Harriet Said: Beryl Bainbridge

“I don’t know if we were ever innocent.”

Harriet Said, Beryl Bainbridge’s first novel, is inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder which took place in New Zealand in 1954 and involved two, closely bonded teenage girls who murdered one of the girls’ mothers. The incident inspired the wonderful film Heavenly Creatures.  And of course, most of us know that one of the girls, Juliet Hulme, is now the author, Anne Perry. Apart from the bare bones of the real-life murder case, any other connections vaporize in Bainbridge’s book which explores the rich fantasy life of two teenage girls who obsess, dangerously, over a middle-aged married man.

Harriet Said takes place in England and the story is narrated by an unnamed 13 year old girl who has just returned home from boarding school to Formby. She was sent away thanks to her relationship with Harriet, who’s a year older, and the much more dominant of the pair. “Dirty stories” were found written in the narrator’s notebook, and then a neighbor, Mrs. Biggs, reported that the girls were behaving inappropriately with Italian prisoners of war.  So the narrator is packed off to boarding school as a time-out move, but the girls reconnect when Harriet returns from Wales. And, of course, they return to their old patterns of behaviour….

harriet-said

Unfortunately, what none of the adults in this story understand is that Harriet, and not the less attractive, lumpish narrator, is the true trouble maker here. Harriet dictates the diary, but it’s the narrator who writes the diary in case it is discovered. It’s Harriet who comes up with diabolical plans with the narrator passively agreeing. Harriet is dangerous because she is so charming; she’s the more attractive of the two girls, and even though she’s a known bad influence, she still manages to sway people in her favour. Self-possessed Harriet is much more dominant, taking the lead, controlling the action, creating meaning, and devising the rules in various transgressive events, but she’s also the leader because she’s more attractive, and the other girl, our narrator, always plays catch up and admires Harriet for her sangfroid and her “calm refusal to be blackmailed into submissiveness by parental grief.” Here’s an example of Harriet rewriting events:

“What’s that got to do with it?” asked Harriet, but not crossly. “I wrote that after we met those boys from the remand home when I took my clothes off and you wouldn’t because your knickers were filthy.”

“They weren’t filthy,” I protested. “I told you, they were my mum’s and they were pink with awful lace.”

These two girls are cocooned in their own fantasy life. Reality, in the form of their parents (and Harriet’s parents are a bit odd), is minimally intrusive, and as the weeks spin out, gradually the girls’ fantasies become increasingly dangerous as they begin to focus on Mr Biggs, a man they call the Tsar.  All teenage girls have fantasy lives (well to be honest, it’s part of the human condition, isn’t it?), but in the case of teenage girls, fantasy can take on a more dangerous edge especially if they experiment with sexuality and their newfound sexual power.

While the subject matter is intriguing, and the author does an excellent job of showing how these girls create, and exist, in a separate adolescent world, I’d place Harriet Said on the bottom of the Beryl Bainbridge stack read so far; the pacing plodded at times with little tension. I kept thinking of Charles Lambert’s Little Monsters, the tale of another teenage girl, and Harriet Said faded in comparison. Cleo, however, loved the book. So see  Cleo’s review for a different opinion.

Review copy.

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Crush: Frédéric Dard

“And you will never know how big that green car seemed, or how deliciously it smelt of America.”

Pushkin Vertigo continues its very impressive output of unusual crime books through another venture into Frédéric Dard territory with a third title: Crush, a tale of longing, obsession, and murder. The double meaning of the title becomes horribly clear around the book’s halfway point.

crush

Bird in a Cage and The Wicked Go To Hell earlier Dard releases from Pushkin Vertigo, were both told by a male narrator. In Crush, we have a seventeen year old female narrator, Louise, who lives in Northern France in a very unpleasant town named Léopoldville. The place is ugly, dominated by a large chemical factory, “chimney stacks spewing out great clouds of smoke that seem to stretch up into the sky for ever before falling back down on the town below,” and the air stinks of cabbage. Things aren’t much better at Louise’s home; she lives with a mother she’s ashamed of and her mother’s live-in boyfriend, Arthur, in a wreck of a rented home.

In common with most of the other people in the town, Louise works in a factory. In order to glam up her dull life, Louise, who longs for escape, begins walking through the moneyed areas of Léopoldville and is entranced by glimpses of the lives of an affluent American couple, Mr and Mrs Rooland. She begins dawdling outside of their home:

At first sight, it looked like the others: two storeys, an arrowshaped weathervane sitting on top of the gable roof, with little stained glass windows and some steps leading up to a front door flanked by light-blue earthenware pots… But what set it apart was a funny sort of feeling that floated in the air around the house. How can I explain it? It seemed like it was somewhere else. Yes, it was a Léopoldville house, but it existed on a sort of desert island all of its own. A tiny, mysterious island, and one where the natives seemed to live bloody well too.

Walking by this house becomes a habit for Louise. She sees the Roolands relaxing on a swing seat sipping whisky at dusk while jazz music plays as background noise.

I can’t tell you how enchanting the atmosphere of that garden was, with the beautiful, shining car, that music, those drinks that you could tell were wonderfully chilled, and that couple, gently swinging while the seat creaked. 

One day, after being slapped by Arthur, Louise gathers the courage to approach the Roolands and she asks them if they want a maid, a rare commodity in Léopoldville, as factory work pays better than domestic service. The Roolands employ Louise, but the dream life Louise saw from the outside doesn’t really exist. The house is a disorganized mess, and Mrs Rooland has a drinking problem. …

Louise, our somewhat unreliable narrator, tells the story in retrospect, in an intimate, near confessional style. As she digs into the Rooland household, managing to live-in and proving through her hard work that she’s indispensable, the spectre of the Roolands returning to America clouds any future fantasies.  Dard includes some foreshadowing, some intense, dramatic scenes of violent weather that match the narrative, and rather ironically, IMO, the American car (s) play a huge role in this tale of betrayal and revenge. To say more would spoil the tale for the next reader, but fans of the Pushkin Vertigo line should enjoy this. Of the three Dard novels released to date, The Wicked Go To Hell is my favourite.

Review copy

Translated by Daniel Seton

(original French title: Les Scélérats)

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Back: Henry Green (1946)

“Have women gotten hold of you, Summers? Is that it?”

In Henry Green’s novel, Back, Charley Summers returns to England after years in a POW camp. It’s a rough homecoming as Charley is minus a leg and Rose, the woman he loved, died in his absence. Rose gave birth to a son while Charley was gone, and he’s half convinced the boy is his. One of the first things Charley, who is damaged and lost, does is visit the cemetery where Rose is buried, but there he bumps into her husband James, and this is the first of many unexpected twists in this ultimately optimistic gentle comedy of errors.

back

Charley seeks out Rose’s parents, the Grants, but it’s a strange welcome as Mrs. Grant, who appears to suffer from Alzheimer’s initially thinks Charley is her long-dead brother John, but then she realises the visitor isn’t John:

“What are you doing here?” Mrs. Grant demanded, looking at Charley between her fingers and cringing.

“He’s here to take a cup of tea with us, dear,” the husband said. This time he glared. She did not notice because she never took her eyes off Charley.

“I don’t like it,” she muttered.

“I’m very sorry,” Charley Summers said to Mr. Grant.

“Just pay no attention,” this man replied. But it was not as easy as all that. for Mrs. Grant took control by throwing herself back into the sofa to thrust her head into one of its soft corners, from which she began to shriek, muffled by upholstery.

In confidence, Mr. Grant tells Charley he has a “surprise” for him and gives him a London address, telling him to visit the woman who lives there, Nancy Whitmore, a young war widow. Charley isn’t interested in what he suspects to be a matchmaking attempt but circumstances lead him to the woman’s address and there he finds the widow who appears to be Rose’s “living image.” While Nancy denies she’s Rose, Charley isn’t convinced and he decides instead that Nancy/Rose is a prostitute, the ‘widow’ handle is a fiction, that she’s possibly a bigamist who’s run away from her husband and her child, and that it’s his job to ‘save’ her. In reality, it’s Charley who needs to be ‘saved.’

Gradually, the great love story that we first think existed between Rose and Charley vaporizes. What’s left is an image of Rose, full of life, and having a fling with Charley even as she wrapped him around her finger.

Throughout the story, Charley, one of those marvellously unworldy characters, floats through his life either clueless or labouring under misunderstandings. He thinks Rose was the love of his life, he thinks the child she had might be his, he invites his secretary, a woman he’s not attracted to, to the country for a weekend without really meaning to. In contrast, he’s surrounded by people who are savvy and even conniving. Take Rose’s husband, the widowed fat James who runs rings around Charley. Then there’s Charley’s landlady Mrs Frazier, what is she really after? And then there’s  the ubiquitous Middlewitch, an indefatigable Lothario whose “love life defied description,”  in spite of (or even aided by) a”chromium plated arm.” Middlewitch is turning tales of his war experiences into amorous opportunities, and here he is discoursing about women:

“Extraordinary meeting you like this,” Mr. Middlewitch replied. “No, it’s curiosity,” he went on, “they’re the same as cats, when you scratch with your finger under the newspaper, which have to come and see what you’re about. They’re like this. They know you’ve lived the most unnatural damned life through no fault of your own for years, so want to get under your skin. Because it wasn’t only Yvonne. Practically every girl I know had a go at me. Turned it to very good advantage, too, I did, on more than once occasion, I can tell you.”

The greatness of this novel can be found in its comic timing which mostly resides in Charley’s innocence. Conversations take place without Charley really understanding what is going on, sometimes he’s talking at cross-purposes or else he’s missing a beat. Many of the characters have vague, fuzzy connections (Mrs’ Frazier’s relationship to Mr. Grant, for example) and in Charley’s mind, a great conspiracy emerges, and at one point, he wonders if it’s a case of “white slave trading.”

This is my first, but it won’t be my last, Henry Green novel; I’m currently reading Loving. Back is highly recommended especially if you enjoyed  A Month in the CountryWhile in Back the war is still waging, it’s mostly in the background here (there’s one wonderful scene where the sky is full of planes “drone after drone” flying to Germany) and the emphasis instead is on optimism: healing, surviving and moving on.

“Yes,” he said, “we all of us came back to what we didn’t expect. There’s a number of people dropped out in everyone’s lives. I’m not sure but they do seem a long time over our soup.”

review copy

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Murder Underground: Mavis Doriel Hay (1934)

“Whatever you may feel about your relations, you don’t like to hear of them strangled with a dog leash”

In Mavis Doriel Hay’s novel Murder Underground, the story focuses on a handful of people who knew the elderly victim, Miss Pongleton. Most of those people were her fellow residents at The Frampton, a London boarding house. Miss Pongleton, or’Pongle’ was a difficult woman. She changed her will constantly, vacillating between her nephew Basil, and her niece Beryl Sanders. Beryl, who’s engaged to Gerry Plasher, a young stockbroker, has money of her own, but Basil, an unsuccessful author, falls into one scrape after another and desperately needs the money.

On the morning of Miss Pongleton’s death, she was on her way, via the underground to an appointment with a “cheap” dentist, Mr. Crampit, but before she could arrive at her destination, she was strangled, from behind, by a dog leash. The leash belongs to Miss Pongleton’s elderly asthmatic terrier, Tuppy, as it turns out, so that indicates that the murderer was either a resident of The Frampton or someone who had access to the victim’s belongings. The murder is complicated by the fact that Miss Pongleton was in possession of a stolen brooch that she may or may not have intended to turn into the police. The police assume that the man who stole the brooch murdered Miss Pongleton.

Further complications can be found in the fact that Basil, Gerry, and Bob, the man who stole the brooch, all encountered Miss Pongleton on the steps to the underground–all around the time she as murdered. Did she encounter a fourth acquaintance?

murder-undergound

The police are far in the background in this tale. Some of that can be explained by the fact that they think the murderer is Bob. Most of the story (and the author’s focus) is concerned with the residents of the boarding house and the antics of Basil. Basil has a lot to hide and his antics, which are aimed at making him look innocent, have the opposite result. He really is an idiot, and although he’s portrayed as an amiable fool, looking at his exploits in perspective, he’s really not nice.

Tuppy is distraught without his mistress, and although Pongle is portrayed unpleasantly here, she loved her dog. Basil who calls the dog alternately a poodle and a pug, can’t even get Tuppy’s breed straight. Once it is known that a portion of Miss Pongleton’s money is directed towards the care of her dog, suddenly more people become interested in Tuppy’s welfare. Oh the depravity of human nature. …

The residents of the boarding house are a motley bunch thrown together by circumstance, and they include a couple of young women, the “pompous” Mr. Slocomb, a female crime novelist (who becomes our amateur sleuth) and a retiree, Mr Bland who keeps scrapbooks:

Many of them were yellow with age and most of them referred to crimes. Kindly and tolerant in his relationship with his fellow men, Mr. Blend would gloat over the details of crimes with a chill, inhuman joy. The truth was that he did not regard them as part of life but merely as a form of art, just as many humane people wallow deliciously in the gruesome “murder mysteries” of fiction. 

In contrast to the viciousness of the crime, a gentle thread of humour runs throughout the tale. Some of that comes from the residents or “inmates” of the boarding house, the nosiness of landladies, the clash of the tabloid press as they lay siege to the fragile gentility of the characters, but most of it comes from Basil’s pathologically, idiotic missteps:

Well, I went quietly, as the saying is–as quietly as their car would take me, but it was one of those noisy popping brutes. There they had what they call an identification parade, I think–I’m getting awfully good at all the crime lingo. I was lined up with a lot of others–and, by Jove, it gives you a pretty poor opinion of yourself to see the specimens that the police pick out as being roughly the same type as yourself!

I guessed the identity of the murderer almost immediately, but enjoyed the gentle humour here nonetheless. I wondered if the author intended us to see Miss Pongleton as negatively as the other characters saw her, and conversely whether we were supposed to see Basil as quite the way his family saw him. Perhaps the flaws of these characters are supposed to be seen as relative to the viciousness of the murderer. Mavis Doriel Hay only wrote three crime novels in her lifetime: Murder Underground (1934), Death on the Cherwell (1935), and The Santa Klaus Murder (1936).

Review copy

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Two or Three Graces: Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley’s novella After the Fireworks concerns the love affair between a popular author and a young attractive female fan. Two or Three Graces, the second novella in this collection published by Harper Perennial also concerns love affairs–collectively these two novellas explore the nature and reality of love

The tale is told by Wilkes, a bachelor, and begins in Paris. I wasn’t sure where Huxley was leading as he describes two of Wilkes’s problematic relationships. One trying friendship is with the volatile, highly emotional writer Kingham and the second with former public schoolmate the plodding, boring Herbert Comfrey. Kingham, a man who “liked scenes” has an overreactive fit about Herbert and exits the frame, or so we think.

after-the-fireworks

Wilkes returns to England in the company of “passive vegetable clinger” Herbert and lo and behold who do they meet on the Dover quayside but Herbert’s even more boring brother-in-law, solicitor, John Peddley. This man is so boring that he actually haunts railway stations and docks waiting to pounce on a “victim,” some weary traveller who he can then pontificate to at length, while this poor lost soul, too tired to fight, puts up little resistance. Peddley, like a typical bore, just needs an audience; to other people’s “feelings and thoughts he was utterly insensitive. It was this insensitiveness, coupled with his passionate sociability, that gave him his power. He could hunt down his victims and torture them without remorse.”

Peddley was an active bore, the most active, I think, that I ever met; and indefatigable piercer, a relentless stuffer and crammer. He talked incessantly, and his knowledge of uninteresting subjects was really enormous. All that I know of the Swiss banking system, of artificial manures, of the law relating to insurance companies, of pig-breeding, of the ex-sultan of Turkey, of sugar rationing during the war, and a hundred other similar subject , is due to Peddley. He was appalling, really appalling; there is no other word. I know no human being with whom I would less willingly pass an hour.

And yet the man was extremely amiable and full of good qualities. he had a kind heart. He was energetic and efficient. He was even intelligent.

And it’s in a state of weariness that Wilkes succumbs to an invitation to Peddley’s home. Here he meets Peddley’s wife, Herbert’s sister, Grace. She’s a lot like Herbert, but whereas Herbert annoys Wilkes, he’s charmed by Grace. She’s a sort of helpless, vague woman, and Wilkes finds her “graceful ineptitude” quite “enchanting.” After spending some time with the Peddleys, Wilkes concludes that the marriage ‘works’ but that Grace tunes out of her life most of the time.

It’s through Wilkes that Grace is introduced to two successive lovers. Each love affair defines Grace in some way–hence the title. With one lover she becomes a bohemian, and with another, she’s a heartless vampire who sucks the life out of men. At one point, Wilkes even begins to imagine that he’s in love with Grace.

With each of these men, Grace, however, doesn’t fundamentally change. She might dress differently, and she might carry around a cigarette, but she’s still vague, fuzzy at the edges, Grace. The men in her life make her what they want her to be–hence the title. Huxley shows us two different Graces through her love affairs, but he’s not sure if there even is a third Grace. There’s a lot of sympathy for this character who married Peddley when she was too young to know better.

In spite of this novella’s slow start, I loved it. It’s a character study, and Huxley analyses his handful of subjects quite unmercifully, giving them nowhere to hide. But then even Wilkes, our narrator, is sliced up and his faux feelings examined. Also under scrutiny here is the subject of love. Huxley acknowledges its realities but also subtly analyzes its shifting properties.  There’s a definite feeling that Huxley is writing about real people disguised by fiction.

Uncle Spencer is the third, and weakest novella in the book. It’s basically the reminiscences of holidays spent with an idiosyncratic uncle who runs a sugar factory in Belgium. These holidays are interrupted by WWI, and Uncle Spencer’s arrest and imprisonment.

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Crossing: A Love Story by Anna Seghers

“There’s nothing like departure. No arrival, no reunion. You leave a part of the earth behind you for good. And whatever joy and pain you encountered there, once the gangway is raised, ahead of you lie three clear weeks at sea.”

Back in 2013, I read Anna Seghers’s novel, Transit, the story of young German man, a concentration camp escapee, stuck in Marseille, mired down in bureaucracy, trying desperately, to get passage on a ship to safety. Transit made my best-of-year list, and now, three years later, I still think about the story.

One of the things that struck me when I read Transit is how the refugees fleeing Europe were so desperate to escape, passage on a departing ship became the end goal. The refugees didn’t stop to think that a new host of problems would present themselves when they landed on another, distant continent, and that brings me to my first selection for German Literature Month: Crossing: A Love Story in its very first English translation. In many ways Crossing can be considered a companion novel to Transit, for the former follows the fragmented lives of German refugees as they settle and then move on from temporary homes.

german-literature-month-2016The story takes place post WWII on an ocean crossing from Brazil and is narrated by engineer, Franz Hammer. While cargo is still being loaded, Hammer notes, amongst the throng of passengers, an “odd” young man, a doctor named Ernest Triebel. Gradually over the course of the long sea voyage, Triebel tells his story to Hammer. It’s a wonderfully structured story of exile, identity, displacement, and of course, love. …

crossing-a-love-story

Ernest Triebel fled Germany as a young boy with his parents shortly before Kristallnacht, and the family arrived safely in Brazil only to face numerous problems, in spite of the fact that they have relatives there to help. Ernest is separated from his parents, and shortly after arriving his mother dies of Typhoid. We get a glimpse of the difficulties these exiles had:

The head of a new practice told my father he would be glad of a fine German doctor–although in actual fact he couldn’t legally employ him. therefore he would register him as one of the nursing staff. He admitted that he couldn’t immediately pay my father a registered doctor’s salary.

So little Ernest Triebel grows up in Brazil, and one of his childhood companions is Maria Luisa Weigand, another German refugee who teaches Ernest Portuguese. Of course, it’s easy to see that there’s going to be a romance between Ernest and Maria, but that’s all that’s predictable here. Any more information would spoil the story, but I will add that while Maria is fully integrated into Brazilian society, Ernest is not, and so the time comes when a decision about returning to Germany raises its head. There’s a central mystery here that takes place, and Maria’s behaviour is open to interpretation.

While the war may be distant for the refugees, ripples of the chaos seep through to Brazil:

The war was far away. Its destructive fire was far away. Only now and then did we breathe the smoke.

For the smoke, it reached us. We saw harrowing things in the newspapers and the cinemas. We couldn’t believe that our gentle and quiet native land should suddenly have pierced the world like a thorn.

But the ripples continue even into the long sea voyage which takes place many years after the war has ended. Hammer, for example, must share a cabin with a hostile Polish man. Hammer thinks the Polish man hates him because he’s German and Hammer mentions that his own father was killed in a concentration camp. The Polish man, however, has simply gone Tropo.

The story is peppered with references to the GDR, and it’s important to remember that Seghers lived there and was subject to censorship and political demands. One character defects, other characters integrate into the new GDR. At one point, there’s a conversation that includes Joseph Conrad, and Hammer notes that he’ll have to find a Conrad novel when he returns home, “if we actually printed him.” While the reference to Conrad includes a hint of censorship and banned materials, it also refers to Conrad for a reason as Crossing is very Conradian in its wonderful structure. And that brings me to the marvellous descriptions of the ocean:

Twilight flooded the sea. Two currents mingled, one already inky blue from the stars’ reflection, the other luminous and restless, perhaps still awash with island foam.

When Communist Anna Seghers and her family fled the Nazis, they’d hoped to make a new life in America, and as the introduction from Min Zhou explains, they landed in Ellis Island in 1941 but were not granted “even a temporary entry.” After the war, Seghers moved from Mexico to West Germany, but in 1950 she became a citizen of East Germany. The invaluable introduction explains how any examination of the work of Anna Seghers is fraught with political implications.

If anyone decides to read this novel, I’d love to have a spoiler discussion about Maria.

Review copy

166 pages

First English Translation: Douglas Irving (with biographical note and an excerpt from The Visit)

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The Mystery of the Three Orchids: Augusto de Angelis (1942)

“If everyone who had some reason to kill really did kill, the ground would be strewn with bodies.”

Both The Murdered Banker and The Hotel of the Three Roses feature Augusto de Angelis’s series character Inspector De Vincenzi, and now with the release of The Mystery of the Three Orchids from Pushkin Vertigo, we have a third book in the series. Many of the titles in the Pushkin Vertigo line are outstanding: Vertigo, The Wicked Go To Hell, Bird in a Cage, She Who Was No More, and The Disappearance of Signora Giulia are highly recommended for any crime fiction lover who’s looking for titles that push the genre. That brings me to the De Vincenzi novels, the stack on the left of the Pushkin Vertigo titles; these books are much more standard police procedurals. I wasn’t wowed by either of the two earlier novels, but The Mystery of the Three Orchids picks up the pace, and is the best of the three so far

mystery-of-the-three-orchids

The focus in The Mystery of the Orchids is a fashion house in Milan. On the day that American ex-pat Cristiana O’Brien, a woman with a “magnificent body,” shows her spring collection to “Milan’s very best clients, the richest–truly the ideal clients for a great fashion house,”a body turns up on Cristiana’s bed. The body is Valerio, a young man Cristiana met in Naples, now employed as a “loyal drudge, the slave she used for everything.” Cristiana is shocked by the body, but after all, she had no sentimental attachment to the victim. What does terrify her, however, is the sight of an orchid–a flower she detests–left in her room.

The device of an anonymous letter (which appeared in The Hotel of the Three Roses--it was an anonymous phone call in The Murdered Banker) appears here in order to move along the plot. Soon Inspector De Vincenzi is on the scene to solve the crime, but the body (and the orchid) count rises. The Inspector certainly doesn’t investigate in any sort of formal fashion. He takes a wait-and-see attitude with an emphasis on “psychological clues.” To De Vincenzi, “only someone who knew how to read the murderer’s soul could unmask them.” Of course with this sort of approach to criminal investigation, readers know to expect that De Vincenzi will unmask the criminal, dramatically, at the end of the novel rather than methodically pursuing clues.  While De Vincenzi can hardly be accused of being obsessive about catching his murderer (I’m not convinced he’s a very good detective,) in this novel, the inspector becomes a more interesting character.

When it came down to it he was sentimental, and he had an instinctive respect for the dead, for scoundrels who’d once been alive.

The author peppers the story with some colourful characters, including a bitchy model and an idiosyncratic dress designer. There’s also a very cinematic scene involving a room full of headless dressmaker dummies. While De Vincenzi believes that “lying and distraction come easily to women: their deviousness is automatic” he takes an instant liking to Evelina,  Cristiana’s heavy-set book-keeper. He decides “you can’t weigh more than a hundred kilos without having a correspondingly light conscience.”  Prospero O’Lary, Cristiana’s director is described by De Vincenzi as a “black tortoise ill with meningitis.”

No one in the fashion house is what they seem, and the plot’s emphasis is American gangsterism at play in Milan. De Vincenzi is a reader, a fan of Anatole France, but he’s also read Persons in Hidingwritten by the head of the G-men, J. Edgar Hoover,” an invaluable resource as it turns out. Author de Angelis may show American crime as tainting Milan society, but there’s also a sneaking feeling that the introduction of American gangsters into Italian life is a bit of a thrill.

Review copy

Translated by Jill Foulston

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The Birthday Boys: Beryl Bainbridge

“I dare say,” I’d continue, “that you think you’ve known what it is to be cold.”

While I’ve throughly enjoyed many Beryl Bainbridge novels, I’ve avoided this author’s historical fiction. For this reader, historical fiction is anything pre-1914, and in common with others, I’ve been disappointed in the way authors can’t seem to leave modern sensibilities behind when they step into the past. This brings me to The Birthday Boys, a fiction novel based on the catastrophic 1910 expedition to Antarctica.

The novel is broken up into five distinct sections, spanning from 1910-1912 in five voices: Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans, Dr Edward Wilson, Capt. Robert Scott, Lt. Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers and Capt. Lawrence Edward (Titus) Oates. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that these are the five men who trekked to the South Pole only to find that they’d been beaten to their gaol, and that on their return journey all five men died. I still remember the history lesson.

The novel begins before the ship, Terra Nova, leaves for the long voyage, and it’s the voice of Petty Officer Edgar Evans we hear first. Optimism reigns with parties, free drinks and farewell celebrations– although there are a few signs of foreboding which, of course, all come to pass.

the-birthday-boys

Wikipedia has an informative page on the Terra Nova Expedition along with the information that Scott was long hailed, unequivocably as a hero, until … well … he wasn’t, and now many of the decisions he made are called into question. It’s these fatal decisions that Bainbridge tackles as she burrows into this story of exploration. Were these men incredibly brave or incredibly foolhardy? All of the elements that are now acknowledged as fatal mistakes appear in the story–“a catalogue of disasters and miscalculations,” the failure of the motorized sleds, Scott’s aversion to using sled dogs, the poor quality of the ponies that Scott insisted on using, the fact that five men trekked to the South Pole on rations for four,  “inexpertise on skis,” and Scott’s stubbornness and inflexibility.

Although five different voices contributed to this tale, there are just a few salient issues that seep through the narrative: loyalty to Scott (with the exception of Oates), the way these men saw nature to be conquered and what drives men to attempt such goals, in such conditions–especially if you’ve been on other expeditions and have a jolly good idea of the sort of thing you’ll face. Wilson, for example, joined the 1901-1904 Discovery Expedition, and shelved his memories for this trip. Evans “lost most of the nerves” in his lower jaw (along with his teeth) in an earlier Antarctica trip.

This is not easy reading, and I doubt I could stomach reading a non fiction book on the subject. Bainbridge’s recreation of the expedition through fiction takes us right there in the frozen Antarctica with these men, and at times, this is a dire, grueling read. The deaths of the ponies is horrendous. We become observers–sometimes of wanton slaughter as these men move south: Wilson painting a Portuguese man-of-war, noting that it was “astonishing beautiful” in the water but “once removed from the sea they go out like a candle, the colour snuffed away,”  and Oates who “slaughtered” a “man-of-war bird” with a seventeen foot wing span. We get a sense of what drove these men–all larger than life characters who didn’t fit in well into mainstream society, “misfits, victims of a changing world.”

What sort of man was Scott–a leader of men, and so loved that his followers said they would die for him…. and they did…

In his ruthlessness of purpose he resembled Napoleon, who, when the Alps stood in the way of his armies, cried out, “There shall be no Alps.” For Scott there was no such word as impossible, or if there was it was listed in a dictionary for fools. In the dreadful circumstances in which we found ourselves, half-starved and almost always frozen, our muscles trembling from the strain of dragging those infernal sledges, I expect his was the only way. To have faltered at this late stage would have been like pulling in one’s horse while it was leaping. He spared no one, not even himself, and he drove us on by the sheer force of his will.

I usually avoid fiction books based on real events as I am left wondering what exactly was true and what was fiction. Then I wished I’d read a non fiction book on the subject instead. In the case of The Birthday Boys, due to its dire and sometimes gruesome subject matter, I do not want to read the source material. Bainbridge, who must have poured over the journals, letters and facts of the disaster took me along on the trip through her perceptive eyes, and what a fantastically horrible journey to hell it was.

I can’t help remembering the Temple of the Tooth in Ceylon with its pictures depicting the Buddhist hell. One could only thank God they were fanciful, as most of them went beyond description for fiendish ingenuity, the worst torments s being reserved for the killers of animals.

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The Bottle Factory Outing: Beryl Bainbridge

“She’d always wanted to go to Spain–she was very interested in flamenco dancing.”

In Beryl Bainbridge’s darkly funny novel, The Bottle Factory Outing, two roommates in a London boarding house, complete opposites in character and temperament, both work in an Italian-run, wine-bottling factory. Both young women have problems with men. Theatrical Freda, “she walked on in television serials very occasionally, either as a barmaid or as a lady agitator,” a large, domineering blonde, has a crush on trainee manager, Vittorio while Brenda, who’s fled a husband and a fearsome mother-in-law, spends most of her working day fending off the advances of her married boss, Rossi. Unfortunately Brenda, who never wants to make waves, and never wants to offend anyone, sends Rossi mixed signals. She tries to avoid his frantic requests that she join  him in the cellar for a quick grope while he plies her with wine, but she’s so passive, she goes along hoping, futilely, that she can thwart his more aggressive moves.

She couldn’t think how to discourage him–she didn’t want to lose her job and she hated giving offence. He had a funny way of pinching her all over, as if she was a mattress whose stuffing needed distributing more evenly. She stood there wriggling, saying breathlessly “Please don’t, Rossi,” but he tickled her and she gave little smothered laughs and gasps that he took for encouragement.

“You are a nice clean girl.”

“Oh, thank you.”

He was interfering with her clothes, pushing his hands beneath her tweed coat and plucking away at her jumpers and vest, shredding little pieces of newspaper with his nails. She tried to have a chat with him to calm him down.

Freda took Brenda under her wing after meeting her in a butcher’s shop but what attracted Freda to Brenda in the first place,”Brenda’s lack of control, her passion,” has grown stale. Now Freda is mostly annoyed by Brenda:

“You’re a born victim, that’s what you are. You ask for trouble. One day you’ll go too far.”

She lay down again and rubbed her toes together to warm them. “It’s probably all that crouching you did under dining-room tables during the war.”

The novels centres on, as the title suggests, a work outing arranged by Freda who is trying various tactics to ramp up her relationship with Vittorio, and she decides “she would have a better chance of seducing him if she could get him out into the open air.” The outing is supposed to include a visit to a stately home and a relaxed picnic. Of course, on the day of the outing everything goes horribly wrong, and while, by the time the outing takes place, numerous things have already gone badly in the lives of Freda and Brenda, author Beryl Bainbridge exceeds reader expectations as the plot takes an extremely dark, twisted turn.

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When you read a book for the second, or as in this case, the third time, new things seep out of the pages. For this reading, I was struck by how Freda and Brenda drove people to extreme behaviour. There’s Brenda’s “obviously deranged” mother-in-law trying to kill her, and what exactly did happened in Brenda’s marriage? It must have taken a great deal of bad behaviour for passive Brenda to take action. Then there’s Irishman, Patrick, who’s attracted to Brenda and who offers to come and fix her toilet. He’s another man who misreads Brenda’s rather limp signals. He’s also the odd man out at work:

Rossi treated him with suspicion, seeing he was Irish, following him about the factory in case he slipped a bomb beneath the cardboard boxes and blew them all to pieces.

And then there’s Freda, militant, aggressive Freda, who pulls out all the stops to lure Vittorio to her room in a shabby boarding house. Freda also drives men crazy, and there’s something nastily funny about how these two women handle the men in their lives. Freda pursues Vittorio avidly, and Brenda, tries, rather meekly, to fight men off. It takes the factory outing to bring these situations to a head with some very unpleasant results.

There’s a wonderful sense of comic timing to the novel–the attempted seductions and the thwarted seductions, along with the comic comings and goings that reminded me of a Shakespearean comedy, but also there’s wonderful timing in the silent, ignored horror of lives glimpsed off in the sidelines:

Brenda withdrew into a corner of the room, seating herself at the table beside the window. Across the road on the balcony of the third floor an elderly woman in a blue dressing gown and hat with a rose pinned to the brim waved and gesticulated for help. Brenda knew her gas fire had blown up or she was out of paraffin or the cat had gone missing. It was unfortunate that Freda had rented a room opposite a building devoted to the old and infirm-there always someone in need of assistance.

Here is Max’s review

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Martin Dressler: Steven Millhauser

“He felt, even as he turned over the idea of a fourth cafe in Brooklyn, a sharp little burst of restlessness, of dissatisfaction, as if he were supposed to be doing something else, something grander, higher, more difficult, more dangerous, more daring.”

Steven Millhauser’s novel  Martin Dressler is the story of the rise of an entrepreneur, the son of German emigrants. The main character’s avid pursuit of the American Dream of almost limitless wealth and success unfolds in this well constructed tale that begins, significantly, in fairytale style with the sentence “there once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper’s son who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune.”

The novel opens in 1881 with a 9 year-old Martin already thinking of ways to improve sales at his father’s cigar shop with his design of cigar stand. Martin calculates exactly how much profit the sale of an extra cigar a week will yield over the course of a year, and it’s easy to see that Martin will be, in adulthood, a force to be reckoned with.

martin-dressler

Over the years, Martin becomes a bellhop, a cigar stand concession owner, and a personal secretary to a hotel manager. He starts a lunchroom which rapidly becomes a chain of restaurants as Martin expands into various, untapped areas of New York. While Martin has limitless vision when it comes to business and profit, with women, his radar isn’t as good. His first sexual experiences, interestingly, involve a hotel, and Freud would have had a field day with this character. Martin’s sex life is divided between a quiet whorehouse and the occasional hotel guest. When he meets two sisters, he chooses the elusive Caroline as his wife, a woman given to strange illnesses, in  favour of her less attractive sister, Emmeline. Martin, a man of incredible energy, nonetheless finds himself sapped by his wife’s ennui and unexplained perpetual fatigue. But Martin’s continual need for motion in the world of business leads him to pursue his unquenchable ambition while ignoring his personal life. Always restless, he masters one business and then moves onto another, always growing, always creating, and feeling as though he “couldn’t breath” in any business that won’t allow for expansion. He nurses dreams of a vast hotel:

It was to be eighteen stories high, with turrets and cupolas and a broad central tower rising another six stories: a fever dream of stone, an extravaganza in the wilderness, awaiting the advance of civilization that had already been set in motion by the announcement of the plan for a subway under the Boulevard. The Dressler, soaring into the sky like a great forest of stone, would also throw down deep roots: three underground levels and a basement, including a subterranean courtyard illuminated by electric lights twenty-four hours a day and a level of shops arranged in a labyrinthine arcade. The ground floor was to be a vast system of interconnected lobbies, ladies’ parlors, smoking rooms, reading rooms, and arcaded walkways, above which would rise more than two thousand rooms, arranged in seductive combinations and divided into suites or apartments ranging form a single room with bath to twenty rooms with six baths.

Emmeline, who, over the years becomes his companion and confidante, questions Martin’s plans for his hotel:

There’s a strangeness, Martin, like a picture of a castle in an old book. 

He capitalizes on the idea that Americans want a blend of the efficient modern with the glories of the past, and as Martin gains full control of his plans, his projects become more unreal and less practical. Eventually, Martin, whose schemes become more and more fantastical, moves on to building the Grand Cosmo ….

Martin, in common with John O’Hara’s character, Joe Chapin in Ten North Frederick, leads an unexamined life. But whereas Joe has inherited wealth and is set on a lifelong path early in life, Martin is a self-made man. His ambition isn’t driven by money but by organizing and creating these businesses, and once they are successful, he seems to lose interest. The pursuit is always just that–no end goal, no satisfaction, just the endless chase. Martin passes many men along the way who are content with grasping at certain ambitions but then are happy to remain at that elected level. Not so Martin, no matter how much he gets, he knows there is always more, further horizons to conquer. And of course, to Martin, it’s never enough for his insatiable inchoate appetite.

Martin Dressler is an interesting vision of the unquenchable emptiness of the American Dream. We don’t really get inside the characters’ heads much–instead there is a distance as though we are watching a drama on stage. There’s a magical, dreamlike feel to the novel, as if the times, and Martin’s creations have a phantasmagorical element. I couldn’t help but think that Martin would have had a glorious time designing hotels for Vegas.

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