Confession of a Murderer: Joseph Roth

“But, my friends, let me digress for a moment, and forgive me for keeping you here: I wish today that we were still the old grains of dust! Our lives were ordered not by laws but by whims.”

My final entry for German Literature Month is Joseph Roth’s Confession of a Murderer. The tale of tangled identity, jealousy and class envy is told by an observer narrator–a man who has no connection to the story, but he has the ability to listen. The narrator lives in Paris opposite a Russian restaurant called Tari-Bari. It’s an odd sort of place, and since this is post Russian Revolution, the place is full of Russian emigrants. The narrator notes that in the restaurant, “time played no part.

A tin clock hung on the wall. Sometimes it stopped, sometimes it was wrong; its purpose seemed to be not to tell the time, but to ridicule it. No one looked at the clock. Most of the guests in this restaurant were Russian emigrants. And even those amongst them who, in their own country, might have had a sense of punctuality and exactitude, seemed now, in a foreign land, either to have lost it or to be ashamed of displaying it. Yes, it was as though those emigrants were consciously demonstrating against the calculating, the all-calculating and so very calculated, deliberations of the European West.

Complementing the idea that a sense of time doesn’t play much of a role at the restaurant, patrons have an “alcoholic breakfast,” and even though the place closes, patrons remain inside; some even sleep there. But the timelessness that pervades the restaurant goes beyond the sleeping and drinking past regular hours. For these people, in many ways, time stands still. Their lives in Russia have been interrupted. Some emigres managed to adapt to their new lives while, for others, they are frozen in time.

Of all the patrons in the restaurant, the narrator is drawn, not in a pleasant way, to one particular man. He smiles at the narrator and is nice enough, but it’s an odd smile which “disturbed” the narrator. One day, this man, Golubchik, relates his story to the entire restaurant. He’s sometimes addressed as “our murderer” and freely admits that he was once a police spy. But if he was a member of the secret police, why is he tolerated? So Golubchik tells his story; he was the bastard son of Prince Krapotkin and a married peasant woman. He grows up knowing that he’s different (he thinks that means ‘special’) and fanned by the notion that he’s the son of a prince, he decides to seek out his father in order to claim his, as he sees it, birth right. On the way to Odessa to see his father, he has a fateful meeting with a mysterious character, a well-dressed Hungarian named Lakatos. Lakatos befriends Golubchik and after a huge meal and a lot of alcohol, Golubchik tells his story to his new friend. Lakatos encourages Golubchik to confront the prince.

Lakatos, complete with a limp, is a devilish figure who leads the clueless Golubchik to his moral doom, “straight to hell.” Soon embroiled in the labyrinthine layers of murky state bureaucracy, Golubchik finds himself a member of the Ochrana. While Golubchik’s life becomes arguably more interesting, it also grows more confusing–especially when he’s sent to Paris and is assigned to spy on a dressmaker and his models. Here, Golobchik runs into his arch enemy. … Well at least the man he thinks is his arch enemy, Prince Krapotkin’s son–his legitimate son.

This is a tale of tangled identity: Golubchik is a peasant yet longs to be a prince and claim his so-called birth-right. As a spy, opportunities arise for Golubchik to use his power to usurp Prince Kraptokin’s son, but he’s bucking the rigidity of the class system. There’s a comic element here to be found in Golubchik’s fate. Here’s a man who is a spy and yet in some ways he’s completely clueless.

Lakatos also appears in The Leviathan.
Translated by Desmond I Vesey

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The Last Chronicle of Barset: Anthony Trollope (part I)

It was time for my last visit to some familiar characters with Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset. This rich, multi-plot novel examines the social fabric and morality of Victorian England through the complex layers of money, debt, and materialism. In this novel, some of Trollope’s characters are shown in London, a place in which the moral issues afoot in Barsetshire are magnified.

The main plot of the novel concerns the Reverend Josiah Crawley, a morose, joyless man who appeared earlier in this six-novel series. Crawley, the perpetual curate of Hogglestock, his long-suffering wife and surviving children live in great poverty, for the living at Hogglestock is but 130 pounds a year. Crawley has become scarred by his poverty, his inability to provide for his wife and children, the deaths of many of his children, and also the promotion of those men who are less educated than he.

Crawley is a fascinating, complex character. When it comes to religion, this is a man who walks the talk. He is “hardworking, conscientious” and will tramp miles in the rain and cold to visit the poor. The farmers in his parish discuss Crawley “as though he were a madman,” and even his wife sometimes deals with him as she would “with an acknowledged lunatic.” He doesn’t patronise the poor, but rather actually helps the women with their chores. And it’s telling that the poor in the area respect Crawley as they realise he’s “sincere.” These are Crawley’s good points, but he also has many bad points–pride arguably being the worst of the lot. Whereas other ecclesiastical characters in Crawley’s age-cohort, Dr Arabin and Mark Robarts, both have excellent livings (make more money), they also mingle in higher society. Arabin for example and his wife Eleanor are on an extended trip through Europe and the Holy Land for most of the novel, and Mark Robarts, at one point known as the hunting curate, who is the protégé of Lady Lufton (his story is in Framley Parsonage) lives a very privileged life which is unblighted by the sorts of tragic events that have marred Crawley’s past. It’s easy to see why Arabin and Robarts have done well in life as they can both hold their own in local society. Crawley cannot. Yes, it’s partly that his clothes are shabby etc., but even if he were to show up to a party (not in a million years), he’s a natural born killjoy. Over the years, Crawley has become bitter, and while he’s a very moral man, he’s inflexible and prideful, wearing his hardships and poverty as badges of honour.

The Reverend Crawley is accused of stealing a 20 pound cheque which he used to pay his butcher bill. The cheque was written by Lord Lufton and was in the possession of his “man of business,” Mr. Soames. Mr Soames swears that he lost the cheque at Crawley’s house, and since the cheque was used to pay Crawley’s butcher (who was demanding payment and threatening public scandal if he did not get his money), the case against Crawley is strong. To make matters worse, Crawley, who is always his own worst enemy, cannot remember where he got the cheque. Crawley’s wife and Reverend Mark Robarts both beg Crawley to employ a lawyer, but with the ever-acrid smell of burning martyr, Crawley refuses. He has very definite opinions on the subject of lawyers.

And presuming an innocent man to have the ability to be ruined root and branch, self and family, character and pocket, simply because, knowing his own innocence, he does not choose to depend on the mercenary skill of a man whose trade he abhors for the establishment of that which should be as clear as the sun at noon-day!

The local magistrates agree to hold a trial.

As the case, with its dreadful ramifications, against Crawley gains momentum, all of Barchester hears of the scandal. A few people who know Crawley believe him to be innocent, but muddled or even possibly mad. Factions are formed with popular opinions rooted in ecclesiastical loyalties rather than knowledge of Crawley’s rigid character. The Bishop’s wife, Mrs Proudie, is determined to oust Crawley from Hogglestock even before the trial. Lady Lufton, who loathes Mrs Proudie (a “vulgar virago“) sides with the Crawleys. A very funny scene takes place at the Bishop’s palace when the Bishop summons Crawley (per Mrs Proudie’s demands) and she insists on joining the meeting between the Bishop and Mr. Crawley. Mr. Crawley decides to just ignore Mrs. Proudie until he can do so no longer and then he basically tells her to be quiet.

As usual with Trollope, there are sub-plots galore. One subplot concerns the widower, Henry Grantly who is in love with Grace Crawley. When Grace’s father faces trial, Henry believes he should step up and propose to Grace as a sort of protection. Henry’s father, Archdeacon Grantly, realising that he could soon have a felon in his family, threatens to cut Henry from the will if he continues with his plan to marry Grace. Another sub-plot takes us back to Lily Dale who was so cruelly jilted by Adolphus Crosbie in The Small House at Allington. Lily has sworn to remain an old maid, but John Eames, who also appeared in the same novel, still loves Lily and still holds hope that she will marry him one day. Adolphus Crosbie, however, having married into the horrid de Courcy family is now a widower. Will he leave his law suits against the de Courcy family long enough to pursue Lily again?

Another sub-plot concerns John Eames who, while hoping for Lily, amuses himself with a dangerous flirt, Madalina Demolines. Another sub-plot concerns the society painter, Conway Dalrymple, who is enjoying a flirtation with the married Mrs. Dobbs-Broughton. Mrs. Dobbs-Broughton who loves drama has decided to arrange a match between Conway and the heiress Miss Van Siever, the daughter of a very strange woman who is involved in lending money at high rates of interest. Mrs Van Siever is loud and bizarrely dressed:

She was a ghastly thing to look at, as well as from the quantity as from the nature of the wiggeries which she wore. She had not only a false front, but long false curls, as to which it cannot be conceived that she would suppose that anyone would be ignorant as to their falseness.

And I must mention a modest hero in this tale, the lawyer, Mr. Toogood. He is Mrs. Crawley’s cousin and he acts as detective in the case–yes his family’s reputation is at risk, but he’s also genuinely intrigued by the case.

Usury, suicide, bankruptcy, adultery, skullduggery, theft all these elements are in the novel. But through all these darker aspects of human nature, Trollope weaves the tale with his usual humour and generosity. We see John Eames cleverly managing his awful, blustery employer, Sir Raffle Buffle, which renders the pompous bully quite impotent, and we see Mr Toogood making financial sacrifices to get to the bottom of the Crawley case. John Eames seems to be destined to have horrible troubles with women, and that theme continues here to great comic entertainment. It’s noteworthy to see the lifestyle of Henry Grantly, the son of the Archdeacon. The Archdeacon prides himself on the fact that his son is as well heeled as many a young lord, and this affluence is one of the things Crawley abhors. We see some clergymen able to take extended holidays on the continent while Crawley has to walk in the mud and the rain. The vast inequities amongst the ecclesiastical community are highlighted by Crawley’s case. Certainly no one can accuse Crawley of being a clergyman for lucrative reasons, and yet ambition brews in many a clergyman’s heart in this series. This book is a wonderful conclusion to the Barsetshire series, and I was reluctant to say goodbye. More on some of the great characters in the book to follow. …


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The Echoing Stones: Celia Fremlin (1993)

Celia Fremlin’s not entirely convincing crime novel, The Echoing Stones, is the tale of Arnold Walter, a man who, at age 61, decides to take early retirement after 40 years spent in a local government accounts department. There’s the sense that Arnold, who probably never did an unpredictable thing in his life, suddenly jumps the tracks. His BIG mistake: he doesn’t tell his wife, Mildred, about his decision. Arnold’s early retirement means a considerable cut in his pension, but he’s got it all worked out; he’s accepted a post as live-in caretaker and part-time tourist guide at the stately Tudor mansion, Emmerton Hall. There’s a “miniscule” salary, and the position calls for a married couple. Guess what, Mildred has to manage the Tea Room. She won’t mind a bit, will she? So Arnold has his future (and Mildred’s) all planned out. They will sell their home which will help with the reduced pension, and he can indulge his “lifelong interest in English history.” Mildred initially loses it when she hears about Arnold’s plan, but then after seeing Emmmerton Hall, he “won her round.” So they move to Emmerton Hall.

When the novel opens, Mildred, unsurprisingly, has left Arnold. Emmerton Hall may offer a promise of his dream life, but Mildred soon tires of being screamed at by unhappy visitors. She departs for her friend Val’s home. Val’s husband also lost his sanity in retirement:

“Men!” Val had summed it up, flinging herself backward against the sofa cushions, her fizz of blond-ish hair making a sort of quivering halo around her outraged face. “Men! Men when they retire! Retirement, it’s like a bomb, it’s a killer! You might as well be on a terrorist hit-list as have a husband coming up to sixty-five!”

“Well, sixty-one, actually in our case,” Mildred interposed, but Val, understandably, brushed this aside. “Well-sixty-sixty-five-Whatever. It’s death to the marriage when it happens, that’s for sure. You might as well take out divorce papers in advance when you see the date coming. Husbands go mad, stark staring raving mad. All of them! It’s their real natures coming out at last. If they don’t do one one crazy thing, they do another.”

At first Mildred enjoys being at Val’s home as they can commiserate with each other about their husbands. (Val’s husband left her for a high maintenance, neurotic gold-digger.) But Mildred soon becomes worn out by Val’s one-track monologues against men, and then things become more complicated when Mildred meets a man at a local park. Is the man interested in Mildred or is he interested in Emmerton Hall? Meanwhile Arnold experiences conflicting feelings when his troubled daughter, Flora turns up and asks to stay. Flora grew from a loving child into an impossible teen, but now at 20 with “increasingly erratic” behaviour she’s worse than ever. She lives in a squat, and when she returns home to visit, it’s to get money then launch into “her litany of complaints and criticisms of her parents’ home: her mother’s cooking; the net curtains; the fitted carpet in the bathroom; the awful décor; the pretentious ornaments; the ghastly furniture; and above all, the awful boredom and monotony of her parents’ lives.

Flora’s energy for dominance, criticism, argument and defiance has long since conquered her parents, so when she arrives at Emmerton Hall, she’s full of vitriol concerning the various rules–how stupid it is to lock the doors and windows. How stupid it is to not allow the visitors to swim in the lake, etc. etc. Then she offers to spend time with the former historian/curator, Sir Humphry Penrose, now demented, who still lives on the grounds with his pleasant tempered, daughter Joyce. Sir Penrose has been violent in the past, but he’s ok as long as he takes his meds. …

The Walters’ marriage rapidly fell apart when they moved to Emmerton Hall, and while that is understandable, the way that these two, weighed down by passivity and inertia, went their own merry ways seems a little unrealistic–especially since Mildred keeps visiting Emmerton Hall with her “fancy man.” Arnold is a weak, uninteresting character too brow beaten by Flora to be engaging; I always have difficulties with passive characters and while trouble is clearly barreling Arnold’s way, he does little to prevent it. Fremlin’s focus is crime within the family/domestic unit–how crime festers within 4 walls, but here the characters seem a bit like chess pieces moved to fit the plot. Finally, the crime is a little too contrived to make this anywhere near Fremlin’s best novel.

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The Vaccination: Frank Wedekind

The Vaccination from German author Frank Wedekind is another entry for German Literature Month. Wedekind wrote the Lulu plays which became the basis for the silent film Pandora’s Box starring the intriguing actress, Louise Brooks. The Vaccination, rather like The Seducer, isn’t at all as the title implies. The Vaccination (Die Schutzimpfung), a tale of infidelity, jealousy and deceit, told in retrospect, concerns an affair between the narrator and a married woman named Fanny. There’s the impression that Fanny has strayed before as she’s rather practiced at deceiving her husband.

“You have nothing to fear, darling,” Fanny said to me one lovely evening, when her husband had just come home, “since husbands, by and large, are jealous only so long as they have no reason to be. As soon as there is really a reason for them to be jealous, it’s as if they were stricken with terminal blindness.”

The narrator isn’t as comfortable with this arrangement as Fanny and he’s sure the husband, who sends odd looks his way, “must have noticed something.” Fanny reassures her lover that her husband suspects nothing, explaining the bold “method” she has “devised” which, she insists works, “inoculating him once and for all against any jealousy” and suspicion. She describes how she constantly tells her husband she is “really taken” with the narrator and if she doesn’t “break her vows” of marriage it’s because of the narrator and for “him alone that I have been so unshakably faithful to you.” Fanny swears this sort of talk acts as a vaccination against her husband’s jealousy. The narrator isn’t convinced, but then one day Fanny unexpectedly shows up at his lodgings. There they are, in his small room, both starkers, whopping it up in bed when guess who else pops up unannounced? … Yes the cuckolded husband. So will Fanny’s method of vaccination work?

This tale has an unexpected, delightfully venomous twist in a careful-what you-wish-for sort of way. What a mind Frank Wedekind must have had.

Juan LePuen

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Ghosts: Edith Wharton

As the evenings lengthen, it’s the perfect time for ghost stories. Edith Wharton is not a name I typically associate with spooky tales, but here’s a collection of ghost stories from New York Review Classics. Some are ghost stories certainly, perhaps the most famous being The Lady Maid’s Bell, but others focus on the psychological. Many of the stories bring up the question as to whether ghosts are real or if events, as related, can be believed. I tend to think of ghosts being specific to certain locations; restless spirits who haunt houses or castles, perhaps reliving tragic events that are permanently imprinted in the fabric of the universe. Most, but not all, of the stories here follow the ‘residual haunting’ model, and when it comes to resident ghosts, it seems that people either love to discuss them, or clam up when the subject comes up for discussion. The contents:

All Souls’
The Eyes
Afterward
The Lady’s Maid’s Bell

Kerfol
The Triumph of Night
Miss Mary Pask
Bewitched
Mr Jones
Pomegranate Seed
The Looking Glass

The narrator in All Souls’ tells a story about her cousin, Sara Clayburn. Sara, now a widow, lives in a large, isolated 18th century house called Whitegates. The house “seemed remote and lonely to modern servants,” but Sara “inherited,” from her mother-in-law, a couple of long-employed servants. It was thought, once Sara became a widow, that she would move from Whitegates, but the house had been in her husband’s family for years, and so she remained. One October, while out walking at dusk, Sara passed a woman who said she was on her way to the house to see “one of the girls.” Harmless enough… but on the way back to the house, Sara fell and injured her ankle. The doctor makes a visit and cautions bed rest, planning to return in 2 days time. Then a curious thing happens–a servant brings food and a thermos of tea. Sara orders it to be removed but the maid leaves the food and exits the room.

The next day, when the servants don’t appear, Sara finds herself in a completely deserted house. All the servants have disappeared. … I really liked this story but found the ending unsatisfying.

The Eyes is rather intriguing. In this tale, 8 men gather and exchange ghost stories. The curmudgeonly Andrew Culwin, who believes that “all men were superfluous and women necessary because someone had to do the cooking,” surprises the rest of the company when he claims to have seen two ghosts.

Afterward is the story of a married couple, Mary and Edward Boyne, who on the hunt for an ancient British mansion, buy a place in Dorsetshire called Lyng. There’s talk bandied about concerning the resident ghost but the Boynes think this is all part of the fun. The Boynes move into Lyng and Mary notices that Edward begins to change. Mary becomes convinced that the house is indeed haunted.

The Lady’s Maids’ Bell is a classic ghost story, and rather a good one, for if we ask if ghosts exist, and answer in the affirmative (or unsure) then the next question, surely, would be: under what circumstances do they appear? Back to the resident ghost, and ghosts that are locked to location, have some unfinished business, or cannot rest. The Lady’s Maid’s Bell fits all those categories.

Kerfol also fits into those categories, but the setting is different and the ghosts are dogs. Here the ghosts are also locked to location, and it’s a location where terrible events are permanently imprinted on the area. This is a tale of a brutish 17th century man who ruled over his home, Kerfol, in Brittany. Kerfol is now for sale (imagine why?), and the narrator goes to take a look at it:

Certainly no house had ever more completely and finally broken with the present. As it stood there, lifting its proud roof and gables to the sky, it might have been its own funeral monument.

Mr. Jones is the story of Lady Jane, a woman who unexpectedly inherits Bells, a house that has been in the family for centuries. Lady Jane has spent her life travelling, but when she sees Bells, she falls in love with the place.

A silence distilled from years of solitude lay on lawns and gardens. No one had lived at Bells since the last Lord Thudeney, then a penniless younger son, had forsaken it sixty years before to seek his fortune in Canada.

Although the house has not been occupied by an owner for years, servants continue to live there. Right away there are two mysteries. The first mystery concerns the identity of a family retainer known as Mr. Jones who rules the house and the servants with an iron rod. The second mystery concerns a long-dead Viscountess. Lady Jane visits the on-grounds chapel with its monuments of long dead ancestors, and here she sees a sarcophagus of a Viscount:

“Born on May 1st, 1790, perished of the plague at Aleppo in 1828” and underneath in small cramped characters as if crowded as an afterthought into an insufficient space: “Also his Wife.” That was all, no name, dates, honours, epithets, for the Viscountess Thudeney. Did she, too, die of the plague at Aleppo? Or did the ‘also’ imply her actual presence in the sarcophagus?

I shan’t discuss all the stories, but will say that the collection offers a range of well-worth reading variations on the ghost story.
review copy

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The Pharmacist: Ingrid Noll

Margot was dressed in nothing but a black suspender belt and red boots, and she had perched her purple knickers coquettishly on her head.”

Pharmacist Hella Moorman is stuck in bed at the Heidelberg Hospital for Women. With nothing to do and bored to tears, Hella begins to tell her life story to her roommate, a very dull looking “ageing spinster.” It seems harmless to confess all, and the roommate, Rosemarie Hirte, following a hysterectomy and a cancer diagnosis, seems half asleep most of the time anyway. To Hella, telling all is “a kind of therapy.” Hella admits that in her past she “kept falling for men who were having an even harder time of it than I was.” That is a long way of saying they were LOSERS. Hella, who comes from a good family, has a pattern of trying to salvage hopeless men. By the time she’s an adult, she’s been accused of murder (nothing can be proved) and has had a string of awful men in her life. But she’s intelligent and becomes a pharmacist.

Enter Levin, a much younger man who says he’s studying to be a dentist. Within a short period of time, Levin has moved in, and good at spending Hella’s money, he persuades her to buy a flashy red convertible. There’s the impression that Hella is not very attractive; she’s the one who has to initiate sex with Levin. He doesn’t seem that interested, and he’s much more interested in the sports car. Hella admits the car has its uses: “it was fun roaring around with someone in a perpetual state of euphoria.

Over time, Hella learns that Levin is to inherit his grandfather, Herman’s, impressive mansion and ALL of his money. Too bad the old chap won’t be reasonable and die. In the meantime, Levin, who can’t wait for his inheritance begins to siphon off valuables from his grandfather’s house. Levin employs a vastly unsuitable young woman named Margot to care for his grandfather. Margot looks as though she belongs on a stripper pole rather than behind a wheelchair.

Margot was no thrifty housekeeper but a thoroughly incompetent slut.

As Rosemarie listens to this sordid tale from her hospital bed, she occasionally jumps in with snarky, tart comments. At one point she interrupts Hella:

“Were you really so stupid as to actually marry that waster?” demanded Frau Hirte. “If so, then please skip the wedding, if you don’t mind, and go straight on to the successful divorce proceedings.”

Rosemarie doesn’t seem in the least concerned to hear that Levin was fascinated by Hella’s secret stash of poisons passed on from her creepy Nazi grandfather.

Hella’s tale is tinged with ‘if onlys.’ If only Levin will marry her … If only she can have a child … If only Margot would leave …

Here’s Hella’s wedding day with Margot stealing the show:

I looked so pretty, or at least so I imagined; my costume suited me perfectly and my father had put around my neck, with his own fair hand, the six rows of polished pearls and garnets which had belonged to his grandmother and which I had had my eye on for a long time. But then it all started to go wrong. I caught sight of Margot and was horrified. Was this the mangy cat who had, after a fashion, taken care of Herman Graber’s household? Before me stood a young woman in a black dress, the top half transparent and, at the back, plunging all the way down to the start of the valley between her buttocks; totally out of place, and no doubt paid for out of my money. And confronted with this package of aggressive, low-class sex, many of the men were asking eagerly, ‘who’s that, then?

Things become even more complicated when Margot’s husband, Dieter, Levin’s best friend and former partner-in-crime, shows up. Yes Hella’s life would be perfect … if only Margot would disappear. And then there’s the decision about which man of three (yes, three no less) she should choose. As Hella’s sordid tale continues, and becomes darker, we only have her version of events. She positions herself as an innocent bystander surrounded by users and yet is Hella the sort to be a victim? Is Hella a reliable narrator? This novel, with its dark transgressive humour, follows Hella’s lifestory as told to Rosemarie Hirte. Rosemarie, by the way, has a sordid tale of her own in Hell Hath No Fury.

Goodwill, dependability, loyalty and morality don’t stand a chance when sex is involved.

This was a great pick for German Literature Month.

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The N’Gustro Affair: Jean-Patrick Manchette

As a Jean-Patrick Manchette fan, I was delighted to see that New York Review Books Classics released another title: The N’Gustro Affair. The book is described as a ‘thinly disguised’ retelling of the abduction and murder of Ben Barka who opposed King Hassan II of Morocco. This is a timely release given the revolting murder of Jamal Khashoggi; somehow the two crimes, no doubt because of despicable commonalities, seem tied together.

The book opens with a few opinions about Henri Butron; there’s not much good to say–he’s a “mythomaniac” and a “pathologically case.” From those first impressions, then the book segues to Butron “wearing a smoking jacket” as he records his version of events in a tape recorder. “His own life fascinates him,” but he is rudely interrupted by two assassins who make short work of Butron. One of the assassins calls the police saying “Butron has committed suicide,” and the other grabs the reel from the tape recorder. The assassins wait for the police to arrive and then make a cordial departure. Butron’s recording is delivered into the hands of Marshal George Clemenceau Oufiri who listens with merriment at Butron’s sordid, braggartly tale.

Butron’s tale is clearly laced with the fabrications of an psychopathic egoist. At school he confesses “I could have been brilliant had I cared to be but I didn’t.” Butron, a petty, violent thief consider himself amazingly intelligent, but he also boasts about his sexual conquests. Butron’s version of his life is interrupted with observations and facts from others. These versions meet on some salient points but diverge when it comes to Butron’s fantastically inflated opinion of himself. Butron is a dangerous thug whose submersion into right wrong politics, where he proves to be a useful idiot, creates a patina of idealism on his basic revolting nature.

It’s a commentary on society that someone like Butron, a nasty little man, should not only be tolerated but supported and used to further political aims. The N’Gustro Affair is not easy reading–full of Butron’s grubby bragging about women and violence, it’s nauseating to read about this human cockroach. The long, interesting intro goes into the Ben Barka case, but it’s one of those mixed bag situations where the intro helps you understand the background and the connection with the Ben Barka case but at the same time pulled me away from the plot. My least favourite Manchette to date.

Review copy Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

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The Seducer: Frank Wedekind

After reading Frank Wedekind’s short story, The Seducer, I looked up the meaning of the word ‘seduce.’ “A person who entices another into sexual activity. A person who entices another to do or believe something inadvisable or foolhardy.” Initially I was not sure that either definition quite fits Wedekind’s story, but perhaps it’s a matter of who is being seduced. … The story, set in the 19th century, begins like this:

“It is entirely easy to win the favor of every girl, without exception. But it isn’t always easy. The important thing is to set about it in the right way.”

The rest of the gentlemen of the circle of close friends listened in eager anticipation.

So we have several men gathered while one explains how to win “the favor” of a woman. Thanks to the title, naturally, I decided that the narrator is talking about sexual favors. The narrator goes on to explain how he visited his Aunt Matilda and there met Melanie who has just returned from Brussels. The narrator is clearly sexually attracted to Melanie and that notes that “her hips and most of all the shape of her corset struck me for their magnificent curves.” But while the narrator is impressed by Melanie, the feeling isn’t mutual.

She cast sharp glances at me that made me feel as if I were being peppered with small-caliber shot.

Later the narrator and Melanie go for a walk in the garden. It’s dark and there’s a little bit of seduction going on with Melanie as she “leaned her upper body” over her male companion. The narrator leaves only to return a few days later. At this meeting, with the aunt conveniently asleep, the narrator and Melanie are in the house with Melanie sprawling all over the chaise longue, and she’s so hot, she has to undo the two top clasps of her thin dress so she can “breathe better.” The narrator feels no small frustration during his talk with Melanie as he is only given “a wordless, superior smile.”

The courtship, for that is what it is, continues with the narrator almost driven crazy by Melanie’s behavior. On one hand she’s cold and yet during each of their meetings there are rather unsubtle sexual maneuvers from Melanie. This short story only runs to a few pages, so I won’t go into it any further. For this reader, the story is, given the narrator is lecturing men on the subject of how to win an uninterested woman, ironic. There’s a seducer in this story alright–it’s just not the narrator.

Original title: Der Verfüher.

Translator:Juan LePuen

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New Year: Julie Zeh

Holidays tend to reveal the submerged fabric of our emotional lives and this is certainly true in Julie Zeh’s novel, New Year. Married Henning secretly books a trip to Lanzarote for Christmas away from their apartment in Gottingen. His wife Theresa isn’t thrilled at first as the trip is hard to make with two small children, aged 2 and 4.

Night after night he surfed the web, looking through images of white sea-foam on black beaches, of palms and volcanos and a landscape that resembled the interior of a stalactite cave. He pored over charts showing average temperatures and forwarded his findings to Theresa. But mostly he clicked through countless images of whitewashed villas for rent. One after another, night after night, until late. He’d plan to stop at a certain point and go to bed, but then he’d click on the next listing. He’d devour each image, voracious as an addict, almost as if he were looking for a specific house.

While Henning looks hungrily at the villas, his final choice is much more modest–a townhouse that’s “within their budget.” Henning’s online search through the villas for rent is traded for a tiny townhouse and a holiday “prix-fixe” dinner at a local hotel. It really isn’t Henning and Theresa’s scene but Theresa has the lucky ability to “make-the-best-of it [is] like a pre-programmed setting she shifts into the moment anything goes awry.” Not so Henning. As the novel continues, it’s clear that Henning suffers from panic attacks. This is something fairly new for Henning, and perhaps this partly explains his obsession to be in Lanzarote for the New Year. When the novel opens, he’s strenuously cycling with the mantra “New Year, new you.” Henning’s cycling trip is infused with various memories: Theresa’s annoying self-focused parents who have relocated to Italy, Henning’s absent father, Werner, Henning’s restless troubled sister, Luna, and Henning’s mother–a woman who made sure that her children knew just how much she sacrificed for her children:

Because of them, she’d renounced friends, men, parties, travel, art, reading, films, theater, stimulating conversations, and a better job. Every day, she declared how, because of them, she was condemned to a life that neither suited her or pleased her.

Predictably, Henning’s mother has no interest in his children. Theresa’s parents, Rolf and Marlies, on the other hand, who visit once or twice a year, are only interested in each other. They bring the grandkids unsuitable gifts, and it’s the Rolf and Marlies show–and every show needs an audience:

As they eat, they yammer on and on mostly with one another, as if they haven’t seen each other in ages. Rolf tells Marlies how lucky they were to find that apartment in Rome. Marlies asks Rolf if he, like she, finds German artisans far superior to Roman ones. They tease one another, correct one another, and enlist Henning and Theresa as audience for a conversation they clearly find riveting and hilarious, all the while thoroughly ignoring Bibbi and Jonas until they start bickering.

The holiday serves to highlight the discord in Henning and Theresa’s life, but one can never run away from one’s childhood, and Henning runs right into a repressed memory.

The holiday and the familial relationships ring all too true. The novel includes child neglect so readers who are sensitive to that issue should be aware.

Review copy. Translated by Alta T. Price

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The Mysterious Correspondent: Marcel Proust

I can’t imagine the excitement that must have been felt when previously (mostly) unpublished stories by Marcel Proust were unearthed. But here they are in The Mysterious Correspondent. The book runs to just over 120 pages, and includes a lengthy intro by Luc Fraisse. Fraisse explains that Proust never mentioned these stories and that “they explore, by extraordinarily varied paths as we will see, the psychological and moral subject of homosexuality.” Fraisse also places these stories in the historical and thematic context of Proust’s other work.

Here’s the breakdown:

Pauline de S.

The Mysterious Correspondent

The Mysterious Correspondent–unfinished version.

A Captain’s Reminiscence

Jacques Lefelde (The Stranger)

In the Underworld

After Beethoven’s Eight Symphony

The Awareness of Loving Her

The Gift of the Fairies

That is How He Loved.

Some of the stories are unfinished and are fragmentary, so I’m not going to discuss them all–just my favourites. Pauline de S. is the story of a dying woman. The narrator, hearing the news that his friend Pauline is in the final stages of illness, admits that “it was extremely difficult for me to go and see her.” It’s always difficult to know how to talk to those who are facing imminent death. Do we cheer them up? Should we bring up the subject?

That evening I could not fall asleep. Things seemed to me now the way they must have seemed to her, so close to death, the opposite of how they usually appear to us. Pleasures, entertainments, lives, special, even insignificant labours all seemed insipid, laughable, ridiculously, terrifyingly, small and unreal. Meditations on life and on the soul, the depths of emotions and the arts where we feel ourselves descending into the very heart of our being, goodness, forgiveness, pity, charity, repentance, foregrounded seemed the only real things.

So the narrator arrives, “ready to weep.” Pauline, however is not different from her usual self and asks the narrator to book a box for a matinee at the theatre as long as it isn’t “your boring Hamlet.” The narrator leaves “astonished.” Subsequent visits are more of the same thing with conversations as normal. He wonders if her behaviour is a “pose.” The story, short but quite brilliant, is a mediation on death with dignity.

The Mysterious Correspondent (which appears in Pleasures and Days) is a story about one woman who loves another. Married Françoise receives a letter, a confession of love. The letter is fueled by sexual passion, and the writer, swears to visit the next evening. Françoise is frightened; she bars the door, telling her visiting female friend to forbid entry to anyone. Françoise:

imagined it was a soldier. She had always loved them, and old passions, flames, that had been denied nourishment because of her virtue but that had set her dreams on fire and sometimes made strange reflections pass through her chaste eyes, were rekindled. Long ago she had often wanted to be loved by one of those soldiers whose broad belt takes long to unbuckle, dragoons who let their swords drag behind them in the evening at street corners while they look elsewhere.

While Françoise mulls over the identify of her ‘mysterious correspondent’ it’s obvious that it can only be one person, and yet Françoise is too blind to see the truth that stares her in the face.

A Captain’s Reminiscence is very brief, the sliver of a memory–a “silent meeting” between a captain and a corporal. It’s a moment that the captain never forgot even though nothing happens between the two men–it’s a might-have-been moment.

Finally, this is probably best appreciated by those who are already familiar with Proust. The introduction frequently references other works and how this or that story ties into the bigger picture. The stories are prefaced with intense scholarly references to Proust’s other work.

Review copy.

Translated by Charlotte Mandell

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