Tag Archives: based on true story

The Birthday Boys: Beryl Bainbridge

“I dare say,” I’d continue, “that you think you’ve known what it is to be cold.”

While I’ve throughly enjoyed many Beryl Bainbridge novels, I’ve avoided this author’s historical fiction. For this reader, historical fiction is anything pre-1914, and in common with others, I’ve been disappointed in the way authors can’t seem to leave modern sensibilities behind when they step into the past. This brings me to The Birthday Boys, a fiction novel based on the catastrophic 1910 expedition to Antarctica.

The novel is broken up into five distinct sections, spanning from 1910-1912 in five voices: Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans, Dr Edward Wilson, Capt. Robert Scott, Lt. Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers and Capt. Lawrence Edward (Titus) Oates. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that these are the five men who trekked to the South Pole only to find that they’d been beaten to their gaol, and that on their return journey all five men died. I still remember the history lesson.

The novel begins before the ship, Terra Nova, leaves for the long voyage, and it’s the voice of Petty Officer Edgar Evans we hear first. Optimism reigns with parties, free drinks and farewell celebrations– although there are a few signs of foreboding which, of course, all come to pass.

the-birthday-boys

Wikipedia has an informative page on the Terra Nova Expedition along with the information that Scott was long hailed, unequivocably as a hero, until … well … he wasn’t, and now many of the decisions he made are called into question. It’s these fatal decisions that Bainbridge tackles as she burrows into this story of exploration. Were these men incredibly brave or incredibly foolhardy? All of the elements that are now acknowledged as fatal mistakes appear in the story–“a catalogue of disasters and miscalculations,” the failure of the motorized sleds, Scott’s aversion to using sled dogs, the poor quality of the ponies that Scott insisted on using, the fact that five men trekked to the South Pole on rations for four,  “inexpertise on skis,” and Scott’s stubbornness and inflexibility.

Although five different voices contributed to this tale, there are just a few salient issues that seep through the narrative: loyalty to Scott (with the exception of Oates), the way these men saw nature to be conquered and what drives men to attempt such goals, in such conditions–especially if you’ve been on other expeditions and have a jolly good idea of the sort of thing you’ll face. Wilson, for example, joined the 1901-1904 Discovery Expedition, and shelved his memories for this trip. Evans “lost most of the nerves” in his lower jaw (along with his teeth) in an earlier Antarctica trip.

This is not easy reading, and I doubt I could stomach reading a non fiction book on the subject. Bainbridge’s recreation of the expedition through fiction takes us right there in the frozen Antarctica with these men, and at times, this is a dire, grueling read. The deaths of the ponies is horrendous. We become observers–sometimes of wanton slaughter as these men move south: Wilson painting a Portuguese man-of-war, noting that it was “astonishing beautiful” in the water but “once removed from the sea they go out like a candle, the colour snuffed away,”  and Oates who “slaughtered” a “man-of-war bird” with a seventeen foot wing span. We get a sense of what drove these men–all larger than life characters who didn’t fit in well into mainstream society, “misfits, victims of a changing world.”

What sort of man was Scott–a leader of men, and so loved that his followers said they would die for him…. and they did…

In his ruthlessness of purpose he resembled Napoleon, who, when the Alps stood in the way of his armies, cried out, “There shall be no Alps.” For Scott there was no such word as impossible, or if there was it was listed in a dictionary for fools. In the dreadful circumstances in which we found ourselves, half-starved and almost always frozen, our muscles trembling from the strain of dragging those infernal sledges, I expect his was the only way. To have faltered at this late stage would have been like pulling in one’s horse while it was leaping. He spared no one, not even himself, and he drove us on by the sheer force of his will.

I usually avoid fiction books based on real events as I am left wondering what exactly was true and what was fiction. Then I wished I’d read a non fiction book on the subject instead. In the case of The Birthday Boys, due to its dire and sometimes gruesome subject matter, I do not want to read the source material. Bainbridge, who must have poured over the journals, letters and facts of the disaster took me along on the trip through her perceptive eyes, and what a fantastically horrible journey to hell it was.

I can’t help remembering the Temple of the Tooth in Ceylon with its pictures depicting the Buddhist hell. One could only thank God they were fanciful, as most of them went beyond description for fiendish ingenuity, the worst torments s being reserved for the killers of animals.

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Amherst by William Nicholson

“You can have passion or you can have gratification, but you can’t have both.”

American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) led a reclusive life in Amherst,  Massachusetts, busily writing poems, and while no one really grasped the extent of her work until after her death, many of her poems are full of passion while others are full of her preoccupation with death. The passion in Emily Dickinson’s poems has fascinated readers and critics alike as it adds a mystical sense of romanticism to a reclusive life that was, apparently, devoid of sex and romance.

Amherst, (UK title: The Lovers of Amherst) from British author William Nicholson, is an ambitious novel that follows two interlinking story strands: in the present, Alice Dickinson (no relation), a young, London-based copywriter decides to head to Amherst to investigate background for an idea for a screenplay based on the scandalous love affair between married Mabel Loomis Todd, a faculty wife, and equally married college treasurer, Austin Dickinson, brother of Emily.

amherstIn the second story thread, the novel traces the love affair between Mabel Todd and Dickinson. Orbiting around these two lovers are Emily Dickinson (whose house served as a meeting place for the lovers), Mabel’s compliant husband, and Austin’s wife, Sue who was also Emily Dickinson’s great friend.

In the present, Alice travels to Amherst, and through an old lover, she has a contact in Nick Crocker, an Englishman, an academic (who was) teaching at Amherst College. He’s married to a very wealthy woman, and has a reputation as the college Lothario. Alice stays with Nick and in spite of her initial reservations, she throws herself into a passionate affair with Nick. Alice’s affair with Nick, in terms of age, echoes the affair between Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd. The minute Alice shows up on the scene, the people she speaks to expect her to fall in bed with Nick, and she does…

As the novel progresses, the two story strands follow the arc of these two affairs: Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd, and Alice & Nick. Of course there are some similarities between the two relationships, but there are also some marked differences. Whereas Mabel Todd’s entrance into Austin Dickinson’s life seems to be the event he’s been waiting for, Alice, initially forms a very negative opinion of Nick. Here they are on a tour of the Amherst cemetery:

Nick sweeps one arm round the cemetery.

“All these dead people,” he says. “If they could speak, what would they say to us? They’d say, ‘Love all you can, love everyone you can, as much as you can, as often as you can. You’re going to be old and alone soon enough. And you’re going to be dead forever.’ “

He opens the truck door for her to get in.

“Quite a speech,” says Alice. “In praise of promiscuity.”

“Oh, please.”

He shuts the door, goes round to the driver’s side.

“As far as I can tell from our brief acquaintance,” he says, “you’re not a fool.” He starts the engine, makes a three-point turn, backing among the graves.” Spare me the herd-think.”

This interaction between Nick and Alice is indicative of their overall relationship. He argues that “Love isn’t a limited resource. It’s not a cake that’s going to run out. It’s the very opposite. The more you love, the more love there is.” Whether Alice knows it or not, she’s being seduced slowly but surely by Nick’s philosophy. There’s a moment later when she reconsiders her low opinion of Nick and his behaviour towards women, and she seems to almost willingly let go of her arguments against Nick’s philosophy. I don’t buy the scenario of Nick healing the damaged co-eds he beds–that’s an archaic thought and one that sounds like a great excuse, but Alice, probably thanks to her youth, buys it, or perhaps, and this is an intriguing idea, perhaps she wants to believe it as she’s in the frame of mind to throw caution to the winds and engage in a relationship with a much older man as a way of immersing herself in her screenplay. She’s done all the touristy things in Amherst, and perhaps throwing sanity to the winds is the thing she needs to do to ‘feel’ her material. At one point, Alice thinks that the screenplay will focus on Mabel “who chose life in all its mess and hurt, not Emily, who withdrew into the sepulchre of her own room.” Is this the frame of mind that sways Alice into ditching her common sense and begin an affair with Nick?

When the novel began, I thought I’d enjoy the present day relationship more than the 19th century affair between Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd. Strangely enough, both Nick and Alice are uninteresting and clichéd, and fade next to the 19th century adulterous coupling of Mabel Todd and Austin Dickinson. Diary and letters between Austin and Mabel, sometimes rather awkwardly weaved in, reflect the state of mind of these two lovers, and it’s impossible not to feel sorry for Austin Dickinson’s wife, Sue, who seems to be expected to go along with the programme, and is seen as a bit of a spoilsport for reacting negatively and causing a fuss. The main problem with Austin Dickinson and Mabel’s relationship is so typical–the reader begins to wonder how much is true and how much is imagined, and the author admits he had to imagine the scenes between the lovers. By comparison, Nick and Alice’s affair seems rather like flogging a dead horse. Alice morphs from being a seemingly sensible young woman to being an emo mess. Nick is the standard lothario who excuses his actions by his ‘seize the day’ philosophy, and while that’s certainly a way to get through life, it’s notable that this extends almost exclusively towards sex and not life in general. Plus there’s one very irritating scene in which Alice and Nick, after a romp in bed, in a very typical academic way, analyze the perceived sexual content of Emily Dickinson’s poems.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, William Nicholson details the research conducted for the book along with an explanation that his fictional characters have appeared in previous books: The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, All the Hopeful Lovers, Motherland and Reckless.

Review copy.

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (spoilers)

Recently, I read and thoroughly enjoyed M.E. Braddon’s book, The Doctor’s Wife. It was her take, if you like, on Madame Bovary, a novel of, in Braddon’s opinion, “hideous immorality.” Personally, I don’t believe that she really thought the book was immoral (people in glass houses, etc), but since Madame Bovary wasn’t in wide circulation in England at that particular time, her ‘moral outrage’ was a great excuse to fly on Flaubert’s coat-tails. Reading Braddon’s book led to a discussion here regarding the source material, and as a result,  Emma  and I decided to re-read Madame Bovary. This is either my fourth or fifth rereading, but it’s been at least a decade since the last sweep, and every time I re-read, I always wonder, will I enjoy the book as much this time?

I’m a believer in re-reading favourite books. Every 5 years or so, I re-read Jane Eyre, and it seems to be different every time I read it. Of course, the book hasn’t changed, and so my responses to the book tell me about myself more than anything else.  After this latest re-reading, I could write a series of posts on Madame Bovary; Baudelaire was right when described the novel as “essentially suggestive, and capable of inspiring a whole volume of commentary.” Originally serialized in 1856, Madame Bovary was published in book form in 1857 and sold 15,000 copies in two months.

Madame BovaryI’m not going to spend a great time of time on the plot–most of us know it because even if we haven’t read Madame Bovary, it’s one of those books with a plot that’s widely referenced, but for the benefit of this post, briefly, this is the story of Emma Bovary, a farmer’s daughter, convent-educated and with an unfortunate love for finery, who lands a widower, mediocre doctor Charles Bovary for a husband. It’s a wild mis-match with Emma, beautiful & passionate, flitting through her short life like a doomed firefly. Her dullard of a husband isn’t a bad man, but he never understands Emma, and allows her so much freedom that she destroys them both with her financial decisions.

After reading Madame Bovary hard on the heels of The Doctor’s Wife, there are inevitable comparisons, but I was struck by the dissimilarities more than anything else. Braddon’s characters are much better people–much less selfish and self-indulgent.

Charles Bovary is a weak man. His life has always been directed by someone else–first his mother who manages his education (and a good thing too) and who then marries him off to a shriveled, supposedly wealthy widow. We only get brief glimpses of the first Mrs. Bovary (someone I paid more attention to for some reason this time), and none of them are good.

She had to have her chocolate brought to her every morning, and expected to be waited on hand and foot. She was for ever complaining of her nerves, of the state of her lungs, of her many and various ailments. The noise of people moving about made her feel ill, but no sooner was she left alone than she found her solitude unbearable. If anyone came to see her, it was, she felt sure, because they wanted to make certain that she was dying. When Charles came home of an evening, she would bring her long skinny arms from beneath the bedclothes, clasp them about his neck, make him sit on the edge of the bed, and then tell him of her woes. She accused him of neglect, of loving someone else, and always ended up by asking for something to take for her health, and a little more love-making.

Poor Charles Bovary. No wonder, then, that he plunges off the deep end and decides to marry for love the second time around. Too bad that Emma doesn’t feel the same way, but as her father considers “that she had too good a mind for farming,” Bovary looks like a good match, and since the Rouault farm isn’t exactly overrun with suitors, a match is made. Emma has successfully established a foot up in society. Emma’s marriage to Charles is followed by extensive feasting, and two days later, Charles returns to his practice.

The couple in Braddon’s novel, The Doctor’s Wife, Emma and Charles Bovary’s literary counterparts, are Isabel Sleaford and George Gilbert. While Charles Bovary is a bit dense and weak, Braddon’s George Gilbert is a genuinely good man, from good stock, and much loved by his patients. Charles Bovary’s parents on the other hand are problematic–his father is essentially a wastrel, saved from the gutter by his steely-spined wife, and he opts out of involvement for most of the book. Isabel and George Gilbert at least have a honeymoon, but it’s a fairly miserable one with George counting pennies and pledging no more than a 10 pound note on the event. And then there’s the matter of poor Isabel’s wedding dress, picked out by her future husband: brown. It’s dull and a horrible disappointment. It’s impossible to imagine Emma Bovary wearing a brown wedding dress or allowing Charles to make the choice.

The two novels also differ on the issue of out-of-control consumerism. After the honeymoon is over, Braddon’s Isabel Gilbert wistfully attempts to beautify her drab home and add some decorative touches. All her ideas are immediately nixed by her husband and Isabel retreats once more into her beloved books. Emma, as we know, goes wild with credit.

And what of books? Emma Bovary is influenced by the novels of Walter Scott:

she grew enamoured of historic scenes, and dreamed of old oak chests, guard-rooms and medieval minstrels. She would have loved to spend her days in some ancient manor-house like the damsels in long-waisted gowns who dawdled away their time beneath Gothic traceries, chin in hand, their elbows resting on stone sills, watching white-plumed horsemen come galloping from afar on sable chargers. At that period of her life she cultivated a passion for Mary Stuart, and indulged in an enthusiastic veneration of all illustrious and ill-starred ladies. Jeanne d’Arc and Heloise, Agnes Sorel, La Ferronnière the beautiful, and Clémence Isaure, shone for her like comets from the dark immensities of history

Emma certainly loves finery, and we know she studies “descriptions of furniture” in the novels of Eugène Sue. Emma turns to books “seeking in their pages satisfaction by proxy for all her longings.” Charles’s mother sees Emma’s reading as the root of the problem, and tells her son that reading isn’t helping Emma at all:  “reading novels–a lot of wicked books full of quotations from Voltaire which hold priests up to ridicule.”  Braddon’s Isabel Gilbert reads constantly too–it’s her one escape from a dull life, but in Isabel’s case we learn about specific characters she admires: Ernest Maltravers, Steerforth, Henry Esmond, and Florence Dombey. Isabel Gilbert’s husband doesn’t mind if his wife reads all day long–even if he doesn’t understand the attraction. It’s fairly easy to conclude that while Isabel and Emma are both bored and trapped in loveless marriages, Isabel’s temperament allows her to accept her life and find solace in books. Emma, however, beats against the bars of her marital prison, and as her life spirals out of control, she seems far too restless to read. Then again, there’s the sneaking idea… could Emma ever be happy? What would have happened if she did run off with Rodolphe? Something tells me Emma is born to be restless and discontent.  She’s one of those kamikaze women.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Emma Bovary and Isabel Sleaford is passion–Emma is a woman who desires sex while Isabel does not seek sexual gratification outside of marriage. There are several passages that reference Emma’s sexual appetite. After her wedding night, for example, guests note that Charles acts as though he’s the virgin while Emma “gave no indication that anything had happened to her.” Emma is a passionate, sensual woman and through her affairs and her secret life, she is unleashed from her bourgeois upbringingIsabel’s love, on the other hand, is very cerebral–much more the embodiment of courtly love. Emma, however, gets down and dirty. While she’s seduced by Rodolphe, her first lover, by the time she gets to Léon, she’s the seducer. Flaubert isn’t shy about letting us know that Emma craves sex.

All the time she was playing the part of the virtuous wife her mind was on fire with memories of the familiar head with its black hair falling in curls over a sun-tanned brow, of the figure at once so strong and so elegant, of the man who combined intellectual experience with such fervent desire.

And:

He became her mistress far more completely than she was ever his. Her kisses and her tender words stole away his heart. Where had she learned the arts of a power to corrupt which was so profound so well disguised, that it appeared to be almost disembodied?

And:

when next she saw him, she was more on fire, more exigent, than ever. She flung off her clothes with a sort of brutal violence, tearing at her thin stay-lace so that it hissed about her hips like a slithering snake.

Another element of the novel that struck me this time is how expertly Flaubert shows that Emma’s affairs do not occur in a vacuum. Rodolphe is compared (favourably of course) by Emma to Bovary, and then when the affair dips, her hopes rise in her husband through the surgery he intends to perform on the unfortunate human guinea pig, Hippolyte. When the surgery fails, and all of her ambitions for her husband are crushed, Emma returns to the affair with even more abandon.

Flaubert, IMO, is a better stylist than Braddon. There are many stunningly beautiful passages in the novel:

The round crimson moon was coming up on the horizon beyond the meadows. It rose rapidly between the poplar branches, which obscured it here and there like a ragged black curtain. Then it emerged, brilliantly white, lighting up the empty sky; moving more slowly now, it let fall on the river a great splash of brightness which broke into an infinity of stars. The silver gleam appeared to turn and twist upon itself as though it had been a headless snake covered with shining scales. At other moments it resembled some monstrous candelabra scattering from each long arm a rain of melted diamonds.

For this read, I decided to pick a favourite scene, and the award goes to the segment in which Emma and Léon arrange to meet at the cathedral. Emma writes a letter cancelling the  “arrangement for the meeting,” and then she decides to personally deliver the letter which really, almost comically and certainly preposterously, undermines the sham of her fragile moral stance. This little diversion shows us that Emma isn’t being entirely honest with herself, and that she loves to add drama to the intrigue. Plus this maneuver has the benefit of making Léon work a little harder to ‘seduce’ Emma. I loved this scene for the way in which the verger insists on giving the tour while the lovers can’t wait to get away from him. Plus the presence of the verger and his lecture serves as the backdrop of morality for our soon-to-be lovers, so it’s appropriate that Diane de Poitiers is referenced. No doubt she’d be someone Emma admired. I loved the way Léon hustles Emma out of the cathedral into the hired carriage practically panting the whole way, and it’s here of course, that their first sexual encounter takes place. Not too surprising that the sex-in-the-carriage scene should end up being one of the most scandalous scenes in the book, and one that even his publisher suggested Flaubert should cut.

While of course I remembered how Emma died, I’d oddly enough forgotten how she gobbled the arsenic. She rushed to her death as she rushed to her lovers. It’s a desperate scene and one that made me pity Emma–a woman who never understood herself.

Flaubert’s masterpiece, incidentally, was inspired by the all-too real story of Eugène Delamare, a medical man who, like Bovary, was blind to his second wife’s extravagances and flagrant infidelities.

See here for Emma’s post

Translated by Gerard Hopkins

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Seduction of the Innocent by Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins has written a number of Nathan Heller novels which focus on real events, including the assassination of Huey Long, the Black Dahlia murder, and the Lindbergh kidnapping. In common with the Nathan Heller series, The Seduction of the Innocent, is also inspired by true events. Collins explains, however, that while the Heller books “hew religiously to actual events” he opted to take a different tack with this latest release from Hard Case Crime, and if you read the book, it’s easy to see why (more of that later). In his latest novel, Collins appears to have a lot of fun with his characters, and as a result, The Seduction of the Innocent is laced with the sort of humour that reminds me of Donald Westlake.

seduction of the innocentMeshing fact and fiction into a perfect blend, the novel centres on the comic book industry–specifically our narrator Jack Starr, part owner of The Strip Joint, a Manhattan restaurant that’s just one part of the Starr Syndicate’s business concerns. Stripper Maggie Starr, known professionally as Libidia Von Stackpole, is Jack’s sexy stepmother who is the brains of the operation, and since she owns 75 % of the Starr Syndicate, she’s also his boss. The Starr Syndicate is also involved in the comic book business, and that’s a prickly business to be in as comic book crusader Dr. Werner Frederick  has made it his mission to clean up comic books and their perceived bad influence on children. Frederick’s book Ravage the Lambs is getting a lot of press in a society in which censorship and blacklisting are the results of the vicious, paranoid politics of the times, and with a grand jury investigation about to begin, those within the comic book industry are feeling a lot of pressure. With tempers running high, a murder occurs, and the killer left a calling card which implicates that this is a crime committed by someone in the comic book biz. Jack Starr steps up to investigate, and along the way he tangles with a few colourful characters and a very sexy dame.

On one level, this is a great pulp story, full of eccentric and sometimes badly behaved characters: there’s Will Allison, a promising young artist, Bob Price, a comic book publisher who naively believes that testifying before the grand jury will help argue his cause, luscious artist Lyla Lamont and her abusive boyfriend, Pete Pine, and sexy psychologist, Sylvia who admits to mixed feelings about Dr. Frederick. While she disagrees strongly with Frederick’s position on comic book censorship, she admires other aspects of his career.

While Seduction of the Innocent is a great romp through the comic book scene of the 50s, it’s a lot more than that, and the novel also addresses the issue of censorship with one cast of characters arguing vehemently against any policing of their industry, and Dr. Frederick arguing that comic books poison the minds of children. Dr. Frederick seems to be a rational enough, even open-minded human being, but get him started on comic books, and we see a normally reasonable, gentle man go ballistic:

“I do not dispute that the comic strip,” he said, mildly irritated, “has blossomed in its limited way in the greater garden of the American newspaper. But its bastard child the comic book is a poisonous weed that infests our newsstands. A dozen state legislatures have worked to ban or limit this blight upon our children, and many parents have risen up, even having public burnings of these wretched pamphlets.”

And here I thought the doc didn’t like the Nazis….

With emotions in the comic book biz running at an all time high, it’s no wonder that someone ends up dead, and it’s Jack Starr’s job to make sure that the right man (or woman) takes the rap for this dastardly crime.

One of the aspects of this book that I enjoyed the most was the way the author used the facts of the times to create a good, solid pulp story which manages to include some very serious moral questions, and we see the catastrophic results of one man with a few credentials seizing the moral high ground, “riding the comet of a controversy of his own creation,” while the rest of the characters struggle to justify their existence. The real life comic book crusader, Dr. Fredric Wertham is, of course, the model for the fictional Dr. Frederick, and Wertham’s expose book was called Seduction of the Innocent (hence the tongue-in-cheek title of the book). So here Max Allan Collins turns a tense period of history into a crime zone that could so-easily have happened with just a little stretch of the imagination. While some of the aspects of the fictional Dr. Frederick character may seem over-the-top or bizarre just go read about the person this character is based on and you’ll see that this is not an exaggeration. In one part of the novel, our fictional Dr. Frederick has a fit over the content of several comics. He sees evil and smut where it doesn’t exist and conversely, he fails to see evil when it stares him in the face. Dr. Frederick shows glimpses of homophobia in his gross misinterpretation of some of the comic book heroes:

The undercurrent of homosexuality in the Batwing comic book,” he said as if tasting something sour, “is extremely damaging to impressionable minds, and children are inherently in that category.”

“Homosexual?” I asked.

That got me another flash of a look from Maggie.

“Impressionable,” he said sternly. “And the Amazonia comic book is rife with fetishistic bondage, and the lead character herself is clearly lesbian.”

“She has a boyfriend, doesn’t she?” I asked innocently. Some captain in the army or air force?”

“Amazonia is a closeted lesbian, frequently shown participating in semi-clothed frolicking with other lesbians.”

I never get invited to the good parties…

Dr. Frederick also sees comic book hero Wonder Guy as a “reprehensible exhibition of the Nazi theme of the Superman.”

Anyone that reads that much dirt into a character who is a patent do-gooder like Wonder Guy deserves to be handcuffed, gagged, dressed in latex, and spanked by someone named The Gimp. But I’d guess that Dr. Frederick would probably enjoy that too much.

To complement the subject, there are several appropriate illustrations throughout the novel, and in the afterword, Max Allan Collins talks about his “fact-inspired” novel, the real comic book crusade, Dr Wertham and comic book censorship along with further reading suggestions on the topic.

Review copy.

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Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval

Jacqueline Raoul-Duval’s remarkable novel, Kafka in Love, largely drawn from Kafka’s letters and diaries, bridges the lines between fiction and non-fiction in its pursuit of biography. The French title of the book is Kafka, L’éternel fiancé,  and what an excellent title that is, for in the book we see Kafka between the years 1912 until his death in 1924 through his rather odd relationships with four very different women. The shared ingredient of these relationships is that they were largely long-distance, and while Kafka appears to have primarily enjoyed the position of fiancé (no less than four times) in order to establish a prolific letter writing campaign, proximity–except perhaps for his last relationship with his intellectual equal, Dora, brought disaster.

indexKafka in Love begins by showing Franz Kafka as an energetic, intense, dapper young man. He met Max Brod “by chance” on November 23, 1903 in Prague at a talk in which Brod called Nietzsche a “charlatan.” Kafka publicly challenged Brod and thus began a lifelong friendship which lasted until Kafka’s death in 1924.

Max examined the young righter of wrongs, who was taller than he by a head. He noticed the young man’s elegance of dress, the tie and stand-up collar, the intensity of his gaze , his black eyes on fire. He was reminded of a Dostoevsky hero. The student’s high-cheekboned thinness and distinction made Max uncomfortable, and he regretted having overindulged in beer and fatty foods and neglected sports.

It’s at Max’s house that Kafka meets Felice Bauer, a relative of Max Brod’s “by marriage” on August 13, 1912. Felice, who lives in Berlin, is an unlikely candidate for Kafka’s interest. In spite of the fact that he doesn’t find her physically attractive (“no charm, no appeal“), a relationship begins which is maintained and fed by a torrent of letters and telegrams. Between October 23 (when Felice finally replies to Kafka’s increasingly insistent letters) until December 31st 1912, he writes and sends 100 letters to Felice “often two or three a day.” Kafka’s long-distance relationship with Felice appears to have satisfied a certain obsessive-compulsive component in Kafka’s nature, and it also allowed Kafka to write the most extraordinarily passionate letters (“Dearest, very dearest! Most cherished of my temptations,”), but, sadly, the passion failed to materialize when the couple finally met again in the flesh. Rather interestingly, neither Felice nor Kafka seemed particularly anxious to spend time together, and it’s almost as if they both sensed that this extraordinary on-and-off again relationship was superior on paper. They were annoyed by each other’s habits; Kafka was turned off by Felice’s teeth and eating of sugar cubes. Felice couldn’t stand Kafka’s eccentricities & asceticism. Kafka didn’t smoke, didn’t drink alcohol, tea or coffee and was a vegetarian. He “slept by an open window even in the heart of winter, [and] swam in icy rivers.” Perpetually late, he always set his watch one and a half hours ahead. All these habits grated on Felice’s nerves, and this didn’t bode well for any imagined future together. In one of his letters, he detailed more habits:

I eat three meals a day, but nothing between meals, literally nothing. In the morning stewed fruit, biscuits and milk. At 2:30, out of filial pity, the same as the others, a bit less than the others. Winter evenings at 9:30: yogurt, wholegrain bread, butter, walnuts and hazelnuts, chestnuts, dates, figs, raisins, almonds, pumpkin seeds, bananas, apples, pears, oranges, and I never get my fill of lemonade. 

We could perhaps chalk up Kafka’s misadventures with Felice as a youthful, impulsive mistake–a relationship that he dove into too quickly and then had difficulties in the retreat, but then when Felice recruited her best friend, Grete Bloch in the campaign to patch things up with Kafka, his enthusiastic letter-writing shifted gears to his fiancée’s best friend, and naturally this culminated in disaster. Then there are Kafka’s other relationships, and while his relationships with the sad milliner, Julie Wohryzek and the glorious Milena are both quite different, they are still maintained at a distance and plagued with a certain reluctance on Kafka’s part. Milena, who “enters” Kafka’s life “like a hurricane,” has a tumultuous past, peppered with scandal. Their relationship lasted approximately 8 months, and “about 150” letters survive as a testament to their mostly long-distance relationship–Kafka in Prague and Milena with her husband “the man with forty mistresses,” in Vienna. Their letter exchanges “reach a feverish pitch, telegrams fly back and forth at a rapid rate.”

The book smoothly integrates extracts from Kafka’s diaries and letters so seamlessly that we don’t particularly notice where they begin and end, and at times, the author interjects the occasional speculative and rhetorical comment in the midst of recounting Kafka’s actions as in one spot when Kafka acknowledges that he will never have children.  There’s an aside “was Felice troubled by this warning?”

It’s impossible to separate Kafka the lover from Kafka the author since the two aspects of his character appear to be so closely intertwined. While Kafka tries romance numerous times and endures the life of an aesthetic, his Diaries reveal no small amount of struggle from the man who wrote The Hunger Artist:

In his Diaries, he lets loose and confesses his hankerings, real and imaginary: “This craving that I almost always have, if ever I feel my stomach empty, to heap up in me images of terrible feats of eating. I especially satisfy this craving in front of pork butchers. If I see a sausage labeled as an old, hard farmhouse sausage, I bite into it in my imagination with my teeth and swallow quickly, regularly and mechanically. The despair that always follows this act, imaginary though it is, increases my haste. I shove long slabs of ribs into my mouth unchewed, then bring them out again the other end, pulling them through my stomach and intestines. I empty whole grocery stores, filthy ones, cram myself with herrings, pickles, and all the spicy, gamey unhealthy foods. Hard candies pour into my mouth like hail from the cast-iron pots.”

And while Kafka’s describes his first sexual experience to Milena, it’s in his diaries that he “confess[es] his taste for brothels,” along with the fact that “he is drawn to large and slightly older girls.”

While we see Kafka through four extraordinary relationships, the book Kafka in Love is ultimately a lot more than seeing Kafka through four strained engagements. We also see the process of Kafka maturing in an ever-increasing anti-Semitic society as he becomes interested in Zionism, learns Hebrew and returns to his Jewish roots–stirring once again, his father’s disapproval.  We also see Kafka in the contemporary cultural society of his times with Ernst Weiss and Franz Werfel as friends., and the touching details of how Kafka consoled a child who’d lost her doll. Haunted by the knowledge that he left so much work incomplete, Kafka despaired about this failure even as his life was cut tragically short by his excruciatingly cruel and painful death from Tuberculosis in 1924 at the Kierling Sanatorium.  At the end of the novel are notes explaining the fate of the letters written from Kafka–along with the fates of some of the significant people in his life., and a description of the battle over Kafka’s estate. The author, Jacqueline Raoul-Duval concludes this poignant, inspired and remarkable novel with an explanation of how she was drawn to her subject.

Translated by Willard Wood. Review copy.

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Roman Tales (or it sucks being a woman in 16th century Italy) by Stendhal

Therefore, kind reader, do not search in these pages for a striking style, shimmering with fresh allusions to fashionable modes of thought. Above all, do not expect the cloying emotions of a George Sand novel.”

Earlier this year, after reading a piece written by Mérimee, I decided to read more Stendhal, so I was delighted to receive a kindle version of Roman Tales for review. For its content, the Tales reminded me of The Celebrated Crimes from Alexandre Dumas, and coincidentally, both The Celebrated Crimes and Roman Tales includes a section on The Cenci. Anyway, here’s a brief rundown of the contents-

Roman talesRoman Tales is composed of three stories:

The Abbess of Castro

Vittoria Accoramboni

The Cenci

And an appendix:

The Geopolitical Terrain

Stendhal’s Popes 

Stendhal and Money

Brigands in Italy by Stendhal

Preface to The Cenci by Percy Bysshe Shelley

On the Cenci Portrait by Dickens

The three stories were published in France in 1839. A few years previously Stendhal “acquired from the archives of certain Roman patricians” the ‘right’ to copy some manuscripts which recalled some of the more famous trials of the 16th and 17th centuries. According to the introduction by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, the stories are more “adaptations” and not “faithful versions,” and the Abbess of Castro is “an original piece of writing.” The stories certainly read as though they were written by the same hand, and at the same time, while there’s an immediacy to the tales that smack of the sense of eye witness accounts, Stendhal allows himself to interject with comments about 16th century Italian society and values

While the stories are all different (and by that I mean that they have different elements that add to the drama), by the time I finished the book, I decided that the women of 16th Century Italy didn’t exactly have a fair shot at life. Why? Because the three women in the tales–in spite of their wealth, beauty, position, wit etc etc end up royally screwed and abused by the society in which they lived and died.

The Abbess of Castro is prefaced with background information on the power of Brigand culture, and we are told:

If anyone needs to know the history of Italy, the important thing is not to read the widely accepted authors. Nowhere has the value of a lie been better appreciated, nowhere better paid.

Thanks Stendhal, that’s good to know, and if anyone out there wants to suggest some histories to read, I’d be happy to hear from you. But back to the story which concerns a beautiful young woman, Elena de’ Campireali who falls in love with Giulio Branciforte against her family’s objections. While Guilio lives in a crude home on the outskirts of town, he’s the son of a famous brigand, and he becomes a brigand too. Naturally this is a relationship that’s frowned upon by Elena’s father, but the lovers manage to meet in secret a few times. This story illustrates the power of allegiances, and unfortunately Elena and Guilio find themselves on opposite sides. The de’ Campireali family are “distantly related” to the Orsini family, while Guilio belongs to the “Colonna faction.” These familial and political connections come crashing down to smash Elena’s secret romance. The events that take place separate the lovers, and Elena returns to the convent. The trouble doesn’t stop there, and their love story is fraught with tragedy when Elena’s mother and Prince Colonna interfere.

The second story, is Vittoria Accoramboni, Duchess of Bracciano. It’s a matter of conjecture which is the saddest story of the three in the collection, but I’d argue that Vittoria Accoramboni competes with The Cenci for first place. I already knew the gist of The Cenci, but the story of Vittoria was virgin territory to me. Vittoria is another beautiful, and apparently charming young woman given in an arranged marriage to Felice Peretti who was formally adopted by his uncle Cardinal Montalto–the man who later becomes Pope Sixtus V. The Cardinal was extremely fond of Vittoria and promoted and protected her brothers. The story turns ugly when Vittoria’s husband is murdered, and it’s rumoured that her family is behind the move to marry her off to yet another wealthy husband. Vittoria’s wishes don’t appear to come into the picture. Three days after the murder of Felice, Vittoria and her mother are living in the palace of the “enormously fat” Prince Paolo Giordano Orsini, the Duke of Bracciano, and the very man suspected of organising the murder of Felice.

Few believed that the murder could have been committed without the consent of the Accoramboni family. They blamed Vittoria’s brothers, who had been drawn by ambition into an alliance with a rich and powerful prince.

Trading Vittoria like a pawn ends badly. That’s as much of the story as I’ll give away, and what happens to Vittoria is not pretty. But that’s not the power of this story–its power comes from the realisation that the desire to possess Vittoria, fired presumably by a burst of lust, leads to an incredible amount of blood-letting, slaughter and torture. These are merciless times and we are told that “the dead were left to be scavenged by dogs.”

As for the third story, The Cenci, this one has to be the most famous of the bunch, so I don’t think I’m giving away too much to say that young Beatrice Cenci and her brother conspired to murder their father, Francesco Cenci. Given that the stepmother was also privy to, and assisted in the plan, it’s a safe bet to assume that Francesco Cenci was a monster, and the story gives details of his miserliness and “evil” behaviour. We are told he was “appalling,” but Francesco Cenci’s flaws also included perversion. In spite of his high rank, he served time in prison for “perverted love affairs.” It’s bad enough when a man takes his kinkiness to the point of prison, but Cenci forced his daughter Beatrice to submit to his unnatural demands. Isolated and with no avenue for legal alternatives Beatrice, her brother and her mother took matters into their own hands….

Roman Tales presents us with three very different women who all suffered terribly in one form or another. While Elena de’ Campireali tried to define her own destiny, she discovered that the forces of society were against her, and she could not lead the life she wanted. Vittoria was a pawn for her family; she too suffered horribly and rather unexpectedly. Beatrice Cenci decided that life with her father was “unbearable,” and since she was a prisoner in his home, she felt she had no recourse but to murder the man who tormented her. I would add that the murder was clumsily done, and it could have been carried out with far less tell-tale signs of violence.

There are no happy endings here for these women, and the question in each story is how far will the bloodshed spread before it’s stopped. Roman Tales is a marvellous collection which gives us a glimpse into another world. It’s a lawless, feudal world where alliances are paramount, and individuality–at least for the females–is not an option. When reading the stories, it struck me repeatedly how choices that were based on Free Will and individualism resulted in cascading violence and bloodshed, and yet at the same time this is a period of history in which remarkable figures appeared–albeit briefly in some cases. Roman Tales is highly recommended for anyone interested in this period.

Translated by Susan Ashe and Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Review copy

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Hard Twisted by C. Joseph Greaves

“You got a problem with that, you let me know right now, and I’ll give you a ride straight back to your daddy.”

Written with a growing sense of menace, Hard Twisted from author C. Joseph Greaves is based on a true story and concerns homeless drifter, Dillard Garrett and his 13-year-old daughter, Lucile. It’s 1934, and homeless people travelling across America looking for work are a common sight, but what happens to Lucile is unusual. She becomes involved in the 1935 “skeleton murder” case and subsequent trial.  

Lucile’s story is interrupted by transcripts of the trial, so questions about Lucile’s complicity are followed by the fictionalized versions of events. Leading questions regarding Lucile’s relationship with the accused murderer, for example, insinuate that this 13-year-old girl went along for the ride,  but the narrative tells another story–a story of deprivation, a subsistence existence, and a complete lack of social agencies for a homeless 13-year-old to apply to for aid. Weigh that against the promise of a permanent home, baths and regular meals.

The novel wastes little time showing the dire circumstances in which Lucile Garrett and her father Dillard are living when they meet a persuasive drifter named Clint Dillard who gives the Garretts a ride in his slat-sided Ford Truck which is packed with gamecocks.

The man looked across her lap and studied her father’s shoes. He said his name was Palmer, and that he was a Texan, and a cowboy. He wore sharp sideburns and a clean Resistol hat cocked forward over pallid eyes gone violet in the fading glow of sunset, and she could see that he was small–perhaps no taller than she–and that something fiercely defiant, something feral, was in his smallness.

Although Palmer is crafty about it, it’s soon obvious that giving a ride to the Dillards was not motivated by altruism but by lust for 13-year-old Lucile, but the question becomes how to separate father and daughter? This is achieved in subtle, sly stages and coated with promises to a desperate couple who have no prospects for anything better.

Written with an authenticity that seeps from the pages, we feel the half-starved Dillards spending endless sunbeaten days on the dusty roads and sleeping rough at night, as author C. Joseph Greaves very effectively recreates a hellish period in American history:

They’d built a fire in the lee of the ruined house, and her father squatted before it stirring red flannel hash with a spoon. The temperature had dropped with the sun and she wore a mackinaw now like a mantle while he sat on his heels and rubbed his hands and warmed them over the skillet, the tumbled walls around them shifting and changing, moving inward and the outward again as though breathing in the soft glow like a living thing.

With passages such as that, there’s an unspoken question ‘how long can the Dillards survive?’ so initially it seems like a stroke of luck when they meet Clint Palmer and he wants to go into business with Lucile’s father. But at the same time, there’s a growing sense of unease.

For the rest of the story, well you have to read the novel. At the end of the book there’s a section ‘author’s notes and acknowledgements’ in which the author explains how he became interested in the Skeleton Murder Case when hiking in John’s Canyon, San Juan County, Utah. Through a history of the region, the author heard about the Garretts and Palmer along with the disclaimer that there are several versions of events. Greaves, clearly obsessed with the story (you’d have to be to take on the required research) establishes his own narrative of events with Hard Twisted.

On the down side, once the story is underway there’s not a great deal of tension–although we know something bad, something horrible is going to happen–it’s just a matter of when, where, and who. Lucile, nicknamed ‘Bonnie Parker’ by Palmer, is a limp character, beaten down by circumstances to expect little and demand nothing. As such she makes a perfect, sad victim for Palmer, but not a very interesting character.

On the positive side, the book very successfully establishes, through its atmospheric descriptions and its use of language, a specific time and place in history. These are characters who are forced out of society but need society to exist, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that excursions into society ultimately ended in murder. Lucile Garrett met a psychotic killer at a unique time when drifting anonymously through the country was not something that raised eyebrows. Try taking a 13-year-old across country now, sleeping out in the open. See what happens, how it long it takes before someone drops a dime and you find yourself tasered and wearing one of those orange jumpsuits.

Back in Lucile’s day, it was an everyday occurrence for families to trek across the United States looking for non-existent work, and that brought them to a subsistence mode of survival, living for the next meal, and expecting to skip a few. Lucile and her father were vulnerable to hope and that’s where Clint Palmer and his gamecocks came in. In the final evaluation, the author succeeds in recreating a desperate time which unleashed both good and bad people from society–a time in which it was impossible to differentiate those with bad intentions from those who were just trying to get by.

American author Russell Banks makes the point in his novels that those who live in poverty have lives that are open to crime–not that they commit crimes but that they have a difference range of vulnerability than the affluent–they lack the defenses of those who have more resources. Hard Twisted is one such example of lives of poverty having no barriers against crime.

Review copy

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The Empty Glass by J.I Baker

Excerpt from a CIA memo dated August 3, 1962

“2. Subject repeatedly called the Attorney General’s office and complained about the way she was being ignored by the president and his brother.

3. Subject threatened to hold a press conference and would tell all.” (from The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe by Donald H. Wolfe)

About 1/3 of the way through The Empty Glass, a debut fiction novel written by J.I Baker, almost unable to grasp the significance of what I was reading, I put the book down and started reading about the recorded events surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s death. Marilyn had just been dumped by Robert Kennedy and she told Robert Slatzer, a former lover,  “If I don’t hear from Bobby Kennedy soon I’m going to call a press conference and blow the lid off this whole damn thing. I’m going to tell about my relationships with both Kennedy brothers.The Empty Glass is narrated by Ben Fitzgerald, a deputy LA coroner, who has the misfortune to be called to Monroe’s house on August 5, 1962, and the book details the mysteries surrounding this bizarre case. As I read the book, I asked myself if this was true–how much of this incredible stuff that I was reading was made up? Was this a figment of the author’s imagination? To my surprise (well, shock, really), I discovered that not only has the author very carefully reconstructed the events and the names of that night, but he also included some portentous events from both JFK’s and Marilyn Monroe’s life. The interesting thing here is that we will probably never know for certain what happened that night at Monroe’s home. We can speculate all we want, but by writing a fiction novel, the author effectively steps into a sequence of events in which the outrageous details were hijacked and an alternative narrative created by the people who…yes, I’m going to say it.. by the people who wanted Marilyn Monroe dead.

I have a vague childhood memory of hearing my mother discuss Marilyn Monroe and agreeing with the consensus opinion that she committed suicide as she was aging and couldn’t handle the knowledge that her looks were fading. Anyway, Monroe was a well-known loose cannon, so the suicide fit with that tragic star image. Author J.I.Baker shows that if the story fed to the public for the first 24 hours sails unchecked, then it’s virtually impossible to change the accepted narrative without invoking that nutball, dismissive phrase ‘conspiracy theory.’ What’s so very interesting here is that the author, using fiction as his venue, presents this story bolstered with the very-real facts as told by a fictional character. By using this approach the author effectively strips away the official story of Marilyn Monroe’s suicide which some (including me at this point) would argue was fiction presented as fact. And this novel is perfect timing, by the way, as this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death.

The novel begins with the information that something has gone horribly wrong in Ben Fitzgerald’s life, and then the story segues to the night of August 5, 1962 when Ben is rousted at 2:15 in the morning from bed at the cheap hotel where he rents a room. He’s told to go to 12305 Fifth Helena Drive in Brentwood to the home of Marilyn Monroe as she’s committed suicide. Upon his arrival, Ben notes that the whole suicide story doesn’t fit the scenario:

Her fingernails were blue. The cause of death seemed obvious: an overdose. Except–Except the body was in the soldier’s position: legs straight, head down.

“I don’t have to tell you what that means, Doctor,” I say.

“Yes,” you say. “You do.”

“Well, it looked as though she’d been placed.”

“What?”

“Placed,” I say. “People who overdose don’t drift happily away. There are usually convulsions. Vomiting. They die contorted. And she was clutching the phone.”
“So?”

“A person dying of barbiturate overdose would not have died clutching a phone. She might have answered it. But a person dying of a barbiturate overdose would have gone limp before the convulsions began.”

Curiouser and curiouser, Marilyn’s housekeeper, doctor and psychiatrist have timelines concerning the events of that night, but within a few hours, they all change their stories. And then Ben discovers Marilyn’s diary, her “book of secrets” which for the record was never found–even though memos from both the FBI and the CIA acknowledged an awareness of its existence. He doesn’t grasp the significance of this find and in hindsight admits:

I had no reason to believe it would jeopardise my own life or that of my family. So you ask: If I had known, would I have just walked away?

Sniffing that there’s a lot wrong with Marilyn Monroe’s “suicide,” Ben takes the diary and begins doing a little freelance investigation of his own. Big mistake.

Some factors about the autopsy strike Ben as odd and inconsistent with suicide. Marilyn’s stomach was empty, so how did the overdose occur? He’s told in no uncertain terms that ‘s not his job to “speculate,” but his curiosity leads him into a nightmare existence of surveillance and threats–an existence in which Ben becomes increasingly paranoid and powerless.

The Empty Glass is a fast-paced read, full of short, sharp sentences that match the novel’s subject. The novel covers the weekend before Marilyn’s death when she travelled to the Cal-Neva resort, and also includes the JFK-Florence Kater-Pamela Turnure affair, along with fictional diary entries in which Marilyn Monroe mentions “the general.” The diary entries didn’t ring true for me–perhaps they just didn’t sound like Marilyn’s voice. On the down side, I doubt the novel will appeal to readers unless they have an interest in Marilyn Monroe. On the positive side, the author did some phenomenal work with the facts and effectively deconstructed the official story.

Wikipedia has a very interesting page devoted solely to the death of Marilyn Monroe. And here for the author’s web page for additional information about the life and death of Marilyn Monroe.

review copy from the publisher.

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The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

“The appropriate authorities will probe, appropriately, the matter to the fullest.”

The Report, written by Jessica Francis Kane, is a novel which attempts to understand the real-life tragedy that took place in 1943 during WWII. While most of us think of air raids wreaking damage on cities and their populations, the novel examines an extremely bizarre, tragic event which left 173 people dead as they sought shelter from an air raid that never happened. This tragedy is known as the Bethnal Green disaster, and here’s a brief outline of events:

During WWII, on the night of March 3, 1943, people crowded into London’s Bethnal Green tube station which served as an air raid shelter. That evening 173 people were killed–not from bombs falling from enemy planes–but from asphyxiation as they tried to enter the underground tube station by its sole entrance–a series of steps divided by a landing. The accident was terrible, but was it preventable? The tube station was supposed to be a refuge and instead it became a death trap. What went wrong?  The events of the next few days compounded the tragedy as the government first claimed that the deaths were caused by enemy bombing, and when that didn’t fly and the people didn’t shut up and go away, then came the “hurried, private” Gowers inquiry which was put together with lightening speed over a three-day period. The grieving families demanded answers, and magistrate Lawrence Dunne was appointed the task of conducting a sealed inquiry into the incident.

The novel goes back and forth in time from that fateful evening to thirty years later when an enthusiastic and ambitious documentary film maker, Paul Barber, seeks out Lawrence Dunne–now ‘Sir’ Lawrence Dunne–a lonely old man who lives alone with his memories and his various awards.  Dunne’s house has the un-used, unwanted feel of a museum that’s never visited. Paul notes:

“The house was grand but overstuffed, decorated not quite as the country retreat he’d expected. Instead it felt like a room holding the furniture and memorabilia of a life lived a long time ago somewhere else.”

The plot alternates between Dunne and Paul’s tentative relationship and the events surrounding the disaster thirty years earlier. The novel clocks the moments leading up to the tragedy, including details which became ominously significant when it came to the report, and the dreadful, bitter aftermath for the survivors:

Some in Bethnal Green were eager for the report, sure it would reveal something to help them make sense of the senseless. Others only felt suspicion. The inquiry, they believed, was merely a distraction, something authorities did in order to avoid accountability. How could someone not present that night tell them what happened?

This type of novel must be especially difficult to write. After all the reader knows the story (and its ending), but here the story isn’t the disaster itself–it’s the layers of details underneath: where was the policeman who was supposed to aid in crowd control? Was there a lightbulb throwing feeble light on the steps that led down to the station? Why were the crowds especially edgy that night? What was the truth of the ominous boom the crowds heard?  And why was the Bethnal Green station the only station that lacked a centre handrail?

Following the tragedy a number of rumours surfaced:

Overnight, some authority had made a decision: the accident would be kept secret. The large number of dead was difficult to hide, however, so after a few hours the authorities announced that the shelter had, in fact, taken a small , direct hit. The population of Bethnal Green, puzzled by the total absence of any bomb damage, remain unconvinced. Then it began to rain, the perfect climate for rumour: it was Fascist incitement, a Jewish panic, an Irishman holding the gate against the crowd. There’d been a land mine, a new German weapon, a gas leak.

And then there’s Paul Barber–a young man who wants to tell the story of the disaster yet another way. He’s particularly interested in the way Dunne chose to write the report. Here’s Paul and Dunne:

“You faced an impossible task–to make sense of a pointless tragedy–and in three weeks you interviewed eighty witnesses and wrote a full report yourself. That would be inconceivable today. Today it would take two weeks merely to decide on the members of the investigating commission.” He stopped, but Dunne’s pleased expression encouraged him. “Then there’s the writing itself. It’s artful and compassionate–the opening, especially, of course.The story I want to tell is how and why you told the story of the tragedy the way you did.”

“Death demands ceremony. An inquiry is just a kind of ceremony.”

Paul shook his head. “The inquiry, yes. Call it ceremony. But not your report. It was something else.”

By the time the novel concludes, most readers will have gathered an opinion about the events of that night. As with any fiction novel based on true events, I found myself wondering just where fact and fiction merged. It’s impossible to read The Report, I think, without having sympathies for all those touched by the event. The plot’s central device (which I can’t mention as it’s a plot giveaway) was slightly forced into the novel’s structure, and it doesn’t mesh overall with the novel’s elegiac sensitivity. So while not an absolutely perfect novel, nonetheless, The Report is exquisitely constructed, and a rather beautiful novel that negotiates the disturbing tragedy with delicate yet compassionate artistry.

Review copy courtesy of Graywolf Press

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Three Crimes by Simenon

“Is this where our taste for mystery and squalor comes from?”

Simenon is perhaps best remembered for his Maigret novels, but I prefer the edgy, darker realms of the romans durs (hard novels). I’d like to think that I will read everything Simenon wrote, but according to David Carter, who both translated and wrote the introduction to Three Crimes, this might be an impossible goal. Carter states in his first sentence that Simenon “acquired a reputation for excess,” and Carter gives credence to that reputation by listing some of sheer numbers attached to Simenon’s name: “sexual relations with about 10,000 women,” 19 Maigret novels “in the space of three years,”  “Twenty two volumes of memoirs,” and “scholars still argue about the precise number of books he wrote…at least 230 works in his own name … and a further 200 under various pseudonyms.”

Now I’m no longer sure that I will be able to read everything Simenon ever wrote, but I have a shelf full of unread romans durs ahead of me. And this brings me to Three Crimes–written in 1938, this is a must read for the Simenon fan. It’s not the best thing ever written by Simenon, and it’s certainly not his usual style, but it’s a really important novel for devotees of Simenon who’d perhaps like to gain some insight into what made this phenomenal writer tick. This new translation is dated 2006 and is published by Hesperus Press.

If you’ve read a few Simenon’s romans durs already then you’ve probably experienced that moment of putting aside the novel and wondering what sort of man created these devious little tales. Three Crimes goes a long way to answering that question. The book, which is nonfiction by the way, examines a fairly short period in Simenon’s life. According to Carter, Simenon “considered” the book to be a novel stressing that “nevertheless all the details in Three Crimes come directly from his own experience, including the names of all the characters. The work is novelistic, however, in its evocation and dramatisation of situations and events.”

Three Crimes takes place in Liege, Belgium, Simenon’s birthplace and it’s the story of crimes committed by people Simenon knew well. At 16, Simenon worked in a bookshop as a “colleague” of the unsavoury Hyacinthe Danse, an obese bookseller who “specialised in so-called saucy works” and who coerced under-age girls into sex acts at the back of his shop. Then, Simenon (still 16) became the youngest reporter on a local paper, and this job brought him into the company of fellow reporter, the dandy and pimp, Ferdinand Deblawue. Simenon and Deblawue later operated the small rag, Nanesse, and here Simenon unwittingly became an accessory to blackmail. A few years later, both the slovenly, perverted bookseller Danse and the vain Deblawue became murderers. The book isn’t a mystery–the murders are mentioned very quickly and then Simenon, always intrigued by “the why and the how” of crime goes back over time to detail the  events.

One argument Simenon includes in these pages is that war had a negative influence on the people who endured those years. I’d say that war offers situations for the opportunistic (I’m thinking Dr. Petoit here), and certainly Danse took every advantage of the war. Here’s Simenon talking about his childhood and the merging of crime and anti-German activities.

“They taught us to take advantage of shady corners, to live in the semi-darkness, to whisper. As we could not move around in the streets after such and such an hour of the night, we went to each other’s houses via the roofs, in the moonlight.”

Three Crimes is a strange book, and it goes a long way to explaining Simenon’s psychological make-up and his fascination with the criminal mind. He describes his early life in Liege and mentions Danse and Deblawue often, obviously looking for signs that he missed that these men would murder in the future. Similarities and differences between the two men and their lives are noted frequently. Of the two murderers in these pages, Danse is the most repulsive and the most dangerous. The lumpish Danse builds elaborate fictions about himself, and like a bloated cobra, he both fascinates and repels his victims and acquaintances.

The story has a fragmentary quality–almost as if Simenon jotted down notes with the intention of returning and refining those notes later. The writing is rife with exclamation points and ellipsis (which the translator purposely kept in order to remain faithful to Simenon), and these stylistic peculiarities emphasize  Simenon’s reaction to the events that took place. Simenon still very clearly has a sense of incredulity about what happened; not just that he knew these men–murderers in embryo, but that they committed crimes that included incredible luck. Simenon meditates on the question: “when was it he [Deblauwe] started to become a murderer?” Simenon still seems to feel a sense of shock–even years later, and this brings other issues to the fore–Who is capable of murder? Can we predict the course that leads to murder? These are issues that echo throughout his novels. And then there’s the issue of the victims…why do victims sometimes accompany their own murderer willingly, knowingly….

Now I’m using the ellipsis. It’s contagious.

Here’s Simenon noting the influence of the real-life crimes on his novels and the difference about the real crimes of Danse and Deblauwe and fictional crimes:

“The three crimes of my friends resemble all the crimes that I have related. Only, due to the fact that they are true, and that I know their perpetrators, it is possible for me to write: ‘He killed because…’

Because of nothing! Because of everything! At certain moments I think I understand everything and it seems to me that, in a few words, I will be able to…

But no! A moment later this truth that I touched upon almost vanishes into thin air and I see again a different Deblauwe, and a smiling plump Danse behind his counter, I hear a phrase…Or is it the characteristic lingering odour of the Fakir, which rises up in my throat and I think I am wandering under the lamps daubed with blue in the wartime.

It is impossible to relate truths in an orderly and clear way: they will always appear less plausible than a novel.”

The translator, David Carter argues that the title–Three Crimes–is misleading as it refers to four murders (two at one time counting as one incident). obviously Carter knows a lot more about Simenon than I do, but my interpretation of the title, Three Crimes is this: The three murders committed by Danse, the murder committed by Deblauwe, and the death of Little K. Simenon continually refers to the death of Little K throughout Three Crimes, and it’s an incident that both haunts and intrigues Simenon. On one level no punishable crime has been committed, but a man is dead due to the collective actions of others.

Three Crimes is so intriguing, I bought Simenon’s bio written by the translator David Carter, and I’m really looking forward to reading it. Anyway, if you’re a Simenon fan, then Three Crimes is highly recommended. It’s not his best, but it’s certainly one of his most fascinating.

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