Tag Archives: class war

A Way Through the Wood (Separate Lies) by Nigel Balchin

“For there is nothing awe-inspiring about a personal mess. It is a thing for the sensible man to forget, rather than to try to remember.”

I was very impressed with Mine Own Executioner , a tale of a psychologist and his patient set in London, post  WWII from British novelist Nigel Balchin, so I turned to A Way Through the Wood–also known as Separate Lies. A Way Through the Wood is a psychologically complex, Graham Greenesque tale that explores the moral tug-of-war that takes place between three characters.  There’s a film version of Separate Lies, featuring Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson and Rupert Everett, and while it’s an excellent film, it’s quite different from the book. Mine Own Executioner and A Way Through the Woods are a fascinating study in contrasts; the former book with its almost claustrophobic intensity begins as the marital and professional trials and tribulations of a London therapist but ends up as a thriller. While A Way Through the Woods may ostensibly be about a crime, the novel ultimately focuses on the moral fallout of a man’s death. The plot goes global as its characters trot around the world in a vain attempt to solve their problems: Venice, Spain, Paris–all these glamorous exciting places, but they serve as mere background noise to the central character’s internal drama as he wrestles with a difficult moral dilemma which challenges his conflicting obligations to class, duty, love and justice.

A Way Through the Wood is narrated by 39-year-old James Manning, who would appear to be, when the novel begins, a very lucky man and the envy of his peers. He’s survived WWII intact, and he’s been married for eleven years to his beautiful wife, Jill. While James has a stellar, lucrative career in London, he lives in the country, and commutes from his large manor house, Crossways. James is one of those true-blue characters–dependable, strait-laced, conservative and someone who prides himself on his position of magistrate within the community. James would appear to have the perfect life, but there are a few distant rumblings of trouble and these faint signs are manifested in the very public roles Manning and his wife, Jill, a shallow, superficial woman, assume with the locals during the village Easter Fete. Manning excels at playing lord-of-the-manor, but Jill is neither interested in nor capable of playing Lady Bountiful to the locals. Manning’s role with Jill is fatherly and corrective rather than passionate, but as is so typical with relationships, it takes both people to play their roles and so while Manning is the disapproving father, Jill is the naughty child to be scolded, but also spoiled & indulged. This sort of arrangement has apparently worked for some years, and according to Manning, Jill simply “has never picked up the knack of living in the country. ” This is a polite way of explaining her crass behaviour with some of the locals.  This seemingly small crack in the Manning’s marriage rapidly expands into an unbreachable fissure when a local man, Joe, the husband of the Manning’s cleaner Elsie, is found in ditch following a hit-and-run accident.

At first, Manning, true to form, is determined to discover the identity of the driver who left Joe dying in a ditch. He reasons that it can’t be too difficult to track down the owner of a large car that careened down that isolated country road. Manning suspects that the driver is Bill Bule, and Manning’s quest for justice is at least partially motivated by the fact that he loathes Bule–an irresponsible playboy who is the antithesis of Manning.

Balchin involves the reader initially by presenting the crime and then we are committed to its solution, sharing Manning’s outrage at the callousness of the hit-and-run accident. As Manning makes subsequent choices, it’s inevitable that  most readers will come to a parting of the ways with the decisions he makes. However, Manning ultimately remains true to himself, and that is the issue at the heart of this marvellous novel. Here’s a quote which captures the tepidness of the Mannings’ marriage. This is Manning on a trip to Paris with his wife who “has always been a confirmed buyer-of-tickets-to-somewhere-else”:

We went to Paris. it wasn’t very imaginative of us, but we went there because it was a place where we had always been happy and very much together. There must be a lot of people who still go to Paris, just as they used to go to Vienna, not because of what it is, but because of what it was when they were younger. Indeed, I can imagine that if you take your happiness with you, Paris would still be a very nice place to sit and enjoy it, just as any field is a delightful place for lunch–as long as you have remembered to bring the lunch. But it is no good just going to a field and expecting it to provide the lunch for you; and it is no good going to Paris nowadays, if it ever was, and expecting to be able to order happiness at a cafe. You can still nearly do it in some other parts of France. But you can’t do it in Paris.

A Way Through the Wood explores how our certainty regarding moral positions is a mere chimera until that position is tested, and when competing moral obligations clash, Manning enters a private hell as he shoulders toxic knowledge about the crime. Through the three characters: Jill, Bule and Manning, Balchin shows how some people sail through life untouched by their actions while others in their sphere pay a heavy price–it’s contamination by association. But A Way Through the Wood, an extremely clever, multilayered novel also shows that Manning’s interest in Joe’s death is hardly self-interested as he intuitively suspects Bule and also intuitively sees Bule as a threat to his marriage. Also as the plot unfolds, it’s certainly arguable that Jill’s immaturity is at least partly the result of Manning’s insistence on acting as a father-figure. There’s simply no room in their relationship for Jill to be anything other than a child, so who do we hold responsible when she continues on with her feckless choices? As the story unfolds, Balchin strips away the layers of deceit in his character’s lives, and what’s underneath is not pleasant. It’s all done with infinite politeness and good manners, and perhaps it’s all the more chilling for the utter lack of passion.

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Observations on Goethe’s Elective Affinities

I signed up for German literature month which is cohosted by Caroline and Lizzy Siddal, and I agreed to read a few German books during the month. My choices are here. I’ve already read Doris Dörrie’s Where Do We Go From Here?  and I just finished a second book, Goethe’s Elective Affinities. Here’s a post about a passage that struck me as terribly cheeky and autocratic, and which, I suspect, reflect’s Goethe’s philosophy.

Two of the novel’s wealthy characters, Eduard and Charlotte are obsessed with ‘improving’ their estate. It’s an obsession that gets the couple in trouble, but more of that in another post. Anyway, at one point, Charlotte sets out to improve the local churchyard:

Let us recall those alterations Charlotte had made in the churchyard. All the gravestones had been moved from their places and set up against the wall and against the base of the church. The ground had been levelled and, except for the broad walk which led to the church and then past it to the little gate beyond, sown with various kinds of clover, which provided a fine green and flowery expanse. New graves could be added from the end of this expanse, but each time the ground was to be levelled again and sown with clover. No one could deny that this arrangement provided a dignified and cheerful prospect when you went to church on Sunday or feast-days.

The families of those buried there were given no choice in the matter. Ok, so it’s picturesque, but not everyone is happy with the arrangement. Fancy that.

But for all that, there were some parishioners who had already expressed disapproval that the place where their ancestors reposed was no longer marked, and that their memory had thus been so to speak obliterated. There were many who said that, although the gravestones which were preserved showed who was buried there, they did not show where they were buried, and it was where they were buried that really mattered.

One local family who had arranged to give a “small bequest to the church” decided to withdraw their support, and the family’s solicitor eventually finds himself in front of Charlotte. He has this great speech about why everyone’s rights/choices in the matter have been violated:

You will understand that all persons, the highest and the humblest, are concerned to mark the place in which their loved ones lie. To the poorest peasant burying one of his children it is a kind of comfort and consolation to set upon its grave a feeble wooden cross, and to decorate it with a wreath, so that he may preserve the memory of that child for at any rate as long as his sorrow for it endures, even though such a memorial must, like that grief itself, at last be wiped away by time.

The entire passage goes on for quite a few more lines, but after giving his eloquent speech, the solicitor diplomatically agrees with Charlotte:

I can think of nothing more natural or more cleanly than that the mounds which have arisen fortuitously and are gradually subsiding should be levelled without delay, so that the earth, since it is now borne by all together, shall lie more lightly on each.  

What an ass-kisser.

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The Vault by Ruth Rendell

While I am a self-acknowledged fan of Ruth Rendell’s psychological stand-alone novels, I have also read and enjoyed a number of Inspector Wexford mysteries. The Vault, Rendell’s latest, and one of the best I’ve read in the Wexford series, finds Chief Inspector Wexford now retired and with his wife Dora, splitting his time between Kingsmarkham and London. 

 Rendell’s long acquaintance with Wexford’s character proves to be a worthy journey in The Vault, and through the smoothness of the narrative along with the details of Wexford’s inner life, there’s the sense that the author and her long-standing character are old, familiar friends.

A rather nasty police case finds Wexford, not unwillingly, back involved in police work. Wexford runs into Detective Superintendent Tom Ede of the Met.–a chance meeting, but it results in the rather circumspect Ede asking Wexford if he’d be interested in acting as an “expert advisor” in the Orcadia Place case. Wexford, who’s been trying to read Booker prize-winning novels in order to pass his time in a meaningful way, is excited by the prospect, and so he agrees.

The Orcadia Place case is both notorious and a bit of a puzzle. The Rokebys, the owners of Orcadia Cottage (“a sizable detached house” in an expensive neighbourhood) discovered a manhole cover on the grounds on their home. Rokeby had previously had a number of architects and workmen out to his property to assess the viability of building an underground room. Planning permission was refused, so Rokeby’s plans came to nought, but when Rokeby spied the manhole cover (previously covered with a planter), he opened it and looked inside. He saw a small coal room, and inside the room were four bodies. As Ede explains to Wexford:

The manhole cover wasn’t heavy. He lifted it off, and instead of the drain or drainpipe he expected, leading away into the mews, he found himself looking down into a black hole. At the bottom was something he couldn’t properly see apart from a kind of shininess that seemed to be a sheet of plastic. That was covering a multitude of sins, but he didn’t know it then.

Now before he did anything more, he went into the house and fetched his wife. The two of them looked down into the darkness and at the shiny thing and what looked–he said they could just about see it–like a woman’s shoe.

Enter the police. The biggest mystery about the four bodies is that it’s clear, from the decomposition, that the four people were not killed at the same time. Three of the bodies–an older woman, an older man, and a young man, appear to have been dead, according to the pathologist, for somewhere between 11-13 years. The fourth body in “the vault” as Wexford calls the coal room, has been there for only about 2 years. To top off the mystery, there’s about 40,000 in jewelry with the bodies. How can four people go missing and no one notice? Did the same killer kill all 4 victims and use the coal room as a tomb? How can the Rokebys, who were apparently in residence during the last murder, not know anything? And what about all the teams of architects and builders that poked around? 

There’s a lot here for Wexford to mull over, and he’s more or less left to his own devices to investigate. Since he is no longer a policeman, he’s occasionally lent a young PC to accompany him with his hunt for information. During the course of his investigation, Wexford learns how to use the internet for research and he also sends his first e-mail. 

Since this is a series character, there are also considerable developments in Wexford’s private life. Tragedy strikes and then the limits of family tolerance are strained when Wexford’s divorced daughter Sylvia shows a disappointing lack of acknowledged responsibility, remorse and sensitivity for the events that takes place.  Wexford reevaluates his role as a parent:

Dora had been right and he had been wrong, he thought. Keeping aloof from all this, taking no stand, avoiding judgment, that was all wrong. A parent should speak out, no matter what age his child was, no matter what reputation he had achieved as a tolerant and never moralistic arbiter.

Wexford also discovers that he’s not fond of some aspects of Ede’s character, and this makes him miss Burden, his old sidekick from Kingsmarkham. Ede is fond of using clichés and while this makes Wexford wince at first, he discovers the usefulness of clichés as the story spins out. 

Possibly the most enjoyable aspects of this Wexford novel are the characters he runs into through the course of the investigation. Orcadia Cottage is in a rather swanky area, and Wexford must question some of the neighbours–one of whom– is a repulsively snobby woman, Mildred Jones, also known as Old Mildreadful. Mildred employs a string of illegal girls at sub-wages, and then fires them when she returns to S. Africa. At one point, she even tells  Wexford off for thanking her latest domestic slave for making him a cup of tea. According to Mildred, “It doesn’t do to talk to them like you knew her socially. Do it just once and they start taking advantage.” The fact that Mildred pays a pittance and takes advantage of the fact that illegals have little recourse, escapes this crass, mean-spirited, snob:

Just because I live here–in a whole house, I mean, in St. John’s Wood–and because I got to South Africa every year, people think I’m rolling in money. Let me tell you, I got this flat under our divorce settlement, and that was all I got. Colin got our place in the country and I never had a penny out of him. He sold that house and got enough from it to buy a place on Clapham Common. I have to live on my investments, and you know what that means in a recession. It was all I could do to afford the air fare to Cape Town and then I couldn’t afford first class.

In typical Rendell fashion, the journey to the solution of the crime is one of the best aspects of the tale, and this is manifested in the way Wexford enters people’s lives. Through his eyes we see a range of living arrangements, some happy, some chaotic, and many extremely unhappy. Wexford walks away depressed from some encounters and alternately, he’s happy when he finds a genuinely content couple.

The Vault is actually a sequel to the 1998 novel A Sight for Sore Eyes, but it didn’t seem to matter (and may actually have been a good thing) that I didn’t read the earlier book. It apparently ends with bodies in the coal cellar.

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Anna Edes by Dezso Kosztolányi

A few months ago, I finished the marvellous novel Skylark by Dezso Kosztolányi, and so flush with that successful reading experience, I sought out a copy of Anna Edes. My version is published by New Directions and translated by George Szirtes. Szirtes also writes an introduction–much appreciated by this reader. I’d much rather read an intro by the translator than a celebrity ‘guest’ writer as the translators often seem to have a much better knowledge of the subject matter. Anna Edes was Kosztolányi’s last novel, published in 1926.

When the novel begins, it’s a crucial time in Hungarian history. It’s 1919 and the government has changed hands numerous times since the conclusion of WWI. First the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy after the Aster or Chrysanthemum Revolution of 1918 led by Count Károlyi. By March 1919, Károlyi resigned and communist/Bolshevik Béla Kun subsequently ran the Hungarian Soviet Republic until its collapse in August 1919. This is where Anna Edes begins with the sentence  “Béla Kun was fleeing the country in an aeroplane,”  and there’s the added delicious detail that he fled with his pockets “stuffed with sweet pastry.”

Anna Edes is a portrayal of bourgeois life seen mainly through the pitiful treatment of a wretched servant by Mr and Mrs Vizy. When the novel begins Hungary’s social order is shaken to its foundations. It’s the end of the Bolshevik rule and while some people rue this, others anticipate the return of the old social order.  The headline in the communist newspaper warns: “The Proletariat in Danger!” But to the Vizys–an unpleasant couple entrenched in the emptiness of their own pathetic social status, the collapse of Béla Kun’s government is a cause of celebration. Vizy, a minor political official who tried to keep his head low during the purges of the  Béla Kun government, gloats at the departure of the Bolsheviks. The last few months have been difficult. At one point, Mrs Vizy was arrested:

She had been shaking out a tablecloth at the window and they charged her with secretly signalling to counter-revolutionary forces. They had dragged her off to parliament and only allowed her home at midnight, by which time she had been broken body and spirit. The next morning, a young functionary called, who produced a cane from his leather leggings, and proceeded, while insolently strutting about, to requisition two of their rooms, the dining room in which they presently sat and the adjoining drawing room. It was lucky that the system had collapsed before any lodgers had been foisted on them.

Vizy “ruined by the war,” diminished by the communist government, a witness of its bloody excesses, and fearful of the Lenin Lads is euphoric at the defeat of the Bolsheviks, yet still trembles and fumbles for his trade-union card when there’s a knock at the door:

He went quite pale. He stared at the air before him, as if searching for the word he had just uttered, so he might wipe away all trace of it. He waved his hand vaguely, trying to clear some imperceptible fug of smoke.

“I’ll answer it.” He strode with sudden decision into the hall, steeled for the worst. They might be looking for hostages, it might be a house search or state of emergency! He mentally prepared his defence: twenty years in public service, a social conscience, a general sympathy with Marxism though he deplored its excesses.

For the purposes of the novel, the bourgeois representatives of society are the Vizys, their friends and acquaintances–other couples who live in a three-storey house in Budapest. The Vizys live in four rooms on the first floor, and the floor above is divided into two flats, occupied by the Drumas (a solicitor and his wife) and Dr and Mrs Moviszter. The building’s caretaker, who lives in the basement flat, is Ficsor (who considers himself “Red aristocracy“), a man who neglected his work during the Bolshevik period, but who shuffles back to his duties when Béla Kun’s government fails.

In one of the funniest scenes of the book, Ficsor and Vizy confront one another unsure just how the other should be addressed. Should Ficsor be addressed as “Comrade”? Should Vizy be addressed as “your excellency”? These salutary fetishes, which are emblematic of the shifting social order, are crucial. Not only does everyone have to be addressed correctly, but using the proper salutation indicates compliance and submission to the shifting social order–whatever that may be.

 The Vizys, the Drumas, and the  Moviszters are not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but they all have a servant. During the brief Bolshevik period, the servants grew  ‘uppity’ and difficult to manage. As Hungary kisses the Bolshies goodbye, the novel implies that  the traditional roles of master-servant are reverting back to what they once were. During the rule of Béla Kun, Mrs Vizy’s current servant, Katica, grew particularly difficult. The Vizy apartment is untidy, and Katica, who has assignations with a sailor lover, disappears for long periods of time. 

Katica was still with them but only just. She did more or less as she pleased now and they didn’t even ask her to tidy the flat. Mrs Vizy took a perverse joy in watching the dust and dirt gather.

Unhappy with the excesses and laziness of Katica, the Vizys acquire a new maid, Anne Edes, the niece of Ficsor. Anna is a treasure, but the Vizys never acknowledge that. They take pride in giving her even less wages than Katica, and once wooed away from another employer, she’s treated quite badly. She works from four in the morning until late at night, and she sleeps on a makeshift bed in the kitchen. In return for her room and board, the Vizys have a veritable slave. In their eyes she is reduced to a machine–a machine that works harder and requires less maintenance than their previous servants.

The bourgeois women in the novel are obsessed with their servants. During social evenings, the wives compare the excesses and merits of their servants–rather as one might compare other social markers or fetish objects (I’m reminded of a conversation I recently heard in which people compared ‘water features’). Over time it becomes apparent that Mrs Vizy will never be content with any servant, and “it was always the present incumbent she hated most, whose presence it was which most increased the sum of her misery.” In this inherently unhealthy situation, Mrs Vizy finds meaning in her unhappy existence through the productivity of her servant. Kosztolanyi’s tale seems to say that the labour of another perverts the nature of the one who oversees it.

Mrs Vizy views her troubled history with servants as a matter of “luck,” and yet underneath that word lurks an underlying sense of personal failure. She sees Anna’s work ethic as a reflection on her ability to control and influence another–therefore ‘good’ hard-working servants are, to Mrs Vizy, a reflection of the character of their employers. This idea is apparent in social evenings with the bourgeoise women discussing the merits of their respective servants, and the fact that servants are some sort of sub-human species. Mrs Vizy concludes to her friends that Anna has the perfect life:

“Certainly she works hard enough. But what does she want?’ she asked with some annoyance. “She gets food, she gets lodgings. She even gets clothes. She can bank her earnings. What else could she desire in these difficult times? What problems has she? She doesn’t have to maintain this large flat, she doesn’t have to bother her head with what to cook, or how to find the money, she can live without a thought, without a care in the world. I often think that nowadays it is only servants who can live really well.”

The women sighed as though they had all chosen the wrong career, and now regretted that harsh circumstances prevented them from becoming servants.

Skylark possessed a certain joyousness. Perhaps that was mainly due to the bitter-sweet freedom of all the excesses of restaurant meals enjoyed by its characters. While Anna Edes is powerful it’s also a much bleaker tale. This is an exploration of the exploitation of a fairly uninteresting servant girl, pimped out to a form of slavery by her uncle who needs to curry favour with the gentry. Anna’s flat, lifeless qualities (seen from her employers’ perspective) and her willingness to absorb all the demands of her unreasonable employers made for a  less interesting tale. Anna has a spark for a while, but to delve into that too much would spoil the tale. I much preferred Skylark, so it’s probably a good thing that I read it first. Anna Edes illustrates the inherently unhealthy aspect of the master-slave relationship, and its chilling aspects recall the true story of the Papin sisters. After all, a beaten dog will often turn on its so-called master.

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