German Stories and Tales: Robert Rick ed. (Part III)

Back to German Stories and Tales, and here’s part I and part II for anyone interested in the contents of this modest OOP book. Readers who are seeking German stories really can’t go wrong with this collection, for most of the tales here are excellent.

In Moritz Heimann’s  (1868-1925) story The Message That Failed, a tale of unrequited love, humble revenue clerk/poet Vincentius Hüttenvogel returns from the theatre following a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. In a burst of enthusiasm, he writes a poem to the singer who played the role of Cherubino in a sexually ambiguous fashion:

Vincentius, who had often seen and heard her, but had formerly resented her crude, naturalistic vocal style, was at first vexed and then enkindled by her Cherubino’s ambiguity. Artlessness this time impressed him as superior art; no love song had ever had the elemental quality of this gay, careless outpouring from a creature who did not lure a woman with male wiles or try as a woman to seduce a man. This was no longer yearning or mere concupiscence. This was rapture itself an all its sweetness. 

Vincentius considers sending the singer, Nanette, the poem, but decides against it. His landlady. however, finds the poem, copies it, and sends it to Nanette. Nanette is used to fan mail, but this poem strikes at her heart, and somehow the adulation shown by its author make her impatient with her young, wealthy lover, Xavier. So begins a search for the poet, a search laced with irony and a bittersweet ending. (translated by E.B. Ashton)

Arthur Schnitzler’s The Bachelor’s Death reminded me, slightly,  of the old film, Letter to Three Wives. A doctor, a writer, and a businessman are called to the bedside of their friend, a bachelor, but they all arrive too late; the bachelor is dead. The doctor discovers a letter written by the bachelor and reads it aloud. To state the contents of the letter would be to give away too much, but I’ll say that the letter is a confession which has profound implications for the three men. (translated by Richard and Clara Winston)

Another great favourite is Hermann Broch’s Zerline, the Old Servant Girl. At first it seemed as though the focus would be A., an affluent businessman with the Midas touch. But no, the focus is Zerline, a bitter, nasty old servant who tells a story of her youth and the competition between her and her mistress, the Baroness, for the love of a dissolute man.

Man is cheap, and his memory is full of holes that he can never patch up. How much of what you forget forever you have to do in order for what you have done to be able to carry the little that you keep forever. Everyone forgets his everyday life. With me it was all the furniture that I dusted day after day, all the plates that had to be wiped, and like everyone else. I sat down every day to eat. But as with everyone, it’s only a knowing about it, not a real remembering, as though it had all happened without any weather, good or bad. Even the lust I enjoyed has become a space without weather, and though my gratitude for what was alive has remained, the names and features that once meant lust and even love to me have vanished more and more from my mind, vanished into a glass gratitude that has no content any more.Empty glasses, empty glasses. And yet if it weren’t for the emptiness, if it weren’t for the forgotten, the forgettable wouldn’t have been able to grow. The forgotten carries empty-handed the unforgettable, and we are carried by the unforgettable. 

It’s a long quote, slightly awkward in the beginning, but it captures life and memories so well, and how at the end of our lives, we forget all the meals we’ve eaten, all the boring stuff, and instead our lives are accordioned into some “unforgettable” memories. In the case of Zerline, the unforgettable shrinks down to a few days with Herr von Juna…. (translated by Jane B. Greene)

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Elle: Philippe Djian

“There is a line that must never be crossed.”

As an Isabelle Huppert fan, I was delighted to watch her in the recent film, Elle. She excels at playing difficult, non-mainstream women who have the tendency to go nuclear when things turn south. Elle was one of the more interesting French films I’ve seen lately, but the ending was a bit disappointing. I hoped the book by Philippe Djian would bring a little more clarity to the character of Michèle, and I was not disappointed.

Elle

The film is quite faithful to the book with just a few minor differences. In the film, Michèle owns a video game company and that job allows for a great deal of visual scope when exploring violence against women (and the violence of video games in general). The book, which depicts Michèle as the emotionless owner of a production company allows us to enter Michèle’s head and offers trains of thought that arguably explain her actions.

The book opens in the aftermath of Michèle’s brutal rape at the hands of a masked intruder. The shock of this act isn’t based so much in the aggression, but in Michèle’s actions afterwards. She doesn’t call the police. Instead she picks herself up, takes a bath and orders sushi for her son and his pregnant girlfriend.

This is not to say that Michèle isn’t shaken by the attack. She is. She buys Mace, changes the locks, searches the house with a meat cleaver, and becomes increasing aware of the vulnerability of living alone in a large house now that her grown son, Vincent and her ex-husband, Richard have left.  It takes her a few days before she tells anyone, and it’s as though she hugs the information about the rape close. She can’t stop thinking about it, but at the same time she acknowledges that she’s “known worse with men I freely chose.”

I am very upset about the way I’ve reacted to this whole thing, about the confusion it’s caused in me, seemingly more unimaginable and obscure with each passing day. I hate having to struggle against myself, to wonder who I am. Not having access to what is buried, buried so deep inside me that only the tiniest, vaguest murmur can be heard far away, like some forgotten, heart-wrenching and totally incomprehensible song. 

Almost from the first page we know that Michèle is different, and that difference can be traced back to her relationship with her father who’s locked up for a horrendous crime spree, the nature of which is revealed as the book continues. Michèle’s 75-year-old mother is still alive, and although she’s supported by her daughter, she maintains a young lover and intends, to Michèle’s disgust, to marry him. In the past, Michèle has “eliminated” her mother’s suitors by telling outrageous lies, but this lover can’t be shaken off.  Michèle thinks her mother is “a real slut.”

She looks like one of those terrifying old actresses-completely plastered over, breast lift at five thousand a pair, eyes all agleam, tanned to the hilt.

The rape occurs just before Christmas, and the novel unfolds over a short period of time with Michèle arranging a Christmas dinner to which she invites Richard and his new girlfriend, a hot, young thing, and the neighbours across the street, banker, Patrick and his wife, Rébecca. We see Michèle in the context of her complicated relationships with her ex husband, her best friend, Anna, Anna’s slimy “soulless” husband (and Michèle’s lover), Robert, Michèle’s son Vincent and his pregnant (by another man) girlfriend, Josie. Michèle has unemotional, but clinically proficient sex with Robert, and isn’t troubled by the fact that she’s banging her best friend’s husband. He was there at the right time and fills a need, but now she’s bored with him and wants to move on.

Everyone in Michèle’s life wants something from her. Her ex wants her to promote his lacklustre screenplays, her son “imbecile” Vincent who’s finally got a job at McDonalds wants financial support for himself, Josie, and the baby (whose father is in a prison in Thailand). Michèle’s mother also wants financial support, and Robert wants sex on demand regardless of Michèle’s mood or their location. It’s interesting that no-one wants affection or love, and that’s just as well as Michèle doesn’t have any to give away–well except for the cat. The novel excels by hinting at various motives behind Michèle’s behaviour, and it’s possible to walk away from the novel with multiple answers for what she does. For this reader this novel is much much darker than a revenge tale. Sometimes Michèle recalls her father–a man who seemed normal until he wasn’t. Similarly her rapist has “two faces” and in certain moments, she sees “a rather unfortunate overlapping of his two faces, which makes him at once attractive and repulsive, and not far from resembling my father.” We’ll never know what motivates Michèle, but for this reader, it’s a lot darker than the ‘cat-and-mouse’ suggested by the book’s blurb. The rape unleashes something in Michèle:

It’s this other me coming out, though I fight it tooth and nail. It;s a me that invites confusion, flux, unexplored territories

Elle will make my best-of-year list.

Emma’s review

Review copy

Translated by Michael Katims

Also by Philippe Djian & also recommended: Consequences

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A Little Tea, A Little Chat: Christina Stead

“He had suffered too much from women.”

In Christina Stead’s comic novel,  A Little Tea, A Little Chat Robert Grant, a middle-aged businessman, a dealer in cotton, is a despicable, opportunistic predatory male who is always on the lookout for the next sexual encounter. This bombastic braggart spends most of his time scoping out likely women he can invite up to his New York apartment for the euphemistic “a little tea, a little chat.”

The novel opens in 1941, with an introduction of Grant and his repulsive male circle of friends, all “birds of prey” and “each of them loved money and lechery, above all,” so between these men, stories of ripping off widows or seducing them makes good cocktail talk. It’s hard to say which of these men is the most revolting, but the novel concentrates on the philandering career of Grant, and how he subsequently meets his match.

A little tea a little chat

Robert Grant isn’t an interesting man. He’s shallow and “had no hobbies. He could not read more than a few consecutive sentences in any book or newspaper unless they referred immediately to himself or his interests.” Grant’s relentless, pitiless modus operandi geared towards women is the compelling fascination here. He’s a pig, picking up women, stringing them along with false promises, assessing whether or not they’re worth bedding, buying them the cheapest meals possible. and then dumping them when he’s bored or if thing gets complicated.

He had little pleasure out of his real hobby, libertinage; and he gave none. Women fell away from him, but he did not know why; and he retained only the venal.

He claims to be afraid of women, irreparably damaged by a femme fatale in his past. He poses as a free thinker, a “bit of a Marxist,” but considers a woman goes too far when she dances with a “negro fellow.” He’s learned to pose as a Leftie and has convinced himself that he really is one. Again this is just a role for sexual benefit.  Leftist women seem to want to give it away free.

usually his radicalism made his girls trustful and either cheap or for nothing: a radical girl should not take money for love. 

Grant is a practiced seducer who always plays the victim to his prey. Here he is on his wife:

That ‘ooman in Boston, my wife, is no good to me. Never loved me. Now when it’s too late, she tries to make me come back. Just like Barb. It’s a type-stupid. A woman like you could keep a man. I’m looking for an oasis in my desert, a rose on a blasted heath. 

And here he is on what he’s looking for in a woman:

I’m looking for romance. My heart needs a home, a cradle, eh? I’ve used myself up, played too hard. Now I need a woman, a mother, a sister, a sweetheart, a friend. That’s what that cow in Boston doesn’t realize. I need a mother now. She could have me back. But it’s too late now.

Discarding woman as casually and frequently as if they were paper underwear, he finally runs into a woman called Barbara Kent–a woman he eventually nicknames  The Blondine. At first she seems a little drab, no big deal, but he becomes intrigued even though he knows “she’s possessive, she’s greedy, she is from the Land of Grab.” Barbara’s friend, Paula (another of Grant’s conquests) calls Barbara a “tramp.”

She got sick of men so soon. I don’t think she really cares for them. She’s not a gold-digger at heart, but she finished up gold-digging. She has too good a head for figures. She can always calculate the chances. What’s the use of marrying somebody with flat feet, some jerk, and so dying of old age at thirty?

In this darkly, cruelly funny novel, we see Grant perplexed by the languid Barbara, who’s really every bit as boring as he is, and as she slips his grasp, he becomes obsessed with her. Setting, at no small expense, private detectives on her trail, sightings of Barbara with various men serve to fuel his obsession, and eventually, comically, he discovers, or thinks he discovers, Barbara’s secret life.

A Little Tea, A Little Chat is an intense character study of the male predator. After a certain point in the novel, we don’t really learn anything new about Robert, his methods or his tastes, but nonetheless, we follow him through his obsession with Barbara Kent. Grant is a bore, and like most bores, he won’t shut up, has the same speeches, and the same beliefs which he trots out in company. Grant’s speech about how he’s been done wrong by women appears repeatedly, for example, although it’s modified at times to fit his audience. At one point, for example, he has an idea for a book, called All I Want is a Woman, and in another scene he meets a woman “just back from Reno,” who wants to write a thinly veiled novel about her marriage. This meeting morphs into a duel for attention as Grant and the woman wax on about their respective experiences. Both egomaniacs, neither listens to the other. Some readers may be disappointed in the repetitiveness of Grant’s behaviour, but Grant’s boring repetitiveness and insatiable rapaciousness is all part of his shtick.

This is not a perfect novel, and at times Grant’s constant rants can be bludgeoning. But in spite of its flaws, I enjoyed the book thoroughly for its portrayal of a type who finally meets his match.

review copy

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A Cage in Search of a Bird: Florence Noiville

In French novelist Florence Noiville’s A Cage in Search of a Bird, successful television journalist and author Laura Wilmot’s act of kindness towards an old friend backfires and leads to a terrible psychological game of cat-and-mouse. By a strange coincidence, I read this book around the same time as reading Delphine de Vigan’s novel, Based on a True Story. While Based on a True Story is the story of a writer whose life is gradually taken over by L., a woman who professes to be an old schoolmate and friend, in A Cage in Search of a Bird, Laura’s life is wrenched apart when C., an old schoolmate and friend declares that they are meant to be together and that nothing will keep them apart.

Here’s how the book opens:

That day I became convinced that something was wrong.

‘Look! I’m dressed as you!’

C came into the room where I was working and made that statement, her voice filled with joy.

Even today I hear her throaty voice stressing the you. I should have looked up, but I let the words sink into my brain. There was something strange about them. Why ‘as you’, and not ‘like you’? And the stress on you.

Laura and C were best friends in school, and at the time, C’s star was rising, but after losing touch for years, Laura meets C at a book signing. Laura is a television journalist in a solid relationship, and she’s doing well. C,  a freelance writer, asks Laura to help get her a job at the television station, and Laura, who feels guilty for having poached many of C’s ideas along the way, offers to give this old friend a helping hand.

a cage in search of a bird

Soon Laura’s life is a nightmare; C insists that they love one another, are meant to be together, and that Laura is denying the inevitable. C calls at 2 in the morning, she creates a facebook account in Laura’s name, and she undermines her at work. At first Laura, who’s skilled at getting into the heads of the people she interviews, sees the situation with C as raw material for a new book, and she wants to “enter C’s delusion.” She consults a therapist about C, and he basically tells Laura to run, that C has de Clérambault syndrome and that this situation will end either in death or suicide. …

A Cage in Search of a Bird is a psychological thriller, and its strengths include several cases of de Clérambault syndrome patients (including Johnny Hallyday and Patrick Bruel). These cases show just how hopeless (to cure) these obsessions, with built-in-fantasy protection, are. Also how very dangerous. Here’s a man who can’t shake off a woman who obsesses about him

We are in the realm of the unpredictable. The only thing I know is that every week I receive a letter from her. Often she brings it herself and leaves it with my secretary. She’s there in person, she wanders the halls of the university. It’s a very destabilizing situation. You control neither the beginning nor the end. You don’t know where it comes from, what triggered it, and how it might end. You don’t know what kind of fantasy you might be the object of. And you are completely outside the rational world in which you’ve existed since childhood…

On the down side, the novel became increasingly elliptical as the pace picked up, and at a couple of points, some things weren’t clear. Some paragraphs are a sentence long, and at times, the story read like an outline to a novel: in other words not fleshed out yet.

After reading A Cage in Search of a Bird,  I understand some of these celebrity “stalking” murders that make the news. Also how A list celebrities who have the $$ to have good security can haul de Clérambault syndrome stalkers into court while B list celebrities are more vulnerable and can end up dead. I’ll emphasize though that some of the people Laura talks to about de Clérambault syndrome are just regular people (like her) who unfortunately and inexplicably become the object of erotomania.

Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan

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Anything is Possible: Elizabeth Strout

“Life had simply not been what she thought it would be.”

I recently watched Olive Kitteridge, and I liked the sour, yet sturdy character of Olive Kitteridge so much, I decided it was about time I tried some of the author’s work. That brings me to Anything is Possible which isn’t a novel as much as a series of interconnected stories, mostly set in Amgash, Illinois. While there’s no one single theme to these nine stories/chapters, family secrets, life’s disappointments, certainties and doubts are highlighted as we flow into, and out of, these characters’ lives.

The first story, The Sign, is told by Tommy Guptill, a former dairy farmer turned school janitor, who in his 80s, reminisces about the child Lucy Barton. Lucy is now a famous author living in New York, and her memoir is on sale in town. The memory of Lucy, who Tommy suspected was abused, causes him to drive out to the isolated Barton homestead and visit her damaged brother. This visit in turn leads Tommy to question an event that uprooted his life.

anything is possible

Other stories concern an overweight, widowed high school guidance councilor who has a meeting with Lucy Barton’s niece, and the councilor’s sister, who’s so afraid of ending up living in a trailer, alone, that she buries her head in the sand concerning her husband. In another story, a married man frequently meets with a prostitute, and fittingly, in “Sister,” Lucy returns home to visit and reconnects with her siblings.  Of the collection, “Dottie’s Bed and Breakfast” stood out for its portrayal of the marriage of Dr and Mrs Small, so miserable and pathological that Dottie feels “comforted about her divorce.

What Dottie had not understood until the Smalls came to stay was that there were different experiences she attended to in this business that made her feel either connected to or used by people. 

I disliked the first story, The Sign as for its cliches, and while I warmed to some of the characters, (Patty, Dottie) for the most part these are a miserable lot. A thread of deep melancholy runs through these stories, and while we all have to live with our mistakes, these lives of quiet desperation made me wonder about the suicide rate among these characters, but no, then again, they seem to carry on, shouldering the burden of disappointment, mistakes, and secrets.

I haven’t read Lucy Barton, and although other reviews state that it’s not necessary to read Lucy Barton before reading Anything is Possible,  it might have helped to be given some background to these characters. I seem to be in the minority opinion here and glowing reviews dominate, but in spite of my disappointment, I still intend to read Olive Kitteridge. 

Review copy

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Based on a True Story: Delphine de Vigan

The title of Delphine de Vigan’s latest book, Based on a True Story is a bit of a teaser. Is this book fiction or not? The book’s inside flap states that “this psychological thriller blurs the line between fact and fiction, reality and artifice,” and you can’t help but wonder what is ‘true’ and what is imagined when you read the book. After all, the author writes “autobiographical fiction,” and the main character is Delphine, an author who’s just written a book about her mother (Delphine de Vigan’s book about her mother is reviewed here), and if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that there are elements of the book that are true with imagination taking flight at some point. But frankly, I’m not interested in how much is real and how much is fiction; after all, I’m sure many writers use personal experiences, in one form or another, for inspiration.

Based on aTrue Story

The book begins with Delphine (the character) describing how she became friends with a woman she identifies only as L. They meet at a party, and “profoundly, slowly, surely, insidiously” L enters Delphine’s life and, over a two-year-period, gradually takes it over. When the two women meet, Delphine is at a low point in her life, and the publication of a book about her mother has had unexpected, mostly negative results. So here’s Delphine, a successful writer who meets L, a ghostwriter of various biographies and memoirs. To Delphine, L appears to be everything she will never be, immaculate:

How much time does it take to be a woman like that? I wondered as I looked at L., as I had observed dozens of women before, on the metro, in cinema queues and at restaurant tables. Coiffed, made up and neatly pressed. Without a crease. How much time to reach that state of perfection every morning and how much time for touch-ups before going out in the evening? What kind of life do you have to lead to have time to tame your hair by blow-drying, to change your jewellery every day, to coordinate and vary your outfits, to leave nothing to chance?

Within a short time, L. is in contact with Delphine on a daily basis. Meanwhile Delphine is receiving anonymous hate mail, and having difficulties writing. While L positions herself as Delphine’s friend and staunch supporter, in reality, she’s subtly undermining Delphine’s confidence and influencing her behaviour with negative and positive reinforcement. The  gradual decline of Delphine’s confidence is in direct proportion to L’s control over Delphine’s life. Yes, a friend in need is a friend indeed, unless she has your destruction at heart–in which case you’d better beware.

The problem is that Delphine doesn’t catch on until so many things have occurred and she has had several serious warnings that L is a psycho. L is slick, but her mask occasionally slips, and there’s really no reason why Delphine doesn’t see this. For example, at one point, L is snarkily raving on about her theories of Delphine’s writing:

I sometimes wonder if you shouldn’t be suspicious of the comfort you live in, your little life that’s ultimately quite comfortable, with your children, your man, writing, all carefully gauged.

Of course, L has partially achieved this control by gradually isolating Delphine and slowly eradicating her confidence, but it’s hard not to wonder why Delphine, who is a successful writer accepts the writing advice, constantly, of a woman who make her living as a ghostwriter? Or why Delphine abdicates her personal responsibilities repeatedly? Why doesn’t Delphine punch back?

At the heart of the matter is the idea that L tapped into Delphine’s deepest insecurities, but this wasn’t entirely achieved–especially when Delphine is given a warning that cannot be ignored, but goes back for more. … Again, perhaps that says more about Delphine’s needs than L’s occasionally sloppy methodology, but if that is true, the book’s thesis isn’t quite convincing.

While I eagerly turned each page of Based on a True Story, I wished that Delphine would wake up and smell the psycho, and I felt no small amount of frustration that it took so long. However, this an interesting read and a cautionary one. Writers are, after all, on the celebrity spectrum, but they are accessible to the public, fans and, yes, even haters.

And here’s Gert’s review

Review copy

Translated by George Miller

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Down Below: Leonora Carrington

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my fascination for books set in asylums, and that brings me to artist and writer Leonora Carrington’s short book: Down Below, a New York Review Books release. The book runs to 112 pages and includes a substantial background of Leonora Carrington’s life as a lead-in to the period she spent in an asylum. And here’s the rich and influential  for you, her nanny was “sent out” in 1940 in a submarine to “fetch Leonora back” from the asylum. At least she got lucky there. Marina Warner’s introduction shows Leonora clearly already on the rebellious side when she met, at age 19, the married artist Max Ernst. After Ernst sorted his “genital responsibilities,” they lived together in France until the German invasion. At that time, Ernst was arrested and Leonora fled to Spain.

Down Below

Down Below covers Leonora’s flight to Spain, a journey fraught with strange thoughts, danger and portents of death. She meets a man named Van Ghent and imagines he has “nefarious” powers:

I was still convinced that it was Van Ghent who had hypnotized Madrid, its men and its traffic, he who turned the people into zombies and scattered anguish like pieces of poisoned candy in order to make slaves of all. One night, having torn up and scattered in the streets a vast quantity of newspapers which I believed to be a hypnotic device resorted to by Van Ghent, I stood at the door of the hotel, horrified to see people in the Alameda go by who seemed to be made of wood. I rushed to the roof of the hotel and wept, looking at the chained city below my feet, the city it was my duty to liberate. 

She plays in the park at night, decides that Van Ghent is the “enemy of mankind,” and visits the British embassy where she tells the consul that the war is “being waged hypnotically by a group of people–Hitler and Co.- who were represented in Spain by Van Ghent.” The consul decides Leonora is mad, she’s passed through the hands of several physicians but ends up, finally, in an asylum in Santander.

From this point, everything goes downhill. The narrative becomes much more surreal as Leonora claims to be “transforming my blood into comprehensive energy–masculine and feminine, microcosmic and macrocosmic.” After reacting violently to staff, she’s strapped down and force fed through tubes inserted into the nostrils. She loses sense of time and place, and as the narrative becomes more surreal, it’s impossible to know what is real and what is imagined. She believes she’s the “third person of the Trinity,” and imagines a country named Down Below where she will be ‘purified.’

This is all quite painful reading, and the author’s matter-of-fact tone doesn’t make it easier or any less depressing. This isn’t an it-can-happen-to-anyone asylum memoir as Leonora clearly had problems with reality, had some sort of psychic breakdown, and with her violence and behaviour, she desperately needed help. Unfortunately, the treatment she received seemed to make things worse. Leonora Carrington is considered a major figure of the Surrealist movement, so it’s perhaps not too surprising that her memoir of the time spent in an asylum should resemble a surreal nightmare. Down Below has a patchy history and was “reconstruct[ed]” which probably explains the occasionally truncated feeling of the narrative.

Review copy

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A Dubious Legacy: Mary Wesley

As readers we get ‘impressions’ of writers and books–sometimes this comes from browsing or reading reviews, and sometimes vague impressions are created just from looking at covers. Occasionally, those impressions are challenged and then, for one reason or another, readers take the plunge and try a novel written by an author we’ve bypassed for years. And that brings me to Mary Wesley … an author I decided was too romancey, too ‘nice,’ too upper-crusty for me, and I’m happy to say that after reading A Dubious Legacy I was wrong about Mary Wesley.

A dubious legacy

The novel, which spans almost 50 years, opens during WWII with Henry Tillotson bringing his new bride, Margaret, back to his country estate, Cotteshaw.  We don’t know anything about their courtship, but we can tell almost immediately that this marriage is a horrible mistake. Henry picks up his bride from the station with a horse and trap. She hates horses, and with no small display of umbrage, bad temper, and yes, pure bitchiness, takes the taxi.

Shortly, Henry returns to the war and Margaret, who is perfectly healthy, takes to her bed. Choosing invalidism out of spite, she refuses, except on rare disastrous occasions, to leave the bedroom.

Margaret’s talent is finding the weak spot and inserting the stiletto. 

Fast forward to the 50s and Henry invites two young men, James and Matthew to a country weekend along with the girls they intend to propose to: Barbara and Antonia. Both matches have an element of convenience. The young women want to escape dreary homes and enjoy material comfort, and for their part, James and Matthew have their own secrets.

A large part of the novel involves a dinner party Henry arranges and its disastrous outcome. The rest of the novel is the fallout from that event.

I liked A Dubious Legacy but didn’t love it.  The beginning, with the ‘two Jonathans’ was a little rough, but the novel smoothed out after that. At one point I thought I’d enjoy this as much, let’s say, as the novels of Margaret Forster, but while the lives of the characters are interesting, there’s really no deeper message here except perhaps the way one horrible person, with their nastiness, can hold others hostage.

I liked the nastiness/ pettiness of some the characters and the way Wesley isn’t afraid to show the dark thoughts of Henry, the titular hero. I still can’t decide if Margaret, who tells the most terrible lies about Henry (he’s impotent, he tried to rape her, he has sex with the horses), was mad or malicious (after the incident with the Cockatoo, I lean towards the former). I was a bit annoyed by everyone’s attempts to get Margaret OUT of her bedroom, as historically it’s proven that bad things happen when she mingles. Frankly they would have been better off leaving her in her “brothel” designed bedroom. Perhaps the sensible thing to do would have been to lock the door and throw away the key.

Finally, the novel’s light humour really adds to what could have been a depressing scenario. At one point, Henry contemplates divorce and seeks legal advice:

Counsel, when consulted, had suggested  that since adultery and desertion were in the eyes of the law the only cause for divorce, he should sue his wife for the restitution of conjugal rights. “That will get things moving.”

Appalled by the suggestion, he had exclaimed, “That’s the last thing I want!”

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The Barrowfields: Phillip Lewis

“Yet at last, he was only a man, who, like so many of us, had dreams that exceeded him.”

There are some places that imprint themselves so deeply in the people who live there, that either you never leave or you always come back. That’s the thought that occurred to me when I read The Barrowfields from Phillip Lewis. As the title suggests, the plot and its characters are tied to a particular geographical area: in this case, Old Buckram, North Carolina, “an achromatic town high in the Appalachian Mountains.” The Barrowfields of the title is an area which probably should be named the Barren Fields but somebody made a mistake along the way.  It’s a place “where by some mystery nothing of natural origin will grow except a creeping gray moss.”

Growing up in extreme poverty, Henry Aster is a cuckoo in the nest of this large, impoverished and nearly illiterate household. As a child, Henry grabs onto the power of books and never lets go, even at one point stealing library books and hoarding them under his bed for future reads. Eventually, Henry leaves home and goes to college and law school only to return when his mother (she’s constantly smoking–her one vice) becomes ill. Coming home is a mistake for Henry. …

The Barrowfields

Henry, with ambitions to become “a beloved American writer,”  and his horse-loving wife Eleonore, buy an abandoned mansion, built by an dying architect with a penchant for the occult. Its gothic, vlad-the-impaler design makes the house a unique, intriguing, yet daunting prospect. The house, “a monstrous gothic skeleton,” has a tragic history, but the Asters ignore it–even though of course they simply become another twist in the house’s past.

On a high shoulder of the mountain, half hidden by a row of wraithlike trees as old as time itself, sat an immense house of black iron and glass. During the day, it was an odd architectural curiosity. Due to a subtle trick of the mountain’s folding ridges, it seemed always to be in shadow, even when the sun blazed in a cloudless sky above it. From morning to night, it was cloaked in a slowly swirling mist as thick as smoke from a fire. At night, it brooded in darkness like an ember-eyed bird of prey on the edge of the mountain. Never before had a house been built like it, and never would another be built.

While Henry practices “a brief legal career with one of the two law offices in town,” by night he drinks himself into oblivion and tries to write. His wife has her horses, and the house, with its magnificent library is a fabulous labyrinth of childhood fantasies for Henry and Eleonore’s son, also called Henry.

This is a sweeping novel about a man who’s deeply rooted to a region he can’t wait to escape from, and Henry’s ultimate abandonment of his wife and children is the central mystery/emotional dilemma of the plot. I loved the first half of The Barrowfields, with its fine Southern tradition, but the second half with Henry junior’s life becoming the focus, just couldn’t match up to the first half. There’s so much going on here–so much so I wondered how this would read in serial form. The whole build up of the house with its tragic past never really goes anywhere, but hangs like a faded banner over the new residents, and the whole baby sister episode just seemed another layer of melodrama/tragedy that existed for its own sake.

Sprawling, ambitious and flawed this is a novel about fathers and sons. It’s described as a coming-of-age novel, but for me it was more about identity. There are some very fine parts indeed here which are evidence of perhaps future books we might expect from this author, for example, when son Henry, describes how his father has developed a persona to converse with the locals:

He knew how to talk like them, though. He knew how to cock his head just right, and hold his mouth open, and say, “You don’t say” and “Damn,” when he heard a remarkable story, and “Yep” and “Naw” and always “Come with us,” at the end of any conversation with an acquaintance met in an unexpected place. He’d run into someone at the grocery store and listen intently as the man talked. He’d listen with a deep focus, looking dead into the man’s eyes, almost unblinking and without saying much of anything, hunched slightly to be more or less on the same level with the man, without anything much beyond an anthropological interest in the story and the man telling it, and at the end of it he’d offer amusement and say something like, “Well, all right, Junior, I hope you have a good night. I reckon I better get on home.

Review copy.

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Repent in Haste: John P. Marquand (1945)

“You can’t help what life makes you, can you?”

Although John Marquand (1893-1960) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938 for The Late George Apley, he seems to be out-of-fashion and little read these days. I came across his name when watching a film version of one of his books: H.M Pulham esq. I’ve picked up a few dusty copies of his books over the years and decided to start with Repent in Haste, mainly because I couldn’t find much information about the book online. This is possibly because it’s one of the few books he wrote that wasn’t turned into a film.

Repent in Haste is set in WWII after Pearl Harbor. It’s a short book, a very focused story running at just over 150 pages. This is the tale of an unlikely relationship formed between Briggs, an older journalist and a young Lieutenant, Boyden nicknamed Boysie. Boysie was in a torpedo carrier plane that was shot down, and he along with two other crew members survived in the ocean for two days on a rubber raft. Boysie and Briggs meet at a press conference in Hawaii, and at first Briggs isn’t impressed by Boysie, a “typical American boy, and the same sort of dull normality,” but they meet again months later when Boysie is assigned to the support carrier, Rogue River. The war has changed and this time Briggs gets to know Boysie better. This time Boyden leaves a different impression:

The only trouble, Briggs was thinking, was that if you knew too much about anyone, even someone like Lieutenant Boyden, there began to be lights and shadows.

Briggs is returning stateside and Boysie asks him to go and talk to his family and his wife, Daisy in New York. Boysie met Daisy in Pensacola and after one of those whirlwind wartime courtships they married. There’s a bond between the two men; Boysie calls Briggs ‘Pops,’ and Briggs, underestimating the younger man, assumes a protective fatherly role. Boysie, who at first appears to be naive, a rather dull hero, has survival reserves. At times, it’s fair to say that the war, and the things he’s seen, have not appeared to alter Boysie, but that’s not true. Briggs meets Boysie three times over the course of the novel, and by its conclusion, he’s finding it not so easy to bounce back–in spite of his philosophy to not let anything ‘bother him’ and not to get too attached to fellow soldiers.

“There are a lot of new kids here,” Boyden said. “It makes me kind of tired looking at all these new kids–all full of the old wham-wham. It’s a very funny thing. I keep thinking I’m back on the Rogue. It seems more real than here. It’s taking longer to snap back.”

As Boyden tried inexpertly to express himself, his words had a clumsy eloquence. He talked of the Rogue River as he ate. There had been a swell crowd of kids aboard and Boyden had been “in.” He knew he had been in, as soon as that blast had landed him on the deck. When he got up and found he was all right, he knew he did not have to bother about himself. It was the other kids that bothered him.

“Seeing them shot down,” he said, “is different from seeing a whole lot of kids catch it on the deck; and kids shut in up forward, burning up-oh boy.”

You had your mind on other things when the ready ammunition magazines began exploding, but cleaning up afterwards-oh boy! Boyden put his hands on the table and pushed his chair back. Boyden put his hands on the table and pushed his chair back. “Let’s get squared away,” he said, “and get back and polish off that Scotch.”

There’s something about this book that I liked a great deal. It feels very real, very plausible and quite poignant in its portrayal of how people behave during war, the personal choices they make, and whether or not they will be indelibly altered by their experiences.  It’s a deceptively simple book, and by that I mean, there are no scenes of war and fighting–all the action takes place off the page, so we see soldiers trying to relax and wind down after combat missions. Marquand shows us a humble hero, a young man who lacks the eloquence and wisdom to articulate his survival philosophies.  In spite of all that has happened to Boyden, he’s still essentially who he was before combat, although after each battle, he finds it harder to snap back to normalcy and with his natural optimism, he’s destined to make the same mistakes.

And here’s a marvellous quote I’m adding since there’s so little about this book online:

The black sand of the beach lay just in front, with wrecks of landing craft washed against it and with new ships pushing in. He could see the colored markers, and the tanks and jeeps crawling inland. He could see the bursts of mortar shells dropping near a supply dump, and the greenish figures of a reserve Marine battalion moving through the dust. Further inland there was a line of tanks, and he could see the flash from their guns and the sudden spurt of flame thrower. He had thought it was a great show once and now it was commonplace–only another part of the Pacific war and so much a part of ordinary living that it became puzzling to think of home. You could accept an environment of violence and sudden death but, once you faced it, it was hard to understand the attitude of those who had not.

The novel was published in 1945 and at the moment of writing this post, it’s listed as a crime novel on Wikipedia. Given the date of its publication, there are some wince worthy moments: “slant-eyed Joes,” and the capturing of Japanese trophies. Some of the language is archaic. My old copy is a rejected library book and from the looks of the stamps inside the cover, this book was checked out A LOT in 1946 and 47 and then … nothing…

Boyden was right-war was nothing but a repetition, a series of the same anecdotes that grew monotonous with the telling. 

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Filed under Fiction, Marquand John P