Tag Archives: aging

Inheritance from Mother: Minae Mizumura

“You know what the best part is? Getting free of her while I’m still in my fifties.”

The Japanese novel Inheritance from Mother from Minae Mizumura examines shifting Japanese culture and society through a double lens: middle-aged Mitsuki Katsura’s troubled relationship with her aging, infirm mother Noriko and Mitsuki’s increasingly difficult marriage to her remote, academic husband, Tetsuo.

Inheritance from mother

Inheritance from Mother opens with the death of Noriko, but don’t expect grief from either of her daughters. They are relieved that their mother, following a long illness, is finally dead, and in Mitsuki’s case, her mother’s death means she’s finally ‘free’ from a heavy burden. In the year before her death, Noriko had the second of two bad falls, the latest fall left her in a wheelchair, and from there it was a “private, exclusive nursing home” called (somewhat cruelly) Golden Years. She lived there briefly before contracting pneumonia which eventually led to her death. And here is how the novel opens shortly after the death of Noriko with both sisters feeling “liberated in different ways, but their excitement was identical-keen and palpable.”

“So how much do we get back from Golden?”

Before answering, Mitsuki, on the phone with her sister Natsuki, glanced once again at the numbers. On this late-fall night the window by the desk was closed, but instinctively she lowered her voice in reply. “Around seventeen million yen.”

17 M yen converts to around $154,000 or close to 121,000 pounds. So divide that between the two middle-aged sisters, and it’s a not-too-shabby sum. But given the title of the book, Inheritance from Mother, we’re not just looking at the money these women inherit from their mother; we’re looking at a lot of other less tangible things including grief (a lack of), and a burden of emotional baggage.

Inheritance from Mother was serialised in a Japanese newspaper from 2010-2011, so keep this in mind when you pick up the book. This is not a tight, terse plot, but a leisurely exploration of Japanese society, class, mothers and daughters, aging, and death and dying in an age when the medical community can prolong life. This is a society where daughters take care of mothers or in the case of sons, caregiving of the elderly “fell to the wife of the firstborn son.” 

The first section of the book goes back in time and includes the family’s history, so we see a post WWII Japan with its strict class system and its worship of Western culture. We see the less favoured daughter, Mitsuki, whose grandmother was a geisha, living in Paris, where she met her husband.  In middle age, Mitsuki is an underemployed part-time lecturer who’s passed up translating opportunities in order to support Tetsuo’s standard of living. Bouncing between Noriko’s neurotic demands, Mitsuki doesn’t have time to confront Tetsuo’s infidelities or their failing marriage, and while he’s on a sabbatical in Vietnam, Mituski remains in Japan to care for her mother.

Wisely, the author does not dwell on Noriko’s slow decline but instead uses the illness and death to springboard into how these characters find themselves at these points in their lives.  On one level, this is a story about three generations of women with two generations making marital decisions that impacted their children. Mitsuki’s grandmother, the former geisha  “in her long life experienced everything from virtual slavery to luxury and pomp to gritty poverty and more,” so perhaps that explains why Mitsuki’s mother, Noriko, had such a love of luxury and expensive tastes. Mitsuki, Noriko and Noriko’s mother always carry the shining, yet elusive example of the wealthier branch of the family as an intellectual ideal. We see glimpses of Mitsuki’s father who was “warehoused” when he became ill, and his wife refused to care for him–a decision that still haunts Mitsuki and fuels her determination that her mother will receive adequate care.

Readers who come to this novel will have their own opinions about Mitsuki’s relationship with her mother. Noriko, who was already using a cane, fell for the second time when she picked up sheets from the dry cleaner, and for this reader, Mitsuki seemed unnecessarily harsh. (As an aside: the mother in the Isabelle Huppert film, Things to Come was equally impossible, but was managed much better). There’s not an ounce of sentimentality here, so with a total lack of grief or anguish, there are times when Mitsuki wishes her mother would just die, and not for humanitarian reasons. While reading Part I, I realised that Mitsuki has made her mother a receptacle for her own unhappiness, and it’s inevitable that once her mother dies, Mitsuki will no longer be able to avoid some unpleasant truths.

Once she had her mother squared away, she would sit down and think about what to do with her marriage.

In Part II, following the death of Noriko, Mitsuki, now with time on her hands, must confront some ugly truths about her own life. The situation with her needy mother has caused Mitsuki to delay making decisions, but now she no longer has any excuse to ignore her husband’s infidelities and his ongoing, serious affair. Mitsuki travels to a hotel to rest and recuperate and meets a man who mourns the loss of his wife deeply. This grief is something that eludes Mitsuki, and we are left with the question of whether or not grief, which is another form of inheritance, is something we should regret not having.

One minor quibble: there’s a subplot which involves guests at the hotel that pushed credibility and seemed unnecessary–even if it served to underscore mortality. The novel’s form allows the author to take some leisurely, circuitous paths during the story, so the plot echoes back to the 19th century Victorian form more than anything else. For the reader who is willing to take the time, Inheritance from Mother is a rich, rewarding read, a look at an ever-changing Japan, but also a look at the eternally difficult relationships between mothers-and-daughters.

Review copy

Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

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Strangers: Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner’s novel Strangers weighs the value of loneliness and the solitary life against relationships that are full of compromise. The main character is Paul Sturgis, a man in his 70s, who “loved too unwisely in his youth.” At this point in his life, Paul, who has retired from banking, has no friends and no family apart from Helena, the widow of a deceased cousin. Although he visits Helena weekly out of a sense of duty the visits are awkward and one-sided with him as the listener as Helena brags about her friends and how concerned they are for her.

So he usually resigned himself to a coolheaded appraisal of her folly (and of his), would listen to her accounts of her many friends, among whom was one she referred to as ‘my tame professor,’ and whose function in her life was unclear; there were also her partners at the bridge club–‘the girls’-and the neighbours who invited her to dinner (‘They make such a fuss of me I don’t like to let them down’).

With Christmas looming, Paul decides to avoid Helena  and instead takes a trip to Venice. On the journey, he meets an attractive, divorced woman in her fifties, Vicky Gardner, and although she’s a stranger, in his loneliness Paul encourages the relationship into an acquaintance. After a meal together Vicky promises to look Paul up when they are back in London, and to his surprise, she does.

Strangers

But while Paul longs for a friend or a companion, Vicky is neither of these:

Her determination not to be fully questioned was all of a piece with her sense of freedom, a sense which usually evaporates as one reaches the age of maturity. This she had somehow retained. On first encountering her on the plane to Venice he had thought her agreeable, no more, an ordinary woman on her way to friends, whose way of life appeared normal. In time, however, those friends had multiplied, and although anonymous, were somehow omnipresent. Her evasiveness was a way of exculpating herself from obligation: it was preemptive, in the sense that it proclaimed her to be guilt free

Then Paul runs into the love-of-his-life, Sarah, the woman who dumped him years earlier….

Although Strangers is a very calm, mannered undramatic novel, the plot revolves around Paul’s quiet crisis of confidence. Should he pursue the elusive Mrs Gardner or the acerbic Sarah? Mrs Gardener is much more fun to be with, but then again Paul and Sarah have a shared history and are more-or-less the same age.  Or then again, should a bachelor of 74 avoid matrimony altogether?

Thematically, Strangers is close to A Private View since both novels concern retired, lonely bachelors who find their lives invaded by females. The opportunistic (and unpleasant) Katy from A Private View could well have matured into the slightly more sophisticated but still eminently selfish Vicky. Interesting how people as volatile and restless as Vicky and Katy gravitate to the well-moored males they discover. I had a lot of sympathy for Paul who seems destined to be a perpetual sounding board for the women in his life. Although Paul has been made to feel ‘boring’ by women, he’s quite complex, hungering for the home and childhood he couldn’t wait to escape, and finding himself always haunted by what-might-have beens. Paul is very found of Henry James, and he’s very much a Jamesion figure–detached but watching the action; unfortunately he longs to be something else.

Here’s my order of preference so far:

Hotel du Lac

Look at Me 

Dolly

Visitors

Friends and Family

Undue Influence

Strangers

A Private View 

The Rules of Engagement

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Like Death: Maupassant

“Daylight poured into the enormous studio through an open bay in the ceiling: this oblong of brilliant light–an immense perforation in the remote azure infinity–was ceaselessly crisscrossed by sudden flights of birds.”

Maupassant’s delicately sensitive novel, Like Death is an exploration of aging, love and to a lesser degree the hollowness of fame. Painter Olivier Bertin is at the pinnacle of his long successful career, and yet although he’s achieved fame and material success (unlike most artists) he’s not a happy man. But neither is he unhappy–rather, he is bored and discontent. Now Bertin is at an impasse in his career and he’s beginning to wonder if he’s lost his “inspiration.” Every idea he has seems stale.

Rich, famous, the recipient of many honors, he remains, toward the end of his life, a man unaware of the ideal he is pursuing.

His art follows the style worshiped by dictated tastes of the Academy: “great historical scenes” and “living men along classical lines.” But a successful artist does not work in a vacuum.

Perhaps, too, the world’s sudden infatuation for his work–always so elegant, so correct so distingué–has had a certain influence on his nature and kept him from being what he would in the course of things have become. Since the triumphs of his early work, a constant desire to please has unconsciously haunted him, secretly impeding his development and attenuating his convictions. his craving to please, moreover, had shown itself in a great variety of forms and contributed a good deal to his renown.

Countess Anne de Guilleroy, the wife of a conservative politician, has been Bertin’s mistress since posing for her portrait many years earlier. She’s promoted his work and encouraged him in “considerations of fashionable elegance,” so in other words, she’s helped his career and kept his art safely in the commercially successful category. Over the years, their relationship has waxed and waned; he’s had other mistresses but he always returns to her, and “her life [is] a constant combat of coquetry.” At this point in time, facing old age, Bertin’s regretting that he couldn’t marry her and that he is alone.

like death

Everything for Bertin and the Countess changes with the arrival in Paris of Annette, the Countess’s 18 year old daughter who’s there to be married off to a wealthy young man…..

An almost macabre dance between Bertin, the Countess and her daughter begins to take place. Bertin is awed by the young girl and considers her even more beautiful than her mother. Is she his next, most significant, muse? Meanwhile the Countess begins to wonder if her daughter is her fatal rival.

Like Death boldly confronts aging as Bertin feels jealous of the young girls fiance but sadder still is the fact that the Countess finds herself a poor rival against her daughter’s youth. So we see aging as the enemy of love: Bertin falls in love with a young girl who likes him but doesn’t conceive of him as a romantic suitor, and the Countess sees herself aging and is desperate to be attractive. There’s, of course, an immense sense of futility here as Bertin, thinking she’s his next muse, plies Annette with expensive gifts, and the Countess decides never to stand next to her daughter in bright light. In another writer’s hands, this could be a farce, but Maupassant grants both Bertin and the Countess dignity.

In one very poignant scene, the Countess prays for her beauty to remain, that she can stay attractive for just a few more years.

Then, having risen, she would sit before her dressing-table, and with a tension of thought as ardent as if in prayer, she would handle her powders, her cosmetics, her pencils, the puffs and brushes which gave her once more a beauty of plaster, daily and fragile.

While Like Death is not as perfect as Bel Ami, thanks to its subject matter, it’s relevant, and Maupassant shows incredible empathy as he gently explores the Countess’s fears and vanity.  As I read this I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, a novel in which a sculptor, in his search for the perfect woman, courts three generations from the same family.

Review copy

Translated by Richard Howard

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A Private View: Anita Brookner

“The girl possessed an unusual gift:she brought everyone to the brink of bad behaviour.”

After a string of Anita Brookner novels from the female perspective, it was a change of pace to come across A Private View. The protagonist of this novel is 65-year-old, freshly retired George Bland. When the novel opens, he’s having a boring time in Nice. There’s too much time on his hands and too much time to think, and so he returns to his London flat to resume his retirement. But shortly upon his return, his life is disrupted by the arrival of a young woman, Katy Gibb who commandeers the opposite flat. George finds that his life of orderly calm is now subject to disturbing thoughts and longings. Will the man who’s spent his whole life with caution as the dominant force, now suddenly become impulsive and throw caution to the winds?

a private view

Thematically, A Private View has the most in common with Visitors (of the ones I’ve read so far). Visitors is the story of a widow who temporarily houses a young man, and his presence forces the widow to question her life and her choices. Katy Gibb has the same impact on George, but in George’s case, Katy wheedles and manipulates her way into George’s life against his better judgement, flagrantly dangling herself rather like a piece of ripe fruit.

George, to outsiders, and certainly to Katy, seems to be mundane and boring. He loves his routine, goes to bed early and never overindulges. The reader, however, is privy to George’s inner thoughts and concerns that perhaps he’s been too cautious in his life. Born into poverty, and used to a life of modest means, he put off marriage to his teenage sweetheart, Louise, until she got fed up waiting and left George to marry someone else. And then there’s the memory of George’s dearest friend Putnam, who died before he could retire, before Putnam and George could put all of their retirement travel plans into reality:

They had waited for too long, and the result was this hiatus, and the reflection that time and patience may bring poor rewards, that time itself, if not confronted at the appropriate juncture, can play sly tricks, and, more significantly, that those who do not act are not infrequently acted upon.  

It takes George a while to see Katy for what she is, and even though he’s onto her game, he’s still torn by desire and even pity. For George, Katy represents everything he isn’t, everything he didn’t do with his life. Her presence unearths the question of regret, and offers George, devilishly, the opportunity to indulge in behaviour he’s always cautiously avoided.

While Brookner uncovers George’s private thoughts, he still (in complete privacy) isn’t entirely honest with himself, cloaking his desire with denial and excuses.

He knew that he was not being quite honest with himself: he had been stimulated by the sight of the girl’s appetites (for there had been more than one in evidence) and intrigued by her, as if she were a puzzle sent to beguile him in these bewildering days of leisure, this life so free of incident and adventure

Overall, George was far too easy on Katy, who had an over inflated opinion of herself and could have done with a swift kick in the bum.

On another level, I was mildly irritated by George’s thoughts that he never spent money. He eats out about twice a day, just returned from Nice, and I lost count of the number of taxis he took. But these are symptoms of Brookner’s rarefied world. In most of the other Brookners I’ve read, the female protagonists have some sort of bookish employment but also have independent means. George, who stayed at the same job for decades, has a pension which was added to when Putnam made George his beneficiary, so again no money worries. It’s interesting to note that while the protagonist of Visitors had a deeply rooted fear of having her home taken away by nefarious means, Katy doesn’t hide her designs on George’s flat.

order of preference so far:

Hotel du Lac

Look at Me 

Dolly

Visitors

Friends and Family

Undue Influence

A Private View (bottom of the list because Katy was so repellent)

 

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You Could Be Home by Now by Tracy Manaster

Point me in the direction of a novel set in a retirement or gated community, and there’s a good chance I’ll read it. Take Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows–a novel set in an affluent Argentinian community whose residents are not as immune to the imploding economy as they think. Then earlier this year I read Pascal Garnier’s fantastic Moon in a Dead Eye about a handful of French retirees who discover that a gated community is not the healthy, safe choice they imagined.  Eli Gottlieb’s novel Now You See Him  brings an Arizona retirement community into focus, and this brings me to Tracy Manaster’s novel You Could Be Home By Now set in The Commons, a luxury retirement community located outside of Tucson, Arizona.

you could be home by nowThe gently humorous You Could Be Home by Now is partly about life inside the retirement community, but the main thrust of the novel is grief–how we cope with it, how we live with it, and whether or not we move on from tragedy.  The number one rule of The Commons is that no permanent resident can be under age 55, and the novel’s central dilemma revolves on the discovery that one of the residents is now the guardian of a small child. This discovery raises a debate, subsequent moral questions, and creates opposing camps within the community, but even more than that, the discovery of the child causes simmering emotions and tensions to explode.

But let’s back up a bit. The novel begins with Seth and Alison Collier, two young, married teachers, working at the same Vermont school, who after the loss of their baby, decide they need a fresh start. They toss aside their old lives and, on a whim, relocate to Arizona when they accept jobs at The Commons–a luxury “cart accessible,” retirement community of over six thousand residences with two golf courses and “three convenient villages for all your shopping, entertainment, and social needs.” Hoagie Lobel, President and CEO of The Commons employs the Colliers–Seth to run the community newspaper and Alison to be the town historian. Of course, there’s a bit of a problem with getting history for a newly constructed town.

The houses were all flat roofs and projecting beams, sand-colored stucco, corners rounded to benign nubs. They devoured their lots and the trees were all spindly and new.

“I don’t see any For Sale signs,” Alison said. “I guess you haven’t been hard hit by this real estate mess?”

“HOA doesn’t allow them. Messes with the neighbors’ heads.” Lobel tapped his temple. “But we’re doing alright. Had to postpone work on Phase IV, but what’s already built… well, most folks bought to live here, right? And that’s why you’re here, see. We’re going to add to that whole experience.” Lobel drew out the word. “Tough times hit and people like living in a real place. Like be a part of that place. So we get our own paper. And you—” he turned to Alison. The cart drifted into the neighboring lane. “You, Miss, you’ve got to add some authenticity to our town. Some history when there’s really none.”

While Seth and Alison begin by being central characters, they’re very quickly pushed aside as we are introduced to various residents. Benjamin, for example, is a divorced retired veterinarian, whose ex-wife, Veronica aka Ronny and ex-home are still in Portland. Benjamin relocated for a fresh start.  He plans for an active retirement in the sun, far away from his old life and his old problems, and The Commons fits the bill.  It’s through Ben that we really get a sense of life in The Commons and why it’s a gold-plated living arrangement for retirees:

The layout of the cart paths made it a huge pain in the rear to shop off site, so most folks didn’t bother. Ben Thales did though. Eggs were fifty cents a dozen cheaper at the Wal-Mart across the way. Chicken breasts too, almost a dollar less a pound. And it had been a close eye on his money that got him here in the first place. Golf twice a week, tennis twice a week.

Most of the residents drive everywhere on golf carts–the place was designed that way. The residents are in the same income bracket, golf-aficionados and there are widows aplenty.

The novel’s theme: surviving grief is played out in three story strands. Benjamin and his wife, now-ex-wife, Ronny had a daughter, a junkie, who disappeared years before. Her absence helped contribute to the demise of their marriage, and even though they are divorced, they still retain a PI who rakes over the long since cold trail of the missing daughter. Another grief thread is played out through Seth and Alison. They’re attracted to The Commons because they think that a new environment will allow them to heal and forget and that in a retirement community “they could jog down the streets of a town without strollers.” Seth and Alison learn the hard way that you can’t run away from your problems.

The final story thread that ties into surviving grief concerns recent widow Sadie whose granddaughter, Lily arrives in The Commons to spend a few months with her grandmother. It’s through this relationship that author Tracy Manaster does a good job of showing that the generations need each other. Sadie and Lily discover a healthy rapport that grounds them both, and it’s through this relationship and the uproar involving a resident child that the reader begins to question the nature of ‘perfect’ retirement communities in general. While this was a pleasant read, a couple of scenes rang false; Seth and Alison’s abrupt change of career tested credulity, a couple of the meltdowns seemed unlikely, and teenage Lily was a little too sharp and wise-cracking for my tastes.

Review copy.

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Your Ticket is No Longer Valid by Romain Gary

In this respect we are rather backward in France; a certain lack of persistence and determination causes us to lose out in the race for pleasure. It’s different in the United States. There people band together, organize group therapy sessions, make pornographic films, found institutes and clinics, all dedicated to combatting the decline of the erection. America is the last true phallocracy. By comparison, we French are a sorry lot of quitters.”

When Emma announced a Romain Gary Month, this was the perfect excuse to read an author I’d been meaning to discover for years. The big question became which title to pick first, and after reading a synopsis of Your Ticket is No Longer Valid, all the other possibilities faded into the background.

This is the story of Jacques Rainier, a one-time resistance fighter and a wealthy businessman man facing his 60th birthday. When the book opens Rainier’s business is in jeopardy, but this is overshadowed by his worries about his flagging virility. The questions of erections, masculinity, and sexual potency are vital since his lover is 37 years younger. This novel was written pre-Viagra. Romain Gary would probably have had great fun adding Viagra to this novel if he’d had the chance.

your ticket is no longer validParts of the book are pure brilliance as Gary mercilessly explores this painfully embarrassing arena of male sexuality. How many times will Rainier be able to have sex with his Brazilian lover, Laura? Will he be able to sustain his erections? Will Laura be able to orgasm? All of these questions relentlessly plague Rainier, and so he finds himself somewhat reluctantly seeking help and advice from the medical profession. The advice he gets isn’t exactly what he wants to hear.

“Any trouble with urinating?”

“Not so far.”

“Do you get up in the middle of the night?’

“When I can’t sleep, yes, sometimes.”

“To pass water, I mean?”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Is it a powerful stream?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“When you pass water, is the stream strong, quick, in an arc, or does it come dripping feebly from the urethra in a thin thread, with interruptions, and does it require an effort to bring it back?”

“I hadn’t noticed. I seem to piss without any complications. I shall of course try to be more observant in future, but…”

Do you stain your shorts?”

I stared at him with my mouth open.

The novel opens with Rainier discussing and then meeting Jim Daley, “the heir to one of the greatest fortunes in the United States.” Daley, “larger than life” and according to a past casual sex encounter “there was no stopping him, he kept it up all night long,” is a bit of a bête noir for Rainier. Even at almost seventy, Daley still had a reputation as an “international playboy,”  but then gradually his “trophies” moved from women to “the realm of high finance.” Daley, firmly in his seventies, former lady killer, has now become somewhat pathetic. He claims to be the same age as Rainier and complains, rather distastefully that he’s “noticed” that women’s vaginas “suffered from the same internal deformity.” Finally, Daley admits, with no small amount of chagrin, that it’s not a universal vagina problem as much as his own shrinking erections. It’s a difficult meeting as Rainier has applied for a loan from Daley’s bank, and here’s Daley, at least 15 years older, pretending to be the same age and waiting for Rainier to exchange stories of his sexual failure.

There’s painful honesty here from a man who is facing old age while partnered with a young woman young enough to be his daughter (or even if we stretch it a bit, his granddaughter). He worries about their sex life, but there are also life stage issues which coalesce like ghosts around the bedroom. There are many clichés around these sorts of relationships, and I’m sure we’ve all known people in situations like Rainier. Do we envy them, laugh at them or feel a little sympathy? Would Laura even consider a man like Rainier if he weren’t stinking rich? Having a lover almost 40 years younger certainly puts an enormous amount of pressure on Rainier who admits that “it was only with Laura that I could see myself truly in decline.” As the book continues, Rainier’s worries grow to dark obsessions.

I had always assumed that aging was an orderly affair. There would be, it seemed to me, signs of incipient change, progressive seasons that would give one time to think, make one’s arrangements and manufacture one’s “wisdom.” Ideally, you simply came one day to regard your body with tolerant detachment, and turned to more appropriate interests–cruises, bridge, antiques.

While the novel is on one level merciless in its examination of the flagging male performance, the novel is still pure male fantasy of a 23 year-old beautiful woman deeply in love with a man almost 40 years her senior who is just so wonderful that she loves him for himself–age and $$$ are not part of the equation.  In spite of its vicious realities, the book still rests on that old tired Pygmalion Complex of the older man who offers experience and economic security in exchange for a parking spot next to a beautiful, nubile young woman who is a living, breathing male fantasy. Perhaps part of my reaction comes from knowing a couple of men, Rainier’s age, but not as wealthy, who’ve jettisoned off into relationships with women three or four decades younger. It hasn’t been pretty.

For this reader, by far the best parts of the novel were the scenes at doctors’ offices–especially the doctor Rainier terms “a fanatical defender of the prostate.” Here’s Rainier consulting the doctor about groin pain he’s experiencing.

“Yes, I see, well then, my friend, take it from me, when a woman says to you: ‘Not yet, not yet’ or ‘Wait for me,’ remember, don’t let her get away with it.”

“Get away with it?”

“Defend yourself. Let go, ejaculate. Our organs are designed to function normally, naturally, not to show off in performances–acrobatic, artistic, whatever you like. You should let yourself go, take your pleasure with a good conscience, and that’s that. Surely you know that there are castrating types, women who think the penis is some kind of automatic mechanism that you can use at will. You’ll never find a woman worrying about your prostate. Most of them haven’t the slightest idea what it’s all about. At your age, you should take it easy, set your own pace, don’t worry about your partner.”

The novel is at its best when Rainier is forced to acknowledge his insecurities and the realities of the less-than-smooth sex life of a 60-year-old man with flagging libido. Unfortunately, the novel reverses from its boldness and ultimately rests on clichés, and for this cynical reader, the novel just didn’t go far enough….

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Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal

A strong interest in Czech cinema led to curiosity about Czech literature. Paul Leppin’s Blaugast, written in the 1930s and Hermann Ungar’s dark story The Maimed, published in 1923, both have strong elements of fin-de-siècle decadence and moral decline. Czech author Bohumil Hrabal, an author I’d had in my sights for some time, presents an entirely different view of Czech society through his wonderful novel, Harlequin’s Millions. This delightful tale is set in a retirement home, formerly Count Spork’s castle, set on a hilltop overlooking the town where our nameless narrator once lived. She and her husband, Francin sell their home and become residents joining Francin’s bed-ridden, older brother, Uncle Pepin, who already lives there.  While the narrator is familiar with the castle, it’s an entirely different experience to take up residence.

I had been in the castle at least ten times or more, but then I was a guest, scared of everything and easily panicked. Today I stood here as a person who is going to be living here for a long time, until something happens to me, suddenly someone will come to me, whisper sweet nothings and make me all kinds of promises and then set me free, in a landscape that knows no limits, no bounds.

The retirement home consists of the mostly-invisible staff and an assortment of pensioners; the lucky ones wander the perimeter of the once-grand estate or sit and play cards while the bed-ridden residents remain immobile. Residents are not allowed to leave the castle without permission, so the retirement home is a jail of sorts. Many of the sights, smells and sounds within the home are unpleasant, but these realities of the mortal condition are set against the surreal atmosphere within the retirement home. All day long the strains of Harlequin’s Millions is piped though speakers scattered throughout the castle and its surrounding park:

The string orchestra curls gently around the old tree trunks and Harlequin’s Millions climbs like old ivy into the crowns and trickles down along the leaves, the corridors of the home are filled with a pleasant phosphorescent gas, with the scent of cheap perfume, so that no one is really aware of the music, only when there’s a power failure and Harlequin’s Millions is suddenly cut off, stops short, the way everything stops as if by magic in the tale of Sleeping Beauty, all the pensioners glance up, they look up at the speakers and the sudden loss of the music feels to them like when the lights go out and everyone longs to hear it again, because without it the air in the castle and along the paths in the park is unbreathable.

Our narrator, a witness for life inside the castle, begins wandering the grounds, taking a forbidden path, and discovers the decaying, mostly ignored splendor of the Count’s former home. Inside the castle, tucked away in forgotten corners are “white statues of nude young women, Greek goddesses perhaps, caught unawares by a male gaze and defending themselves, in terror, with raised arms.” The ceiling is “decorated with frescos of naked, dancing women and men,” while other frescos depict a wedding scene between two beautiful young people and a lustful naked faun “abducting a nymph.” In the days of its early splendor, the castle seems to be designed with youth and beauty in mind, and yet now it’s the last residence of the elderly and infirm. It seems that the decaying, neglected castle reflects the condition of its residents:

the gutters and drainpipes were full of holes, some had even been torn from the wall, at such moments the castle somehow resembled all those old people, who cleared their throats and then nearly choked in fits of coughing.

Left to her own devices, our toothless narrator finds that memories of her past flood back–her early married life, a failed business venture and the shock of the communist takeover. Many stories unfold through the three “witnesses to old times,” Vaclav and Karel and Otokar, elderly men who appear repeatedly throughout the story and tell the narrator fantastic tales from the past, acting as chroniclers of a long-forgotten history of the town and its residents.

harlequins millionsThere’s a fairy tale quality to this book which is enhanced by its castle setting and the narrator’s solitary walks when she discovers secret places in the forgotten corners of the castle. But if this is a fairy tale, it’s an inverted fairy tale. The tale isn’t told by a beautiful young princess imprisoned in a tower, waiting to be freed by a lover, but by an old woman who is facing the end of her life. At first it seems difficult to peg the story to a specific time frame, but the references to communism ground the story.

Harlequin’s Millions is a wonderful book. As we follow our narrator and make discoveries through her eyes, in spite of its subject matter, this is ultimately a book which reinforces the delight and joy of life. There are too many wonderful episodes to recount, but for this reader, two episodes must be mentioned. Sunday is visiting day, and some pensioners gather in spite of the rain and “peer all the way down to the bottom of the road and sooner or later a car always came driving up the hill toward the gate, and the pensioners would hurry back to the vestibule, settle themselves into an armchair and put on their best smile.” But the pensioners wait for visitors in vain while those who have visitors begrudge the time taken from their card games.

Those same pensioners who had run outside so impatiently to await the arrival of their beloved family were the ones whom hardly anyone ever came to see. More likely, someone would come whom no one had expected, or had even had time to expect, this was often the case with the five little groups of pensioners who sat and played cards all day, and when the nurses came to tell them that their relatives had arrived, that they had visitors, they had to quickly finish up their game of Mariás and then, sulking, they left the card table and went downstairs to the reception hall, if it was a nice day they took their relatives to a bench ion the park or the courtyard and still sulking, told them to have a seat, and then the relatives, when they saw that they hadn’t been expected the way one expects to be expected, actually felt better, they were glad to see that their father or father-in-law was much too busy with other things, they were glad that the pensioner was making their visit easier that he was still a person who didn’t sit around waiting for members of his family to rescue him, to brighten up his Sunday, but who without even bothering to hide his impatience kept looking at his watch, continually pushing back his sleeve to keep an eye on the time, which passed inexorably, while upstairs his friends sat waiting for him to return so they could resume their game of Mariás, that eternally moveable feast, that perennial Sunday that was always marked in red on the calendar, because playing cards is much more fun than telling all those pointless stories that had been told and retold in the family while there was still time.

That quote gives a sense of Hrabal’s style, and the long, beautifully constructed run-on sentences that create a rhythm to the tale in which time is of the upmost importance.

For this reader, the novel’s best segment occurs when the retirement home’s regular doctor leaves for his annual trip to Marienbad. His replacement, “young Doctor Houloubek,” a man who condones smoking and drinking of hard liquour, enthusiastically and misguidedly organizes an afternoon of classical music. Gone are the soothing strains of Harlequin’s Millions, and instead the pensioners are aroused by Afternoon of a Faun & Brahms’ violin concerto opus seventy-seven–a musical interlude that causes a comical near-riot.

The narrator records her observations about human nature while noting that this is “the first time” she’s ever “been able to take a good look at what is going on around me.” She notes the predictably to certain patterns of behaviour, and how visitors complain about petty things–having to queue for food, or order a cake days before they needed it as “by Saturday there wouldn’t be so much as a cream puff left on the bakery shelves.” The visitors also have a tendency to tell their elderly relatives how lucky they are to live in this retirement home, and when the pensioners try to explain the realities of life inside the castle and the difficulties of old age, the relatives immediately change the subject or become distracted in order not to listen.

While there is a great deal of gentle humour in the narrator’s memories and observations, there’s a serious side to the tale. She relates how the brewery, once managed by Francin, is nationalized under Communist rule. The narrator and her husband are rejected by the brewery workers as management in a government in which class is supposed to be leveled. The narrator notes that “all the old women in the castle, whom I’d driven to exasperation a quarter of a century ago with my dresses and my figure,” are now “thrilled”  to see that the narrator is just another old woman like them. While Communism acts as a social leveler for brewery workers, the narrator understands that Time is the true leveler that trumps all other considerations of beauty, wealth, possessions, status, & health. Utterly delightful, and told with a charming sense of mischief, Harlequin’s Millions is highly recommended.

Review copy. Translated by Stacey Knecht

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Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan

“She could not stop these visitations, even if she wanted to. They plagued like migraines, left her helpless and dissatisfied, as if her life and the lives of all those she’d loved had come to nothing, merely because that time was gone, receding even in her memory, to be replaced by this diminished present. If it seemed another world, that was because it was, and all her wishing could not bring it back.”

Earlier this year, I read and enjoyed Stewart O’Nan’s novel, The Odds. I particularly liked the insights into the power politics of the damaged marriage plagued with debt and infidelities, and although the novel wasn’t perfect (I didn’t like the ending), I knew that this was an author I’d ‘discovered’ and one I’d return to soon. So that brings me to Emily Alone (recommended by commenter Pris as her favourite Stewart O’Nan), a wonderful novel I picked up without realising that it is a sequel to Wish You Were Here. After finishing the novel, I hope there’s a third–a follow-up to Emily Alone as I want to read more about this character’s life.

This is the story of a woman who lives alone with an elderly Springer Spaniel for companionship, and of course, the woman in question is Emily–an elderly widow whose two children, daughter Margaret and son Kenneth live in other states, stay in touch mainly by the telephone, and return for the occasional holiday visit. Neither relationship is satisfying and each is fraught with its own difficulties. Emily’s life is still centered around her children, so she’s inevitably left feeling disappointed by the interactions.  Margaret, divorced & the single mother of two, is involved with a series of men and is continually wrestling with various financial problems that require bailout.

Too often she acted as if Emily’s calls were an inconvenience, as if she were keeping her from urgent business. As a teenager she’d been distant and secretive, then for years as an alcoholic, hiding her sickness from everyone. Emily expected her to change after rehab, for the two of them to admit their mistakes and become closer, yet she still held Emily off, mistrustful, as if her own mother’s interest in her life was suspect.

Kenneth is a good, devoted son, but his time and energy is mostly given to his wife, Lisa’s, side of the family. Emily and Lisa have no relationship to speak of, “they’d never gotten along,” and “over the years their mutual dislike had calcified, their relationship fixed and incomplete.” Subtle battlelines are drawn between Lisa and Emily and slights continue. This year, for example, Lisa invites Emily to join her family at the Cape for Thanksgiving “belatedly, knowing she wouldn’t have time to make arrangements.”

The story follows a period of less than a year in Emily’s life–from Thanksgiving to the following summer, and while not a great deal happens, the minutiae of life is recorded, and we get the sense of just who Emily is, her routine, and her disappointments. While Emily is a wonderfully drawn character, she is not without her faults, but more of that later.

The novel begins with Emily on a November Tuesday waiting for her sister-in-law Arlene to arrive. This is the day of their weekly outing to Eat’n Park armed with a coupon for the “two-for-one breakfast buffet.” The weekly trip is one of the highlights of Emily’s routine–even though she dreads Arlene’s driving.

It wasn’t far–a few miles through East Liberty and Point Breeze and Regent Square on broad streets they knew like old friends-but the trip was a test of Emily’s nerves. Arlene’s eyes weren’t the best, and her attention to the outside world was directly affected by whatever conversation they were engaged in. When she concentrated on a thought, she drove more slowly, making them the object of honking, and once, recently, from a middle-aged woman who looked surprisingly like Emily’s daughter Margaret, the finger.

Emily’s husband, Henry, used to do all the driving, and for several years after his death she negotiated a familiar geographical “triangle” composed of trips to the supermarket, the library and the bank. Now the car sits unused and “decommissioned”  in the garage, yet one more piece of evidence of the different sort of life she led. Emily’s life changes, however, when she’s forced by circumstance to begin driving again.

Over the course of the novel, the holiday season comes and goes, children and grandchildren swoop in to visit, and neighbourhood houses are sold. Also over this time period, a few of the elderly people in Emily’s circle die, and she’s left with memories of the relationships she had and the full, rich life she and her husband led in the once-vibrant neighbourhood. The days of energetic family barbeques and parties and over. Now when Emily meets up with old acquaintances, there’s  a running tally kept of those who still survive:

The talk turned to falls, a favorite topic, and timely, with winter coming on, ice their mortal enemy. Jean Daly had slipped in her kitchen and broken her hip and now her children were trying to move her to a home. The horror with which Lorraine delivered the story annoyed Emily. It was the ultimate cautionary tale, the moral being Don’t fall, as if they were made of glass. In a sense they were-their fragility was irrefutable, medically proven-and yet Emily detested the inevitable rundown of accidents and tragedies, the more fortunate clucking their tongues and counting their blessings, all the while knowing it was just a matter of time. She didn’t need to be reminded that she was a single misstep from disaster, especially here, without Henry, surrounded by the survivors of their earlier life.

Some of Emily’s memories focus on her best friend, Louise who died a few years before, and other memories recall her life with Henry. In one scene she’s listening to a record and remembering a trip she made with Henry to Britain and a day spent at Coventry cathedral.

Beneath the murky opening theme, church bells tolled, and she pictured the cathedral, the bare yews reaching over the chancel, the spire rising into the sky. Somewhere downstairs there were albums filled with Henry’s pictures of that day, and the next, when it had rained and the pub Louise had recommended was closed. As the horns and then the chorus entered, Emily looked up from her Land’s End catalog, squinting, as if trying to remember something elusive, but the music was just music now, recorded voices and tympani booming from the stereo. There was nothing she wanted to buy. The models all seemed too pleased with themselves, as if they’d discovered an easier way of life. She flipped through the pages, wondering when Margaret would call, if at all. 

Emily is not without her faults. She has a tendency to fuss, and it doesn’t take a great deal to upset the calm order of her world. In one scene, for example, she frets over a team of gardeners sent to prepare a house that’s up for sale. She notes the coffee cups brought by the workers and “wondered how many of the cups would find their way into her bushes.”  She frets over a number painted on the pavement outside of her house. She canvases the neighbourhood looking for other similar marks and then spends hours on the telephone with the city suspecting that a “public works project” is planned. Anticipating “a chaos she was powerless to stop, ” she becomes fixated on the number, obsessively checking on it as though “it might magically disappear.”

Although Emily’s routine may seem dull, she has a rich inner life (reads Thomas Hardy) and attends an art show and the annual flower show which heralds in spring:

They came every year, like pilgrims. Women of a certain age, her mother called them, a polite way of saying old bags. For months they’d been saving the date, the invitation to members stuck to the fridge, pinned to the kitchen bulletin board. This was the real beginning of spring, the gathering of the tribe. survivors, believers, they flocked from across the city, made the trek in to gritty Oakland from the tony suburbs, curling around the Gothic rocket ship of the Cathedral of Learning, back past the library and Flagstaff Hill to the edge of Schenley Park. There might be snow on the golf course, the trees bare, but inside the peaked glass palace of Phipps Conservatory, the world was in bloom.

Emily’s memories are her constant companions, and there are times when the past seems more vivid than the present. This of course raises one of the novel’s central questions: what do you make of life when the best of it seems to be over?

That was how time passed-waiting through everything else to do the things you wanted. How little fell into that category now; easter, her garden, Chautauqua. She thought there would be more to live for.

Ultimately Emily, Alone is an optimistic novel. Adversity gets Emily out of her rut and behind the wheel of a brand new Subaru, and surprised at her own extravagance, she hopes she’s not “like one of those middle-aged men who buys a Porsche.” With gentle humour, Stewart O’Nan details the inner life of this elderly woman, a woman who has sustained a substantial number of losses, and yet manages to find joy and hope in daily life.

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The Old Romantic by Louise Dean

Last year, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Louise Dean’s novel, Becoming Strangers, and then this year I was fortunate indeed to get my hands on a review copy of Dean’s latest, The Old Romantic. It’s reviewed at Mostly Fiction, so I won’t repeat myself too much here, but here’s a brief outline:

The novel begins with a reunion-from-hell for the long-estranged Goodyew family. Barrister Nick has spent years avoiding his parents, and part of that avoidance is manifested in his attempts to reinvent himself. He used to be called Gary, and when he dropped the name and attended university, he left his working class roots behind. Or so he thought.

The reunion takes place at Xmas with Nick and his girlfriend, upwardly mobile spa owner Astrid, picking up Nick’s grumpy old dad, Ken and his second wife, June for Xmas dinner at the home of Nick’s younger brother Dave. Within just a couple of pages, we see a tangled mess of relationships and the sort of nasty remarks that are only ever directed towards family members. The rest of the novel follows the relationships between the Goodyew family as various events occur.

If you’ve ever wondered why you bother with your relatives, then chances are you will enjoy the book. It’s lively and very, very bitterly funny in its exploration of family politics.  Nick’s dad Ken is arguably the star of the show, and as the book continues there are many hilarious scenes which made me laugh out loud. One of the best scenes takes place at a swanky restaurant at dinner attended by Astrid’s parents, the snobbish Linda and Malcolm, Nick and Astrid, and Nick’s dad Ken. This is an important meal, Ken is the unexpected guest, and Astrid’s parents receive no advance warning. Ken (who reminds me a great deal of Albert Steptoe) dominates:

Ken slapped the closed menu down onto the table. ‘All too dear,’ he said, tight-lipped and final.

Nick’s professional experience in dealing with difficult people in challenging circumstances persuaded him to coax the old boy.

‘It’s actually very reasonable, Dad. A nice, elegant menu, not too pretentious. If you tot it up, it works out quite a good deal if each of us takes the prix fixe.’

But he wasn’t speaking Ken’s language. ‘Too dear.’ Ken reiterated.

‘There’s liver and bacon, Dad, on at fifteen. You like liver and bacon, don’t you? That’s right up your street.’

‘Do me a favour! Fifteen nicker for a bit of offal. They sin you coming, sunshine.’ Ken made a bid of the other couple’s opinion. ‘What d’you think, Malcolm? Dear, innit?’

Nick leant back in his chair, putting his mouth close to his father’s ear, to escape the audible range of their table.

‘Just fucking order something, all right?’

Ken closed his eyes.

A bit later, Ken makes his menu choice:

Ken cleared his throat. ‘I’ll have the tamada soup.’

‘The…what’s that? I can’t see it on the menu….’ said Linda, with murderous eloquence.

‘There’s always a tamada soup on the menu.’

Malcolm tried to look wry and debonair, both old-fashioned and modern, with one side of his face doing the 1950s and the other lost in space.

‘Tomato soup.’ Astrid came to the rescue. ‘As in Heinz.’

‘That’s the job,’ said Ken.

‘He doesn’t get out much,’ said Nick to the waitress.

‘And tap water, please,’ said Ken. ‘From the tap, please, miss. Yes. Thank you. And I’ll have some bread with my soup, ta. I don’t drink much, do you Linda? Don’t feel the need.’

So two winners in a row from Dean. 

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The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone by Tennessee Williams

I saw that author Charles Lambert included The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone in his ‘best books set in Italylist, and when I noticed that it was, in fact, a novel, and not a play (as I’d thought for some reason), I decided to read it. I’ve seen both film versions of The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, and liked the story very much indeed. I’ve also read Tennessee William’s memoirs and found them great fun. I don’t have a ‘best books set in Italy’ list, so The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone will, instead, slot into my Women Who Go Wild in Italy category. If you think along the lines of women getting off the plane in Italy and starting to tear their clothes off, then you’ll be on the right track or at least in sync with my sick and twisted thoughts.

Mrs Stone, Karen, is an aging actress, and while she doesn’t exactly start tearing her clothes off when she arrives in Rome, she does get herself into a great deal of trouble through her efforts to stave off the nagging fact that she’s aging. Karen and her husband were travelling after she announced her retirement from the stage, and she lands in Rome following his sudden death. Karen’s husband worshipped her, protected her and required very little in return. Karen isn’t aging well, and when I say that, I should add that she looks marvellous–one of those expensively, well-oiled and well-maintained machines. She started to put on a little weight but managed to shed it, and for a woman in her 50s she looks wonderful. Mentally, however, Karen isn’t doing so well; she cannot adapt to the fact she’s aging. Rome is a refuge for Mrs Stone as she thinks that here she can avoid the judgments of the theatre crowd:

In Mrs. Stone there was a certain grandeur which had replaced her former beauty. The knowledge that her beauty was lost had come upon her recently and it was still occasionally forgotten. It could be forgotten, sometimes, in the silk-filtered dusk of her bedroom where the mirrors disclosed an image in cunningly soft focus. It could be forgotten sometimes in the company of Italians who had never seen her as other than she now was and who have, moreover, the gift of a merciful kind of dissemblance. But Mrs. Stone had instinctively avoided contact with women she had known in America, whose eyes, if not their tongues, were inclined to uncomfortable candour.

As the novel continues, it’s revealed that Karen’s retirement came after her rather embarrassing performance as Juliet. No amount of makeup could cover the fact that she was an aging woman–not a nubile, dewy virgin. And now she’s in Rome alone. No money worries, true, but she’s lonely and terrified by aging. If you know the story, you know that Karen starts keeping a gigolo who is managed by a predatory Italian Contessa. It’s a curious and self-destructive decision. After all, Karen isn’t much interested in sex, and she fully realises that her boy-toy Paolo is an expensive little con-artist.

The novel’s great irony is that while Karen pampers a petulant, beautiful gigolo in order to convince herself that she’s still a pulsating, desirable woman, in the final judgment, this act only endorses her desperation. A woman of her age, wealthy, still attractive and with a fabulous past could most certainly acquire a respectable male escort (and by respectable, I mean he wouldn’t have to be paid to do it), and she could very possibly acquire a husband. So what is Karen Stone playing at? Why does she stoop to paying a snotty little gigolo who can’t even be nice in public? She doesn’t see herself as a laughing stock, but rather she imagines that Paolo’s beauty reflects back on her. Perhaps part of the answer can be found in Karen’s past. She’s used to acting opposite beautiful young men, and considered them only a threat when their performances overshadowed hers. Does she see Paolo as the next best thing to a young, ambitious actor? In her relationship with Paolo, is Karen simply trying to recreate an acting role with the comfort zone of a young, good-looking actor as a foil?

She had been twice as long in the world as Paolo and had known in her profession a fair quantity of young men with languid graces and a measure of beauty who only looked at mirrors. They had not interested her in the past, but she had known them. She had liked them to play opposite her on stage for they had little resistance. It was like sticking your finger into a puff of meringue to take their measure, and yet they did well enough as supporting players. They felt and provoked no excitement. You knew what they were going to do and could obliterate them with a gesture. It was rather fun doing it. Sometimes it was nice to catch hold of their moist young palms in the wings and say, Don’t be nervous! Every play has to open and some have to close …

Their dressing rooms smelled nice, their bodies not giving off the musk of the male, or not enough of it to be detectable through the talcum or pine cologne. She had felt for them the sort of affection that is based on knowing you have the power to destroy and which is the warmer for being mixed with contempt.

The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone is a terribly sad story of a woman whose acting talent was predicated on her looks; she did not build for a future without beauty. When we first meet Karen, she’s fallen swiftly from the pinnacle of her success, but after that it’s a rapid, lurid downhill slide. While all relationships contain some element of power, perhaps in the best relationships there is some balance achieved without dominance. In Karen’s relationship with Paolo, she should in theory have the power since she controls the money. There are many scenes which detail Paolo’s little ploys for money and presents, and while Karen initially may hold the cards, she accedes all control to Paolo when she begins demanding love.

Anyway, this was a great read–no dull characters and marvellous descriptions throughout. Frustrated female passion seems to be the author’s speciality, and here instead of the raging nymphomania of  Blanche DuBois, in Karen we see equally complex sexual behaviour. Tennessee Williams shows that Karen Stone is not the only middle-aged female character with difficulties adjusting to aging. Paolo has quite a history with a range of women–including the lonely married variety. But one of my favourite characters here (and there are several to choose from)  is Karen’s acquaintance, Mrs Bishop–a woman who can’t adjust her notions of femininity to fit her own body:

Meg Bishop was a woman journalist who had written a series of books under the basic title of Meg Sees, all dealing with cataclysmic events in the modern world and ranging historically from the civil war in Spain to the present guerilla fighting in Greece. Ten years of association with brass hats and political bigwigs had effaced any lingering traits of effeminacy in her voice and manner. Unfortunately she did not choose to wear the tailored clothes that would be congruous with her booming, incisive voice and her alert, military bearing. The queenly mink coat that she wore, the pearls and the taffeta dinner gown underneath, gave her a rather shockingly transvestite appearance, almost as though the burly commander of a gunboat had presented himself in the disguise of a wealthy clubwoman.

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