Category Archives: Fiction

Guys Like Me: Dominique Fabre

“There are no second acts.” The narrator of Dominique Fabre’s novel Guys Like Me is a 54 year-old-year-old office worker. Due to a lack of personal details, the narrator remains throughout the story, an Everyman, gray, balding, a little out-of-shape, a little overweight, one of the many anonymous divorced, solitary men we see at work, at the supermarket, or on the streets every day.  Once he was married but he made a lot of mistakes and was divorced years earlier with the usual acrimony; move on to middle age and he’s still alone. There has been a string of women but none of the relationships were serious–except one that lasted two years and which left our narrator damaged and wary of involvement. So here he is full of regrets, a sense that he’s failed as a father, living alone in a three room apartment in Paris. He’s employed, more or less going through the motions, and with occasional contact with his twenty-six-year old son Benjamin. Guys Like MeUnmoored from any structure in his life, finding common ground in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the narrator has attempted to create some meaning to his existence.

It started when I turned forty, like most guys I know. I sponsor a little orphan, a little Haitian boy as it happens, and every year I keep the letter he sends me, a completely stereotypical letter to the white man who sends him a check for twenty-five euros ever month. A year after my divorce I also started volunteering in a hospital, but that way of doing good didn’t suit me all that much, because often, the next day, I’d start to feel symptoms, and more than once I fell ill. How can you give a hand to someone who’s dying anyway? I never figured out the answer to that. There were support groups too, with shrinks, only it bored me, and I stopped, it wasn’t my thing. Then I met a woman I was hoping to get love from, but nothing like that happened. I was forty-four when I discovered that you can hope to get love in return for a washing machine, two installments on a car, and other things like that, I was cured of that woman, and of others in the long run.

The narrator has a good friend, Marc-André, a man he admires a great deal because although he too was divorced, he’s somehow managed to throw himself back into the game, remarried and has a patchwork family with this second wife. Marc-André pulled the narrator out from his depressive slump, and the narrator acknowledges that Marc-André is “braver than me, he’d been strong enough to start all over again from scratch.” Marc-André has a philosophical approach to life:

We talked some more about guys, old friends we’d lost touch with, after a while it became painful to live with too many of these memories, it’s age, Marco said. And time. You can’t do anything against time.

Another main male character here is Jean–a man the narrator bumps into on the street when the book opens. And here’s a quote that gives a good sense of the writer’s style:

He looked familiar, from where I was. From where I was it might still have been possible, somehow to turn around and walk away, even though obviously I would never have turned around and walked away of my own accord. But a car might have started, in which case I’d have had to get out of the way, or I might have looked the other way and not seen his reflection in a shop window. I’d have reacted by saying to myself what does that guy want with me? And I’d probably have ignored him, I’d probably have forgotten him. His face looked drawn, but his hair wasn’t gray. I’ve almost lost my hair. Sometimes I run my hand through it, and there’s nothing there. My ex-wife used to laugh when I did that, and I don’t think I took it well. I don’t like taking a wrong turn, but it’d be right to say that when we met again we’d both taken a wrong turn. Maybe our lives, too: lots of wrong turns placed end to end, you can never reconstruct the whole journey.

Jean, a man whose “good times were already behind him” before he was thirty, is also alone but he’s unemployed and desperate for work, so the narrator and Marc-André pull together to help Jean out of his slump. Although author Dominque Fabre doesn’t overwork the connection between the three men, Marc-André, Jean and the narrator, it’s easy to see that there’s a hierarchy of social functionality. Marc-André has successfully managed to build another life for himself from the debris of his first marriage, but Jean is a total failure–the sort of man any rational woman would run from, and that leaves our narrator in the middle of this totem pole of functionality. He occasionally wobbles near the cliff edge (gluing together and mounting business cards for a room decoration) and he struggles with despair, but at the same time, he knows he must make some sort of effort to form interests and relationships. And this is where the book’s central motif comes into play: there are millions of middle-aged men divorced, lonely and adrift, and while the narrator notices Jean’s decline and asks himself “how could a guy like that get to this point?” it’s clear that the narrator could so easily become as dysfunctional as Jean. The narrator belongs to a dating site but finds that his dates are “pretty dull,” and that the “women [are] obsessed with their age, in a hurry to rebuild their lives.” An interesting comment since he posts a younger photo of himself in his profile. Of course, we don’t get an opinion from the women the narrator meets, but since he says he “soon stopped putting on a show,” I’d imagine that his dates find him dull too, but then he meets a woman, whose screen name he initially dislikes, through the site. It’s through this tentative relationship that we see the awkwardness of a middle-age romance between damaged lonely people who juggle need with fear and who consequently set boundaries as a safety net, balancing the desire for intimacy and love with the fear of rejection and disillusionment.

Of course, there was an enormous loneliness there, it was like a kind of ocean, the messages people sent each other hummed with it. These last few years I’d met two or three women who were real culture vultures, and I’d run away after the sixth exhibition or the fifth museum. There had also been a woman I liked, ten years younger than me, but she’d taken off after three dates and I couldn’t blame her. She sent me a long recorded message two weeks later the gist of which was that she was looking for somebody better than me, a younger guy who could be the father of her children. Three women I’d slept with, without hope or despair, just like that.

In this loosely plotted novel, we follow the narrator through his life, his relationship with his son, his friendship with Marc-André, his attempts to help Jean, and his dating experiences. All of this is very well done indeed, and I loved the author’s melancholic, yet ultimately optimistic style, and the way in which the narrator’s voice, at times almost hypnotic, is created in such a way as to appear to be from a man who is used to his own solitary company. The excellent central motif of  “guys like me” which has the paradoxical result of making the narrator simultaneously one in an anonymous crowd and yet highly individualistic is occasionally overworked, but that’s a minor quibble. Regret is an emotion felt at every age, and yet during the 50s, regret rolls in with the accompanying realization that it may be too late to fix our lives; Fabre captures that feeling perfectly.

I’d pass guys like me, you also see us, younger ones, waiting at the ends of platforms, in large stations, at the beginning  and the end of the school vacations.

French title: Les Types Comme Moi Translation: Howard Curtis Review copy.

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The Truth and Other Lies: Sascha Arango

But first he sat down in his wing armchair and leafed through the Forensic Journal–an extraordinarily informative periodical about evil. Anyone planning a crime or in the process of committing one should read special literature. It provides information on the risks of discovery consequent upon developments in forensic technology. At the same time it makes clear the futility of battling against human evil, for no science or punishment can contend with the bloodthirstiness innate in us all. From a historicultural point of view, greed, vengefulness and stupidity are all natural causes of death, just one facet of the human condition.”

I’ve read a few books lately that sounded good but then, in one way or another, failed in the execution. And that brings me to The Truth and Other Lies from Sascha Arango–a book that sounded so good, I was sure I’d either be terribly disappointed or absolutely love it. There was never any doubt with this book–I loved it.

the truth and other liesWhen the story opens, author Henry Hayden has the sort of life most of us would envy. He’s a world famous, immensely wealthy author with a string of bestsellers to his credit. He has a quiet, reclusive wife, Martha who adores him, he drives a Maserati, and he has a beautiful country estate near the coast. Yes, Henry leads a wonderful life. So let’s take a step back from first appearances. … Henry also has a mistress, well there have been innumerable affairs to be honest, all those adoring fans on the book promotion circuit. After all, what’s Henry to do when a grateful fan throws herself at him? Martha, a remarkably self-contained and intuitive woman knows that there are other women, but chooses to ignore any evidence that may come her way.

The book’s first pages find Henry in the throes of a crisis. His current mistress, gorgeous blonde Betty, his ambitious editor at Moreany Publishing House, has just handed him a picture of an ultrasound and announced that she’s pregnant. Henry finds himself in a dilemma when Betty asks him what they are going to do:

The right answer would have been: My love, this is not going to end well. But that kind of answer has consequences. It changes things or makes them disappear altogether. Regrets are of no more use then. And who wants to change anything that’s good and convenient?

“I’ll drive home and tell my wife everything.”

“Really?”

Henry saw the astonishment on Betty’s face; he was surprised himself. Why had he said that? Henry wasn’t given to exaggeration; it hadn’t been necessary to say he’d tell Martha everything.

So that’s the plan. He just has to break the news to Martha

Yes, he would be a great man. He would drive home and put truth in place of falsehood. Reveal everything at last, all the nasty details. Well maybe not quite all, but the essentials. It would mean cutting deep into healthy flesh. Tears would flow and it would hurt dreadfully, himself included. It would be the end of all trust and harmony between Martha and him–but it would also be an act of liberation. He would no longer be an unprincipled bastard, no longer have to be so ashamed of himself. It had to be done. Truth before beauty–the rest would sort itself out.

He put his arms around Betty’s slender waist. A stone was lying in the grass, big enough and heavy enough to inflict a lethal blow. He had only to bend down to pick it up.

You can see where the story is going, but there’s an added complication. Henry isn’t the author of that string of bestsellers. He’s just the front man for Martha. Henry, who was once a homeless drifter, met Martha on a one-night stand. After sex, he planned to steal from her and split, but he found one of her manuscripts, read it (“the story was not unlike his own,”), and sensed he’d found the golden goose. So here they are years later, a strange couple, and yet they’ve managed to map out a life together that is composed of very specific geography and terms on which they agree. The reclusive, former psychiatric patient Martha sees color auras around people and lives in another zone. Disinterested in fame and fortune, she writes at night, content to allow Henry (who spends his time building gigantic matchstick drilling rigs) to have all the fame and the glory as long as they maintain their contained, quiet private life together. So while Henry plans to break the news gently to Martha “in her hermetically sealed world,” in reality, it’s not so easy to do….

Lively, wicked and packed with dark, treacherous humour, The Truth and Other Lies is the story of a devious man who has the perfect life until he’s forced to choose between his wife and his mistress. Driven by pure self-interest devoid of any moral restraints, Henry makes an entertaining, nasty protagonist. He doesn’t hesitate to consider murder–but which woman should he kill? Martha, who can “read the X-Rays images” of Henry’s “guilty conscience” is boring but she does write those books, yet Betty, as equally a self-interested person as Henry, “deep down, she was as spoiled and unconscionable as he was,” won’t be shaken off lightly.

While the three main characters are enough to intrigue any reader, author Sascha Arango populates this novel with fascinating, troubled and equally intriguing secondary characters. There’s Claus Moreany, founder of the publishing house, a dying man whose last wish is to marry Betty. Claus is blissfully ignorant that his long-time secretary Honor Eisendraht nurses unrequited passion for her employer and hatred for Betty, a woman she sees as her usurper. Honor reads Tarot cards to assist her in her mission and nurtures a dragon tree for its promise of “grant[ing] unspoken wishes.” Hot on Henry’s tail to uncover his secret past and to exact revenge is Gisbert Fasch, and how does Obradin, the anti-social Serbian fishmonger, known for “berserk” rages which end with a tranquilizer gun come into the scheme of things?

Henry is a completely despicable character whose self-interested drive dominates–ameliorated in hilarious ways by moments of grand gestures that appear to be kindness but which in reality either cost him nothing or contribute in some devious way to the scheme of things. This is a wickedly nasty tale of deceit and murder with many twists and turns which include an unfinished manuscript that’s missing its final chapter.

While The Truth and Other Lies doesn’t quite hit the supreme pitch of biting nastiness achieved by either Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here or Phil Hogan’s superbly smooth A Pleasure and a Calling, the book should appeal to those of us who crave this sort of book. After all, nasty, self-interested people are always great fun to read aboutDistance and all that.

Translated by Imogen Taylor

Review copy

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The Last Days of Il Duce: Domenic Stansberry

The novel The Last Days of Il Duce from Domenic Stansberry opens with convicted killer, Niccolò Jones telling his story from Coldwater Penitentiary. We’re told: “Three people I used to know are dead. Two of them I loved, the other I hated–though lately I am less sure about the difference between these feelings.” The crux of this story becomes who was murdered and more importantly, why, and Nic’s story, told in the form of a confession to the reader, gradually fills in that missing information.

Nic Jones and his brother Joe grew up in North Beach with a glamorous Italian mother and a disabled WWII veteran dad. Even though their father’s name was Jones, they were known in the tight-knit Italian community as the Abruzzi boys. Both boys are deeply attracted to an Italian girl called Marie Donnatelli, and the three youngsters spend a lot of time together. There are some ugly rumours about the boy’s mother and the affluent, reptilian Italian lawyer, Micaeli Romano, and while this man casts a shadow over the boys’ childhood, it’s a shadow that neither brother can quite shirk off as adults.

the last daysAll this information is given as a short introduction to the main players before Nic moves the story ahead thirty years to 1986. In spite of the fact that Nic eventually became Romano’s protégé and attended UCLA, he’s now, at forty, broke, a washed-up lawyer who specializes in evictions for local slumlord, Jimmy Wong.

This is an incredibly atmospheric novel set in San Francisco with an emphasis on the erosion of the Italian community and the ascendency of the Chinese, with the elderly Italians full of opinions about Mussolini and his mistress, and somehow Nic Jones has become an emblem of the fall of the Italians, a man who has turned on his own people.

All this while I stared down into Chinatown, where the men in their gray suits, and the women in their smocks and the little children with their black eyes all filled the streets, more and then more of them it seemed to me, while overhead the Chinese characters filled the signs, neon blinking in the mid-afternoon, all those indecipherable letters rolling and tumbling into an upended martini glass over the liquor store.

We get a few glimpses of Nic’s past, his desire for Marie, and his relationship with the long gone Anna-a woman who probably represented the type of life Nic half-heartedly aspired to. It’s not quite clear when Nic’s career started to fail, and he’s not a particularly pleasant or sympathetic character. There’s never enough money, he drinks too much, visits prostitutes, and tries not to think too much about some of the shadier aspects of his job.

It had been five years since I’d had an office bigger than the desk in my apartment, even longer since I’d done anything those in the profession might consider the practice of law. I hadn’t been disbarred though so I guess this counted for something.

Nic’s life begins to turn nightmarish one night when he meets his brother Joe. Joe married Marie years ago, but they divorced and now he’s remarried. Joe, a former coke user, has cleaned up, and as a carpenter he makes a marginal living, but this night Joe has big plans and hints that he has “leverage” to land an exclusive contract on a condo deal. Joe won’t elaborate, but then a few hours later, Joe is murdered. Investigating Homicide Detective Leanora Chinn has two theories: this is a drug deal that went wrong. That’s the theory that’s discussed, but there’s another implied theory–that due to the brothers’ shared history with Marie, Nic, the last person who acknowledges seeing Joe, is the murderer. Since Nic doesn’t buy the first theory and knows the second is false, he starts investigating, and this takes him to a trail that leads back to WWII and Il Duce.

The novel’s strength is in its atmosphere and its descriptions of San Francisco:

I walked with her across Columbus Avenue, past the Ling Wei Hotel and into Chinatown. We jostled down Stockton Street where the crowds are always shoulder-to-shoulder, and the shop bins are filled with plastic chopsticks and paper fans and nylon kimonos, and the grocery windows are strung with half-cooked chickens, plucked and shiny, hanging from their bright read feet. Up above, in the second story knock-outs, the women were working behind sewing machines, just as they have worked forever, only these days there were competing with sweatshops in Bangkok and Hong Kong, and the little spools of thread spun on their spindles deep into the night.

The formulaic solution to the crime (which I guessed), and the characters who go through the motions of a dark dance of deceit, were the weakest parts of the novel, and I am left with a sense that the book’s marvelous framework excelled the crime and the characters:

There is farmland beyond the walls of the prison, and I know that, and beyond the walls too are neat little stucco houses and palm trees, and it’s true that sometimes I imagine myself walking down one of those roads. Perhaps someone whispers my name, and I hear the voice of Homicide Detective Leanora Chinn, and I walk beside her straight and true.

Review copy/own a copy

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Mr Lynch’s Holiday: Catherine O’Flynn

Given my interest in books that send characters off on holiday, it was easy for me to pick up and read Catherine O’Flynn’s Mr Lynch’s Holiday. The title encapsulates the action perfectly, and yet it also gives the impression of a very light beach read, but there’s a lot more going on in these pages than the title implies. While most of the action concerns a group of ex-pats, post boom, who’ve committed financial suicide by electing to pursue a fantasy of life in Spain, this is essentially a story about compromise and how we make the best of what we have.

Dermot Lynch, a 76-year-old retired bus driver, hails from Birmingham but was originally from Ireland. Now widowed, he arrives in Spain for a fortnight to visit his son, Eamonn, who decided, along with his long-term girlfriend, Laura, to abandon the UK and telecommute from Spain. And why not? Property values were soaring, and there was a sense of everyone stepping into a new exulted societal status, so it seemed easy for Eamonn and Laura to take the plunge and move to Spain.

Their original plan had been for one of the big cities–Barcelona or Madrid or Bilbao. They had no interest in joining the hordes of expats clustered along the Costas in vast apartment complexes and chintzy hillside developments. Eamonn saw the majority of British settlers in Spain as an amorphous mass of Daily Express readers riddled with hypocrisy: railing against benefit cheats at home while happy to avoid Spanish tax; indignant at immigration levels in the UK but oblivious to their own immigrant status. These were people for whom Spain’s greatest cultural achievement was its tireless dedication to polished floors and gleaming kitchen worktops.

Things didn’t go as planned:

They spent a depressing two weeks in Barcelona, looking at a succession of tiny apartments with increasingly inventive layouts. Mildewed shower cubicles in the corner of bedrooms, toilets on balconies, a mezzanine bed platform suspended above the kitchen, and everywhere perky Ikea accents to mask the squalor.

When dreams or elaborate plans don’t pan out, many people have a way of hammering their dreams to fit reality–ignoring the clear warning signs that the dream is impossible and should be abandoned. And that’s exactly what happens here; Eamonn and Laura can’t afford Madrid or Barcelona and so instead buy one of the completed homes in a new, remote housing development:

The houses and apartments were described as minimalist cube structures with a nod to the principles and aesthetics of Bauhaus. Lomaverde claimed to offer all of the style and sophistication of city living but without the bureaucratic wranglings and complexity. Where Barcelona had been difficult and impenetrable, Lomaverde was easy and welcoming.

So here we are years later; Lomaverde is an unfinished ghost estate inhabited by a group of stubborn ex-pats who either won’t give up or who now cannot afford to return home. The community pool is empty and cracked, the post isn’t delivered regularly, and a road leading out of the estate ends suddenly, unfinished, dropping off into the harsh landscape. Eamonn and Laura both lost their jobs and Laura has returned to the UK.

mr lynchs holidayVisiting the deeply depressed Eamonn becomes a rescue mission for his father, and perhaps not too surprisingly, Dermot mingles well with the other ex-pats on the estate even though his son has withdrawn from everyone’s society and is wallowing in self-pity. Dermot is a great character, and as the plot continues we see glimpses of a young Dermot arriving in Birmingham, his history and some of his disappointments in life. The most balanced, socially conscious character in the book is Inga, a divorcee from Sweden who is strangely happy that Lomaverde failed:

“I came here expecting the same as everyone else. A new community, a fresh start in this beautiful place.” She lit another cigarette. “My marriage was over. Thirty years of trying to turn a blind eye, of thinking my husband would change. That felt like a mistake, a terrible waste of time. I thought I could come here and lose myself in a new place.

But imagine somewhere in which everyone is like that. So intent on happiness, on living a fairytale. They have not emigrated from places with no work and no money to a place with jobs and opportunities. No, they have left comfortable lives in search of somewhere even better. It’s a kind of greed, don’t you think. And if you’d have said that to me two years ago, I’d have said. ‘So what? why not be greedy for happiness? what’s wrong with that?’ “

Eamonn was always closer to his mother and dismissive of his father. With Dermot’s visit, he now learns things he never knew about. While I enjoyed Mr Lynch’s Holiday and I wouldn’t hesitate to read another book from this author, it does have IMO, two flaws: 1) the character of Eamonn is too weak. He’s so weak that he’s a complete disaster–from the inappropriate things he says to one of his internet ESL students to his drunken gropings of a fellow resident. No wonder Laura ran for the hills. 2) The ending regarding Eamonn is sewn up too ‘nicely’ and while Dermot’s decision makes sense, what happens with Eamonn is supposed to be a happy ending but in reality just opens the doors to more disaster.

Author Catherine O’Flynn is very generous and well-disposed towards her characters, so consequently there are no villains here. While one of the British ex-pats is an ethnocentric bore, most of the other people are just trying to take a day at a time and make the best of things in this bad situation.

There’s one great scene when the residents hold a homeowners’ meeting, and its formality is in direct inverse proportion to the chaos of the estate. One very poignant, very realistic scene focuses on grandparents who watch their grandchildren back in the UK via Skype. These sessions conclude with either the grandparents falling asleep or the grandchildren wandering off, forgetting that they have a live audience. The grandparents moved to Spain telling themselves that their grandchildren would be able to visit and have free accommodation, but with the children’s father unemployed, those planned holidays never come to fruition, and since Lomaverde is riddled with places up for sale (at savagely reduced prices), the grandparents are stuck and cannot return to the UK.

I closed the book, a gentle pleasant read, and contrasted it to Pascal Garnier’s Moon in a Dead Eye which is set in an estate with residents who’ve fled the city for a variety of reasons. Garnier, in his trademark way, is pitiless with his bourgeois characters who mostly live in a state of constant paranoia and fear that outsiders might break in. In Mr Lynch’s Holiday, the same theme occurs, but it’s handled in a gentler, much more generous way that’s slightly unbelievable, but that attitude may depend on how you see basic human nature.

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Doctor Glas: Hjalmar Söderberg

“There’s no dream of happiness that in the end doesn’t bite its own tail.”

One of the positives of blogging is connecting with people who share similar tastes, and that brings me to one of my internet finds: Doctor Glas, a Swedish novel from Hjalmar Söderberg (1869-1941) published in 1905. I had to go back and double-check that date because Doctor Glas is a remarkably modern novel for its discussion of a number of taboo subjects: abortion, euthanasia, adultery, marital rape, prostitution and repressed sexual passion, and yet, at the same time, this is an archetypal story of an older husband who stands in the way of a couple of lusty young lovers. Shades of The Postman Always Rings Twice lurked in the corners of my mind as I read this, but there are, of course, numerous differences between James Cain’s story and this Swedish novel, but one of the most glaring differences has to be the approach to morality, for Doctor Glas is a inner contemplation of the ‘right’ to murder someone who is causing misery for others.

Doctor GlasIt’s turn-of-the-century Stockholm and Doctor Glas is much-respected professional, a bachelor, and a virgin. A quiet introspective man, he epitomizes the sort of figure patients trust, but almost immediately, Söderberg challenges the doctor’s professionalism by allowing us a glimpse into his mind. A doctor can’t pick his patients and Glas has a patient he loathes, Pastor Gregorius, a man “whose dreadful physiognomy stick[s] up from the pulpit like a poisonous mushroom.” Gregorius has a succulent young wife, and, he believes, an “irregular heartbeat.” Glas would be delighted if this patient died as he’d “be rid of the sight” of him. It’s a clever scene as we can both identify with, and be troubled by the doctor’s attitude. Gregorius is an unpleasant person, so we can join in with Glas’s thoughts, and yet it’s disconcerting to imagine a doctor wishing his patients dead.

Of course, there’s a little bit more behind the doctor’s dislike for his patient. Mrs Gregorius is also a patient, and later it develops that she wants Glas to cook up a medical reason which will ‘excuse’ her from her marital obligations. Glas makes a point of not interfering in the lives of various female patients who arrive “weeping, begging, and pleading,” for abortions. He has a “prepared speech” which he “always recites on occasions like this,” and that speech includes words regarding his “regard for human life, even the frailest.”  Glas believes that these things have a way of sorting themselves out, but this isn’t based on any moral decision–he thinks “respect of human life,” is “base hypocrisy,” and that “Duty” is a “splendid smokescreen.” His decision to refuse to perform abortions rests solidly with the Law as he knows it “would be foolish to risk everything,” for a desperate woman who would no doubt spread the word to her friends. Yet in spite of his policy of non-involvement, he becomes embroiled in the personal life of Pastor and Mrs Gregorius. Glas feels a great deal of disgust with the human condition which allows him to distance himself from the herd, and it’s very easy for him to sympathise with Mrs Gregorius’s desire to be excused from sex with her husband. They’ve been married for six years, but according to Mrs Gregorius, her husband’s demands have always been “difficult,” but “recently it’s become unbearable.”

“I don’t know how it put it,” she said. “What I wanted to ask if you is rather strange, and it may be completely against your principles. I have no way of knowing how you feel about matters like this. But there’s something about you that inspires trust, and I don’t know anyone else to confide in, no one else in the world who could help me. Doctor, couldn’t you talk to my husband? Tell him I’m suffering from some illness, something gynecological, and that he has to give up his rights, at least for a while?”

Doctor Glas immediately decides to help but he still has a question:

“But,” I interrupted, “the pastor isn’t young any longer. It surprises me that at his age he can cause you so much … distress. How old is he, anyway.”

“Fifty-six, I think. No, perhaps he’s fifty-seven. Though he looks older, of course.”

A few more questions later, and Mrs Gregorius confesses to Glas that the real reason she can no longer abide her husband’s touch is because she has a lover. So she’s given Glas a reason to refuse, but no, he jumps in with both feet and in this fashion becomes complicit in the affair….

The story is written in the form of a journal kept by Doctor Glas, so there’s many introspective, philosophical moments, many memories. There’s a memory of a girl he loved and lost and at another point, he discovers the identity of Mrs Gregorious’s lover. He begins to question his actions, and wonders if he’s become a pimp, and he decides that no, he’s “saved her from something terrible” but that “beyond that, what she does with herself is her own business.” But of course, once having broken his own rule against personal involvement, Glas finds himself in freefall on a very slippery slope.

Doctor Glas has been compared to Crime and Punishment and Thérèse Raquin, and both books are mentioned by Doctor Glas, and those allusions, of course, set the tone for the mental atmosphere surrounding the taking of a human life. I was reminded of my favourite Woody Allen film: Crimes and Misdemeanours–a film that deals with the subject of the guilt and how, in the absence of law or consequences, a person can become their own judge and jury in the aftermath of a murder. Doctor Glas argues that the weight of moral decisions rests on the individual–not fate and not god. This is a psychologically complex novel in which motivation and manipulation fester beneath surface. So thanks to both Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and Max (Pechorin’s Journal) for pointing me towards this wonderful novel.

Life, I don’t understand you. Sometimes I feel a spiritual vertigo, a whispering and murmuring that warns me I’ve gone astray

Caroline’s review

Max’s review

Review copy/own a copy

Translated by Rochelle Wright

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Filed under Fiction, Söderberg Hjalmar

Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand: Franz Werfel

At 107 pages, Franz Werfel’s novella Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand is a powerful story concerning a day in the life of a high-ranking Austrian bureaucrat who faces, or believes he faces, a moral crisis. The book is intriguingly called a ‘prequel to what is known as Holocaust literature,‘ and the events in the book (with memories of the past) take place in 1936 after the passage of the Nuremberg Laws the year before. The morally complex story very delicately, yet significantly, touches on anti-Semitism, herd mentality, the impending horror, and a complete absence of moral courage on the part of its main character.

The book opens with its main character, Leonidas Tachezy reveling, smugly, in his success.

Whenever Leonidas felt consciously pleased with himself, he smiled–dashing and mocking at the same time. Like so many handsome, healthy men in fine form, men who had risen to a high position in life, he tended to feel an exceptional well-being during the first hours of the morning.

We could say that Leonidas is a self-made-man. He’s just celebrated his fiftieth birthday and has reached the pinnacle of “his brilliant career.” The son of an “impoverished high school teacher,” he made a marginal living “tutoring rich, fat, and stupid boys.”  The future looked bleak, but he became successful thanks to two fortuitous turns of fate: his study partner, a Jewish student, committed suicide and left his suit to Leonidas. Leonidas took the suit, had a few alterations made and managed to attend some grand society events where he met a wealthy heiress, the much younger beautiful Amelia Paradini.

If one were to question his world view, he would openly admit that he regarded the universe as a venue whose sole intent and purpose was to pamper those divinely favoured like him, from the bottom to the top, and to furnish them with power, honor, splendor, and luxury. Wasn’t his own life absolute proof of this charitable disposition of the world? It took just one bullet in the room next to his shabby student’s digs to inherit a practically brand-new tuxedo. And from there on his life was a song.

That passage highlights Leonidas’s shallow morality. There’s no poignancy about the death of his study partner–just the feeling that the good luck he deserves fell his way. Amelia “pushed” the marriage against the wishes of her family, and since this is a woman who gets what she wants, the impoverished Latin tutor married the “richest heiress in the city.” So here they are twenty years later; he has a tremendous career, Amelia is the perfect trophy wife, and they mingle with the cream of Austrian society. Amelia spends hours pampering herself with “constant cosmetic care,” and there are no children. Leonidas “as the determined defender of his undivided pleasure [he] had never entertained a desire for children,” but he catches himself looking at his wife’s youthful body and thinking “we pay for those virgin breasts with childlessness.”

Pale Blue InkLeonidas is shaken from these disturbing thoughts by a stack of letters which await his attention. Most of them are obviously business correspondence, but one of the envelopes, addressed in pale blue ink sticks out from the rest. He recognizes the handwriting as belonging to Vera Wormser. He met Vera, a Jewish woman, when she was just 14, and years later he had an extra-marital affair with her. It’s one of the more shameful episodes of his past–an episode that he’s refused to deal with on many levels, but now the moral consequences of that affair appear to have washed up on his doorstep just as he’s trying to distance himself from anything Jewish….

Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand is a wonderful story, and that’s thanks to the story’s simple framework but also the examination of Leonidas’s undeveloped conscience. A small portion of the story exposes Leonidas’s hypothetical legal defense in which he pleads for mercy and understanding, and we see how Leonidas, a shallow, superficial human being, cannot quite grasp the moral implications of his behaviour. Moral consequences, for Leonidas, don’t really exist–they are like some faded memory he can’t quite recall, a shadow he can’t quite see, and any anguish he feels is for himself alone. And yet.. and yet… there is a moment when Leonidas cannot hide from the fact that he is a morally reprehensible human being, but even as this fact sinks in, he leaves that knowledge “back in the perfect darkness,” closing the door forever on any possibility of moral growth.

Apart from Leonidas’s so-called moral crisis, one section of the book includes a meeting between several Austrian bureaucrats who have to make a decision regarding an important medical faculty appointment. A world-renowned Nobel Prize-winner in medicine is about to passed over for the nomination because he’s Jewish and instead a relative nobody may get the appointment. This appointment becomes not so much a moral dilemma for the bureaucrats as a political one, and the meeting is a glimpse into expediency and moral cowardice. Strangely, knowing that he must face Vera Wormser, Leonidas finds himself championing Bloch’s appointment as he feels “wrapped up in the fishy community.” The meeting and later Leonidas’s rejection of “another atrocity story” are all connected to the “train [is] clattering through his head.” In spite of the fact that the novel begins with Leonidas smug in his comfortable little world, there’s an underlying anxiety, a subtle white noise, that runs through the novel along with the sense that Leonidas is somehow unaware, or deliberately ignoring the moral significance of political events that are about to consume the world. There’s a storm heading Leonidas’s way. How will he deal with it?

Today the world presented itself as a mild October day with a kind of strained, capricious youthfulness that more resembled a day in April. Over the expanse of vineyards that formed the Heitzing district’s border, thick, fast, fast-moving clouds scudded snow white with sharply delineated edges. Where the sky opened, it featured a naked and, for this time of year, nearly shameless spring blue. The garden, which had hardly changed color, retained that leathery persistence of summer. Light breezes, as mischievous as little street Arabs, blew from different directions with the leaves, which still clung fast to their branches.

My edition from the Verba Mundi International Literature series is translated by James Reidel and includes a translator’s note at the beginning of the book. There’s a brief biography of Franz Werfel (1890-1945) and an interesting overview of the real-life people who formed the characters in the book. James Reidel calls this book Werfel’s “lost jewel,” and after reading the book, it seems surprising that Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand isn’t better known. It deserves to be.

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The Islanders: Pascal Garnier

“This was not real life in the everyday world where you could come and go as you pleased; Olivier knew what a massive step he was taking. This was not a matter of chance. What it was a matter of, he did not know. He had set foot on a slippery slope and he was sliding, yes, sliding.”

I’ve read a few novels by Pascal Garnier, and I thought, of the translations available, I only had A-26 left to read. Then a couple of other titles appeared: The Islanders and Boxes. I’d delayed reading A-26 as I didn’t want to get to the end of the road with Garnier, but then Max’s review caused me to wonder if I’d saved the weakest Garnier for last. So here we are with The Islanders–a strange title, I thought, for Garnier, but then after concluding this slim novel (144 pages) the title made sense in a horrible, sickening sort of way. While the title evokes certain images: sea, sand, and palm trees, forget all of those wonderful thoughts because you’ll find none of those here. The Islanders, for Garnier at least, is a state of mind: madness, murder, and how two personality types, when they meet, bind together in isolation and become dangerously obsessive and murderous.

Garnier’s bleak, darkly funny story begins with introducing its handful of sad, wrecked characters:

  •  Now dry, alcoholic Olivier, a man who runs a perfume shop with his wife, Odile, travels to Versailles on December 21st to wrap up his mother’s paltry estate and see her buried.
  •   Homeless Roland, whose life went “tits up the day he was born,” loses his job the very first day as Santa Claus after horrifying children by fighting with a rival santa “like two hookers fighting for turf.
  •  Schoolteacher Jeanne who lives with her obese blind brother Rodolphe.

Olivier isn’t exactly racked with grief over his mother’s death; he thinks that he’ll wrap up the funeral and go home, but things become more complicated. He can’t just oversee the burial and run; the ground is frozen:

The burial could not take place before the 27th; the undertaker had just told him so. The dead just kept coming and the ground was rock-hard.

‘What if we had her cremated?’

‘Monsieur! We must respect the deceased’s last wishes. Your mother had planned for everything.’

‘Except dying at Christmas. So there’s nothing we can do?’

That’s typical Garnier. There are no taboos here, and just as we have a scene of fighting Santas with blood soaked beards, we also have an indifferent son who can’t wait to get his mother 6 feet under. So Olivier finds himself stuck in Versailles, but things change for the worst when he bumps into his mother’s neighbor, Jeanne, the first love of his life, a girl he never forgot. It’s as though when these two re-connect, that all the years they spent apart collapse, and they pick right back up where they left off–each one the other half of a dark puzzle. Suddenly, “it really was as if they had only spent a day apart.” At first we don’t understand the bonds and secrets Jeanne and Olivier share, and those aspects of the plot are gradually revealed over the course of the story.

The IslandersNot a lot of the plot can be discussed without ruining the story, but here’s a great quote involving Rodolphe who plays a favourite sick, twisted game by dragging some poor soul into conversation at a museum.

‘Excuse me, Madame. Do you speak French?’

‘Yes’

“Oh good. Would you mind telling me about the painting there, in front of us?’

‘The Raft of the Medusa?’

‘That’s the one.!’

‘But … what do you want me to tell you.’

‘I’m visually impaired and …’

‘Oh! I’m sorry, I hadn’t noticed. You don’t often come across blin-, visually impaired people in art galleries.’

‘I appreciate why you might be surprised, Madame, but I’m waiting for my sister to come and pick me up. I can still enjoy something of the art through other people’s eyes. as long as I’m not bothering you?’

‘No, not at all! So … it’s a picture of a raft … with people on it, far out at sea.’

‘Ah.’

‘Just a minute, I’ve got a guide … Gériacault, Géricault … Ah, here we are. The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, acquired in 1824—‘

‘No, I’m not interested in that. I want to what you can see.’

‘What I can see?’

‘Yes. How many people are on this raft? Is it day or night? Colours, everything!’

‘Right, right. Hang on, I’m counting them … The thing is, some of them are dead and some alive.’

‘Count the bodies, just the bodies!’

“I’d say about fifteen but I can’t be sure, they’re all piled up …’

‘Is it disgusting?’

And so the scene continues and you can tell where it’s going–although the innocent bystander, an unwitting participant in Rodolphe’s game, is still unaware that she’s a plaything for his amusement. So here’s Garnier assaulting another taboo as he shows a disabled character who’s exploiting his disability to disarm another person–someone who’s been duped into engaging in conversation with a perfect stranger simply because the disabled stranger seems to need help. After reading a handful of Garnier novels, some common threads are floating to the surface, and one of those themes is that life is so awful, if you kill someone, you are doing them a favour. This idea is threaded into the story through its many ghastly images: a kitchen that “glowed yellowish like the colour of nicotine-stained teeth,” a telephone receiver that “smelt of dried spit,” “monstrous turds of white pudding [that] came spewing out of butchers,” and a main character, Olivier, who is “an indifferent passenger through life.”

There’s always an aspect of horrified fascination when it comes to reading Garnier. This horrified fascination can bump into amusement (Moon in a Dead Eye) dangerous obsession (The Front Seat Passenger) or magnetic disgust (The Panda Theory), and towards the end of The Islanders, the disgust factors pile on. Garnier doesn’t allow his readers to maintain any distance from the more repellent aspects of this story, and so while we get an incredible first row seat to a psychotic relationship, we also get some of the more skin-crawling details of the descent into madness. Garnier is convincing in his portrayal of how two seemingly-normal, somewhat functional people combine and fuse into murderous, toxic, self-destructive isolation.

Here’s my order of preference so far:

Moon in a Dead Eye

How’s the Pain?

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

The Panda Theory

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Translated by Emily Boyce

French title: Les Insulaires

Finally there’s a statement on the cover: “The true heir to Simenon: John Banville.” Personally, I don’t see it.

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A View of the Harbour: Elizabeth Taylor

After reading & liking  A Game of Hide and Seek, I wanted to read another Elizabeth Taylor novel I liked as much as Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. A View of the Harbour, set in a drab seaside town, immediately appealed to my imagination. A seaside tourist destination in the off season seems like a party where the guests don’t show– sad, neglected, with all the glamour and excitement gone.  A View of the Harbour is a marvelous look into the lives of a diverse handful of locals who live on the Harbour in Newby in an area known as ‘the old town’ while the ‘New Town’ has grown and expanded around another coastal point. The “pulsing” light from the reassuring presence of the lighthouse guides sailors on the majestic ocean, and there’s the subtle idea that while various passions simmer amongst Taylor’s characters, they lack any such guidance when making their decisions. Instead they employ various coping mechanisms to endure their lives.

The harbour “dingy and familiar, a row of buildings, shops, café, pub, with peeling plaster of apricot and sky-blue,” is home to a handful of businesses and residences. Mrs. Beth Cazabon, a published author of weepy, emotional novels is always scribbling away, working on her plots where characters drop like flies while her doctor husband, Robert, a seemingly emotionally detached man, is on call 24/7. Beth Cazabon’s mind lives firmly with her characters, so she’s a distracted wife, a mediocre housewife and an unsatisfactory mother in the eyes of the husband who married her thinking that writing was just a phase Beth was going through. While the Cazabons’ marriage functions, its more pathological aspects are manifested through the behaviour of their two strange children: Prudence and Stevie. There’s a fifteen year difference between Prudence and Stevie which “suggested that they were haphazardly conceived.” Prudence has health problems which have isolated and infantilized her to a great extent, and her sole companions are two Siamese cats she’s constantly fussing. The younger girl, Stevie, is a fey child who wanders around the house singing hymns, given to explosive emotional tantrums and who occasionally says the most inappropriate things.

a view of the harbourBeth’s best friend, the elegant, attractive, divorced Tory Foyle whose husband ran off with another woman during the war lives next door. Tory’s only child is now attending boarding school and his letters home cause Tory some alarm, yet at the same time, she realizes that she must allow her son to have certain experiences.

As a divorced woman, Tory is an object of interest, and widow Lily Wilson, the owner and operator of the waxworks museum is another subject of gossip. Both of these women, single and available are the object of scrutiny from bed-bound, paralyzed Mrs. Bracey who has nothing else to do except watch the more interesting lives of others. Mrs. Bracey lives with her two daughters Maisie and Iris, and from her bed, Mrs. Bracey terrorizes and controls Maisie while Iris manages to escape through her work as a barmaid at the local pub, the Anchor. Iris and Maisie lead very constricted lives due to their mother’s controlling nature, but whereas Maisie begins to long for her mother’s death, Iris escapes in fantasies that a Hollywood star will walk into her life.

Into these lives drifts retired naval officer and hobby artist, Bertram who arrives in the off-season, stays at the pub and observes the residents who live on the harbour even as he quietly insinuates himself into their lives and into their community. Bertram, a bachelor, has spent a lifetime evading serious relationships, and yet he strikes up a routine with the lonely widow, Lily Wilson, and is also attracted to Tory. There’s something about Bertram that’s not quite right, and he’s a character that will generate various opinions. He’s old-fashioned and polite, and yet there are shades of the emotional vampire in some of his behaviours–as though he must taste other’s problems before moving on.  He admits to feeling only “curiosity” about other people and acknowledges that he “always move[s] on” in order to avoid permanent involvement:

When he was kind to people he had to love them; but when he had loved them for a little while he wished only to be rid of them and so that he might free himself would not hesitate to inflict all the cruelties which his sensibility knew they could not endure.

These complex, well-drawn characters play out their lives and their personal dramas over the course of a few months. I won’t say much more about the plot, but I’ll add that the book’s strength lies in Elizabeth Taylor’s ability to create believable, imperfect, fascinating human beings who demand our empathy. Lily Wilson, for example, makes a marginal existence from the shabby little waxworks museum, and every night when she returns home from the pub, she must force herself to walk past the ghoulish figures. She depends upon the museum to make her living and yet she loathes the waxwork figures and is afraid to go to sleep at night. Mrs Bracey is arguably the most unpleasant character in the book for her treatment of her daughter Maisie, and yet Elizabeth Taylor still manages to generate empathy for this woman who is paralyzed, has “a hunger for life,” dreams of good health, and lives to upset other people. There’s a marvelous scene with Mrs. Bracey threatening clergyman, Mr. Lidiard that she may switch to Catholicism as the Catholic priests visit the sick more frequently. After an argument in which Mrs. Bracey tells Mr. Lidiard “shut your trap,” he decides to make a strategic exit:

Mr Lidiard put his cup very carefully into its saucer and stood up. ‘I must be off.’ He made a little bow to Mrs. Bracey. ‘I shall call next week if I may.’ His glance included Maisie.

‘I shall most likely have gone over to Rome by then,’ said Mrs. Bracey.

The decorators made way for him, drawing back a little in contempt for his cloth

‘And you can bring me a book next time,’ Mrs. Bracey suddenly shouted after him. ‘A travel book. A nice book about the South Sea Islands.’ She chuckled. ‘Some of the tricks these natives get up to, the dirty monkeys!’ But her face softened with tenderness and affection.

Beth Cazabon is another incredibly well-drawn character. Her husband thinks that her writing career is a “disease, a madness,” and here she is, in a moment of crisis as she admires Tory’s home and wishes that she was as good a housekeeper:

She would have liked to have achieved such a room as this for her family, and felt the old guilt about her writing coming over her, and the indignant answer trying to smother it–‘Men look upon writing as work.’ Even if she wished to be released from it, as she sometimes did wish, she knew that she could not. The imaginary people would go on knocking at her forehead until she died. ‘Haunted!’ she thought. ‘I’m haunted. Inside me I am full of ghosts. But I am nothing myself–I am an empty house!’

In the midst of all this passion, gossip and drama, Elizabeth Taylor seeds the story with touches of delicate humour. Here’s the creepy, tyrannical librarian:

Behind a counter was an old man with an ink-pad and a large oval stamp, with which he conducted a passionate erratic campaign against slack morals. His censorship was quite personal. Some books he could not read and they remained on the shelves in original bindings and without the necessary stigma ‘For Adults Only.’ Roderick Random stood thus neglected, and Tristram Shandy, vaguely supposed to be children’s books. Jane Eyre, bound and rebound, full of loose leaves, black with grease, fish-smelling, was stamped front and back. Madame Bovary had fallen to pieces.

A View of the Harbour will make my best-of-year list.

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Blaze Away: Bill James

Bill James is the pseudonym for the author of the long-standing Harpur and Iles crime series which began in 1985 with the first novel You’d Better Believe It. Well here’s number 32 in the series: Blaze Away. While the novel worked as a standalone, with footnotes which gave pointers to the novels in which various mentioned incidents took place, it’s clear that the plot is founded on a basic affection for the many long-standing characters and their sometimes nebulous relationships.

Blaze awayThe novel starts off very strongly with an art theft gang known as “Cog,” casing out, via a laptop, photos of Darien, the country estate belonging to Jack Lamb. He’s known to house a substantial art collection, and the gang–composed of planner George Dinnick, Liz Rossol, in charge of recon and fieldwork, and art expert Justin Benoit, plan to rob Lamb knowing that since Lamb deals in both stolen goods and fakes, he won’t report the robbery to the police. The hope is that although the art is probably stored in a concrete strong room, that Lamb will roll over without the need for persuasive methods:

Dinnick said: ‘We take and then transfer our trove to that jolly friend in Ghent by customary methods, and it disappears into the great, shadowy, magnificently efficient arty elsewhere. Obviously it would be best if we could get there while the stuff is actually on display, easy to unhook and multi-filch. The strongroom could cause difficulties–delays, and the need to force the door–combinations from him. We all hate that kind of blood and bone-break thing, I believe, but Jack Lamb’s not some innocent, pure at heart, pictures fan, is he? We’ve dealt several times with similar obstructiveness. Lamb has chosen risk as a colleague. That’s us. Risk can move in on him and become not risk at all but authentic, professionally delivered pain. He’s hardly going to call the police, is he, running the kind of business he does?”

While the gang carefully case Jack Lamb’s estate, they note two things: 1) Jack Lamb’s mother is there on holiday from America and 2) Jack has a visitor who drives a car with registration that, when checked, simply doesn’t exist. Conclusion: Jack Lamb has a friend in the force, and that perhaps Jack Lamb is a police informant.

After setting the scene with details about Jack Lamb’s art collection and his relationship with Harpur, the novel shifts to Ralph Ember’s “social club,” The Monty, “at present unquestionably a lovely building but, because of the membership, also unquestionably a scrap-heap, crap-heap.” Ralph has got it into his head that if he can “spruce up the club’s grubby character” with art, then he’ll appeal to a better class of membership. Fat chance of that happening. In spite of the club’s membership rules, which include a booklet which lists “no weaponry,” member Basil Gordon Loam aka Enzyme shot up a protective steel barricade which is covered with pasted on illustrations from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This has resulted in a lifetime ban for Enzyme and a renewed interest from Ralph in pursing an artistic theme in the club.

But even more than that, the shooting incident results in an article in the gossip column of the I Spy tabloid. The incident rattles Liz Rossol and she decides that it needs further investigation in case there will be an impact on their intended robbery of Jack Lamb. At the same time, Assistant Chief Constable Iles also reads the I-Spy article and decides to take proactive measures to ensure that Ralph doesn’t exact revenge against Enzyme.

So basically, the I-Spy article makes all the characters converge.

Stepping into this novel is like stepping into an alternate universe. As a crime novel, the mood and style are unique and quirky. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the leap required to accept that Liz Rossol would imagine that the shooting at The Monty Club was in any way a problem for the planned robbery at Darien, and credibility is stretched to imagine, in today’s world, that an Assistant Chief Constable would stop everything after reading an I-Spy story (even though I know this decision is founded in long-standing relationships). Large parts of this short novel include soliloquies on various topics such as the meaning of one painting and the damage perpetrated on The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There’s also a long section which takes place in a daycare centre. Again the emphasis is on quirky rather than credibility or realism. Since this is a long-standing series with long-standing characters, Bill James has built a world peopled with eccentrics and eccentricities.

After coming across a mention of the Harpur and Iles series in a Ken Bruen novel, I’ve been meaning to read Bill James for some time and own several of the early books. I’ve read chunks from the earlier books and liked what I read, but still, as a newcomer,  in all fairness to the author and the series, I was unprepared for the novel’s tone and mood. I liked the novel’s style and the cultural references (which, in a circular way brought me back to Bruen). Some reviewers seemed annoyed by the banter between Harpur and Iles but I rather enjoyed it:

The two main cops around here, Assistant Chief Constable Iles, and Detective Chief Superintendent Harpur, behaved something like Enzyme. One of them would ask the other a question and either get no answer, or an answer that was another question, or even an answer to a different question that hadn’t been asked and had no relationship to the one that had. This was not caused by subconscious obedience to the uppish family past and genes, though, as with Enzyme, but by a playful, vicious determination in both Iles and Harpur to piss on the other’s peace of mind, confidence and sanity. That’s what policing at the highest levels must be like: conversations which were not; which were sessions of attrition and lively insult.

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The History Man: Malcolm Bradbury

“Howard stared at the campus from the sit-in and what he said was: ‘I think this is a place I can work against.’ “

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for books with an academic setting. Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man is a vicious satire about academic life, and if you’ve ever been involved in academia in any way, you will probably recognize the particularly despicable main character, Howard. The author, in a foreword, admits that while he “invented Howard Kirk […] He was an entirely familiar figure on every modern campus–if, like me, you happened to teach in once of those bright concrete-and-glass new universities that sprang up over the Sixties in Britain and right across Europe and the USA.” I agree. I’ve known several ever trendy, ever hypocritical, self-loving Howard Kirks and so this book brought back some memories.

the history manThe book begins very strongly with a description of the times and then introduces Howard and Barbara Kirk who are about, as the  “new academic year begins,” to throw another of their famous parties. Howard is a self-focused “radical sociologist,” and lectures at a new university in the seaside town of Watermouth:

His course on Revolutions is a famous keystone, just as are, in a different way, his interventions in community relations, his part in the life of the town. For Howard is a well-known activist, a thorn in the flesh of the council, a terror to the selfish bourgeoisie, a pressing agent in the Claimants’ Union, a focus of responsibility and concern. As for Barbara, well, she is at this minute just a person, as she puts it, trapped in the role of wife and mother, in the limited role of woman in our society; but of course she, too, is a radical person, and quite as active as Howard in her way. She is, amongst her many competences and qualifications, a cordon bleu cook, an expert in children’s literature, a tireless promoter of new causes (Women for Peace, The Children’s Crusade for Abortion, No More Sex for Repression). And she, too, is a familiar figure, in the streets, as she blocks them with others to show that traffic is not inevitable, and in the supermarkets as she leads her daily deputation to the manager with comparative, up-to-the-minute lists showing how Fine Fare, on lard, is one pence up on Sainsbury’s, or vice versa. She moves through playgroups and schools, surgeries and parks, in a constant indignation

Married for twelve years, and with two children, the Kirks have endured several metamorphoses. Both originally from the “grimmer, tighter north,” they were originally very conventional people who managed to escape from their “respectable upper-working-class cum lower middle-class backgrounds.” Perhaps it was their mutually shared backgrounds that initially drew them together, and while Howard’s career in Sociology soared, Barbara became an unhappy “flatwife,” giving up any hopes of a career to raise two children neither parent particularly wanted. Howard is given to constant analysis of their shifting marital relationship which he sees as “trapping each other in fixed personality roles,” and that their “marriage had become a prison, its function to check growth, not open it.” They almost broke up several times, but have stayed together in an ‘open marriage,’ and are considered by their peers as a successful couple who are now evolved from who they used to be–“people of several protean distillations back.”

The plans for the party (actually an annual event which has to appear to be very carefully ‘unplanned’ and spontaneous) gives the reader insight into the Kirks’ marriage and domestic arrangements. They live in a Georgian townhouse, away from the other academics who’ve chosen more prestigious, country settings. Henry Beamish and his wife, for example, live in “an architect-converted farmhouse, where they were deep into a world of Tolstoyan pastoral, scything grass and raising organic onions.” The Kirks’ home, a hangout for “radical students and faculty, town drop-outs, passionate working communists” is, naturally, in an area of “urban blight” and it’s been very carefully restored in a shabby-chic sort of way. While the Kirks may pretend to be anti-bourgeois, really they’re the epitome of bourgeois values. Their so-called radicalism, very carefully defined to slot into a safe niche, thrives on the fertile setting of the university campus.

A great deal of the novel centres on the Kirks’ party  but then the plot moves away to examine other aspects of the Kirks’ lives: Howard and Barbara’s joint exploitation of students for unpaid childcare and housecleaning, Howard’s affairs with his students, and a carefully nurtured self-serving rumor that a geneticist may be arriving on the lecture circuit. When one male student, Carmody, has the audacity to challenge the poor grades he’s received from Howard, this incident shows just how authoritarian the self-loving Howard really is.  “Intellectual freedom” is something that Howard wags on about and uses to defend his anti-university-establishment stance, and yet he refuses to extend the same right to opinion to anyone who disagrees with him.

For all of his talk about liberation, Howard is the biggest sexist around. He constantly avoids any domestic chores and his female students are potential sex partners. Here’s a great scene with Howard, Barbara, and their two children at breakfast:

Are you going to eat your sodding cornfakes?” asks Howard of the children. “Or do you want me to throw them out of the window?”

“I want you to throw them out of the window,” says Martin.

“Christ,” says Barbara, “here’s a man with professional training in social psychology. And he can’t get a child to eat a cornflake.”

“The human will has a natural resistance to coercion,” says Howard. “It will not be repressed.”

“By cornflake fascism,” says Celia.

Barbara stares at Howard. “Oh, you’re a great operator,” she says. 

“Why don’t you give them wider options? Set them free?” asks Howard, “Weetabix, Rice Krispies?”

“Why don’t you keep out of it?” asks Barbara, “I feed this lot. They’re not asking for different food. They’re asking for my endless sodding attention.”

One of the best characters in the book, is the very refreshing English professor Miss Callendar. When she was introduced, I thought that perhaps Howard had met his match. While I understand, on one level, exactly what author Malcolm Bradbury did with this character, nevertheless, I was disappointed with the story’s direction.

This is not gentle satire. While some parts of the novel are funny, overall the main characters of Howard and Barbara remain superficial; they are the very ‘types’ that we recognize, but beyond that, there’s no depth. There are some great moments, but the novel, determined to draw vicious satirical scenes from the life of a very particular type, bludgeons the reader with wearying heavy-handedness. While we know people who act like Howard and think like Howard, they don’t speak like Howard, so the result is that some of the dialogue feels stiff and forced, and there’s the sensation that these characters are caught in a set piece delivering their stock lines.

Published in 1975

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