Three Obscurities from the Borderlands: Werner Bergengruen, Adalbert Stifter, Maria von Ebner-Eschenbach (1842-1942)

German literature month 2019

German Literature Month IX

The first story in Three Obscurities from the Borderlands is The Hornung Homesickness (Das Hornunger Heimweh by Werner Bergengruen. The title is intriguing but considering I paid 2.99 for the kindle version of these three stories, I wasn’t expecting much. I’d never heard of Bergengruen, and wanted to try a new author. The Hornung Homesickness  is a contemplative, philosophical take on the issue, and price of, moral cowardice. 

The story is narrated by Georg, the son of a “mid-level civil servant.” Ill health forced the father to retire early and with a small pension he settled at Hornung by the Lake. The narrator’s father died; his mother died and the lad’s uncle serving as guardian, permits him to conclude his education in Hornung before beginning a career at a bank.

Georg notes that: I felt within myself two equally strong drives at odds with each other, one toward separation from my peers and the other toward inclusion, and with time I began to see that it would be my task to find balance between these two. 

I reject here the teachings of some that the experiences of a man, even in the smallest details, have been predetermined from all eternity, and that he has but to live them out. Yet I must admit at the same time, how insufficient his intentions often are at having any recognizable influence on his experiences. So it seems to me that between the determined and the chosen a relationship of opposing pressure and potentiality exists, in consideration of which I am of the opinion that it is not given to us to distinguish with any certainty between the two, the more, though, that we are convinced that both are given us from the one hand, the less then that we need to distinguish between the two. And so, in the long run, even this conflict may be seen as resolved. 

I was hooked by this segment of the story, and reread that passage several time. Georg argues against fate, and then seems to back off from that statement. The full implication of Georg’s thoughts are realised by the time the story concludes, and what a terrific story this is.

So back to our narrator, who as an impoverished child meets and befriends Elisabeth Williger, a girl who is growing up in a secluded state behind the walls of a “fortress-like brick villa above the old part of the city,”  under the care of her grandmother. At first, it appears that these two children, who form a fast friendship, are both orphans, but Elisabeth has a dark secret in her past which scars her future. 

The tale would seem to take a predictable turn when the narrator falls in love with Elisabeth, but then another young man, the very clever, witty, confident Alphonse Kürtzell enters the scene and suddenly three’s a crowd. Elisabeth laughs at Alphonse’s jokes and merry ways, and that leaves Georg simmering with jealousy. One night the three young people go to a tavern, and after Elisabeth leaves, Alphonse and Georg cross the lake in a boat. Only one man arrives on the shore. ….

That’s as much of this fantastic story as I intend to reveal, but there are many twists and turns, with fate playing a large part. But is it fate or is it human nature? Can we tell the difference? At the core of the story festers moral cowardice. The main character slips into that mode more than one time and it always produces disastrous results. But Georg is not the sole moral coward here. Alphonse is guilty too, and poor Elisabeth pays a heavy price.

I cannot emphasize how much I loved this story which I stumbled across by accident (fate?). Unhappily it seems that not much else exists in English from this author. More’s the pity. I like how he thinks. 

It may be that every longing which we feel in our heart, leaving it unsettled and restless, is indeed wrapped in a place that is but a succession of representations, and that every longing for home, is in truth but the promise of a higher homecoming. 

Three Obscurities from the Borderlands includes: The Hornung Homesickness, Adalbert Stifter’s The High Forest, and Maria von Ebner-Eschenbach’s The Barons von Gemperlein. My edition came with a pertinent intro and a post-story note section. This is obviously a labour of love for the translator. And if you ever read this… please translate more. Since I bought this, I discovered that there’s also Four Obscurities from the Borderlands. which includes a story by Joseph Roth–The Bust of the Kaiser. (Both are available in print and kindle versions.)

Translated by Edwin K. Tucker, Dr Sheryl F. Nadler, Editor. 

 

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Tourmaline: Adalbert Stifter

German literature month 2019

“The tourmaline is dark in colour, and the events which I am going to relate here are very dark, too; they took place in times gone by, just like the events described in the first two tales*. In them we can see, as in a letter bearing sad news, how far a man can go when he dulls the light of his own reason and is no longer able to understand things, ignores the law of his conscience–which leads him unerringly along the way of righteousness–yields completely to the intensity of his pleasures and his pain, loses his step, and falls into circumstances which we are scarcely capable of unravelling.”

(*Granite and Limestone)

With an intro like that, Tourmaline seemed to be my kind of story. I’ve yet to get used to Stifter’s pacing and his use of details, but since there’s more Stifter in my future, no doubt that will happen. Just like Brigitta, Tourmaline is a story of passion, but it’s stained with other, much darker elements.

Eight german novellas

The story opens in Vienna with a man of “about forty,” and immediately there’s the sense that there’s something a little off about this man’s domestic arrangements. It’s here that Stifter’s use of detail comes into full play as he describes the man’s home which is located on the fourth floor of a house. The details: passages, an iron grille, a clock so quiet you can’t hear it tick,  iron railings, argue for an oppressive, prison-like environment which is controlled by the man of the house who is known as “the pensioner.” The pensioner has a beautiful wife who is about 10 years younger and they have one child,  a little girl. The wife “did not maintain a great deal of contact with the outer world,” and more or less stays inside. 

A well-known actor, a good-looking, charming man named Dall visits the pensioner, listens to his stories, but eventually Dall begins a love affair with the pensioner’s wife. “This went on for a while until, at last, the wife became afraid and confessed everything to her husband.” The wife vanishes and the pensioner goes to Dall’s home three times and demands the return of his wife, but Dall has no knowledge of her whereabouts.

The pensioner and the child also disappear, the apartment is closed. Years pass and eventually the courts order that the apartment be opened, the belongings sold and the landlord paid. Money leftover from the debt to the landlord is retained in case the pensioner ever reappears. 

In the wife’s rooms nothing whatsoever had been changed, every piece of furniture was in its accustomed place and the objects were still upon them; but the minor changes which had taken place revealed how different things now were.  The heavy curtains, which had always swayed slightly when the windows were open , now hung motionless; the flowers and plants were now shrivelled wisps of brown; the clock which used to tick so quietly now ticked no longer, for the pendulum did not stir, and the clock indicated immutably the same time of day. The linen and other items of handiwork still lay upon the tables, of course, but showed no signs of having been touched, and mourned under a veil of dust. 

The story then shifts to a different narrator: this time it’s a friend of the first narrator, a married woman who becomes involved in the life of Professor Andorf and meets his reclusive concierge. …

Tourmaline is a dark fairy tale, sinister, threatening and bleak in its portrayal of the child who pays a heavy price for the folly of human passions. While the tale stands on its own, reading about Stifter’s disastrous attempts to adopt children added to its meaning. 

Jonathan likes Stifter also. 

Another fan … Tom 

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Brigitta: Adalbert Stifter

German literature month 2019

I’m late to the game with my first review for German Literature month, and my first pick was:

Brigitta

Brigitta is a novella which runs, in my edition, about 47 pages. The narrator is a man who relates a tale from his youth, and the tale covers the narrator’s journey to Hungary to visit an “old Major,” a man he’s met earlier on his travels. The two men met in Southern Italy. At the time the major was about 50 and “feted everywhere in society.”

But, so legend had it, his influence over women’s hearts had once been truly disturbing. There were rumours of victories an conquests he had made, and these were wonderful enough. But he had one fault, so it was said, which made him really dangerous, which was that no one, not even the greatest beauty on earth, had succeeded in captivating him for longer than suited him. He behaved to the end with that charm which won him all hearts and filled his chosen lady with the joy of conquest, then he bade farewell, went on a journey and never came back. But this fault, instead of frightening women off, attracted them all the more.

So the Major is the love-’em-and-leave-’em type. Over time and many conversations, the narrator and the major become fast friends, and the major invites the narrator to visit his estate in Hungary and “spend a summer a year, or five or ten years with him.” After travelling through Hungary, taking his time, the narrator finally arrives in the region of the major’s estate.

Eventually the narrator learns the mysteries of the major’s life, but the great reveal is long in arriving and it’s a somewhat circuitous road. For this reader, the story was a storm in a tea cup and a romantic one at that. There were hints of something sinister afoot but these hints sadly came to naught. For this reader, the best bits were the narrator’s descriptions of Hungarian culture.

My edition came with an informative introduction. Arguably Stifter’s greatest theme, according to the intro, is “seeing and seeing truly,” and that certainly applies to this story.

Translated by Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly

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The Things Men Do: James Hadley Chase.

“For the first time since I married her I was sharply aware that she was in the way.”

In James Hadley Chase’s dark noir novel, The Things Men Do, it’s post WWII London. Garage owner, Harry Collins is struggling to make ends meet. His business isn’t going well, and he’s buried in bills. The garage is in the wrong part of time and there’s few customers. If things don’t pick up soon, Harry will have to close shop and move on.

Out on a call late one night, Harry breaks his rule of stopping to pick up hitchhikers. But the attractive, sexy young woman, a damsel in distress standing next to a non functional car, doesn’t exactly fit the hitchhiker-type description. So Harry stops and picks up the woman. Gloria turns out to be, or so she claims, a successful lingerie designer. While all the alarm bells go off in our heads, Harry’s lust takes over.

The Things men do

Harry is a married man. He lives above the garage with his wife Ann, and she’s the sort of woman who doesn’t complain and who goes without new clothes in order to prop up her man. When Gloria enters the picture and begins telling Harry that there are plenty of ways to make money, Harry begins to keep secrets from his wife. Then Gloria invites Harry to a party at her flat so that he can discuss a business opportunity.

Harry steps deeper and deeper into deceit. He lies to his wife and his best army buddy Bill, but even beyond that, he lies to himself. It’s clear to the reader that Gloria is a part of a honey trap, and even after Harry meets Gloria’s clearly criminal friends, he finds excuses to go to her flat and talk to her ….

They looked as if they had just stepped out of a Humphrey Bogart gangster picture: the car, the clothes, they way they spilled out of the car leaving the doors hanging open, was nearest thing to Hollywood I’d seen off the movies.

The Things Men Do is a slow burn. I wasn’t that impressed with the novel until after the halfway point. It seemed fairly standard fare with the plot leading the reader down a very well worn path: the goodie two shoes wife who puts up with anything to keep her man happy, the dupe led by lust to his own doom etc. But something in the novel shifts flips when Harry takes action, and the book’s final tense scenes are dark and relentless as Harry rolls towards his fate. Harry makes references to his WWII experiences and his ability to kill. In his mind he’s gone “soft” in civvie street, but that marshmallow patina is shed as Harry seeks revenge.  Yes some people are bad, but then there are others who are evil. Greed, lust, violence tangle to deliver a powerful ending.

The French cover is the best in my opinion. 

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According to Mark: Penelope Lively

People, Diana had long ago realised, are what you are up against in life, especially those nearest and dearest to you.”

Biographer Mark Lamming has taken the high road with his career. At Cambridge he considered an academic career, but he wanted to write. He knew he was not a novelist but that he wanted “to live by writing.” So pushing aside the thoughts of a secure career and a pension, and aided by a “small income” from inherited money, he launched into a writing career as a biographer, essayist, and critic.  When Penelope Lively’s novel According to Mark opens Mark, now facing middle age, has established a modest, but respectable career, picking up work here and there. His collection of Somerset Maugham letters and his biography of Wilkie Collins have firmly established his career and now he’s beginning a biography of Gilbert Strong, a mostly forgotten writer who produced “awful” novels, essays and biographies.

According to Mark

Working through the trustees of the Strong estate, Mark travels from London to Strong’s home: Dean Close which now operates as a garden centre and is managed by Strong’s literary executor, granddaughter, Carrie. Due to a somewhat chaotic childhood, Carrie finds solace in gardening, and she doesn’t function well socially or with relationships—the exception to this being her relaxed relationship with her business partner, Bill. 

Carrie is not a reader, and she has little interest in the Strong biography. She has only sketchy memories of her grandfather, and when Mark first meets Carrie, he finds her disconcerting; “there was a provoking passivity about her.” Mark has spent the last 18 months studying every nook and cranny of Strong’s life, and he expects Carrie to show at least some interest.

A clock loudly ticked. Mark picked up his mug and put it down again; the coffee was fairly undrinkable. An occupational hazard; one of Strong’s former mistresses had given him food poisoning with take-away kebabs. He gazed at Carrie’s odd, rather childish face, and looked away. Green eyes, with little brown flecks. “It must have been different here then, with this place in full swing. All those weekend parties. Cary and people. I dare say you sat on his knee.”

“Whose knee?”

“Joyce Cary’s.”

“No,” said Carrie.

“You could have done,” said Mark, with faint irritation. “It’s chronologically quite possible, and he was a friend of your grandfather’s.”

“Well, I didn’t I’m afraid. Would you like some more coffee?”

“No,” said Mark hastily.

“They had servants and all that then,” Carried offered. “Him and Susan. Susan was the person her married after grandmother died.”

Mark sighed. “Yes. Quite.”

Carrie mentions two trunks of letters that are in the attic. Mark was unaware of this extra material and it means that his project will take much longer to complete. So he begins visiting Dean Close ostensibly to catalogue and read the letters but he finds himself drawn to Carrie. Mark’s loyal wife, Diana, who works in an art gallery, sniffs there’s something afoot. …

I enjoyed the book–especially the sections about Mark’s life as a biographer and his quest to find the ‘truth.’ He doesn’t realise that he’s going through a crisis of sorts. He’s spending his life writing about the lives of others–sacrificing to produce these books, and here he is devoting years to a writer who is forgotten–as he himself will be forgotten. Mark’s relationship with his wife, Diana is interesting. They’ve made sacrifices to lead this life they’ve chosen together, and they complement each other. For this reader, the character of Carrie was slightly problematic and unrealistic. So not my favourite Lively but good. 

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The Feast of Lupercal: Brian Moore

“He’s just like a lot of Irishmen I know. He pretends to be a wild Celt  but he’s frightened to do anything his neighbours wouldn’t approve of.”

Brian Moore’s The Feast of Lupercal, is arguably, a companion novel to The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Both novels concern middle aged lonely protagonists who live in Belfast. In the latter novel, spinster Judith Hearne, a piano teacher in her 40s moves into a boarding house. Judith’s life is on the descent. She nursed a horrible aunt until she died, but now that crutch/burden is removed, Judith, who likes booze a bit too much, is on the slippery slope. The Feast of Lupercal, concerns Diarmuid Devine, a lonely, repressed English teacher who works at a Catholic school. He’s a fading nondescript 37 and has a tiny basement flat furnished with items from his now deceased parents’ home. Even his bed “was one he had slept on since he was a boy.” Whereas Judith is clinging, desperately to the shreds of respectability, Diarmuid is entrenched in respectability and conformity, seeing his last chance at love and intimacy slipping away.

The feast of lupercal

It’s usually a blow to our self-image when we learn people’s true opinions about us. At school one day, Diarmuid overhears a bathroom conversation in which he hears himself called an “old woman.” It’s as though that conversation turns on a switch, and for the rest of the day Diarmuid begins picking up hints that’s he’s aging. He’s not viewed as much of a young eligible bachelor anymore (if he ever was); somehow he’s passed that line and is seen part of the aged/neutered crowd. He attends a party to celebrate the engagement of a young couple, and the host, a sixty year old, refers to Diarmuid as a peer. Following this blow, Diarmoud finds himself mingling with the elderly. The leftovers.

Here were the old ones. Tim Heron’s mother and his wife’s father, an aged uncle, a solitary aunt. Five or six unmarried females, elderly, out of things. All of them dressed in their Sunday best, wondering what to do with themselves. For they had so looked forward to this party, and now, as usual, they were not enjoying it. They sat in a stiff oval on the sofas and chairs, trying to think of small, useless remarks. Unwanted, even by each other, they were the kind of relatives who must be invited to every function because, being the least noticed, they were the quick to take offence. Someone had given them glasses of sherry and there were a few small biscuits of  a plate. They waited for supper, like children for a treat.

There’s one exciting aspect of Diarmuid’s life, amateur theatre, but even this is regulated by the church. Still, in his better moments Diarmuid can imagine that he’s a bit dangerous, a tad exciting, and that night at the party, he meets Una Clarke, a young protestant girl who’s moved from Dublin in a cloud of scandal and hopes to attend nursing school in Belfast. Diarmuid is attracted to her, and he begins to think this is his chance for love….

This is a closed, claustrophobic society in which everyone knows everyone else and gossip floats freely in the air. In this sort of atmosphere, people like Diarmuid can never escape the perceptions and judgments of others. Una is smart enough to know she has to escape to fresh pastures. She’s clearly someone who has her own mind and admires those “who defy people and do what they think is right.” An acquaintance describes Diarmuid as a “fella that wouldn’t say boo to a dead duck.” so this timid schoolmaster isn’t exactly her type. On one hand Diarmuid’s attracted to her, yet on the other he worries what people will think–that the “authorities” will think. She’s a curious choice for Diarmuid. He’d probably be better off going for a Catholic wallflower, but he selects Una partially because she is ‘dangerous’ but also because she’s open and not stigmatized by the rigidity of religion. But is he also interested in Una, perhaps, because, it’s not likely to work?….

The Feast of Lupercal examines one man’s struggles against himself, and author Brian Moore cleverly sets up the plot so that Diarmud eventually, finds himself in a tragic, moral dilemma. Diarmuid must face that fork in the road– who he is and who he’d like to be.

While this is an excellent novel, this isn’t my favourite Moore. I struggle with passive characters, and I struggle with characters whose lives are dictated by religion. I much preferred The Doctor’s Wife and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

In some ways, The Feast of Lupercal reminded me of a Wharton novel (The Age of Innocence) in which characters are suffocated and influenced by the society in which they live.

Here’s Jonathan’s review.

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Fishnet: Kristin Innes

Fishnet from Kristin Innes takes a look at the inner world of prostitution. It’s the world’s oldest profession as the saying goes and in Scotland, where the book is set, prostitution is legal but public solicitation, pimping and operating a brothel is not. Readers are going to come to this book with their own opinions about prostitution and they may find those opinions challenged.

Fishnet

Fiona is at a hen’s night whooping it up in a highland village when something weird happens. Some semi-boozed up man at the pub claims he recognises her. The trip to this particular village brings back memories of Rona, Fiona’s missing sister, as this village was her last know whereabouts. Rona’s been gone now for almost 7 years. Fiona decides to track down Rona’s friend and former roommate Christina, and she’s shocked to discover that Rona was working as a prostitute right before she disappeared. This new information throws an entirely different light on Rona’s disappearance.

Coincidentally, when Fiona returns to work at a construction company, the building is being picketed by sex workers who are about to be evicted. Fiona’s boss tells her to call the police on the women, and while Fiona complies, she also takes the women tea and warns them that the police are on their way.

This encounter sends Fiona down the rabbit hole looking for her sister. Meanwhile Fiona’s home life as a single parent living with her parents, takes a back seat. The novel sways between a search for Rona, the reduction of the stigmatization of sex work, the legalization of prostitution, and the argument that prostitutes aren’t all exploited women. This was obviously well researched, but the plot was somewhat predictable so no surprises there.

My opinions of prostitution have altered with age. In gung-ho youth, I thought, remove the pimps, it was a victimless crime, damn it and that it should be legalized. It was pretty black and white for me. I still think it should be legalized, and the Scottish approach seems the most humane and reasonable. However, my opinions were altered some time back by the Elizabeth Haynes (researched) novel Behind Closed Doors. This novel concerned a 15 year old girl who was sold into sex slavery, drugged up to the eyeballs, beaten, raped and rotated through various flop houses in the Red Light district of Amsterdam.  You know … where prostitution is legal. Yeah right.

review copy.

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All This Could Be Yours: Jami Attenberg

“Some people are just bad forever.”

Author Jami Attenberg is back in familiar territory in All This Could Be Yours. While The Middlesteins explored a family driven to dissolution by one member’s eating disorder, All This Could Be Yours focuses on the Tuchman family as they gather, expectantly, for 73-year-old patriarch Victor’s death. Yes you read that correctly. Expectantly. So what sort of man is Victor if his family hope he hurries up and dies? Here’s daughter Alex, who can’t “wait until her father died,” calling her brother Gary with the news that their father is in hospital:

and she was so breathless with the news about their father’s heart attack she sounded almost joyful, which anyone else might have found inappropriate, but he didn’t, he was on her team, and she was on his. 

Victor’s wife, 68 year old Barbra, after a lifetime of her husband’s infidelity and desultory physical abuse, visits his bedside, speed walks around the hospital floor, and ruminates over the past. Once upon a time Victor and Barbra lived in a Connecticut mansion, but Victor lost his ill-gotten criminal money hushing up an epic sexual harassment scandal. As a result, Victor and Barbra lost their mansion and moved into a condo in New Orleans. But Victor isn’t just a nasty man, he’s a disease, so where he goes he spreads trouble. Victor and Barbra’s son Gary, who’s based In New Orleans, seems mostly to avoid his home and wife Twyla these days. Bad idea. Gary’s divorced sister, lawyer Alex, arrives in New Orleans hoping that her mother will finally offer an explanation of her father’s shady business deals and exactly WHY she stayed with him all these years.

Her mother would have no one to hide behind, nor a reason to keep any secrets from her any longer. Her mother had been loyal all these years, often acting more like her husband’s consigliere rather than like his wife, and Alex knew Barbra wouldn’t say a bad word about Victor before he passed. 

As the story unfolds, and Victor hovers on the brink of death, gradually pieces of his shady life float to the surface, and it’s clear why his children loathe him. Barbra is the epitome of the trophy wife, but those years are over, and Victor and Barbra’s now diminished lifestyle has led to acrimony.

Once she had been the grand prize. He had won her, he thought, like a stuffed animal at a sideshow alley.

The narrative extends back to Victor’s courtship of Barbra (I’m using the term ‘courtship’ loosely here), and while Barbra once loved her brutish spouse, now all the “payoffs” and affluent lifestyle that somehow balanced the negatives in her married life are gone.  While Alex puzzles over the enigma of her parents’ relationship and wants the truth about her father’s deeds, Gary has had a much worse childhood and bore the brunt of his father’s twisted machismo. Gary “spent his whole life caring, in contrast to his father, who’d spent his whole life not caring. “ Meanwhile Gary’s daughter Avery who’s become a companion of sorts to her grandfather has confused feelings about the man who has recently appeared in her life. “She knew there was something off about” him but she can’t quite place what is wrong.

All this could be yours

Victor may be on the brink of death but he oozes through the pages in scenes and memories. This is a chronic sleazy womanizer, a gambler, a criminal who never changes but only becomes more embittered as he loses his looks, his physique and his money.

This would have been the precise moment to acknowledge the crimes of his life that had put them in that exact location. His flaws hovered and rotated, kaleidoscope-like, in front of his gaze, multi-colored, living, breathing shards of guilt in motion. If only he could put together the bits and pieces into a larger vision, to create an understanding of his choices, how he landed on the wrong side, perhaps always had. And always would.
Instead he was angry about the taste of  bottle of Scotch, and suggested to his wife that if she kept a better home, none of this would have happened, and so would she please stop fucking around with the thermostat and leave the temperature just as he liked. And she had flipped another page, bored with his Scotch, bored with his complaints. 

Given the title, inheritance is under examination–not the inheritance of worldly goods, although that does appear, but how we are shaped by our families. Alex’s daughter Sadie must align love of her father with the fact that he uses women, lies to them and throws them away. How does a child incorporate love for a parent with the fact that he or she is a shitty human being? How does that twist the perception of marriage and relationships? Finally a shout out to Barbra’s mother Anya, who made tremendous sacrifices to protect her grandchildren and who is arguably the moral compass of the novel even though she’s long dead and buried.

I recently read Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House which looked at the impact of toxic familial relations. All This Could Be Yours is the same territory–except since this is written by Jami Attenberg there’s a lot of humour. The situation on the surface, a dying arsehole of a father, isn’t exactly funny, so the result is an affirmation of the quirkiness of dysfunctional family life–how we become so used to the weird and unacceptable that it eventually becomes normal.

Review copy

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The Hotel: Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

“An hotel, you know, is a great place for friendships.” 

It’s 1920, WWI is over, and a motley assortment of British travelers find themselves in a hotel on the Italian Riviera. With each new arrival, the guests shift into different formation, adding and subtracting people into various groups. There’s Mrs Kerr whose languid presence and “vague smile” dominate a certain set. She’s always perfectly calm, and young Sydney Warren, who travels with her cousin Tessa Bellamy, spends far more time with Mrs Kerr, observing Mrs Kerr or looking for Mrs. Kerr, than attending her cousin. There’s Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald who travel together, room together, and have spats. Then there’s Dr. Lawrence and his three boisterous daughters, a widow the Honourable Mrs Pinkerton and her sister-in-law, Miss Pinkerton, Colonel and Mrs Duperrier, and the Lee-Mittisons. “Nearly everybody here was English.” 

The Hotel

The glamorous Mrs Kerr is an enigma to the other guests. She “took fashion in and subdued it and remained herself.”  She spends her days doing very little: sitting on her balcony enjoying the view for hours on end (much to the disgust of the other English ladies who keep themselves busy with a range of hobbies). Mrs Kerr will occasionally, languidly stroll to the tennis courts to watch the physical activities of others. Nothing ruffles her, and while she seems to expend very little energy on living, she manages to fluster most of the other women who speculate on her marital staus. Sydney is possessive of Mrs Kerr and rather upset when she learns that Mrs Kerr’s only child, Ronald will join her.

Most of the guests are couples or families, but there’s another solo guest, the lonely middle-aged clergyman, Milton who, upon arrival, makes the horrible faux pas of using a hotel bathroom that has been sequestered for the exclusive use of Mrs and Miss Pinkerton. Both of the ladies are horrified by his (inadvertent) effrontery and Miss Pinkerton is “prostrated” by the knowledge that some rogue male is using her bathroom (and seeing her underthings). This early uproar underscores the divisions of the male-female world: “The best type of man is no companion.” Poor Milton’s arrival and departure are both marked with ignominy. Unmoored from his usual position he stumbles into one mess after another. There are more young women in the novel than young men–after all it’s 1920 so just a few years post WWI. One of the guests is Victor who is “unable to find a job since the War” and is “said to be suffering from nervous depression.”

While Colonel Duperrier finds himself plagued with vague longings and fancies, his wife keeps an eye on him from afar. The Lee-Mittisons are a rather bizarre couple who are horribly boring. Sydney certainly finds them tedious, but scratch the surface here and you find Mr Lee-Mittison who marches, literally, all the attractive young girls into his ‘expeditions’ while his wife, rather like a trained sheepdog herds them. “He did not care for young married women, while widows depressed him–poor little souls.” Mrs Lee-Mittison’s job is to be amazed, repeatedly, at all of her husband’s well-worn tales. as he “tell[s] graphically of life in the East, bearing his descriptions out with photograph albums.”  She’s his biggest fan and if any of the young girls try to skip out of the hikes, she pimps for him. She’s “at pains to waylay anybody in whom Herbert might be interested.”

After the underwhelming The Little Girls  which seemed rather pointless in the end, I thoroughly enjoyed The Hotel. While there’s no solid plot, the book follows the shifting relationships of the hotel guests who find themselves thrown together and thus select relationships–sometimes yes by who’d they rather be with but also by who they’d rather avoid.

There are some wonderful descriptions here. One of a trip to a now deserted villa owned by Russians (probably now dead) and another of a cemetery. Both of course underscore the transient nature of life.

The cemetery seemed quite deserted. Gashes of over-charged daylight pressed in through the cypresses on to the graves: a hard light bestowing no grace and exacting such detail. In the shade of the pillared vaults round the walls what already seemed like the dusk of evening had begun to thicken, but the rank and file of small crosses staggered arms wide in the arraignment of sunshine. In spite of the brooding repose of the trees a hundred little shrill draughts came between them, and spurting across the graves made the decorations beloved of Cordelia creak and glitter. A wreath of black tin pansies swung from the arm of a cross with a clatter of petals, trailing colourless ribbons; a beaded garland had slipped down slantwise across the foot of a grave. Candles for the peculiar glory of the lately dead had stuck in the unhealed earth; here and there a flame in a glass shade writhed, opaque in the sunshine.

The opaque quality of The Little Girls is also found in The Hotel, and when I finished the book, I pondered the toxic undercurrents of Sydney’s relationship with Mrs Kerr. One of the many things I carried away from this brilliant book is the letter writing which takes place within the novel. It’s a long lost art these days. Will there one day be a book ‘The Collected texts of  … ‘(fill in the name of a famous author). A bizarre thought.

 

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Filed under Bowen, Elizabeth, Fiction

The Dutch House: Ann Patchett

“I could feel the entire house sitting on top of me like a shell I would have to drag around for the rest of my life.”

A story of inheritance, failed responsibility and restitution, The Dutch House from Ann Patchett is told by Danny Conroy. Danny, now a middle aged man narrates the retrospective tale which begins in Danny’s childhood. Danny and his sister Maeve are the children of real estate tycoon, Cyril Conroy who, following WWII, begins to accumulate real estate in Pennsylvania. The jewel in his crown is ‘the Dutch House’ of the title, a mansion built by the ill-fated VanHoebeek family, whose possessions (what’s left) remain in the house. The fact that inside this incredible house, all these accumulated objects, some worth a considerable amount of money, are forgotten and gathering dust, is significant. The VanHoebeeks were wealthy before the depression, but the disintegration of the family made all else immaterial. 

The Dutch House.

Cyril’s wife, Brooklyn born Elna Conroy, who had at one point been a novice, was uncomfortable with immense wealth and the surprise ‘gift’ of the vast VanHoebeek house. She finds the 3 storey mansion with its walnut bas-relief walls and her new life suffocating, so she abandons her 2 children departing the scene for India. Shortly thereafter, Maeve becomes diabetic.

My father sighed, sank his hands down into his pockets and raised his eyes to assess the position of the clouds, then he told me she was crazy. That was both the long and the short of it.

“Crazy how?”

“Crazy like taking off her coat and handing it to someone on the street who never asked her for a coat in the first place. Crazy like taking off your coat and giving it away too.”

Within a few years, Cyril marries again, an avaricious woman named Andrea who has two young daughters. Andrea, the complete opposite of Cyril’s first wife, holds herself in check, barely, but when Cyril dies unexpectedly, she loses no time in evicting 15-year-old Danny–Maeve has long since been made to feel unwelcome. Maeve and Danny, in a matter of days, find themselves cast out of the house and cut off from what they assumed would be their inheritance. There is, however, an education trust fund set up for Danny and also for Andrea’s two daughters. Maeve, loathing Andrea and feeling the injustice of her stepmother’s actions, pushes Danny into medical school in order to drain as much of the trust as possible.

The novel covers five decades, and most of the novel is defined by Danny’s close relationship with Maeve. They connect through their shared past and also through the home they lost. Maeve is a mother figure, sacrificing herself for Danny in contrast to their mother who ran away, ditching her responsibilities in order to care for strangers.

To say too much more about the plot would be to ruin it for others. This is a strongly narrative novel told by Danny, and we only see glimpses of his wife Celeste who takes second place to Maeve. Through Danny’s tale, the novel explores failed relationships and failed responsibilities. Maeve’s drive to score against Andrea leads Danny to a life he didn’t choose for himself, and yet he still manages to pull himself into a direction in which he’s comfortable. Both Danny and Maeve suffered from their parents’ failed responsibilities. Their mother physically abandoned them, and while their father remained, he emotionally abandoned his children. It’s interesting then to see Danny’s relationship with Celeste. He’s absent in more ways than one. There’s one scene when Celeste sees that Danny has improved Maeve’s kitchen, and Celeste quietly notes that she had wanted exactly the same thing for years. The narration is well-paced and interesting, and I wanted to know what happened to Danny and Maeve. Elan’s early departure stranded the two children for almost their entire adult lives and while they developed into successful people (Maeve was underemployed) the damage was done. Lots of children have it way tougher than Danny and Maeve, but these siblings lost a great deal of money. Ultimately the money lost was secondary to the need for loving parents.

But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.

The novel takes a rather idealised view of human nature (with Andrea sucking up the book’s negative view of humanity). People who’ve been shafted usually seem to scar and yet here healing takes place in a redemptive way.  Should we let toxic people back into our lives? Should we forgive? Is forgiveness for the transgressor or for us? That said, there’s one character I won’t name (but you can guess it if you’ve read the book) who needs a good wallop over the head. Does she not see the irony of her behavior? Perhaps, arguably, it’s ‘penance’ as she says but poor Maeve pays for it as she pays for almost all the bad things that take place in the novel. Telescopic Philanthropy so well described by Dickens. 

Review copy. 

 

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Filed under Fiction, Patchett Ann