Tag Archives: aging

Olive, Again: Elizabeth Strout

“God, have I seen enough of this crap! Come on, Jack.”

I was sorry to see the last of Olive when I closed the final page of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge. For those who have yet to meet Olive (in either the book or the TV series version) Olive Kitteridge is a retired Math teacher who lives in Crosby Maine with her husband, pharmacist Henry. In many ways they are a mismatched couple (she’s domineering and abrasive and Henry is tender and kind) but in other ways Henry and Olive supplement one another.  In Olive Kitteridge, which isn’t as much a novel as much as interconnected stories, we meet not just Olive, Henry and their son Christopher, but also a range of characters who live in Crosby, and these characters form a rich tapestry of small town life. Some people really like Olive for her quirky outspokenness ; others find her abrasive and dislike her.

It doesn’t take too many pages before you realise that Olive is a formidable character. She can at times have incredible insight and empathy towards people but she is a tyrant at home. Both gentle Henry and unhappy Christopher are overshadowed and dominated by Olive, and in Olive Kitteridge, Christopher breaks with his mother and Henry suffers from illness which takes Olive by surprise.

Olive again

Now we’re back again: life has moved on for Olive. At the end of Olive Kitteridge, Olive meets Jack Kennison a retired widower, a Harvard professor who’s been eased out of his position by sexual harassment charges. Olive, Again picks up this story thread with 74-year-old Jack and Olive connecting after acknowledging old age and loneliness. Both Jack and Olive are estranged from their children, and Jack, a much more confident and self-assured man than Henry, manages to roll with Olive’s sharp temper and lashing tongue.

The stories bring a host of characters into play: people who drift in and out of Olive’s life and sometimes we see Olive pass by the lives of other characters who are central to a specific story. Over time, Olive finds that Henry recedes into the background and she goes through various conclusions about her marriage and Henry (some of which are reassessed again before the book concludes.)

The truth is that Olive did not understand why age had brought with it a kind of hard-heartedness toward her husband. But it was something she had seemed unable to help, as though the stone wall that had rambled along between them during the course of their long marriage–a stone wall that separated them but also provided unexpected dips of moss-covered warm spots where sunshine would flicker between them in a sudden laugh of understanding–had become tall and unyielding, and not providing flowers in its crannies but some ice storm frozen along it instead. In other words, something had come between them that seemed insurmountable. 

I’m not going to talk about all the stories: just the ones that stick in my mind. One of my favourite, yet disturbing stories in the collection, Cleaning, features Kaley, a young girl who cleans houses. She cleans the home of a strange couple, a teacher and her husband who, according to Olive is “going dopey-dope.” Kaley finds that she cannot talk to anyone about what is happening at the house–it’s a situation that creeps up on her, and while the subject doesn’t come up with Olive, somehow Olive’s frank take on the couple clears the air.

There’s also another brilliant story, Labor about a tedious baby shower. which illustrates how Olive doesn’t fit in. Olive sits there with the other women aware of how she’s supposed to act: she’s bored and impatient; she knows she’s supposed to ohhh and ahhh over the gifts with all the other women, and she tries to put on a good show of interest and attention but it’s really more than she can bear.

A third gift was presented to Marlene’s daughter, and Olive distinctly felt distress. She could not imagine how long it would take this child to unwrap every goddamned gift on that table and put the ribbons so carefully on the goddamned paper plate, and then everyone had to wait–wait-while every gift was passed around. She thought she had never heard of such foolishness in her life. 

In Light Olive visits a former student, Cindy, who has cancer. Most of Cindy’s friends avoid visiting or if they visit, the C word isn’t mentioned. But no subject is taboo to Olive; she doesn’t recognize boundaries. Olive’s graceless blunt manner is just what this woman needs and for once Olive’s matter of fact approach is welcomed.

In The End of the Civil War Days, Olive plays a tiny role while the main focus is a married couple who separate their living areas with yellow duct tape, so that they each have half of the dining room, the living room etc. and necessary communicate exists through addressing the dog “The main issue, naturally, is the television,” as with two televisions husband and wife compete with sound until the husband gets earphones. The way some people live for so long that it becomes normal. …. The irony to this story is that a state of civil war reigns at home and the husband is a member of a civil war reenactment group.

(And just as a point, I know a couple who live like this; the husband sleeps outside.)

Somehow these stories sum up a lot about Olive: she’s complicated; she’s impatient and doesn’t fit the roles she finds herself shoved into. She has a difficult time with social relationships and perhaps that’s why outsiders, people on the fringes like her so much. Jack emerges as a main character here. At one point, he reassesses his relationship with his dead wife with the “horrifying rush” that while he loved her, they’d “still squandered what they’d had.” Whereas Henry was dominated and overshadowed by Olive, Jack, who’s well aware that they must enjoy the short time left, simply laughs at Olive’s grumpiness and barbs.

Mental illness is one of the themes of Olive Kitteridge, and while it’s also in Olive, Again other themes are the deep scars left in marriage by infidelities, the rising tide of regret, and aging which of course goes hand in hand with dying. Characters drop off left right and center, and Olive herself become an old lady. Her world shrinks in this book, and while it’s sad, Olive comes to a few revelations about her life and her son Christopher.  At times she struggles to understand how things happened, but she also has some remarkable revelations– as does Jack, who also lives with many regrets and has an unfortunate face-to-face with his Waterloo in Pedicure.

Review copy.

 

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Iza’s Ballad: Magda Szabó

Last year I read Magda Szabó’s Katalin Street, a novel, beginning in 1934, which follows the fate of three neighbouring families.  You don’t have to be a historian to know that these fictional characters lived through some tough times, and that brings me to Iza’s Ballad, from the same author. In this novel, it’s 1960, the bad times are over, and Ettie and her husband Vince are living proof… well, let’s back up a bit and amend that by adding that after a case that was a political hot potato, judge Vince lost his job decades earlier. Subsequently Vince & Ettie lived in disgrace, were shunned by former friends and neighbours and forced into a life of extreme poverty. Their first child a boy, died very young, but they had a second child late in life, Iza. Iza, who wanted to be a doctor, was initially rejected by the university due to her father’s political actions, but she was eventually accepted due to the influence of a loyal family friend. Now, under a new political climate, Vince has been  “rehabilitated” and given a pension.

When the novel opens, Iza is working as a doctor in Budapest. At one point she was married to another doctor, Antal and they both lived in the family home, previously requisitioned by the government, and bought with Vince’s rehabilitation money. But something went wrong… Antal and Iza divorced and Iza moved to the city. Now Vince is dying and Iza returns home.

Iza is, by all accounts, an admirable person. No one can understand why Antal and Iza divorced; the reason for the divorce is never openly discussed, and there’s a great deal of speculation among their acquaintances about what could have occurred. Iza is respected by everyone, so when she returns home and swoops up her elderly mother and sends her off to a health spa before whisking her off to Budapest, everyone envies Ettie. Iza is both Ettie’s daughter and her doctor, and in the days following Vince’s death, Ettie, stunned by her loss, is too numb to ask questions and simply complies with her daughter’s directions.

This is a dark, subtle novel…ultimately rather depressing, but it’s an excellent psychological  exploration of the troubled relationship between mother and daughter. We know that there will be trouble ahead when Ettie, who is a relic from another, much harsher era, is shuttled off to the health spa which was the brain child of Antal and Iza in the early part of their collaborative relationship. Here Ettie orders the cheapest menu options, and she trusts that Iza will forward all of her precious belongs and furniture to Budapest. This section is a little heavy-handed as Ettie repeats this, internally, so many times, we know that her expectations are going to be flattened by Iza’s brutal efficiency.

As the novel continues we see these two very different women establish a life together. Iza, a dutiful daughter, checks all the appropriate boxes, advising her mother to eat good food and exercise, but Ettie cannot adjust to life in Budapest and she shrinks into herself.  Iza is mostly oblivious to her mother’s feelings and needs, and she notes that her mother has an “instinctive feudalism” when it comes to dealing with other people.

On one level, this is a novel about a generation gap, and how we fail to see our parents as human beings, how the elderly become a hindrance, but it’s also an illustration of how an admirable human being can also be a horror when it comes to personal relationships. One government official sees Iza as “a splendid woman” who “spares absolutely no effort.” That is certainly true when it comes to Iza’s work ethic, but anyone involved with Iza on a personal level sees a different side. “Iza didn’t like remembering,” and that translates to a blunt, efficient approach to life which allows for no emotional attachment to places, things or even people.  Iza ‘means well’ (and what a treacherous term that is) but fails on all levels to understand her mother’s sensibilities.

She kissed her mother’s hand and face, and let her finger flutter over her pulse a moment. The pulse was strong and regular. Luckily washing hadn’t been too much of a strain. Iza went into the kitchen to heat up supper while the old woman took down the washing line, quickly removing her own things

Readers may have a range of responses regarding Iza. Her professional life is rich, and she’s devoted to her patients, and yet she is missing some of the very necessary qualities that make us flawed human beings. For this reader, there was another intriguing issue to the novel, and that’s how individuals handle poverty. Some of us never really get beyond it, saving every rubber band and paperclip rather than throw it away, and still others have a horror of their past poverty and gild themselves with a patina of the latest, most modern stuff.

Review copy.

Translated by George Szirtes

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After the Fire: Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell’s After the Fire is the Swedish author’s final novel. After the Fire is a far cry from the Wallander crime series, and yet the novel, which at times conveys a strange dream-like quality also concerns crimes. This time, however, the emphasis is on aging and coming to terms with one’s life and actions.

69-year-old retired surgeon Fredrik Wellin lives on an island in the house that used to belong to his grandparents. Fredrik lives a solitary life, and he likes it that way. His only regular visitor is the postman, Jansson, and Fredrik’s daughter, Louise, who keeps her father at arm’s length, occasionally comes to visit. Independent and private, she stays in her caravan which was moved to the island on a cattle ferry. Fredrik suffers from high blood pressure, worries about his heart, and self-medicates. Perhaps some of Fredrik’s desire for solitude can be explained by his retirement which occurred in disgrace: he amputated the wrong arm of a young woman. And so he returned to the island, to the house in which he was born, to live out his days until his death.

After the Fire

Asleep one night, Fredrik is woken up by a bright light. Realizing that his house is on fire, he manages to escape grabbing two left boots on the way out of the door. The house is completely destroyed, and Fredrik, who moves into his daughter’s caravan, soon finds himself suspected of arson. Suddenly his life isn’t private anymore.

After the Fire is not a fast-paced novel. Mankell takes his time unpacking his story, building slowly on atmosphere, events in the area’s harsh past, and strange, eerie events. Even a childhood excursion when Fredrik went fishing with his grandfather evokes memories of his grandfather bludgeoning a swimming deer. Fredrik’s island is near a former fishing, now summer resort town, and the story takes place when the visitors have left and just the locals remain. The locals are a strange bunch: including the mysterious Oslovski, a woman with a glass eye who claims to be Polish and then later became a Swedish citizen.

Sometimes she disappeared for several months and then one day she would be back. As if nothing had happened. She moved around like a cat in the night. 

Most of the characters in the book are strange, and this raises the question: do strange people move to this area to escape the burden of suburbia, or do they become strange in this remote, harsh landscape? A bit of both, I suspect. The landscape is unforgiving: bitter winds, the sea that freezes only to crack and swallow unfortunate victims in the shallows, the perch have disappeared, the quarries have closed. Nature is relentless and unbeatable:

I drove down a steep hill, and then the trees began to thin out. I passed a few houses by the side of the road; some were empty, dilapidated, while others were perhaps still occupied. I stopped the car again  and got out. No movement, not a sound. The forest had crept right up to the houses, swallowing the rusty tools. the overgrown meadows. 

One of the only ‘normal’ characters here is the attractive newspaper reporter, Lisa Modin, and before long, Fredrik has designs on this woman, decades his junior, designs, which while incongruous on one level, also show his loneliness and desire for female companionship.

Fredrik’s daughter, the prickly Louise, a daughter whose existence he only learned of when she was an adult, arrives on the island, and while the traditional role would be for her to help her father pick up the pieces of his life, her short stay only brings friction and raises some uncomfortable questions.

After the Fire is an interesting, and at times slow, melancholy read. We land in the book at the end of Fredrik’s life, and pieces of information are gradually parceled out, so that we put together the puzzle of Fredik’s psychology. He acknowledges feeling remorse for chopping off the wrong arm of a patient, but add to that picture his wife, Harriet “who made her way across the ice using her wheeled walker, some years go” and who died on the island. Add a father who wasn’t told that he had a daughter until that child grew into adulthood. Then add the bizarre relationship between Fredrik and Louise–at one point he spies through the caravan window while his daughter is half dressed as if catching her in a private moment will reveal the secrets of her life that she refuses to share. Through the story Henning Mankell argues for the relentless of Nature and our human attempts to subvert it, and yet there’s another strain here: the immutability of human nature.

Review copy

translated by Marlaine Delargy

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Low Heights: Pascal Garnier

In Pascal Garnier’s dark, nastily funny novel, Low Heights, curmudgeonly widower Monsieur Lavenant, almost 75, is the patient from hell. A successful, former business man, Lavenant is still spry and was quite healthy until he was struck by a stroke. Now his left arm and hand are useless, and this incapacity hasn’t helped his temperament improve. Thérèse, his long-suffering private, live-in nurse, whose beatific state provokes Lavenant rather than calms him, is the recipient of most of her employer’s abuse. But after a series of jobs in which she nurses the elderly ill, she’s used to it, and her mind resides in a place where Lavenant’s insults can’t reach her.

Low Heights

When the novel opens, Lavenant has decided to leave his hometown of Lyon and relocate to a home in a village in the Rhone-Alps region. They make a pitstop in the beautiful city of Nyons, but to Lavenant the city is just another series of annoyances. Nothing makes him happy, and Thérèse can’t reason with him:

Just look at that! English, Dutch, Germans, Belgians … Do I go and do my shopping in their countries? No! You’d think we were still under the Occupation.

I could easily have done the shopping on my own; you didn’t have to come.

That’s right, you’d like me to stay shut up in my hole like a rat. I do still have the right to go out, you know.

Once at their new home, Lavenant and Thérèse’s relationship starts to shift. Lavenant begins to mellow and he warms to Thérèse. Can it be possible that all that wonderful mountain air and the peace and quiet of the countryside will improve Lavenant’s temperament? Things are looking up, and then they are surprised by a visit from a young man who claims to be Lavenant’s son.

As is usual with Garnier, expect the unexpected. Low Heights is morbidly, darkly funny with the author’s signature putrid descriptions of people and nature.

It was nice on the terrace. There was a cool breeze from the lake. The fillets of perch were excellent, the service impeccable. yet it was if something like an imperceptible odour of putrefaction hung over this perfect world, accompanied by a worrying ticking sound. 

Garnier’s Too Close to the Edge explores what happens when people move away from the suburbs, and The Islanders explores a Folie à Deux. There are elements of those themes in Low Heights; Lavenant, hardly a reasonable man at the best of times, becomes increasingly eccentric and irascible as he and Thérèse move away from civilization. Garnier seems to argue that any internal moral compass that keeps us in check when we live in cities, disintegrates and disappears the closer we go to nature–nature makes us revert to our animal selves.  The relationship between Lavenant and his nurse becomes increasingly twisted, so much so that Thérèse, a seemingly fairly normal woman (if too bovine) begins to enter Lavenant’s psychosis.

In Low Heights Garnier cynically explores how old people can get away with stuff–rudeness for example. Lavenant exploits his age mercilessly, and his behavior is constantly excused by others. Also examined here is how we bring our personalities to disease, so thoughtless, impatient people who may be barely tolerable when healthy become monstrous when ill.

I liked Low Heights a lot, but it’s still nowhere near my favourite Garnier. For those interested here’s an order of preference. Not that I expect anyone to agree, but there may be a reader out there who wants to try Garnier:

Order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Low Heights

Boxes

The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory

A-26

Translated by Melanie Florence

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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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Filed under Fiction, Manaster Tracy

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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Filed under Fiction, Gary Romain