Author Archives: Guy Savage

The Stepdaughter: Caroline Blackwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved Blackwood’s Great Granny Webster. 

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Three Novels: Nina Berberova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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Honour & Other People’s Children: Helen Garner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy.

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Vacuum in the Dark: Jen Beagin

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

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

Vacuum in the dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not now, ” Mona whispered back.

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

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

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

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

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

Vacuum in the Dark may appeal to fans of Ottessa Moshfegh

Review copy

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The Colour of Murder: Julian Symons (1957)

“What can you say about a marriage? You peel off the years, seven of them there had been, like the skin off an onion, and there’s nothing inside.”

John Wilkins is, at least on the surface, an ordinary sort of man. He isn’t a great achiever, and following the collapse of the family business (and the family fortunes), he takes a job with Palings, a large Oxford Street store. Eventually, he climbs the ladder and becomes assistant manager of the Complaints Department. His lacklustre, passionless marriage to May is stale. She’s a social climber who married John thinking he had more potential (and money) but now they are stuck in a rut. To the joyless May, some people are “worth cultivating,” and so the couple’s social life, organised by May, is built on “little dinner parties or bridge parties or television parties.”

And then one day, John meets Sheila, a librarian. …

The colour of murder

The book’s first section is mostly composed of a lengthy statement from John Wilkins to consulting psychiatrist, Dr. Max Andreadis (along with a couple of letters). John opens up to Dr. Andreadis, telling him things he’s told no one else. Following bouts of drinking, John has blackouts, and wakes up with no memory of his actions. Plus then there are hints of a troubled sex life:

I found out something else too, and this was about myself, I had always been I suppose what you might say an innocent young man. I had never thought much about girls, and as I’ve said I had not been successful with them, so that although I knew what to do, I was inexperienced. What you have never had you don’t miss, they say. I don’t know about that, but I do know that now I had May I wanted her. What was more, even in that first week I became aware that I wanted her in special ways and wanted her to do certain things, usual perhaps.

Oh dear.

John’s statement allows us to see into his mind. On one hand he seems like a very ordinary man, unsatisfied with life and marriage, but lacking the energy to do anything about it. At the same time there are troubling hints that he may be a little unbalanced. Yes, the blackouts, of course, but then there’s a stint from the army in his past along with the complaint that “people who hadn’t got a quarter of my intelligence and enthusiasm got one stripe and even two stripes up while I remained a trooper.” Does John have a realistic image of himself? On a couple of occasions, he’s “gone out for lunch, had a couple of drinks, and apparently not returned [to work] in the afternoon.” John seems more concerned that his boss doesn’t believe his story about blackouts than the fact that he’s boozing at lunch until he sinks into oblivion. This latter behaviour doesn’t seem to worry him at all!

John’s life begins to go out-of-control after meeting Sheila. He makes a complete idiot of himself on several occasions, but again, the interview reveals that John is not dealing with reality. Soon he’s fascinated by a murder case in which a man beat his wife to death, and then John hints at divorce to May. When she won’t take the hint, he asks his Uncle Dan the best way to murder someone. Hypothetically, of course.

The book’s second section concerns, yes, you’ve got it, a murder trial. But who has been murdered is The Big Question. As Martin Edwards points out in his lively introduction, The Colour of Murder is a “whowasdunnin.” As the plot, full of colourful characters, progresses in the book’s second section, we eliminate possible victims, and then the book concentrates on the court case. There’s a brassy prostitute, a mild-mannered, humble private investigator, a father who relishes the court case, surreptitiously smuggling custard cream biscuits into the courtroom, and a solicitor who picks his nose. Then finally, there’s John Wilkins, a man whose reflection seems from a shattered mirror. You can’t really tell what is there, how dangerous he is. ….

As noted in a recent read from Julian Symons, The Belting Inheritance, we’ve read this sort of plot before, but the delight emerges in how Symons tells his tale. Symons really is a first class storyteller

Review copy

 

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Robinson: Muriel Spark

“My  moods are not stable at the best of times.”

In Muriel Spark’s Robinson, Catholic convert January Marlow, following a plane crash, wakes up with a concussion and a dislocated shoulder to find herself one of three survivors. The plane, “bound for the Azores,” crash-landed on Robinson’s island–middle-aged Robinson, who grows pomegranates, lives on this island with only a boy, Miguel, for company. Well there’s a cat, Bluebell,  too.

The three survivors are January, Jimmy Waterford and Tom Wells. Strangely, relationships between these three were formed before the flight. January, partly to avoid Tom Wells, struck up a conversation with Jimmy. She immediately disliked the brash Mr Wells, a man who believes in the supernatural and produces an occult magazine called Your Future.

I find that, when travelling abroad alone, it is wise and actually discreet to take up with one well-chosen man on the journey. Otherwise, one is likely to be approached by numerous chance pesterers all along the line. One must, of course, discriminate, but it is a thing one learns by experience, how to know the sort of man who is not likely to press for further commitments

Coincidentally, Jimmy Waterford, who speaks in a sort of stilted patois, was traveling to see Robinson. Jimmy tells January “Robinson is not a man for the ladies. I know Robinson from the past.” January, for her part, senses in Robinson, “something more than indifference: a kind of armed neutrality.” She thinks “he could be positively hostile to the idea of women in general.” Perhaps this explains why she sets out to annoy Robinson as much as possible.

Robinson

These three survivors must wait for the arrival of the next pomegranate boat in 3 months time. All of them have various injuries, but they all have various agendas which clash with Robinson’s way of running his island. Food is short and Tom Wells tries to grope January. Strong-willed and opinionated, January butts heads with Robinson–even employing the cat to irk Robinson. This is, after all, Robinson’s island, and January, Jimmy and Wells, are mere guests. They are welcome to Robinson’s library and food, and yet his rules are broken, buttons are pushed. Tensions run high, boredom sets in; like rats in a too-small cage, aggression emerges and then Robinson disappears. …

I liked parts of this book: the glimpses of January’s sharp side for example–the way she tells herself that if she steals Robinson’s rationed cigarettes, she won’t bear grudges. Then there are elusive glimpses of her prickly relationships with her two, very different, sisters. Julie married a bookie while Agnes married a doctor. While on the island, January wonders who will take care of her son, Brian, and (rather interestingly) hopes that it’s the bookie, Curly “the kindest” of all her relatives.

Of course, we can’t escape the image of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, but here Spark gives us a sharper, darker view of what life would be like if people were plane-wrecked on an island. I liked Robinson but didn’t love it. I had the feeling that Spark wasn’t quite ready to unleash the darkness we see in The Driver’s Seat.

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The Children: Edith Wharton (1928)

“Something clear and impenetrable as a pane of crystal seemed to cut him off from her, and from all that surrounded her. He had been to the country from which travellers return with another soul.”

I discovered Wharton many summers ago. I read several of her marvellous great novels and was annoyed that I hadn’t read her sooner. Since then, I’ve read her lesser novels from time and time, and then recently I stumbled upon a copy of The Children, tucked away in a corner of a shelf. There’s a problem when you’ve read ‘the best’ (or at least the acknowledged best) of an author; you expect everything else to be a disappointment.

The children

In The Children, 46-year-old American engineer Martin Boyne is sailing to Europe to join widow Rose Sellars, the woman he loves, who is in the Dolomites. They haven’t seen each other for 5 years. She was stuck in an unhappy marriage, but now, following the death of her husband 7 months earlier, Rose is free. Martin has every intention of having a wonderful holiday, mostly spent with Rose, proposing and then finally settling down

In his homeless years that sense of her stability had appealed to him peculiarly: the way each time he returned, she had simply added a little more to herself, like a rose unfurling another petal.

Now their moment has come. Or has it?

In the port of Algiers, other passengers embark, and leaning over the deck, Martin spies a young woman who herds several young children. Looking at her face, he literally “gasps” and murmurs to himself  “Jove– if a fellow was younger.” He begins to count the children and decides that this girl “must have been married out of the nursery.” Over the course of the trip, he learns that this young girl, Judith Wheater, is the oldest child of old acquaintances: Cliffe Wheater, one of “the showiest New York millionaires,” and the former Joyce Mervin.  At one point, Martin was one of the young men who circled Joyce but she married Cliffe and his money instead. Martin is intrigued by 15-year old Judith–especially when he learns that Cliffe and Joyce married and divorced, married other (unsuitable) people and then subsequently patched things up and married each other again. Judith heads a troupe of 7 children which includes her brother Terry, who has frail health, several ‘steps’ and Chipstone, the latest child from the Wheater’s (re)union.

Cliffe and Joyce Wheater’s former spouses include a shifty Italian prince and an actress; two of the children are Italian and aren’t the Wheaters’ children at all. As the Wheater parents, part of the glittering social set, traverse Europe, the 7 children are moved from one location to another, rather like luggage, with a-too-malleable governess and various servants in tow.

During the sea voyage, Martin and Judith strike up a relationship, and when the situation between Cliffe and Joyce Wheater turns south (again), Judith turns to Martin for help. The children are about to be separated and sent off to various households, and Judith begs Martin to help her keep the children together. Martin has been enjoying a wonderful, peaceful reunion with Rose, but in the company of Judith and her siblings, Martin’s opinion and relationship with Rose shifts. …

But already, too, he was beginning to wonder how he was to fit Rose Sellars into the picture of his success. It was curious: when they were apart it was always her courage and her ardour that he felt: as soon as they came together again she seemed hemmed in by little restrictions and inhibitions.

Martin is a classic Wharton character whose actions sometimes undermine his security, his respectability, and certainly his future. Also as with Wharton characters, Martin doesn’t examine his (uncomfortable) murky motives too closely. Is Martin, who’s loved Rose from a distance, now looking for excuses to slip the yoke of domesticity? It’s one thing to love someone who is unavailable and quite another when the woman who is worshiped, the ‘perfect’ unattainable woman, is suddenly up for grabs. Marrying Rose means moving to New York and joining the society he despises. Plus now Rose is courting an elderly aunt who has promised her niece a legacy, and this is a relationship that repels Martin.

he had schooled himself to think that hat he most wanted was to see Rose Sellars again. Deep within himself he knew it was not so; at least, not certainly so. Life had given him hints of other things he might want equally, want even more

Then what of Rose? When we first see her through Martin’s eyes, she’s elegant, patient, calm, understanding, mature, but as Martin becomes more involved with the children, Rose’s disapproval alters how Martin (and we) see Rose. Her perfection slips.

All her life had been a series of adaptations, arrangements, shifting of lights, lowering of veils, pulling about of screens and curtains.

And then there’s Judith. … 15- years-old, an ill-educated girl who, due to the tawdry aspects of her parents’ lives, seems mature beyond her years, and yet her spelling reveals both her immaturity and the sad lack of a proper education. Is Judith as naive and innocent as she appears? Martin, a middle-aged bachelor who has avoided commitment his entire life, suddenly assumes the responsibility of 7 children. This is extreme behaviour, and it’s completely impractical. Does he agree to help because of his infatuation with Judith or is he deliberately sabotaging his relationship with Rose? Is Martin attached to the children partly because this is the family he never had? Is it a coincidence that Judith happens to be the daughter of a woman he once courted? Is he, in essence, trying to step back into the past? That’s for the reader to decide.

One of the memorable scenes in this memorable novel takes place when Rose’s lawyer, the much older Dobree, travels to Cortina to see her on the excuse of business. Dobree, Rose, Martin and the children go on a picnic, and there’s Martin staring at Judith’s sleeping face when he spies Dobree, also watching the girl. It’s classic Freudian projection:

As Boyne continued to observe him, Mr Dobree’s habitual pinkness turned to a red which suffused his temples and eyelids, so that his carefully brushed white hair looked like a sunlit cloud against an angry sky. But with whom was Mr. Dobree angry? Why, with himself, manifestly. His eyes still rested on the dreaming Judith; but the rest of his face looked as if every muscle were tightened in the effort to pull the eyes away. “He’s frightened–he’s frightened at himself,” Boyne thought, calling to mind –with a faint recoil from the reminder–that he also, once or twice, had been vaguely afraid of himself when he had looked too long at Judith.

On the (minor) down side of this novel, the children are annoying–especially the ‘steps’ who all sort of merge into each other. While the Italian children are described unpleasantly at times, I saw this as a reflection of the children’s unfortunate upbringing and lack of structure which became increasingly fragmented with each marriage and divorce. So Judith and Teddy, for example, had the benefit of at least some early structure while the younger children did not. One of the subtle questions asked by this novel is: should the children stay together? Obviously Judith runs the governess, not the other way around. The younger children are wild. Would they be better separated?

Wharton’s focus on the psychological aspects of Martin and Rose’s actions make this novel well worth reading. Martin is attracted to Judith but he can’t admit it to himself. At one point, he plies her with alcohol and cigarettes and then there’s a walk in the moonlight. Martin, who doesn’t examine his feelings for Judith, can’t say no to her, and that places his relationship with Rose is jeopardy. One of the themes of Wharton’s work is the individual in society, and here we see Martin, who has spent his entire career working across the globe. At several points in the novel, Martin is depicted as an outsider watching various social situations, questioning and longing for the choices he passed by. Marriage to Rose means settling down in New York, and as the prospect moves closer, it becomes unappealing.

Finally: the dream sequence towards the end of the book along with the book’s final scene … both are exquisite.

There’s another, excellent, review at:

Tredynas Days

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A German Officer in Occupied Paris: Ernst Jünger (The War Journals 1941-1945)

“Who will stand by us after these spectacles have finished?”

It wasn’t easy to read Ernst Jünger’s A German Officer in Occupied Paris. There’s the entire: “they were the bad side” aspect of things of course, but my difficulties … no my discomfort … from reading this book came from a different source. More of that later.

The lengthy, informative introduction from Elliot Neaman offers a summary of Jünger’s life and views. Ernst Jünger fought in WWI and was wounded 14 times. Following WWI, he wrote Storm of Steel (which I’ve never read and probably wouldn’t like), and was “one of Germany’s foremost authors of the war generation.” When WWII arrived, Jünger, in his mid 40s, joined his old company,  and in 1941, he served as a military censor in Paris. Not only did he read the letters home written by German soldiers, but he read “French newspapers and other publications for signs of insubordination.”  While performing that job, Jünger kept a journal, and it’s a rather peculiar read.  The book contains two journals “from his tour of duty in Paris, his sojourn in the Caucasus, and his visits and then homecoming to the house in Kirchorts.”

A German Officer

As I read the Paris entries, the title of Richard Attenborough’s film “Oh What a Lovely War,” kept coming into my head. Yes I suppose someone had to serve in Paris, the lucky buggers, while others were on the Eastern Front.  Jünger’s office was in the Hotel Majestic and he socialized with “intellectuals and artists across the political spectrum.” Jünger carried on several affairs and waxes on about beauty. We read about his dreams and what he was reading. Where was the war?? It was all a bit horrifying, and yes I read about how he sympathized with various people and knew about the plot to kill Hitler, but honestly, the journal left a bad taste in my mouth. Not that I expected Jünger to bitch about Hitler (mention is made in the intro of how Jünger burned many personal papers), and Jünger seems too intelligent to be caught venting spleen on the pages of his diaries, and yet …. there’s something also repugnant here.

Like a God in France, Jünger operated on the edge of politics in Paris, rather like a butterfly fluttering among the resistors and collaborators. He didn’t trust the generals, who had taken a personal oath to Hitler, to be able to carry out a coup. Jean Cocteau later quipped: “Some people had dirty hands, some had clean hands, but Jünger had no hands.”

More than anything, the diary raised, for me at least, the question of moral culpability. Jünger “saw himself as part of the resistance to Hitler even though he believed that active opposition was pointless.” He refused many official posts under Hitler, and the intro goes into depth regarding Jünger’s involvement/knowledge of plots against Hitler.

I thought about The White Rose. Most of the members of White Rose were very young. Their courageous acts did not have the desired political results, so did they die for nothing? And yet when I read about Jünger, living in luxury, doing well and rubbing elbows with all sorts even as he did not approve of Hitler, well it sort of turned my stomach. At one point, Jünger references “charnel houses” and writes about “the monstrous atrocities perpetrated by the Security Service after entering Kiev. Trains were again mentioned that carried Jews into poison gas tunnels. Those are rumors, and I note them as such but extermination is certainly occurring on a huge scale.” And yet then Jünger immediately moves, bizarrely, into this WTF moment, denying individual mandate and responsibility, mourning how war has lost its  elegance and turned grubby.

I am overcome by a loathing for the uniforms, the epaulettes, the medals, the weapons, all the glamour I have loved so much. Ancient chivalry is dead; wars are waged by technicians. 

A new dark reality, a darker mood that can’t escape the scenes he faces, enters Jünger’s entries as he experiences life in Russia:

The deluge of sludge even penetrates the interiors of the buildings. In the morning, I was in a field hospital that rose from the center of a yellowish-brown morass. As I entered, the casket of a first lieutenant was being carried toward me.

Yesterday he succumbed to his sixth wound of the war. Back in Poland, he had sacrificed an eye.

The journals contain interesting sections, but Jünger’s self-censoring damages the read. If I read an eyewitness account from someone who lived through some horrific/incredible moment in history, I want details. But it’s impossible to tell what Jünger was really thinking, and so perhaps one tantalizing aspect of the book is psychological more than anything else. All this stuff is swirling around his life but we hear about the harmless social fluff for the most part. For example, he notes “In Charleville, I was a witness at a military tribunal. I used the opportunity to buy books, like novels by Gide and various works by Rimbaud.” I wanted to hear about the tribunal, but alas, it vanished into Jünger’s book buying.

Review copy

Translated by Thomas Hansen

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Sleep of Memory: Patrick Modiano

“For me, Paris is littered with ghosts.”

Back to Patrick Modiano for Sleep of Memory. In this novel, our narrator, now in his 70s, recalls people and events from his past. This is familiar Modiano territory with his fascination for disturbing shards of memory which emerge from the past. Sometimes these shards are cocooned in other memories–some blurred and impossible to fully retrieve while others form in a connect-the-dots way.

The book begins in a bookshop when a title, The Time of Encounters, catches the eye of the narrator. It’s one of those dizzying, goosebumps moments when the past suddenly emerges with the flash of memory. He recalls his relationships with a group of people saying “you never knew where some of those people might lead you. It was a slippery slope.”

 

Sleep of memory
The narrator recalls when, in the 60s, at age 20, he is acquainted with Martine Hayward, Geneviève Dalame, a secretary at Polydor Studios, and the older, mysterious, Madeleine Péraud. The latter, who is also known as “Doctor  Péraud,” “belonged to a ‘group’—a secret society where they practiced ‘magic.’ ”  The narrator visits Madeleine Péraud who quizzes him about his life and his acquaintances:

She asked good questions. the way an acupuncturist knows exactly where to place his needles.

The narrator is a “phantom student” enrolling in college to avoid military service in Algeria, and there are nebulous references to the narrator’s father and his knowledge of Black marketeers during WWII. So here are two quagmire moments in French history, and crime, which is a seminal feature in Modiano novels, is also present.  The plot is fragmentary but Modiano’s brilliance at describing memory, as always, is impressive and evocative.

Sometimes I seem to recall the cafe was named the Bar Vert; at other times this memory fades, like words you’ve just heard in a dream that eludes you when you are awake. 

I am always left wanting more with a Modiano novel, frustrated at the bare bones of the past which are occasionally illuminated by tantalizing memory, but I continue to be fascinated by his representation of memory: how memories submerge, are dormant and seem to disappear, yet certain memories seep back into our lives often unwanted. Modiano novels delve into pasts that can’t be quite fully remembered, pasts that aren’t fully understood–even decades later, and I can’t recall a writer who represents the elusiveness and vagaries of memory so well. Modiano scholars could spend a lifetime working through the mazes constructed in his books. How much is true? How much is fiction? Personally I prefer the languid nature, the dreaminess of his tales and don’t intend to become tangled in such details.  I read this at night, before bed, and the book’s hypnotic feel was accentuated by the approach of sleep.

“No doubt, as the years pass, you end up shedding all the weights you dragged behind you, and all the regrets.”

Is that true?

Translated by Mark Polizzotti

Review copy

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Looker: Laura Sims

In Looker, the debut novel from Laura Sims, our unnamed narrator fixates on a successful actress who lives with her husband and children in her brownstone neighbourhood. At first, I thought I was going to read a story about some crazy stalker who goes off the rails, but this is a very interior novel narrated by a bitterly unhappy (I could just as well say ‘bitter’) teacher whose husband Nathan,  has walked out.

looker

Everything in this woman’s trainwreck of a life is a toxic disaster: from her relationship to her neighbors, her envy that other women have children, to her painful vicious ruminations about her childlessness and IVF treatments. Her venom even extends to the cat, who becomes a chess piece in the divorce war. Nathan dumped his cat with the narrator, and even though she dislikes the cat, she’s not about to give Nathan the satisfaction of letting him have his cat back.

I return home, exhausted and emptied out. Fitting my key in the lock, a wave of absolute terror washes over me: this is where my phone and computer live. This is how all the poisonous others reach me, infect me, ruin my days. 

I’m not a therapist, so I’m not going to try and place terms on what is wrong with this woman, but she’s a mess. We can sympathize with people when they are unhappy, but when they are unhappy and want that unhappiness to spread to YOU, sympathy trickles and runs out the door….

With a first person narrator, we are placed in that person’s head. In the case of Looker, the narrator’s head feels as if it’s about to explode with hatred and rage and so the read is wearing and depressing.  This is marketed as a thriller and even a crime novel, and that’s unfortunate because the book draws a crowd that is bound to be disappointed. This is a psychological novel, and in its construction of a woman who needs HELP ASAP, I think it succeeds, however, that said, this isn’t an easy book to read as being inside this woman’s head is torturous. At one point, she says “here I am, back in my lonesome, loathsome reality.” And I couldn’t agree more. Finally for cat lovers, I’ll add a warning.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Sims Laura