite what the translator expected. For one thing, she’s ten years older and rather shabbily dressed, but she’s also interesting. The friends decide to explore an old castle which is undergoing a restoration. Even though the place is overseen by a grumpy, antisocial groundskeeper and a Doberman, the narrator and his friend climb over a fence into the ruined castle, and of course, things don’t go well.

Of the three tales, The Bear and the Paving Stone was easily my favourite. It’s much deeper and stayed with me long after the conclusion. In this rich story, the author explores a range of subjects including how our choice of friends says a great deal about us, but it’s only in the best of friendships that we learn more about ourselves.

Translated by Geraint Howells

Review copy

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The Murder of My Aunt: Richard Hull (1934)

Murder has several sub-categories: there’s the Crime of Passion, murders for monetary gain, murders for revenge, and the list goes on. When the victim is known to the murderer, naturally, the possibility of motive (or motives) can help solve the case. So the dilemma arises, then– how to murder someone if it’s obvious that you are the most likely culprit?

The Murder of my aunt

Edward Powell lives with his Aunt Mildred just outside of the Welsh town of Llwll (which Edward pronounces ‘Filth.’) Edward prefers Surrey, but if he could choose to live anywhere, he would move abroad. The novel opens with snobbish, pretentious Edward launching into a long vitriolic attack on Wales.

There is a high street. It has a post office, from which the letters are occasionally deviled and occasionally not–some grocers, dealing almost entirely in tinned food of the most elementary and obvious kind at fifty per cent more than the proper price; and some butchers, selling mainly New Zealand lamb, Danish bacon and Argentine beef, which is ridiculous in a countryside which, whatever its defects, is full of sheep–peculiarly stupid sheep–and very inquisitive pigs.

There’s one cinema in town but Edward does “not consent to be seen” there as the locals smell. But then does Edward like anything? Yes he does, he loves leisure, loves his car which is named “La Joyeuse,” loves his Pekingese So-So, and loves his French novels

Edward and his Aunt Mildred are more like each other than they’d care to admit, and the two embark on a contest of wills concerning Edward’s smutty (according to his Aunt)  French novels. Edward wants the latest shipment delivered to his aunt’s house and she wants him to start hoofing it to town to pick up the package. A power struggle ensues over petrol with Edward planning to siphon petrol from his Aunt’s car, but she’s so intent on making him walk, that she actually siphons the petrol off herself.

With just a tiny amount of petrol salvaged from his Aunt’s sabotage attempts, Edward tries to drive to the town and then is forced, when the car runs out of petrol, to walk. He realises that he’s the laughing-stock of the townspeople and is so angry, he swears he will kill his Aunt. This is where Edward’s problems take a turn: how can he kill his Aunt, who is both the guardian and trustee of the family nestegg, when he is her heir, and her death will, naturally,  leave him as the only suspect? Edward reasons that her death must be an ‘accident,’ and so he proceeds to create one … or two …or three.

The story is mostly narrated, unreliably, by Edward, so we get his side of things: his victimhood, his loathing of all things Welsh, etc, and yet reading between the lines, Edward is a lazy, good-for-nothing, who sponges off his Aunt. She wants him to get a job, horror of horrors, which he feels is “degrading,” although he toys with the idea of being a poet. At one point in the book I thought that Edward’s sole redeeming feature was his love for his Pekingese So-So, but one of my favourite sayings is : “sometimes you don’t want to be the object of someone’s affection,” and this is certainly the case with poor So-So, so reader beware. I think the passages concerning So-So’s involvement with one of the fabricated accidents is meant to be ‘funny,’ but it really isn’t.

The book presents a ‘pressure cooker’ murder (a term I use to describe a murder that is created by enforced proximity–a situation so intense that murder of one of the parties seems to be the only solution–when it isn’t in fact. The real solution is that one of the parties involved should move away … asap.) For its structure the novel is sound, and its psychological aspects fascinating, but it is a mostly interior tale which involves Edward’s long complaints: Wales, his aunt, the locals, etc. They all get a sound whipping, and while these passages are witty and entertaining, the lack of action makes the novel drag at some points. Plus I can’t forgive the incident with So-So.

Review copy.

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The Fall Guy: James Lasdun

James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy lingered on the shelf for some time, but the enthusiasm of the Gerts drove the book closer to the top of the pile. Good thing too, as this book is just the sort of read I crave. Why: the viewpoint of an unreliable protagonist, a summer holiday, and the nebulous morality of a handful of characters.

The story is told through the mind of main character Matthew, a British chef who moved to America and is between jobs after selling a restaurant. He’s a part, an outer part, of his wealthy cousin Charlie’s life. Charlie, an investment banker who was ‘let go’ is also between jobs, but whereas Charlie has a considerable family fortune to bolster his lifestyle, Matthew does not. The third main character here is Charlie’s second wife Chloe, and when Charlie invites Matthew to his second home near the town of Aurelia in New York State for the duration of the summer, Matthew jumps at the chance.

What should be an idyllic summer is actually a season of tension, unease and strange undercurrents which shift beneath the three main characters. Charlie spends most of the time alternating between his next career move and meditating, Chloe is supposedly attending yoga classes, and Matthew is a sort of go-fer, using Charlie’s card to buy high-end food items with which he prepares nightly meals. While the three people share an address, they don’t share space apart from meal times.

The summer thickened around them. Soon it reached that point of miraculous equilibrium where it felt at once as if it had been going on forever and as if it would never end. The heat merged with the constant sounds of insects and red-winged blackbirds, to form its own throbbing, hypnotic medium. It made you feel as if you were inside some green-lit womb, full of soft pulsations. 

The relationship between the three characters, on the surface, seems comfortable. Matthew admits (to himself) a “general feeling of enchantment” in Chloe’s company. Everyone says the right things, and yet… the relationship between Charlie and Matthew, under scrutiny, seems strained. Can this be explained by the gap in their social status? There’s something unhealthy and unspoken here: a toleration instead of a family bond. A gap in fortunes and social status can (and often does) create awkward moments. That’s definitely true here, and there’s the feeling that Matthew ‘pays’ for his board by running errands and cooking meals. Plus there’s an undercurrent of an alternate agenda from Matthew. He wants to “jumpstart his career,” and there’s a falseness, an element of hanger-on to this relationship.

Matthew, who is bewitched by Chloe, admits that “the woman who was so obviously the right woman for Charlie, was, so to speak, the right woman” for him. He’s content to admire her, and bask in her company, but the situation shifts when Matthew discovers that Chloe is having an affair, and it’s this discovery which shifts the unease into overdrive.

Meanwhile the sight of Charlie working or meditating, or driving off in his tennis gear, formed an image of increasingly irritating innocence. Even his pleasantly mindless activities were losing their charm, their soothing rhythms broken by gusts of crackling interference from a situation that had nothing to do with the problems he was trying to sort out. 

James Lasdun creates an odd love-quadrangle here with Matthew as the bit player and yet one who places himself in the power position in the affair. Matthew could tell his cousin Charlie, but should he? After all, if he tells Charlie, Charlie will be devastated and there goes Matthew’s relationship with Chloe (not to mention the cessation of his summer holiday). At first Matthew’s discovery is a moral dilemma but as the novel continues, Matthew’s role becomes much darker.

The Gerts describe the plot as Hitchcockian, and I agree. The Fall Guy plumbs the depths of dark human emotions while teasing the reader with the possibilities of the true, twisted nature of the relationships which exist between these characters.

Highly recommended. Mixed opinions on Goodreads, but I loved it.

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Blackout: Ragnar Jónasson

The first book in Ragnar Jónasson’s  Dark Iceland series, Snowblind, introduced rookie policeman Ari Thor. Set during Iceland’s financial crisis, Ari, a Reykjavik resident and former theology student, takes a job in far-way Siglufjördur. This isn’t a dream job by any means, and Ari’s girlfriend Kristin, is upset with Ari for taking the position. It means long separations and Ari’s decision will impact her career as a doctor, so there’s relationship turbulence ahead. The second book in the series, Nightblind, takes place five years after Snowblind. Ari and Kristin are now living together and they have a child, but their relationship problems are far from solved, and the murder of a local policeman strains their relationship even further.

Blackout

The third novel in the series, Blackout, takes place between the first two published books. Ari is in Siglufjördur and he and Kristin, who is working as a doctor in Reykjavik, no longer have a relationship–although they have sporadic contact.  The novel is set during a volcanic interruption, and a tourist discovers a corpse of a murdered man.

Ari isn’t quite as central to this novel. He’s there, of course, and he has regrets about his lost relationship with Kristin. There’s an ambitious reporter, Ísrún, who hears about the discovery of a body and runs with the story.  Her boss is looking for an excuse to get rid of her, so the story may just be the ticket she needs to help her flailing career.

The investigation into the man’s death follows two tracks: Ísrún’s hunt for the story and the police investigation. For this reader, Blackout is not as strong as the other two entries in the series. It’s looser and not as tightly written. Whereas the other two novels emphasized the bleakness and isolation of winter in Siglufjördur, this novel moves to another feature of Icelandic weather: the volcano. As with all crime series novels, we get the current crime woven with details of our characters’ lives, and depending on the book/series, one aspect is usually more interesting than another. It didn’t help the momentum factor that this novel takes place between the other two books, as the reader already knows where Ari and Kristin’s relationship is heading.

Translated by Quentin Bates.

Review copy

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Gallic Noir Volume 1: Pascal Garnier

Gallic noir

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a Pascal Garnier fan. His dark, bleak humour fits my mood and world view so I’ve loved (most) of his books. Gallic Books has compiled three titles into one volume, so if you’ve been waiting to check out Garnier, this may be a great choice for you. Volume 1 includes:

The A-26

How’s the Pain?

The Panda Theory. 

Here’s a list of my reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Low Heights

Boxes

The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory

A-26

The A-26 is the story of brother and sister Bernard and Yolande. Yolande, “Yo-Yo” (an apt name since she’s bat-shit crazy) live together in disharmony with Bernard ‘caring’ for Yo-Yo, but this insane world spins out-of-control when Bernard, a serial killer, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. This is my least favourite Garnier. It contains Garnier’s signature motifs of death and decay, but I felt as though I needed a shower after reading it.

Onto How’s The Pain? which I rated much higher. I really liked this one. This is the story of an aging hitman, posing as an ‘exterminator’ who picks up a directionless young man as his driver. This book contains a depth absent in A-26, and the description of Bernard’s hopeless mother is extraordinary, painful, and hilarious all at the same time.

The Panda Theory concerns a stranger who turns up in small town in Brittany. Again the central motifs of death and decay are present. This wasn’t the easiest read for me for its rather constant references to meat, but this is a cleverly written book that doesn’t veer from its imagery.

There are three volumes of Garnier’s Gallic noir available

Review copy

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A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary (1939-1940):Iris Origo

Some books serve as incredible mirrors of history. These books have the power to create a range of emotions in the reader: disturbed, sad, horror.  I felt uncomfortable and disturbed by Curio Malaparte’s books The Skin and The Kremlin Ball. Teffi’s Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea was poignant rather than uncomfortable–a haunting read, and when I finished the book,  I found myself thinking about the many people she encountered on her epic journey.

Iris Origo’s A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary (1939-1940), also from New York Review Books, another mirror of a particular time, doesn’t have that uncomfortable feeling, and neither is it haunting. Instead imagine an Anglo-American woman of considerable privilege, brought up in Italy, married to an Italian, living on a grand estate in Tuscany, who records events with intelligent, cool detachment and a growing sense of unease, as they occur in 1939-1940.

A chill in the air

The book opens with Iris Origo on a train “packed” full of squadristi–“the fascists della prima ora, those who belonged to the first squads of 1919.” The men are headed to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the Fasci and also to hear a speech from the Duce. It’s a brilliant opening which shows fascism deeply embedded in society, ‘respectable’ fascists who look “good-natured, friendly and peace-loving. About 80% of them belong unmistakably to the working-class; the others look like small tradesmen or employees. Impossible not to like them; impossible too not to feel that Fascism was, in its beginning, a genuine revolutionary movement of the people.” 

The rumors of war are just that. Yes, there’s unrest in the world, and as events unfold, Origo takes particular note of the newspapers, again with that cool detachment she recognises shifts in attitudes. There’s a “sympathetic tone now adopted towards Russia,” which she intelligently realises “suggests that there may be some foundations in the persistent rumours of a German-Russian rapprochement.”

Although Mussolini makes speeches about arming the country, Origo expresses the thought that people are “entirely right in saying that Mussolini intends to avoid war,” and yet she speculates about “Mussolini’s capacity to act as a moderating influence on Hitler.” Meanwhile foreigners are expelled, foreign papers are not available, while “voluntary exodus” requires German subjects to move back to Germany and Italian subjects of Austrian origin to “move either to Germany or to other Italian provinces.”

Other restrictions kick in, there’s the last day that cars can be used, and on this day, the author visits old friends. The sale of coffee and tea is forbidden, and the English leave the country “except for a few very old ladies, who can’t move.” Still the general mood is that “it won’t come to a real war: the Duce will get is out of it somehow.” The diary notes how people manage, or fail to manage, the depression of anti-fascist neighbours, the mothers who worry that sons will be hauled off to fight. The war creeps closer and the mood darkens…

Iris Origo initially admired the Duce; her husband was, at one point, the president of the local fascist consorzi (landowners’ association). As the diary continues, we see the author’s attitude shift until she is galvanised into action, and that’s the story that continues in her book: War in Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary 1943-44. Sometimes book introductions are spoilers, and while the introduction, written by Lucy Hughes-Hallet, explains some of what happens in the book, it also explains who Iris Origo was, her connections, and her politics. I’d recommend reading it prior to starting the book.

Review copy

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Weekend at Thrackley: Alan Melville (1934)

“This is getting too much like one of those gangster films for my liking.”

The gathering of a motley assortment of guests at a remote country house is a staple of crime fiction, but when author Alan Melville adds humour to the mix, the plot suddenly becomes light and breezy. Result: Weekend at Thrackley is a delightful romp.

Jim Henderson, unemployed for three years, and living in a boarding house, is down on his luck and short of funds when he receives an unexpected invitation to Thrackley, a country home for the weekend. He doesn’t know Edwin Carson, the man who sent the invitation, but beggars can’t be choosers, and Jim thinks that at least he’ll be in for a mini-holiday in Surrey and free grub. Why not accept?

But then Jim talks to his friend, Freddie Usher, who has also received an invitation, and the two friends exchange notes. According to Usher, Carson, who has a shady reputation, as “the greatest living authority on precious stones” is interested in the Usher diamonds, and has requested that Usher bring the diamonds to Thrackley so that Carson can compare the Usher diamonds to some in his own collection.  It seems a foolish idea to agree to Carson’s request since it’s rumoured that Carson may have acquired his collection by nefarious means. Jim is appalled:“You’re not going to?”

“If I can get them out of pawn and give them a wash and a brush up in time. Why not?”

“Of all the blithering, nit-witted –“

But Usher assures Jim that Carson is now “reformed,” plus he’s packing a revolver along with his razor and toothbrush.”

A handful of guests gather at Thrackley for the weekend. The home is isolated and has a depressing, suffocating setting. Along with the host, Carson, his lovely daughter, and a sinister, thuggish butler, there’s Mr and Miss Brampton, Lady Stone, and Miss Raoul, an actress. There’s a commonality with the guests: they all possess a disgusting number of jewels. The exception is Jim, who has  a modest private income but little beyond that. He can’t understand why he was invited, but Carson claims that Jim’s father, (a man Jim knows little about) was his best friend and that they met in prison. This is all news to Jim, and he’s stunned by the revelation.

So here we have a shady jewel collector who has invited jewel laden visitors for the weekend. We more or less can guess why these people have been invited, but the fun here in the story comes from its humorous approach. Jim, as the main character, sniffs out some bizarre goings-on almost immediately and then he enlightens his friend. These two men stumble towards the truth, and a great deal of the novel’s lively wit is derived from their energy and attitude towards life. Jim, for example, considers Lady Catherine Stone, a “dangerous type of woman. The type that spends her days and other people’s days in Getting Up Things; on fifty-three committees, he had heard, and perpetually organizing charity matinees and midnight cabarets and chain teas for vague and unknown institutions.”

According to Freddie, Lady Stone makes an appointment to talk about “the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Aged Organizers of Charity Bazaars, or some such title,” but she fails to meet him. Where did she disappear to? Carson has an explanation, but it seems suspicious at best. Freddie and Jim decide to begin their own investigations which is assisted by the fact that Carson drives off with Raoul, who is “plastered with good jewellery given to her by bad men.” Carson, according to Jim, “is a “dirty old devil,” who tries to isolate Raoul in order to make a pass at her.

I read Death of Anton from the same author, and while I enjoyed it, I preferred Weekend at Thrackley–the opening scenes with Jim’s landlady were brilliant and set the jolly tone for the rest of the bookAccording to the introduction from Martin Edwards, this novel was extremely successful and represented a turning point in the author’s career. Melville went on to have a career in entertainment and given the wonderfully light, well-paced tone of the novel, I’m not surprised.

Review copy

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