Acts of Infidelity: Lena Andersson

“Ester might just have met a real shit.”

In Lena Andersson’s novel Acts of Infidelity, writer & playwright Ester, a single woman in early middle age, begins an affair with the married actor who features in her play, Threesome. Olof doesn’t talk a great deal about his wife, Ebba, a doctor, who works out of town during the week and returns on the weekends, so Ester assumes that the marriage is ‘disintegrating.’ The affair is just a few months old, and not yet consummated, when Ester tells Olof, as they sit in a restaurant, that she wants to share her life with him. In response, Olof shreds his paper napkin nervously. Not a good sign.

Acts of Infidelity tracks the progress of Ester and Olof’s affair through its stages. Ester is the active party here, doggedly pursing Olof, and yet Olof is no innocent. The affair is often sporadic in nature, and when Ester doesn’t contact Olof for a while, he, obviously missing the attention and ego gratification, stirs up action repeatedly.

 

For those who read Lena Andersson’s Willful Disregard then you know that Ester has been down this road before. This begs the question: are some people more likely to participate in long-drawn out affairs than others? After reading both novels, that’s a big ‘yes’ in Ester’s case. She “always pawned her life’s meaning for the man she’s chosen.” In Willful Disregard, Ester lost all sense of self and perspective when she sank into a nebulous, obsessive relationship with charismatic artist, Hugo Rask. In many ways, Acts of Infidelity is working the same themes: a woman who misreads a man’s signals and wants to put a fence and signposts around a relationship that defies commitment.

In Acts of Infidelity, Ester is older than she was in Willful Disregard and her career has progressed. In that sense, she has more to offer to a potential partner, and she also, in some ways, has more control and more self control than she had in Willful Disregard.  At one point, Ester acknowledges that she’s not “about to wade back into the bog of uncertainty” she endured with Rask, yet here she is, accepting crumbs once more while demanding, almost the minute she starts meeting Olof on the sly (even before they’ve had sex), that he leave his wife … or else.

Olof is a much more conventional (and less interesting) person than artist Hugo Rask, the man she pursued in Willful Disregard, but there are commonalities. While she was out of her league in dealing with Hugo, she seems determined not let Olof escape, and it’s not that easy to see just why Ester is relentless in her goal of nailing Olof into a monogamous relationship with her; he’s not exactly a great catch. He’s not particularly intelligent; he’s weasely, smug and he’s spineless. Ester realises that “he was a hard-done-by person, not an active subject in his life,” and this is a significant realization given the circumstances of their relationship. I began to wonder if there were some deeper psychological game at play here. Is Ester’s single-mindedness a psychological manifestation, closure if you will, of her affair with Rask? That relationship, which capitalized on her vulnerabilities, almost destroyed her, but will her relationship with Olof somehow repair the damage and return her life to equilibrium?

There’s a lot in this novel that’s spot-on. Ester has a circle of friends she calls for advice, and she will recall a scene between her and Olof seeking an interpretation of events, but of course the interpretation has to be the one she wants.

Then there are moments when Olof says one thing but Ester hears another:

Olof thought for a moment and said:

“I’m thinking we should meet up now and again in the future and see what happens. Decisions don’t always have to be made right away.”

Not again, Ester thought, never again, I’m going to get right up and go.

She stayed put and finished her meal. Soon they were walking from Djurgården towards the city along Strandvågen, arm-in-arm on Olof’s initiative. In line with Grevgaten, Ester stopped and embraced him, and he reciprocated, while saying he shouldn’t be doing this. They were approaching Dramaten National Theatre, their bodies close, when Olof stated:

“Leaving my wife isn’t on the cards.”

This was exactly what married people said when someone else had shaken their foundations, Ester thought. When people felt an intense desire, they might insist otherwise. The trick was knowing when they meant what they were saying and were saying it to be clear and honourable, and when they meant the opposite. 

The book intellectualizes the affair, and this is partly achieved through Ester’s constant need to interpret Olof’s words into the narrative she wants to hear. Sometimes this works:

To Olof Sten, the mistress was an idea he so eagerly embraced that he never stopped to question that the traditional ‘mistress’ might not in fact exist. Instead he zealously embraced the idea as reality. 

At other times the intellectualizing of the affair is over-the-top and starts to read like non-fiction:

The self-loathing that arises from being unable to abstain from that which makes a man weak, his urges, is redirected to the mistress because she reveals the lover’s weakness to himself and the world. The mistress as an idea constitutes a third counterpoint between the complementary woman/man. Her anatomy is woman’s but her autonomy is man’s. She is a third, the most frightening and most alluring, that which in the end must be pushed out of life’s bid for dualistic order

In Willful Disregard, (a better novel IMO), I wanted Ester to dump Rask and show him how insignificant he was. In Acts of Infidelity, I wanted to ask Ester what on earth she was thinking; at one point, for example, Olof texts his wife repeatedly, smiling at the exchanges, while sitting at a table for two at a restaurant (they’re off on  a dirty weekend) in a ski resort. So my reaction to Ester’s respective behavior in both novels shifted from sympathy to deciding she’s an idiot and needs to talk to someone (professional) other than her friends, about why she indulges in these cyclical behaviours.

Acts of Infidelity explores that all-too familiar scenario of the woman caught in an affair with a married man who has no intention whatsoever of leaving his wife. Unfortunately Ester (and many others like her) never quite gets that a spouse is the ultimate defense, the ultimate excuse. Human motivation is complex at the best of times, and an extra-marital affair is a situation fraught with opaque inducements. The over-intellectualized portions are the novel’s biggest weakness, but its greatest strength is in its exploration of self-delusion and why affairs, conducted with two completely opposing narratives, layered with excuses, coercion, guilt, self-deception, and abdication of personal responsibility, are ultimately so toxic and destructive.

Review copy

Translated by Saskia Vogel

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Filed under Andersson Lena, Fiction

Dodsworth: Sinclair Lewis (1929)

Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth is another look at that fascinating figure in literature: the American Abroad, and this time it’s 50-year-old car manufacturer, Sam Dodsworth. In this novel which contrasts American and European values and manners, Dodsworth’s business sells to a larger competitor, and feeling at loose ends, he is persuaded to take an extended holiday to Europe by his wife, Fran. The book opens with a short chapter depicting Dodsworth as a young man courting Fran who has just returned from a year in Europe with a veneer of European sophistication. The first chapter is important as it lays a foundation for the story to come. When Sam’s business sells, Fran, leaps at the opportunity to travel. According to her, the small mid-western town of Zenith, a place they’ve “drained everything from,” offers nothing in comparison to the proposed delights of Europe.

Dodsworth, ambitious and driven, is an extremely successful, well-liked man and yet somehow, his wife always manages to diminish him. It’s clear that a trip to Europe will make Dodsworth, very much a home-body, feel like a fish out-of-water. And at first this seems to be true. Trouble begins for Dodsworth quite quickly in the novel when Fran begins a flirtation on board the liner sailing to London. The flirtation becomes one of a series of relationships Fran, a vain, shallow, selfish, pretentious woman, has with various European men.

Dodsworth and Fran, now in middle age (although Fran is quite a bit younger) are depicted as suffering their own crises. Dodsworth’s identity has long been tied to his automobile company, and so he’s cast adrift when he sells his business. Fran, on the other hand, is frantically trying to escape from her age. From almost the moment she raises the idea of a prolonged European sojourn, the desire is connected to the key, transparent revelation that European men admire older women and appreciate them. Then there’s the way she hides the fact that she’s a grandmother.

One theme in the novel is the topic of American snobbery (yes snobbery is alive and well in America!) We meet several ex-pat Americans, and it’s fashionable, possibly even essential in the company of these ex-pats to denigrate Americans and American culture. This is somehow part of the separation of ‘those’ Americans from other Americans who either want to, or imagine that they can blend in with the locals. Fran is insufferable. As the wife of a Zenith car manufacturer, she was a big fish in a small pond. She ruled the roost, and Sam was fine with that as she had a limited, constricted role. Unleashed in Europe, Fran’s snobbery embarrasses Sam repeatedly, and he discovers that in her new environment, Fran’s worst characteristics emerge. In the marital relationship, she’s in the wrong repeatedly, but with “a genius for keeping herself superior,” she flips the cards and turns herself into a victim who is always trying to ‘help’ Sam learn how to behave. It’s no surprise that genuinely nice people drop Fran so that ultimately she’s surrounded by European versions of her nasty self.

But really this is Dodsworth’s story and the tale of his growth as a human being. At first he doesn’t want to travel to Europe, but he goes along with Fran’s desires. Sam very quickly learns that he’s an unwanted presence at Fran’s side, but he opens himself to experience and all that Europe has to offer while Fran intrigues, flirts (possibly misreads signals), and plays the coy innocent with various men. Then when things with Fran become untenable, Sam returns to America. He toys with an ambition to become involved in building a community but when Fran’s telegrams (demanding more money) become alarming he returns to Europe–which, to his surprise, he liked more than he expected. The man who never wanted to leave Zenith discovers that while he still loves his country, the American way of life is different from the European way of life; the values are different.

Do you know, I had the feeling of leisure in France and England. I felt there as though people made their jobs work for them; they didn’t give up their lives to working for their jobs. And I felt as though there was such a devil of a lot to learn about the world that we’re too busy to learn here. 

One striking aspect of Dodsworth is how prohibition looms prominently in the novel. On returning to New York in the Aquitania, Dodsworth can’t wait to set foot back on American soil, and he and fellow American passenger, Ross Ireland exchange comments about how much they missed and love America. Reality hits when Dodsworth is caught smuggling booze into the country and then, facing a dry evening, he decides to call his bootlegger. The hustle and bustle of American life, while it was longed for in Paris, soon grates on Dodsworth.

He realized that this capital, barbaric with gold and marble, provided every human necessity save a place, a cafe or a plaza or a not-too-lady-like tea-shop, in which he could sit and be human.

This is a slow, imperfect novel, and it took me quite a while to finish it–not to mention that it took me 28 years to pick it up and start reading it. Dodsworth isn’t exactly an exciting or witty fellow. There are some racial slurs and at one point, Dodsworth threatens to spank Fran–a threat that has not aged well. Sam and Fran’s inequitable relationship would have seemed a little unbelievable if not for the first chapter which sets the scene for Sam seen as socially inferior by Fran, but even so I had to remind myself of that first chapter from time to time. And Fran’s whole European trip as a teenager brings up the issue of European exposure as a sort of tainting experience since Fran comes home to Zenith with an inflated idea of herself and then more than 20 years later prances around Europe acting as if she knows everything and can speak French like a native. There are some marvellous, marvellous moments here–at one point, Sam’s friend Tubs comes to Paris with his plump wife, Matey, in tow and when Sam takes them to a posh restaurant, Tubs’ behaviour is horribly embarrassing. He calls the poor waiter a Frog and asks if he “sprechen Sie pretty good English.”

And here’s a final quote as an example why this novel is well worth reading in spite of its flaws 90 years after its first publication.

We boast of scientific investigation, and yet we’re the only supposedly civilized country in the world where thousands of supposedly sane citizens will listen to an illiterate clodhopping preacher or politician setting himself up as an authority on biology and attacking evolution. 

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Filed under Fiction, Lewis Sinclair

The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man: Kafka

Kafka’s The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man includes a stellar introduction from translator Alexander Starritt. I have respect for intros from translators; after all they are the ones who slaved over the words, mulling over one choice over another, so if anyone ‘deserves’ to write an intro, it’s the translator IMO. Starritt’s intro is lively, fluid, and well … interesting:

In English, the word that usually follows ‘Kafkaesque’ is ‘nightmare’. Hardly the thing to make you think, ‘Hurray, a new translation. No Netflix for me tonight.’ And in truth, Kafka’s work is more respected than it is loved.

These first sentences hit a chord with me. I have lost count of the number of times The Metamorphosis popped up again and again in literature class after literature class. Yes the story (while I liked it) became a ‘No-Exit’-Not-Again nightmare in itself.

Unhappiness

Starritt argues that these short stories present an entirely different view of Kafka, and I agree. These stories are mercurial, some are absurdist, and the closest thing I could compare to is absurdist Russian fiction. These stories (and some are extremely short) are not at all what I expected from Kafka. Some stories are flash fiction–if we could imagine such a term applying to Kafka. Other stories are longer, and of course, as is with all collections, some stories are stronger than others.

The title story: The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man is a good idea of what to expect here. I read it on my kindle and it’s just over a page long. This is a single man who rues the things he’s missing:

It seems a terrible thing to stay single for good, to become an old man who, if he wants to spend the evening with other people, has to stand on his dignity and ask someone for an invitation

The last lines were unexpected and made me chuckle. Again–not at all what I expected from Kafka.

In The Married Couple, a sales rep takes his sample case to a man known as N. The sales rep and N used to work together, but now N, a much older man is bed-bound and possibly close to death. Yes, perhaps this sounds like the sort of thing we’d expect from Kafka, but the final delivery is not.

A First Heartache is a short tale of a trapeze artist who in the quest to perfect his art becomes increasingly isolated. The abnormal becomes normal and he clings to his life on the highwire. He:

had arranged his life in such a way that, initially out of a striving for perfection, then out of increasingly tyrannical habit, he stayed on his trapeze day and night for as long as an engagement lasted. His modest needs were catered to by a rota of attendants who were posted below and hauled everything up and down in specially made containers.

The trapeze artist is “in constant training, of keeping his art at its peak.” This becomes a way of life, this increasing isolation, and the only thing that disrupts this routine are the unavoidable transfers from venue to venue, which badly disrupted his peace of mind.”

Another top pick has to be In the Penal Colony, a story of a researcher who travels to a penal colony only to be invited to attend the execution of a soldier “who’d been sentenced to death for disobeying and insulting a superior officer.” The story centres on the machine that will do the deed. It’s a diabolical contraption designed by the former (deceased) commandant. The machine is sadistically designed to inflict maximum pain and suffering over a twelve hour period before the final coup de grâce.

While the officer explains the machine’s processes of torture “with great zeal,” the condemned man, who has no idea of the fate that awaits him is at first disinterested (the officer and the researcher speak in French) but then he becomes increasingly curious as the machine’s mechanisms are explained:

The condemned man looked as submissive as a dog, as if they could have let him wander around the slopes on his own, and would only have needed to whistle for him when they wanted to start the execution. 

The officer’s matter-of-fact approach to explaining the machine is, of course, bizarre and yet entirely believable. This method of execution has become an institution in the penal colony, but now it has fallen out of favour. The condemned soldier has not been given a trial and is unaware that he has even been sentenced to death. According to the officer, “it would be pointless to tell him.” Torture and death as spectacle: what is there about these things that appeal to people? The matter-of-fact bureaucratic manner in which the sadistic death is explained moves the execution away from the idea of suffering and into efficiency. Couldn’t help but think of the Nazis.

This collection rolls in at just under 200 pages. I think the stories are best read one at a time, rather than in chunks.

Review copy

Translated by Alexander Starritt

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Holiday: Stanley Middleton

We tend to think of a holiday as a pleasant, relaxing perhaps occasionally harried affair, but in Stanley Middleton’s Holiday, following the death of his son and a subsequent separation from his wife, Meg, 32-year-old married university lecturer, Edwin Fisher returns to his old childhood haunts, and the memories of holidays spent with his parents.  This is a melancholy novel in which Edwin, with a great deal of solitary time on his hands, finds his mind returning to his father, and dwelling on the relationships between fathers and sons.

Holiday

As we pass through various experiences, we often reevaluate our parents as human beings. Edwin’s parents are dead and it’s only now that “he admitted his parents’ virtues.” Edwin “never fathomed” his mother while she was alive, and for a time he “hated” his parents “for the shopkeepers they were.” Both Edwin and his sister (now a doctor) are “class-jumping offspring” who left their parents far behind. Thinking back on his relationship with his father, Edwin realises that Arthur Fisher was an enigma.

Fisher never sorted out his father’s views on education, and could make little sense of them now. Both children went to university, and though Arthur grumbled about expense he paid up. Nor did he seem to envy their expertise. His magpie mind stored snippets of information with which he gleefully caught his offspring out, but he never attempted to organise or coordinate his knowledge into a system.

Now that Fisher is old enough to grasp the subtleties of his relationship with his parents, he can appreciate them more, but it’s too late to modify his relationship with them. Similarly, Fisher’s son remains an unknown, an undeveloped personality frozen in time. Treading over his childhood haunts, Fisher recalls the holidays he spent with his parents.

Coincidentally (or not) Fisher runs into his in-laws who just happen to be staying in the same seaside town (in a posher hotel). Meg’s father, David Vernon, a solicitor who, in his line of work, sees marriages collapse daily, wishes that the couple would reconcile.

We also see Fisher’s (annoying) wife, Meg, both in the present and in recollection. At one point, Fisher wonders if he should have paid heed to certain “early signs” in her behaviour. Fisher sifts through his memories as though he will find the answer to his unhappiness there, but there’s also the present: a second rate little hotel where he observes fellow guests, walks on the promenade and exchanges a few words with other, often unhappy, holiday makers.

This is a quiet, restrained melancholy novel. While I enjoyed Fisher’s encounters and recollections, the novel’s male characters are better realised than their female counterparts. But perhaps this was deliberate.

And here’s Karen’s review at Bookertalk

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Article 353: Tanguy Viel

Tanguy Viel’s Article 353 explores a murder through the narrator/murderer’s ex-facto explanation of the crime. A definition of exactly what Article 353 is can be found at the end of the book. After watching 6 seasons of the French series Spiral, I can’t say that I understand the French legal system, but I have grasped that it is very different to America (and Britain). I’m glad I had the Spiral experience in order to understand a little of the French legal process.

Article 353

Article 353 is set in a dying seaside town on the Brittany coast. It’s the 90s, and middle-aged divorced, Kermeur, is expecting a 400,000 franc layoff payout. Thanks to the town’s mayor, Le Goff, Kermeur at least has a roof over his head for himself and his young son. They live in a gatehouse of what is rather grandly termed the local chateau. Kermeur maintains the grounds.

As always in these sorts of towns, places with beautiful scenic views but no industry, there’s always talk of Big Money coming in and making a splash. In this case it’s Lazenec, a middle-aged man who arrives one day at the chateau along with the mayor, Le Goff. Lazenac is new to the region but suddenly he’s everywhere in his fancy car and his fancy yacht. He buys the Chateau and the land and plans to build a resort on the land. It’s an investment opportunity:

What I should’ve thought that evening, and what I’ve learned to think since, is that it’s never a good sign to run into twice in the same day a guy you didn’t know the day before. 

I’m not revealing spoilers to say that Kermeur is arrested for the murder of Lazenac: for tossing him off of his yacht 5 miles off the coast to be exact. The novel is Kermeur’s side of things as told to the judge.

Imagine that, I told the judge, a seaside resort here on Brest Bay! And I continued reading the article line by line, with its big sentences like all the region lacked was the faith and courage to face the future, there was undeveloped potential here, it said, for generations we’ve been sitting on a gold mine covered by cabbages and artichokes, a new era of tourism and development was dawning, it was time to prepare to enter the new millennium

I was part way through the book when I looked up the currency exchange rates for 400,000 Francs in 1990. At that time, it was about 69,000 dollars and change. Now Kermeur is a man in a tenuous position: he doesn’t own a home, has a marginal job and  may lose that plus the home he lives in as a result of these swanky resort homes. Kermeur is seduced by the idea of success & wealth, and he acts foolishly. When a slick developer goes knocking on doors looking for investors, that means he DOESN’T have the money himself: he wants yours.  He’s not doing you any favours, he’s helping himself. Whether or not you think Kermeur is justified in his subsequent actions is going to be a personal decision.

I liked the book’s premise; I enjoy books that centre on people’s relationship with money. We spend our whole lives working for money, spending money, thinking about money, and not understanding money. Many of us lived through the last crazy housing boom and saw people assuming insane amounts of debt. We all read about the suicides, the marriage break-ups, the moonlight flits. People seemed to want to climb out of their established status, and use the boom to move on up the ladder–flipping houses and perhaps even becoming landlords in the process. I knew many people who were ruined and will never recoup. So who made all the money? Makes me think of Marx and The Wages of Labour. … 

I found the book’s bias … is that the right word ? … or should I say, decided moral direction, uninteresting. Someone is swindled. His life is ruined. Is murder justified? Unfortunately, the book’s structure leads the reader down a certain prescribed path of judgement. A different structural narrative (say events as they occur) would have allowed for a wider scope of issues such as morality, wishful thinking, etc. As is, we know what happened. Kermeur finally understands why he did what he did: Why he gambled with the largest amount of cash he would ever get his hands on in one lifetime–money he could not afford to lose. I felt as though I was being at best guided, at worst, told, the moral judgement I should feel about this ‘case.’

review copy

Translated by William Rodarmor

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Black Souls: Gioacchino Criaco

Gioacchino Criaco’s Black Souls is set in the remote area of the Aspromonte Mountains in southern Calabria, Italy. This crime novel centres on three boyhood friends: Luciano, Luigi, and the narrator. These boys are raised in poverty: Luciano is an orphan whose father was murdered at the orders of the local crime boss, Luigi is somewhat lazy, and the narrator’s father is a goatherder. These poverty stricken lives are alleviated by lucrative crime–the narrator’s father’s “real trade;” it’s common for the goatherders to keep kidnap victims hidden in the mountains, and the funds from these crimes are a steady source of income.

Black Souls

The novel opens with the narrator crossing the mountains carrying an AK-47.  Mention is made of the goats and then there’s the “swine.” But the swine isn’t a pig; it’s a handcuffed man. To the narrator, it’s “normal” to call a man a “swine, the word shepherds of the Aspromonte used for the many hostages we hid away in those intricate woods.” The hostages are “filthy but more profitable livestock,” with a “new pigsty” built every spring as a cage for a hostage. Since the boys grow up with crime as an acceptable source of income, it’s predictable that they will continue when they become men. …

By the age of nineteen we had stolen, robbed, kidnapped, and killed. In a world we rejected because it was not our own, we took anything and everything we wanted.

The novel is at first hard to get into as there are many terms regarding various tangled aspects of the criminal enterprises in this region. Once you get past this (and there’s a lot to absorb), you have a tale of boys who slide into crime as a natural progression into the family business. Morality doesn’t enter into the picture: it is irrelevant in this gritty, sometimes ugly, tale.

As these three young men enter adulthood lacking a moral compass, their violent lives are guided by loyalty to one another:

I thought about us as kids, those first heists we’d pulled off so we could dress better at school. Luigi would greedily count the spoils, while Luciano, in his imploring, even prophetic tone, would say, “”Let’s stop while we’re ahead.” But I was the one who drove us forward. 

Along this criminal journey, we read about local legends and myths, which in this context, serve to underscore the relentless drive of violence and revenge. This isn’t a pleasant tale, and these are not pleasant people. Occasionally the ugliness is overwhelming, but the narration succeeds in its depiction of an amoral criminal universe. For animal lovers, there’s some animal slaughter and food preparation included. Black Souls has been made into a film, and I suspect I’ll enjoy the film more than the book.

Review copy.

Translated by Hillary Gulley

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The Stepdaughter: Caroline Blackwood

Caroline Blackwood’s The Stepdaughter a short, claustrophobic epistolary novel concerns a woman in her thirties who writes ranting letters in her head, signing them ‘J.’ J is stuck in a large, expensive New York apartment along with her small daughter Sally Ann, lumpish stepdaughter Renata and a young French girl named Monique who’s been sent by J’s absent husband to help with chores and the children. While J may seem to have a fortunate life, materially at least, in reality,  J believes that her husband “successful international lawyer,” Arnold, has pulled a fast one. J and Arnold were happily married, and they had a daughter together. J argues, through her letters, that the marriage hit the rocks when Arnold assumed custody of his teenage daughter, Renata, following the institutionalization of her chronic alcoholic mother.

Everything about Renata I found instantly disturbing. She had poor thin hair which she had dyed a glaring peroxide yellow. She had lazily allowed the roots to grow out, and her skull was shocking in contrast, they were such an inky black. Her face was pudgy with lost, fat-buried features, and her skin was very bad, as if she had always lived on a diet of ice-cream and starch. She was wearing an orange and white T-shirt which had a really bold Californian bad taste. It emphasized the way that her bulging midriff was just as prominent as her bulging belly and breasts, I found myself staring transfixed by the brightness of Renata’s ugly orange shorts, which allowed one to see that her massive thighs were marked like an old woman’s with little pocks of bluish fat.

Renata is 11 when she first arrives, and 13 when the book opens. J, Arnold’s third wife, believes that Renata, a girl who “invites a kind of cruelty,” somehow poisoned their marriage. Both J and Arnold ignore Renata as much as possible, and J finds herself resenting Renata. Renata has a habit of plugging the toilet and she bakes almost nonstop, using instant cake mixes, while leaving the kitchen a total mess. J feeling wronged by Arnold, who is increasingly absent, extorts a new, larger apartment from her absent spouse.

Now J sees her new apartment as her “last resting-place” and is “humiliated now to realize that Arnold was over-feeding me like a fowl when he bought me this apartment. When he encouraged me to furnish it so expensively and promised to find me a French girl to help me with the children, Arnold was treating me like some wretched old bird which is fattened up just before the kill.

J, who is sliding down the rabbit hole without realising it, blames all of her woes on her stepdaughter, Renata. And then J, finally, shelves her resentment long enough to talk to Renata. …

The Stepdaughter covers some universal truths. How, for example, other people can become scapegoats for our problems. In this case, Renata, an overweight, silent 13-year-old becomes the vessel for J’s spleen. On another level, the novel explores the idea of how spouses often reserve their venom for another individual rather than the spouse. Then there’s the whole step-child/step-parent relationship.

This is not an easy book to read. J’s vitriol seems all too real which is evidence of Blackwood’s talent, but that said, this short tale doesn’t make for easy or pleasant reading. You can’t help but feel sorry for poor Renata.

I loved Blackwood’s Great Granny Webster. 

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Three Novels: Nina Berberova

“Alyosha tried to explain to his mother that the proletariat were the people who smelled.”

Nina Berberova’s Three Novels is really three novellas: The Resurrection of Mozart, The Waiter and the Slut, and Astashev in Paris. While these three stories are very different, there are underlying themes of displacement and fate, as we see Russian emigres on the move, settled in Paris, and bitterly unhappy. (There’s another book titled Three Novels from Berberova, but it contains three different novellas.)

The Resurrection of Mozart is set in France, June 1940, “just at the time when the French army was beginning its final and irrevocable retreat.” It’s a “quiet warm evening” thirty miles from Paris at the country home of Vassily Georgievich Sushkov and his wife Maria Leonidovna Sushkova. The handful of guests talk about war and “the omens of war,” and the conversation turns to a dead friend and what the dead would say “if they were resurrected and saw what is going on now.” From this point a discussion ensues with each guest offering an opinion of who they would resurrect if they had the power. One man would “spare his parents” while another man says he’s resurrect Tolstoy:

I would drag Tolstoy back into God’s world. Wasn’t it you dear sir, who denied that role of the individual in history? You who declared that there would be no more wars? And wasn’t it you who took such a cynical view of vaccination? No, don’t try to wriggle out of it now. Just look at the result.

Everyone has an opinion, and the hostess decides she would resurrect Mozart. Gunfire is heard in the distance, and the dinner party breaks up. It’s an evening which will never be repeated, for when our characters gather again, it’s under vastly different circumstances.

The Waiter and the Slut is set in Paris, and is the story of Tania, the daughter of a “Petersburg bureaucrat who had risen to the rank of full councillor of state–a distrustful, unhealthy and discontented man.” He’s transferred to Siberia and when revolution begins, the family flee to Japan. Tania seduces her sister’s lover, and they marry. Little does she know that this is the high point of her life, for soon she’s in Paris penniless, alone, and aging. This novella reminded me of Jean Rhys for desperate Tania is loitering in bars with the hope to pick up a man who will support her–true her friends scrape by with menial work, but Tania’s life has been defined by seducing men, and so it continues.  She’s

in search of something she couldn’t give a name to but without which she couldn’t imagine living in the world. This indispensable thing consisted of idleness and physical pleasure, in other words, in her private language, Parisian happiness. 

After a series of liaisons, she meets an older Russian waiter who can’t believe his luck when she allows him to take her home. He was once a handsome cavalry lieutenant but now he’s poor–employed, yes, but in a humiliating capacity.  He connects with Tania, a woman who theoretically he could have danced with at a ball in the grand old days. To Bologovsky, Tania is “his last treasure.”

She had somehow managed to come back to him, bringing with her all he had lost.

While the waiter is grateful, Tania isn’t. Bored by her waiter, she becomes obsessed with lurid crime stories and hatches a plot. …

The last novella, Astashev in Paris is my favourite. Astashev is a middle-aged bachelor, an insurance salesman who has managed to replicate the bones of his life in Russia. In Russia, as a child, he moved between his mother’s impoverished home and the gaiety of his father’s household which was under the direction of Astashev’s glamorous risque stepmother. Decades have passed but Astashev moves between his mother’s grimy, dilapidated little apartment (which is “delightfully situated,”) and his stepmother’s salon. Astashev doesn’t regret the lost of Russia and he seems perfectly at home in Paris. As a salesman, meeting people who worry about the future and the meaning of life, he tries to sell financial assurance but in his private life, he’s amoral and completely corrupt. He meets a respectable young woman who works at a theatre, and the meeting results in tragedy.

This book is not to be missed for Berberbova fans or for those who like Russian emigre writing. The three stories illustrate phases of Russian emigre displacement. In The Resurrection of Mozart, displaced Russians are about to be displaced once more. In The Waiter and the Slut, Bologovsky prizes Tania for what she represents–his lost world. In his memories, Bologovsky has images of himself as a dashing young cavalry officer:

Tight white gloves on his little hands, and his long cadet’s overcoat, and something proud and awesome which happened after he joined the Corps. The wild and wonderful freedom of spring, and again the azure December weather, and that intersection near Exchange Bridge where for some reason he always imagined an ocean liner entering the Neva through the mists, bursting its banks, and growing and growing until it towered over the Peter and Paul Fortress; and something else: sobbing strident brass, the curl of regimental trumpets over his father’s coffin. Sand and snow. And quiet. And in the black northern sky a comet he had glimpsed one night from a window. And something else, something…

In Astashev in Paris, Astashev is, materially at least, much better off than older Russians. He’s built a life for himself in Paris; he doesn’t long for his past as his present offers a smorgasbord of illicit, deviant possibilities, but there’s a void where his moral center should be, and there’s the idea that while he’s done well, somehow, he’s been corrupted in the process.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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Honour & Other People’s Children: Helen Garner

Honour & Other People’s Children from Australian author Helen Garner presents two novellas about break ups.  Of the two stories, I much preferred Honour. Other People’s Children seemed to lack the focus of Honour, and while on the surface it sounded interesting (relationships between people in a shared house) the story lacked a sharp focus, and I couldn’t quite grasp a sense of the characters. 

Honour, on the other hand, is an good, albeit painful read. Kathleen and Frank are married, and have a child, Flo, together. They are amicably separated for years when one day, Frank abruptly asks for a divorce. He tells Kathleen that “it won’t be any different between us. Just on paper.” For her part, Kathleen asks “what’s put this into your head?” It’s not really a ‘what’ as much as a ‘who,’ and Frank rather weakly admits that it’s his girlfriend Jenny’s idea which rather sneakily puts this decision between the two women in Frank’s life while he shrugs off responsibility.

Frank’s decision to ask for a divorce … no, it’s Jenny’s idea right and Frank is just going with the flow, puts new tensions into the relationships between Kathleen, Frank and Jenny. This soon becomes apparent when Kathleen goes to Jenny’s home to pick up Flo and runs into Jenny. This is a first meeting.

They did not perceive their striking similarity; they both made emphatic gestures and grimaces in speech, stressed certain words ironically, cast their eyes aside in mid-sentence as if a sustained gaze might burn the listener. Around each of them quivered an aura of terrific restraint. If they both let go at once, they might blow each other out of the room. 

Trouble follows when Flo announces that she wants to live with Frank and Jenny. There’s one wonderful scene when Kathleen and Frank, with Jenny as the awkward third party, take a trip down memory lane with shared reminiscences. What follows is purely territorial with Frank and Kathleen excluding Jenny. I don’t know Jenny put up with it, but then payback comes later.

Divorce… I always laugh when people tell me they are going through an amicable divorce. They just haven’t got to the bad bit yet. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’ve just NEVER seen an amicable divorce. Perhaps they exist between reasonable people, and here in Honour, we see how these two women, forget Frank because he’s largely clueless, or at least pretends to be clueless, carve out their territory. Honour seems very real. Long term separated spouses are shaken up when a third person enters the equation and wants more. All the characters have to reconfigure their roles and some of the moves are petty, some are poignant and all are sad.

Review copy.

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Vacuum in the Dark: Jen Beagin

“I’m definitely fucked up enough to be a therapist.”

Vacuum in the Dark from Jen Beagin is the follow-up novel to Pretend I’m Dead, but it can be read as a standalone. Pretend I’m Dead was the author’s debut novel; it introduces 24-year-old Mona, who cleans houses for a living. In this novel, Mona falls in love with a man she calls Mr Disgusting, and moves to Taos, New Mexico. When Vacuum in the Dark opens, Mona is cleaning the home of Rose, a blind therapist when she discovers a piece of poo, masquerading as soap, sitting on the side of a sink.

Vacuum in the dark

Mona’s cleaning lady observations were brilliant and brilliantly funny. Cleaners get to see a side of their employers that is invisible to others, and the author capitalises on Mona’s employment, making observations, while Mona engages in “clandestine photography.” 

People were like vampires. Their stories drained the life out of her. Then, half-dead and bloodless, she carried on cleaning their toilets like nothing had ever happened.

Even before Mona starts finding poo strategically placed in Rose’s home, it’s already evident that Mona’s life is strange. She’s surrounded by Strange. Perhaps this explains why she has conversation with NPR’s Terry Gross in her head. “Terry was simply a sober and inquistive voice,” who argues for rational behavior in Mona’s otherwise looney-environment. The weirdness in Mona’s life also extends to her home. She rents half a house while the other half is rented by an older married couple who “made music with homemade instruments and dressed in matching pajamas.”

Then there’s Rose and her household. Rose owns a dog named Dinner, has a hostile teenage daughter, and a husband who makes coffins. The Big Question lurking under Mona’s daily routine is: who is responsible for the poo?

Here’s Mona talking to Rose after describing a photograph she has just found:

“What do you see when you think of the color red?” Mona asked.

“Oh, I remember red,” Rose said. “I wasn’t born blind.”

“Oh,” Mona said. “Were you  … in a accident?”

“Sort of,” she said, and smiled weakly. “I was having an affair with the man you just described.”

Mona silently took a step back. She heard Dinner drink from his bowl in the kitchen.

“Do you mean your father molested you?” Mona asked.

“I thought of it as an affair,” Rose said, “which sounds ridiculous and insane, but I was convinced that we were in love. I was thirteen.”

“Mayday,” Terry whispered. “Bail out.”

“Not now, ” Mona whispered back.

“We never had intercourse,” Rose volunteered. “It was more emotional than anything. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t sexual too.” 

Mona cleared her throat. “And you went blind?” 

“Well, that was partly genetic,” Rose said.

Mona looked toward the front door, Closed, but not locked. She imagined herself tiptoeing out of the room and then making a run for it. 

Opening a novel with a description of grabbing fecal matter is a bold way to begin, and it’s also an off-putting start. I almost gave up right then and there but very quickly found myself engaged by Mona’s engaging narrative voice. Some authors have a talent for creating genuine voices, voices that appeal and compel us to read on, and in this novel, Beagin gives us a marvellous, original voice. Some things really worked in this subversive novel, while others did not. Sex scenes in novels don’t add a lot for this reader, and some of the lines grated: “I want to hump your armpits,” she said. “And maybe your hair.” But that said, I’m glad I stuck with this.

Vacuum in the Dark may appeal to fans of Ottessa Moshfegh

Review copy

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