King of the World: Celia Fremlin (1994)

“The intensity of a mad person’s certainty is irresistibly compelling.”

If I had to pick an alternate title for Celia Fremlin’s King of the World, it would be: Spot the Looney (yes I know, I’m insensitive); this idea came to me repeatedly as I read the book. Not first tier Fremlin, but still an interesting read, which centres on this author’s dominant theme: mental illness.

It’s London, and Bridget and Diane, both successful, young career women, decide to advertise for a flatmate. Problems immediately arise when Alistair, Diane’s annoying, ever-present boyfriend, fields phone calls from a bunch of applicants. He, with his “self-absorbed smile,” declares that the applicants are “gibbering,” yet he favours one particular woman who is “self-effacing to the point of non-existence. Pathologically anxious to please. Anxious altogether, I’d say–a genetically programmed worry-guts. But that will make her all the more malleable, won’t it?

Fremlin’s final novel

When Alistair adds that this woman, Norah Payne, is a battered wife, a woman who has fled an abusive husband and now seeks shelter, Diane and Bridget both agree that she is not a good option for a roommate. But Alistair had already invited the woman around to the flat, and the next thing you know, Norah is in the flat with a “harrowing story.” Already irritated beyond measure by the meddlesome Alistair, Bridget has no patience for Norah:

A born victim-type, no wonder her husband beat her up.

There’s something about Norah’s story that doesn’t add up, but Diane, who “sets up documentaries relevant to one or another of today’s fashionable concerns,” sees raw material in Norah’s plight. Initially, with Bridget arguing against renting a room to Norah, the runaway wife is allowed to stay just a few days until she can arrange something else, but Diane’s rather morbid interest in Norah’s situation, drags Bridget, Diane and Alistair into Norah’s life, and guess what… she hasn’t quite told her new flatmates the whole story.

Given the vagaries of human nature, marriage is never an easy proposition, but I often chew over how particularly difficult it must be to be married to a therapist… or a psychiatrist. Perhaps I am being unfair, but I imagine the weariness, the tediousness of having one’s actions constantly analyzed. … But back to the book….And let’s peel back the layers of Norah’s home life–a home life so dreadful, she ran away.

Norah’s memories reveal the layers of a pathological home life. Norah is married to Mervyn, an arrogant hospital consultant psychiatrist, and they have a son, Christopher. Mervyn is intelligent, patronizing and commanding; he’s proud of his son and considers him to be a genius (a chip off the old block?). When Christopher begins to show signs of mental illness, Mervyn blames Norah: according to Mervyn, and after all he’s the expert, she’s controlling, suffocating, plagued with “mad delusions.”

There were moments when she couldn’t even believe it herself. Was she (as Mervyn kept assuring her) imagining things? Once again, she found herself in the grip of those doubts about her own sanity which are an occupational hazard for carers in her situation. To be in the presence of distorted thinking twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, takes its toll in the end. One picks up the distorted logic in just the same way in picks up a foreign language when living abroad; it lodges in the brain effortlessly, and almost without conscious awareness.

Abusers, and Mervyn is an abuser, create greenhouses for their victims–I say ‘greenhouse’ because it’s a structure, an environment, in which all aspects of the emotional and physical climate are controlled by the abuser–Mervyn decides who is mentally ill and why. There are no other opinions allowed, and as the situation at home becomes worse, Mervyn slides into pathological denial. Not my favourite Fremlin as I was not attached to the characters in any way–they remained at a distance, but still… Fremlin’s recreation of Norah’s home life and the escalating denial is all-too credible.

3 Comments

Filed under Fremlin Celia, posts

Sideswipe: Charles Willeford (1987)

“Being without a wife gave a man a whole different way of looking at the world. And it looked even better now that he had a car to drive again. If it came to a toss-up, car or wife, most men, or at least the ones Stanley had known in Detroit, would certainly give up their wives.”

Sideswipe, Charles Willeford’s third Hoke Moseley novel, finds the Miami homicide detective under incredible strain, personally and professionally, and he decides to quit the force. While Hoke’s pals on the force, his very pregnant partner, Sanchez, and Bill Henderson, cover for Hoke and file for medical leave, Hoke decides he wants a simpler life. Yeah, right. He accepts a job managing his father’s apartment complex in Riviera Beach, and while Hoke initially imagines he’ll be on the beach and little troubled by tenants, the job soon turns into one annoying interruption after another.

But Hoke’s life is in the background, and in the foreground is a violent crime, still in the embryonic stages. …

Retired Michigan auto worker Stan and his wife Betsey moved to Florida a few years earlier. Betsey isn’t thrilled with the move and wants to be back in Michigan. There’s not exactly war afoot between them, but Betsey doesn’t like Stan under her feet all day, and the two of them lead separate lives. A terrible misunderstanding involving a neighbourhood child leads to Stan spending the night in jail, and here he meets a glib, smooth-talking career criminal, Troy Louden. Troy gives Stan a few tips, and in exchange, Stan promises to do a ‘favour’ for Louden. When Betsey departs for Michigan, Stan, feeling alone and betrayed by his wife and family, allows Troy to stay. One favour leads to another until Stan becomes an accomplice in a vicious armed robbery. Willeford’s brilliantly conceived creation of the psychopath, Troy Louden, adds a layer of dark humour. Troy is vicious, sick, and twisted–a shitshow about to happen. Using a handful of characters, Willeford shows us how Troy successfully dominates his pathetic criminal crew–a painter, a stripper and finally Stan. Troy Louden isn’t educated, and arguably isn’t that intelligent, but he possesses the psychopath’s understanding of how to manipulate:

I’m a professional criminal, what the shrinks call a criminal psychopath. What it means is, I know the difference between right and wrong and all that, but I don’t give a shit. That’s the official version. Most men in prison are psychopaths like me, and there are times when we don’t give a shit when we act impulsively. Ordinarily, I’m not impulsive because I always think a job out very carefully before I get around to doing it.

While the artist and disfigured stripper (wonder how that happened??) recruited by Troy comply with his demands out of fear, Troy seduces Stan into criminal activity:

I’m a criminal psychopath so I’m not responsible for the things I do.

Does that mean you’re crazy? You don’t look crazy, Troy–I mean John.”

Robert.”

“Robert. Of course, pulling that pistol on that man–“

Let me finish, Pop. I don’t have time to into all the ramifications of my personality, it’s too complex. I’ve been tested again and again, and it always comes out the same: Psychopath. And because I’m a criminal, I’m also a criminal psychopath. You follow me?

Yeah I think so, but if you aren’t crazy, what are you?”

It’s what I told you already. I know the difference between good and bad, but it makes no difference to me. If I see the right thing to do and want to do it, I do it. If I see the wrong thing and want to do it, I do that, too.

You mean you can’t help yourself then?”

Certainly I can. I’ll put it another way. I can help myself, but I don’t give a damn.”

And because you don’t give a damn, you’re a criminal psychopath, is that it?”

You’ve got it.

But why?”–Stanley made a sweeping movement with his arm–“don’t you give a damn?”

Because I’m a criminal pyschopath. Maybe when they give you some tests, you might could be one too.

Sideswipe is a marvellous entry in the Hoke Moseley saga. One of my favourite literary (or film) themes is how someone can lead a perfectly respectable life, never taking a step wrong, but then fate intervenes and suddenly that person, that life, is derailed. And it’s at that point, things always get interesting…. So derailment or sideswipe. … Stan’s moral seduction by Troy Louden is a perfect example of how one staid, retired, older man, once pried loose from his respectable life, spirals into an unfamiliar world. We follow Stan’s increasing, initially naïve involvement with Louden and also Hoke’s attempts to live a civilian life away from Miami Homicide. The violence, when it comes, is explosive and shocking. As I read this, there was one point when I asked myself if I found Stan’s actions credible. My initial response was ‘no,’ but Willeford had very carefully seeded a quirk in Stan’s behaviour which gives a glimpse at a pathological aspect of Stan’s personality. On the surface, we have this highly responsible citizen, an older man who has never put one foot wrong in his life, and yet he meets a career criminal and is so seduced by this man’s rhetoric that he abandons his way of life and goes to the dark side. So in the final assessment, yes, I could accept Stan’s choices and bad judgment–given his wife and son’s rejection, and that nasty quirk.

6 Comments

Filed under posts, Willeford, Charles

Possession: Celia Fremlin (1969)

“Sensitive people always make me see red. They just mean that want special privileges, emotionally speaking.”

In Celia Fremlin’s engaging, and frequently witty, mystery novel, Possession, 19-year-old Sarah Erskine has a history of loser boyfriends. Is she one of those forgiving types or does she just have poor judgement? Well the jury is out on that question, but when Sarah announces that she’s marrying her latest, Mervyn, a 31-year-old accountant who lives with his mummy, Sarah’s mother, Clare, the novel’s spiky narrator, has mixed feelings. On one hand, he’s so much older than Sarah. Then there’s that red flag: still living with mummy… but he does have a decent job and seems the reliable type. This is a clever, multi-layered novel which examines parenthood, the difficulties of remaining clear-eyed about one’s children, and the responsibility parents have towards children. At what point should parents ‘let go’ of their children and watch them make their mistakes? What the hell do you do when a precious child decides to marry a weirdo? Possession has a wonderful gossipy quality, and this is firmly established on page one when Clare’s best friend, Peggy, “always ready to enjoy a crisis,” warns that Mervyn’s possessive mother is “ghastly.”

“You’ve spoilt it all for me,” I complained childishly. “Why did you have to tell me? It’s nothing to do with Sarah, either. She doesn’t have to like her mother-in-law, does she? Nobody does! It’s unnatural.”

Clare is determined to accept Mervyn and overlook any ‘difficulties’ in the match, and while she has major misgivings about Meryvn (still sight unseen at this point) she is determined not to let these doubts surface in front of her younger daughter, Janice, friends and neighbours. Not a brilliant idea then when Clare organizes a party, inviting friends neighbours and relatives, to meet Mervyn. But Mervyn doesn’t show as it “meant leaving his mother on her own.” When Sarah finally brings Mervyn home to meet the family, Clare sets eyes on him and feels “dismay.” But she’s determined to put a brave face on it and focuses on the positive–but apart from the premature balding and not being very attractive, it’s Mervyn’s manner with Sarah that is disconcerting. He infantilizes and patronizes Sarah, and she responds with nauseating “faked idiocy.” Their relationship dynamic makes the age gap stand out in neon.

I began to feel uneasy. Was this to be the pattern of their married life: she acting the part of the silly little girl in order to feed his masculine vanity? Having–perhaps deliberately–chosen a woman so much younger than himself, was he now determined to make sure that she was also sillier?

While Clare has reservations about the match, her feelings become much more confused after meeting Mervyn’s mother:

Our eyes met: we weighed each other up, Mrs. Redmayne and I, like two generals on the eve of battle. On my side were young love, common sense, and popular psychology; on hers I could see nothing but the dank and cloying weapon of emotional blackmail. I thought that there could be only one outcome: I imagined, then, that popular psychology was always bound to win. I did not know, then, how strange would be the terrain over which we would be fighting; how I would soon be stumbling, blind and mapless, into a lurid, unimaginable landscape within which she would be dreadfully horribly, at home.

The plot thickens when Clare learns some ugly things about Mervyn’s past.

Clare is first and foremost a parent, and author Celia Fremlin places Clare firmly in the midst of other parents–all of them with problem children. Some parents brag how great their kids are, but in this book, the focus is the opposite. Clare’s friend Liz moans about her kids:

Not that it matters, when one of them never looks in the mirror at all, and the other spends the whole of her ample allowance on making herself look like the cheapest little tart that ever crawled out from under a hair dryer.

There’s talk of arranged marriages as a less-worrisome alternative to free choice, and then dowries enter the discussion with one mother concluding “there’s no one, now, whom you could pay to take your daughter away at eighteen.” One mother, Liz, had 3 brilliant sons, and she used to lord it over the other women in the neighborhood. Oh be careful who you step on on the way up–you’ll pass them on the way back down, and this is true of Liz whose sons all dropped out of school, all moved back home dragging along a caravan of itinerant girlfriends. Liz and her husband have been shoved into a corner of their own home as their unreasonable sons take over; she wistfully says “But when we used to swear we’d never interfere with the boys’ leading their own lives, it never occurred to us that they’d be leading them here!There’s a marvellous mischievous sense of humour here residing in “the Failed Parents’ Association.”

I knew why, of course, I was being welcomed back into the Failed Parents’ Association, in which poor Liz had been languishing for so long. I knew she would be delighted to have me; we are fond of each other, Liz and I, and she longs to tell me about her problems; but how could she while Sarah and Janice were doing so well and causing no trouble? But now, with Sarah newly jilted and Janice a black thundercloud of mysterious teen-age obstructiveness, she could seize her chance and tell me all about Giles, Pete and Tony. The borrowed money, the chucked jobs, the never-ending breakfast time that goes on in her kitchen like a Mad Hatter’s tea party throughout the daylight hours–all this could now be revealed without reserve; it could fairly be swapped for Sarah’s humiliation and Janice’s bad temper. I saw her point. Indeed–and this is the final, unmistakable sign of having joined the club once more– I felt the same myself. I longed for the comfort of her troubles just as she longed for the comfort of mine; within minutes, it was arranged that I should come straight around.

Celia Fremlin’s tremendous talent lies in her ability to take a mundane situation, a daughter bringing home a boyfriend the mother doesn’t like, and infuse it with horror. The very pedestrian nature of the Erskines’ life make the ‘Mervyn situation’ plausible. No doubt most of us have dealt with the boyfriend/girlfriend of various family members and we have to sit there smiling politely when we really just want to throttle them and throw them out the door. Children grow old enough to make their own choices: good or bad. How much should we intervene? And if we don’t intervene, we live with the shared consequences until we decide otherwise.

And yet it has a fascination of its own, this underworld of parenthood. You can confess to fellow members disasters which you would never dream of admitting to the outside world, and after a while you begin almost to feel, like a bizarre kind of elite with your own secrets, you own special rites and customs. You become adept at recognizing potential fellow sufferers in all sorts of places: in the street, at school medical inspections, at meetings of the parent-teacher association. There is a sort of brightness about these doomed people, an unnatural eagerness to talk about your children instead of their own. The apparently innocent questions they put to you vibrate like an electric drill as they probe desperately to find out if you, too, have Backward Reader or a delinquent fifth-former.

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Fremlin Celia

Nightmare Alley: William Lindsay Gresham (1946)

“Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough.”

William Lindsay Gresham’s powerful, bleak, fate-laden, noir novel Nightmare Alley follows the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, a man whose talents take him to the top of his game, but whose character leads him to destruction. When the novel opens, Stanton is a young carny worker. He works as an assistant to the “seeress” Madame Zeena, and while his questions may seem to reveal naivete, in reality Stanton is absorbing his environment, learning the tricks of the trade, grasping the complexities of human nature. At the carnival, there are some talented performers, others that fill a spot, but perhaps the most perplexing ‘act’ is ‘the Geek,’ in a ten-cent “attraction.” The Geek is touted as a man/beast, and to demo this, he crawls around in a pit and bites the heads off of live chickens. Stanley can’t imagine anyone wanting to be a geek, and wonders how the act is created. The owner, who also is ‘the talker’ (announcing the acts to the gullible marks) explains how geeks are ‘made.’

You pick up a guy and he ain’t a geek-he’s a drunk. A bottle-a-day booze fool. You tell him like this: ‘I got a little job for you. It’s a temporary job. We got to get a new geek. So until we do you’ll put on the geek outfit and fake it.‘ You tell him, ‘You don’t have to do nothing. You’ll have a razor blade in your hand and when you pick up the chicken you give it a nick with the blade and then make like you’re drinking the blood. Same with rats. The marks don’t know no different.‘”

Hoately ran his eye up and down the midway, sizing up the crowd. He turned back to Stan. “Well, he does this for a week and you see to it that he gets his bottle regular and a place to sleep it off in. He likes this fine. This is what he thinks is heaven. So after a week you say to him like this, you say, ‘Well, I got to get me a real geek. You’re through.’ He scares up at this because nothing scares a real rummy like the chance of a dry spell and getting the horrors. He says, ‘What’s the matter? Ain’t I doing okay?’ So you say, ‘Like crap you’re doing okay. You can’t draw no crowd faking a geek. Turn in your outfit. You’re through.’ Then you walk away. He comes following you, begging for another chance and you say, ‘Okay. But after tonight out you go.’ But you give him his bottle.

That night you drag out the lecture and lay it on thick. All the while you’re talking he’s thinking about sobering up and getting the crawling shakes. You give him time to think it over, while you’re talking. Then throw in the chicken. He’ll geek.

This early powerful scene is emblematic of the entire plot: degradation is a process in a world in which nothing is what it seems; discover a person’s weakness and you have power over them.

“Human nature is the same everywhere. All have the same troubles. They are worried. Can control anybody by finding out what he’s afraid of. Works with question-answering act. Think out things most people are afraid of and hit them right where they live. Health, Wealth, Love. And Travel and Success. They’re all afraid of ill health, of poverty, of boredom, of failure. Fear is the key to human nature. They’re afraid. …”

Stan looked up past the pages to the garish wallpaper and through it into the world. The geek was made by fear. He was afraid of sobering up and getting the horrors. But what made him a drunk? Fear. Find out what they’re afraid of and sell it back to them. That’s the key. The key!

Madam Zeena, is a good-hearted married woman, who sticks by her drunken sot of a husband, but she’s happy to have young Stanton on the side. The problem is that Stanton, true to his nature, isn’t happy with these occasional trysts. He wants Zeena all the time, and so a maneuver by Stanton leaves Zeena a widow. This is the first awful act that Stanton commits, and while he’s afraid his actions will be discovered, he justifies himself. Yet now that Stanton has Zeena full-time, he casts his eyes on younger prey, and moves on young, malleable Molly, a sort of orphaned carny mascot whose freak show act as Electric Girl involves her, barely dressed, receiving electric shocks.

Stanton’s character, horribly flawed and twisted, is revealed throughout the novel in his subsequent actions and decisions. He steals, he manipulates, he defrauds, and he murders. He’s a terrible person, but yet not wholly unsympathetic. (I counted the decent things he did.) He’s damaged and haunted by his childhood and plagued by nightmares. Life is a Nightmare Alley, we are all pursued by our demons. Ever since he was a kid Stan had a recurring nightmare:

He was running down a dark alley, the buildings vacant and menacing on either side. Far down at the end of it a light burned, but there was something behind him, getting closer until he woke up trembling and never reached the light.

The novel follows Stanton on his path to success. From the carnival’s sideshows, he moves onto mentalism, and then he morphs into the Reverend Carlisle–seeped in spiritualism, he’s ready to conjure up the dead for the grieving wealthy. But Stanton, never satisfied, is restless for more. Stan’s demons both drive him and haunt him throughout the book, yet when he confronts them, he’s so traumatized by the experience, he, in his weakness, seeks out the professional help of succubus Dr. Lilith Ritter.

The 1930s world of Nightmare Alley is a ugly place: as the title implies, it’s a nightmarish place–beginning with the carnival that exploits its employees and its audience, but the real nightmare here is life and human nature. With most of the characters in the book, human flaws gnaw from within. Stanton brings on his own downfall, and it’s inevitable.

The novel, structured in chapters which are represented by Tarot cards, was slow to start. This novel was banned and its sexual frankness and ugly view of the world is shocking for its times. Unforgettable.

“The rest of them drink something else: they drink promises. They drink hope. And I’ve got it to hand them.”

After reading this, I listened to the audiobook version which is marvelously read by Peter Berkrot

Own a copy/review copy

14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Gresham Lindsay William

Barchester Towers: Anthony Trollope

There is no happiness in love except at the end of an English novel.

Time for a revisit to Barchester Towers. I’m glad I re-read this after recently re-reading The Warden. Many of the characters appear in both novels, so reading Barchester Towers reunites us with those in The Warden. But also in reading the two novels close together, I was struck by issues that appear in both books. The plot of The Warden focuses on the humble, meek Reverend Septimus Harding, a man in his 60s, a widower and father of two daughters, who has the wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital. Harding lives in a lovely home on the premises of the hospital and receives 800 pounds to boot. All the trouble starts when local reformer, Dr. Bold, takes issue with the amount of Harding’s wages. So the main dilemma in the novel is what is going to happen to Harding and the wardenship. Another issue is whether Harding’s daughter, Eleanor, will marry Bold or not.

In Barchester Towers, the old Bishop dies and although Archdeacon Grantly, the Bishop’s son, and also Harding’s son-in-law expects to be made the new Bishop, that position falls elsewhere. So there’s a new Bishop in Barchester–namely Bishop Proudie, but… wait… is he indeed the Bishop? The Bishop’s fearsome wife, Mrs. Proudie controls the reins and then there’s Mr. Slope, a chaplain who has ingratiated himself into Mrs. Proudie’s good graces but whose ambition dictates that he will run the diocese. Barchester Towers, then is a novel which explores the struggle for ecclesiastical power in the town. Barchester Towers is incredibly funny. Some of the humour resides in the fact that while religion is the profession of many of the main characters, religion has very little to do with what takes place. Try ambition, pride, class and status. And even add a bit of lust.

The book opens with Archdeacon Grantly at his father’s bedside calculating his “chances” of securing the Bishopric, knowing that much depends, for political reasons, on the timing of his father’s death. The Archdeacon was one of the more unappealing characters (IMO) in The Warden, but in Barchester Towers, he seems rather defanged, or at least his more unpleasant characteristics are swamped by Mr. Slope’s queasy obsequiousness. Archdeacon Grantly is obviously bruised when the Bishopric falls to another, but an initial social visit to the Bishop’s palace turns into a verbal skirmish. The vulgar, bossy, “despotic” Mrs. Proudie, with the insufferable Slope as her henchman, is determined to put the Archdeacon into his place and let him know that while her husband may have the title of ‘Bishop,” it is she who rules the palace.

As for the Bishop, he has learned for the sake of peace and sanity, to submit to his wife’s tyranny: “all hope of defending himself has long passed from him.” Mrs Proudie is not a particularly intelligent woman, but her lack of intelligence is compensated by her fierce bossiness and complete absence of manners. So while the Bishop could outmaneuver her in the brains department, he has learned that independence comes with a price he’s not willing to pay. Mr. Slope appears to be Mrs. Proudie’s creature, but he sees his allegiance to her as a stepping stone. His allegiance is temporary and serves only to gain the position of chaplain. Now in Barchester, Slope intends to wield the power. He intends to liberate the Bishop from the thrall of his wife (and place the Bishop under his thrall), but the Bishop must choose domestic comfort over marital liberation. And Mrs. Proudie plays to win.

Mr. Slope is tall and not ill-made. His feet and hands are large as has ever been the case with all his family, but he has a broad chest and wide shoulders to carry off these excrescences, and on the whole his figure is good. His countenance however is not specially prepossessing. His hair is lank and of a dull, pale reddish hue. It is always formed into three straight lumpy masses, each brushed with admirable precision and cemented with much grease, two of them adhere closely to the side of his face and the other lies at right angles above them. He wears no whiskers and is always punctiliously shaven. His face is nearly the same colour as his hair though perhaps a little redder. It is not unlike beef. Beef, however one would say, of a bad quality. His forehead is captious and high but square and heavy and unpleasantly shining.

The whole question of who has the power, Mrs. Proudie or Mr. Slope, erupts over who will get the wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital. So once again who will run Hiram’s hospital is a central plot dilemma.

Trollope seems to have great fun with this novel, and it’s when I read a book such as this, I realise how fantastic it must be to create this hodge-podge of characters, throw them together and then describe what happens. The lines between the characters (the Slope party, the Grantly party) are sharply drawn, and the battle scene seems set, but then Trollope throws the Stanhope family into the fun. Dr. Vesey Stanhope is the prebendary of Barchester cathedral but he’s been living, with his awful family, in Italy for the last 12 years. Mr. Slope advises the Bishop to recall Stanhope and so the Stanhopes reluctantly arrive in Barchester.

Ahhh.. the Stanhopes. What a perfectly dreadful family; yet they are not completely dreadful; some of them have a sort of malicious, toxic, seductive and destructive charm. They move to Barchester and their exoticism sends its warping tendrils into society. Who will emerge unscathed?

The great family characteristic of the Stanhopes might probably be said to be heartlessness but this want of feeling was, in most of them, accompanied by so great an amount of good nature as to make itself but little noticeable to the world. They were so prone to oblige their neighbors that their neighbours failed to see how indifferent to them was the happiness and wellbeing of those around them. The Stanhopes would visit you in your sickness, provided it were not contagious, would bring you oranges, French novels, and the last new bit of scandal and then hear of your death or your recovery with an equally indifferent composure. Their conduct to each other was the same.

Bon vivant,” Dr. Stanhope’s main concern in his life is his dinner. His well-dressed wife doesn’t appear before three in the afternoon. They have three children: Charlotte, the eldest daughter manages the household. She is the one who appears ‘normal.’ There’s a wastrel “idle” son, Bertie whose lackadaisical pursuit of various careers (poet, art) is secondary to running up huge debts. The younger daughter is Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni, a very beautiful woman, who ran off to marry some ne’er do well, impoverished Italian with “oily manners.” She returned home after having a child and sustaining some sort of crippling accident. In any other woman, such an injury would be a deficit, and yet she manages to turn this injury into a mystery, and the old injury is a powerful weapon in terms of being the centre of attention. She has reinvented her past, and her penniless husband has become the scion of a noble family while her child is “the last of the Neros.”

Madame Neroni, though forced to give all up all motion on the world, had no intention of giving up the world itself. The beauty of her face was uninjured and that beauty was of a peculiar kind. Her copious rich brown hair was worn in Grecian bandeau around her head, displaying as much as possible of her forehead and cheeks. Her forehead, though rather low, was very beautiful from its perfect contour and pearly whiteness. Her eyes were long and large and marvelously bright. Might I venture to say bright as Lucifer’s. I should perhaps express the depth of their brilliancy. They were dreadful eyes to look at such as would deter any man of quiet mind and easy spirit from attempting a passage of arms from such foes. There was talent in them and the fire of passion and the play of wit but there was no love. Cruelty was there instead and courage. A desire of masterhood, cunning and a wish for mischief and yet as eyes they were very beautiful.

Madeline Neroni, now she’s shackled by marriage, and hampered by physical limitations, is left with one hobby: to enchant, seduce and torture her many male admirers. Mr. Slope, whose dominant characteristic is ambition, makes himself a complete idiot for Madeline, and she, like a spider, draws him in, leads him to make overtures and then, when the opportunity is ripe, twists the knife into Slope, delivering the coup de grace But, hell, he deserves it. But since this is Trollope, even the villains have some degree of humanity. While Madeline Neroni, that latter-day Cleopatra, and the nasty Slope steal the show here, I cannot forget the Thornes, siblings violently set in their ways or the desperate Quiverfuls, a large needy family whose poverty is in contrast to the Stanhopes.

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts, Trollope, Anthony

Meet Me at the Morgue: Ross Macdonald (1953)

“The things a man does are always connected in some way.”

In Ross Macdonald’s crime novel, Meet Me at the Morgue, parole officer Howard Cross runs into Fred Miner, a parolee. It’s an insignificant meeting and yet those few moments have serious ramifications. Miner is looking for Cross’s partner, but he’s gone from the office. Since Miner’s business isn’t with Cross, they exchange only a few words, but during that minute or so, Cross notices that Miner is accompanied by his employer’s small son, Jamie. Within hours, it appears that Miner has kidnapped the boy and is demanding a $50,000 ransom. It seems odd that Miner, in the midst of a kidnapping, would take a detour to visit his parole officer–especially in the company of the kidnapped boy.

In Meet Me at the Morgue, Cross assumes a PI role as he investigates the kidnapping. The kidnapped boy is the son of the very wealthy Abel Johnson, and his attractive oh-so-much-younger wife. The plot thickens when it turns out that Miner, a man of otherwise impeccable background, is on parole for vehicular manslaughter, but Miner doesn’t remember a thing about the accident as he was drunk at the time. Another curious fact, the dead man had no ID, and no one stepped forward to claim the body. Add yet another curious fact, Miner’s lawyer, Siefel is also the lawyer for the Johnson family. And apparently Cross’s assistant Ann is dating, Seifel, Johnson’s lawyer… well she’s trying to date him. But mummy gets getting in the way:

Her eyes were on her son like wet, black leeches. “It’s mean and selfish of you to keep me waiting like this. I didn’t devote my life to you in order to be cast aside whenever you feel the whim.”

“I’m sorry mother.”

“Indeed you should be sorry, you forced me to take a public bus down here.”

You could have taken a taxi.”

I can’t afford to pay taxi fare every day. You never think of my sacrifices, of course, but it has cost me an enormous amount of money to set you up in practice with Mr. Sturdyvant.”

“I realise that.” He looked at me miserably. His body seemed to have shrunk and taken on an adolescent awkwardness. “Can we drop the subject for now mother? I’m ready to drive you anywhere you’d like.”

She said with icy boredom, “finish your business, Lawrence. I’m in no hurry. In fact I’ve lost any interest I had in the party. I believe I feel a headache coming on.”

Please mother, don’t be like that.” He fumbled awkwardly reaching for her hand she turned away from him in a movement of disdainful coquetry and walked to the window on high sharp heels. I stepped into the elevator. The last I saw of his face it looked bruised and shapeless as if her Cuban heels had been hammering it.

The Johnsons decide to obey the kidnappers’ demands: not tell the police and hand over the money. The situation presents Cross with a moral dilemma. He knows that he should inform the police but he also feels obligated to respect the Johnsons’ wishes, but when a dead man is found with an ice pick sticking out of his neck, Cross brings in the police.

What’s that old saying, ‘all roads lead to Rome.’ The deeper Cross digs, things just don’t add up, and yet the same names keep connecting in bizarre ways. This fate-laden tale is a hellish journey for Cross, and the investigation is peppered with strong characterizations: unhappy wives, a controlling mother, a disappointed father, and an underage girl who has a great figure but not much in the brains department. Ross Macdonald’s (Kenneth Millar) intense descriptive powers add to this excellent tale, and as Cross continues his labyrinthine investigation, the human landscape yields glimpses of various versions of private hell–the private hell of poisonous relationships.

The car ground to a stop on the cinder shoulder, the shallow ditch was paved with empty cans. A Sulphur stench fouled the the air. On the rim of the plain against the cloudy reflection of the city, the oil derricks stood like watchtowers around a prison camp where nothing lived. I’d come to the wrong place at the wrong time and done the wrong thing.

4 Comments

Filed under Macdonald Ross, posts

Memento Mori: Muriel Spark (1959)

How nerve-wracking it is to be getting old, how much better to be old!”

At the heart of Muriel Spark’s wickedly funny novel, Memento Mori, lies a chain of anonymous phone calls in which the speaker says “Remember, you must die.” These anonymous calls set off a series of events as various characters react to the calls with anger, terror and, in some cases, interest. While most of the characters in the novel are connected, the telephone calls bring other characters together, but perhaps the least predictable fallout from the phone calls is the way in which the past comes calling in various ways. So here’s a breakdown of the characters:

Dame Lettie Colston. Unmarried, one of those social do-gooders. Busy bossy everyone about and arranging their lives.

Godfrey Colston, heir to a brewing company. Perennially unfaithful to his wife. “Obsessed by the question of old people and their faculties.”

Charmain Colston, novelist. Dotty. But not as dotty as she appears.

Charmain’s former employee Jean Taylor who lives in a nursing home. She’s mostly glad that she lives there and isn’t subject to the wild emotional challenges of life outside of the home.

Lisa Brooke, deceased, a woman whose death unleashes other plot developments.

Guy Leet, charming, even now in old age and ill health. Charmain’s former lover.

Mrs. Pettigrew. Lisa Brooke’s conniving housekeeper

Alec Warner. A emotional vampire whose obsessive, morbid interest in the health and health reactions to exciting or traumatic news reflects his own fear of morality.

Various residents of the Maud Long Medical Ward

Inspector Mortimer, retired, who investigates the phone calls.

Other minor characters

While chapter one kicks off with an anonymous call, the plot thickens when Dame Lettie, a dreadful bossy woman, persuades her brother, Godfrey to employ Mrs. Pettigrew to ‘take care of’ Charmian. Mrs. Pettigrew was supposed to inherit her employer, Lisa Brooke’s estate, but since that doesn’t work out as planned, Mrs. Pettigrew must move on to pastures new. Dame Lettie, a woman who lacks a particle of empathy, argues that Charmian “needs a bully,” and her desire to see Charmain in thrall to Mrs. Pettigrew is not without malice:

Mrs. Pettigrew has a constitution like a horse,” said Dame Lettie, casting a horse-dealer’s glance over Mrs. Pettigrew’s upright form. “And it is impossible to get younger women.”

“Has she got all her faculties?

“Of course. She had poor Lisa right under her thumb.”

“I hardly think Charmain would want to —

“Charmain needs to be bullied. What Charmain needs is a firm hand. She will simply go to pieces if you don’t keep at her. Charmain needs a firm hand. It’s the only way.

At the core of the novel, lies mortality. An unfaithful husband find innovative ways of straying, nasty people become nastier, and dottiness is a refuge from the more unpleasant things in life. Charmain, who ponders the limits of marital obligation, Jean, who proves immensely powerful, even from a care home, and Guy, who remains pleasant company in spite of ill health, bad luck and old age, are the nicest characters in the book. Mrs. Pettigrew with her very practiced way of infantilizing the elderly is the nastiest person in the book with Dame Lettie as the runner-up. Mrs. Pettigrew insinuates herself into the good graces of those with power, and coopts others, who don’t want to be seen as dotty, into her crew. What a horrible woman.

Memento Mori: Latin translation: Remember you must/have to die. (I had to look it up.) So it’s no surprise that the themes of death and dying appear here, and while that may seem morbid, how one choses to approach life, how one accepts aging, and how one choses to live life are also themes. Charmain has chosen to approach life in a very particular way–as has Guy Leet, in spite of ill health. At the same time, there’s 87-year-old Godfrey choosing to pursue women–even if these days it means paying for the privilege (in more ways than one) of salivating over the view of a suspender belt. Somehow Muriel Spark’s mordant, black comedy brings the idea of the best way to live one’s life, and how to waste it, in sharp relief.

“Would you like me to read you the obituaries, dear?” Godfrey said, turning the pages to find the place in defiance of his sister.

“Well I would like the war news,” Charmain said.

“The war has been over since nineteen forty-five,” Dame Lettie said. “If indeed it is the last war you are referring to. Perhaps, however, you mean the First World War? The Crimean, perhaps …?”

There are lessons here about death and dying, but there are also lessons for life. The novel argues that people don’t change. Youthful bores become old bores. Pleasant, kind young people become pleasant kind, old people. We don’t change. We distill.

A delightful, darkly comic read.

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts, Spark, Muriel

New Hope For the Dead: Charles Willeford (1985)

Charles Willeford’s New Hope For the Dead, the second Hoke Moseley novel, finds the Miami homicide detective called to a suburban home with a dead body inside. The body is, was, Jerry, a young junkie whose tracks on his scrotum supports the presenting evidence that he died of an overdose. But there’s something about the case that doesn’t quite add up for Hoke. Sanchez, Hoke’s Cuban partner likes Jerry’s stepmother, Lorrie Hickey, as a possible murder suspect, but Hoke, who picks up on Lorrie’s sexually ravenous nature, in spite of her grief stricken state, doesn’t think she’s guilty. After all Lorrie is a businesswoman, the owner of a florist shop, but Jerry’s father is a lawyer whose business focuses on drug dealers.

Miami Blues is an introduction to Hoke’s spartan lifestyle. As he has to hand over half his paycheck to the X, he subsists on the remainder. He lives in a 3rd rate motel exchanging rent for ‘private security’ services, services which includes arranging for the dead bodies of the mostly elderly tenants to leave during the night. Also in Miami Blues, Hoke’s long-term homicide partner, Bill Henderson moved on, and Hoke now works with Sanchez. He doesn’t ‘get’ Sanchez at all. She’s smart, has a great figure, but has no sex appeal for Hoke.

A lot of the novel’s humour comes from Hoke who’s slowly moving out of the Dark Ages and waking up to the fact that he can’t send his female partner for coffee all the time. Hoke, (in his 40s?) comes from a different time, and that is underscored by the novel’s focus on Miami gentrification and the shifting dynamic of the Miami population. Hoke seems very much a man of the 60s. In this novel, Sanchez has a personal crisis which she keeps to herself, but Hoke notices her “quiescent moodiness” which he initially chalks up to Sanchez’s period.

Having a female partner in the car wasn’t the same. Maybe he should let Sanchez drive the car once in a while but that didn’t seem right either. The man always drove not the woman, although when he and Bill had been together, Bill had driven most of the time because he was a better driver than Hoke and they both knew it.

As in any series novel, we have the crime at hand (what appears to be an overdose of a junkie) and also the main character’s personal life. In Miami Blues, Hoke was given warning that he had to move into his precinct and that means moving out of the motel, but given his lack of funds, finding a place to live is proving to be a challenge. At one point, he tries to get a house-sitting gig, and the first place he looks at comes with an amorous Airedale. In this second book in the series, Hoke, a divorced man, with no regular girlfriend (the woman he left his wife for tossed him out), a father who never sees his kids, ends up living with three females. You have to read the book to find out how that happens. Also in this book, Hoke and Sanchez are given a special assignment to solve cold cases at record speed in order for the boss, Major Brownley, to have a shot at a promotion.

Hoke is a dogged homicide detective. He’s not corrupt. Exactly. But he waves that badge a lot. In this book, he pulls a trick that is unethical and even Hoke questions himself about his actions. Somehow I think his actions will come back to haunt him. While a lot of the humour comes from Hoke’s archaic attitude (and the author is aware it’s archaic), some of the humour comes from Hoke’s version of being a father; that includes a rapid sex ed. conversation and his plans that his daughters get jobs:

“First, though, what did your mother tell you about sex?”

“She already told us everything, Daddy,” Sue Ellen said looking at her fingernails.

“She tell you about the clap, syphilis, AIDS, herpes, shit chancres?”

Also, black humour simmers in the off-the-wall reactions of the characters. These are characters who have seen it all, and nothing seems to have shock value. A great example of this is the real estate agent who isn’t so much worried about the Airedale’s sexual needs, as how long it takes.

Hoke is a unique creation. He’s definitely a man of his times and he’s a good, although unorthodox detective. Standard morality is a not a suit Hoke wears. In fact he can’t give up those leisure suits!

Here’s Hoke, called into his boss’s office for a meeting.

“Hoke, you must be the last man in Miami wearing a leusire suit. Where’d you find it anyway?”

There’s a close-out in the fashion district. I got this blue poplin and a yellow one just like it for only 50 bucks on 2-for-1 sale. I like the extra pockets, with a leisure suit you don’t have to wear a tie.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, posts, Willeford, Charles

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray: Dominique Barbéris

On Sunday–don’t you think?–certain things come back to you more than on other days.”

Dominique Barbéris’s slim, disturbing novel A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray explores the fragility of domestic contentment, the lurking dangers of extramarital romance, and just how little we know those closest to us.

The story is narrated by a young married woman, a high school teacher, who drives from Paris to the sleepy suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her elder sister, Marie-Claire. The narrator suspects that her husband, Luc, may be having an affair, and while he claims to be attending a seminar, it seems possible he’s meeting the ‘other woman.’ So the narrator is mulling over these worries on the way to see Marie-Claire, and this all-too-rare visit is an acknowledgement of Luc’s dislike for his wife’s family. He describes Marie-Claire as “boring,” and he also dislikes Ville-d’Avray, a place he finds “depressing.” Ville-d’Avray is a place, but it’s also, as we see as the book continues, a state of mind.

I’m sure that Ville-d’Avray, with its peaceful, secluded streets, its houses set back in their gardens given over to the passage of the seasons as if defenseless against time, has further increased the gap between her and reality. She has formed all sorts of outdated habits

Marie-Claire is married to Christian, a doctor, they have one child together, and share a beautiful home. The two sisters visit, and as the hours pass, the narrator recalls moments from her childhood and the way in which both girls became caught up in the romance of Jane Eyre and the mysterious Mr. Rochester. Whereas the narrator’s focus moved on to other male figures, Marie-Claire “stayed under the spell of that literary love affair for a long time.” During the visit, Marie-Claire confides that she had an “encounter” with the mysterious Marc Hermann, a patient she met at her husband’s practice. Then about a month later, Marc, ‘coincidentally’ happens to drive by Marie-Claire and offers to give her a lift home. The story is a little odd, and perhaps even odder since Marie-Claire asks her sister “what would you have done in my place?” A sure sign that Marie-Claire isn’t telling the whole story and yet wants approval for her decision to get into Marc’s car. The lift home turns into a drive to a cafe, wine, conversation, and a leisurely evening stroll. Marc claims to be a Hungarian businessman in the Import-Export trade. He gives Marie-Claire a business card and asks her to call him. It’s all very vague. A little while later, Marie-Claire thinks she may be being followed. Of course, eventually Marie-Claire calls Marc, and a relationship begins. ….

While the narrator is stunned to hear her sister’s story, and what’s more that it happened some years ago, she begins to slot pieces into the puzzle. She recalls how Marie-Claire once asked “Are there times when you dream of something else?” And while the question is dismissed at the time, the narrator admits that it needles her and awakens vague feelings of discontent.

Her question had stirred up something buried in a secret corner of my mind (or my heart), the old, vague passionate dream, the never-forgotten images of an overblown, schmaltzy romanticism: the pasteboard reproduction of the manor houses, the flames of the fire, the drama, the banks of artificial fog, and looming up from them, “Orson Welles,” the dashing cavalier, the ideal man, the tormented “master!”

This impressive lean story explores the reality of domestic boredom and the dangerous temptation that illuminates one’s discontent. Ville-d’Avray is a real place, a safe suburb, a place many of us would appreciate living in, but here it represents the choices that Marie-Claire has made. The plot is infused with regret which is amplified by quiet, dream-like Sunday afternoons. What is it about Sundays?

On Sundays, you think about life.

Translated by John Cullen.

Review copy.

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts

If This Was Happiness: Barbara Leaming

“Men go to bed with Gilda but wake up with me.”

Rita Hayworth’s life is a study in contrasts: she was an incredible beauty, a phenomenal dancer, and a glittering screen presence. As the Sex Goddess, she was the chosen pin-up for American servicemen. Married and divorced 5 times, at her peak she was a highly paid actress, and yet there were periods during her life when she had no money for food. One husband threatened to throw acid in her face, another walloped her in public. Men chased her, wooed her, wed her and promptly cheated on her. How could someone so beautiful so lithe, so exquisite, be so mistreated by the men who wanted to possess her?

Barbara Leaming’s biography of Rita Hayworth, If This Was Happiness begins with background information about Rita’s father and aunt, Eduardo and Elisa Caniso. They came from a family of Spanish dancers, and arrived in America in 1913. “Although silent films were already beginning to encroach on its appeal, vaudeville clearly dominated American entertainment, and the Cansinos ” were a celebrated and highly paid vaudeville dance team.” By 1915, they earned 1500 a week. Eduardo and Elisa and his sister had a tight relationship which was not infiltrated or diminished by Eduardo’s marriage to 19-year-old dancer, Volga Hayworth.

As I read about Eduardo and Elisa, I heard these alarms bells in my head and wondered exactly what the relationship was between brother and sister. I decided I must have a dirty mind, but then later as I read how Eduardo molested Rita, I wondered again just how far back that behaviour went.

Eduardo and Volga’s first child was Margarita (later Rita), and they also had 2 sons. Eduardo tried to break in Hollywood, but his strong accent hampered his success. The family lost all their savings due to “bad investments” during the depression, and by the age of 12, Rita became her father’s dancing partner. She never graduated from high school and only completed the 9th grade. By age 13, with her parents lying about her age, she was travelling down to Tijuana, the sexual relationship between Rita and her father (she was not allowed to call him ‘father,’ in public) was established, but her “sexually provocative” performances on stage did not mirror the reality of the “shy, withdrawn” child. This dichotomy defined Rita for the rest of her life.

There began a curious phenomenon that would be observed repeatedly throughout her career: While silently and obediently taking orders, doing exactly as she was told, Rita would seem somehow to blank out, to withdraw deeply into herself.

It was quickly understood that Rita was the family’s money maker. At 16, she landed a contract with Fox, and headed for stardom, she was courted by 39-year-old Eddie Judson, a man who claimed to be Hollywood savvy and who made “the rounds of fashionable nightspots.” Rita and Eddie eloped and when Rita married Judson, she traded one domineering man, her father, for another. It was Judson who took control of Rita’s metamorphosis; he arranged painful electrolysis treatments to alter her hairline and her hair was dyed auburn. One person quoted notes that Judson tried “to push her to have affairs with people” (including Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, who was so obsessed with Rita he had her spied on) to further her career. Orson Welles didn’t shy away from calling Judson “a pimp. Literally a pimp.” The marriage didn’t last long, but Judson flagrantly cheated on Rita and left her penniless. To quote Rita: “I married him for love, but he married me for an investment.”

There was an affair with Victor Mature, but then Orson Welles entered the picture after seeing a photo of Rita and seeking her out. In some ways, it seems as though Rita’s marriage to Orson was the high point of her life, perhaps both of their lives, but then Orson was cheating. Divorce number 2. Rita’s third marriage was to Prince Aly Khan, another man who lavishly courted Rita–a woman whose value always sunk the minute that ring was on her finger. Prince Aly Khan’s playboy lifestyle did not end with his marriage so there was divorce number 3. Orson Welles noted that:

After Aly, Rita was on a downward path, a steep toboggan ride.

Rita returned to America to revive her film career and she was quickly wooed by Dick Haymes, a singer with a long string of debts and a fading career. It’s hard to say which marriage was the worst but if I had to pick, I would say this was it. The marriage brought public humiliation when Dick Haymes, who should have known he owed Rita a great deal, walloped her across the face in a nightclub. Rita had already damaged her career by her European marriage to Aly Khan, but public scandal, contract issues, along with child neglect charges landed on her head when she took Dick’s advice continually. Whoever named this man did so aptly.

Rita’s last marriage to film producer James Hill seemed a repeat of all the mistakes of the past. By the time she was in her 50s it was evident that there was something wrong with Rita and alcohol was blamed before the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was finally reached.

The book is a sad read. IMO the author was too kind to Orson Welles, “We’re such a cruel race of people,” groaned Welles, with reference to those who told Rita about” his extra marital affairs. (An interesting way of objectifying one’s own behaviour.) I would have liked to have known whether or not Rita had any female friends. There are a couple of names mentioned but its not clear whether these were deep friendships or just light social acquaintances.

Men flocked to Rita like bees to honey but then treated her like shit. This is a woman, damaged in childhood, who outwardly had the world on a plate, but whose relationships were all destructive in one way or another:

“I think if you take ego and vanity out of sex,” Welles would explain, “you would find that the actual amount of sexual activity would be reduced drastically. I’m thinking of men in, particular more than women. A man is to a great extent operating on other juices than the sexual ones when he’s chasing around.”

Here she is driving Glenn Ford crazy

Gilda clip

4 Comments

Filed under Leaming Barbara, Non Fiction, posts