Tag Archives: Europa Editions

Twelve Who Don’t Agree by Valery Panyuskin

I and everyone who participates in the Dissenters’ Marches–and we’ve prepared for repression, we’ve often talked about it, but we imagined we’d be arrested for unsanctioned rallies, antigovernment articles, and public opposition. Why didn’t I think of this? The Bitsevsky maniac! Young Limonov supporters go to prison not because they’ve posted antigovernment flyers or organized Dissenters’ Marches. They go to prison for selling drugs, like good little children, even though the drugs were planted on them by operatives during the arrest. Even their parents believe their own children’s involvement in the drug trade. Mikhail Khodorkovsky is in prison for money laundering, not for going into politics. Manana Aslamazian came under investigation for contraband, not for running a free journalism school.

Idiot! You were hoping to be repressed for your little freedom-loving articles. Like hell! What are you going to do if you’re repressed for well-edited FSB videos of you assaulting minors?What will it be like when neither your friends, nor your own children, nor even your own mother believe that the proof of your guilt, quoted in the tabloids and on television on True Confessions, is bullshit from the first word to last?”

I’ve come across the name of Russian journalist Valery Panyuskin enough to know that I was interested in Twelve Who Don’t Agree (original title 12 Nesoglasnykh) which was published earlier this year by Europa Editions. After reading this non-fiction book, I can recommend it to anyone who wants to know about what is going on in modern Russia beyond the Putin-mania, and I can also say that Valery Panyuskin is a very brave man.

The book is divided into twelve chapters with each chapter telling the story of the various dissidents who–despite their varied professions and backgrounds–all participated in the 2007 March of the Dissidents. This series of protests which argued for a number of social changes–including greater accountability of ‘authorities’–took place the year before the presidential election scheduled in 2008. Although Russian law states that protests do not need to be ‘sanctioned’ there’s a technical requirement that notice of upcoming protests must be lodged with the ‘authorities.’ The 2007 protest marches sparked alarming behaviour on the part of those so-called authorities: Dozens were beaten by OMON (“the special purpose police”) officers, the numbers of those attending the marches was severely underestimated by the press, members of various other political parties were arrested before some of the demonstrations took place, and agent provocateurs mingled with the protesters in order to illustrate the poor behaviour of the demonstrators.

No room for smugness here. We can’t kid ourselves. This stuff is happening in America and Britain too. And here’s the thing, if you can’t even have a protest, then what’s the alternative?

But back to Panyuskin. The book begins the night before the demo scheduled for November 24, and Panyuskin is clearly in high spirits anticipating the rally, but the situation becomes increasingly more serious the next day: buses packed full of OMON personnel, blocks cordoned off by soldiers, and underground routes “closed on the pretext of emergency repairs.” It begins to look as though the protest is gearing up to be a mass suppression, but there are amusing moments when Panyuskin notes the Danish journalists who search amongst the high-end luxury foreign vehicles for a tatty old car with a cracked windshield to include in their footage:

Evidently they thought that in the film Moscow should look like a Havana descended upon by a glacier, the final touch of our totalitarian misfortune.

But that moment of humour gone, the protest begins to turn sour:

According to long tradition, the authorities drove a couple of hundred homeless to every opposition rally for the purpose of displaying the drunken riffraff who constituted Putin’s opponents. In exchange for participating in the country’s political life, the homeless demand vodka but not to be allowed to wash.

Panysukin also explains that there are “myths” circulating that the protestors “are extremists financed and directed by the American CIA.” And there are sobering anecdotes about the dangers of entering politics:

While I was standing in this crowd of intelligentsia, students, and bums, I told my friends a tale about how not long ago one opposititionist politician planning to run for president went to see a famous banker to ask for money for his campaign. The meeting took place in a restaurant. The banker was eating oysters. No sooner had the politician walked in that the banker said to him, as he scooped a fine de claire out of its shell, “So, I guess you want to run for president? Have you really thought this over? Have you thought about the fact that your wife, Tanya, and your son, Vadik, could be abducted tomorrow and you’d never find them?” The politician was taken aback. He broke out in red spots, muttered something and took his leave. And no sooner had he gone that the banker said to the intermediaries in the talks between the politician and businessmen who were still at the table, “So what? He’s asking for twenty million of my money, by the way. Don’t I have the right to know whether he’s going to piss his pants at the first attack?”

The protest begins with leaders of the Other Russia coalition present, including Garri Kasparov and Eduard Liminov (leader of the National Bolsheviks–Nazbols). The protestors are cordoned off, beaten and thrown into OMON vans. Panyuskin’s trials for the day don’t end there, however.

The other chapters are profiles of 11  individuals from various walks of life, and these chapters examine each person who found themselves disagreeing with some aspect of Russian policy. One man witnessed the Belsan attack, and yet another man was a member of a Special Ops group who understands the importance of creating a strategy of tension in order to further political objectives. One of the most fascinating chapters concerns Marina Litvinovich, an idealistic young woman whose career, while morally questionable, was certainly rising. Working within the FEB and reporting to FEP head Gleb Pavlovsky, she was soon attending high-level meetings with Voloshin, the president’s chief-of-staff. Her job was to analyse “Information Threats and Recommendations for Their Elimination.” What a job. Anyway, her career went into the toilet after she recommended that Putin return from his holiday and meet with the families of those doomed on the submarine, Kursk. After that incident, policy changed following the Moscow theatre massacre :

And the “information threats” were eliminated by the fact that NTV, the last VHF television channel to allow itself to speak freely, replaced its directors. At the time, President Putin reproached the channel’s chief, Boris Yordan, for “making ratings on blood.” The president was implying that there were so many victims  because NTV had broadcast live. The Kremlin’s information policy had completely given way to naked propaganda, and no one needed Marina Litvinovich anymore.

And finally here’s a quote I loved:

If you read the newspapers not the way normal people do, skimming the headlines and reading only the articles that interest you, if you read the newspaper straight through from cover to cover, your picture of the world changes. Articles by different authors on different topics line up in legions of information and go on the attack. In various newspapers and various headings Marina found seemingly totally unconnected articles. An article about the horrible state that the largest factory in the town of N was in, for instance. An article about how businessman K had met with the young people. An article about how state official M had taken shady money for consulting for some unknown person. Putting these texts together, and bearing in mind that businessman K wanted to privatize the factory in N, official M was preventing him, and so businessman K had started a PR campaign whose ultimate goal was acquiring the factory.

Anyway, for anyone interested in what’s going on in the New Russia, Twelve Who Don’t Agree is a must read. While I find politics boring, the stories of the levels of corruption, cover-ups, and the injustices submerged under the headlines offer a unique look at individuals who struggle within the larger, alien social context.

Translated by Marian Schwartz.

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Filed under Non Fiction, Panyushkin Valery

The Girl in The Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

“I don’t believe that Harold understands me, not really … we’re not on the same wavelength.”

British author, Beryl Bainbridge has been a great favourite for years, so when she died in 2010, I thought that all those wonderful books she’s written, all those hours of pleasure and entertainment were behind me. Permanently. Then came the news that there was another book–an unfinished manuscript. The fact that the book is unfinished raised some issues. While I knew that I would have to read The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, I was also concerned that the book might be a disappointment. I shouldn’t have worried.

Bainbridge’s friend and editor, Brendan King worked on the novel after the author’s death and calls it a “flawed masterpiece.”  It’s classic Bainbridge–replete with her signature mordant wit and brilliant observations of human nature. When writing the novel, Bainbridge mined a diary account of a three-week road trip she made across America in 1968. This real journey was from Washington to San Francisco while the fictional account found in The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress begins in Baltimore and ends in Los Angeles. The book may seem to be the story of the adventures encountered on a road trip, but the real focus is the story of two startlingly dissimilar individuals who exposed to the same events, have vastly different reactions.

It’s 1968, and The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress begins with the arrival in Baltimore of a British girl called Rose. She’s flown to America to look for Dr. Wheeler, a mysterious man she met sixteen years before “in some remote coastal village in the north of England.” An enigmatic figure, Wheeler held a special significance for Rose, and while she’s suffered through some personal problems, Wheeler has somehow, in his absence, achieved the significance of a guru.

Rose, who works in a bank,  has very little money (she scrapes together $47), and really can’t afford the trip, but she’s subsidized in her quest by the equally mysterious, middle-aged Washington Harold–yet another man she met in Britain and with whom she’s been corresponding for over a year. Washington Harold has agreed to help Rose find Wheeler, and he provides a camper in which the ill-matched pair embark across America. Harold is no good samaritan, and he has his own murky reasons for seeking out Wheeler.

Most of the humour comes from the cultural encounters Rose experiences and also the frustrations Rose’s guide, Harold, undergoes through his forced confinement with Rose. Rose is a bizarre, fey creature who’s an intriguing combination of other-worldly innocence, which sometimes acts as a protective shield,  meshed with the sagacious acceptance and wisdom of the elderly. She relates meeting a man on the plane, and while we pick up bad vibes, Rose, typically, doesn’t:

Rose hadn’t liked the sound the aircraft made as it tore through the sky, and it must have made her breathe heavily because the man in the next seat kept urging her to relax and take hold of his hand. All her life people had been telling her what to do, even strangers, which was curious. He was quite a nice man, in spite of him confiding that his wife had bad breath, so she did as suggested. It didn’t help.

The encounter with the man on the plane is magnified when she talks about the incident with Harold:

“The plane was marvellous,” she gushed. “So much food they give you … all that drink. A gentleman who spoke candidly of his wife treated me to champagne … wasn’t that kind of him? He’d been away on business, first in Tokyo, then in Ireland.” Only the bit about the business trips was true: she hadn’t been bought the champagne.

Harold think Rose is impressed when she sees his home, but here’s her real reaction:

The bathroom was tiled and none too clean. There was a torn curtain of plastic slung sideways from the bath. The tub, similar to the one she used in Kentish Town, stood on cast-iron legs, old and rusted. Judging from the state of the toilet bowl, Americans didn’t know about Vim. Which was funny seeing the way Harold, the evening she had invited him in for a coffee, had rubbed his finger across her bedside table and commented on the grime.

 Harold chalks up Rose’s peculiarities to being British, notes her lack of personal hygiene, and  finally decides she is a “retard.” Rose stubbornly fights back against what she sees as Harold’s controlling personality with disconnected flights of fancy and platitudes such as “Too much cleaning makes us susceptible to germs.” The trip essentially becomes an oddly comic battle of wits and will between Harold and Rose. Even Harold’s friends consider him an inflexible bore and seem to prefer Rose.  While Harold, a mature man who holds the keys to the camper and the financial purse strings, may think he has the upper hand, ultimately Rose is the winner, and at one point, Harold is appalled to find that he’s beginning to sound like Rose. Rose’s brilliantly bizarre thought processes defy logic and counterbalance as they verve off into absurdity:

It’s normal, ” she replied, “for people who come from different backgrounds to find it difficult to get on. It’s because we’re programmed by the people who brought us up.”

It was disconcerting the way she often came out with an intelligent observation, and irritating when, as always, she quickly ruined it, suggesting that if they were squirrels, the very first ones without parents, knowing how to find nuts would be a matter of luck, not inheritance. “If we didn’t see our mothers scrabbling beneath a pine tree, how could we know what to do?” she enquired absurdly.

Bainbridge creates a kaleidoscope of 60s America culture seen through Rose’s eyes–race problems, riots, the Vietnam war, and even a bank robbery take place as Rose and Harold drive across America in Harold’s camper van. Dr. Wheeler always seems one step ahead, and since he’s rumoured to be part of Kennedy’s election team, Rose and Harold head towards Los Angeles and a date with history…

For those who’ve never read a Beryl Bainbridge novel, if you’re a fan of Muriel Spark, then chances are that you will also enjoy Bainbridge.  

Copy courtesy of the publisher, Europa Editions

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Filed under Bainbridge, Beryl, Fiction

Get Me Out of Here by Henry Sutton

“Maybe I wasn’t ready for calm, to lose myself in some quiet outpost in, say, South America. I still had ambition. And I didn’t think I was sleazy enough, or certainly ready enough to explore my baser self, like so many Western males before me, in South East Asia. I was going to forget Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia. For now. I was feeling strangely robust, both physically and mentally. Despite recent events, or perhaps because of certain incidents–all the tragedy and the suffering, precipitated, I could see it so clearly, by the failure of the infrastructure and monetary regulations, of society, of civilisation–I was feeling, in a way, immortal.”

Over a decade ago, I was standing in a shop listening to a middle-aged woman complaining about some food she’d bought for her cat. It was, she said, too hard, and she wanted a refund. The shop assistant tried to explain politely that dry cat food is, by its nature hard, small granules, and that the bag was empty except for a handful of pieces. Bored and more than a bit impatient, I realised that I was witnessing a scam. We’ve seen this sort of scenario repeatedly, but there was something different this time. The woman suddenly sprinkled the crumbs of the bag along the counter, and pulling out a claw hammer, she proceeded to pound the cat food into the counter to ‘demonstrate’ its texture.

Step away from the looney….

That memory came back loud and clear when I began reading Henry Sutton’s brilliantly wicked and nastily funny novel Get Me Out of Here, and we are first introduced to Matt Freeman, a thirty-something Londoner. The novel’s initial pages depict brand-obsessed Matt making a nuisance of himself as he tries to get a refund for a pair of glasses he no longer wants, and as it turns out, he’s damaged on purpose after spotting another pair he prefers in another shop:

These were by Lindberg too, but they were a titanium and plastic, or rather acetate mix, from a line they didn’t seem to stock in David Clulow, and much more like my trendy Oliver Peoples pair. They look fat and stylish enough, but appeared to have the practical and comfort factors I craved also. I could travel with these and play tennis with them, and go to meetings and for drinks and openings and dinners and parties. I could probably fuck in them. In short I felt I could happily live with them and very quickly I couldn’t get them out of my head and became more and more convinced that they were exactly what I wanted, and not the Lindberg rimless pair I’d already and rather rashly purchased, from a high-street chain in a mall too, which was why, when I was fiddling with them this morning, I possibly bent an arm back with more force than was strictly necessary. Though the lens did snap very easily. It could have happened when I was away, or at a meeting, or playing tennis. Who knows when and at what inconvenience.

The scene in the shop sets the stage for what’s to come in this explosively funny book. Matt is obsessive-compulsive and a pathological liar–a big talker with endless business plans and elaborate business trips that never go beyond the luggage purchasing stage.  He acknowledges that he’s “always drawn to deprivation, corruption, instability,”  and plans to move to North Korea based on the logic that there are “no fatties there.”  As we see him careen through both the shopping experiences and the relationships in his life, we realise that he’s a petulant, demanding, endless consumer  and a self-focused, shit boyfriend. But this is just the tip of a very nasty iceberg. Author Sutton subtly seeds information about Matt’s life, past and present, through casual references, and with Matt in charge of the unreliable narrative, we pick up the clues which add up to an alarming, violent reality. Why are the women in Matt’s life disappearing? Why does Matt feel the sudden need to paint his flat and just what is that dark substance under his finger nails?

Matt’s twisted logic is coloured by the fact he thinks he’s more intelligent than anyone else and that he’s unappreciated. In a way, both of those things are strangely true. He’s a sly and cunning predator who harps on about “what was wrong with humanity”  and bemoans  “the infringement of personal space” even as he stalks women with a preference for the  “demure” female who has an air of unattainability. No wonder he only has one friend, Roger whose main interest in Matt is the swinging, lurid sex life that Matt imaginatively details just to feed Roger’s envy.

Another major figure in Matt’s life is his brother Sean, a successful sculptor who lives in Norway. Matt loathes Sean and is nauseated by his success and his happy family life. But as Matt faces a continuing  “problem with liquidity” and ever dwindling possessions, Sean must be cultivated as a potential source for “investments.” Here’s Matt ranting about Sean and the boring wholesomeness of Norway:

There was a whiff of fascism about it all–the forced, mass jollity, dictated by my crazy brother. He’d have given Kim Jong-il a run for his money. And what exactly did Sean’s acceptance, his popularity, his authority in Norway say about that particularly strange little country? As far as I could tell it was an absurdly childish nation of non-dissenting Boy Scouts, and the odd busty Girl Guide. No one, it seemed, had ever fully matured. Everyone, by and large, still ran around in shorts with penknives holstered to their belts, getting ready to bed down for the night in creaky wooden huts, painted an unpleasant, ubiquitous scarlet.

In one of the best scenes in the book, he deliberately trashes suitcases after a rash purchase and then returns them:

So I thought I’d put the bag through its paces and test the strength of the handle and the play on the wheels and what would happen to the grey if it were subjected to a bit of tossing around in the yard. After all, this was probably mild compared to what the baggage handlers at Heathrow, or Pyongyang International for that matter, would subject the thing to–except they wouldn’t of course, be getting their hands on it, as it was only ever meant to be hand luggage. However, the hopelessly young sales assistant in Selfridges’ luggage department–what was his ambition in life? to front a boy band?–didn’t necessarily know that. If I’d had a gun I’d have shot the damn thing to see what it was really made of.

Get Me Out of Here is insanely entertaining and a compelling read. Just think of a demented, psychotic version of John Self (Money by Martin Amis) and you’ll just about have the feel of this book. Sutton crafts the narrative in such a way that Matt’s hyper-critical, twisted thoughts and sick rationalisations (and he tends to shape the stories he tells to suit the mood), are appallingly hilarious. The reader becomes Matt’s confidante as his slide into madness continues, and the various women Matt knows or spies on keep disappearing.  As Matt’s  life slips farther and farther out of control, he becomes increasingly dishevelled, racking up more and more ludicrous versions of events which he occasionally unloads with veiled aggression to anyone who represents ‘authority’ (the police, the television licensing men). Sutton doesn’t let up for a moment as he delves into the dark depths of this character, and there’s not a weak page or weak paragraph in this non-stop roller coaster ride of murder, mayhem and endless shopping.

This book is destined to be one of my Reads of the Year.

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Filed under Fiction, Sutton Henry

French Leave by Anna Gavalda

What we were experiencing at that moment–something all four of us were aware of–was a windfall. Borrowed time, an interlude, a moment of grace. A few hours stolen from other people …

For how much longer will we have the strength to tear ourselves away from everyday life and resist? How often will life give us the chance to play hookey? To thumb our noses at it? Or make our little honorarium on the side? When will we lose one another, and in what way will the ties be stretched beyond repair?

A few weeks ago, I watched a marvellous French film, Je L’Aimais, and on the closing credits, I caught that the film was based on a novel by Anna Gavalda. Off to Wikipedia to discover that Anna Gavalda is a big deal in France, and the good news is that a few of her books have been translated into English. There’s a short story collection: I Wish Someone Were Waiting for me Somewhere, and novels too: Hunting and Gathering (made into the film Ensemble, C’est Tout), Consolation, and Someone I Loved. The latter was the basis for the film Je L’Aimais.

So I picked up French Leave which at 108 pages is a novella. The narrator of the story is twenty-something Garance, who is, as it turns out, one of four siblings–with brothers Simon & Vincent, and older sister Lola. French Leave is a seemingly simple tale which focuses on the events of just a single day. The day is supposed to be a trip to a wedding, and Simon and his wife, Carine give Garance and later Lola, a lift. In the first few pages, the strong characterisations and the bitchy undercurrent between Garance and Carine caught my attention. It seems that Garance and Lola were initially thrilled to welcome Carine, a pharmacist,  to the family:

When we heard about our stroke of luck–that we were about to have a purveyor of anti-wrinkle creams in our family, a licensed Clinique vendor and Guerlain reseller–my sister Lola and I jumped up on her like little puppies. Oh! What a warm welcome we had in store for her that day!

But the romance is over when Carine breaks the news that there will be no discounts for her new sisters-in-law, and from that moment on, Garance and Lola exploit Carine’s predictability by playing some nasty mind games aimed at rattling Carine’s sense of security:

Now we like to ride her about all that. Every time we see her, I tell about my friend, Sandrine who is a flight attendant and the discounts she can get us at the duty-free.

For example:

“Hey Carine … Give me a price for Estée Lauder’s Double Exfoliating Nitrogen Generator with Vitamin B12.”

You should see our Carine, lost in thought. She concentrates, closes her eyes, thinks of her list, calculates her margin, deducts the taxes, and eventually goes: “forty-five?”

I turn to Lola: “Do you remember how much you paid?”

“Hmm … Sorry? What are you talking about?”

“Estée Lauder’s Double Exfoliating Nitrogen Generator with Vitamin B12, the one Sandrine brought back for you the other day?”

“What about it?’

“How much did you pay?”

“Gosh, how do you expect me to remember … around twenty Euros, I think  …”

Carine repeats what she said, choking on her words: “Twenty Euros! Estée Lauder’s D-E-N-G with Vitamin B-12! Are you sure about that!”

The game continues… and it’s always so easy to set up Carine because, according to Garence, she’s so “predictable” and falls for it every time.

While Garance paints a beautifully, although simply detailed picture of her unpleasant sister-in-law (a worrying nag who sits with her knees tightly together), it’s also a reflection back on Garance that she and Lola join forces to pick on Carine. The siblings are very close, and even though circumstance created an entirely different childhood for the younger two siblings (Garence and Vincent) compared to the older two (Vincent & Lola), there are bonds here that newcomers to the family will never fully understand. Perhaps there’s even a faint antagonism towards in-laws in general.

Simon, Lola, & Garence run off to look up Vincent who’s working as a guide at an ancient French chateau, and the four siblings spend one enchanting day together. Author Gavalda argues that while siblings share impenetrable bonds, spouses share experiences and values that siblings cannot fathom. So while Garence and Lola pick at their sister-in-law and fail to understand why their brother tolerates Carine’s pettiness, the sisters are shut out of their brother’s relationship with his wife. Ultimately, French Leave is an exploration of both the depth and the narrowness of familial relationships.

The novella reminded me a great deal of the Bertrand Tavernier film, A Sunday in the Country–perhaps this is due to the emphasis on family relationships, the countryside setting, and the fact that the events take place over the course of a languid day. French Leave is written with a very light touch, and it would be easy to miss this novella’s depth amidst the dialogue. Parts of this seemed so real–the bitchy comments from relatives at the wedding, and the machinations between Lola and Garance. I hope French Leave makes it to film. It’s excellent raw material.

Translated by Alison Anderson

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The Art of Losing by Rebecca Connell

“I believe that it’s only possible to fall in love once, don’t you? To think otherwise makes no logical sense. Why would anyone put themselves in such a position twice?”

 

The novel The Art of Losing is the tale of an affair. The title implies that there’s a sort of skill involved in ‘moving on’ –in this case, moving on involves the end of the affair and the death of a young woman. The Art of Losing explores how two people, held in a perpetual state of grief,  are unable to effectively acknowledge their loss.

The tale begins in the present with a young girl named Louise who moves to Oxford to more or less stalk Nicholas, the man she holds responsible for her mother’s death years earlier. Louise calls herself by her mother’s name, Lydia, and she manages to manipulate her way into Nicholas’s household by striking up a friendship with his son.

Books about affairs aren’t exactly rare, but it’s the structure of this novel that gives the story its searing intensity.  The Art of  Losing is an excellently-crafted novel which goes back and forth in time switching narration between Louise and Nicholas. Sections of the novel cover three distinct periods of time:

  • 2007: the present with Louise worming her way into Nicholas’s life.
  • 1983: the beginning of the affair that occurred decades earlier between Nicholas and Lydia
  •  1989: when Nicholas and Lydia meet again

I have a fascination for novels in which one of the main characters is NOT there, and I am always impressed when that dead or missing character leaves permanent traces on the lives of those left behind. Lydia is dead when the novel begins, but she’s brought to life through Nicholas’s vivid narration. Lydia doesn’t get to tell her story (or even a version of it), and that’s significant to the novel’s structure. We see her through the eyes of her lover Nicholas and much later through her daughter, Louise. Yet just what Lydia is really thinking and just what motivates her is murky. Lydia remains a cipher and perhaps that explains why two people are still obsessed with her years after her death.

Like all affairs, the affair between Nicholas and Lydia has a trajectory. The year is 1983 and at that time Nicholas is a single teacher. Through his narration, he details seeing Lydia for the first time along with his subsequent disappointment when he learns she’s married to a colleague.  He’s smitten (no other word for it), and the fact that she’s married doesn’t deter him. He rather calculating strikes up a friendship with Lydia’s much older, kind and gentle, mild-mannered husband, fellow teacher Martin Knight.

Most affairs eventually burn out or they evolve into something else, and the affair between Nicholas and Lydia is no exception. The relationship begins with several delicate manoeuvres as Nicholas and Lydia ‘test’ each other’s intentions before launching into the risks of an affair. The sections narrated by Nicholas are incredibly good. Nicholas’s voice is strong, clear and pitiless when it comes to his self-analysis. It’s as if within these pages he voices the feelings and the doubts he is unable to discuss with anyone else, and consequently Nicholas’s sections read with naked honesty and gut-wrenching immediacy. His relationship with Lydia burns with intense passion, and there’s more than an edge of obsession. At the same time, the relationship isn’t all positive. There are times when Nicholas resents Lydia, and the submerged emotions and resentments ultimately take a toll.

Years later, Nicholas now married to Naomi and a father, meets Lydia once again. Nicholas’s marriage is going through a rocky period; he is torn between his desire for Lydia and his loyalty to his wife & child. Lydia seems to be an addiction for Nicholas, and his feelings vacillate radically between the two women in his life.  This isn’t just the story of an affair; this is also the story of two marriages.

Here’s Nicholas putting more effort into his stale marriage after the birth of his son:

It took me another week or so to work out that it was what I had always thought of as empty gestures that she wanted, rather than actions. I took to buying a weekly bunch of flowers, the odd box of chocolates. I left little notes on the bathroom mirror when I left for work. I sometimes called her from the faculty telephone at lunchtimes to check how she was getting on with Adam. All this went down wonderfully. Before long the adult equivalents of Adam’s contented gurgling and shrieks of joy were coming my way more frequently than I could remember in years.

All of Nicholas’s “efforts” at his marriage, however, serve only to make Nicholas feel increasingly “detached.”  He feels “like an actor playing out the part of the perfect husband.” Nicholas’s sections serve as a road map to the finite difficulties and complications of a seemingly typical marriage, and his memories evoke the age-old questions behind infidelity: does one partner have to be ‘unhappy’ to ‘stray’ and is it possible for one person in a marriage to be happy while the other is bitterly unhappy? The marriages here are impenetrable to outsiders (even the participants don’t have the full facts or really understand the relationships), but the affair seems to be a sticky web from which neither Nicholas nor Lydia can escape:

“Well, we can stop it, if you like,” she said, so quietly that I could barely hear her. The words hung in the air between us, and for a moment I thought, yes, this thing has run its course. Leave it now, and maybe you can paper over the cracks and it’ll be as if it was never there. I knew I was fooling myself. In another moment I was at her side, putting my arms around her shaking shoulders.

The sections with Louise as an adult and now stalking Nicholas were not as strong. I found this a bit curious at first but concluded that Louise is the device through which the wonderful story comes to light. It’s through her creation (and appearance in the novel) that events in the past are brought back to the surface. On the other hand, Lydia, who’s only seen through the eyes of the people who love her, remains fascinating and mysterious, and I found myself rereading key passages trying to decipher her cryptic statements to Nicholas.

This is author Rebecca Connell’s first book. So that means there must be more to come….

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A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse–A book that gave me ideas about…books.

I recently read A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse, and if you want to read the full review, go to Mostly Fiction.

Just a brief synopsis. The plot concerns a bookshop in Paris which sells only ‘good’  books. A marketing strategy you cynically ask? Well perhaps, but the shop is the brainchild of two idealistic, avid readers, Van and Francesca who are both disillusioned with the publishing industry and bookshops. From this disillusionment, the idea grows to open a bookshop  called The Good Novel that sells “All the books no one is talking about”–this boils down to selecting titles that may or may not be in print but are some of the best books out there.

I initially felt a bit uncomfortable with this idea. I could see an elitism forming right before my eyes, and I bristled at the idea of people telling me what is and isn’t good. Of course it would be naive to think that this isn’t already taking place in the book world, and so I empathise with the frustration of these fictional characters. After all, I recently went to what is considered a decent book shop armed with a list of books published by the smaller publisher houses. I came back empty-handed. The idea of elitism, by the way, is addressed by the comparison of The Good Novel to any niche bookshop–let’s say a shop that sells only SF or mystery novels.

I relaxed when Van and Francesca asked 8 mostly under-appreciated writers to form a secret committee with each member submitting a list of the best 600 books they’ve ever read. The books are crossmatched, a master list is generated, and the bookshop is then stocked from the master list. The plot follows what happens to the shop and its owners, and as you can imagine some people (rejected authors) are rather pissed off when they discover (the horror, the horror) that their books are glaringly absent.

OK, now to the stuff I want to mention here. The story is a mystery, but underneath the mystery are some really interesting ideas about publishing; hence this blog post.  The bookshop creates a place that readers naturally gravitate to for their books. Van says:

“We are aiming to reverse the precedent between supply and demand. It’s not demand that’s going to lead, but offer. People will come through the door of the bookstore because they know they can find a rare selection of novels there, in addition to the regular titles they might be looking for. And then they’ll visit the website in a similar frame of mind.”

I chewed that over. Supply and demand…supply and demand…and then I started thinking about how, in the last few years, my spending habits have changed when it comes to the books I buy and read. For example, I rarely buy in bookshops anymore. Why? Because the ones I go to don’t stock what I want. While I still enjoy the small poky bookshops, the bigger chains are nightmares for readers like me. There are kids running around screaming, piles of sticky unshelved books, and there are far too many copies of books I know I’d loathe being shoved in my face. Plus the fact that even though there’s lots of stock, there are very few books that actually have much appeal.

I used to go the library and look for favourite authors or through the new releases. My local library has become an unpleasant place to hang out, and the selection seems narrow. Part of this explanation could be that at this point we are talking about sheer cumulative reading. Here’s an example: I read a lot of Simenon. My library has a few volumes on the shelf but I’ve read them all.

That takes me back to the sorts of books I am looking for.  These days when it comes to new releases I seem to be most interested in the books from the smaller presses. Just as I know Harlequin does not publish anything I’m interested in, over time I’ve identified publishers who consistently produce books that match my tastes.

Europa Editions published A Novel Bookstore. It’s a French book and according to those in the know, only 3% of the books sold in America are books in translation. Perhaps the current wave of Scandinavian crime thrillers will change that number. I hope so. Not that I am interested in stories of women who get sanitary towels shoved down their throats, but I think that it may cause publishers to ease up a bit and start looking for other books that might sell as well.

Bitter Lemon Press, Serpent’s Tail, Pushkin Press, OneWorld, Dedalus, Hesperus, Europa Editions, and New York Review Books Classics are all publishers I try to follow. I know I’ve left out some names. The smaller presses don’t have the money or the clout of the big houses, and what’s even more annoying they sometimes don’t even appear in the bookshop. So publishers if you read this, GET A SUBSCRIPTION NEWSLETTER GOING through your website. If you want us to buy your books, then connect with us.  I don’t buy every book that comes from NYRB, but when I get their newsletter, chances are I’ll buy something.

Another idea that came through in A Novel Bookstore was the idea of subscriptions (as in a type of book club)–customers sign up and then are automatically sent titles from the bookshop . In the case of the fictional Paris bookshop, this was a bit dodgy as people could feasibly have already read some of the titles on the shelves. But again, this got me thinking. Hard Case Crime had a book club (Hard Case Crime is on hiatus at the moment as Dorchester moved solely to e-book format). I was a member of the Hard Case Crime book club, and it was a really great idea. I never knew what they would send me every month, but I can tell you that I was never disappointed.

And now a final observation. I read a fair number of crime books. I’m not in publishing so I’m not in the know  but I can tell you that something is happening in the world of crime fiction. I hope it’s a movement. Crime publishers are connecting with crime writers and crime readers. Are readers of crime fiction more organised or are they just more devoted? Here’s Stark House Noir who are producing some classic noir that’s largely forgotten along with their first exclusive novel Johnny Porno by Charlie Stella.

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The Treatment and the Cure by Peter Kocan

“You’re not feeling so cheerful now, with this talk of shock treatment. You start to think how it was all too good to be true. Now you’re finding out about the bad thing, the thing you knew had to be here though you didn’t know exactly what it would be. Shock treatment! It had a very bad ring to it. Especially the word ‘treatment.’ When they biffed you it was pretty bad, but at least you knew they were doing something they shouldn’t be doing. They knew it too. There was always a chance they’d get into trouble for biffing. Not much of a chance, but a chance. Also some screws didn’t agree with biffing, and they’d try to stop other screws who did it. But ‘treatment’ was different … they could do it with a clean conscience because they were trying to help you.

In 1966, nineteen-year-old Peter Kocan attempted to assassinate politician Arthur Calwell. Kocan failed and was subsequently tried and found guilty of attempted murder. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he was first sent to Long Bay Correctional Centre and then transferred to the Criminally Insane Ward of the Morisset Psychiatric Hospital. The novel The Treatment and The Cure (originally published as two separate novellas) is an autobiographical but fictionalized account of Kocan’s experiences told through the eyes of nineteen-year-old Len Tarbutt.

When the novel begins, Len, confused and disoriented, is freshly transferred from a prison to a mental asylum. At first the hospital seems a great improvement over Long Bay prison, but Len very soon discovers that the insane asylum has its own minefields to be avoided at all costs: medications that reduce the powerless patient to a zombie-like state and electric shock ‘therapy’ administered by the forgetful but enthusiastic doctor known as “Electric Ned.”

Len mingles with an assortment of patients with a range of problems–murderers, child molesters, and even peeping Toms. Lonely and withdrawn, Len soon learns the asylum system–where the number one rule is not to draw attention to yourself. But surviving in this system is easier said than done–especially when bored and sadistic guards often set up scenarios in which patients are guaranteed to be dragged off to shock therapy. Len witnesses many patients who were functional reduced to cretinism by the over-eagerness of Electric Ned.

The very best parts of this excellent novel describe how Len tries desperately to appear normal and rational, yet this is a game in which the inmates don’t make the rules. Even Len’s attraction to poetry becomes suspect at one point as it causes him to read and meditate in solitude–an activity that’s largely frowned upon. Sometimes when inmates come to the attention of the guards and the doctors, they’re questioned and boxed in with circular logic, and there’s always shock treatment as the inevitable outcome awaiting them. For example, a particularly sadistic guard named Smiler continuously persecutes one inmate named Sam. When the inmate complains about the persecution, it’s becomes a signal that he’s ‘paranoid’:

“Everyone knows that mentally ill people think they’re being persecuted, so Sam is sealing his own fate by accusing Smiler. Smiler is pleased at how beautifully it’s working out.”

In spite of the dark subject matter, Kocan manages to write with a humour that’s refreshingly innocent. Kocan’s protagonist describes his environment by using the second person ‘you.’ This creates a numbing depersonalized distance between the narrator and his difficult experiences.

There are some wonderful passages that describe patients who appear cured, but they’ve simply learnt the game well enough to give the ‘authorities’ exactly what they want to hear. Zurka, for example, doesn’t seem like the sort of person who chopped up several passengers on a train, but that’s exactly what he did. After spending several years at the asylum, he appears ‘cured,’ but there are some instances in which Len retains nagging doubts about some of the inmates’ preparedness to be returned to society:

“Zurka is obviously very sorry and sad when he’s telling you about the last bit, about the train. You are quite sure he’d never do anything like that again. You’d bet your bones on it. If it was up to you, you’d let Zurka go to the open section. Yet when he’s talking about the psychiatrists who took all his money for pills and fees, or about his Polish countrymen who wouldn’t help him, you get a faint cold feeling of worry. There’s an edge in his voice that makes you think he’s spent the years here remembering the wrong they did him. It’s probably nothing. You’d still let him go to the open section if the decision was up to you. Yet, you’re glad somehow, that it’s someone else’s decision.”

Those who learn the rules and a superficial degree of conformity are judged ‘normal’–and as long as the inmates pay satisfactory attention to these rules, those in charge are happy with the inmates’ progress. It doesn’t seem to occur to those rule-makers that perhaps the inmates have learned to mimic the behaviour the doctors, nurses and guards want to see:

“You’re talking to Zurka about what he did to the people with his butcher’s chopper. He doesn’t mind talking about it now. He’s pretty sure he’s to be transferred to the open section and he wants to show that he understands about his crime and why he did it and that it was a dreadful act. The screws say that being able to talk calmly about your crime shows you’ve gained insight. Of course, you mustn’t talk about it too much, or too calmly, or they’ll say you’re dwelling on it or that you aren’t showing a healthy remorse.”

Strangely enough, some of Len’s hardest times are when he’s transferred out of maximum security. He falls under the ‘care’ of a sadistic nurse nicknamed Blue–a woman who torments some of those who fall under her jurisdiction. One of the ubiquitous ideas in the novel is the degree of mental illness inside the asylum. Whereas the patients are diagnosed and labeled with terms, some of the more sadistic employees are able to mentally torture inmates and twist reality with impunity to such a degree that the more fragile inmates escape the only way they can–through suicide.

There are escapes, the moments of joy, and small but powerful acts of human kindness, and the few people who reach out to Len makes all the difference in the world. There’s the overwhelming idea that no one really gets ‘cured’–even though that’s supposedly the goal held for all the inmates, and the system recreated here in these pages would most likely push anyone in a fragile mental state over the edge. Since this is basically a coming-of-age novel, this is not only a fictionalized memoir of asylum life but also an account of Len’s gradual ability to self-heal when given the fragments of opportunity.

All of the employees at the asylum inherently believe in different approaches to mental well-being. For example, the librarian believes reading provides healing, Electric Ned believes a cure can be found in shock treatment, and the therapy supervisor, Mr. Trowbridge believes that work is therapy. Although Trowbridge is a thoughtful man, one of Len’s few advocates, his dogmatic belief has little flexibility. To Trowbridge, the road to mental health is found through employment and functionality, and the ability to work is the measure of mental health. Similarly, the sadistic nurses and guards use the systems they embody (medications and rules) and create ways to subvert and sabotage any progress made towards mental health, and as in any closed system (school, for example) there are favourites and there are those who are picked on unmercifully. Institutional corruption is not included in this tale because for Len it doesn’t seem to exist; instead cruelty exists because of abusive power structures directed by banality and boredom. Cruelty is, therefore, the more devastating for its sheer disinterest.

On one last note, Kocan has published several books and has won awards for his fiction.

239 pages

Europa Editions

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