Stay Up With Hugo Best: Erin Somers

Aspiring comic June Bloom is a writer’s assistant on the late night talk show Stay Up with Hugo Best. The long standing show has stayed the course for years, but now Best is retiring, rather unexpectedly. There will be a new host who “would hire his own writers, and those writers would hire their own assistant.” It’s been a long hard climb for June, and now she’s unemployed and broke.

Stay Up with Hugo Best

June goes to a bar to do a stand-up routine and runs into Best who is is part of the small audience. The evening ends with Best inviting June to his house in Connecticut, “No funny business,” promises Best. Given that 65 year old Best has a reputation as a womanizer–specifically there’s one incident which involved an underage girl, that “dogged him forever,” we expect hanky panky (at least attempted) with perhaps some humorous barbs (thanks to the cover) shooting back and forth. Best is an icon to June; the comic who made her think she could have a career in comedy too:

My crush had been a minicollison of forces, a science fair Krakatau. The double whammy of loving him and also wanting to be him.

Initially the novel has a lot of energy, and the plot seems full of possibilities. June is too curious to reject Best’s offer, and author Erin Somers wisely avoids the cliches we might expect from the weekend in Connecticut scenario.

Part of the book was brilliant. Best’s life turns out to be as muddled, sad and unglamorous as only the life of an aging comic can be. Some of the book’s best, funniest scenes take place at the home of obnoxious “shock jock” Roman Doyle and his surprisingly unconventional wife, Gypsy. June isn’t eager to be at Roman’s party, but she is interested to meet his wife. June admits that “the thought that someone could stand him [Roman] intrigued her.”

I was disappointed by the gray restraint of the place. Where were the vulgar classical touches, the marble nymphs and cherubs in repose? Even shock jocks had taste these days. You had to go to Los Angeles to see anything truly vulgar anymore. 

One of the themes is the TV persona vs the real human being. For some reason, we seem more shocked when comics turn out to be alcoholic, druggies, and or depressive failures. After all, that humour and disposition they project has to come from somewhere right? Perhaps we need to see that some people manage to use humour as a buoy to float above  life’s crushing defeats and disappointments, converting them into humour. If they can do it, perhaps we can:

In theory, it made sense that there would be some separation between the two. That the real guy would have depths the TV persona didn’t. But I felt sure that there were people out there who were exactly what they seemed to be, people you could pin down immediately. For instance, the moment they grabbed your ass in the workplace, which was something Roman had done to me. 

It’s clear that comedy, as a business, is a grueling career. “Writer’s contracts were renewed every thirteen weeks.” Imagine the pressure of trying to keep up the humour when you are under the gun with no idea where the next pay check will come from? It’s no wonder some comics seem to grow more desperate as they age.

What starts as a funny novel becomes rather sad and grim as it becomes clear that June must learn some degrading, humiliating lessons and that her idol Hugo Best must topple from his exalted position. The book is being adapted to film and IMO there’s every possibility that the film may work better than the book. It’s not that the book is bad; it’s just rather depressing given that we are June’s audience for a lesson that’s painful to read about. By the time the book has concluded it’s harder to say who is more winceworthy figure: washed out Hugo Best who was dealt an excellent hand but still managed to trash his life, or June Bloom who had plenty of warning signs and should know better.

Review copy

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Paris Spleen: Baudelaire (1869)

“Wickedness can never be excused, but there is merit in knowing we are wicked; the one vice beyond redemption is to do bad things out of stupidity.”

Paris Spleen had sat on my shelf for some years, and while it’s ostensibly Baudelaire writing about Paris and various aspects of all levels of French life, it’s also a look inside Baudelaire’s head. This was published posthumously in 1869 and it includes prose pieces on a wide range of topics from being drunk to an observation of two children playing.

Paris spleen

On the first page, Baudelaire had my attention; he addressed Arsène Houssaye, arguing for the merit of the prose pieces, that  “each survives on its own.”

We can break off where we choose, I my reverie, you the manuscript, the reader his reading; for I have not tied his reluctant  will to the interminable thread of some pointless plot.

Some of the pieces are very short–less than a page; some are observations of human behaviour while others are centered on nature.

In The Double Room, just over two pages long, Baudelaire describes a bedroom, and the languid, sensual description begins with the bedroom as a pleasant place, but that soon changes:

And that fragrance of another world, which sent my seasoned sensibility reeling, has been displaced, alas, by the rank odour of tobacco mixed with god knows what stomach-turning damp. Now lungs breathe rancid desolation.

In this reduced world, so full of disgust, just one familiar object consoles me: the phial of laudanum, old and frightful mistress–and like all lovers, alas abundant with caresses and betrayals.

Ah indeed, Time is back, and reigns supreme now; and that hideous old personage has brought all his fiendish retinue of Memories, Regrets, Fits, Phobias. Anguish, Nightmares, Rage and Neuroses.

I could quote a lot from this book. There are times I liked Baudelaire and I agreed with him and there were times I thought it was hard being Baudelaire. Ultimately however, this is a thinker who analyses his feelings for us, his fortunate audience. Anyway, there’s a lot to chew over here; a friend who died insane, the beauty of nature, whether or not humans possess “innate goodness,”  why people do horrible things, and the sadness and tortures of life. Yes, it’s Paris and Parisian life, but it’s also a glimpse into the mind of Baudelaire. This is best dipped into rather than read at one sitting. I read at night and Baudelaire gave me a lot to think about as I drifted off to sleep.

Vauvenargues says that in public gardens there are walks haunted mainly by failed ambition, ill-starred inventors, unachieved fame, broken hearts, all those wild, barricaded souls in the last throes of a storm and who retreat far from the insolent gaze of laughing wasters. 

Translated by Martin Sorell

 

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The Women in Black: Madeleine St John

“You Australians are mysterious people, no one would guess that this is a place where people can also suffer. It is the constant sunshine, it hides everything but itself.”

The Women in Black in Madeleine St John’s wonderful, tightly written novel are a handful of women who work in Sydney’s Goode’s Department Store. The novel is set in the 50s; the women who work at Goode’s are required to wear black dresses, and these are still the days of “frocks,” “model gowns,” spinsters, and WWII refugees floating up as flotsam and jetsam in Sydney’s society.

The women in black

The novel begins in November with two of the main characters: employees Mrs Patty Williams and Miss Fay Baines. Christmas is on the horizon and a young girl named Leslie Miles, who changes to her name to Lisa for her application to Goode’s, is employed for the busy Christmas and New Year’s seasons. Leslie/Lisa is a shy introverted, intelligent girl who has just taken her exit exams at school and who longs to go to university. The final main character is the glamorous Magda, “a Continental” from Slovenia, who takes Lisa under her wing, pays her attention, and introduces her to a wider, exotic world.

Both Patty Williams and Fay Baines have their private miseries and disappointments. Patty is married to Frank: a “bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate.” Patty wants a child but that isn’t likely to happen as Frank is more interested in a night at the pub and a pint with his mates than sex with his wife.

Fay Baines is 28 and after a few unsatisfactory relationships with men, she’s come to a dead end in her life. She goes out at night with her friend Myra but Fay keeps meeting the same sort of men who want a good time and are not interested in marriage or a relationship.

Somehow the sight of Fay was not one that inspired thoughts about marriage, and this was grievous, for Fay wished for nothing else: which was natural, everything considered. Meanwhile men were forever getting the wrong idea

Then one night, Fay has an epiphany:

The fact was that Fay had had a dislocating experience on Saturday night: she had been at a party given by one of Myra’s cronies in a flat at Potts Point and she had suddenly, for no reason, become aware just before midnight that she was wasting her time: that she had in a sense met every one of the men there before, at every other party she had ever attended, and that she was tired of the whole futile merry-go-round: and what was worse than this, much, much worse, was that there was no other merry-go-round she could step onto

Over just a few weeks, amazing things happen in the lives of Patty, Fay and Lisa. Lisa, who comes from a narrow yet loving home, longs to be a poet, and is reading Anna Karenina. The book passes to Fay and she discovers that there’s more to life than parties and men who insist in groping her.

Women in Black explores the lives of a handful of women as they move to the next phases of their lives. Magda, her husband Stefan and his friend, Rudi, live in a parallel universe to their Australian acquaintances, and some of the book’s best scenes take place between these immigrants who, as they learn to adapt, have a great deal of ambition, and enthusiasm, combined with the outsiders’ view of Australian society:

“Give me you opinion of the cake, anyway,” said Rudi to Lisa. “I must say that in Melbourne, where I have been living so miserably, there are at least many better cakeshops than here”

“In Melbourne, they have more need of cake,” said Stefan, “having more or less nothing else.”

While the lives of Fay, Patty and Lisa are about to change, there’s the underlying idea that Lisa’s way forward is a change for Australian women in general. Lisa’s mother, another wonderful character, loves and supports her daughter, but the two females are subject to Mr. Miles who has yet to be convinced that it’s ‘worth’ spending the money to send a girl to university. The sea change for women is seen through the remark made by the “mysterious” Miss Jacobs, another employee of Goode’s.

A clever girl is the most wonderful thing in all creation you know: you must never forget that. People expect men to be clever. They expect girls to be stupid or silly. , which very few girls really are, but most girls oblige them by acting like it. So you just go away and be as clever as ever you can: put their noses out of joint for them. It’s the best thing you could possibly do, you and all the clever girls in this city and the world.

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Rendezvous in Black: Cornell Woolrich

“For me, she thought wryly, but without complaint, all life is a tunnel; a long, never-ending tunnel, which has no other end.”

Cornell Woolrich’s Rendezvous in Black is a relentlessly bleak, cold, dark tale of revenge. Its powerful, ceaseless bleakness resides in a killer’s uncompromising mission: revenge yes, but it’s revenge involving innocents and driven by complete mercilessness.

It’s May the 31st, and Johnny Marr is waiting outside of a drugstore in the town square, as he does every night, for his long-time girlfriend Dorothy. Dorothy and Johnny have been in love since the ages of 7 and 8; they’ve always been a couple, and they cannot imagine a world in which the other does not exist. Lack of money led to them putting off their wedding for years, but now the date is planned. It will be a June wedding:

They would have been married long ago; last June, the June before, the very first June that he was a man and she was grown up girl. Why hadn’t they? What’s the one thing that always interferes, more than any other? Money. First no job at all. Then a job so small it wasn’t even big enough for one, let alone for two. 

The work-related death of Johnny Marr’s father led to a small pay-off from the railroad. It’s not much money and by the time the lawyer takes almost half, it’s even less, but it’s still enough for Johnny and Dorothy to set a date.

The book’s first pages establish several main themes: there’s the unexpected consequences of murder and how one person’s callous indifference ricochets throughout the universe. The idea of wasted time is another theme which is juxtaposed, in intriguing contrast, with timelessness. Other characters in the book struggle with the fact that they’ve ‘wasted’ time, and also time plays a huge role in the crimes. Another main theme is the powerless of the individual when faced with Big Business or dazzling wealth. The small man will always stay small and powerless because that’s the way the world is organised. Money rises up; it doesn’t trickle down. The fact that Johnny’s father was killed through negligence, has allowed a few thousand to come Johnny’s way. Yes the money was almost split 50:50 with the lawyer, but to Johnny, the money is a miracle. Finally, Johnny, an “average” man, an underdog, has managed to move ahead a little in the world and finally he can marry Dorothy.

But in this noir novel, fate intervenes and snatches Dorothy away in a freak accident. At first Johnny just hangs around in the town square, still waiting for Dorothy. A little kindness is occasionally shown to Johnny but he becomes a curiosity and then a spectacle. Finally a cop “brutally” tells Johnny to move on, and with a few pokes of the nightstick, Johnny ambles off:

Maybe the cop should have let him stand there, should have let him alone. He hadn’t been hurting anybody , until then.  

Johnny Marr, driven insane by grief, assumes various identities and finds out who is ‘responsible’ (in his mind) for Dorothy’s death. He draws up a death list. On May 31st of each year, one by one, a man whose name is on the list will lose the woman he loves the most: a wife, a mistress, a girlfriend, a daughter … it doesn’t matter to Johnny who the victims are as long as their deaths causes irreparable damage to the men left behind: they will feel the same pain that he endures.

Detective Cameron, another unassuming, almost invisible man, realizes that something isn’t right when the first death occurs. By the third, he knows he’s on the trail of a maniac who has a death list. He doesn’t know the identity of the killer; the only thing he knows for certain is that the next death will occur on the 31st.

Money only has power over the sane mind. Maniacs don’t have motives. I could call it revenge, but even that wouldn’t be correct, because where the injury has been unintentional or unknowing, revenge can be reasoned with, turned aside. About the closest I can get to it would be a revenge-mania.

Woolrich eases us into the darkness easily at first. The first murder is fait accompli, and the second murder with its unexpected consequences form their own sort of rough justice. But the subsequent crimes are malicious, evil and enacted with maximum cruelty. I’m not talking gore here–I’m talking about cold, calculated vicious retribution calculated to cause maximum suffering. The novel is particularly bleak when considering that 5 people who had nothing to do with Dorothy’s death  but who are connected with 5 men (ONE of whom MAY be responsible) will pay the ultimate price. Unlike Fate, Marr’s retribution isn’t random; it’s directed and deliberate, forming its own nihilistic ball of hate, taking aim at innocents. Nonetheless, the cosmic unfairness of Johnny’s selection and relentless pursuit mirrors Fate in a distorted, warped way.

My Modern Library copy includes a bio of Woolrich as well as a brief section describing the relationship Woolrich had with a woman that mirrors Marr’s (without all the murders):

A “sense of isolation, of pinpointed and transfixed helplessness under the stars, of being left alone, unheard, and unaided to face some final fated darkness and engulfment slowly advancing across the years towards me .. that has hung over me all my life.”

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Tim Krabbé: Delay

I read Tim Krabbé’s The Vanishing last year, and so I’m back for more in Delay. The Vanishing (which was made into a film) was the creepiest, most disturbing book I’d read in a long time. It’s the tale of a young Dutch couple who head to France for a holiday, they stop to get petrol, the woman goes to get some drinks  … and vanishes. The rest of the book delves into her boyfriend’s attempts (and inability) to deal with his life in light of the incident and the mystery of what happened. The Big Question here: how far would you go to know the truth? How high a price would you be prepared to pay to know the fate of someone who vanished?

So … in some ways, there’s a connection between The Vanishing and Delay–although Delay is NOT creepy, not disturbing. Delay is, however, about obsession, and continuing a relationship that’s inherently bad for you. In some ways, Delay reminded me of Pascal Garnier’s The Islanders. Both books concern a man and a woman who reconnect after years of silence, and in spite of those long years, those old relationships sink right back into their toxic, unhealthy grooves.

Delay

In Delay, Dutch writer and quiz show host Jacques Bekker, on an international cultural trip, leaves New Zealand, flies to Sydney and finds that his plane to Singapore is delayed. Here he is in Sydney, so why not go look up his old girlfriend Monique, a woman he knew thirty years earlier, and see what she’s doing these days. After all, what harm can it do? …

Well a lot of harm as it turns out. Telling his traveling companions that he has “a demon to drive out,” Bekker separates from the group and heads out to find Monique. He’s kept track of her over the years, from a distance, and so he reenters her life.

At first glance, Monique appears to have done well for herself. She’s “Madame Twenty,” and runs an immense, successful business empire. She lives in an affluent neighbourhood, but when Bekker first sees Monique, she’s frantically packing suitcases into her car:

And he recognized her, or actually it was the other way around: it was as though he was back in Ostend, and from there was being allowed to look into this distant future. So this woman, with her chic white summer dress, who must be fifty or fifty-one, who had black hair instead of blonde, was playing the role of Monique Ilegems as older woman? 

Bekker knows Monique well enough to realize that something is wrong: “Something unusual had happened right before he showed up.” Monique finishes loading her car, opens the passenger door, and Bekker gets in. And so it begins. …

Bekker finds himself on the run with Monique. Soon he’s swapping out cars, aiding and abetting her escape, and even though he realizes that “she was using him. Just like back then,” he slides back into his previous relationship with Monique

It was as though he had boarded a ship that was sailing out of a harbor.

The rest of the book follows Bekker and Monique on the run, spiraling into one disaster after another as they careen across Australia until finally there is nowhere left to hide. Underneath the plot, there’s the idea that the force of one person’s character can completely swarm and dominate the will of another human being. The relationship between Bekker and Monique is a paler version of serial killer teams in which one of the pair keeps psychological control of the other, with the weaker one needing the power and control of the stronger partner and the stronger partner needing the obedience of the weaker partner. There are several moments when Bekker experiences a thrill at his almost hallucinatory journey, of giving up control, and Monique’s life, which has taken a down slide, becomes an exciting adventure with Bekker at her side and obeying her demands. Yes a murder does occur in this book, and it’s another step in Bekker’s trip to hell.

Delay isn’t as good as The Vanishing but I still enjoyed it.

Translated by Sam Garrett

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The Scholl Case: The Deadly End of a Marriage: Anja Reich-Osang

“Jutta Abromeit says, he caught her eye and then turned away quickly. ‘He realised that I’d seen through him.’ Scholl, she says, could manipulate people, win them over to his side and implicate them in arguments like key witnesses.”

I read my fair share of crime books–all sorts, non fiction and fiction. Murder is a frequent topic, and of course, the murder of a spouse pops up uncomfortably frequently. In these instances, I always find myself wondering ‘what was wrong with divorce as an option?’ At what point is divorce dismissed and at what point does the plan to, instead, murder a spouse emerge and begin to seem like a good idea? But then this niggling thought occurs to me: years of hatred and loathing (not to mention the financial benefits) must outweigh the risks and fuel the calculations. Anja Reich-Osang’s The Scholl Case is a non fiction book which takes a look at the murder of Brigitte (Gitte/Gitti) Scholl. She was 67 years old, a beautician who lived in Ludwigsfelde, a small and peaceful town south of Berlin. Brigitte’s husband of over 47 years, Ludwigsfelde’s former mayor Heinrich Scholl, was very soon accused and then convicted of the crime. The big question becomes WHY??

The scholl case

After Heinrich Scholl’s conviction, the author, who attended the trial, examined the evidence, accumulated interviews with friends and relatives of the couple, and amassed considerable input from interviews with Heinrich Scholl who also “wrote down and sent [me] memories of his life.” The book goes into some detail into the history of the Scholls and how they slotted into the history of East Germany. Brigitte Knorrek met Heinrich Scholl in  childhood. Scholl had a hard-scrabble childhood while Brigitte’s upbringing was much better. Much to the surprise of their friends, they married in 1964. Brigitte had a child from a boyfriend who drifted away, and Heinrich had fathered a child by another woman. It was a practical decision which seemed to work.

To all outside measurements this was a highly successful marriage. Heinrich Scholl had an amazing political career. He was elected and reelected as mayor repeatedly: “he was everywhere–down in a sewage drain and up on stage with the heir to the British throne.” His wife Brigitte ran a hair salon in their home. They raised her son Frank together, and, rather touchingly I thought, Brigitte had a series of brown spaniels–the first given to her by a boyfriend when she was a young woman.

About half way through the book, I was deep into the history of the Scholls’ lives and still couldn’t anticipate a motive for murder. Yet there were some very troubling signs: affairs, biting the head off a live mouse…

As with many married couples, life changes post retirement. Heinrich retired in 2008, and that meant he spent more time at home. According to the interviews, Brigitte was controlling, humiliated Heinrich and made him live in the cellar. Wait.. wait… Scholl actually had a flat, post retirement in Berlin, self-published an erotic novel, kept a Thai mistress,a sex worker,”  “with high standards” on the side, and depleted his bank account. True, he did return on Friday nights when “he handed Gitti his bag of dirty laundry and worked through her list of chores. If Gitte was controlling, then Scholl had slipped the leash.

At one point, Heinrich was advised by a therapist to write “what bothers” him about his  wife:
Nannies me.

Doesn’t let me hang up my pictures.

Has a cleaning mania.

Treats me like a small child.

No love any more!

Well boo fucking hoo.

Wonder what Gitte’s list would have looked like. …

The author had many face to face interviews with Heinrich Scholl and so we get a lot of his version of events. Sometimes this is just bizarre when placed, without question, in the context of the events. So for example, apparently Heinrich Scholl finds women “hard to gauge. […] He didn’t notice that his wife humiliated him for decades or that his Thai girlfriend, a sex worker, exploited him.” Now think about that. …  Hardly the first man to think that “his relationship” with a sex worker “had been something special.”  At one point, the author asks: “And who was actually the victim here? The women in the gallery were for the most part on Brigitte Scholl’s side: the men on Heinrich Scholl’s.” 

The book seems stunningly hard on Gitte since, after all, she was the one who ended up strangled with a shoelace and buried in a shallow grave right next to the grave of her, also strangled, murdered dog. Scholl comes through loud and clear–although perhaps not always in the way he intended. As usual the victim is silent (and the portrayal somewhat vague in its stereotyping), and yet through the pages I saw glimpses of someone admirable: as a child she “almost always brought hungry children with her” to eat, became a hard working business woman, made floral arrangements for friends, planted flowers for an old friend whose husband was dying, was the only person to send parcels of food for a friend in prison, and wouldn’t increase her prices as she felt her customers had very little money.

And the suicide theory? I’m not even going to address that

review copy

translated by Imogen Taylor

Marina’s review:

Kim’s review

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A Little Lumpen Novelita: Roberto Bolaño

“I knew in the kingdom of crime there were many stages and levels and no matter how hard I tried, I would never reach the top.”

“Now I’m a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime,” and so begins Roberto Bolaño’s book, A Little Lumpen Novelita. It’s an intriguing beginning to an intriguing story. Bianca and her younger brother are orphaned after their parents are killed in a car accident. They remain living in the family flat in Rome, but there’s not enough money to survive. The brother takes a job at a gym, while Bianca starts working at a salon. I’ll rephrase that: Bianca starts working at a salon while her brother says “it was stupid to work, that we could live happily on the pension we got from the government, on the income from our orphanhood.” But the budget is too tight, and so the brother who thinks he can go to eating just one meal a day, finally acknowledges they need money and gets the job at a gym.The brother dreams of being Mr. Universe.

The siblings drift into a life of apathy. It’s an existence; they “killed time watching TV, first the talk shows, then cartoons” They drift along until one day the brother comes home with two men he’s met at the gym. “One was from Bologna, the other from Libya or Morocco.” As the story progresses, these two men become interchangeable in more ways than one.

My brother had met them at the gym, where they did some kind of work that was never clear to me. Sometimes I got the impression that they were trainers, a job with a certain prestige, and other times that they were just sweepers and errand boys, like my brother. Either way, they were always talking about the gym–and so did my brother, with a fervor new to me–and about protein diets and meals with names that had the ring of science fiction, like Fuel tank 3000 or Weider energy bars (all the nutrients you need for the body of a champion!).

But soon Bianca is supporting herself, her brother and his two friends. The atmosphere and situation at the flat are bizarre. Everyone avoids confrontation, and yet there’s a definite silent chain of power combined with the threat of violence. Bianca’s brother is clearly afraid of these two men who have long overstayed their welcome. Then the three males hatch a plan to get rich, and of course, Bianca is the pivotal figure in this grubby scheme:

It’s best not to think about these things. They’re here, they touch us, they’re gone, or they’re here, they touch us, they swallow us up, and it’s best–always–not to think about them. But I kept thinking, waiting for the coffee to be done, and I asked myself what my brother’s friends meant by saying that their luck would change, how exactly they planned to change their luck (their luck, not mine or my brother’s, though in a sense their luck would have an effect–any idiot could see that–on my brother’s luck and maybe even mine), what they were ready to try, how far they were expected to go to get their luck and ours to turn around. 

Bianca is our narrator and she’s somewhat unreliable. She acknowledges that when she embarks on this life of crime her story gets “fuzzier.” Her tale is told in retrospect so how much is due to hazy memory, how much she’d just not rather think about, and how much is due to the inexperience (at the time) of youth, well it’s up for grabs. In some ways this story reminds me of Modiano, but it’s sharper than Modiano in its focus. But I liked this tale, and how Bianca crossed so easily into criminality. Bianca and her brother are both passive by nature, and once they find themselves involved in crime, swept along by forces more malignant than themselves, it seems up to Bianca to either pull the crime together or else make some decisive move to escape. This is beautifully written. Bolaño doesn’t fill in all the gaps for us; instead this is Bianca remembering a murky, desperate point–a crossroads in her life.  The tale illustrates how impossible it is capture a certain state of mind from an earlier point in life, why we made the decisions we did, and that impossibility goes a long way to explaining the tale’s murkier points.

Translated by Natasha Wimmer

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More Anatomy of Murder: Sayers, Iles,Crofts (1936)

“As for the academic question of whether the association of a young man with a woman considerably older than himself is to be regarded always as harmful to the young man, that is debatable.”

In More Anatomy of Murder, Dorothy L. Sayers, Francis Iles and Freeman Wills Crofts, respected authors of detective fiction, each discuss an infamous murder case. Sayers, Iles and Crofts were all members of the Detection Club (Sayers and Crofts were founders). Sayers considers The Murder of Julia Wallace, while Iles examines The Rattenbury Case, and finally Crofts, in a much shorter piece, discusses A New Zealand Tragedy.

More anatomy of murder

The biggest issue for readers of More Anatomy of Murder is that these three cases (or at least the first two) were headlines in 1933 and 1935, and so some prior knowledge of these murders is assumed. Fortunately for this reader, I was familiar with the Rattenbury case through the film Cause Célèbre. But back to the first section: The Murder of Julia Wallace. (The bones of this case reminded me of Celia Dale’s Helping with Inquiries. ) Julia Wallace’s husband, who claimed to have been lured from his home at the time of his wife’s bludgeoning murder, was arrested and tried for the crime. In the second case, the Rattenbury murder, Francis Rattenbury was murdered by his much younger wife’s lover (the wife initally confessed), and the third case, The Lakey murder, involved the murder of a married couple by a neighbor. So three very different types of murders.

Each of the authors takes a different approach to the case under examination. Sayers, for example, states that the law is interested in “one question only,” … “Did the prisoner do it?” while the crime novelist asks “if the prisoner did not do it, who did.” Sayers’ approach is heavily psychological as she peels away the layers and complications of the case. At each step of the evidence, she presents the possibility of Wallace being the murderer, or whether or not the murderer was another individual.

In The Rattenbury Case, Iles references the hanging of Edith Thompson and compares Alma Rattenbury to Edith Thompson, and the two cases appear similar on the surface. Iles argues that while husbands were murdered by their wives’ lovers in both instances, there are differences. Since married women seeking sex with young lovers loomed large in both cases, Edith Thompson and Alma Rattenbury’s behaviour scandalized the public, and Mrs. Rattenbury’s temperament is much discussed along with that of her 18-year-old lover/chauffeur, Stoner. Iles makes a good argument for the case that Mrs. Rattenbury and Stoner fed off each other’s unstable temperaments.

Iles also discusses Miss F. Tennyson Jesse’s transcript and commentary of the trial, and Iles argues that while Jesse “finds it difficult to account for Stoner’s crime,” and calls the crime “a gesture conceived in an unreal world,” he disagrees:

Where personal advantage looms so large if a certain person can only be knocked out of the path, the consequent knocking out bears a very solid relation to real life. 

The final case follows the standard police procedural as Freeman Wills Crofts tackles the evidence in the Lakey Murder Case.

I liked the way each author took a different approach, and Sayer’s wit bolstered the tame drabness of married life between Julia and William Wallace. She notes that while the couple’s married life seemed superficially happy, there are hints that life was not what it seemed:

Nothing will ever bring her back, and however much I want her or however much I miss her loving smiles and aimless chatter …

After reading this section, I had my own theory. The Rattenbury Case with its unstable, erratic household, morphia, lashings of alcohol and cocaine was a good contrast. Iles even spends some passages explaining why he is fascinated by the case.

(F. Tennyson Jesse wrote A Pin to See the Peepshow which is a fictionalised account of Edith Thompson and the Ilford Murder Case.)

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Filed under Crofts Freeman Wills, Iles Francis, Non Fiction, Sayers Dorothy

Women: Mihail Sebastian (1933)

“September has arrived, lovely in its weakening light.”

Last year I read Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years–a remarkable book which covers  several years in the life of a young Romanian man who faces antisemitism at university and struggles with what it means to be a Jew. The book had a refreshing energy in spite of its introspection, and that same energy is apparent in Women: a book comprised of four connected stories which explore the various phases and complications of male/female relationships.

The first story, Renée, Marthe and Odette is my favourite of the lot. Stefan Valeriu is on holiday in the Alps. He’s a student in Paris; he’s taken his final exams, and now he’s relaxing:

It’s not yet eight. Stefan Valeriu can tell by the sunlight, which has crept only as far as the edge of his chaise longue. He can sense it climbing through the wooden legs, feel it caressing his fingers, his hand, his naked arm, as warm as a shawl … More time will pass–five minutes, an hour, an eternity–and a flickering blue light with vague silver streaks will appear through his closed eyelids. Then it will be eight and perhaps time to start thinking about getting up. Just like yesterday, and the day before that. But he’ll remain lying there, smiling at the thought of this sundial he constructed on the first day, using a chaise longue and a patch of terrace. 

This is how the story opens. Its evocative sensuality draws us immediately into Stefan’s life, and it’s easy to imagine the sensations he enjoys: the light, the warmth and the sheer pleasure of leisure time. And then comes the voice of a woman. …

Stefan, as it turns out, is a bit of a player. Circumstances throw him into the company of several women–hence the title. Stefan meets a married couple: Monsieur Marcel Rey and his wife Renée who are on holiday with their small daughter. The Reys, who are both from “old colonial families,” own a plantation in Tunisia. It’s not exactly a life of ease; they sleep with a gun under the pillow.  Stefan plays chess with Monsieur Rey and seduces his wife.

The intriguing thing here is just what the husband knows or doesn’t know. Is Stefan one of the perks of the holiday? The night before the Reys depart, Stefan plays chess with Monsieur Rey:

When it is completely dark, the lights of the train station far beyond the lake can be seen, and the Paris train at midnight, like a thick articulated phosphorescent snake. They pause in the middle of their game and watch it disappear.

–We have a rough life, says Monsieur Rey, breaking the silence. I don’t regret it and wouldn’t change it. But it is tough. I’m sure Renée has tears in her eyes watching that same train, which she won’t be taking again for who knows how many years. Maybe never. That doesn’t scare me, but you see, there’s something in me, a kind of affliction, that gives me pause. I know it’ll pass. It will pass for her too. Work takes care of all that. The sun, the plantations, the desert, the breeze at night, the Arabs…. But you have to understand how different things are here, how appealing it is and how a woman in particular would find it all irresistible…

So that’s Renée, the unhappy plantation owner’s wife. Then there’s Marthe, a beautiful, calm “regal, cinematic, and eternally beautiful woman,” who is pursued by Stefan. The pursuit is flavoured by the presence of another young man who appears to be a competitor for Marthe’s affections. And then there’s Odette: a free-spirited young woman who is alone at the resort.

The best scene in this wonderful section concerns Monsieur Rey’s hobby of filming the guests, and one evening the guests sit down to watch Rey’s film. The film’s revelations make Stefan extremely uncomfortable. (I thought of Alda Alda in Crimes and Misdeamours. Alda Alda plays Lester, a television producer and Clifford, played by Woody Allen makes a documentary of Lester’s life.)

In the second story, Émilie, time has moved on. Stefan is the narrator who tells the tale of a young woman who is a virgin; Stefan is a witness to her sad tale. Renée, Marthe and Odette explored many aspects of male-female relationships (flirting, pursuit, high drama, adultery, adulation) but Émilie, is almost painful in its train-wreck bleakness.

The third section, Maria, takes the form of a letter to Stefan. Stefan declared his love and the letter is Maria’s response which, in essence details of her relationship with another man. In the final section, Arabela, Stefan once more is the narrator, but in this case he tells of his prolonged, ultimately anticlimactic, love affair with an acrobat.

The first story is superb, and the others, while good, cannot match its excellence. There’s something magnificent and timeless about Renée, Marthe and Odette and the way Stefan observes and loves each woman in his own way.

There haven’t been many women in my life. But there have been a few. As many as any man of average attractiveness might have, when he acts kindly and knows when to insist. I’m not boasting, as I know any number of acquaintances of mine, taller and darker and better-looking, who have had ten times the number of “conquests.” Still, I’ve never met a woman–and I’ve been in love with some of them–who has ever given me the sense of cool sensuality that I found in Arabela’s arms, as I inhaled the smell of her warm, lazy, indifferent flesh.

Review copy

Translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh

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A Very Scotch Affair: Robin Jenkins (1968)

“To escape from the darkness of the ghetto-mind, especially if you had been imprisoned in it for over forty years, you had to be ruthless as well as reckless. Whether you were to be condemned or congratulated would depend on what use you made of your freedom.”

Mungo Jenkins, a married man in his 40s decides to run off to Barcelona with Myra. They’ve been involved in an affair now for some time, and independently wealthy Myra pushes Mungo to leave his wife and three children; it’s now or never.

A very scotch affair

Mungo was born in the slums of Glasgow’s Culdean Street, “still today one of the scruffiest in the east end, and had been brought up by a half-mad old aunt said to be a rag-dealer.” Mungo is now an insurance superintendent for a small company. He married Bess, a factory worker, 24 years earlier, and they have three children together: Andrew, Peggy and Billy. Mungo has long stopped loving his wife. In fact he can’t stand her:

God knew he looked for nothing fancy in a woman of forty-six who had borne three children. He did not expect her to tint or dye her hair, but was there any need for it to be always so drab and untidy? She said she couldn’t afford hairdressers, slimming biscuits, expensive girdles, and flattering clothes, as well as a son at University and a daughter in the sixth form. That was all true enough, but surely she should have learned, in her twenty-four years of marriage to him, that the truth ought never to be used as a skulking-place? Then in her almost revengeful deterioration she had taken to leaving out her false teeth at night, because, so she claimed, keeping them in gave her inflamed gums,. Those shrunken kisses in the dark, demanded so coyly, had revolted him more and more. They were made worse too by her recounting, with inane laughter, some trivial gossip of house, street, shop, or whist-table.

Mungo thinks he could have gone so much farther in life without his wife and children, but now “he might be held captive until death by the innumerable coils of sheer commonplace habit.” Determined to announce his departure, Mungo, unwittingly chooses the worse time to abandon his family. Bess has cancer. …

A Very Scotch Affair follows the fallout of Mungo’s departure: the repercussions on his children and also the reactions of the family’s friends and neighbours. While Mungo thinks rather highly of his abilities, this view is perhaps not as accurate as Mungo would like to believe, and unfortunately, Bess’s adoring love has helped sustain Mungo in his conceit. While Andrew, involved in a mess of his own, doesn’t seem to blame his dad for abandoning the family, Billy, the youngest at age 12 hates his father, and when Mungo announces his decision to desert his wife and children, Billy reveals close observations of his father’s intellectual “fraud.”

All those books in the bookcase through in the sitting-room, he couldn’t even read them and they’re in English. He would take one, look at it, and then put it back. He’d do that with half a dozen. Then he’d sit down with one and try to read it, but after a wee while he’d drop it and read a newspaper instead.

And then there’s Peggy, an unusual young woman, circled with an aura of sadness, who has made an art of accepting the limitations of human behaviour.

Set in a poor protestant Glasgow neighbourhood rife anti-catholic sentiments, the book contains some colourful secondary characters: Bess’s mean-spirited friend widowed Flo, a woman who “refused to make an iota of allowance for inevitable human shortcomings.” She is being courted by the widower Mr Peffermill, whose “prim, self-importance” and circumspect behaviour hide a vicious mind. When Mungo runs off to Barcelona, he doesn’t just desert his wife and children, he deserts his class. Most of the residents of the close knit neighbourhood, united in their poverty and common values, are appalled by Mungo’s behaviour. Bess is very popular in the neighbourhood:

Her laughter and smiles brought smiles and well-disposed remarks even from those whose luck was out. It was like having a fire to sit at, on a snowy night, just listening to Bess Niven laugh. 

The book contains some (very small amount) Glaswegian dialect which may be difficult for non-English readers.

A Very Scotch Affair is marvellous. When the book opens, Mungo justifies his actions to himself, but the plot gradually reveals the unreliability of Mungo’s argument plus the fallout of his selfishness. When we meet Bess, yes fat, yes, dowdy, we meet a woman whose warmth, generosity of spirit, and love radiant to everyone.

In the small hallway, as he took off his hat and coat, he looked about him at the pathetic evidences of Bess’s unimaginative home-making; the red candles in their tin holders on the wall, the picture of red and white roses bought at the Barrows, the patched carpet, and the brass jug useless for anything but keeping Billy’s marbles in.

“That you, Mungo?” she cried from the living-room.

“Aye.” He smelled egg and sausage, baked in the oven, one of his favourite dishes. She would have spent time and care seeing it was just as he liked it. Aye but she never read a book from one year’s end to the other, and did her best to keep him from reading any.

Mungo isn’t really running away from his wife; he’s running away from himself. And of course, there are some tough lessons ahead, and while Mungo pays a price, others pay even more for his immense selfishness. And Mungo’s selfishness is incredible. He justifies his actions repeatedly, and everything is about Mungo. Even in the face of his wife’s illness and his decision to desert her in the time of her (and his children’s) greatest need, he’s the one who feels that he needs support and comfort.  For this reader, Mungo is added to the list of literary villains.

A Very Scotch Affair will make my best-of-year list.

Here’s Kim’s review:

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