Vipers’ Tangle: François Mauriac

François Mauriac’s superb book Vipers’ Tangle is the exploration of the inner life of a lawyer, Monsieur Louis, a bitter shriveled, miserable man who taints the lives of all those in his orbit. The novel is essentially a journal kept by Louis to be read after he dies. While he lives with his family, he is estranged from them all, and the journal, which he imagines will be read with shock upon his death, is an explanation of why he loathes them all. The journal will be a “single act of vengeance.” According to him he’s been goaded into this hate by the treatment he has endured from Isa, his wife, his children and his grandchildren.

All though my life I have made sacrifices, and the memory of them has poisoned my mind, nourishing and fattening the kind of rancorous resentment that grows worse with the passage of the years.

The journal begins when Louis is 68 year old. He has been married for over 40 years, “suffered side by side” with his wife is how he describes it. Louis is the narrator so that means he is in control of the narrative and gives us his poisonous versions of events. The journal is a litany of vicious spite against everyone in his family. According to Louis he has been wronged by everyone, and that started with his wife who made a confession of sorts about a innocent youthful passion. They married when he was 23 and she was 18. Perhaps she just wanted to clean the slate, or felt the need to confess, but Louis hid his true feelings regarding her confession and then began to hate and despise his wife. It could be said that bitterness entered his heart at that point, but no, he was an emotionally shriveled human being before that point. In despising himself, he must also despise his wife and children, and hence he plots a way to ensure his family will not get their expected inheritance.

Things obviously are bad with Louis and Isa but then when he sees her giving the children religious training, he tries to win them away from her. That’s when he decides she hates him (and not the other way around).He has many grievances, including that Isa turned the children against him, that she paid them more attention, and that she is religious.

Your first pregnancy, moreover, made any explanation idle, and little by little changed the relations between us. It was before the great gathering. We went back to town and you had a miscarriage and had to lie quiet for several weeks. In the spring, you became pregnant again. We had to take great care of you. So began those years of pregnancies, accidents and births that provided me with more pretext than I needed to draw away from you. I plunged into a life of secret debauchery. Very secret, for I was beginning to appear in court a good deal. I was at my business as Mamma said, and it was a question for me of being careful of my reputation. I had my hours and my habits. Life in a provincial town develops in the debauchee the wily instinct of hunted game. But don’t be afraid Isa. I shall spare you held in horror. You need not picture any of that hell into which I descended almost every day. You threw me back into it, you who had pulled me out of it. Even if I had been less prudent, you would have seen nothing but passion in it . From the moment of Hubert’s birth you revealed your true nature. You were a mother. Nothing but a mother. Your attention was turned away from me. You no longer saw me. It was absolutely true that you had no eyes except for the children.

Boo hoo. Had to love his statement that her pregnancies “provided me with more pretext than I needed to draw away from you.” So the ‘drawing away’ clearly was selective. He moans about missing ‘the joy of life’ (as if he had any clue what this is) and the way his family considers him “a machine for handing out 1000 franc notes.” True his family come to him for handouts, but then that relationship is all that remains. There is no affection, concern, love–no interaction except money. But hasn’t he crafted his life this way?

I imagine that psychologists would put a number of labels onto Louis’s behaviour. The novel is brilliantly written. It’s an unrelenting look at a miserable git who has to ensure that everyone else around him is as miserable as he is.

To me this is the story of a wasted life. Louis had a good life but he poisoned all of his relationships, and yes there’s a moral lesson there. There is a religious component/lesson to the novel. There’s the underlying idea that you can be a total prick your entire life but still find “divine grace” on your death bed. I am not a religious person, but this seems like cheating to me. Decades ago, when I used to take my pocket money and haunt used books shops, I came across an entire volume arguing against death bed repentance. It was written by a C of E vicar. Made sense, but then all that stuff is mostly Greek to me.

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Betrayal: Karin Alvtegen

The cover of Karin Alvtegen’s Swedish crime novel, Betrayal, states the book is “reminiscent of Ruth Rendell at her best.” The comparison is valid, but for this reader, Betrayal is much darker than anything I’ve read by Rendell. The plot has the same tight claustrophobic feel of Rendell’s novels, but Betrayal is far more twisted.

Meet Eva, an energetic young mother to her 6-year-old son Axel. Eva has been married to Henrik for 11 years, and when the novel opens, Henrik tells Eva, in response to a question, that he’s unsure of their future together. The only reason Henrik will give is that they “don’t have fun anymore.” The truth is he’s embroiled in an affair with Axel’s daycare teacher, Linda. Of course he isn’t about to admit that and shoulder any blame. Instead, according to Henrik, it’s all Eva’s fault.

We get a bit of he said/she said:

Everything finished and ready before he even managed to see that it needed to be done. Always ready to solve every problem, even those that were none of her concern, before he even had a chance to think about it. Like an impatient steam locomotive she charged ahead, trying to make everything right. But it was not possible to fix everything. The more he tried to demonstrate how distant he felt, the more zealously she made sure it wouldn’t be noticed. And with each day that passed he had grown more conscious that it really didn’t matter what he did. She didn’t need him any more.

Eva sees things differently:

She did what had to be done first, and then what she really wanted to do if there was any time left over. He did just the opposite. And by the time he had done what he wanted to do, whatever had to be done was already done. She envied him. She would love to be able to act like that. But then everything would collapse.

The ying-yang of their relationship was probably why they got together in the first place, but all that is lost, buried under a dung-heap of marital resentment. I suppose this is where marriage counseling comes in, but in Eva and Henrik’s case, they don’t go that route. Meanwhile elsewhere in town, Jonas, a deeply troubled 26 year old man, visits his comatose girlfriend in hospital every day. This has been going on for the past 2 years 5 months, and once a week he sleeps next to her on her hospital bed. His devotion is amazing, and yet at the same time, it’s a bit too much … it’s disturbing.

So here we have Jonas who sticks to his comatose girlfriend’s side like glue and Eva and Henrik who are on the brink of a marital explosion. Eva, who in the face of divorce, has a terrible sense of failure, discovers Henrik’s affair. She launches a plan for revenge, and then she meets Jonas.

The novel excels at showing the he said/she said versions of the marriage, and the deeply dysfunctional grooves of established marital behaviour. This is a very dark, depressing tale, relentless in its bitter look at the psyches of these damaged people. It’s not as well-written as Rendell IMO, and it’s an almost unpleasant albeit cleverly plotted read.

Translated by Stephen T Murray

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Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit and the Glamour of an Icon by Kate Andersen Brower

In an April 1962 open letter in Vatican City’s weekly newspaper Elizabeth was charged with Erotic vagrancy.”

I’ve always liked Elizabeth Taylor–and this is no doubt influenced by childhood memories of her in Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew. We didn’t go to the cinema often and these two films, lavish productions, have both stayed in my mind. Plus how could I forget her bold performance in Butterfield 8. What a film! She delivers an incredibly passionate performance.

Over the years I followed Elizabeth Taylor’s career along with her many marriages (8 total–twice to Richard Burton). As time went on, the stardom faded and my impression, mainly thanks to headlines, is that she became a kind of joke. The tabloids are cruel, but there was plenty of fodder: the relationships, the short-lived marriages the metamorphosis to Washington wife, the jewelry. …

The book begins with an overview of Elizabeth Taylor’s life and then her life story begins chronologically. Her parents’ marriage seemed a bit odd, and the author later mentioned that Elizabeth’s father, always in the background, may have had relationships with other men. This goes some way to explaining Elizabeth’s parents’ relationship and her mother, Sara Taylor’s past thwarted acting career explains the whole stage-mother drive.

Elizabeth was a very lucky girl in many ways but unlucky in others. She might have seemed to have had an enviable childhood, but it wasn’t a childhood as much as a pre-adulthood. Sara’s drive to make Elizabeth a child star ensured she didn’t have much of a childhood; her mother made career decisions, and the family relied on Elizabeth’s income. National Velvet was a huge role for Elizabeth, and it was for her childhood roles that Elizabeth was introduced to drugs. The most shocking thing I read here concerned the ready flow of pills given to the child stars of the day. Barbiturates and amphetamines all around:

so that they’d be bright and chirpy and another pill at lunchtime and then pills she was to take home so she could sleep in order to get up at five in the morning to go back to the studio.

The author delves into Elizabeth’s disastrous first marriage to Conrad Hilton. On their extended honeymoon, he kicked her in the stomach and she miscarried. Here is this beautiful woman, courted by millionaires, diamonds thrown at her, who ends up abused just like any other woman. There’s also mention of Howard Hughes who basically tried to buy Elizabeth from her parents. Loved the snippets about various attempts to scoop stories for the media. Fancy Andy Warhol sticking a tape recorder under the banquette Elizabeth was sitting on. Then there’s the publicist who hid a camera in her “elaborate updo” on the set of Cleopatra.

The author makes the point that Elizabeth’s emotions were strongly tied to her health, so we see how catastrophic events converted into horrendous health issues. Elizabeth’s relationships with a number of gay men is given a lot of attention, but I would have liked to have see more on her female friendships and her affair with Frank Sinatra. On the husbands, of course her 2 marriages to Burton are explored. I knew the relationship was rocky, but I had no idea that it was a Tsunami. And it was easy to see that her marriage to Eddie Fisher (husband #4) was a reflex action after the sudden death of Mike Todd (husband #3) in an airplane accident. As for the final husband, there is more to be found about her marriage to Larry Fortensky on Wikipedia. Also extensively covered is Elizabeth’s AIDS activism. The entire Michael Jackson stuff was mentioned but not explored. She was one of his defenders.

Reading a biography inevitably brings up the issue of the biographer’s ‘job.’ Should a biographer remain on the sidelines with no opinion? Should a biographer interpret and analyze? I once read a biography of bit-part actress Barbara Payton and it is one of the best biographies I have ever read. The biographer John O’Dowd interviewed so many people so that he had multiple versions of several segments of Barbara Payton’s life. These versions in essence act as analyses or explanations of events. People do not see things the same way. Look, if anyone dies, you can ask a dozen people what they thought of the dearly departed and you are going to get varying opinions about that person. Those varied opinions are not necessarily wrong, but they may be limited or situational. We are all multifaceted people. No one person shows all sides to everyone. Period.

Elizabeth survived in a savage industry, and she maintained a lifelong love for animals and jewelry. She managed to maintain independence from the studios and also kept her own opinions in spite of public pressure. In this bio, there are are very few negative opinions. It’s mostly chronological and a simple history. It’s easy to read, doesn’t wander all over the place, and the author never loses control of the narrative. Ultimately, I came away from the book with the impression that Elizabeth was a complex person. At one point, one of her sons says he “marvel[s] at my mother’s ability to snake-charm” her therapist. I enjoyed that section as it showed that what was taking place between therapist and Elizabeth was not as linear as it appeared.

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Exiles: Jane Harper

“We see what we expect to see.”

Jane Harper’s novel, Exiles, is set in the small town of Marralee, and it’s here that Federal Investigator (Financial Crimes) Aaron Falk returns for a christening. The christening is of the son of Aaron’s longtime friends Rita and Greg Raco, and it was originally supposed to take place a year earlier but was postponed. Last year, Kim Gillespie, a woman with deep roots to the Raco family, disappeared from the annual fair leaving her six week old daughter in a stroller. Kim’s shoe was found in the local reservoir but her body has not been discovered. Her disappearance and probable death is chalked up to suicide and post-natal depression. In some ways the theory fits; she was on medication for depression, but in other ways, it’s a narrative that doesn’t sit easily–especially with Zara, Kim’s teenage daughter from a decades long relationship with Charlie Raco, Greg’s brother. The christening was delayed due to Kim’s disappearance, so here we are a year later.

Falk finds himself sucked into the mystery of Kim’s disappearance. Zara hasn’t moved on, and she’s friends with another local teen, Joel who is mourning the death of his father, Dwayne a local accountant who was killed in a hit-and-run accident a few years before. While the adults in town accept that Kim committed suicide and that Dwayne was killed in a random hit-and-run accident, the two teens, Zara and Josh, are not satisfied. Falk initially dismisses Zara and Joel’s claims, but there are some uncomfortable coincidences and some things that just don’t add up. Both Kim and Dwayne died during festival time. Both Dwayne, and it’s assumed Kim ended up in the reservoir. It took 5 months to find Dwayne’s body, but Kim’s body has never been found. The teenagers are unhappy with how both investigations have been handled and so they discuss their concerns with Falk. Falk never knew Dwayne or Kim but he met Gemma, Dwayne’s widow (Joel’s stepmum) some time back, and while there were sparks, Gemma turned Falk down.

Maralee is a close-knit town where most of the residents grew up together. When Kim left Charlie Raco after several decades of an on-and-off again relationship, she moved to Adelaide and there married Rowan, another Marralee refugee. It’s not exactly that the residents of Marralee picked Charlie over Kim, but Kim drifted away, and all her former friends lost touch.

This is a superior crime novel which explores the aftermath of two different and yet possibly connected crimes. The author excels at conveying the ripple effects of crime–the vast space left by violent death. Many of Kim’s former friends feel guilty about the way they lost touch with Kim in light of what seems to be her suspected suicide, and perhaps that guilt allows them to accept the narrative of suicide. It’s festival time once again; there’s an appeal launched to the fair crowd for any additional information about Kim’s disappearance. The juxtaposition of the fun-seeking festival-goers is set against the daunting theory that Kim, depressed and unable to bear life any longer, abandoned her new baby, exited the festival grounds and leapt into the reservoir. It’s a sobering thought.

Jane Harper doesn’t write cheap thrills here. This is a thoughtful, slow-burn novel which avoids surprises, shock elements and plodding police work. Instead, there’s Falk slowly chewing away at the various possibilities regarding Kim’s disappearance which he aligns with known or hypothetical scenarios. Perhaps because he’s not related to the Racos and perhaps because he is not officially on the case, he is able to ruminate on the niggling doubts about Kim and Dwayne’s cases–doubts which gnaw away at the edges of his mind. There’s something wrong, but Falk can’t pinpoint this deeply embedded feeling that he’s missing something.

With the track ahead clear once more, they walked on, the lights from the rides throwing bright colors onto their faces. Falk turned back to Raco and had opened his mouth when the words simply disappeared. It happened without warning as, in a dormant part of his mind, something stirred. Whatever it was shifted, heavy and stubborn, only to resettle awkwardly. It left behind a mild but distinctly uncomfortable sensation, as though Falk had forgotten something he really needed to remember. He blinked in confusion. What had triggered that?

For those who have read other Harper novels, these are several repeat characters, but it not necessary to read the previous two Falk novels before reading Exiles. I listened to the audio version which was read by Stephen Shanahan.

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Hotel Splendide: Ludwig Bemelmans (1941)

During the 1920s, Ludwig Bemelmans worked in the Ritz-Carlton hotel, and this memoir is an amusing record of the years spent there. In Hotel Splendide, our narrator begins his hotel career as a busboy and works his way up, finally becoming a waiter. The hotel, not as ‘splendide’ as it was once, has a range of guests and has its own hierarchy and culture. Monsieur Victor is the eagle-eyed maître d’hôtel and Mespoulets is a waiter. Mespoulets and the narrator, Ludwig, are co-conspirators assigned to war against the hotel’s worst guests who are seated a “draughty corner” between two doors.

Monsieur Victor used our tables as a sort of penal colony to which he sent guests who were notorious cranks, people who had forgotten to tip him over a long period of time and needed a reminder, undesirables who looked out of place in better sections of the dining room, and guests who were known to linger for hours over an order of hors d’oeuvres and a glass of milk while well-paying guests had to stand at the door waiting for a table.

In this restaurant version of Siberia, these ‘special guests’ are given the Mespoulets Treatment:

Rarely did any guest who was seated at one of our tables leave the hotel with a desire to come back again. If there was any broken glass around the dining-room, it was always in our spinach. The occupants of Tables Nos. 81, 82, and 86 shifted in their chairs, stared at the pantry door, looked around and made signs of distress at other waiters and captains while they waited for their food. When the food finally came, it was cold and was often not what had been ordered. While Mespoulets explained what the unordered food was, telling in detail how it was made and what the ingredients were, and offered hollow excuses, he dribbled mayonnaise, soup and mint sauce over the guests, upset the coffee, and sometime even managed to break a plate or two. I helped him as best I could.

Exactly how the staff treate the guests makes for very funny reading. In addition a variety of guests, some very hard to please, appear on these pages, including the “very rich” morbidly obese Madame Lawrance Potter Dreyspool and her equally large husband who “traveled with her as a sort of companion-butler.” But not all guests are obnoxious. There’s the beautiful, gracious Mrs Prideau, a great favourite with the staff. In her presence, Mr. Victor always “did a small ballet–he backed away from her table, making three deep bows.” One waiter, Fenile, is in love with Mrs Prideaux and always gets under her table with a footstool.

After a “waiters’ mutiny” the narrator is promoted from lowly busy boy and finds himself waiting on his own set of Undesirable Tables. Mespoluets cautions his protegee: “don’t be an actor or a waiter. It’s the most awful occupation in the world. The abuse I have taken,” and he recommends that Ludwig become a cartoonist. As it so happens, there is a cartoonist staying at the hotel…

This is an amusing memoir, but there is one moment of animal cruelty so I caution readers against that.

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Reef Road: Deborah Goodrich Royce

“It was easy to cross the next barrier in an ever-collapsing string of them.”

Deborah Goodrich Royce’s novel, Reef Road, begins in 2020 with the discovery of a severed human hand that washes up in Palm Beach Florida. From that point, the novel splits into two storylines: one is told by “the wife” Linda Alonso and “the writer” Noelle. Middle-aged Noelle lives a lonely life in Florida and her life is overshadowed (stained) by the 1948 unsolved brutal murder of an eight-year-old girl (also called Noelle). Noelle, the writer’s mother, was permanently damaged by the brutal murder of her friend, and that damage ricocheted to her daughter, Noelle, subsequently named after the murder. So here are these two women: Linda and Noelle. How are they connected?

Linda Alonso lives in an upscale neighborhood with her Argentinean husband, Miguel, and two small children. We know almost immediately that Linda is unhappy in her marriage, and Miguel, as portrayed, is a controlling perfectionist–the sort or person who makes you grit your teeth as you wait for the criticism to fall. At first, Noelle seems just interested in Linda, but over the course of the book, it becomes obvious that this interest is a full-blown obsession.

These two women connect over crime–past and present–when Miguel and the two children disappear. Miguel’s car is found at Miami International airport, and there is evidence that he absconded with the children to Argentina. The lockdown has just began, and with flight restrictions due to COVID, Linda cannot travel to search for her children.

While the idea of this slow-burn novel is intriguing, the two stories which connect in inventive and intriguing ways feel strangely apart. This may be due to the long sections from Noelle regarding the details of the 1948 murder, which was, by the way, based on the very real murder of the author’s mother’s friend. It may be due to some essential information withheld from the plot. With the double use of the name Noelle, there were unclear moments. I liked how the author used COVID in the plot, and I liked the way these two storylines finally collided. The vicious murder of Noelle left scars in the lives of those connected to the crime, and the author cleverly conveys that sense of damage.

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Black Money: Ross Macdonald (1966)

“I didn’t like the purposeful look in her eye, and I began to regret the bottle of pink champagne. She took it from my hands as if she planned to break it over the prow of an affair.”

Black Money is the 13th book in Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series. This tale brings the private detective to a tennis club in the upscale Southern California college town of Montevista, where he’s employed by Peter Jamieson, the bulimic son of a local wealthy man. Jamieson hires Archer to ‘save’ his ex-fiancée, Virginia Fablon. Virginia, after jilting Peter, has taken up with the charismatic Francis Martell. On the surface Virginia’s decision to dump Peter in favor of Martell doesn’t seem so odd. Virginia is a lover of all things French, and Martell is educated, handsome and sophisticated–unlike Peter who spends most of the time stuffing himself:

He looked like money about three generations removed from its source. Though he couldn’t have been out of his early twenties, his face was puffy and apologetic, the face of a middle-aged boy. Under his carefully tailored Ivy League suit, he wore a layer of fat like easily penetrable armor.

Martell is a man of mystery; he claims to be both wealthy and in hiding from De Gaulle. Peter doesn’t buy the story, and so Archer begins digging for the truth. It seems that Martell recently arrived in town with a Bentley and a 6 figure deposit made from a Panamanian bank. His references used to get into the local tennis club are suspect. Martell also becomes positively violent at the idea that someone might take his photograph. Archer suspects that Martell isn’t the French aristocrat he claims to be, and soon Archer connects Martell to the suicide (supposedly) of Virginia’s father years before.

In the course of his investigation, Archer meets a widow with secrets, a doctor with a secret vice, an over-worked French professor, and his frisky much younger discontented wife who is looking for a way out of her kitchen-life:

Though she had a strokeable looking back, my hands were careful not to wander. The easy ones were nearly always trouble: frigid or nympho, scitzy or commercial or alcoholic, sometimes all 5 at once. Their nicely wrapped gifts of themselves often turned out to be homemade bombs or fudge with arsenic in it.

When the novel began, I initially thought it lacked the punch of many of the other titles I have read so far, but as the book continued, the plot grew on me. Ultimately, Black Money is my favorite in the series so far. It shows a more mature Archer. Cynical yes, but a touch of humor to his barbed observations as he roots through this snobbish college town where claiming to be a Frenchman apparently opens all doors. The emotional layers of the story are poignant, and the crimes–in terms of moral responsibility–are complex.

A few years ago, there was talk of the Coen bros. making a film of Black Money, but so far that hasn’t happened. And that’s a shame.

She was rough. They get that way sometimes when they marry too young and trap themselves in a kitchen, wake up in a kitchen and wake up ten years later wondering where the world is.

 

 

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Ms. Demeanor: Elinor Lipman

Let’s say there were two people, a man and a woman, lounging on the rooftop terrace of an apartment building in midtown Manhattan. She is thirty-nine, a lawyer. He, on the neighboring chaise longue, is twenty-seven, a new associate in the same firm.”

In Elinor Lipman’s novel, Ms Demeanor, New York lawyer Jane Morgan has sex with a younger coworker on the roof of her apartment building. Little does she know that she has outraged a neighbor who has seen all with the use of a handy-dandy pair of binoculars. The neighbor insists that the police arrest Jane and her amorato. Next thing you know, the police arrive, she’s arrested and finds and herself in court. While “Noah” the male half of this incident leaves with a fine and a slap on the wrist, Jane, who takes the high road (professional suicide) route of arguing that the act took place between consenting adults in private property, ends up under house confinement for six months. The Bar Association then suspends Jane’s license to practice law.

Who didn’t suggest that I view my sentence as a sabbatical, a much-needed rest from briefs and deadlines and clients? Would they like to try six months off without travel or passport, without weekends away, or nights out, with the only fresh air available from the roof that was the scene of their crime.

Boredom is of course an issue, but more pressing still is the issue of money. Jane’s twin sister, dermatologist Jackleen finds “ways to underwrite” Jane’s “unemployed existence,” so Jackleen picks up the bills and even has food delivered. Jackleen comes up with the idea of hiring Jane as a “food guide and recipe curator” as a service to dermatology clients.

The novel started off a bit off-kilter for this reader. I didn’t have a great deal of sympathy for Jane but even less as the novel wore on. Parts were very funny and others not funny at all

Funny:

Man, woman, mojitos. One thing leads to another

Unfunny:

She praised not just my culinary expertise and presentation, but also the courage it took to plunge the [live] lobsters into boiling water.

There’s some romance if that’s what it’s called–or rather an arrangement with a fellow person under house-arrest, and a few other plot elements thrown into the mix. Ultimately this reads more like chick-lit (I’ll admit I am not familiar with the genre) than anything else. I have thoroughly enjoyed many novels by this author over the years, but this one was a little too giddy for my taste.

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The Looking-Glass: Essential Stories: Machado de Assis

“Everything that occurred in thirty years, some Balzac or other could put into three hundred pages; why then not life, which was Balzac’s teacher, squeeze it into thirty or sixty minutes?”

The Looking-Glass from Brazilian author Machado de Assis is one title in Pushkin Press’s Essential Stories editions. Here are the contents:

The Fortune-Teller

The Posthumous Portrait Library

The Loan

The Tale of the Cabriolet

The Stick

The Secret Cause

The Canon or the Metaphysics of Style

The Alienist

The Looking-Glass

Midnight Mass

I won’t review all the stories (they are mostly quite short, but instead I will mention my favourites:

In the Posthumous Portrait Library, the death of Joaquim Fidélis devastates his circle of friends. He was sixty, “strong, in cast-iron health, and he had been to a dance on the very night before.” He even danced with the widow of a friend. When Fidélis returned home, he makes an entry about the dance in a notebooks: “In short, a frightful evening; some long-in-the-tooth reveller forced me to dance a quadrille with her.” While the notebooks show Fidélis’s true thoughts, these nasty mean-spirited barbs remain hidden inside his desk. No one has any idea that Fidélis, with his “beautiful manners,” a man who is able to seamlessly adapt himself to his company presenting a façade of pleasantry to the world in fact loathes everyone around him. Fidélis, unmarried, leaves his estate to his nephew Benjamin. The funeral for Fidélis is well-attended, and some time later Benjamin discovers the notebooks and their snarky contents. …

In The Loan, a man called Custódio asks a notary for a loan. I loved the description of Custódio:

This Custódio had been born with a vocation for wealth, but with no vocation for work. He had an instinct for elegance, a love of excess, of good food, of beautiful ladies, of fine carpets, of precious furniture, a voluptuary and, to some degree, an artist, capable of managing the Vila Torlonia or the gallery at the Hamilton Palace. But he had no money; neither money nor any aptitude or inclination for earning it.

[…]

He had an excellent nose for calamities. Of twenty companies, he immediately guessed which one was the purest filly, and applied himself to that, with great determination. Ill-fortune, which pursued him, made the nineteen prosper, while the twentieth blew up in his hands.

And ever true to his nature, Custódio seeks a loan for yet another business venture. …

In Midnight Mass the narrator recalls a conversation that took place many years earlier. The narrator was 17 and staying in the home of a middle-aged notary, a relation by marriage. The notary supposedly goes to the theatre once a week, but in reality he maintains a relationship with another woman. The notary’s wife has learned to tolerate the affair. To the narrator, the notary’s wife seems ordinary. Boring. And then one night circumstances lead the narrator and the wife to exchange confidences. I liked this story for the way it showed how little we know people–those who seem ordinary may have an intricate inner life. Or they may not.

translated by Daniel Hahn.

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It’s a Wrap: 2022

I read a lot of books in 2022. Due to time constraints (and sometimes having nothing to say) I did not review them all. Looking back over my reading year, here are the best books I read in 2022–not the best books published in 2022, but just the best ones I read in no particular order:

1. Remembrance of Things Past: Marcel Proust v1-3 I’ve no idea how many times I have read references to those famous madeleines. As a reader, you come across quotes or extracts, and sometimes those quotes are all too frequent. By that I mean the quotes become commonplace, and that’s certainly what happened to me. In spite of the fact I have owned these volumes since the 90s, I had no impulse to read Proust’s monumental masterpiece–not because it was long, but because in some weird way it had become familiar. Plus there are always so many other books.

But inspired by other bloggers, and a short story referencing the delay in reading Proust and which emphasized Time’s Wingèd  Chariot, I knew further delay was out of the question. So 2022 was the year to get started. After finishing the first 3 volumes: I am glad I delayed Proust for years. I’m in a place now to appreciate his wisdom. And yes, these novels are amazing.

2. High Priest of California: Charles Willeford.

Used car salesman, Russell Haxby, just wants to get laid. He’s a practiced sleazy predator and soon picks up a woman, Alyce, in a cheap dance hall. Russell goes back to her place, and finds out she has a husband. Well, he can’t let this schmock get in his way can he? It’s a grimy, complicated journey to bed Alyce, but as always with Willeford, entertaining as hell.

3. This Sweet Sickness: Patricia Highsmith

Chemist David is in love with Annabelle. He takes a job he dislikes because it pays 25k a year and with that salary, he expects to marry Annabelle. When the novel opens, Annabelle has married another man, but David does not accept the marriage and fully expects her to come to her senses and leave her husband. BUT until that happens, he has created a different identity, bought a house in that name and spends weekends there alone fantasizing about his future life with Annabelle. Things begin to fall apart when David presses his suit, and he descends into madness.

4. My Phantoms/First Love : Gwendoline Riley

This author was new to me. When I started to compile the Best-of list, my first impulse was to add My Phantoms . But then I thought perhaps First Love was the better novel. They are thematically connected, and My Phantoms, in my final analysis is a more painful read but possesses firmer structure. So they both are on the list. I really liked the way the author describes the dominant (not necessarily correct) narrative of the lives of the mothers in both books.

5. The Miranda: Geoff Nicholson

In this novel, a therapist who conducted torture sessions ON and FOR the government, leaves his job and his marriage, buys a house and waits for his life to catch up to him. He spends his days walking circuits on the pathway in his back garden, and his plan to keep a low profile fails thanks to nosy neighbours, and a bunch of yobos. The Miranda contains Nicholson’s signature theme of obsession. Written with Nicholson’s usual light touch and wry humour.

6. Lucy by the Sea: Elizabeth Strout

During the first wave of the COVID pandemic, Lucy’s self-focused ex-husband William, whisks her off to Maine with the idea that they will sit out the worst of it, far from New York. Strout recreates the surreal days of watching the news and the New York death count, along with the idea that for many during COVID, life seemed to be on hold. I dislike William (Oh, William) so I didn’t buy for one minute that he was changing into the sort of human being who cared about anyone except himself.

7. Cheri and the End of Cheri: Colette

Two slim novels cover the life of Chéri, his relationship with the much-older former courtesan, Léa, and his arranged marriage to a young innocent girl. Fabulous.

8. O Caledonia: Elspeth Barker

This was the surprise book of the year. I love a good gothic tale and O Caledonia and its amazingly evocative images put me in a decaying Scottish castle with a dysfunctional family. We know right from the first page that something horrible has happened–the suspense comes from the why and the how.

9. An Old Man’s Love: Anthony Trollope.

Going back over 2022, I’m shocked, shocked (channeling Casablanca) to see that I only read TWO Trollopes this year… No doubt this tragedy occurred because I concentrated on Proust, but in 2023, there will be more Trollope. An Old Man’s Love was a reread. Coincidentally, just before starting this I read something about wards and wardships under the Tudors, so I was sensitive to the idea of ward-marriage coercion when I began the book. The plot is simple: Mary, a young orphaned girl is ‘taken in’ by Whittlestaff, an older man, a friend of her late father’s. After being disappointed in love, Whittlestaff is a confirmed bachelor, or he thinks he is, but he falls in love with Mary and proposes. She loved another, but that man, penniless, disappeared, but Mary thinks of him constantly. She doesn’t love Whittlestaff, but she is in a very awkward position. She can accept or refuse. But if she refuses, she can hardly stay in his house. Whittlestaff seems deliberately obtuse when it comes to Mary’s position. Under a great deal of pressure, Mary accepts, and then the man she loves returns. …

10. The Finishing School: Muriel Spark.

What a wicked sense of humour Spark has. The Finishing School is not some first rate boarding school but a second-rate shady venture run by a married couple, Nina and Rowland. Nina does most of the work because Rowland is supposed to be finishing his masterpiece. A very talented student says he’s a writing a novel, and this sparks a chain of wickedly funny events.

11. Of Human Bondage: W Somerset Maugham.

A powerhouse of a novel–the story of how a young man, orphaned and raised by his dreary, self-righteous uncle breaks finally breaks free of the crippling bonds of family, the burden of being born with a club foot, and the worst of all– a toxic relationship– love (obsession with a prostitute). Brilliant.

12.Bleak House: Dickens

Bleak House was a reread for me and as always with re-reads I am curious to see how the book held up and also if my attitudes towards it had altered in any way. This is the story of an orphaned girl who is employed by a middle-aged bachelor to assist with his wards, another pair of orphans. The whole plot spins on the legendary law case: Jarndyce vs Jarndyce–a case which has endured for decades. It has ruined many people and caused others to impale themselves on false hopes. The world here is full of opportunists ready to feed off the carcasses of anyone remotely involved in the lawsuit. Sub plots abound. There are many memorable characters here: Lady Dedlock, a woman with a horrible secret, bloodsucker Harold Skimpole, and Mrs Jellyby who neglects her own children abominably while throwing herself into efforts to raise money for children in Africa. Ahhh telescopic philanthropy at its best.

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