Tag Archives: 20th century literature

Madame Solario

“I don’t know what your studies have been, but you may know that geologists speak of faults when they mean weaknesses in the crust of the earth that cause earthquakes and subsidences.”

Having pulled on his gloves he was energetically buttoning them.

“And I will tell you something out of my own experience. There are people like ‘faults’, who are a weakness in the fabric of society; there is disturbance and disaster wherever they are.”

Madame Solario was originally published in 1956 as an anonymous novel, but Gladys Parrish (Gladys Theodora Parrish Huntingdon) was the author of this mysterious and somewhat scandalous novel: try suicide, adultery, and pathological familial relationships simmering underneath the impenetrable membrane of elegant manners, yes it’s all here in a novel that reminds me a bit of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Madame Solario, while not quite as well-crafted as Wharton or James (at his best), is ultimately a disturbing read, and somehow its structural problems manage to add to the novel’s atmosphere of malignant mystery.  This is not a perfect novel (more of that later), but it is a novel that haunts and disturbs in spite of, or perhaps even because of,  its flaws.

Madame Solario is set in 1906 and most of the drama takes place at a Lake Como resort. The novel begins–almost reassuringly–with the introduction of Bernard Middleton, a young Englishman.  He’s finished university with the anticipation of a career in the Foreign Office. That exotic future has been replaced–by Bernard’s parents–with the news that he is to have a banking career instead. It’s all been arranged very quietly and efficiently between Bernard’s parents and his bank-owning uncle. Bernard is to spend the summer at Cadenabbia as “compensation.”

So it’s a gloomy Bernard who arrives at the Lake Como resort. He was supposed to be joined there by a friend, but the friend is ill and consequently delayed. Bernard is surrounded by the beauty of Cadenabbia, but he’s alone, lonely and very much an outsider. Colonel Ross, an older English man who is the social barometer of the guests at the resort takes  Bernard under his wing. Colonel Ross warms considerably to Bernard after discovering:

he had been at Eton with Bernard’s father and that Lady Louisa Middleton was Bernard’s grandmother, which was interesting, as she was a connexion of Mrs Ross’s. And so the society of Cadenabbia was opened to Bernard.”  

Bernard quickly strikes up a number of relationships with the other young guests. He’s particularly attracted to a Hungarian girl called Ilona. Sensitive and intelligent, she stands out from the pack, but Bernard (rather like a Jamesian character) is above all an observer, and he notices something about Ilona that escapes the attention of all the other guests at the resort.

Shortly, the very beautiful, graceful and mysterious Madame Solario arrives. Her current marital status is vague, and Bernard learns that Madame Solario has a somewhat difficult, scandalous past. The gossip is that Madame Solario’s stepfather fell in love with her, her brother fought a duel with him as a result, and then she was hurriedly married off in a marriage of convenience. But where is her husband now? And what precisely is her relationship to several other male guests, the brooding Russian Kovanski, & the wealthy, married Italians Ercolani and San Rufino? Bernard watches all sorts of peculiar behaviour take place under the polite veneer of the cosmopolitan society manners. While none of the characters at the resort overtly or openly misbehave, there are dangerous undercurrents just beneath the surface, and young naive Bernard tries to understand it all. In time he becomes a confidant, or at least a preferred companion of sorts to the elusive Madame Solario. This only directs the ire of the unpredictable Kovanski towards Bernard. And then Madame Solario’s brother appears….

The novel can be divided into three distinct sections: 1) the resort prior to the arrival of Madame Solario’s brother, Eugene Harden, 2) the resort after Eugene’s  arrival, and finally 3) departure from the resort. For the first section, Bernard is a central character and the eyes and the ears of the reader, so our attitudes are shaped through Bernard’s perceptions and impressions. Bizarrely and abruptly this all changes when Eugene appears on the scene, and Bernard, who’s been Madame Solario’s almost constant companion practically disappears from the tale. Bernard, however, appears for the novel’s third and final section. The author picks up Bernard from where she last dropped him and then once again he has a crucial role to play. This abandonment of a central character is jarring, and yet it works in a strange way. Through Bernard’s eyes, we see Madame Solario as entrancing, mysterious, beautiful and somehow imbued with tragedy. For the next section of the novel, Bernard disappears into the backdrop of the resort’s social life and Madame Solario’s relationship with her brother takes over. It’s through this relationship that we see her character at her truest, and through Bernard’s absence, his romanticized, chivalrous impressions of Madame Solario vaporise. 

As the guests arrive and depart, they are sometimes drawn together for social moments, and one intriguing element of the novel is its focus on culture and class. At the resort the English stick together in the safety of their cultural cocoon, and the Italians cluster languidly even while all the various nationalities feel slightly ill-at-ease with the rowdy freedoms of the American girls who tirelessly organize various outings and activities. Kovanski is the sole Russian, but then some of his acquaintances arrive and a bizarre evening takes place of drunken, boisterous behaviour. The guests are both alarmed and appalled with the unspoken threat that the Russians’ behaviour may spill forth from Kovanski’s room and flood the resort and its elegant guests. 

Colonel Ross is also an observer, and while he tends to give Madame Solario the social benefit of the doubt, he’s not that keen on the non-English crowd:

“One had better be careful with foreigners, We don’t quite understand them-they don’t play to the same rules, you know”

Colonel Ross’s delicate, nimble social categorizations no longer seem to fit the world. He experiences some difficulty placing Madame Solario and her brother within his narrowly defined social view:

Colonel Ross’s expression was naively puzzled because he was trying to put Eugene Harden into a class. Though without a foreign accent, Harden didn’t seem quite like an Englishman. He was not, according to Colonel Ross’s conceptions, either the right or the wrong kind of Englishman. Not quite English, yet too English to be foreign–one couldn’t tell, in short, where he belonged.

 But Colonel Ross isn’t the only person who worries about just where to place the guests on his invisible scale of social acceptability. At one point, Madame Solario privately sneers at Bernard’s future profession, but her brother corrects his sister’s erroneous social impression:

“Really Nelly!” he said, making his exasperation comic. “Do you know nothing? Haven’t you seen your Colonel Ross being paternal to him? Would that yachting-cap be paternal to a bank clerk? I wonder how you get on, my poor sister, if you have learned so little?”

Madame Solario is not an action-packed novel and even the drama distills down to a glance or a matter of seat snatched from a rival, but the novel’s languid qualities add to its slow, suffocating and poisonous atmosphere.

The social life of the hotel was a forcing-house for situations; the opportunities to see, meet, success, fail, and recover never stopped from morning till night. Every shade of behaviour in public had significance, so that the choice of a seat could constitute a victory or a reverse, and a few words aside change the complexion of half the day.

Finally there’s Madame Solario: an elegant woman who is drifting through Europe with some unspecified purpose in mind. Bernard at first wants to believe the best of this strange woman, but ultimately she’s an exotic creature far beyond his realm of experience:

Her laughter, as it became uncontrollable, was noiseless–and secret, for she did not share it with others; she tried to conceal it. Bending her head and biting her lips, she hid, as it were, and silently laughed. This mirth of hers, the unexpectedness of it and its peculiar air of secrecy, so fascinated him that he couldn’t take his eyes off her. Ercolani, too, was amazed. He drew his chair forward till the tip of the black osprey [on her hat] brushed against his cheek.

There’s the sense that this is a fragile world rapidly fading from view. This is partly the age–1906, and by the time WWI begins, Bernard will be chained to a desk in some airless bank. This is Bernard’s last summer before he begins a career he does not want, and this is a summer he will never forget. I’m not much for descriptions of landscapes, but here the descriptions are not overly long, and they are well-done. Here’s a scene between Bernard and Madame Solario as they take a rowboat on Lake Como; the beauty of the lake pales next to Bernard’s fascination with his companion:

The boat rocked gently, as he stopped rowing. With the sun beginning to set, strong shafts of light were slanting through a gap in the mountains and striking like swords across the foothills and the bay. It was tremendous. But she was looking up at the villa, and he observed her. Her face was somehow baffling in its beauty, but that might have been because its shape and the unbroken line of nose and brow–that classic sweep of the brows from the straight nose–and the large orbits of her eyes belonged to a conception of beauty itself.

I found Madame Solario while reading Laurence Cossé’s book The Novel Bookshop. Madame Solario  was one of the books selected by Cossé’s fictional characters as one-of-the-best-books-ever.  The bad news is that Madame Solario is out-of-print. The good news is that there are plenty of cheap copies available online.

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The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower

The Watch Tower, from Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower is set in the years surrounding WWII. The story begins when sisters Laura and Clare are withdrawn from private boarding school by their self-focused mother, a British woman who’s never really adjusted to life in Australia. Stella Vaizey’s lack of adjustment probably isn’t made easier by the fact that she feels a bit let down by her husband. Dr. Vaizey died unexpectedly, and his death which seems the final proof  that he was “unreliable” has left his widow and two daughters in financial hardship. Both Laura and Clare must give up their ambitions for university, and after their large home is sold, they move to Manly, a suburb of Sydney. Here’s Stella Vaizey:

“I want you and Clare to take over from tomorrow morning, Miss Muffet.” Stella Vaizey lay back in bed and extended one small, beringed and manicured hand in a final relinquishing gesture. Propped against two pillows, smoking an Abdulla cigarette, she looked tolerantly at Clare, who sat on the dressing-table stool, leaning on her knees, plaits hanging, one navy-blue ribbon untied; and at Laura, who stood, back to the windows, assessing the strange bedroom and its furnishings with quick little glances. Laura hated that ‘Miss Muffet.’ It wasn’t well intended.

“You’re fixed up at your business college; Clare’s enrolled at her school, and they’re both within walking distance. You know where the shops are, and the beach is at the bottom of the hill, so you’ve got nothing to complain about, have you?”

She was crossing them off her list!

“And now that everything’s settled, I’m going to expect you both to take some responsibility. I’m very tired. I’ve had a busy, upsetting time with that oaf of a solicitor bungling everything and selling the house. It’s been a great-” her eyes filled with tears. She sneezed, and sneezed again, and groaned luxuriously as if to say, ‘There! You can see for yourselves how ill-treated I’ve been.’

Laura finishes business school and then gets a job at a company owned by industrious bachelor Felix Shaw. With WWII gathering momentum, Stella Vaizey longs to return to her old crowd in England, and it seems nothing less than fortuitous when Felix proposes to Laura. He even buys a large, impressive house and agrees to take in Clare too. This is the liberation Stella has been waiting for, and gently, subtly, Laura is eased into marriage.

But Felix Shaw isn’t quite what he seems, and as his business interests fluctuate, both Laura and Clare pay the penalties for his erratic decisions. Gradually Felix’s dark side emerges….

The Felix Shaws of this world have an innate ability to identify and capture the vulnerable women who have the misfortune to enter their sphere of acquaintance. At first The Watch Tower seems to be Laura’s story, but as the plot develops, the story is Clare’s. Clare has the choice of remaining with Laura as a powerless witness of a hellish marriage or she can break free and abandon her sister.

The Watch Tower does an excellent job of creating its three main characters and gradually building the details of the domestic tyranny endured by Laura and Clare. Domestic abusers and marital tyrants are skilled at creating false worlds and then imprisoning their victims within those invisible walls. So true to form, Felix remains well-respected by others while at home he’s a monster. There are hints of Felix’s repressed homosexuality, and certainly he values his relationships with other males while his relationship with Laura and Clare is infused with hatred and loathing. Often Felix appears to bait Laura and Clare:

“Months ago they had learned that there was no defence but silence, and that was no defence. He did so enjoy cajoling them into speech, but he had been known to be provoked to the very edge of violence by the sound of an answering voice. Not that he minded being brought to the edge of violence.”

 All these details are well-developed and believable, and Felix’s gradual transformation occurs as he isolates the sisters first from the world and then from each other.

On a personal level, I find it difficult to read novels in which characters are acted upon–endlessly. I wanted someone to do something in this novel, so I became frustrated with the female characters as they continued to soak up Felix’s behaviour and escaling violence. That criticism voiced, I realise that that is the whole point of the story. These women take it because a) they have few other choices and b) it becomes ‘normal.’

In spite of the novel’s painful subject matter–the destruction of one human being by another, the plot does not wallow in emotion, and much of the drama remains delicately understated. There’s not a great deal of introspection here as people carry on and pretend everything is perfectly normal even when it’s quite clear that it’s not.  For its exploration of the relationship between sisters, the sacrifices of 1940s women who are forced by circumstance to drop dreams of education for the terrors of becoming one man’s cooks, cleaners, and general factotums, then this could be a classic feminist text along with titles such as Mrs. Caliban (Rachel Ingalls) and Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson).

The brief bio notes at the front of the book state that Harrower was born in 1928 in Sydney, lived in London in the 50s, and then returned to Australia. The Watch Tower was published in 1966. It’s a somewhat unfortunate title as a search yields a lot of religious material.

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The Man Who was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

Beware the agent provocateur….

The Man Who was Thursday sat on my shelf for years, and then I recently read about the doings of the Hairies and the infiltration of an anti-fascist organisation by an undercover policeman who subsequently lost his moral bearings. Well it all reminded me of G.K. Chesterton’s novel. So I pulled my copy from the shelf deciding that it was high time I read it.

For those who have not yet heard of the Hairies, this is a term given to the  Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) members of Special Branch who go undercover as operatives. Known as Hairies because they no longer meet police regulations about their hair, these operatives assume different identities and lives for years, and then they report back on the inner workings on the group or groups they are spying on.

But I digress…back to G.K. Chesterton. The Man Who Was Thursday begins on a London evening with a red-haired poet called Lucian Gregory delivering a lecture on anarchism. He’s challenged by another poet named Gabriel Syme. A battle of words commences and results in Gregory declaring that he will show Syme just how serious his beliefs are. Swearing the rival poet to secrecy, Gregory takes Syme into a cleverly hidden underground passage and from there to a meeting of the Central Anarchist Council. The council is composed of seven men–each one named after a day of the week. But the death of one of the council members has led to a vacancy, and Gregory fully expects to be the next Thursday. His speech, all prepared for the occasion, starts off well:

“Comrades,” began Gregory, in a low but penetrating voice, “it is not necessary for me to tell you what is my policy, for it is your policy also. Our belief has been slandered, it has been disfigured, it has been utterly confused and concealed, but it has never been altered. Those who talk about anarchism and its dangers go everywhere and nowhere to get their information, except to us, except to the fountain head. They learn about anarchists from sixpenny novels; they learn about anarchists from tradesmen’s newspapers; they learn about anarchists from Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday and the Sporting Times. They never learn about anarchists from anarchists.”

And that’s a very sensible observation. Unfortunately, Gregory’s speech goes downhill from there and rapidly devolves into bizarre comparisons between anarchists and catholics. This sort of talk is hardly going to endear Gregory to a No Gods, No Masters crowd, but it’s Gregory’s assertion that anarchists are “meek” which seals his failed candidacy. What is so surprising is that Syme, who’s revealed himself to Gregory as an undercover police detective, makes a stirring speech to the anarchist council and is promptly elected as the next Thursday.

Oh the irony…But then again how appropos. Here’s Syme to Gregory after revealing that he’s really an undercover policeman–a quote that should give the novel’s sense of absurdity:

“Don’t you see that we’ve checkmated each other?” cried Syme. “I can’t tell the police you are an anarchist. You can’t tell the anarchists I’m a policeman. I can only watch you, knowing what you are; you can only watch me, knowing what I am. In short, it’s a lonely intellectual duel, my head against yours. I’m a policeman deprived of the help of the police. You, my poor fellow, are an anarchist deprived of the help of that law and organization which is so essential to anarchy. The one solitary difference is in your favour. You are not surrounded by inquisitive policeman; I am surrounded by inquisitive anarchists. I cannot betray you, but I might betray myself. Come, come: wait and see me betray myself. I shall do it so nicely.”

The Man Who Was Thursday, according to Kingsley Amis in his introduction is  “not quite a political bad dream, nor a metaphysical thriller, nor a cosmic joke in the form of a spy novel, but it has something of all three.” I don’t know what I expected.  A mystery perhaps, but Chesterton’s novel, published in 1908, grows increasingly more absurd and is actually very funny in spots. I can see why Kingsley Amis claimed it as one of his all-time favourite novels, but it’s a strange hodge-podge which even includes strains of the occult. Chesterton, apparently, had to address questions regarding the novel’s religious symbolism (which he argued against), and while the religious symbolism is rife throughout the novel, this adds to the absurdity.

The book’s full title is The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare and that seems a fairly apt description. No one is who they seem, everyone is lying and as the story continues it does take on a nightmarish almost phantasmagorical element. There seems to be a monstrous plot afoot to take over… exactly nothing. But whose devilish brain is at the core of the plot? Who is providing the dynamite? Who are the good guys? And who are the baddies?

Interestingly Chesterton does not seem to be, in theory at least, opposed to anarchism. Rather the novel seems to imply that anarchism and anarchists are elusive by their very nature and perhaps those who scream their beliefs from the rooftops are …well… nothing but Hairies (or Annas). The Anarchist Council is portrayed as an extremely ineffective, comic bunch and yet there remains a sinister undercurrent. The source of that undercurrent is the heart of this novel.

“But this absurd!” cried the policeman, clasping his hands with an excitement uncommon in persons of his figure and costume, “but this is intolerable! I don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re wasting your life. You must, you shall, join our special army against anarchy. Their armies are on our frontiers. Their bolt is ready to fall. A moment more, and you may lose the glory of working with us, perhaps the glory of dying with the last heroes of the world.”

“It is a chance not to be missed, certainly,” assented Syme, “but still I do not quite understand. I know as well as anybody that the modern world is full of lawless little men and mad little movements. But, beastly as they are, they generally have the one merit of disagreeing with each other. How can you talk of their leading one army or hurling one bolt. What is this anarchy?” 

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Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter

Power, authority and ‘the rules.’

I picked Hard Rain Falling off my shelf as part of my determination to read more titles from  NYRB. I read a couple of their books last year, and Stephen Benatar’s Leave Her Safe At Home was so good, I decided to start specifically looking at this publisher in case I was missing other literary treasures. I’d read quite a few 19th century novels in a row, and now I was ready for something different. Something modern and hard-boiled. So I perused my shelf and Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter caught my eye. This novel is so good, that although it’s only April, I am sure this book will be one of my reads of the year, and I’m going to call it one of the great American novels of the 20th century.

Hard Rain Falling is the story of the life of Jack Levitt, the unwanted product of a brief, violent union. There’s a short prologue (1929-1936) which outlines Jack’s origins, and then the novel begins in 1947 with Jack as a tough 17-year-old runaway in Portland. He’s unemployed and has various ways of grifting a dollar or two from his circle of similarly placed friends–a loose knit group known as “the Broadway Gang.” Jack is known as one of those who would stop at nothing.” But there’s a subtle difference between Jack and the other members of the gang:

 “Most of them were like Jack Levitt in that they wanted a lot of money and wanted to do anything they pleased, at least for a while; but most of them saw it differently: they wanted to enjoy themselves now, because they knew in their hearts that soon they would get jobs and get married and start having families (like their own), and the fun would be over. “

Jack doesn’t envision his future in the same way. This sets him apart from the other rowdy, but normal teens, and Jack as a “cynical optimist” understands that he is different.  The other gang members have family to fall back on and they can return to the nest if things get too tough. So far, Jack’s life has been spent in an orphanage–a bleak institution with meaningless or cruel rules and regulations. Now poised on the edge of adulthood, Jack imagines his future as “a wildness in itself, a succession of graduated pleasures and loves and joys.” When Jack’s story begins he’s hit rock-bottom and with a fair amount of optimism he outlines his desires and expectations:

“It was a gray Portland day, and this helped him to feel sorry for himself. He was down to his last few dollars and locked out of his hotel room. He had quit his job and did not know where he could get some more money. He was legally a fugitive from the orphanage, and in that sense “wanted.” He did not feel “wanted”–he felt very unwanted. He had desires, and nobody was going to drop out of the sky to satisfy them. He tried to milk a little self-pity out of this thought, but it did not work: he had to recognise that he preferred his singularity, his freedom. All right. He knew what he wanted. He wanted some money. He wanted a piece of ass. He wanted a big dinner, with all the trimmings. He wanted a bottle of whiskey. He wanted a car, in which he could drive a hundred miles an hour (he had only recently learned how to drive, and he loved the feelings of speed and control, the sharpness of the danger). He wanted some new clothes and thirty-dollar shoes. He wanted a .45 automatic. He wanted a record player in the big hotel room he wanted, so he could lie in bed with the whiskey and the piece of ass and listen to “How Hight the Moon” and “Artistry Jumps.” That was what he wanted . So it was up to him to get these things.”

How Jack sets out to get these things is of course exactly where things go wrong. Sent to reform school, Jack later briefly returns to society for a catastrophically short taste of freedom.

Hard Rain Falling is sometimes described as prison literature or crime fiction, and yet those descriptions fail to capture the sheer greatness of this novel. George Pelecanos in the introduction states: “I hesitate to classify the novel as either a literary or genre work” and I think he’s right on target.

Hard Rain Falling is written with a raw honesty that’s rare. Oddly enough the book reminds me of Oscar Moore’s A Matter of Life and Sex–but at the same time, these two books centre on entirely different worlds; Moore’s novel explores the world of gay sex while Carpenter’s novel concerns the life of a down-and-out young man whose life gravitates towards crime. The novels are similar only in the fact that they both feature a youthful protagonist whose inner life in revealed with painful intensity.  Moore’s novel details the life of Hugo, a 14-year-old emotionally troubled boy who drifts into self-destruction as a way of avoiding emotion. While Jack may seem to be self-destructive, he isn’t. At crucial points throughout the novel , Jack tries to puzzle out what life means, and while he recognises the need to stop and think, he’s swept up by his poor choices. But the absolutely fascinating thing about Jack is that he pays for his mistakes, and he doesn’t begrudge the payment. 

Jack isn’t a particularly likeable character. At one point, he longs to kill someone, yet at times he acts with an innate sense of fairness. He’s tough and violent but he’s also a survivor and while he walks into some very foolish situations, he also possesses an uncanny understanding of the institutional system. He can identify some people as con-lovers–those who get a cheap thrill from contact from the convicts. He becomes the product of the institutions that have kept him caged and this provides him with a unique perspective on the pathology of power. Here’s Jack in the orphanage talking about the troubling nature of power and authority:

“The trouble was it was intangible. It was not in the hands of anyone. While Jack had been there, most of the boys had blamed the man who was in charge of the orphanage as the center of power; they believed that all that happened to them and all that did not happen to them originated with this one  tall, heavy, white-haired man. But then one day, during the middle of Jack’s wing’s play period, they saw the man walking across the yard, his hands behind his back, his head tilted forward–the way he always walked when he was angry and determined–saw him suddenly stop and look straight up in the sky and give a grunt and fall backward, saw him fall with a thump onto the frozen ground and saw him carted away, and learned the next day that what they had seen was the death of this man, taken by a heart attack and dead before they got him indoors and got his clothes off. And that night all the boys in Jack’s wing nourished a secret joy at the man’s death and many of them thought in their hearts that they would be set free now that the center of power was gone, or at the very least that their lives would change in some magnificent way and they would be free at last of the man’s mechanical tyranny; some of them even though that candy would be passed out to them. But they learned. Very quickly there was another administrative head to the orphanage and he was different in appearance only. So it was an intangible; not a man , a set of rules. It would not even do any good to steal the rules away from the office and burn them, because there wasn’t even a book in which the rules were kept. It was just that the authorities knew the rules. You could kill them all and the rules would remain. This was the great virtue of rules, they were told in somewhat different context.”

Later, as it turns out, Jack’s recognition of the power structures within society proves invaluable when he’s sentenced to prison. By this time, he’s an old hand at understanding how power and authority work. Power amongst the prison guards and also power amongst the other prisoners. Jack makes little distinction.

In spite of its subject matter, and make no mistake this is a hard-boiled dark tale, Hard Rain Falling is ultimately not a depressing novel. Part of the novel’s power is found in Jack’s maturation which occurs outside of regret, bitterness or even social redemption. The novel never stoops to clichés but instead Jack’s pursuit of freedom and his odyssey through various state institutions reveal his unique, sometimes poignant interpretations of life. Never an intricate or valued part of society, Jack possesses an introspection on freedom that many of us cannot attain. Perhaps an explanation about Jack’s optimism can be found in this quote from the introduction:

“I’m an atheist,” said Carpenter in a 1975 interview.  “I don’t see any moral superstructure to the universe at all. I consider my work optimistic in that the people, during the period I’m writing about them, are experiencing intense emotion. It is my belief that this is all there is to it. There is nothing beyond this.”

Hard Rain Falling was first published in 1966

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Jarmila by Ernst Weiss

“It’s a bitter-sweet thing being the slave of a woman.”

Jarmila by German author Ernst Weiss was recommended to me by Pechorin’s Journal . Doubtful I would have found the book without Max’s recommendation. Anyway, the book is from Pushkin Press and that means it’s a gorgeous little edition  that’s a pleasure to own and to hold. I don’t know how Pushkin Press is faring in these difficult economic times, but they certainly publish some interesting titles and produce unique, quality books.

So now to the novella: My edition runs to 96 pages, 85 of which are the story itself, and if you are familiar with Pushkin Press editions you will know that these are not full size pages. So let’s call this a novella.

Jarmila is a rather strange story. It’s one of those tales within a tale, and after finishing the novella, at first I spent more time thinking about the narrative structure than thinking about the story itself. Perhaps this is because I recently finished Les Diaboliques, 6 short stories by Barbery d’Aurevilly, and five of the six stories had the same narrative style.

Anyway, back to Jarmila: a love story from Bohemia and more about its narrative style later.

Jarmila is set in the 1930s and the story begins with the narrator embarking on a journey from Paris to Prague in order to  “purchase thirty tons of average grade Bohemian apples” in the hope that this transaction will clear some pressing debts. Discovering that he’s left his watch behind, the narrator purchases a replacement–a seemingly trivial yet significant event as it turns out. The watch proves to be less than accurate–a fact that frustrates the narrator. Is it pure chance or fate that he meets a toymaker who offers to mend the watch?

The two men sit in an inn while the toymaker mends the watch for the narrator, and as they sit and drink, the toymaker tells a strange tale of adultery & murder involving Jarmila, the rapacious, luscious wife of a much older, well-to-do feather merchant. 

Jarmila‘s clever structure–the tale within the tale–allows the author, Ernst Weiss to create a complex tale in a comparatively small space. The toymaker’s torrid, tragic tale is effectively telescoped, and yet its very brevity makes its style and the vivid use of motifs that much more powerful.  The excellent afterword written by Peter Engel states that Jarmila’s central motif is the watch, and since the story begins and ends with the watch, there’s no argument on that score. I was fascinated by the motif of feathers; illicit sex in the feathers (incredible imagery here), the toymaker plucking all the feathers from his wooden birds, and then Jarmila, with a fat goose between her thighs as she plucks it clean. This last image somehow reminds me of the fate of the doomed toymaker. Just like a goose, he’s squeezed between Jarmila’s thighs and consequently plucked of every single thing in life he values. Here’s a quote:

Bohemia, surely, boasts the most beautiful geese of any country. Here they are not fed, as in France, on fish waste. In the summer they are set free on the grassy meadows, later on the fields of stubble, and come autumn they’re fattened indoors in a manner both refined and cruel. Alongside the beautiful, powerful, now-white creatures,  I noticed others apparently ailing, stripped of all but their large wing feathers. Their breasts, their underbellies, were naked, unkempt, reddish-grey, and they didn’t march with the same cockiness and confidence as their healthy comrades; they waddled slowly, timid and fearful, and steered clear of humans, flapping their wings and starting up a furious cackling whenever they glimpsed one. I asked a fellow passenger what lay behind their strange behaviour. He didn’t understand me at first, but then he smiled and replied:  “You try being flayed alive, having every single hair pulled out one by one, being throttled and squeezed all the while between a pair of knees! I’d like to see you then! And the same procedure ever year!”   I then learned  in detail how in most parts of Bohemia geese are plucked alive each year thereby producing the heavenly, light, downy feather which made sleeping amongst the plump, snowy-white pillows of my Prague hotel such a pleasurable experience. Yet the goose not only provides feathers, but also skin, fat, meat, stomach, heart, liver and blood! Virtually every part of it is eaten.

If you think about it, even the toymaker’s semen is put to use.

Jarmila is an amazingly visual story, and again that’s due to credit of skill of the author who manages to create an incredible tale, very visual, full of motifs in about 85 pint-sized pages. I’m a fan of noir, and so as odd as it sounds, this tale with its emphasis on the inescapability of fate hit some disquieting chords for me. The story got under my skin, and now I can’t get it out of my head.

The afterword includes details about the author, Ernst Weiss, and friend of Stefan Zweig. Weiss, who was jewish, left Berlin after the burning of the Reichstag, and committed suicide in Paris in 1940 as the Wehrmacht entered Paris. The death of Weiss reinforces the idea that it seems impossible to definitively quantify the destruction wreaked by Hitler.

Translated by Rebecca Morrison and Petra Howard-Wuerz.

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Loser Takes All by Graham Greene

 “Human beings are capable of the most simple errors.”

Bertram is a middle-aged accountant employed by a large firm when he comes to the attention of the company director, Dreuther. Bertram has a nice quiet, modest wedding planned followed by a honeymoon in Bournemouth–this is all that he and his fiance, Cary can afford, but when Druether hears of their plans, he offers to send them–at his expense–to Monte Carlo. The plan is that Bertram and Cary will marry in romantic Monte Carlo, and then board Dreuther’s yacht for an extended honeymoon around the coast of Italy. Bertram, pressured to provide a honeymoon that is the equivalent of the one endured in Paris with his first wife, “Dirty,” accepts Druether’s offer.

The plan goes horribly wrong when Dreuther fails to arrive in Monte Carlo as arranged. Bertram and Cary rapidly run out of money, and Bertram, with his fascination with numbers, develops a system for playing roulette. Their relationship and their love is tested–first by the poverty they are immediately reduced to, and then by Bertram’s winning streak as his “system” at the roulette wheel begins to work. But as Bertram carts off big winnings from the table, he discovers he is about to lose something very, very precious.

Loser Takes All is a slight novel at just over 120 pages, but I was fascinated to the very last page. Greene analyses human nature using the seductiveness of money, and shows how the corrupting and insatiable hunger for money destroys love, faith, character, and prudence. The amoral Dreuther is one of the most fascinating literary characters I’ve discovered in recent years (he reminds me very much of a character from a Balzac novel), and his role in this novel is both chilling and sublime.

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