Category Archives: Fiction

A Little Lumpen Novelita: Roberto Bolaño

“I knew in the kingdom of crime there were many stages and levels and no matter how hard I tried, I would never reach the top.”

“Now I’m a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime,” and so begins Roberto Bolaño’s book, A Little Lumpen Novelita. It’s an intriguing beginning to an intriguing story. Bianca and her younger brother are orphaned after their parents are killed in a car accident. They remain living in the family flat in Rome, but there’s not enough money to survive. The brother takes a job at a gym, while Bianca starts working at a salon. I’ll rephrase that: Bianca starts working at a salon while her brother says “it was stupid to work, that we could live happily on the pension we got from the government, on the income from our orphanhood.” But the budget is too tight, and so the brother who thinks he can go to eating just one meal a day, finally acknowledges they need money and gets the job at a gym.The brother dreams of being Mr. Universe.

The siblings drift into a life of apathy. It’s an existence; they “killed time watching TV, first the talk shows, then cartoons” They drift along until one day the brother comes home with two men he’s met at the gym. “One was from Bologna, the other from Libya or Morocco.” As the story progresses, these two men become interchangeable in more ways than one.

My brother had met them at the gym, where they did some kind of work that was never clear to me. Sometimes I got the impression that they were trainers, a job with a certain prestige, and other times that they were just sweepers and errand boys, like my brother. Either way, they were always talking about the gym–and so did my brother, with a fervor new to me–and about protein diets and meals with names that had the ring of science fiction, like Fuel tank 3000 or Weider energy bars (all the nutrients you need for the body of a champion!).

But soon Bianca is supporting herself, her brother and his two friends. The atmosphere and situation at the flat are bizarre. Everyone avoids confrontation, and yet there’s a definite silent chain of power combined with the threat of violence. Bianca’s brother is clearly afraid of these two men who have long overstayed their welcome. Then the three males hatch a plan to get rich, and of course, Bianca is the pivotal figure in this grubby scheme:

It’s best not to think about these things. They’re here, they touch us, they’re gone, or they’re here, they touch us, they swallow us up, and it’s best–always–not to think about them. But I kept thinking, waiting for the coffee to be done, and I asked myself what my brother’s friends meant by saying that their luck would change, how exactly they planned to change their luck (their luck, not mine or my brother’s, though in a sense their luck would have an effect–any idiot could see that–on my brother’s luck and maybe even mine), what they were ready to try, how far they were expected to go to get their luck and ours to turn around. 

Bianca is our narrator and she’s somewhat unreliable. She acknowledges that when she embarks on this life of crime her story gets “fuzzier.” Her tale is told in retrospect so how much is due to hazy memory, how much she’d just not rather think about, and how much is due to the inexperience (at the time) of youth, well it’s up for grabs. In some ways this story reminds me of Modiano, but it’s sharper than Modiano in its focus. But I liked this tale, and how Bianca crossed so easily into criminality. Bianca and her brother are both passive by nature, and once they find themselves involved in crime, swept along by forces more malignant than themselves, it seems up to Bianca to either pull the crime together or else make some decisive move to escape. This is beautifully written. Bolaño doesn’t fill in all the gaps for us; instead this is Bianca remembering a murky, desperate point–a crossroads in her life.  The tale illustrates how impossible it is capture a certain state of mind from an earlier point in life, why we made the decisions we did, and that impossibility goes a long way to explaining the tale’s murkier points.

Translated by Natasha Wimmer

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More Anatomy of Murder: Sayers, Iles,Crofts (1936)

“As for the academic question of whether the association of a young man with a woman considerably older than himself is to be regarded always as harmful to the young man, that is debatable.”

In More Anatomy of Murder, Dorothy L. Sayers, Francis Iles and Freeman Wills Crofts, respected authors of detective fiction, each discuss an infamous murder case. Sayers, Iles and Crofts were all members of the Detection Club (Sayers and Crofts were founders). Sayers considers The Murder of Julia Wallace, while Iles examines The Rattenbury Case, and finally Crofts, in a much shorter piece, discusses A New Zealand Tragedy.

More anatomy of murder

The biggest issue for readers of More Anatomy of Murder is that these three cases (or at least the first two) were headlines in 1933 and 1935, and so some prior knowledge of these murders is assumed. Fortunately for this reader, I was familiar with the Rattenbury case through the film Cause Célèbre. But back to the first section: The Murder of Julia Wallace. (The bones of this case reminded me of Celia Dale’s Helping with Inquiries. ) Julia Wallace’s husband, who claimed to have been lured from his home at the time of his wife’s bludgeoning murder, was arrested and tried for the crime. In the second case, the Rattenbury murder, Francis Rattenbury was murdered by his much younger wife’s lover (the wife initally confessed), and the third case, The Lakey murder, involved the murder of a married couple by a neighbor. So three very different types of murders.

Each of the authors takes a different approach to the case under examination. Sayers, for example, states that the law is interested in “one question only,” … “Did the prisoner do it?” while the crime novelist asks “if the prisoner did not do it, who did.” Sayers’ approach is heavily psychological as she peels away the layers and complications of the case. At each step of the evidence, she presents the possibility of Wallace being the murderer, or whether or not the murderer was another individual.

In The Rattenbury Case, Iles references the hanging of Edith Thompson and compares Alma Rattenbury to Edith Thompson, and the two cases appear similar on the surface. Iles argues that while husbands were murdered by their wives’ lovers in both instances, there are differences. Since married women seeking sex with young lovers loomed large in both cases, Edith Thompson and Alma Rattenbury’s behaviour scandalized the public, and Mrs. Rattenbury’s temperament is much discussed along with that of her 18-year-old lover/chauffeur, Stoner. Iles makes a good argument for the case that Mrs. Rattenbury and Stoner fed off each other’s unstable temperaments.

Iles also discusses Miss F. Tennyson Jesse’s transcript and commentary of the trial, and Iles argues that while Jesse “finds it difficult to account for Stoner’s crime,” and calls the crime “a gesture conceived in an unreal world,” he disagrees:

Where personal advantage looms so large if a certain person can only be knocked out of the path, the consequent knocking out bears a very solid relation to real life. 

The final case follows the standard police procedural as Freeman Wills Crofts tackles the evidence in the Lakey Murder Case.

I liked the way each author took a different approach, and Sayer’s wit bolstered the tame drabness of married life between Julia and William Wallace. She notes that while the couple’s married life seemed superficially happy, there are hints that life was not what it seemed:

Nothing will ever bring her back, and however much I want her or however much I miss her loving smiles and aimless chatter …

After reading this section, I had my own theory. The Rattenbury Case with its unstable, erratic household, morphia, lashings of alcohol and cocaine was a good contrast. Iles even spends some passages explaining why he is fascinated by the case.

(F. Tennyson Jesse wrote A Pin to See the Peepshow which is a fictionalised account of Edith Thompson and the Ilford Murder Case.)

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Women: Mihail Sebastian (1933)

“September has arrived, lovely in its weakening light.”

Last year I read Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years–a remarkable book which covers  several years in the life of a young Romanian man who faces antisemitism at university and struggles with what it means to be a Jew. The book had a refreshing energy in spite of its introspection, and that same energy is apparent in Women: a book comprised of four connected stories which explore the various phases and complications of male/female relationships.

The first story, Renée, Marthe and Odette is my favourite of the lot. Stefan Valeriu is on holiday in the Alps. He’s a student in Paris; he’s taken his final exams, and now he’s relaxing:

It’s not yet eight. Stefan Valeriu can tell by the sunlight, which has crept only as far as the edge of his chaise longue. He can sense it climbing through the wooden legs, feel it caressing his fingers, his hand, his naked arm, as warm as a shawl … More time will pass–five minutes, an hour, an eternity–and a flickering blue light with vague silver streaks will appear through his closed eyelids. Then it will be eight and perhaps time to start thinking about getting up. Just like yesterday, and the day before that. But he’ll remain lying there, smiling at the thought of this sundial he constructed on the first day, using a chaise longue and a patch of terrace. 

This is how the story opens. Its evocative sensuality draws us immediately into Stefan’s life, and it’s easy to imagine the sensations he enjoys: the light, the warmth and the sheer pleasure of leisure time. And then comes the voice of a woman. …

Stefan, as it turns out, is a bit of a player. Circumstances throw him into the company of several women–hence the title. Stefan meets a married couple: Monsieur Marcel Rey and his wife Renée who are on holiday with their small daughter. The Reys, who are both from “old colonial families,” own a plantation in Tunisia. It’s not exactly a life of ease; they sleep with a gun under the pillow.  Stefan plays chess with Monsieur Rey and seduces his wife.

The intriguing thing here is just what the husband knows or doesn’t know. Is Stefan one of the perks of the holiday? The night before the Reys depart, Stefan plays chess with Monsieur Rey:

When it is completely dark, the lights of the train station far beyond the lake can be seen, and the Paris train at midnight, like a thick articulated phosphorescent snake. They pause in the middle of their game and watch it disappear.

–We have a rough life, says Monsieur Rey, breaking the silence. I don’t regret it and wouldn’t change it. But it is tough. I’m sure Renée has tears in her eyes watching that same train, which she won’t be taking again for who knows how many years. Maybe never. That doesn’t scare me, but you see, there’s something in me, a kind of affliction, that gives me pause. I know it’ll pass. It will pass for her too. Work takes care of all that. The sun, the plantations, the desert, the breeze at night, the Arabs…. But you have to understand how different things are here, how appealing it is and how a woman in particular would find it all irresistible…

So that’s Renée, the unhappy plantation owner’s wife. Then there’s Marthe, a beautiful, calm “regal, cinematic, and eternally beautiful woman,” who is pursued by Stefan. The pursuit is flavoured by the presence of another young man who appears to be a competitor for Marthe’s affections. And then there’s Odette: a free-spirited young woman who is alone at the resort.

The best scene in this wonderful section concerns Monsieur Rey’s hobby of filming the guests, and one evening the guests sit down to watch Rey’s film. The film’s revelations make Stefan extremely uncomfortable. (I thought of Alda Alda in Crimes and Misdeamours. Alda Alda plays Lester, a television producer and Clifford, played by Woody Allen makes a documentary of Lester’s life.)

In the second story, Émilie, time has moved on. Stefan is the narrator who tells the tale of a young woman who is a virgin; Stefan is a witness to her sad tale. Renée, Marthe and Odette explored many aspects of male-female relationships (flirting, pursuit, high drama, adultery, adulation) but Émilie, is almost painful in its train-wreck bleakness.

The third section, Maria, takes the form of a letter to Stefan. Stefan declared his love and the letter is Maria’s response which, in essence details of her relationship with another man. In the final section, Arabela, Stefan once more is the narrator, but in this case he tells of his prolonged, ultimately anticlimactic, love affair with an acrobat.

The first story is superb, and the others, while good, cannot match its excellence. There’s something magnificent and timeless about Renée, Marthe and Odette and the way Stefan observes and loves each woman in his own way.

There haven’t been many women in my life. But there have been a few. As many as any man of average attractiveness might have, when he acts kindly and knows when to insist. I’m not boasting, as I know any number of acquaintances of mine, taller and darker and better-looking, who have had ten times the number of “conquests.” Still, I’ve never met a woman–and I’ve been in love with some of them–who has ever given me the sense of cool sensuality that I found in Arabela’s arms, as I inhaled the smell of her warm, lazy, indifferent flesh.

Review copy

Translated by Philip Ó Ceallaigh

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A Very Scotch Affair: Robin Jenkins (1968)

“To escape from the darkness of the ghetto-mind, especially if you had been imprisoned in it for over forty years, you had to be ruthless as well as reckless. Whether you were to be condemned or congratulated would depend on what use you made of your freedom.”

Mungo Jenkins, a married man in his 40s decides to run off to Barcelona with Myra. They’ve been involved in an affair now for some time, and independently wealthy Myra pushes Mungo to leave his wife and three children; it’s now or never.

A very scotch affair

Mungo was born in the slums of Glasgow’s Culdean Street, “still today one of the scruffiest in the east end, and had been brought up by a half-mad old aunt said to be a rag-dealer.” Mungo is now an insurance superintendent for a small company. He married Bess, a factory worker, 24 years earlier, and they have three children together: Andrew, Peggy and Billy. Mungo has long stopped loving his wife. In fact he can’t stand her:

God knew he looked for nothing fancy in a woman of forty-six who had borne three children. He did not expect her to tint or dye her hair, but was there any need for it to be always so drab and untidy? She said she couldn’t afford hairdressers, slimming biscuits, expensive girdles, and flattering clothes, as well as a son at University and a daughter in the sixth form. That was all true enough, but surely she should have learned, in her twenty-four years of marriage to him, that the truth ought never to be used as a skulking-place? Then in her almost revengeful deterioration she had taken to leaving out her false teeth at night, because, so she claimed, keeping them in gave her inflamed gums,. Those shrunken kisses in the dark, demanded so coyly, had revolted him more and more. They were made worse too by her recounting, with inane laughter, some trivial gossip of house, street, shop, or whist-table.

Mungo thinks he could have gone so much farther in life without his wife and children, but now “he might be held captive until death by the innumerable coils of sheer commonplace habit.” Determined to announce his departure, Mungo, unwittingly chooses the worse time to abandon his family. Bess has cancer. …

A Very Scotch Affair follows the fallout of Mungo’s departure: the repercussions on his children and also the reactions of the family’s friends and neighbours. While Mungo thinks rather highly of his abilities, this view is perhaps not as accurate as Mungo would like to believe, and unfortunately, Bess’s adoring love has helped sustain Mungo in his conceit. While Andrew, involved in a mess of his own, doesn’t seem to blame his dad for abandoning the family, Billy, the youngest at age 12 hates his father, and when Mungo announces his decision to desert his wife and children, Billy reveals close observations of his father’s intellectual “fraud.”

All those books in the bookcase through in the sitting-room, he couldn’t even read them and they’re in English. He would take one, look at it, and then put it back. He’d do that with half a dozen. Then he’d sit down with one and try to read it, but after a wee while he’d drop it and read a newspaper instead.

And then there’s Peggy, an unusual young woman, circled with an aura of sadness, who has made an art of accepting the limitations of human behaviour.

Set in a poor protestant Glasgow neighbourhood rife anti-catholic sentiments, the book contains some colourful secondary characters: Bess’s mean-spirited friend widowed Flo, a woman who “refused to make an iota of allowance for inevitable human shortcomings.” She is being courted by the widower Mr Peffermill, whose “prim, self-importance” and circumspect behaviour hide a vicious mind. When Mungo runs off to Barcelona, he doesn’t just desert his wife and children, he deserts his class. Most of the residents of the close knit neighbourhood, united in their poverty and common values, are appalled by Mungo’s behaviour. Bess is very popular in the neighbourhood:

Her laughter and smiles brought smiles and well-disposed remarks even from those whose luck was out. It was like having a fire to sit at, on a snowy night, just listening to Bess Niven laugh. 

The book contains some (very small amount) Glaswegian dialect which may be difficult for non-English readers.

A Very Scotch Affair is marvellous. When the book opens, Mungo justifies his actions to himself, but the plot gradually reveals the unreliability of Mungo’s argument plus the fallout of his selfishness. When we meet Bess, yes fat, yes, dowdy, we meet a woman whose warmth, generosity of spirit, and love radiant to everyone.

In the small hallway, as he took off his hat and coat, he looked about him at the pathetic evidences of Bess’s unimaginative home-making; the red candles in their tin holders on the wall, the picture of red and white roses bought at the Barrows, the patched carpet, and the brass jug useless for anything but keeping Billy’s marbles in.

“That you, Mungo?” she cried from the living-room.

“Aye.” He smelled egg and sausage, baked in the oven, one of his favourite dishes. She would have spent time and care seeing it was just as he liked it. Aye but she never read a book from one year’s end to the other, and did her best to keep him from reading any.

Mungo isn’t really running away from his wife; he’s running away from himself. And of course, there are some tough lessons ahead, and while Mungo pays a price, others pay even more for his immense selfishness. And Mungo’s selfishness is incredible. He justifies his actions repeatedly, and everything is about Mungo. Even in the face of his wife’s illness and his decision to desert her in the time of her (and his children’s) greatest need, he’s the one who feels that he needs support and comfort.  For this reader, Mungo is added to the list of literary villains.

A Very Scotch Affair will make my best-of-year list.

Here’s Kim’s review:

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When All is Said: Anne Griffin

“I’m here to remember–all that I have been and all that I will never be again.”

In Anne Griffin’s novel When All is Said, 84 year-old Maurice Hannigan sits at the bar of at the Rainsford House Hotel, Ireland, and recalls his life. It’s been a long life full of its joys and tragedies. Maurice is now alone; his wife Sadie is dead and his son Kevin is far way in America. Maurice, a very wealthy man who grew up in dire poverty, has sold his house, given away his dog,  and is in the brink of moving into a nursing home, but what is really going on here?

Over the course of the evening, Maurice recalls the five most significant people in his life: including his long-dead older brother Tony,  his still-born daughter, and his wife.

When all is said

84 years is a long time, and as Maurice recalls his life, we see how the world has changed. Maurice grew up in a large poor family, and his education was interrupted when, at age ten, he went to work at the Dollard estate where his mother worked in the kitchen. The scenes at the Dollard house are miserable with the lord of the manor beating and humiliating his son, Thomas, which has a trickle-down effect to Maurice. These episodes are a reminder of how the world of employment of servants, a world in which servants had to tolerate everything dumped on them, has changed, well at least in some countries–not all.

I was fascinated by the trajectory of … not exactly revenge… no the novel isn’t bitter enough for that. No, the novel has a trajectory of “payback,” re-balance & the settling of old scores. Maurice’s beatings harden him, yes, but they don’t turn him into a ball of rage and revenge. This is a man who remembers the slights and injustices of his past and then singlemindedly triumphs over his humiliations and those who caused them. Maurice isn’t proud of all his actions, and there’s an incident in his past involving a missing valuable coin which has repercussions throughout his life.

The scenes with Maurice and his brother were touching. Here’s Maurice now at age 84, an extremely wealthy man, and yet he grew up in the harshest poverty, with meat a scarce treat. Now Maurice could buy his way out of the problems of his youth, but time doesn’t allow those sorts of second chances.

One of the most poignant episodes of the novel involves Maurice and his acquaintance with Jason, a young man who marries into the Dollard family.

I’d seen Jason around the village over the years since our showdown.  He’d nod in my direction or mouth a very curt hello. Always in a rush somewhere. In return I’d raise my index finger not too high mind. Regret is too strong a word, but I wish I’d made an effort to know him. There was something trustworthy in his bravery the night he’d stood at my our front door asking me to give more money for the Dollard land. But even if I had reached across the divide and stopped for a chat on those days we passed each other by, I doubt he’d have given me the time of day. I wouldn’t have, had the shoe been on the other foot. In the end, he possibly came out the better man. 

Some of the memories were moving but others (for this reader) were on the maudlin/wallowing side. There’s a lot of melancholy and misery here, and Maurice’s overwhelming sense of ‘being done’ is evident. The author makes it clear that Maurice is an interesting individual with many stories to tell but he’s been reduced to the those stereotypical roles: Old Man: the one who talks too much, who’s a bit of a nuisance, the one who’s sidelined as a ‘character’ by those who still have their own lives to live. Very sad.

Review copy

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The Leviathan: Joseph Roth

At 52 pages (some blank) Joseph Roth’s The Leviathan can be classified as a short story. It’s essentially a fable-like tale which tells the story of a successful coral merchant Nissen Piczenik who lives in the small town of Progody. Nissen’s corals aren’t the cheapest but his reputation ensures ample customers. He employs a number of female workers who, working in Nissen’s home, thread the corals. At one point, Nissen married one of these threaders, but she’s aged and he cares nothing for her. The only thing he cares about is coral.

Sometimes he dreamed that the Great Sea–he didn’t know which one, he had never seen a map, and so where he was concerned, all the world’s seas were just the Great Sea–would one day flood Russia, the part of it where he lived himself. That way, the sea, which he had no hope of reaching, would come to him, the strange and mighty sea, with the immeasurable Leviathan on the bottom, and all its sweet and bitter salty secrets.

Time passes and Nissen grows discontent and restless. Then a sailor returns home on leave, and he persuades Nissen to leave home and travel to Odessa to see the ocean. Things are never the same. …

The Leviathan

In spite of its brevity, this is a rich allegorical tale which delves into human discontent and corruption. Nissen’s life was good, he suffered no hardships, and had an excellent reputation, yet his discontent gnaws away at his brain until he satisfies his desire to see the ocean. And then everything went to hell. …

There’s mention on the back cover of “an evil twist” and “the final decider of his [Nissen’s] fate may be the devil himself.” I read those quotes and thought I was going to read a Faustian tale. But my take on this doesn’t include the devil; it’s simpler than that. It’s about wanting more than what you have.

Translated by Michael Hoffman

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Hôtel Splendid: Marie Redonnet

No one ever had the idea of building a hotel so near the swamp.”

In French author Marie Redonnet’s novel, Hôtel Splendid, the narrator, who inherited the property from her grandmother, is one of three spinster sisters. The grandmother, it seems, was a woman with a vision. She built the hotel with her inheritance on the edge of a swamp, and while we’re told that the hotel was once magnificent, as the novel continues, that claim comes into question. The hotel is plagued with issues: the roof is falling apart, the furniture is riddled with woodworm, there’s a swarm of dead flies, a legion of cockroaches, an overwhelming, pervasive stench, foul water, but the biggest problem: the toilets.

Splendid

The only men in the book are the anonymous guests who come and go. The hotel has been the home of three generations of women. The narrator’s mother ran off with two of her three daughters one day, but now, after the death of their mother, the two long-absent sisters, Adel and Ada have returned. “They chose to come and live at the hotel instead of taking the allowance.” Unfortunately, Adel and Ada think that their sister “who never left” is entirely responsible for them, and the narrator picks up that role, but then again, it seems that she’s cursed with the burden of responsibility.

The Hôtel Splendid must keep lighting up the darkness, despite the cold and the lack of guests.

Ada is a perpetual invalid and seems to rotting from within. “She has spent her life going from clinic to clinic” but nothing helps. Her room smells so awful, the narrator has to open the windows.  In spite of her invalid status, Ada’s spry enough she has the energy, and malice, to sabotage the already over-burdened toilets. Then there’s Adel: a woman who must now be well into middle age, an actress who continually writes to “theater directors to ask about parts.” And while there are no parts for Adel (well there’s one pathetic role later in the book,) she wastes no time whatsoever entertaining the male guests. She “wears low-cut dresses,” sings for the male guests (a trapped audience) and then invites them, in a steady stream, back to her room for even more ‘entertainment.’ There’s a lot of black humour here as the narrator doesn’t grasp her sisters’ machinations. At one point she “wonder[s] if Adel is working seriously on her acting. It looks to me like she is only pretending. She’s always going and prowling around the work site. Maybe the future of the railway interests her more than the theater.”

It’s clear that man-hungry Adel can’t resist the proximity of the male guests:

It’s lucky for her the workmen like to listen to her perform.

While this is a tale of these three decaying, aging sisters, the swamp also plays a role in the plot. As age gnaws at the sisters, the swamp which represents untamed nature, devours all.  The hotel is built next to the swamp, so mosquitoes plague the guests and while various enterprises are attracted to the swamp for several insane schemes, the swamp will not be contained or conquered. Even the gravestones sink into the swamp.

Only a few of the gravestones are still above water, and soon they will disappear as well.

Railway workers, geologists, prospectors, all pass through the Hotel. But since “Grandmother thought big,” the hotel’s neon lights still lure guests. Just as time decimates the sisters, the swamp decimates man’s ambitions. It simply wears them out. And yet there’s also more to the swamp than even its ability to devour all change: it becomes Ada’s excuse for her chronic bad health and Adel’s excuse for her non-existent failed career:

Adel has cramps. She has stopped rehearsing. She says she will never go back to the stage, she is finished, she should never have come to the Splendid, it was fatal to her.

While the novel’s neurotic, rambling narration is at times repetitive (the lavatories, the lavatories), the misery of existence combined with the human strength of possibly misguided endurance make this an unusual, and weird, read.

There are pipes of all different sizes running along the walls. No wonder there are problems. The pipes make a real labyrinth. Even the plumber has a hard time finding his way. He says he doesn’t understand how anyone could have installed them that way.

Translated by Jordan Stump

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Olive Kitteridge: Elizabeth Strout

“Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology.”

I saw the miniseries version of Olive Kitteridge, based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout, and this is one of the rare instances that I’m glad I saw the screen version first. The wonderful actress Frances Mcdormand (always entertaining to watch) gave an incredible performance as Olive. A great many adjectives come to mind when I think about Olive. She’s caustic, domineering, and outspoken. Definitely eccentric, she’s the sort of person who provokes a strong reaction. The novel is a series of interconnecting stories; sometimes Olive’s a main character, and other times she’s in the background barely mentioned. Some of the stories are told from Olive’s perspective while others feature the lives of other residents in the town of Crosby, Maine. One of book’s underlying themes is mental illness; there are several characters in the book who show various signs of mental illness, and then there’s Olive. Is the jury out on the mental state of this main character?

Olive kitteridge

So who is Olive Kitteridge? In Elizabeth Strout’s novel, we see Olive, a retired math teacher, who lives in the town of Crosby, Maine where everyone seems to know everyone else.  Olive is a difficult woman. Respected by some, she intimidates others. She has many admirable qualities: she’s intelligent, capable, and confident, but to her family, she’s frequently monstrous because she’s so formidable and domineering. Yet at the same time, she’s capable of incredible sensitivity, but it seems easier for Olive to show kindness and compassion to strangers than to her husband and only child, Christopher.

The novel opens with Pharmacy which is an introduction to Olive’s sweet husband, Henry who works in a pharmacy in the next town. Henry is a steady, kind, considerate gentle man, and we get a view of Henry and his life with Olive when his long-term employee dies and he employs a very naive young newlywed, Denise. Denise is sweet and rather helpless, and at one point, when tragedy strikes, Henry steps into Denise’s life to help her. Olive warns him that “People are never as helpless as you think they are.” 

Pharmacy shows the Kitteridges’ married life with Henry often hesitant to show affection to his prickly wife due to “a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.” Olive isn’t easy to live with and her outbursts are unpredictable. One day, for example, Henry rather “uncharacteristically” complains when Olive refuses to accompany her husband to church:

“Yes, it most certainly is too goddamn much to ask!” Olive had almost spit her fury’s door flung open, “You have no idea how tired I am, teaching all day, going to foolish meetings where the goddamn principal is a moron! Shopping. Cooking. Ironing. Laundry. Doing Christopher’s homework with him! and you—.” She grabbed on to the back of a dining room chair, and her dark hair, still uncombed from its night’s disarrangement, had fallen across her eyes. “You, Mr. Head Deacon Claptrap Nice Guy, expect me to give up my Sunday mornings and go sit among a bunch of snot-wots!” Very suddenly she had sat down in the chair. “Well, I’m sick and tired of it,” she said calmly. “Sick to death.”

In A Little Burst, Christopher finally marries (he’s 38 years-old) and Olive tries to accept  his bossy wife, Suzanne. By the end of the wedding day, Olive loathes her new daughter-in-law. The marriage takes place in Maine, and it’s a humiliating experience for Olive who can’t understand why on earth her son is marrying this woman–but it’s quite obvious that Suzanne is another version of Olive: so Christopher, in essence is marrying his mother. In later chapters, we track Christopher’s marriage and relationships.

In Tulips, Olive makes the mistake of visiting Louise Larkin, a woman Olive used to work with. It’s a strange meeting, and a rare occasion when Olive finds herself outplayed.

Olive is at her best with people outside of any intimate relationships. Living damages and bruises, so we see various characters who ‘cope’ (or not) with an array of tragedies and disasters. Olive’s past led to a wall–a wall of toughness which will not allow tenderness or a moment of weakness. It’s easy to see why she married Henry even though she thinks he’s “irritating” and has a “steadfast way of remaining naive, as though life were just what a Sears catalogue told you it was: everyone standing around smiling.” 

The book is full of memorable characters, but, of course, the ‘star’ here is Olive. Would we want to know Olive? Would we want to be related to Olive? In creating of Olive, author Elizabeth Strout, with compassion and sensitivity, shows the many facets of one very complicated personality.

Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and ” little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well, a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really. 

 

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And Then Put Out The Light: E. C. R. Lorac (1949)

E.C.R. Lorac’s (Edith Caroline Rivett) very readable Golden Age mystery And Then Put Out The Light opens with massage therapist, Gillian chatting with one of her many clients, Mrs. Bentham. It’s one of those odd intimate and yet non-intimate encounters shared by clients and professionals in which personal information is frequently divulged. This is certainly true in this instance when Gillian and Mrs. Allison Bentham discuss the recent, sudden death of Mrs. Lilian Mayden, a malicious woman who was disliked by everyone in the North Midlands Abbey town of Paulborough (with the exception of her equally toxic housekeeper/ former nurse, Garstang), a snobby little town inhabited by “ecclesiastical aristocracy.

It seems odd that Mrs. Mayden, a “chronic hypochondriac” dropped dead of heart problems when she’d never shown a sign of having cardiac issues before.  But wait … Mrs. Mayden’s previous doctor (now retired) prescribed heart pills to his patient basically to shut her up, but her new doctor said they were unnecessary and stopped the treatment; now Mrs. Mayden is dead. On top of this controversy, Mrs. Mayden’s long-suffering, browbeaten, spineless husband Guy is embroiled with a local girl who is pregnant, and right before Lilian Mayden’s sudden death, Guy asked for a divorce.

Gillian turned and faced her. “Well, it was a horrible thing to think of saying, but a woman like Mrs. Mayden might have made the mildest of men feel murderous.”

“My dear, my dear, never say that again,” pleaded Mrs. Bentham, “and if you hear anybody else saying it, stop them! It’s so easy to say, but so hard to unsay it.”

“But, Mrs. Bentham, no one on earth could think that of Guy Mayden. He’s the kindest, easiest-going fellow, and he was an angel to her.”

“Yes. He was.” Mrs. Bentham gave a great sigh. “You weren’t born and brought up in Paulborough, my dear. I was. I know that under the very shadow of that great Abbey there is more envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitablenness than in any godless ramshackle township in the Middle West. Plant a seed of slander in this soil and it grows. You should know that. You said just now, ‘She tried to ruin me.’ In any other place than this she wouldn’t have had much chance of success, would she?” 

In Paulborough’s claustrophobic snobby society, which runs with Victorian morality (there’s frequent reference to Trollope, by the way), rumours spread like wildfire. Mrs. Mayden, who loved to spread gossip, and even kept records of her malicious scandalmongering behaviour, was loathed and feared by everyone. Yet her death, rather than bury all the tensions in the town, seems to stir things up. First everyone leaps to the obvious conclusion that somehow or another Guy managed to murder his wife (not that anyone blames him) but then other past gossip begins to surface.

“Do you know there wasn’t a place in the town I could buy a bottle of scotch without Lilian finding out and raising hell about it?” He took the glass from her and drank thirstily. “Of course, she was brought up as a rabid T.T.,” he went on. “Before the war I never bothered. We never had so much as a bottle of beer in the house.”

The police arrive on the scene after being informed by Miss Garstang that she believes Mrs. Mayden was murdered. Emma Garstang claimed to know who killed her employer and how. … Enter Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald.

At not quite 200 pages, this is a mystery that rips along, and E.C.R. Lorac’s writing style makes this a swift, pleasant read. Well structured dialogue and strong characterisation brings the inhabitants of Paulborough to life. I managed to guess the identity of the murderer and I suspect that most die-hard crime fans will do the same. Still this is an entertaining read that recreates post WWII Britain and its shifting socioeconomic and moral landscape.

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Acts of Infidelity: Lena Andersson

“Ester might just have met a real shit.”

In Lena Andersson’s novel Acts of Infidelity, writer & playwright Ester, a single woman in early middle age, begins an affair with the married actor who features in her play, Threesome. Olof doesn’t talk a great deal about his wife, Ebba, a doctor, who works out of town during the week and returns on the weekends, so Ester assumes that the marriage is ‘disintegrating.’ The affair is just a few months old, and not yet consummated, when Ester tells Olof, as they sit in a restaurant, that she wants to share her life with him. In response, Olof shreds his paper napkin nervously. Not a good sign.

Acts of Infidelity tracks the progress of Ester and Olof’s affair through its stages. Ester is the active party here, doggedly pursing Olof, and yet Olof is no innocent. The affair is often sporadic in nature, and when Ester doesn’t contact Olof for a while, he, obviously missing the attention and ego gratification, stirs up action repeatedly.

 

For those who read Lena Andersson’s Willful Disregard then you know that Ester has been down this road before. This begs the question: are some people more likely to participate in long-drawn out affairs than others? After reading both novels, that’s a big ‘yes’ in Ester’s case. She “always pawned her life’s meaning for the man she’s chosen.” In Willful Disregard, Ester lost all sense of self and perspective when she sank into a nebulous, obsessive relationship with charismatic artist, Hugo Rask. In many ways, Acts of Infidelity is working the same themes: a woman who misreads a man’s signals and wants to put a fence and signposts around a relationship that defies commitment.

In Acts of Infidelity, Ester is older than she was in Willful Disregard and her career has progressed. In that sense, she has more to offer to a potential partner, and she also, in some ways, has more control and more self control than she had in Willful Disregard.  At one point, Ester acknowledges that she’s not “about to wade back into the bog of uncertainty” she endured with Rask, yet here she is, accepting crumbs once more while demanding, almost the minute she starts meeting Olof on the sly (even before they’ve had sex), that he leave his wife … or else.

Olof is a much more conventional (and less interesting) person than artist Hugo Rask, the man she pursued in Willful Disregard, but there are commonalities. While she was out of her league in dealing with Hugo, she seems determined not let Olof escape, and it’s not that easy to see just why Ester is relentless in her goal of nailing Olof into a monogamous relationship with her; he’s not exactly a great catch. He’s not particularly intelligent; he’s weasely, smug and he’s spineless. Ester realises that “he was a hard-done-by person, not an active subject in his life,” and this is a significant realization given the circumstances of their relationship. I began to wonder if there were some deeper psychological game at play here. Is Ester’s single-mindedness a psychological manifestation, closure if you will, of her affair with Rask? That relationship, which capitalized on her vulnerabilities, almost destroyed her, but will her relationship with Olof somehow repair the damage and return her life to equilibrium?

There’s a lot in this novel that’s spot-on. Ester has a circle of friends she calls for advice, and she will recall a scene between her and Olof seeking an interpretation of events, but of course the interpretation has to be the one she wants.

Then there are moments when Olof says one thing but Ester hears another:

Olof thought for a moment and said:

“I’m thinking we should meet up now and again in the future and see what happens. Decisions don’t always have to be made right away.”

Not again, Ester thought, never again, I’m going to get right up and go.

She stayed put and finished her meal. Soon they were walking from Djurgården towards the city along Strandvågen, arm-in-arm on Olof’s initiative. In line with Grevgaten, Ester stopped and embraced him, and he reciprocated, while saying he shouldn’t be doing this. They were approaching Dramaten National Theatre, their bodies close, when Olof stated:

“Leaving my wife isn’t on the cards.”

This was exactly what married people said when someone else had shaken their foundations, Ester thought. When people felt an intense desire, they might insist otherwise. The trick was knowing when they meant what they were saying and were saying it to be clear and honourable, and when they meant the opposite. 

The book intellectualizes the affair, and this is partly achieved through Ester’s constant need to interpret Olof’s words into the narrative she wants to hear. Sometimes this works:

To Olof Sten, the mistress was an idea he so eagerly embraced that he never stopped to question that the traditional ‘mistress’ might not in fact exist. Instead he zealously embraced the idea as reality. 

At other times the intellectualizing of the affair is over-the-top and starts to read like non-fiction:

The self-loathing that arises from being unable to abstain from that which makes a man weak, his urges, is redirected to the mistress because she reveals the lover’s weakness to himself and the world. The mistress as an idea constitutes a third counterpoint between the complementary woman/man. Her anatomy is woman’s but her autonomy is man’s. She is a third, the most frightening and most alluring, that which in the end must be pushed out of life’s bid for dualistic order

In Willful Disregard, (a better novel IMO), I wanted Ester to dump Rask and show him how insignificant he was. In Acts of Infidelity, I wanted to ask Ester what on earth she was thinking; at one point, for example, Olof texts his wife repeatedly, smiling at the exchanges, while sitting at a table for two at a restaurant (they’re off on  a dirty weekend) in a ski resort. So my reaction to Ester’s respective behavior in both novels shifted from sympathy to deciding she’s an idiot and needs to talk to someone (professional) other than her friends, about why she indulges in these cyclical behaviours.

Acts of Infidelity explores that all-too familiar scenario of the woman caught in an affair with a married man who has no intention whatsoever of leaving his wife. Unfortunately Ester (and many others like her) never quite gets that a spouse is the ultimate defense, the ultimate excuse. Human motivation is complex at the best of times, and an extra-marital affair is a situation fraught with opaque inducements. The over-intellectualized portions are the novel’s biggest weakness, but its greatest strength is in its exploration of self-delusion and why affairs, conducted with two completely opposing narratives, layered with excuses, coercion, guilt, self-deception, and abdication of personal responsibility, are ultimately so toxic and destructive.

Review copy

Translated by Saskia Vogel

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