Tag Archives: American abroad

Binstead’s Safari: Rachel Ingalls

Oh, Stan. All the lousy things to say I’ve saved up for so many years, and now it’s too late.”

Middle-aged academic Stan Binstead travels to Africa with hopes of encountering and researching a mysterious lion cult which may or may not exist. His wife, Millie, insists on joining him–even though he does his best to dissuade her. Chronically unfaithful Stan feels that his wife is “dreary” and boring. He finds her company tedious:

I was foolish. I should have just left. I should have said: Take a vacation wherever you want to, as long as it’s a long way away from me.

In Stan’s view, his marriage is dead and he’s gathering the energy to ask for a divorce. Millie, who’s hoping for a second honeymoon,  is very much the subordinate ‘partner’ in this relationship, and Stan continually scripts her into various roles–all of them unflattering.

binsteads safari

The balance of power in the Binstead’s marriage begins to shift at their first stop, London. Stan, who goes off to meet a friend, dumps Millie, and she, finally realising that the trip isn’t going to mend her marriage, attends ballets, visits museums and thinks that London is “a wonderful town if you’re alone.” She begins to accept that being alone is better than always trying to please a man who makes it clear she’s a burden. Meanwhile Stan, still living with the script that Millie is waiting for crumbs of attention and affection, travels to Africa, little realising that his wife has begun to move away from their toxic relationship and is transforming into the person she would have been if she hadn’t met him.

What would you do without me? she thought. She’d never say it. Once at a party back home, they had heard their friend Sally Murchison ask her husband, Jerry, what he’d do without her and he had answered “Rejoice.”

Stan employs safari guides to take him to villages in search of the lion cult, but before they head out, Millie and Stan are swept up into local white society.  Adultery, murder and scandal seem to fester and then flourish in the wilds of Africa. Tourists murder other tourists, straying tourists are eaten, one woman goes stark raving bonkers, and some wealthy tourists bed-hop in an alarming fashion. As one seasoned guide notes: “It’s extraordinary the way people behave in a country that isn’t their own.” Meanwhile Millie, very much in her element in Africa, blossoms on the safari, and rather shockingly  (to both Stan and Millie) he no longer has the ability to make her feel inadequate:

A kind of dizziness moved across his senses, left and came again, sliding away and washing back over him. She shouldn’t be this way. She never was before. It had started in London. 

As the trip continues, stuffy Stan mulls over his past and his mistakes. As the Binsteads move deeper into lion country, Stan feels an increasing sense of impending doom. For once he’s not in control; for once he’s not admired or given special status due to his academic standing. Stan is largely clueless about the country, definitely clueless about what is going on with his wife, and certainly outflanked by the legendary hunter Simba Lewis.

Stan woke up thirsty when the sun was already fairly high and the day was growing hot. He looked at the others, at Millie in particular. It was increasingly odd to him–astonishing–that she, who always made a mess of everything, worried, and then made the worrying come true, had not put a foot wrong from the moment she’d found herself in foreign surroundings. Once she was away from home, she said the right words, did the right things, and was accepted by everyone. More than that-they all liked her, very much and straight away. Whereas he–they tolerated him. 

Binstead’s Safari is not predictable. The safari becomes a redemptive trek with the main characters embracing their fates as, once in the wilds of Africa, their well-honed domestic roles fall away, and both Stan and Millie become part of something mystical. As the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for–or in this case be careful of what you are looking for:

Binstead’s Safari is going to be republished by New Directions next month, so it seemed the perfect time to review my old copy. I have also read Mrs Caliban but preferred Binstead’s Safari.

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Happy All the Time: Laurie Colwin

Back in the 80s and early 90s, I read, and enjoyed a lot of stories written by Laurie Colwin, so when I picked up one of her novels Happy All the Time, I expected to really enjoy it.

This is the story of two male cousins, third cousins, but we’ll go with cousins,  Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy. They are very different, and yet good friends, and when the novel opens they are both in Cambridge. Vincent initially hoped to win a Nobel prize for physics while Guido intended to “write poetry in heroic couplets.” But practicality intervenes and Guido has a law degree, but disliked the work and returns as a graduate student of literature before taking over the “Morris family trust–the Magna Charta Foundation.” Vincent’s ambitions are also tempered; he’s fascinated by “sanitation engineering” but here they are wasting time as “they lolled around Cambridge and wondered whom they should marry.”

happy all the time

Both men have very different relationships with women. Vincent always tends to go for the same type: “vague blond girls who either were on the verge of engagement or had just left their husbands or were recovering from some grand passion or were just about to leave on an extended tour of Europe, or were in fact European and just about to return to their native land.” Guido has a much more difficult time negotiating male-female relationships.

Guido, the poet, obviously has a much more romanticized approach to relationships and he meets Holly in a museum and begins to pursue her. He takes everything seriously while Holly isn’t particularly expressive. Eventually they marry. Vincent, after a serious of lacklustre relationships later meets and marries prickly Misty.

The novel follows these relationships, and as the years pass, both men conclude that their women remain mysterious, unfathomable. Perhaps thirty years ago, Happy All the Time would have appealed more, but I never engaged with the lives of these affluent couples: yes this is a novel about marriage and the complications of male-female relationships, but these four float in a different society: a grating ozone of privilege. I’ve read plenty of novels about the well-to-do, but here I never engaged with the characters, and they never seemed to have much depth and seemed constructed as ‘types’ rather than flesh and blood people–particularly the males Guido and Vincent who are clueless, bland and uninteresting twits. Conclusion: I prefer Colwin’s short stories which are much darker.

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Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Bored women join clubs and volunteer. Sad women have affairs”

At one point, early in the novel Hausfrau, protagonist, 37-year old Anna, an American living in Switzerland, asks her therapist, Doktor Messerli, “Is there a difference between shame and guilt?” This is an interesting question from a bored married woman who engages in a series of affairs right under her banker husband, Bruno’s nose, and it’s interesting because Anna feels neither shame nor guilty, just temporary relief as she hits one violent orgasm after another.

But why is Anna having these affairs? Is there some sort of central point to her behaviour or is she simply self-destructive? The novel begins with a simple sentence: “Anna was a good wife, mostly,” and it’s that qualifier that drew me into this tale, of a bored, displaced housewife, living in the town of Dietlikon, who turns away from her home life to seek sensation.

hausfrauAnna & Bruno have three children and a stagnant marriage. Anna has never really adjusted to life in Switzerland; she’s decided to try and learn German when the novel begins, but the classes seem more a segue and alibi for torrid affairs than anything else. As the plot unfolds we see Anna, the housewife, who’s  really anything but, disappearing day after day to meet a lover while her mother-in-law takes care of the children, fixes the meals and generally steps in to take up the considerable slack left in Anna’s highly noticeable, lengthy absences.

To say Anna isn’t easy to like would be putting it mildly. She’s self-focused, depressed, morbid, and emotionally disconnected from her life. Night after night, her husband retires to his home office, shutting out Anna, and rejected repeatedly, her response is to arrange assignations with her lover, almost as though she’s begging to be caught–an exposure which at the very least should bring her festering marriage problems to a head.

We ask ourselves where things went wrong? Is Anna simply a neglected wife who gets attention elsewhere? Or can part of her estrangement be blamed on the fact that she’s an ex-pat, confined by and not assimilated into Swiss culture after living in the country for nine years?

So her world was tightly circumscribed by the comings and goings of locomotives, by the willingness of Bruno, Anna’s husband, or Ursula, Bruno’s mother, to drive her places unreachable by bus, and by the engine if her own legs and what distance they could carry her which was rarely as far as she’d have liked to go.

With its graphic sexual details and an extremely unlikable self-focused main character, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau is certain to offend some readers. I’ve read some reviews which complain about the graphic sexual content and others which somehow equate Anna’s lack of self-knowledge with the author. Here’s my thoughts on those two complaints:

The graphic, repellent sexual details were ugly, and yet they created a jarring noise that directly contrasted with Anna’s subdued, emotionally disconnected life. These details also illustrate the affairs for exactly what they are: devoid of romance or lover’s talk, all that’s left are violent, profane, increasingly risky couplings.

Just because an author creates a selfish, unlikable character, this does not mean that the character’s lack of insight reflects back onto the author. While this is a third person narrative, we only see things through Anna’s perspective, so her husband is cold and withdrawn, her mother-in-law is disapproving. But by the time the novel ends, we readers have an understanding of Bruno and Ursula–even if Anna does not. This is a novel likely to generate a lot of debate if picked up by a book group. Some readers will be alienated by Anna’s behaviour, and some may take the simplistic view that there’s a moral message here (x happens when you commit adultery), and this is definitely not a book to be read by the already-depressed. Is Anna supposed to be a sympathetic character? Does the author intend us to feel sorry for Anna? Yes and No… I think Anna is supposed to be sympathetic in as far as someone is sympathetic when they labour under a major delusion and when they spiral out of control and desperately need help, but Anna is also selfish, self-focused and as far as her marriage goes, she refuses to take responsibility for something really major.  We see everyone through Anna’s eyes. She never examines her own behaviour or her treatment of other people. Also notable is Anna’s opinion of her mother-in-law, Ursula, a woman Anna dislikes and silently criticizes, but who seems to be raising Anna’s three children single-handedly while Anna disappears for her afternoon sexual encounters. Frustrating in her passivity, yes there are times you want to shake Anna silly and say: ‘you have a lot to be happy about. Get over yourself. Get a divorce if you’re that unhappy, but do something.’

Anna has a therapist, a Doktor Messerli, who becomes increasingly frustrated with Anna as the therapy fails to produce results. As the book continues, the possible cause of Anna’s depression is revealed, and then Anna’s husband, Bruno, instead of being an inattentive bore, becomes something else entirely. While Anna careens through her life, craving sensation after sensation, avoiding the deep cause of her self-destructive behaviour, the author has clearly created a character who’s supposed to be out of control, but at the same time, she cannot get beyond the suffocating membrane of depression. Anna appears to be extremely passive in a go-with-the-flow way, but she asserts herself sexually with men, and takes the initiative. She’s passive in her relationship with her husband, but with him, she’s throwing clues in his face, silently screaming for him to pay attention.

Occurring monthly, at least, were dozens of instances into which she commended a task into Bruno’s hands. It was he who dealt with local bureaucracy, he who paid the insurance, the taxes, the house note. It was he who filed the paperwork for Anna’s residency permit. And it was Bruno who handled the family’s finances, for he was employed as a mid-level management banker at Credit Suisse. Anna didn’t even have a bank account.

First impressions would indicate that Bruno is controlling. But has Anna simply abdicated her responsibilities? Are the affairs a type of rebellion? This is a novel certain to generate a lot of opinions–my opinion is that Anna, as an ex-pat, is initially forced to abdicate those responsibilities, and then it simply becomes a way of life. When people step into life in another country, they cannot grasp how their lives will change and the extent of the things they are sacrificing, so it’s notable that Anna’s first affair is with a fellow American.

Given that the book’s title is Hausfrau, it should come as no surprise that underlying Anna’s troubled marriage, there’s a plot thread concerning the lives of other secondary female characters. Anna’s acquaintance, Edith, for example, also takes a lover and claims it’s a move that improves her skin. There’s another character, Mary, a fellow student in Anna’s German class, who is intriguing. Mary is married, addicted to cheesy romance novels, has children, is on the plump side and appears to be a veritable Betty Crocker. She befriends Anna and Bruno, and says she is glad to have a female friend. But there are no  less than three occasions when Mary’s actions hint at some dark ulterior motive. In spite of the fact I disliked Anna and was frustrated by her repeatedly, I liked Hausfrau. I liked the chances the author took in creating an amazingly self-destructive character who reminds me of two great fictional characters whose names I won’t mention as to do so would be a plot spoiler.

Marina Sofia’s review, and thanks Marina for pointing me towards Hausfrau in the first place.

Review copy

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The Relentless City: E. F. Benson

“America sat high on the seas, grown like some portentous mushroom in a single night.”

Author E.F. Benson (1867-1940) seems to be best remembered for his Mapp and Lucia books which have made their way to television–definitely a way to keep that written word in print. I’d never read Benson before, but then I came across a 99cent offer for the kindle: The Relentless City.

the relentless cityThe Relentless City (1903) is a social satire, a novel of manners, built around a English man, Lord Bertie Keynes, set to inherit a title and a heavily mortgaged estate, and Sybil Massington, a young English widow. These two people decide that they want to marry wealth, and that translates to marrying Americans. Bertie must marry money, and Sybil finds herself admiring the American spirit. Bertie is cynical about his quest:

You don’t suppose the Americans really think that lots of us go there to find wives because we prefer them to English girls? They know the true state of the case perfectly well. They only don’t choose to recognize it, just as one doesn’t choose to recognize a man one doesn’t want to meet. They look it in the face, and cut it–cut it dead.

The Relentless City of the title is literally New York but it’s also the frenetic American way of life epitomized by self-made millionaire and workaholic, former railway porter, Lewis S. Palmer–a man whose whole life is directed, with intense preoccupation, towards the making of money.

Yet in the relentless city, where no one may pause for a moment unless he wishes to be left behind in the great universal race for gold.

The novel opens at the London Carlton, “full to suffocation of people,” and that includes the American Mrs. Lewis S. Palmer, a loud woman who appears to the “casual observer” to be dressed “exclusively in diamonds.” Mrs. Palmer flaunts her wealth and brags that whenever she’s homesick, her husband “sends to Tiffany’s for the biggest diamond they’ve got.” She’s enjoying her time in London, threatens to buy it, and suspects she’ll “rupture something” when she returns home to America. Even though she’s in the Carlton, that doesn’t stop her frequent screams whenever she’s amused. A great deal is made of Mrs. Palmer, her manners “of a barmaid,” & her behaviour in this first scene:

It was said of her, indeed, that staying for a week-end not long ago with some friend in the country, rain had been expected because one day after lunch a peacock was heard screaming so loud, but investigation showed that it was only Mrs. Palmer, at a considerable distance away on the terrace, laughing.

Bertie, who recently recovered from losing his first great love, actress Dorothy Emsworth, sails to America and is the guest of the Palmers at their opulent, ironically named home: Mon Repos where life is “not a holiday, but hard, relentless work of a most exacting kind.” As a Long Island hostess, one of Mrs. Palmer’s goals is to attract people to her social headquarters and away from Newport and rival hostess Mrs. John Z. Adelboden. Mrs. Palmer triumphs when she lures a minor royal to her home:

For only two days before the reigning Prince of Saxe-Hochlaben, a dissolute young man of twenty-five, with a limp, a past, and no future, had arrived like a thunderbolt in New York.

Mrs. Palmer organizes the most outrageously expensive parties. In one, she transforms a local beach into a lagoon with tiny cabinets complete with a change of clothes and fishing nets for all the guests:

The lagoon itself smelt strongly of rose-water, for thousands of gallons had just been emptied into it, and the surface was covered with floating tables laden with refreshments, and large artificial water-lilies. And scattered over the bottom of the lagoon-scattered too, with a liberal hand–were thousands of pearl oysters.

There was no time wasted; as soon as Prince Fritz grasped the situation, and it had been made clear to him that he might keep any pearls he found, he rushed madly to the nearest cabin, rolled his trousers up to the knee, put sandals on his rather large, ungainly feet, and plunged into the rose-watered lagoon. Nor were the rest slow to follow his example, and in five minutes it was a perfect mob of serge-skirted women and bare-legged men. Mr. Palmer himself did not join in the wading, for, in addition to a slight cold, wading was bad for his chronic indigestion; but he seized a net, and puddled about with it from the shore. Shrieks of ecstasy greeted the finding of the pearls; cries of dismay arose if the shell was found to contain nothing. Faster and more furious grew the efforts of all to secure them; for a time the floating refreshment-tables attracted not the smallest attention. In particular, the Prince was entranced, and, not waiting to open the shells where the oyster was still alive (most, however, had been killed by the rose-water or the journey, and gaped open), he stowed them away in his pockets, in order to examine them afterwards–not waste the precious moments when so many were in competition with him; and his raucous cries of ‘Ach, Himmel! there is a peauty!’ resounded like a bass through the shrill din.

In this lively, highly-entertaining novel of manners, there’s lots of scope here for the clash of cultures as English habits and values meet brash, disinhibited America, and the author seems to have great fun exploring the excesses of American high society. After the scene at the Carlton, Bertie’s friend, Charlie, portrayed as a much less progressive character than Bertie, weighs the pros and cons of Mrs. Palmer as part of the “barbarian invasion.” Bertie, the eldest son of an impoverished marquis, much later in the novel makes a statement that American culture is not less or lower than English culture–just different, and while this is an effort to establish differences rather than superiority, it’s a limp attempt as the majority of the book pokes fun at Grande Dame Mrs. Palmer, her ludicrous parties, and the planned stripping of a beautiful English ancestral estate for its coal by the new American owners. In The Relentless City, the American characters are here for laughs with generous dollops of humour in the vein of Oscar Wilde, and  while there are basically two love stories which unfold, there’s also a bit of villainy seen through the character of the dastardly Bilton. Ultimately, after meeting and mingling with the Americans the English characters are left shell-shocked more than anything else.

More intimately disquieting was the perpetual sense of his nerves being jarred by the voices, manners, aims, mode of looking at life of the society into which he was to marry. Not for a moment did he even hint to himself that his manner of living and conducting himself, traditional to him, English, was in the smallest degree better or wiser than the manner of living and conducting themselves practised by these people, traditional (though less so) to them, American. Only there was an enormous difference, which had been seen by him in the autumn and dismissed as unessential, since it concerned only their manners, and had nothing to do with their immense kindliness of heart, which he never doubted or questioned for a moment. What he questioned now was whether manners did not spring, after all, from something which might be essential, something, the lack of which in one case, the presence of in another might make a man or a woman tolerable or intolerable if brought into continuous contact.

 

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Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie

Again the idea that he has fallen into a Henry James novel occurs to Fred; but now he casts Rosemary in a different role, as one of James’ beautiful, worldly, corrupt villainesses.”

Late last year, I read and enjoyed Alison Lurie’s novel,  The War Between the Tates, and so I decided to reread Foreign Affairs, a novel I enjoyed the first time around, and one I enjoyed even more on a reread. This is a very clever, subtle book with more than a touch of Henry James, but then what else could we expect with two Americans–one a hopeless Anglophile, both in Britain for research. Even though these two Americans, one in his prime and the other a middle-aged woman, have vastly different attitudes towards Britain, they are both seduced by the culture in different ways, and one of these Americans catches himself feeling rather like a lost character in a Henry James novel.

Foreign affairsThe novel’s main character is 54-year-old Virginia, “Vinnie,” Miner, an American professor who fancies herself as inherently more British than American, so when she finds herself on a flight to London sitting next to Chuck Mumpson, a  loud, badly dressed American tourist who mistakes her for a woman who’s returning home, she’s initially annoyed by his disruptive presence but then secretly delighted by his assumption that she’s British. Hailing from New York and teaching at “upstate” Corinth university, Vinnie is travelling to Britain for a six-month long research study into “folk-rhymes of schoolchildren.” Vinnie sees Britain as her spiritual home, and if she could wrangle a way to move there permanently, she would. She feels that she’s a “nicer person there and that her life was more interesting.” In London, she has a regular round of friends and a more glamorous social life that seems to be lacking at Corinth.

England, for Vinnie, is and always has been the imagined and desired country. For a quarter of a century she visited it in her mind, where it had been slowly and lovingly shaped and furnished out of her favorite books, from Beatrix Potter to Anthony Powell.

Vinnie’s chance encounter with Chuck, the very sort of American tourist she doesn’t want to be associated with, continues when Chuck, deciding that Vinnie is the only person he knows in Britain, asks for help tracing his noble ancestry. Vinnie, at first annoyed by Chuck, soon begins to feel a sort of responsibility for him.

The novel’s second main character is the young, extremely handsome professor, Fred Turner also from Corinth, who’s supposed to be in London researching John Gay. Following a quarrel, Fred and his wife are in a “trial separation,” and that leaves Fred alone and lonely in London, unable to concentrate on his research in the British Museum (renamed Bowel Movement), surrounded by “other readers, many of them eccentric or possibly insane,” and leading a miserable existence on a pittance. Fred’s life seems to turn around when he meets the glamorous British actress, Rosemary at one of Vinnie’s parties. Rosemary is known for “frequent, sexual lapses–referred to later with laughter in phrases like ‘I don’t know what came over me’ or ‘It must have been the Champagne.’ “

The novel follows the literal and figurative “foreign affairs” of Fred and Vinnie.  Fred, is swept up in Rosemary’s intimate circle, and he’s soon embroiled in the social life of her set, leaving his American friends and acquaintances in the dust. Partly by observing Fred, Vinnie, on the other hand, begins to feel not so involved with her British acquaintances, and the fact that Fred is invited to social events that she isn’t a part of serves to underscore the tourist/temporary nature of her many stays in Britain. The novel has a great deal to say about being an American in Britain, and ultimately our characters realize the impossibility of thoroughly fitting in or completely understanding the subtler nuances of behaviour and conversation which isn’t something one can read about in a guide book or pick up casually during a few months holiday. Fred’s miserable American friends Joe and Debbie Vogeler are prime examples of tourists who don’t get it. They feel that Britain has somehow been misrepresented–from the weather to the food–everything is a huge disappointment:

After making a big effort for over a month they have given up on the whole scene. They are also really pissed off at themselves for having been dumb enough to come here on leave from the adjacent Southern California colleges at which they teach, with a year-old baby on top of everything. They were warned, but they had been brainwashed by their admiration for British literature (Debby) and British philosophy (Joe). Why hadn’t they listened to their friends? they keep asking each other. Why hadn’t they gone to Italy or Greece, or even stayed home in Claremont, for god’s sake? Britain might have been great in the past, all right, but in their opinion modern London sucks.

In one very humourous scene, the Vogelers complain about the natives: the grocery shop owner was who “really disagreeable,” when Debbie suggests he stock American items, a disgruntled plumber, and the woman at the dry cleaners who handled Debbie’s pants “as if they had a smell.” Disillusioned and feeling swindled by images of a Britain that exists only in their imagination, Debbie and Joe are convinced that the locals are “in collusion” against “dumb young American professors.” Fred’s attempts to get the Vogelers to mingle only ends in disaster, and oddly enough while the Vogelers can’t assimilate, they are entranced by a Druids meeting that Fred finds absolutely appalling. Fred felt just as alienated and disappointed in Britain as the Vogelers, but falling for Rosemary changed his mind.

One of the novel’s themes is appearances vs reality, so of course, the fictional imagined postcard Britain is unfavourably compared to the reality of unattractive accommodations, the impossibly tiresome British Museum and the tinselness of the tourist circuit. As Fred notes:

I get this weird idea that I’m not really in London, that this place isn’t London, it’s some kind of imitation.

And of course as a tourist, regular daily life is something that Americans in London will not experience. The theme of appearances vs. reality  also extends to the two main characters, Fred and Vinnie. Vinnie has always been a plain woman, but now in her mid 50s, slim and neat, she’s suddenly attractive when compared to other women of her own age group. She thinks she’s ‘almost’ British, but in reality, Rosemary’s set find her rather peculiar. And then there’s Fred–a man who is so good-looking that incorrect assumptions are made about his character. Both characters are judged on their appearances and neither of them really have a good grasp on how they appear to others. Vinnie also initially judges Chuck on his appearance, dismissing him as exactly the sort of noisy uncouth American tourist she doesn’t want to be associated with.

Foreign Affairs is, above all, a very amusing novel of two academics far from home engaging in behaviour that would not exist in their native surroundings. Vinnie is a delightfully real character–bribing urchins to recite, as it turns out, raunchy rhymes, and at other times retreating into self-pity or revenge fantasies against her academic enemies. She also has a habit of appropriating items and adding them to her household “in the vague but recurrent belief that life owes her a little something.” In spite of the novel’s lively humour, there’s also a sad strain to the story which involves last loves and disillusioned love. Emma’s review shares my enthusiasm, but with a different take.

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