Family Trust: Kathy Wang

At 74 Stanley Huang is active, dapper and a picture of good health. Back in San Jose from his latest all-inclusive Mediterranean cruise, Stanley is very proud that he has actually lost weight in spite of loading himself with unlimited desserts. But then Stanley begins to have a nagging doubt about weight loss after “twelve days of gastronomic Bacchanalia over international waters. “ A trip to the doctor eventually leads to a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Family trustStanley’s illness is the starting point for this story which explores fractured family dynamics in the face of a terminal diagnosis. Stanley has a much younger second wife, Mary Zhu (ex-waitress/massage therapist ) a still pissed-off first wife, Linda and children Fred and Kate. A huge question looms over the family. Does Stanley have any money and who will inherit it?

Stanley’s ex-wife, Linda isn’t particularly concerned about Stanley’s diagnosis. She’s “annoyed” by the “revisionist history her children had indulged in ever since Stanley’s diagnosis.” She’s far more concerned with the financial aspect of things. To Linda, Stanley never came through with his promises, and was “lazy and incompetent,” plus terminally unfaithful while she slaved to earn the money for the family.

Even thirtysomething years later, when she’d finally located her courage, had gone and left him, told him that they were going to divorce, leaving him openmouthed and speechless, helplessly steaming in his armchair-even then, he’d managed to come out ahead. Stanley had recovered quickly enough from his brief period of depression, sighing up for a series of elite gym memberships a month after he’d moved out, rebounding shortly after with a sequence of increasingly younger girlfriends. A series of events he’d then capped off by getting remarried with undignified speed. A marriage he couldn’t help but publicize by braying to everyone how happy he was, making it appear as if he was the one who’d left her. Because she was still alone, of course. 

Unbeknownst to her children, Linda was the real breadwinner of the family and gave Stanley a generous divorce settlement when his philandering became too much for her to tolerate. Stanley’s assurances of a large inheritance and a family trust do nothing to assuage Linda’s concerns that her feckless ex will prove true to his character—even in his last months. Plus then there’s the second wife who, in spite of her enthusiastic efforts to find miracle cures for her much-older husband, seems almost delighted to hasten him into the grave. Will she get the money or will Stanley leave it all to his children as promised? Here’s Linda taking charge at a dreaded family meeting:

She clicked the pen impatiently. “I want to write the numbers down, so that there’s no confusion. It should be very simple. First you determine your net worth. Then you define a token–that means small, Stanley–amount you give to Mary. Everything else goes to the children.”

“I have to take care of Mary,” Stanley said. “I am everything to her.” 

Both of Stanley’s children have considerable problems of their own. Harvard Business School graduate Fred has never made good on his early promise. Former classmates have soared into the company of the 1% but Fred, divorced by his dissatisfied wife, lingers in his profession’s “swampy bottom.” He’s dating Saks saleswoman, Hungarian immigrant Erika. Part of his attraction to Erika is her avarice, but it’s naive avarice. In other words, given his job title and income (over 300K a year) he can snow Erika into thinking he’s far more affluent than he really is.

Stanley’s daughter Kate is struggling with some serious personal problems. She is the sole breadwinner while her husband, Denny, hides out with “the majority of his daylight hours unaccounted for, lazing about in a cozily furnished attic” supposedly gathering investors for his start-up which has yet to materialize.

Linda, Stanley’s ex, has always been the sensible one when it comes to money, and yet, she begins to plunge into the murky waters of internet dating after a conversation with ‘friend’ Shirley, a woman Linda dislikes:

She’d undertaken a through redecoration of both herself and her house after her husband,  Alfred, had passed, and each now reflected the Versailles-lite sensibilities of a provincial government official.

This is a tale of Chinese Americans whose lives are driven by status markers. Given the subject matter, death in the face of a terminal diagnosis, it’s bold indeed for this first time author to take a spiky humorous approach. We follow Linda, Fred and Kate’s lives as Stanley’s diagnosis becomes all too real. He grows frailer and frailer while the question of money grows stronger. And as we all know, people are at their worst when money enters the picture.

The back stories of each character were overly detailed and I wanted the story to propel forwards–not backwards, but the moments between the family members were perfect. Here’s Mary Zhu, elevated to nurse status:

“Last week they brought in a special tree bark I ordered; it had to be sent from Hong Kong. I’ve been brewing it into a tea for Stanley. It’s supposed to be very powerful against cancer. For many people, it is a near-instant cure.” She prattled on, detailing all the various acupuncturist, healers, and meditation gurus whose skills were being summoned. Next to her, Stanley preened, lapping it up.

Linda decided she’d had enough. “Please inform your wife that I am a full supporter of Western medicine,” she said to Stanley in English. To her left she heard Kate sigh. But she didn’t care. Lunch was over. 

The novel has a lot of energy, and the author clearly has a complex story to tell. I am fascinated by inheritance plots, and if you are too, then you will enjoy this novel that takes a irreverent, humorous look at the question of assets that may or may exist and may or may not be passed to the next generation My attraction to inheritance stories may be a Balzac thing, and/or it may be the fact that I have seen many inheritance scenarios go horribly wrong.

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Mrs Sartoris: Elke Schmitter

German Literature Month 2018

“We all wanted a little house and a garden and children and trips to Spain and to grow old in peace, and if we weren’t badly deceiving ourselves, then we could be happy with that, and why should we be deceiving ourselves so badly with someone if he came from the same town and we’d known him forever and his parents had a shop around the corner or they cut our grandfather’s hair or sat behind the counter in the savings bank.”

Mrs. Sartoris, another choice for German Literature Month 2018, is a stunning novella that explores passion and compromise. The story is narrated by Margaret Sartoris, a middle-aged married woman whose reliable husband Ernst, daughter Daniela, and adored mother-in-law Irmi, cannot compensate for a tragic love affair that occurred decades earlier.

Mrs sartoris

When the story opens we know that something is seriously wrong with Margaret’s life. She has a drinking problem (Ernst “checks” her breath when she returns home) and a problem with her nerves, so she’s on pills to ‘help.’ Regarding her life, Margaret says she doesn’t know “when it got lost. The certainty, the strength, the concentration that was automatically there for what is known as everyday life.” Gradually chapters reveal Margaret’s past which includes an early romance that went badly and resulted in a period in a sanatorium.

After the sanatorium, Margaret’s passionate nature is switched off, and then she meets Ernst, affable, safe Ernst who has one leg.  When she decides to marry Ernst on the rebound, she acknowledges that she’s driven by “a form of ice-cold delirium.”

I would marry Ernst and live with him and Irmi; in spite of everything, Ernst looked good, he treated me with real consideration, he earned a good living, he was a good, dear man who wouldn’t deny me anything, and Irmi was simply a treasure. I imagined how nice it would be to have her around, and I imagined Ernst’s dazzled gratitude that he wouldn’t have to leave his mother, the war widow, alone, but would be allowed to bring her with him into the marriage. I would go on working, in the evenings we would often be with friends–nothing would become of my dancing now–and when we came home, Irmi would be there, a source of life and good cheer.  Perhaps we would have a child. 

To outsiders, Margaret pulled her life together: she has a solid, stable career, a long-standing marriage to the steady Ernst and is devoted to her mother-in-law.  But all these years, all these seemingly satisfactory elements of Margaret’s life, are just window dressing. It’s as though she’s an iceberg with an exposed functioning tip while hidden passions of incredible intensity lurk beneath the surface. Underneath the routine, the household arrangements and her intimate domestic life, Margaret maintains a detachment, an apathy towards her life and her future.

Middle age is a peculiar time of life: it’s a time of accounting, and very often a time when we measure our lives against our early expectations. No wonder so many people go off the deep end. Margaret Sartoris has a life that is on auto-pilot. She and her husband go out with friends, she laughs and participates, is a good, dependable employee, a good wife and daughter-in-law, but there’s also a huge chunk of Margaret that doesn’t engage with her own life. Then, after more than twenty dormant, albeit, outwardly successful years of  life with Ernst, she meets a married man, a serial philanderer.

My energy had made an impression on him, as had my uninhibitedness, and I had swept us both into a feeling that we could live all over again. The last twenty years unfolded in front of me like a bleached out map; I could find paths on it I had walked a thousand times and yet had hardly a single visible contour; I could have made a list of the sentences I’d said or heard again and again: Sleep well! Or Does it taste good? or Is Daniela in bed yet? or Have you thought about Irmi’s birthday? or Are we taking the car or going on foot? or Did you get the things from the dry cleaner? or Where is the aspirin? or Is the coffee finished? or Did you lock up downstairs? or Are the eggs still fresh? or I think I’ll keep reading for a bit.

[…]

There weren’t many unfriendly sentences in this catalogue, lots of friendly concern, lots of good will, lots of good cheer, though none of that was mine, not much worry, not much anger, not much surprise; as sentences, they were like oar strokes, regular, always on the same beat, always pulling in the same direction: we’re rowing across the sea, the sea, we’re rowing across the sea now. But I was no longer rowing with them.

The story unfolds with Margaret’s life in the present and flashes of memory–her first, damaging love affair, and the unexpected passion that shakes her from her dormant life. This is a woman who made a sensible choice, packing away all her passion, desires and disappointments, until one day they are unleashed again, and this time, these passions, rather like Pandora’s box, cannot be packed away again.

The book’s blurb connects the plot to Madame Bovary. As far as the similarities go, the two books are about unhappily married women who have illicit love affairs. This is not Madame Bovary. Mrs Sartoris is something quite different, and the plot takes the reader in an unanticipated direction. Margaret is an interesting woman who dons the circumspect ‘costume’ of respectability and reliability. She subsumes and controls all passion, passion which in her case is destructive, and she manages to act the part for more than twenty years until one day she throws caution aside. Margaret’s voice is calm, cool, detached and yet … we know that incredible passions lie dormant, just underneath the the surface. How much compromise is too much? Are ‘sensible’ choices the best ones? Or are we just delaying the day of reckoning? Highly recommended.

Translated by Carol Brown Janeway

Another review at Winston’s dad

Another review at Vishy’s blog

And Caroline’s review. 

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Fugitive Red: Jason Starr

“Choosing another path in life doesn’t necessarily solve your problems–sometimes it just leads to a new set of them.”

Forty-four-year old real estate agent Jack Harper, a recovering alcoholic, is in a rut. His professional life is at an all-time low, and his marriage to Maria is stale and sexless. He hasn’t landed any sales in some time, and when Rob, a former bandmate, flies in from California looking to buy a two million dollar Manhattan penthouse apartment, Jack’s failure is rubbed in his face. Rob, a practiced womanizer, sniffs Jack’s failure and lords his success over his old friend’s head, but more significantly, he mentions that he uses an online dating app called Discreet Hookups, a “Cheating site” which is “the best thing for married men since Monday Night Football.” While Jack feels disgust at his old friend’s behaviour, there’s another part of him that envies Rob’s brash confidence and material success.

Late one night, bored and restless, Jack logs onto Discreet Hookups, the website whose logo is: “people marry for companionship, cheat for happiness.”  Jack tells himself he’s led by curiosity, but he has a past of addictive behaviour, so it’s just a very short step until he has an online profile and connects with a wealthy married woman who calls herself Fugitive Red. …

Jason Starr’s Fugitive Red takes an insightful look at the perils of online relationships, adeptly navigating the narrative of Jack’s rapidly unraveling life. Online, we can be anyone we want to be, and when sex and/or money enter the picture, things go downhill fast. Most of us know people who have had exploitative disastrous online relationships, and Jack is a great fictional example. Soon he’s accused of murder, and while Jack thought his life was bad before his exposure to Discreet Hookups, he finds out how bad gets worse. With his life spiraling out of control, he still imagines he has options which have long since been removed from the table. There’s a morbid sense of humour at work as we watch Jack, who can’t quite accept that things are as bad as they are, missteps repeatedly in the quicksand of a murder investigation.

The plot, peopled with colourful characters, explores the hazards of misinterpreting virtual life on the computer as reality, and there are times when Jack has insight into his own ego and addictive behaviour, but these times are alternated with his blind spots. Here’s Jack being grilled by the detective who will soon become his arch-nemesis:

Then he added,” I don’t want to say you’re gullible, Mr Harper, but okay, I’ll say it–you’re gullible. I mean, you meet some chick online, she says she wants to screw around, and you think she’s telling you the truth?”

“She wasn’t ‘some chick,’ ” I said. “She was a sweet, sincere woman, and yes, I believed her.” 

“Just like you believed it was her first time meeting a guy online.”

Jason Starr’s novels often include some reference to New York housing, and how outrageous costs impact life and relationships, so here we find Jack living in a 580 sq foot apartment and wondering if he should have moved to the ‘burbs. I thought I knew where Fugitive Red was taking me, but it had more twists than I anticipated, and since it’s Jason Starr, these twists are laced with deviant behaviour.

The book synopsis includes a reference to Gone Girl, and if you arrive at this book expecting another Gone Girl, you will be disappointed. This is classic Jason Starr, which means a different set of things from Gone Girl, and I wish publishers would stop referencing this book as though it’s the bible of suspense. Frankly while Gone Girl was highly readable, by its conclusion, I was annoyed at the plot devices.

Rant over.

If you are a Jason Starr fan, you will not be disappointed. There’s a lot to appreciate here in the insights into human behaviour: the lies we tell ourselves, the types of horrible relationships we endure, the disappointment of how our lives turned out, and how tricky, deceptive and seductive online ‘relationships’ can be–and yes those online relationships just happen to slot into all of life’s shortcomings.  Psychologists argue that first impressions take just a few seconds. How does that translate to online relationships? Jack’s impressions of Fugitive Red are formed and sealed before he meets her, and that proves to be a deadly mistake.

Review copy

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The Spoke: Friedrich Glauser (1937)

German Literature Month 2018

German Literature month rolls around yet again. I’m late to the party–or at least my reviews are.

“There ought to be a law, the sergeant said to himself, against women painting and powdering themselves. The layer covering their cheeks could easily, all too easily, hide a flush, a sudden pallor.”

A few years ago, during German Literature Month 2015, I reviewed Friedrich Glauser’s Thumbprint. I had more Glauser on the shelf, so it was time to take the plunge…

Detective Sgt Studer of the Bern police is back once more for what should be a happy occasion. His daughter is going to be married, and the groom is Albert Guhl, a corporal in the Thurgau Cantonal Police. Studer, his wife Hedy, and daughter travel to Schwarzenstein for the ceremony and stay at a hotel run by Studer’s childhood sweetheart, Anni. Anni is now married to Karl Rechsteiner who is bedridden and has been treated for consumption.

The Spoke

Murder seems to follow fictional detectives, and this is certainly true for Studer who should be concentrating on his daughter’s wedding and instead is confronted with a corpse inside the hotel. Murder never takes a holiday, I suppose, and so Studer begins to investigate. The victim, a young man, has been skewered with a sharpened spoke from a bicycle, and guess what, there’s a bicycle repair shop right next to the hotel. …

The case seems to present its own solution, especially when the owner of the bicycle shop, Ernst Graf, seems to be one part of of a love triangle involving the murder victim.

The Spoke was more enjoyable than Thumbprint, possibly because we get to see more of Studer’s personality, investigation style, and his sense of humour, plus there are some very interesting characters/suspects here–including Fräulein Loppacher who appears to have been in relationships with both Graf (the main suspect) and Stieger (the victim). Other detectives would rush to close the case and move onto the wedding, but not Studer. Studer’s family exist in the periphery and he seems to spend far more time dwelling on Anni’s sad, hard life. The novel explores early forensics (this was published in 1937), and reflects attitudes of its time.

Studer’s sense of humour is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the tale, but unfortunately I guessed the culprit very early in the book. My copy, from Bitter Lemon Press contains a brief bio of the author, Friedrich Glauser, who was, apparently, addicted to opium and morphine. A diagnosed schizophrenic, he spent “most of his life” in various insane asylums, did a stint in the Foreign legion and prison when he was caught forging prescriptions. He died at age 42.

Translated by Mike Mitchell

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The Good Doctor: Damon Galgut

In Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor, set in post-apartheid South Africa, two doctors, one high on idealism, and the other opting to bury himself in a dead-end job, both end up in the same ramshackle rural hospital. Who is the ‘Good Doctor’ here? Idealistic, young Dr Laurence Waters whose arrival sets off an uneasy chain of events or the narrator, burned-out middle-aged Frank Eloff, who prefers the status quo–even if that means years spent avoiding his estranged wife and the promising career expected of him?

The good doctor

When Laurence Waters arrives he’s clearly shocked by the state of the small rural hospital. and according to Frank, who’s been stuck in a self-imposed stalled career, it isn’t a “real hospital.” The nearest town in an hour away, and that’s where the “real hospital is,” the one where “people go when they’re sick.”

And then you arrived and you saw. Maybe the first clue was a disturbing detail; a crack that ran through an otherwise pristine wall, or a set of broken windows in an office you passed. Or the fact that the fountain was dry and full of old sand at the bottom.

Frank expects Laurence’s initial “bewilderment.” He’s seen it so many times before whenever new doctors arrive.

So the bewilderment that Laurence Waters felt wasn’t unusual. I’d been through it myself. And so I knew that the feeling would pass. In a week or two, the bewilderment would give way to something else: frustration maybe, or resentment, anger. And then that would turn into resignation. And after a couple of months Laurence would be suffering through his sentence here, like the rest of us, or else plotting a way to get out.

But Laurence’s emotional state doesn’t quite form as Frank predicts. Laurence and Frank share a room together, and Frank is at first resentful at the intrusion but then finds that he enjoys the company. Soon, however, Laurence begins a programme to take medical care to the locals, and this shifts the delicate status quo within the hospital and the community.  The narrator realises, uncomfortably, that “Laurence’s involvement and effort showed up a lack in me.”

As the novel explores Laurence’s idealistic attempts to alter the hospital and the community, the plot raises several moral questions. Is idealism harmful or even practical? How much moral compromise is acceptable?

The plot introduces some extraordinary secondary characters: Frank’s father, an aging celebrity doctor who thinks he can fix the world (as he used to do) with a chat with the right people, and Laurence’s American do-gooder girlfriend whose specious intentions are revealed when she meets a vicious dictator and treats him like some sort of rockstar.

The novel is at its strongest when showing the unacceptable worlds that Frank lives in. There’s a moment when he visits his father who is a living remnant of the old order:

Betty carried the brown, limp leaves from the mantelpiece to the door.

‘Betty!”

“Master?”

“You’re dropping petals, Betty. All over the place, Please, please…”

And the old lady in the nice blue uniform set the dying flowers down and got on to her knees. She started crawling across the floor, picking up bits of flowers as she went.

“There, Betty, my father murmured, pointing patiently, … there … another one there…”

While I sipped the sour coffee, hearing the rim of the china cup clink against my teeth.

This scene brings up the silent question: how does a white man used to apartheid fit into this ‘new’ still unstable South Africa? Frank has a sexual relationship with a local black woman and yet what is their connection? Is she his sex partner, his girlfriend, or is she a prostitute who asks for money? This is a stunning example of how Frank cannot penetrate black culture–how he remains an outsider, no matter what he does.

For this reader the novel was weakest in its portrayal of Laurence–a character who didn’t quite gel for me. He didn’t seem real–almost a caricature of an idealistic young man who is basically clueless and does more harm than good, and since he is a main character, this is unfortunate. Still I’ll remember this book for its troubling, complex moral landscape and some terrific secondary characters.

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The Accident on the A-35: Graeme Macrae Burnet

“You think police work is all about brainwork. It’s not. It’s about telling a story.”

Police detectives must, by the nature of their jobs, drop into the messy points of people’s lives. This is certainly true in Graeme Macrae Burnet’s The Accident on the A-35. Bertrand Barthelme, a prominent lawyer in the town of Saint Louis, is found dead at the wheel of his green Mercedes. It’s a rainy November night, and the simple explanation is that the driver fell asleep at the wheel and careened off the road colliding with a tree.

The accident on the A35

Chief Inspector Gorski, who always contemplates the methods of his much more popular predecessor, is determined to keep an “open mind” about the accident. Gorski decides to break the bad news to Barthelme’s family himself–partly due to the status of the deceased. Saint Louis, “a place of little note, situated at the Dreyeckland, the junction of Germany, Switzerland and eastern France,” is a small, suffocating town, where everyone knows everyone else, and a few families, the old money families, pull a lot of strings.

The town’s twenty thousand inhabitants can be divided into three groups: those who have no aspiration to live somewhere less dreary; those who lack the wherewithal to leave; and those who, for reasons best known to themselves, like it. 

Gorksi visits the Barthelme mansion which is guarded by the housekeeper, Thérèse, an unpleasant woman who has been with the family for years. Ushered into Lucette Barthelme’s bedroom to break the news, Gorski is surprised to discover that the new widow is young and attractive, but then, after all, she was Barthelme’s second wife. When Gorski breaks the news of her husband’s death, to Lucette there’s “something curious in her subdued response.” Ditto the son, Raymond, who has been listening to the movements of the late night visitor.

Even though no one (except perhaps Thérèse) mourns Barthelme’s death, Lucette asks Gorksi to look into the accident that killed her husband. According to Lucette, he was at his club and would not have been on that particular road at that time of night, and so Gorksi begins to poke around ….

The death of Barthelme should be an open and shut case, but Gorksi isn’t quite satisfied.  After questioning the dead lawyer’s acquaintances, Gorski hits a brick wall, but then he begins to make a connection to a high profile murder in another town.  Influenced by his desire to keep contact with the lovely widow, a damsel in distress who meets Gorksi in her negligee,  Gorksi, who finds any excuse to knock back alcohol, embarks on an investigation that appears to be blocked at every turn. He’s the object of disrespect at the police station and only has the job because of his father-in-law, the Mayor. Then there’s Gorski’s marriage which has long since been flushed down the toilet–even if Gorksi hasn’t quite grasped that. Gorski vacillates between thinking he misses his wife and enjoying the luxury of a sort-of holiday from her.

While this sounds like a police procedural, that is too inadequate a description for this unusual, engaging crime novel. The novel has a feel of Simenon, but ultimately The Accident on the A-35 cannot be filed away quite so neatly. Two marriages are under scrutiny here: and in both cases, people married ‘up’ and lived in oppressive circumstances. The death of Barthelme frees his widow and also unleashes Gorksi to indulge in the ultimate investigation mistake: squeezing a crime into a created narrative. This is a compelling tale which captures the oppressiveness of small town life, the lure of distractions, career and marriage frustrations and yes, also, the death of a prominent lawyer. There’s one brilliantly created scene that takes place at a restaurant between Gorksi and his wife. When it seems that Gorksi has been stood up, with simmering resentment and deep humiliation in front of the other smirking customers, he orders for himself.

Gorski got up, knocking the table with his thigh. The wine bottle teetered for a moment, before Céline reached out and steeled it. She allowed him to kiss her on both cheeks. In her heels, she was half a head taller than him. 

He mumbled an apology. “I assumed you weren’t coming. The kitchen was closing.”

Céline looked at him. “You’re drunk. she said.”

This is, of course, a power play, a marital maneuver, in which Céline takes revenge for earlier humiliation, knowing that her husband will polish off a bottle of wine before her grand entrance.

The novel purports to be written by the now deceased Raymond Brunet and translated by Graeme Macrae Burnet. I was only annoyed by these diversions and thought the novel stood strongly without that extra wrapping.

Thanks to the Gerts for recommending this.

Review copy

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An Untouched House: Willem Frederik Hermans

an untouched house

An Untouched House from Willem Frederik Hermans covers a brief period in 1944 during WWII. The novel opens with the protagonist, a Dutchman, one of a group of partisans, trudging through the ravaged countryside when the men stop for a rest. Immediately the author sets the scene for war as spectacle when the narrator notes a dogfight that rages in the skies above:

All of the combatants seemed to be taking it easy as if the war was a large sick body that had just been given a shot of morphine. The only thing happening: a high altitude dogfight, two against one. I watched it, a blade of dry grass stuck between my teeth. Like skywriters the fighter pilots were drawing a pattern of white loops on the blue background, as if for our entertainment and no other reason.

There’s also a sense of chaos. The narrator cannot communicate with anyone else in his unit as the partisan band is composed of mainly Bulgarians, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians. Even though the Germans are the common enemy, after a friendly fire incident, the Russians hauled off, and executed, five of the partisans. As the raggle taggle band of men, thirsty and tired, continue to forge ahead, they enter a spa town which appears to be abandoned. After slaughtering any Germans who stand in their way, some of the partisans enter a bar and start drinking. The narrator isn’t allowed to join them; he’s shoved away with the words “Booby Trap” shouted at him repeatedly.  And so the narrator keeps walking. He discovers a house, standing in the middle of a “sloping, dark green law,” an oasis of calm, civilization and peace, that appears to be untouched by the war.

Imagine never having been anywhere other than here, or having conquered this house, this hill, as the solution to a riddle. 

He wipes his feet on the mat, and with a feeling of reverence, he enters the house.  There’s a pot of soup simmering on the stove. Whoever lived in the house left in a hurry:

Draped over a sofa was a lady’s coat. It spoke like the objects in detective stories. It said: although I am expensive I am lying here carelessly bunched together. Someone who was about to put me on and step through the door dropped me here. She’s noticed she’d forgotten something.

The temptation just to take a few moments of peace and quiet … to linger … and to have  a bath is simply too much, and so the narrator strips off his uniform and takes a bath.

I stood before a mirror in which I could see myself from head to toe to shave. If I had a room lined entirely with mirrors I could stay in it forever without getting bored like Robinson Crusoe on his island.

Those who fight wars have an entirely different reality from those who stay at home. This is especially true for the wealthy, and whoever lived in this house obviously led a pleasant life of plenty right up until the moment they fled. The contrast between the life of the narrator and the life he steps into is startling, so it’s perfectly understandable when he lingers.

This is a dark, brutal, haunting portrayal of war. Human nature is reduced to its most basic level: survival, but there’s also great cruelty here, a confusion of loyalties and values.  Many war novels emphasize camaraderie between men, especially WWI novels, but there’s no camaraderie here. The partisans are fighting the Germans, but that’s as far as the ties go. There are no relationships between the men, only aggression, and the aggression, when it occurs is vile, explosive, base and primal.

Review copy

Translated by David Colmer

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The Lady Killer: Masako Togawa (1963)

Earlier this year I read Masako Togawa’s The Master Key–a rather claustrophobic novel set in a decaying apartment house. Time to try The Lady Killer also from Pushkin Press’s Vertigo line of crime novels. This novel which pivots on revenge concerns a married Lothario whose approach to casual sex and one-night stands assumes nightmarish proportions as a serial killer hunts women in post WWII Tokyo.

Unhappy, overworked, 19 year-old Keiko Obana is not used to bars or drinking alcohol, but one night, with life stagnant and despressing, she makes the fatal error of entering a bar and drinking too much. She’s easy prey for a man who picks her up, has sex with her and then walks out of her life. It’s a simple one-night stand, casual sex with no repercussions, right? IMO casual sex is an oxymoron–not from a moral point of view, but from a consequences (long-term, short-term) viewpoint. Yes I’m sure that many people manage it effectively but other people are far too brittle and Keiko, a virgin, is one of those brittle people.

the lady killer

Fast forward six months and Keiko, pregnant and alone, commits suicide. Meanwhile the man who seduced her, married Ichiro Honda, continues to lead his double life. With his affluent wife safely stashed in Osaka, he lives in hotel rooms and hides his various disguises, all aimed at the seduction of young, lonely women, in a rented apartment.

Honda had a way with women. He had the faculty of penetrating their psychology at the first meeting. Was the woman interested in the arts? Very well, he would be a musician or a painter. 

Honda is a narcissist. He keeps a detailed journal, “The Huntsman’s Log,” of his conquests and he’s adopted the methods of a killer. He stalks women, and then frequently presents himself as a foreigner, faking a coy vulnerability to catch his prey off guard. When some of the women from his past are murdered, Honda, who really wants to think it’s a coincidence, finds out the hard way that his actions have consequences.

The novel’s premise is intriguing: Honda is a predator who thinks what he does is harmless. He gives women what he decides they want by filling a void in their dull lives. He has no clue about the damage he does, and the serial killer seems to deliver the coup de grâce.

The Lady Killer creates two predators: a serial seducer and a serial killer. The author creates similarities between the Modus Operandi of both emphasizing Honda’s calculated approaches such as “drinking the stale blood” of one woman’s “missed romance” and seeing women as “no more than tinplate targets at a shooting gallery in a fair.” The killer is on the heels of the seducer, and Honda is soon in so deep, he can’t see a way out.

While The Master Key examines the lives of spinsters and widows, The Lady Killer takes a cold hard look at the lives of the lonely women who step out into social life. The novel is strongest for its descriptions of Tokyo night life with its tinsel attractions, where “the aroma of Tokyo seemed to be compounded of darkness and neon.” Unfortunately, for this reader, the story became rather lurid and distasteful in its details and concluded with a long exposition which wrapped up the story.

Review copy

Translated by Simon Grove

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Adolphe: Benjamin Constant

“It is a dreadful misfortune not to be loved when we are in love, but it is a very great one to be loved passionately when we have ceased to love.”

My Penguin Classics edition of Adolphe includes a long introduction from translator Leonard Tancock regarding the life of its author, Benjamin Constant and his relationships with three women: Mme de Charrière, Madame de Staël and Anna Lindsay. Tancock notes that Adolphe’s Ellenore is an “amalgam of Benjamin’s experience with women,” and no doubt that explains why this novella is so powerful.

 

Adolphe is not a particularly appealing protagonist, and this is in spite of, or perhaps even because, he has control of the narrative, so that we only see things from his one-sided view.  The story begins when Adolphe is 22 and has just concluded his university studies. He’s bored and in society, he feels that nothing is “worthy of attracting” his attention. Influenced by his father’s attitude towards women, and in a “state of vague emotional torment,” he longs for a love affair. He is invited by a friend of his father’s, Count P, to visit, and it’s here that Adolphe meets Ellenore, a Polish woman “whose family had been ruined.”  In spite of the fact that Ellenore is the Count’s mistress and they live openly together, she is socially accepted by the Count’s circle. Ellenore and the Count have two children together, and it’s mainly due to Ellenore’s persistence that the Count’s fortunes have been restored following a successful lawsuit. So Ellenore is an unusual prospect for Adolphe–a woman of high station who has risked everything for love.  Because of scandal and social stigma, Ellenore would normally have the sort of ignominious position that demands that she be stashed away from society, but no, she’s rather unusually not hidden–accepted yes but with a stain.  This makes Ellenore an intriguing and also a vulnerable prospect for seduction.

Adolphe lays siege to Ellenore. At first his attentions are pleasant:

I did not think I was in love with Ellenore, but already I could not endure the thought of not pleasing her. She was continually in my thoughts: I made countless plans and invented countless ways of winning her, with that callow fatuity which is so confident of success because it has never attempted anything.

When Adolphe is rejected, instead of taking the hint and cooling down, he doubles down on the pressure:

I was stunned. Inflamed by this setback, my imagination took possession of my whole life. Suddenly I found myself racked by the torments of love which but an hour before I had been simulating with such-self-congratulation.

Poor Ellenore, Adolphe is determined to have her and so he resorts to the ultimate threat. Ellenore is moved, gives in, and so the affair begins. It’s a relationship that’s doomed from the start, and the road towards that finality begins with a bump or two but then becomes tortured, troubled and loaded with self deceit. There are times when Adolphe deceives himself (not the reader) and there are times when he’s blisteringly honest. It becomes all too easy to see that one person is the root of all your problems. One person is holding you back from the brilliant career you know awaits you.

Nearly always , so as to live at peace with ourselves, we disguise our own impotence and weakness as calculation and policy; it is our way of placating that half of our being which is in a sense a spectator of the other. 

This wonderful novella explores the crucial issues of any relationship: where exactly the ME and the US begins and ends and how novelty adds glitter to an affair while routine and obligation bury the thrill.

And yet the affairs of ordinary life cannot be forced to fit in with all our desires. It was sometimes awkward to have my every step marked out for me in advance and all my moments counted. I was obliged to hurry through everything I did and break with most of my acquaintances. I did not know what to say to my friends when they invited me to take part in some social activity in normal circumstances I should have had no reason for declining. When I was with Ellenore I did not hanker after these pleasures of social life which had never appealed to me very strongly, but I would have liked her to leave me freer to give them up of my own accord. It would have been pleasanter to go back to her of my own free will, without telling myself that time was up and she was anxiously waiting, and without the thought of my happiness at rejoining her being mingled with that of her displeasure. Ellenore was a great joy in my life, of course, but she was no longer an objective, she had become a tie. 

For its focus on a turbulent dying relationship Adolphe reminded me of  Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Une Vieille Maîtresse.

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Sentimental Tales: Mikhail Zoshchenko

“No, the author simply can’t plop down in bed, gay and lighthearted, with a Russian writer’s book in his hands.  For his own peace of mind, the author prefers to plop down with a foreign book.”

Sentimental Tales from Columbia University Press contains six of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s stories. I was attracted to this selection mainly due to the period in which the stories were written: The NEP period (The New Economic Policy 1921-1928), and the introduction gives an explanation of this era “Lenin introduced with the main aim of stabilizing a war-ravaged economy” and which “brought elements of capitalism–including, inadvertently speculation and profiteering into the workers’ state.” I’m not an expert on Russian history, but I’m fascinated by it–the revolution, the civil war, and then this rather bizarre short-lived NEP period which began before the death of Lenin (1924) and Stalin’s rise to power.

sentimental tales

Again I’m quoting from the introduction:

Into the fraught sociocultural landscape stepped Zoshchenko, a satirist who hid behind so many masks that it was impossible to determine whom, exactly, he was mocking.

After reading these stories in which Ukrainian Zoshchenko (1894-1958) takes swipes at everyone, I am amazed that the author survived the Purges. Again, the introduction goes into the subject of Zoshchenko’s “gallows humor,” his “devastating indictment of Soviet life, and of life in general,” and the critical responses to his work.

Kolenkorov is our rather chatty narrator, and while no one escapes his scathing wit, still these stories, in spite of their focus on human frailties, are poignant:

Apollo and Tamara

People

A Terrible Night

What the Nightingale Sang

A Merry Adventure

Lilacs in Bloom

Apollo and Tamara is a love story. Apollo, a “pianist-for-hire, musician, and freelance artist,” is “graced with the countenance of a Lothario, romancer, and destroyer of families,” but, in reality he’s timid around women, and uses his devotion to Art to avoid any commitments. Apollo falls in love but is drafted into the army. Apollo’s life goes downhill. …

People is the story of Ivan Ivanovich Belokopytov whose father is obsessed with French culture.  Belokopytov inherits a large estate, and “always rich and secure” he gives away his most of fortune believing that “human beings should make their own way in the world.” Besieged by relatives, peasants and a revolutionary group, Ivan starts writing “his first little book of poems for publication, under the title, A Bouquet of Mignonette.” After being placed under surveillance for his political sympathies, Ivan leaves Russia in 1910 but returns, after marrying a Russian Ballerina, as the Revolution rages on.

Boris Ivanovich Kotofeyev is the main character in A Terrible Night. In many ways, Boris appears to have landed on his feet when he marries his landlady and becomes: “lord and master of the entire estate. The wheel, the shed, the rake, the stone–all these were now his inalienable property.” Boris becomes obsessed with the idea that Chance has played a huge factor in his life and so “he tried to avoid it.” Thanks to his belief that Chance can break or break a life, a series of events takes Boris to a “former teacher of Calligraphy” who has fallen on hard times. This meeting seeds unease in Boris which cannot be shaken.

In When the Nightingale Sang, a love story, the narrator imagines what people will say in a hundred years, and there’s a passage that seemed very true.

And will it really be wondrous, this future life? That’s another question. For the sake of his own peace of mind, the author chooses to believe that this future life will be just as full of nonsense and rubbish as the one we are living. 

This tale concerns a middle-aged civil servant, Bylinkin whose “stock began to rise” in middle age. His hair may be thinning, but his “figure had filled out. He had reabsorbed. so to speak, the vital juices of which he’d been drained.” Fate leads him to take a room at the home of the elderly Daria Vasilyevna Rundukova “who was afraid that, due to the housing crisis, their living space per person might be reduced with the forcible introduction of some crude and superfluous individual.” 

A Merry Adventure, which contains a long chat from the narrator to the audience, the subject of Russian literature is raised

Now let’s look at our precious Russian literature. First off, the weather’s a mess. It’s either blizzards or storms. You’ve got the wind blowing in characters’ faces all the time. And they aren’t exactly agreeable folks, these characters. Always flinging curses at each other. Badly dressed. Instead of merry, joyous adventures, you get all sorts of troubles and misfortunes, or stuff that just puts you to sleep.

No, the author doesn’t agree with this kind of literature. Sure, there might be lots of good and brilliant books in it, and who the hell knows how many profound ideas and various words–but the author just can’t find emotional balance and joy in any of it.

I mean why is it that the French can depict all these excellent, calming aspects of life and we can’t? Come on comrades–for pity’s sake! What–is there a shortage of good facts in our life? Are we lacking in light and cheerful adventures? Or are we, in your opinion, low on ravishing heroines?

In Lilacs in Bloom, after assessing her living arrangements, profession and income, Volodin marries Margarita. His material comfort increases, but after three years of married life, he falls in love with another woman. …

The connections between the stories of love, life and regret are the absurdities and meaninglessness of life. Love, success, comfort are all set against the instability and unpredictability of Russian society. One can strive for decades and it will all be for nought. Reading these reminded me of Dostoevsky’s lighter work. Wonderful.

Review copy

Translated by Boris Dralyuk

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