Tag Archives: class divide

A Season in Sinji: J.L. Carr

“Many a time since I’ve wondered if, all at once, and for the first time in his life, he knew that class and rank don’t mean a thing when the cards are down.”

I enjoyed A Month in the Country very much and decided to seek out other novels from J.L. Carr. A Season In Sinji, which almost sounds like a companion novel, is a completely different read, yet the two novels have shared themes: the hell of war, of course, but also companionship between males, and (the price of) survival. A Month in the Country explores the joys and pain of life through a horribly disfigured WWI veteran who retreats to the countryside to restore a medieval mural. A Season in Sinji is set in WWII and is basically the story of three men who vie for the same woman, and then later find themselves in West Africa.

A SEASON IN SINJI

The novel, is narrated by Yorkshire native, Flanders, a man whose farming background and strict religious upbringing forge his strong character. Flanders tells his tale in hindsight, and it’s clear that while Flanders survived the war, that this survival comes with a price. Flanders volunteered to fight and quickly became friends with Wakerly  saying “we were more than mates; he could have been a brother. I shall never forget him. Though I let him down in the end.” 

Whereas Wakerly and Flanders have an instant rapport, they both intensely dislike Turton, who is an excellent photographer with an “absolute unquestioning superiority.” At first ‘war’ is boredom with the men stuck at an RAF camp watching others shipped out. To kill timeWakerly and Flanders begin hanging at the local pub where they meet Caroline, whose parents have been killed in a London air raid. Wakerly courts Caroline (with Flanders as an awkward third). Turton, the most aggressive male of the three men, spots Caroline. Armed with his “utter confidence” he simply takes over, and that would appear to be the end of the episode with Caroline.

Flanders and Wakerly are posted to RAF Sinji in West Africa, “the edge of war,” and it’s on the journey that things begin to unravel. Then Turton arrives, now an officer, and begins to make life hell for Flanders and Wakerly.

And that’s another thing about Africa; it’s never still. There’s always bumping and rustling, birds screaming, and the stir of millions of insects groping around. And feet. Feet padding softly past. The blacks sleep in shifts; they don’t keep regular hours like us, so there’s always someone stirring and watching. It became an obsession with me the longer I stayed there. Everybody had obsessions before they left The Coast. Even the biggest clods began to do crazy things like drawing birds in the sand and the ones with better educations usually cracked completely, and began feeding them. My two obsessions were the sound of feet running, and all the places that went on and on east of us, beyond the tropic rain forests on the other side of the mountains, right across the dry lakes and the deserts to Addis Ababa, Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar, all full of people who slept in shifts stirring and watching and running around in darkness. 

The narrator’s point, in the above quote is that Africa ‘does’ things to the British RAF personnel sent there, and that the educated/upper class are perhaps the worst off. According to Flanders: “Africa either put you flat on your back or else brought out the very devil in you.” Sinji is nothing more than “three beads strung along a gravel road”–some rapidly constructed ‘buildings’ for the men, but there’s simply nowhere to go, nothing to do. The men, however, find that their pay takes them far with the local women–much to Flanders’ disgust. But other men get their entertainment from harassing those they work with and those with lower rank. Turton, in particular, begins a campaign of psychological warfare against Flanders and Wakerly, making their lives living hell.

The nature of war throws various types together who would not cross paths in peacetime, and class plays a huge role here. Concentrating on just a handful of men, Carr examines personality clashes in close quarters, throwing rank in as a weapon in human pathology. One of the great personalities here is ‘the Birdman’

He knew so much that I switched off whenever he began to reel off lists of birds he was looking forward to seeing–the ibis, the calliope humming-bird, the flamingo…His wife probably was missing him in bed and the garden, but I bet she wasn’t sorry to be having a break from the birds.

The other spring of wisdom was a medical orderly known as Blubber, who looked like a dropsical Eskimo and who was a sex fiend. He was at the other end of the boredom scale–just vulgar. The Birdman and he just grated against each other–their birds were not of the same feather.

There’s a pivotal incident that takes place involving the natives which raises certain moral questions. Wakerly and Flanders find themselves disagreeing with each other. Wakerly wants to take a stand and damn the consequences while Flanders differs:

I’ll wait for the right time before I settle with Turton and, when it does come, I’ll choose it and the place and only when I’m sure of winning.

Through Flanders’ eyes we see how these British men cope at RAF Sinji. Some men fall apart and some rise to the occasion. There’s one man, Glapthorn, who Flanders considers a poor excuse for a human being, but even Glapthorn generates some empathy in the end. While Wakerly and Flanders drift apart due to moral differences, Flanders becomes friendly with Slingsby, a fellow Northerner with similar moral values.

Two final notes: Flanders has a strong distaste for homosexuals which permeates some of his relationships. Cricket plays a large role in the book, and those who like the game will probably appreciate the many cricket references.

On the cover of my edition there’s a quote “The best of J.L. Carr’s novels.” It’s certainly strong and memorable. Plus bleak which I always like. A Month in the Country includes the theme of healing from war. There’s no healing in A Season in Sinji.

 

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Those People: Louise Candlish

“Was it any wonder he did what any other desperate person would do? Gather all the alcohol he could find in the house and drink every last drop of it.”

We’ve all had problems with neighbours at some point or another, so there are a lot of horror stories to share. Perhaps that’s what makes Louise Candlish’s novel Those People so readable. Once I picked this book up, it was hard to put it down.

Those people

The novel is set in a London suburb: Lowland Gardens. It’s just a short jog over to the horrors of the poverty stricken, crime-ridden Loughborough estate, so the people who live in Lowland Gardens, mainly young couples with children, are all too aware that crime lurks nearby. These houses have risen steeply in value over the last few years. People are proud to live there and everyone pulls together to keep up standards. Everyone that is … until Darren Booth and his wife Josie move in. …

While the cat’s away, the mouse was staging some sort of coup d’état.

Number 1 Lowlands Way, a semi-detached house, has stood empty for some time following the death of the owner. It’s of no small concern to the other residents of the street as the council recently tried a landgrab. Most of houses don’t have off street parking, and so parking space is an issue. Darren Booth moves into number 1 and immediately pisses everyone off.

The first clue that something was amiss that Friday evening was that the parking space outside his house was occupied by a filthy white Toyota so decrepit it was bordering on scrap. Certainly not the vehicle of anyone he knew on Lowland way.

First there are amateur repairs (which include sketchy scaffolding) taking place all hours of the day and night. Then there’s the heavy metal rock music played in the wee hours. Then if there wasn’t already too much to tolerate, Darren brings his used car business to the estate and starts flogging cars in the once posh neighbourhood.

All of this could almost be funny. There are several snobby people in the neighbourhood, and the snob squad is led by Naomi Morgan one of the estate’s Great Organisers. Naomi is one of those ultra efficient, brisk, perfect women whose word is Law. Several of the neighbours attempt remonstrating with Darren; his music for example has made it impossible for the baby on the other side of the semi-detached wall to sleep, and that’s when Darren’s nastiness surfaces. He drives the neighbours crazy and while the horrified neighbours band together to complain to various official/legal channels, there is basically nothing they can do but live with the situation as all legal channels move as fast as frozen molasses.

The situation is a powder keg, and so inevitably things explode: Naomi and her much-over shadowed sister-in-law Tess created Play-out Sundays, so on Sundays the street is closed off and the children play outside. Everyone goes along with the plan and residents park on another street. But Darren Booth doesn’t comply with the established clan culture, and this leads to the first disaster.

I got to a certain point in the book, and then I realised that there was a lot more afoot. The plot begins with witness and neighbour statements which are taken by police after a horrendous accident takes place. There was still a good portion left of the book, and so I knew things were not as simple as they initially appeared.

Author Louise Candlish creates incredible tension between the characters. Events escalate rapidly and people find themselves in unexpected positions, trying to find solutions to an untenable situation. She also shows how Darren is a catalyst for other events that occur which cause the rot lurking beneath this posh neighborhood to emerge. Wives look to their husbands to ‘take care of things’ and then despise them when they can’t (legally). Naomi and Ralph have had the perfect life (which they like to flaunt through their constant suggestions for how others can improve their lives: “double glazing!!” ). Naomi’s domineering character emerges and she’s so used to getting her own way, that when she doesn’t, her rather off-putting nature becomes more apparent. And then there’s poor Sissy who is paying her mortgage by turning her home into a B&B (probably not the best idea..) and the B&B happens to right opposite Darren’s house… well there goes the neighbourhood.

At first opposition to Darren seems rooted in class, and class plays an enormous role in this tale. Darren doesn’t ‘fit’– he doesn’t ‘look’ as though he’s a homeowner, so Naomi’s (domestically trained) husband, Ralph, assumes that Darren is some cheapo worker employed by Number 1’s new owner. As the story develops though, it’s clear that while class may have sparked, and fueled divisions, Darren is a nasty person.

Reading the book made me think about how we so often just comply politely. Perhaps we don’t have enough skin in the game to thwart others or perhaps the stakes just aren’t worth it, but Darren senses he’s not welcome and then figuratively gives everyone the finger.

The plot wobbled a bit at the end, but for its genre, Those People is very well-done. While this may seem like a beach read, Those People tackles a lot of moral questions regarding our obligations to others. The neighbors, already subject to considerable marital/financial/social stress join together to band against Darren, but they are all self-interested at heart. Social media, and texts play a role as does surveillance–all ways for people to get themselves in trouble. It’s a good reminder that casual comments that may have no sinister meaning can quickly become incriminating under the right set of circumstances.

Review copy

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Steffan Green: Richmal Crompton

“Has life played any practical jokes on you?”

In Richmal Crompton’s Steffan Green,  a look at village life in the 30s,  freshly divorced Lettice Helston decides to escape the prying eyes of her London friends by fleeing to the countryside. A wrong turn leads her to the picturesque village of Steffan Green and she finds herself renting a village cottage on a whim. Although Lettice thinks she’ll live in quiet solitude, she quickly becomes embroiled in village life.

The problem with ‘village life’ books is that they can become too quaint, but Steffan Green contains darkness combined with strong characterization, and the result is an interesting tale of life right before WWII.

Steffan Green

One of the main characters in the book is former suffragette, Mrs. Fanshaw, now the vicar’s wife, who believes that reading the old testament gives one a “certain sense of proportion.” Mrs. Fanshaw, a marvelous character who understands what people need and who tries to ‘mend’ problems in the village as they occur, has an entire philosophy built around her metamorphosis from suffragette to vicar’s wife. She makes Lettice one of her ’causes’ and slowly and relentlessly involves the newcomer in village life.

“Things are never as bad as they seem to be when you’re right up against them,” she said.” You’ve got to get away and look at them from a distance with other things round them before you can see them in the right perspective. On the whole, life treats us better than we deserve.”

Lettice’s neighbours are a married couple, Lydia and Philip Morrice and their new baby. As outsiders they aren’t quite embraced by the locals and Lydia, who wears trousers, is considered “indelicate” by the local gentry, the impoverished Mrs. Ferring who lives up at the castle. Even though Mrs. Ferring, who keeps informed through gossip, doesn’t ‘descend’ into the village much, she still rules local society.

There’s a strict hierarchy of class within the village, and while Mrs. Ferring and her two granddaughters live in penury in the old castle, traditions have not yet melted away. Further down the ladder of class, there are two village widows who each live with a son. There’s the snobby, insufferable Mrs. Webb who rules her poor son Colin with a rod of iron, and the toothless Mrs. Turnberry who is beloved by all the villagers. Mrs. Turnberry lives with her son, Frank, who can’t hold a job, steals and gets drunk. There’s a rivalry between Mrs Webb and Mrs Turnberry which rears its head whenever there’s a social event:

Lettice’s thoughts went back over the afternoon. Mrs. Webb, a plump little woman with smooth unlined skin and fair frizzy hair, slightly overdressed in beige georgette and pearls, conveying in voice and manner the elusive suggestion of the second-rate, had talked incessantly about her son, enlarging on his devotion to her and by implication on her own perfection as a mother. Mrs. Turnberry was dressed in a shabby navy-blue costume and not over-clean striped blouse. She had a swarthy gipsy face, bright brown eyes alive with humour, and she poked fun demurely but incessantly at Mrs. Webb, deflating her pretensions one by one as she tried to impress Lettice, and making sly little digs that were yet devoid of ill-humour.

Mrs. Webb rules her son, Colin, as she once ruled her husband, and Colin is manipulated by his mother’s suffocating ‘concern,’ her headaches and coldness. Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Turnberry should be social equals–after all Mrs. Turnberry’s other son, is a “respectable” solicitor. Mrs. Turnberry’s social position, however, has been assaulted by her wayward son, Frank’s behaviour, and this is one of the reasons the villagers love her–she’s chosen her son over class and status.

Further down the social scale, There’s also the “large, powerfully built”  Mrs. Skelton (who had ten children) who seems to clean for all of the village ladies.

Village life begins to shake up with the arrival of Mrs. Fanshaw’s “old school friend,” Miss Clare Lennare, a “fourth-rate Bloomsbury” writer who rents Honeysuckle Cottage in Steffan Green and stirs up all sorts of trouble while ferreting out her next plot. According to Mrs. Fanshaw:

She’s a novelist with quite a fair public. Her heroines are gentle helpless little women–stupid but appealing–the sort we meant to wipe off the face of the earth.

Miss Lennare employs Mrs. Skelton’s youngest child, Ivy to be her cleaner but instead makes the girl a ‘companion.’ Mrs. Fanshaw sniffs problems with the way Ivy is given expectations and promises that will not be met, and she makes a connection between Miss Lennare’s behaviour and Jane Austen’s Emma:

No, I think it’s just an Emma and Harriet Smith affair, except that Clare lacks the saving graces of Emma, and Ivy the saving graces of Harriet Smith. Clare’s stupid, and it’s the stupid people who do the most harm in the world.

The book’s touch of melodrama seems misplaced and mars the story overall–still I really enjoyed this (mostly) gentle tale of village life with its strict, stubborn societal gradations, and its not-so-disappointed suffragette turned vicar’s wife.

Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) is best known for her Just William books for children. She was a schoolmistress, and a suffragette. For health reasons, she left teaching and began writing full time.

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The Square: Rosie Milliard

“If you just drove in and out of the Square all day to deliver your child to The Prep, which is ferociously exclusive and expensive, you would feel as if life was a sort of planet of plenty, thinks Tracey, who knows full well from her clients who buy cosmetics from her that it is not.”

The Square, a novel from Rosie Millard is a satire which lampoons the lifestyles and values of a handful of residents of a neighbourhood of expensive London Georgian mansions that were “built for the Victorian bourgeoisie, fallen into disrepair, divided up, broken down, reunited, refurbished, [now] they are serving descendants of their original class once more.” Everyone who lives in the Square is proud of their address, as if living there is some sort of achievement. Most of the characters’ primary concern is appearances, so in this delightfully malicious look at class and materialism, we see characters who think they’re unique when in actuality, they are ultra conformists who have “knock-through kitchens,’ send their children to the same schools, compete with ridiculous dinner parties, and show off designer labels as if they were medals.

All those women with husbands who work in the City, dressed in their silk shifts and tweedy jackets, makeup so subtle it looks like it’s not even there, hair beautifully blown. It is the handbags which are the signifiers, though. Soft, buttery leather bags. Purple and green and black, with clinking accoutrements to announce their presence; silver locks and heart-shaped key fobs and gilt chains, and huge stitched handles which fit just so under your arm.

The residents/characters in the book include:

  • Tracey and Larry: who won the lottery but find that maintaining the lifestyle expected of residents of the square is beyond their means. They have two children–Belle and Grace and an au pair, Anya. Belle is old enough to remember her working class, pre-lottery days.
  • Jane and Patrick: Patrick “who has gone to seed,” brings home the big money while mega bitch Jane, known to her husband as “Der Führer,”  brings home her lover, Jay for frantic afternoon trysts. Their only child George is the most mature person in the household.
  • Harriet and Jay: overweight and unhappy Harriet doesn’t fit in with the other ultra slim wives, and Jay busies himself with an affair with ultra-skinny Jane.
  • Pretentious, obnoxious artist Philip Burrell and his nutty Russian wife Gilda who dresses like she “just stepped out of theatrical clothing emporium, or is trying to represent a painting by Watteau.” Philip hires a young man from the local council estate to build his pricey works of art: reproductions of golf holes which sell for up to 50,000 pounds a pop.

The novel follows the various complications in the lives of the characters and culminates in the residents’ fundraising talent show (the council refuses to pay for new iron railings. Sob…). We see Tracey, with her “tarty outfits,” who doesn’t fit in with the other wives, trying to make a living as a door-to-door cosmetic salesperson. Realising that the family will not be able to sustain the lifestyle of the Square for much longer, she hunts down financial makeover guru, television personality Alan Makin, while Philip Burrell decides to move on from making models of golf holes to making models of marathon courses. Meanwhile the resident children, unbeknownst to their parents, struggle with their own issues.

the squareVenom flies in to even the small scenes with two or three characters, but the major laughs break out when the residents come together en masse. The funniest scene in the book IMO takes place at Jane’s dinner party. Jane is the sort of character we  love to hate, and here when she’s on show, at her most pretentious, she’s very funny.

With characters such as these–the pencil-thin rich bitch, the cuckolded husband, the neglected overweight wife, and her slimy cheating spouse you know that you are reading about types rather than individuals–so don’t expect character development here. Yet in spite of the fact that author Rosie Millard’s novel concentrates on stereotypes, we can all too easily imagine people we know in these roles. I struggled with the character of Jane’s son George. He was too mannered, and the segment concerning George’s film seemed constructed for laughs rather than credibility. It’s hard to sustain humour in satire, and when the novel moved towards the fundraiser, the humour lagged and tired as slick wit weakened, and as Jane says as one point, it’s “sort of like realizing that modern British life is indeed modelled on a Carry On film.” But bravo to the author for nailing the pretentious crowd who live in the Square–a place, oddly enough that sounds a lot like Rosie Millard’s own neighbourhood, and a place even more strangely that sounds exactly like a neighbourhood here in N. America…

Opposite the blackboard is the obligatory ‘island’. Every kitchen has one, a marooned stone rectangle surrounded by a cluster of chrome stools. Somewhere on it there will be a single, commanding tap. There might be a recipe book propped up on a lectern, like a religious text.

Beside the island is a colossal, humming fridge and a vast six-burner appliance capable of feeding an entire church choir, should one drop in. This is known as the ‘range’. It is not used very much. Hot meals still tend to come from the microwave, or local restaurants, whose takeaway menus are pinned to a cork board.

The entire room glories in laboratory-style cleanliness. There is an entire cupboard devoted to cleaning implements and chemicals. There is a bespoke bottle for the kitchen’s myriad surfaces, each of which has been quarried, quartered, buffed and bullied into a properly gleaming state of submission.

Kitchens in the Square are a miracle of processed nature. Marble, granite, steel, quartz, slate, with accents of wood and chrome brought together in one glorious assemblage. The kitchens are like a geology lesson.

At night, the au pairs creep out of the small rooms. They enter these bright, soulless places and erect computers upon the marble islands. they perch on chrome stools and talk via Skype to their families in languages which to Belle’s English ear sound like falling water. Alone and undisturbed they explain to their fascinated relations how things are in the Square, a place full of money, nerves, and giant unused ovens.

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Skylark by Dezso Kosztolanyi

I’m going to admit that I haven’t been the staunchest fan of Hungarian literature. Not that I’ve read that much, but I haven’t been thrilled by what I read. Skylark is the most enjoyable Hungarian novel I’ve read to date. It’s another release from NYRB and I bought my copy because a) it sounded like my sort of thing and b) it’s from NYRB, and I decided to read more of their titles.

The plot is simple enough. Skylark is the improbable nickname given to the only daughter of Akos and Antonia Vajkay. Skylark is middle-aged, dumpy and unattractive, but she is extremely precious to her parents. They all live together in a little home stuffed full of “the ghastly icons of provincial life” in the boring small town of Sarszeg.  Skylark and her mother do the cooking together and generally enjoy each other’s company. Akos is fifty-nine but looks sixty-five, and he’s on early retirement from his job in county administration. Their days are ordered, modest and utterly predictable, and Akos finds that the “last years of his life he spent increasingly preparing for death.” Life has slowly shrunk for Akos:

“He had not moved in society for years. He neither drank nor smoked. Not only his family doctor, Dr Gal, but also the professor he had consulted in Pest had warned against arteriosclerosis and forbidden him from taking alcohol and – more distressingly – from smoking his beloved cigars.

The only passion remaining to him from the past was to sit in his cramped and perpetually damp study, leafing through a volume of Ivan Nagy’s great tome on Hungarian noble families.”

When the book begins, Skylark is going away on holiday for a week to visit an aunt and uncle in the country, and her parents are devastated at the thought of her week-long absence. They simply cannot imagine the days without her, and when she leaves, many tears are shed at the railway station. For the first day the parents imagine Skylark’s journey, anticipating each stage of her adventure. They dread the week ahead asking each other “how will we bear it?” And Akos even hints optimistically “someone might … turn up” for Skylark, now an acknowledged, unattractive old maid.

For the first day, the time drags for Akos and Antonia, and then they reluctantly venture out into town:

“Already some weeks earlier it had been agreed that, for these few days – it was only a week, after all – they wouldn’t cook at home. Skylark, who presided in all culinary matters, recommended the King of Hungary, Sarszeg’s largest restaurant, as the one place where the cuisine was still tolerable.

The three of them detested restaurants  And although they had hardly visited this one, they could talk about it for hours with sneering condescension. The dishwater soups, the tough and gristly meat, the carelessly concocted desserts they served up to the poor unsuspecting bachelors, who had never tasted good home cooking.”

Eating at a restaurant, initially endured as a necessity becomes the event that springboards Akos and his wife back into the vital strains of Sarszeg’s society. Soon all bad habits are resumed. They are courted by some of the town’s most notable flamboyant personalities and find themselves riveted by the town’s intrigue, gossip and scandalous dramas.

Skylark is a bitter-sweet tale–at once it’s joyous and yet also very sad in its examination of the narrowness of our lives and the decisions we make. All families have a unique dynamic, and it often takes being connected to a family unit to understand its pathology.  As Tolstoy notes in Anna Karenina:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  

This quote even fits this seemingly boring little family fraught with its own secret little disappointments. The story begins with the parents known as just mother and father, but as the tale develops they become well-rounded human beings that exist beyond any parental function–indeed with their daughter gone they seem to come to life. But at the same time the story is also sympathetic to Skylark. She’s long past what is considered the marriageable age, and when she’s put in the company of her younger flirtatious cousins she’s in the way. Skylark’s great failed, legendary romance with Geza Cifra  (a man whose “summer pimples bloomed brightly like ripe cherries” ) is examined in all its humourous and yet poignant details.

Not a great deal happens here, and yet at the same time the very smallness of the tale of a crucial week is delivered with a delectably natural precision. The tale dissects the Vajkay family dynamic and peels apart the layers revealing  the refuge and also the crutch the family can provide to its less successful members. In contrast to the Vajkay family is Miklos Ijas, would-be poet and assistant editor of the Sarszeg Gazette. He’s a lonely soul whose family has been decimated by scandal. Tainted by the past, he remains outside of mainstream society, yet he is one of the few people to understand the protective relationship the Vajkays have with their daughter. And he seems to envy the ties between this close-knit family. There’s a sense that we are witnessing a world that will soon disappear. Indeed the novel is set in 1899 and already we can hear the rumblings of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

 The introduction by Peter Esterhazy offers biographical information on the book’s author, Dezso Kosztolanyi. This was welcome as I had never heard of this author before. So thanks once more to NYRB. I enjoy Skylark immensely and found that this good-natured tale grew on me as it continued. Here’s one last quote showing Kosztolanyi’s lively use of language:

“The market seethed in the sweltering heat, humming with noise and ablaze with every imaginable colour. Red peppers shone as brightly as the florid scarlet paint in the paint-shop window across the square. Cabbages displayed their pale-green, silken frills, violet grapes glistened, marrows whitened in the sun, and yellowing melons, already past their best, gave off a sickly choleroid stench.”

 This edition is translated by Richard Aczel

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The Merry-Go-Round by W. Somerset Maugham

“As if hell were needed when every sin brings along with it its own bitter punishment.”

The Merry-Go-Round, an early and largely forgotten novel from W. Somerset Maugham is not considered his best, but it’s one of my favourites. The Merry-Go-Round was written in 1904 following Mrs Craddock (another great favourite) in 1902. The main character in Mrs Craddock is Bertha Ley, and she’s the niece of Miss Mary Ley, the main character in The Merry-Go-Round.

Set in Edwardian England, The Merry-Go-Round concerns the troubled relationships between several people. The central character is Miss Ley, a fifty-seven-year-old spinster who inherits a comfortable sum of money from a cantankerous elderly aunt. Independent and strong-willed in her youth, in middle-age Miss Ley has very definite ideas about male-female relationships.  As a keen observer of people, her sardonic, practical view of the foibles and vanities of human nature establish Miss Ley as a witty hostess. Soon her friends become involved in various relationships and mesalliances that put Miss Ley’s theories about life, love and marriage to the test. Miss Ley rather unexpectedly finds herself becoming a confidant, an advisor and also “a censor of morals.”

Shortly after the novel begins, Miss Ley invites a handful of acquaintances to dinner, and this event introduces the main characters and kickstarts their stories, dramas and tragedies. Guests for the evening include: Mrs. Castillyon (whose husband is a member of parliament), Basil Kent, Dr. Frank Hurrell, Reggie Bassett and his overbearing mother Mrs. Barlow-Bassett, the attractive widow Mrs. Murray, Miss Ley’s cousin, Algernon Langton, Dean of Tercanbury and his middle-aged daughter Bella.

Over the course of the book, these characters plunge into love affairs and marriages for a variety of reasons and with a range of results. Barrister Basil Kent, a promising writer, although attracted to Mrs Murray, decides to do the honourable thing and offer marriage to the beautiful barmaid Jenny. Dr Frank Hurrell, a man whose “passions were of the mind rather than of the body” chafes at his career in Harley Street and longs for something unknown. Mrs. Castillyon, bored with her marriage, abandons herself in a destructive affair with Reggie Bassett, and Bella Langton at age forty falls in love with a twenty-year-old bank clerk named Herbert Field.

Maugham explores the relationships between unequals in his masterpiece Of Human Bondage. It’s obviously a theme that fascinated Maugham and in The Merry-Go-Round, there are three  such inequitable relationships (one I shan’t mention due to spoilers). Bella Langton marries Herbert Field–a man considered her social ‘inferior’ and Basil marries Jenny against Miss Ley’s advice. The marriages have different results, and while Bella and Herbert love each other, there are additional factors which impact their relationship. Basil imagines a Pygmalion scenario–with himself, naturally, as the purveyor of culture and education, and Jenny as the eager, lowly and grateful pupil. After marriage, however, Jenny’s charms are lost on Basil and he quickly finds himself bored with his wife and ashamed to introduce her to his friends. He stashes her at home and then attends his social functions alone. Jenny of course, hasn’t essentially changed since Basil first cast eyes on her; Basil’s infatuation simply dies, and with his sexual enthrallment satiated, he loses interest. In doing the so-called honourable thing, and meeting the moral obligations he feels are demanded of him, Basil becomes unintentionally cruel and tragedy results.

It’s been more than 100 years since Basil’s creation, but many of us will still identify with his decision to ‘do the right thing.’ But just what is the ‘right thing’ is a question for some debate. Miss Ley is vehemently opposed to the match and she expresses her feelings unreservedly. In her view, Basil has already caused Jenny considerable damage which will only be compounded by marriage–an act she feels is motivated from “selfishness and cowardice.” Here’s Miss Ley giving Basil her opinion:

“Are you sure you don’t admire a little too much your heroic attitude?” she asked, and in her voice was a stinging coldness at which Basil winced. “Nowadays self-sacrifice is a luxury which few have the strength to deny themselves; people took to it when they left off sugar because it was fattening, and they sacrifice themselves wantonly, from sheer love of it, however worthless the object. In fact, the object scarcely concerns them; they don’t care how much they harm it so long as they can gratify their passion.”

In Basil’s case, Miss Ley sees the misguided passion as Basil’s drive to “sacrifice” himself by marrying Jenny. Basil is motivated by the desire to not seem like his mother, the one-time notorious Lady Vizard whose affairs (Basil imagines) scandalized society–when in fact prissy Basil was the only person outraged. Basil tends to place impossibly high standards of behaviour on people and is perhaps destined to be disappointed in his relationships:

“Basil had not the amiable gift of taking people as they are, asking no more from them than they can give: but rather sought to mould after his own ideas the persons with whom he came into contact.”

The relationship between Reggie Bassett and Mrs Castillyon remains, for me at least, the most fascinating relationship in the novel. While the vast social differences in Basil and Jenny’s marriage are certain to leave bitter recrimination, it’s uncertain just who is going to be the casualty in the twisted relationship between the shallow, spoiled, selfish, petulant Reggie, and the bored superficial Mrs Castillyon. Socially, Reggie is used to prostitutes and at first can’t believe his luck at discovering a ‘loose’ woman of his own class (a woman, he assumes, who will pay her own way). Reggie fails to understand that Mrs Castillyon is mainly a tease and initially has no intention of becoming his mistress. The scenes detailing the first steps in the affair between Reggie and Grace Castillyon are especially delightful. Invitations to tea and to the theatre mask elaborate games in which Reggie and Grace test and exploit each other’s boundaries.

Miss Ley doles out advice when asked and sometimes when she isn’t asked, and throughout the novel, she is also an observer of the silliness and hypocrisy of others. Lady Vizard’s compulsion to drop the occasional French word into conversation provides just the right degree of snobbery and pretension to the upper class set, and this develops into scorn when she discovers Basil’s marriage to Jenny. Some of the narrative is stiff, and the novel seems a little unkind to most of the working class characters who either steal (Jimmy Bush), get drunk (Bridger) or get “into trouble” (Fanny Bridger, Jenny Bush). On the other hand, the upper classes suffer from priggishness (Castillyon, Basil) and selfishness induced by boredom (Grace Castillyon, Reggie).

The first time I read The Merry-Go-Round many years ago, I thought that Maugham’s novel preached virulently against marriages between different classes. Now, however, I find myself moving away from that opinion. While Basil’s marriage to Jenny is disastrous, the third, completely unexpected, marriage that takes place between two characters may or may not be successful. Miss Ley seems to think that the marriage could well be the making of the weaker, shallow character–in spite of the class differences between the newlyweds. Perhaps it is safer to say that a marriage that begins as a “favour” to the other person or as a “sacrifice” is doomed to failure, and that at the very least, respect, if not affection must be present in order for the union to have a chance of success.

Maugham’s characters share a great capacity to make themselves unhappy, and Miss Ley realizes that most of this stems from humans’ failure to understand their deepest motivations. So much unhappiness could have been spared these characters if they’d only understood themselves a little better. Here’s Basil blaming his mistakes on society:

“In this world we’re made to act and think things because others have thought them good; we never have a chance of going our own way; we’re bound down by the prejudices and the morals of all and sundry….The world held up an ideal, and I thought they meant one to act up to it; it never occurred to me that they would only sneer.”

I don’t buy Basil’s theory that his actions were dictated by society–in his case it was rather the opposite. Everyone advised him not to marry Jenny. But it is that vast dichotomy that exists in most of us–the gap between who we think we are and who we really are–that trips up Basil. He thinks he can marry Jenny and make the best of it when in reality he patronizes her, is deeply ashamed of her and imagines that she “drags him down” to her level.

So at the end of the novel, The Merry-Go-Round has stopped. Some characters alight and some continue with their delusions. Some fortunate characters get a second chance at life, and some…do not.

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Pot Luck by Emile Zola

“Then, going off on a tangent, he began violently to abuse the Empire; under a republic , things would surely be better. And amid all this rambling talk, the vague generalizations of a man of mediocre intelligence, there came a few acute remarks of the experienced physician thoroughly familiar with all his patients’ foibles. He did not spare the women, some of whom were brought up as dolls and were made either corrupt or crazy thereby, while others had their feelings and passions perverted by hereditary neurosis; if they sinned, they sinned vulgarly, foolishly, without desire as without pleasure. Nor was he more merciful to the men–fellows who merely ruined their constitutions while hypocritically pretending to lead virtuous and godly lives. And in all this Jacobin frenzy one heard, as it were, the inexorable death-knell of a whole class, the collapse and putrefaction of the bourgeoisie whose rotten props were cracking beneath them.”

pot luckPot-Bouille translates to Pot Luck in the Oxford University Press edition of the tenth novel in Zola’s incredible Rougon-Macquart series. After you begin to read the novel, the title will make more sense to you–it also translates to stew-pot, and that’s another apt description of the events that take place in this wonderfully entertaining novel. My edition is translated by Brian Nelson, and while it’s the only translation I’ve read, and therefore I can’t compare, this translation is as smooth as silk.

The protagonist of the novel (and it’s going too far to call him a hero) is Octave Mouret. To place him in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, Octave is the son of Marthe and Francois Mouret. Martha and Francois were cousins (Marthe was a Rougon–the sister of Eugene Rougon). In The Conquest of Plassans, Marthe and Francois are a middle-aged couple who’ve grown apart over the years. Marthe sublimates her sexuality and hunger for passion and attention into religious fanaticism after boarding a priest in the house.

Pot Luck makes no reference to the other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series or to Octave’s troubled background. Instead the novel begins with the young, enthusiastic, and ambitious Octave arriving in Paris from the country and moving into a boarding house full of bourgeois Parisians who cling–rather pathetically at times–to their social status.

Octave’s contact at the boarding house in the Rue de Choiseul is the architect Monsieur Campardon, and the book begins with Campardon showing Octave through the house while giving a rundown of the other tenants. Campardon’s superficial information is heavily coded with social markers, and he notes, for example, that Monsieur Gourd “used to be the valet to the Duc de Vaugelade.” Because Gourd was a servant to nobility, a property owner, and soon to get a respectable pension, he’s elevated to bourgeois status in the eyes of the boarding house residents. Indeed Gourd, not surprisingly is the fiercest combatant in the house when it comes to morality and much more importantly, maintaining strict hierarchy and social status. Gourd, a merciless employer of a poor half-crippled cleaner, is the moral policeman of the building, meting out moral outrage and banishment to the working class residents and turning a blind eye to the love affairs of the bourgeois.

An unhappy assortment of people share the boarding house. It’s difficult to pick the unhappiest family, but perhaps the Josserand family, ruled by domestic tyrant Madame Josserand are the most miserable. Madame Josserand, with her “massive bosom” lives to marry off her children, but frustrated by the lack and money (and subsequent social opportunities), she rains down abuse onto the head of her meek, long-suffering husband, who bears his burden with no complaints. The various servants in the boarding house aren’t treated well either, but the Josserand’s servant, the half-starved Adele, suffers more than most. Then there’s the landlord, Monsieur Vabre and his two sons–Theophile and Auguste–both poor specimens whose ineffectualness with their respective spouses leads to some hilarious scenes in the novel. On the third floor, there’s Marie and Jules Pichon. Marie is the nicest character in the novel. Raised by her boring, close-minded parents the Vuillaumes, she’s simple, innocent, kind, and gullible. Marie gives without asking for anything in return and so is taken advantage of by Octave rapidly:

“She had had a long-drawn-out childhood: all sorts of prohibitions she could not understand; lines in fashion journals which her mother had inked over–black bars that made her blush; pieces cut out of her lessons which embarrassed the governesses themselves when she asked about them. There had been a sweetness about her childhood, a soft tepid growth as in a greenhouse, a waking dream in which the words and the deeds of each day assumed a distorted, foolish significance. And even now, as with a far-off look in her eyes, all these memories come back to her, the smile on her lips was the smile of a child, as ignorant after marriage as she was before.”

It’s in his relationship with Marie that Octave’s character and his attitude towards women begins to develop. Octave studies the women in the boarding house and assesses them for possible seduction, reasoning that now he’s in Paris, love affairs will follow. By studying Marie, he begins to understand the fallow nature of her confined life, and he begins a relationship with her by bringing her novels to read. This maneuver is the first step in Marie’s seduction. It should be said that Octave, is a classical seducer. While he loves women, and the idea of women, finding something to love about each one, his love, for the most part, involves an objectification of the love object: she exists for his pleasure while he glosses over the finer points of his seduction as somehow or other contributing to a ‘greater good.’ Eligible bachelor Octave lays siege to several of the married women in the novel while his friend Trublot prefers the low level challenge of the sexually accessible servants.

It’s not long before Octave finds employment with Madame and Monsieur Hedouin at The Ladies’ Paradise and he is very rapidly absorbed into the social life, such as it is, in the house. This translates to being obligated to attend boring ‘evenings’ at the Josserands and listening to piano recitals in the rooms of the sanctimonious Judge Duveyrier and his wife.

It’s ironic that Campardon warns Octave: “Above all no women. My word! If you brought a woman here there would be a revolution in the house.” What Campardon should have said is: ‘if you have to carry on an affair, pick one of the women in the house because we all ignore that.’ One of the apartments is even maintained as a love nest by a wealthy man for his mistress, and the house residents ignore the fact that the couple meets there for assignations. The message is that the wealthy may have their assignations, but woe betide a working-class stiff who fancies he can have the same thing. Indeed a few working class tenants who rent bleak garrets at the top of the house, fall victim to Monsieur Gourd’s pitiless, skewed morality.

Hypocrisy reigns supreme in this novel. While the characters (both male and female) wax on about marriage and morality, what happens after dark or behind closed doors is another matter entirely. Every married couple in the house is under siege from some dreadful unhappiness, and the married men blatantly maintain mistresses. As Campardon sagely notes to Octave on his very first day in Paris: “You know, women have always got something wrong with them.” Several married woman suffer from some sort of hysterical malady. From the gargantuan, ribbon-sporting Madame Gourd, who rarely moves from her chair, to Madame Campardon who suffers from a legendary vaginal stricture, and to Clotilde (Vabre) Duveyrier who sublimates her passion (and her frustrations) into her thunderous piano playing, the married women in the house lead peculiarly cloistered lives. Maintained as pets by their husbands, they receive a wide range of attention. Plump, rosy Madame Campardon sweetly capitalizes on her invalid status with Monsieur Campardon encouraging this condition by pampering her and placing her in bed. This arrangement suits them both perfectly as Madame Campardon’s mysterious medical condition excuses her from any marital obligations and allows Campardon to continue his long-time affair with Madame Campardon’s crafty cousin Gasparine. Campardon’s behavior is scandalous and even Octave is shocked when he discovers the layers of deceit maintained in the Campardon household, but no one is exempt from Zola’s blistering and yet very, very amusing tale which skewers bourgeois morality. It should be remembered, however, that Pot Luck follows Nana–a novel that skewered the morality of the rich. So with this novel Zola effectively levels the playing field, and we are left idly speculating whether the rich or the bourgeois are worse!

The boarding house is brilliantly detailed within the book’s first few pages, and although this monument to bourgeois style impresses Octave, it’s obvious that the newly constructed house, which is already falling apart, isn’t a particularly pleasant place to live. The house has a certain “gaudy splendor” but most of it is imitation–imitation marble, imitation windows, and imitation oak paneling. Today, we could compare the boarding house to the pretentious mini-mansions of the middle-class, with their grandiose entryways, faux turrets, sweeping staircases and open floor plans that mimic the mansions of the far wealthier sliver of the population. Octave notes that the house’s décor begins to slip the higher one goes, and by the time he reaches the third floor, the “red carpet came to an end and was replaced by a simple grey covering.” This is significant as the house’s décor is directed more to outward appearances and similarly and its occupants are more concerned about image and mouthing platitudes than anything else.

The house also holds its secrets, and the vivid, often sour life of the servant class is largely unnoticed by their bourgeois employers. The servants entertain their lovers who are sometimes their married male employers, and while the employers only notice the servants to bitch and complain about their laziness, simultaneously they imagine that their private lives–which they go to great pains to conceal from their spouses and neighbors–is also hidden from the servants. It’s in the bourgeois employers’ treatment of the servants that hypocrisy is at its worst. To the bourgeois, morality means only one thing: sex and the importance of not speaking about it. Morality towards another human being under your control does not enter into the spectrum of moral behavior, and the bourgeois are mainly concerned with keeping up appearances and maintaining strict hierarchal considerations. The servants however, are fully aware of their employers’ darkest secrets, and the foibles of their ‘betters’ are a matter for gossip, hilarity and disgust. As one servant notes, the houses of the bourgeois are all alike: “if you’ve been in one of ’em you’ve been in ’em all. They’re just pig-sties.”

As always with Zola’s novels, he is the master of constructing marvelous, memorable scenes. In this novel, the memorable scenes include: the night when Octave and Berthe play musical beds (at this point Pot Luck resembles a French bedroom farce), Bachelard showing off his mistress, Octave’s visit to Judge Duveyrier’s mistress, the scene detailing the appalling gentrification of Clarisse, and Auguste Vabre’s wedding.

Of all the Rougon-Macquart novels I’ve read so far (this is number ten), I would say that Pot Luck is the most enjoyable, and there were several points while reading the novel that I laughed out loud. I loved Berthe’s capricious behavior with Octave and his frustration when he realizes that for all the presents he’s buying Berthe with the expectation of getting sexual favours in return, he’s getting less sex than Berthe’s husband. Additionally, the scenes of Judge Duveyrier–a besotted man who exchanges one type of domestic tyranny for another are simply priceless. Pot Luck, which is amazingly frank about sex, may not be considered the greatest of the novels, but it’s the hypocrisy, the squabbling over non-existent dowries and the twisted love triangles that create the sheer enjoyment of reading the antics of the residents of the boarding house.

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