Big Sky: Kate Atkinson

“There were only so many washing-machines you could sell, but there was no limit on the trade in girls.”

Big Sky is the 5th novel in the Jackson Brodie series from Kate Atkinson. If you’ve read some (or all) of the series, then you know Jackson’s troubled background and his fractured personal life. This novel finds Brodie on the east coast of Yorkshire, split from actress Julia (did we ever think it was going to work?) and now involved with his teenage son, Nathan. Julia initially denied Jackson was Nathan’s father, but “now that the worst years had arrived, however, it seemed that she was more than keen to share him.” With Julia “ferociously busy” in her role as a pathologist in a long-standing TV series, that means Jackson has the care of Nathan and Julia’s elderly Labrador, Dido. Jackson is still doing PI work, but his already shrinking business has shrunk even further. Brodie Investigations might have a glamorous ring, but the reality of his day-to-day work is “either following cheating spouses” or with the assistance of a “particularly enticing yet lethal” Russian woman named Tatiana, constructing “the sticky insides of honeypots (or flytraps as Jackson thought of them.”

Big Sky

Series PI/detective novels juggle the personal lives of the main characters with the cases under investigation, so here Jackson spends quite a bit of time with his 13-year-old son Nathan, ferrying him back and forth to Julia. Reggie, a character from the third Jackson Brodie novel, When Will There Be Good News? also makes an appearance as part of a formidable two-woman police team: Reggie and Ronnie, known as the Krays. There are also scenes with Jackson’s daughter, Marlee and even Superintendent Monroe makes an appearance.

Two predators once hunted in this coastal region: Bassani and Carmody–two “council officials and respected charity supporters” who “shared an appetite for the same fodder.” They lured children “out of care homes and foster families or their own dysfunctional households.” They were lured with dangled opportunities: “amusement arcades and funfairs,” and the two predators organized “Christmas parties, outings to the countryside and the seaside, camping and caravan holidays.” There were “rumors of a third man. Not Savile.” Bassani died in prison, Carmody is about to be released, and some people in this seaside town wonder if he’ll “name names.”.

Big Sky contains a large cast of characters, and it’s hard at times to place these characters in terms of the plot as culpability/roles are obfuscated for a great deal of the book. We’re initially introduced to two sisters who then disappear until about 3/4 of the way through the book, and then there’s this handful of golf playing, smug affluent men who smirk at each other while making obscure in-jokes. This construction: adding characters without placing them in the context of the plot was unfortunate, but Brodie is a great character, and after a while, I gave up trying to puzzle out who all these people were and how they connected and instead just enjoyed the read.

I enjoyed the portrayal of the high-maintenance wives who choose to look the other when it comes to just how their husbands make all that money.  These are women who just can’t walk away, so there’s a high price for all that luxury. One of my favorite characters was Crystal: a plastic construct of a living walking Barbie doll. Ex manicurist, ex-topless model, ex- a lot of things, she has emerged and pragmatically accepted her position; she might as well have sex with one man rather than hundreds. She’s a good mother and a good stepmother. Her predecessor died in a strange accident after becoming a bit of a nuisance, but still …  Crystal thinks it’s best not to go there.

Crystal was hovering around thirty-nine years old and it took a lot of work to stay in this holding pattern. She was a construction made from artificial materials–the acrylic nails, the silicone breasts, the polymer eyelashes. A continually renewed fake tan and a hairpiece fixed into her bleached blonde hair completed the synthetic that was Crystal.

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UV: Serge Joncour

Members of the wealthy Chassagne family are gathered together at their palatial estate for the annual Bastille celebration. The patriarch presides over the household in his absent-minded detached autocratic fashion. His wife seems a little scatter brained and then there are their two daughters, Julie and Vanessa. Vanessa rather conveniently married André Pierre. I say “conveniently” as the marriage kept a lot of messy domestic details swept under the rug. André-Pierre, who as family fixer “protecting the family,” “keeping secrets,” aware of “sordid goings-on,” has risen in the company, and now Andre-Pierre and Vanessa have two children together. The only family member missing is Philip also known as “the Pyro.” So when a stranger arrives at the Chassagne estate and announces that he’s a friend of Philip’s from boarding school, everyone accepts his presence. Well everyone except André-Pierre, but then André-Pierre knows a few things about Philip that the others don’t.

UV

It’s a beautiful, peaceful summer day; Vanessa and Julie are sunbathing topless when the stranger begins his invasion.

It must have been the white that reassured them .

When a stranger pushes open the gates to your property like that, when he is dressed in white from head to foot, and when that white is so absolutely spotless, you don’t even think about it being suspicious.

The stranger’s name is Boris. He very quickly takes over the household and he’s one of those shape shifters who knows what people want, and then he morphs to feed that need. At first, Vanessa and Julie seem to dominant, but that’s only because Boris’s arrival sparks sisterly competition. Soon the entire household is beguiled by Boris. He flirts with both sisters and listens to the father’s stories, but after he saves the father from drowning, Boris’s place as an honoured guest seems assured.

There’s the occasional glimpse into Boris’s thinking, and it’s clear that he’s a predator:

To him his family configuration was the ultimate exoticism: this arrangement in which people are at their most docile, their most vulnerable too, ripe for the picking.

The big questions are: what does Boris want? What will happen when Philip returns?

This is a tale of dominance and control. There’s the dominance of money, sex, power, class, cruelty, and violence. The Chassagne family live in a gilded environment in which money, lots of money, is thrown at problems and then those problems simply go away. Boris, however, shakes up the established order. By various means, he soon controls the household. He entertains the parents, flirts and gropes the sisters and even whisks off the children into danger. Boris keeps pushing the boundaries and he keeps getting away with it. André-Pierre is the only one outside of the circle of enchantment but then he’s dominated by a healthy fear of Boris.

There’s something fascinating about this sort of story and how a complete stranger, with sheer dominance, can bewitch a group of people out of their comfort zone. Especially when you think that privileged people like the Chassagnes would never ordinarily run into someone like Boris. They are not nice people at all, but they are still no match for Boris and his cunning. Of course, in these situations, you’ve never sure how far things will go.

I liked UV but found the characters held at arm’s length. The tale skimmed the surface and it could have been much more engaging if events had been explored. There’s a red herring which seemed annoying rather than anything else.

Here’s Emma’s review and it seems to match mine.

Translated by Adriana Hunter

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Those People: Louise Candlish

“Was it any wonder he did what any other desperate person would do? Gather all the alcohol he could find in the house and drink every last drop of it.”

We’ve all had problems with neighbours at some point or another, so there are a lot of horror stories to share. Perhaps that’s what makes Louise Candlish’s novel Those People so readable. Once I picked this book up, it was hard to put it down.

Those people

The novel is set in a London suburb: Lowland Gardens. It’s just a short jog over to the horrors of the poverty stricken, crime-ridden Loughborough estate, so the people who live in Lowland Gardens, mainly young couples with children, are all too aware that crime lurks nearby. These houses have risen steeply in value over the last few years. People are proud to live there and everyone pulls together to keep up standards. Everyone that is … until Darren Booth and his wife Josie move in. …

While the cat’s away, the mouse was staging some sort of coup d’état.

Number 1 Lowlands Way, a semi-detached house, has stood empty for some time following the death of the owner. It’s of no small concern to the other residents of the street as the council recently tried a landgrab. Most of houses don’t have off street parking, and so parking space is an issue. Darren Booth moves into number 1 and immediately pisses everyone off.

The first clue that something was amiss that Friday evening was that the parking space outside his house was occupied by a filthy white Toyota so decrepit it was bordering on scrap. Certainly not the vehicle of anyone he knew on Lowland way.

First there are amateur repairs (which include sketchy scaffolding) taking place all hours of the day and night. Then there’s the heavy metal rock music played in the wee hours. Then if there wasn’t already too much to tolerate, Darren brings his used car business to the estate and starts flogging cars in the once posh neighbourhood.

All of this could almost be funny. There are several snobby people in the neighbourhood, and the snob squad is led by Naomi Morgan one of the estate’s Great Organisers. Naomi is one of those ultra efficient, brisk, perfect women whose word is Law. Several of the neighbours attempt remonstrating with Darren; his music for example has made it impossible for the baby on the other side of the semi-detached wall to sleep, and that’s when Darren’s nastiness surfaces. He drives the neighbours crazy and while the horrified neighbours band together to complain to various official/legal channels, there is basically nothing they can do but live with the situation as all legal channels move as fast as frozen molasses.

The situation is a powder keg, and so inevitably things explode: Naomi and her much-over shadowed sister-in-law Tess created Play-out Sundays, so on Sundays the street is closed off and the children play outside. Everyone goes along with the plan and residents park on another street. But Darren Booth doesn’t comply with the established clan culture, and this leads to the first disaster.

I got to a certain point in the book, and then I realised that there was a lot more afoot. The plot begins with witness and neighbour statements which are taken by police after a horrendous accident takes place. There was still a good portion left of the book, and so I knew things were not as simple as they initially appeared.

Author Louise Candlish creates incredible tension between the characters. Events escalate rapidly and people find themselves in unexpected positions, trying to find solutions to an untenable situation. She also shows how Darren is a catalyst for other events that occur which cause the rot lurking beneath this posh neighborhood to emerge. Wives look to their husbands to ‘take care of things’ and then despise them when they can’t (legally). Naomi and Ralph have had the perfect life (which they like to flaunt through their constant suggestions for how others can improve their lives: “double glazing!!” ). Naomi’s domineering character emerges and she’s so used to getting her own way, that when she doesn’t, her rather off-putting nature becomes more apparent. And then there’s poor Sissy who is paying her mortgage by turning her home into a B&B (probably not the best idea..) and the B&B happens to right opposite Darren’s house… well there goes the neighbourhood.

At first opposition to Darren seems rooted in class, and class plays an enormous role in this tale. Darren doesn’t ‘fit’– he doesn’t ‘look’ as though he’s a homeowner, so Naomi’s (domestically trained) husband, Ralph, assumes that Darren is some cheapo worker employed by Number 1’s new owner. As the story develops though, it’s clear that while class may have sparked, and fueled divisions, Darren is a nasty person.

Reading the book made me think about how we so often just comply politely. Perhaps we don’t have enough skin in the game to thwart others or perhaps the stakes just aren’t worth it, but Darren senses he’s not welcome and then figuratively gives everyone the finger.

The plot wobbled a bit at the end, but for its genre, Those People is very well-done. While this may seem like a beach read, Those People tackles a lot of moral questions regarding our obligations to others. The neighbors, already subject to considerable marital/financial/social stress join together to band against Darren, but they are all self-interested at heart. Social media, and texts play a role as does surveillance–all ways for people to get themselves in trouble. It’s a good reminder that casual comments that may have no sinister meaning can quickly become incriminating under the right set of circumstances.

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Exposed: Jean-Phillipe Blondel

“I have loved those who have passed through my life and left their mark on me for a few hours, a few weeks, a few years.”

Jean Phillipe Blondel’s The 6:41 to Paris  is a novel about middle aged regret and how the choices we make forge the people we become.

Exposed has some thematic similarities to the plot of The 6:41 to Paris; this is a novel which explores the hard-to-define relationship which exists between middle aged English teacher Louis Claret and his former pupil, Alexandre Laudin, now a famous artist.

Exposed

The relationship that exists between pupil and teacher is an interesting one. It’s fabricated, of course, so therefore, somewhat artificial. The teachers are static, in place, more or less, while over the years hundreds and hundreds of students pass through their classrooms. Do teachers remember their students? If so which ones do they remember and why? Which ones stand out? Can they predict who will be successful and who will not? And what of students? Which teachers do they remember and why? All these questions float to the surface of the novel. According to Claret:

I think a teacher signs a tacit contract with his students from the moment they walk into the classroom. It goes beyond a pact of nonaggression. It is an agreement that stipulates that even over the years, there will be respect between us, and … how should I put it … mutual protection. 

Claret receives an unexpected invitation to attend a gallery opening in the Alexandre Laudin’s provincial hometown. Claret has been aware of his former student’s success, “a steady ascension” but he never expected the invitation. Now 58 year old Claret, divorced, alone and close to retirement, decides to attend and get some free food at least.

I remember smiling as I studied Alexandre Laudin’s portrait in the paper. I hardly recognised him. He didn’t look like the student I had taught English to, twenty years earlier. I must have had him in première, but he made no impression of me. I smiled, the way I did every time I used the verb “to have” to describe the relation between student and teacher. Monsieur Bichat? I had him in cinquième. You’re lucky you didn’t get that old bag Aumont. This is how we define ourselves, us and them. We belong to each other for a few months. Then we set one another free again. We forget one another.

But for some reason Alexandre Laudin hasn’t forgotten his former English teacher. Why is Claret invited to the gallery opening?

Claret plans to grab some food and leave. As for the paintings, they are “disturbing, yes, but not really all that innovative.” And Claret comes to the conclusion that Alexandre “seemed to be repeating himself lately, the same themes same use of color, same brushstroke.”  Alexandre seeks out his former teacher during the opening and tells Claret that he “wanted to turn the page” in his work, then the two men part. Claret is then surprised when Alexandre contacts him a month later and asks to meet. This meeting is followed by Alexander’s request to paint Claret.

A somewhat odd relationship follows with Claret posing for paintings. These are sessions which lead Claret to meditations and memories of his life. For his part, Alexandre opens up about his troubled relationships with other students.

It’s not clear exactly what Alexandre wants from Laudin–then he asks Claret to pose without his shirt, and then the request moves to being painted in the nude….

Obviously given the title, this is being about Exposed both literally and figuratively–how hard it can be to connect with people and expose our needs. As a reader, I preferred 6:41 to Paris as I found Alexandre’s somewhat fragile ego (here he is world famous and still bruised by events of 20 years ago) somewhat tedious. But that’s just me. Others may be able to identify with Alexandre’s Bete Noire (s). It’s always interesting to read about people who push the boundaries of others–especially when it comes to comfort level. We often allow ourselves to be nudged, bending to politeness, and then when we realise how many boundaries have been crossed, we wonder how it happened without our noticing.

This is a slow, meditative read. The ending feels unsatisfactory and I wanted some sort of clearing of the air between the two main characters.

Review copy
Translated by Alison Anderson.

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Artists’ Wives: Alphonse Daudet

“Artists who live only by and for the public, carry nothing home to their hearth but fatigue from glory, or the melancholy of their disappointments.”

Alphonse Daudet’s Artists’ Wives easily makes my best-of-year list. This themed collection of short stories argues “again and again that artists cannot be happily married.” The idea exists (is it broadly accepted?) that Art is a jealous mistress, and Daudet shows this argument to be true, repeatedly, through his stories. Yet it’s not as simple as that: Daudet creates 12 stories, 12 situations if you will, which argue his point from various, cleverly devised angles. The book begins with a prologue in which “two friends–a poet and a painter” spend an evening together. After dinner, the poet, who is single, declares that he envies his married friend, and so a dialogue begins with the painter stating categorically that artists “ought never to marry.”

Here’s the breakdown of the stories:

Madame Heurtebise

The Credo of Love

The Transteverina

A Couple of Singers

A Misunderstanding

Assault with Violence

Bohemia at Home

Fragment of a Woman’s letter found in the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs

A Great Man’s Widow

The Deceiver

The Comtesse Irma

The Confidences of an Academic Coat

Daudet doesn’t just create an artist (who by the way can be a poet, a writer, a singer, a sculptor, a painter) who neglects his wife and dallies with his latest muse; no, Daudet is too ingenious for that. He creates 12 different scenarios of domestic hell all built around the complexities and complications of placing an ‘artist’ in the relationship.

Artists wives

Madame Heurtesbise would be arguably the one of the most predictable scenarios were it not for the sting in the story’s tale. Madame Heurtebise is seen as an unpleasant, pretentious woman:

having a certain love for glitter and tinsel, no doubt caught at her father’s shop window, making her take her pleasure in many-coloured satin bows, sashes and buckles; and her hair glossy with cosmetic, stiffly arranged over the small obstinate, narrow forehead, where the total absence of wrinkles told less of youth than of complete lack of thought.

This story, of a writer who marries an unimaginative woman, reminds me of the misery of married life found in George Gissing’s New Grub Street.

The Credo of Love, one of my favourites due to its dark humour, is the story of a woman who dreamed of being “the wife of a poet,” but instead she is married off to a wealthy, older man whose one “passion” is gardening.

She remained like this for a long time, closed in by the four walls of the conjugal garden, innocent as clematis, full however of wild aspirations toward other gardens, less staid, less humdrum, where the rose trees would fling out their branches untrained, and the wild growth of weed and briar be taller than the trees, and blossom with unknown and fantastic flowers, luxuriantly coloured by a warmer sun.

Bored, she turns once more to poetry, and then “at the terrible age of thirty, which seems to be the decisive critical moment for woman’s virtue” she meets “the irresistible Amaury,”

a drawing-room poet, one of those fanatics in dress coat and grey kid gloves, who between ten o’clock and midnight go and recite to the world their ecstasies of love, their raptures, their despair, leaning mournfully against the mantelpiece, in the blaze of lights, while seated around him, women, in full evening dress, listen entranced behind their fans.

Amaury  is “a desperate man such as women love, hopeless of life but irreproachably dressed, a lyric enthusiast, chilled and disheartened, in whom the madness of inspiration can be divined only in the loose and neglected tie of his cravat.”

A Couple of Singers is the story of two opera singers, one male, one female, who fall in love, inevitably, after singing love arias on stage to each other night after night. You’d think this match should work, after all, both husband and wife have the same career, but Daudet explores what happens when one partner in the marriage becomes more popular than the other.

A Misunderstanding is a he said/she said comparison (literally side by side pages) of a bickering couple.

Assault with Violence is a rather funny short story in epistolary form with lawyers writing back and forth and Nina, a woman who married a writer, sending letters about the situation to her aunt “an old maid.” Oh the horrors of married life to a “Bohemian.

A Great Man’s Widow, another favorite, concerns a woman who marries a musician who after 15 years of miserable married life, has the grace to die.

On the high road to fame, over which he had so triumphantly and hurriedly traveled, like those who are to die young, she sat behind him, humble and timidly, in a corner in the chariot, ever fearful of collisions.

But with the death of her husband, the widow finds that she has a newly gained stature: she is now the widow of a Great Man, and she capitalizes on this situation, becomes insufferable, marries a younger less well know musician and incorporates him into the cult-like worship of the dead man.

The Deceiver has a mystery at its dark heart, and The Comtesse Irma, sticks with me still–the saddest story in the collection.

I am impressed by Daudet’s agile mind and the subtle nuances of the stories. In the exploration of human nature, these stories are reminiscent of Balzac. The introduction from Olivier Bernier goes into Daudet’s life along with a description of how he stood as an artist during his lifetime.

Translated by Laura Ensor

 

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Vintage 1954: Antoine Laurain

On the cover of my copy of Antoine Laurain’s Vintage 1954, there’s the sentence: If you could travel to the Paris of your dreams… I started to wonder which era in Paris I would pick. I’d definitely pass on The French Revolution thank you very much. Same with the Commune. I’d probably drift towards the 60s but then again, I wouldn’t mind having a gander at Napoleon. Ultimately though, I’d prefer to hang out with Balzac.

Vintage 1954

But back to the topic at hand. … It’s interesting that apparently the Paris of “your dreams” is 1954. That lands us right in there with Edith Piaf, Salvador Dali, Jean Gabin and French New Wave Cinema. The book is initially set in Paris 2017. Bob Brown, a somewhat naive yet goodhearted American from Milwaukee travels solo to Paris to fulfill the dream he and his now-comatose wife shared of travelling to see the sights. It’s a sad trip, but he’s trying his best to be optimistic, making the journey for himself and for his wife, Goldie, who can’t be there. He’s rented an airbnb in the Rue Edgar-Charellier and arrives just in time to find Hubert Larnaudie locked in the cellar by thieves. Bob enlists the help of residents restoration specialist Magalie “Abby” and mixologist Julien to rescue Hubert. After Hubert is liberated, he pulls out a bottle of 1954 wine to celebrate. They all drink and when they wake, they have been transported back to 1954.

I’ll backpedal a bit and add that Julien’s great-grandfather, swore he saw a UFO in 1954. Known thereafter as “Mr Flying Saucer,” he vanished in 1978, along with his dog, after watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The book takes off when our main characters wake and find themselves in 1954. This section of the book is really well done (reminds me of the film Visitors). Our characters can’t stop reaching for their cell phones–even though they no longer work. Euros are “funny money,” and poor Bob, as a tourist, doesn’t even realise that he’s slipped back in time. As far as he’s concerned the French “had resisted the march of modernity, happily holding onto their traditions.”

One of the questions underlying the plot is “what would you do if you were able to travel back in time?” First these misplaced characters must survive, but then the three french characters, Hubert, Julien and Magalie find themselves digging back into the past in one form or another. Hubert has a hilarious mis-adventure involving a missing relative who took off for Chile and subsequently disappeared without a trace. Magalie’s use of time is more poignant. Julien revisits his current employer: Harry’s Bar and mulls over The Corridors of Time.

Vintage 1954 is a lighthearted, playful novel, a time travel romp lashed with life lessons and a miracle or two. I prefer Laurain’s darker work where people go stark raving bonkers.

But that’s just me. Nonetheless I enjoyed reading this and I slotted this in, deliberately, as an antidote, between two extremely dark reads.

Translated by Jane Aitken/Emily Boyce

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Stay Up With Hugo Best: Erin Somers

Aspiring comic June Bloom is a writer’s assistant on the late night talk show Stay Up with Hugo Best. The long standing show has stayed the course for years, but now Best is retiring, rather unexpectedly. There will be a new host who “would hire his own writers, and those writers would hire their own assistant.” It’s been a long hard climb for June, and now she’s unemployed and broke.

Stay Up with Hugo Best

June goes to a bar to do a stand-up routine and runs into Best who is is part of the small audience. The evening ends with Best inviting June to his house in Connecticut, “No funny business,” promises Best. Given that 65 year old Best has a reputation as a womanizer–specifically there’s one incident which involved an underage girl, that “dogged him forever,” we expect hanky panky (at least attempted) with perhaps some humorous barbs (thanks to the cover) shooting back and forth. Best is an icon to June; the comic who made her think she could have a career in comedy too:

My crush had been a minicollison of forces, a science fair Krakatau. The double whammy of loving him and also wanting to be him.

Initially the novel has a lot of energy, and the plot seems full of possibilities. June is too curious to reject Best’s offer, and author Erin Somers wisely avoids the cliches we might expect from the weekend in Connecticut scenario.

Part of the book was brilliant. Best’s life turns out to be as muddled, sad and unglamorous as only the life of an aging comic can be. Some of the book’s best, funniest scenes take place at the home of obnoxious “shock jock” Roman Doyle and his surprisingly unconventional wife, Gypsy. June isn’t eager to be at Roman’s party, but she is interested to meet his wife. June admits that “the thought that someone could stand him [Roman] intrigued her.”

I was disappointed by the gray restraint of the place. Where were the vulgar classical touches, the marble nymphs and cherubs in repose? Even shock jocks had taste these days. You had to go to Los Angeles to see anything truly vulgar anymore. 

One of the themes is the TV persona vs the real human being. For some reason, we seem more shocked when comics turn out to be alcoholic, druggies, and or depressive failures. After all, that humour and disposition they project has to come from somewhere right? Perhaps we need to see that some people manage to use humour as a buoy to float above  life’s crushing defeats and disappointments, converting them into humour. If they can do it, perhaps we can:

In theory, it made sense that there would be some separation between the two. That the real guy would have depths the TV persona didn’t. But I felt sure that there were people out there who were exactly what they seemed to be, people you could pin down immediately. For instance, the moment they grabbed your ass in the workplace, which was something Roman had done to me. 

It’s clear that comedy, as a business, is a grueling career. “Writer’s contracts were renewed every thirteen weeks.” Imagine the pressure of trying to keep up the humour when you are under the gun with no idea where the next pay check will come from? It’s no wonder some comics seem to grow more desperate as they age.

What starts as a funny novel becomes rather sad and grim as it becomes clear that June must learn some degrading, humiliating lessons and that her idol Hugo Best must topple from his exalted position. The book is being adapted to film and IMO there’s every possibility that the film may work better than the book. It’s not that the book is bad; it’s just rather depressing given that we are June’s audience for a lesson that’s painful to read about. By the time the book has concluded it’s harder to say who is more winceworthy figure: washed out Hugo Best who was dealt an excellent hand but still managed to trash his life, or June Bloom who had plenty of warning signs and should know better.

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Paris Spleen: Baudelaire (1869)

“Wickedness can never be excused, but there is merit in knowing we are wicked; the one vice beyond redemption is to do bad things out of stupidity.”

Paris Spleen had sat on my shelf for some years, and while it’s ostensibly Baudelaire writing about Paris and various aspects of all levels of French life, it’s also a look inside Baudelaire’s head. This was published posthumously in 1869 and it includes prose pieces on a wide range of topics from being drunk to an observation of two children playing.

Paris spleen

On the first page, Baudelaire had my attention; he addressed Arsène Houssaye, arguing for the merit of the prose pieces, that  “each survives on its own.”

We can break off where we choose, I my reverie, you the manuscript, the reader his reading; for I have not tied his reluctant  will to the interminable thread of some pointless plot.

Some of the pieces are very short–less than a page; some are observations of human behaviour while others are centered on nature.

In The Double Room, just over two pages long, Baudelaire describes a bedroom, and the languid, sensual description begins with the bedroom as a pleasant place, but that soon changes:

And that fragrance of another world, which sent my seasoned sensibility reeling, has been displaced, alas, by the rank odour of tobacco mixed with god knows what stomach-turning damp. Now lungs breathe rancid desolation.

In this reduced world, so full of disgust, just one familiar object consoles me: the phial of laudanum, old and frightful mistress–and like all lovers, alas abundant with caresses and betrayals.

Ah indeed, Time is back, and reigns supreme now; and that hideous old personage has brought all his fiendish retinue of Memories, Regrets, Fits, Phobias. Anguish, Nightmares, Rage and Neuroses.

I could quote a lot from this book. There are times I liked Baudelaire and I agreed with him and there were times I thought it was hard being Baudelaire. Ultimately however, this is a thinker who analyses his feelings for us, his fortunate audience. Anyway, there’s a lot to chew over here; a friend who died insane, the beauty of nature, whether or not humans possess “innate goodness,”  why people do horrible things, and the sadness and tortures of life. Yes, it’s Paris and Parisian life, but it’s also a glimpse into the mind of Baudelaire. This is best dipped into rather than read at one sitting. I read at night and Baudelaire gave me a lot to think about as I drifted off to sleep.

Vauvenargues says that in public gardens there are walks haunted mainly by failed ambition, ill-starred inventors, unachieved fame, broken hearts, all those wild, barricaded souls in the last throes of a storm and who retreat far from the insolent gaze of laughing wasters. 

Translated by Martin Sorell

 

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The Women in Black: Madeleine St John

“You Australians are mysterious people, no one would guess that this is a place where people can also suffer. It is the constant sunshine, it hides everything but itself.”

The Women in Black in Madeleine St John’s wonderful, tightly written novel are a handful of women who work in Sydney’s Goode’s Department Store. The novel is set in the 50s; the women who work at Goode’s are required to wear black dresses, and these are still the days of “frocks,” “model gowns,” spinsters, and WWII refugees floating up as flotsam and jetsam in Sydney’s society.

The women in black

The novel begins in November with two of the main characters: employees Mrs Patty Williams and Miss Fay Baines. Christmas is on the horizon and a young girl named Leslie Miles, who changes to her name to Lisa for her application to Goode’s, is employed for the busy Christmas and New Year’s seasons. Leslie/Lisa is a shy introverted, intelligent girl who has just taken her exit exams at school and who longs to go to university. The final main character is the glamorous Magda, “a Continental” from Slovenia, who takes Lisa under her wing, pays her attention, and introduces her to a wider, exotic world.

Both Patty Williams and Fay Baines have their private miseries and disappointments. Patty is married to Frank: a “bastard of the standard-issue variety, neither cruel nor violent, merely insensitive and inarticulate.” Patty wants a child but that isn’t likely to happen as Frank is more interested in a night at the pub and a pint with his mates than sex with his wife.

Fay Baines is 28 and after a few unsatisfactory relationships with men, she’s come to a dead end in her life. She goes out at night with her friend Myra but Fay keeps meeting the same sort of men who want a good time and are not interested in marriage or a relationship.

Somehow the sight of Fay was not one that inspired thoughts about marriage, and this was grievous, for Fay wished for nothing else: which was natural, everything considered. Meanwhile men were forever getting the wrong idea

Then one night, Fay has an epiphany:

The fact was that Fay had had a dislocating experience on Saturday night: she had been at a party given by one of Myra’s cronies in a flat at Potts Point and she had suddenly, for no reason, become aware just before midnight that she was wasting her time: that she had in a sense met every one of the men there before, at every other party she had ever attended, and that she was tired of the whole futile merry-go-round: and what was worse than this, much, much worse, was that there was no other merry-go-round she could step onto

Over just a few weeks, amazing things happen in the lives of Patty, Fay and Lisa. Lisa, who comes from a narrow yet loving home, longs to be a poet, and is reading Anna Karenina. The book passes to Fay and she discovers that there’s more to life than parties and men who insist in groping her.

Women in Black explores the lives of a handful of women as they move to the next phases of their lives. Magda, her husband Stefan and his friend, Rudi, live in a parallel universe to their Australian acquaintances, and some of the book’s best scenes take place between these immigrants who, as they learn to adapt, have a great deal of ambition, and enthusiasm, combined with the outsiders’ view of Australian society:

“Give me you opinion of the cake, anyway,” said Rudi to Lisa. “I must say that in Melbourne, where I have been living so miserably, there are at least many better cakeshops than here”

“In Melbourne, they have more need of cake,” said Stefan, “having more or less nothing else.”

While the lives of Fay, Patty and Lisa are about to change, there’s the underlying idea that Lisa’s way forward is a change for Australian women in general. Lisa’s mother, another wonderful character, loves and supports her daughter, but the two females are subject to Mr. Miles who has yet to be convinced that it’s ‘worth’ spending the money to send a girl to university. The sea change for women is seen through the remark made by the “mysterious” Miss Jacobs, another employee of Goode’s.

A clever girl is the most wonderful thing in all creation you know: you must never forget that. People expect men to be clever. They expect girls to be stupid or silly. , which very few girls really are, but most girls oblige them by acting like it. So you just go away and be as clever as ever you can: put their noses out of joint for them. It’s the best thing you could possibly do, you and all the clever girls in this city and the world.

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Rendezvous in Black: Cornell Woolrich

“For me, she thought wryly, but without complaint, all life is a tunnel; a long, never-ending tunnel, which has no other end.”

Cornell Woolrich’s Rendezvous in Black is a relentlessly bleak, cold, dark tale of revenge. Its powerful, ceaseless bleakness resides in a killer’s uncompromising mission: revenge yes, but it’s revenge involving innocents and driven by complete mercilessness.

It’s May the 31st, and Johnny Marr is waiting outside of a drugstore in the town square, as he does every night, for his long-time girlfriend Dorothy. Dorothy and Johnny have been in love since the ages of 7 and 8; they’ve always been a couple, and they cannot imagine a world in which the other does not exist. Lack of money led to them putting off their wedding for years, but now the date is planned. It will be a June wedding:

They would have been married long ago; last June, the June before, the very first June that he was a man and she was grown up girl. Why hadn’t they? What’s the one thing that always interferes, more than any other? Money. First no job at all. Then a job so small it wasn’t even big enough for one, let alone for two. 

The work-related death of Johnny Marr’s father led to a small pay-off from the railroad. It’s not much money and by the time the lawyer takes almost half, it’s even less, but it’s still enough for Johnny and Dorothy to set a date.

The book’s first pages establish several main themes: there’s the unexpected consequences of murder and how one person’s callous indifference ricochets throughout the universe. The idea of wasted time is another theme which is juxtaposed, in intriguing contrast, with timelessness. Other characters in the book struggle with the fact that they’ve ‘wasted’ time, and also time plays a huge role in the crimes. Another main theme is the powerless of the individual when faced with Big Business or dazzling wealth. The small man will always stay small and powerless because that’s the way the world is organised. Money rises up; it doesn’t trickle down. The fact that Johnny’s father was killed through negligence, has allowed a few thousand to come Johnny’s way. Yes the money was almost split 50:50 with the lawyer, but to Johnny, the money is a miracle. Finally, Johnny, an “average” man, an underdog, has managed to move ahead a little in the world and finally he can marry Dorothy.

But in this noir novel, fate intervenes and snatches Dorothy away in a freak accident. At first Johnny just hangs around in the town square, still waiting for Dorothy. A little kindness is occasionally shown to Johnny but he becomes a curiosity and then a spectacle. Finally a cop “brutally” tells Johnny to move on, and with a few pokes of the nightstick, Johnny ambles off:

Maybe the cop should have let him stand there, should have let him alone. He hadn’t been hurting anybody , until then.  

Johnny Marr, driven insane by grief, assumes various identities and finds out who is ‘responsible’ (in his mind) for Dorothy’s death. He draws up a death list. On May 31st of each year, one by one, a man whose name is on the list will lose the woman he loves the most: a wife, a mistress, a girlfriend, a daughter … it doesn’t matter to Johnny who the victims are as long as their deaths causes irreparable damage to the men left behind: they will feel the same pain that he endures.

Detective Cameron, another unassuming, almost invisible man, realizes that something isn’t right when the first death occurs. By the third, he knows he’s on the trail of a maniac who has a death list. He doesn’t know the identity of the killer; the only thing he knows for certain is that the next death will occur on the 31st.

Money only has power over the sane mind. Maniacs don’t have motives. I could call it revenge, but even that wouldn’t be correct, because where the injury has been unintentional or unknowing, revenge can be reasoned with, turned aside. About the closest I can get to it would be a revenge-mania.

Woolrich eases us into the darkness easily at first. The first murder is fait accompli, and the second murder with its unexpected consequences form their own sort of rough justice. But the subsequent crimes are malicious, evil and enacted with maximum cruelty. I’m not talking gore here–I’m talking about cold, calculated vicious retribution calculated to cause maximum suffering. The novel is particularly bleak when considering that 5 people who had nothing to do with Dorothy’s death  but who are connected with 5 men (ONE of whom MAY be responsible) will pay the ultimate price. Unlike Fate, Marr’s retribution isn’t random; it’s directed and deliberate, forming its own nihilistic ball of hate, taking aim at innocents. Nonetheless, the cosmic unfairness of Johnny’s selection and relentless pursuit mirrors Fate in a distorted, warped way.

My Modern Library copy includes a bio of Woolrich as well as a brief section describing the relationship Woolrich had with a woman that mirrors Marr’s (without all the murders):

A “sense of isolation, of pinpointed and transfixed helplessness under the stars, of being left alone, unheard, and unaided to face some final fated darkness and engulfment slowly advancing across the years towards me .. that has hung over me all my life.”

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Filed under Fiction, Woolrich Cornell