Tag Archives: holiday

Cécile by Theodor Fontane

“I fall in love with them, not because of their virtues, but because of their human qualities, that is to say, their weaknesses and sins.”  (Theodor Fontane in a letter in which he discusses his female characters.)

Cécile isn’t considered Theodor Fontane’s (1819-1898) best novel, and after reading it, it’s easy to see why. It’s a wonderful story, but there are initially many references to German culture, history and society, and unless you’re very familiar with the names and incidents, it’s easy to get distracted and become lost in the notes. My copy from Angel Books is translated by Stanley Radcliffe. If you want to read the book (and it is recommended), then I suggest this edition. The explanatory notes are essential, and the afterword is excellent.

cecilePeople who regularly read this blog know that I love to read books about people on holiday, and that’s exactly how Cécile opens. It’s late 19th century, and a husband and wife take a train to Thale–a tourist spa town in the Harz mountains. The story begins with the couple boarding the train, and Fontane shows us right away that there’s something a little off about this couple. Could it be the age difference? He’s late fifties and she’s much younger, elegant, and very beautiful, but this age difference isn’t the explanation–there seems to be something deeply buried between this husband and wife. These are the St. Arnauds. He’s a former colonel, and his years of military life show in the economy of his movements, and his attention to detail.  There’s a certain air of detachment from Cécile St. Arnaud towards both her husband and her life, and then they appear to be shunned by other military men who acknowledge the Colonel’s presence but “then immediately avoided coming anywhere” near them again.

The air of mystery surrounding the St. Arnauds continues and deepens throughout almost the entire novel. The St. Arnauds arrive at the wonderfully named Ten Pound Hotel (Hotel Zehnpfund), and another guest, civil engineer Herr von Gordon, is immediately fascinated by them. He’s enormously attracted to the beautiful, fragile Cécile, who seems to be an invalid with “nervous afflictions,” but there’s something about Cécile and her relationship with her husband that von Gordon can’t quite define. After learning the name of the couple he remembers hearing gossip in 1870 about the colonel fighting a duel and killing his opponent.  The St Arnauds seem out of place at the hotel:

“There goes Baden-Baden,” said the man who watched them from the balcony. “Baden-Baden or Brighton  or Biarritz, but not the Harz and the Ten Pound Hotel.” And as he talked to himself in this way his eye followed the couple with growing interest as they came closer and then went away again, while he sought deeper in his memory at the same time. “St Arnaud. In 1870 he was still unmarried, and she would scarcely have been eighteen at the time.” And as he calculated and pondered in this way he indulged further and further speculation as to the precise circumstances of this somewhat strange and surprising marriage. “There’s a novel in all this. He is more than twenty years older than her. Well, that could be all right, that doesn’t mean much in some cases. But to give up his commission, such a brilliant and effective officer! You can still see the dash about him: guards colonel comme il faut, every inch of him. And yet on the retired list. Could it be … But no, she’s no coquette, and his behaviour towards her is also completely proper. He is good-mannered and obliging, but not too assiduously, as though trying to conceal something. Oh well, I’ll find out in time.”

Fascinated by Cécile, and intrigued by signals about the odd relationship between the St. Arnauds, Herr von Gordon, strikes up an acquaintance and along with a few other tourists, including painter Rosa Malheur (named after Rosa Bonheur) accompanies the couple on various tourist excursions throughout the area. Fontane takes us on tour too, and these early sections are packed with references to German history. One of the trips takes them to Quedlinburg and specifically to its castle. These scenes are humorous as Fontane places the main drama between the characters on hold while he delivers a wonderful scene on the rip-off side of tourism. The St Arnauds, von Gordon and Rosa enter the castle expecting to see its treasures and magnificent art collection with the steward as a tour guide:

This man, a pleasant and friendly person, immediately won them over with his affability, but on the other hand, somewhat surprised them by a manner that betrayed a troubled and almost guilty conscience, like someone who offers lottery tickets for sale knowing them to be blanks. And indeed, his castle could throughout all its rooms truly be regarded as a prime example of a blank. Whatever treasures it had once possessed had long since gone and so it fell to him, the guardian of erstwhile splendor, to speak only of things no longer there. No easy task. He undertook it with however with great skill, transforming the traditional custodian’s lecture hinging upon tangible exhibits into a historical discourse that contrariwise occupied itself with what had vanished.

Fontane cleverly gives us a glimpse into the private regions of the St. Arnauds’ married life through a few discussions between husband and wife. In one scene, St. Arnaud admonishes his wife for her poor choice of reading material, choices that “shocked” St. Arnaud by their superficiality:

She nodded her agreement with a tired air, as nearly always when something was discussed closely that did not directly relate to her person or her inclinations. And so she rapidly changed the topic of conversation.

It’s through scenes such as these that we see how the St. Arnauds manage their marriage and each other. Cécile mentions that Herr von Gordon is a  “first-rate travel guide. Only he talks too much about things that don’t interest everybody.” St. Arnaud laughingly responds that he knows his wife wants von Gordon to be a “stylite” devoted only to her. He’s not threatened or jealous by her need for male attention and devotion. Subsequently, Gordon spends a great deal of time in the company of the St. Arnauds, but proximity only deepens the mystery for von Gordon. He knows that the St. Arnauds did not marry for love. Is Cécile a trophy wife for her husband? After days in their company, von Gordon only has more questions about Cécile. She is a beautiful ornament for her husband’s arm, but their tour excursions reveal a shocking ignorance on Cécile’s part. Why are the St. Arnauds shunned by some people? Why does Cécile blush when some subjects come up in conversation? What secret is she hiding?

The afterword to this edition states that Cécile was written in 1866 (p.186) , and this must be a typo as St Arnaud’s scandalous duel took place in 1870, and Herr von Gordon has to strain his memory to recall the details. Elsewhere in the afterword, it is mentioned that Cécile appeared initially in serial form and then was published as a book in 1887. Fontane travelled to Thale and actually stayed at the Hotel Zehnpfund in 1881 and 1882. He stayed in another hotel in the area in 1883 and 1884 and in a letter to a friend, he wrote of his plans to write a novel set in the Hotel Zehnpfund. It seems that he began work on the novel in 1884.

While Cécile is a marvelous story, as I mentioned, the downside for readers who are not versed in German culture, are the dense, frequent references to German culture and history. After all the novel begins with a story set in a tourist area, so we get the spiel of the area historical significance and major attractions: Rosstrappe, the Witches’ Dance Floor, Quedlinburg, and Altenbrak. You could probably take this book on a Fontane-inspired holiday and have quite a bit of fun tracing his characters’ steps.

Later in the novel when the action moves to Berlin, the history and culture references drop and we are left with just the drama of two people who feel an intense sexual attraction to each other, and Herr von Gordon, who has written to his sister enquiring about Cécile St. Arnaud’s past, finally discovers the truth. He should stay away, and while his common sense tells him to forget her, his passion dictates the opposite….Cécile is a very well structured novel, and the power of its structure becomes evident as the novel concludes.

This is an amazingly visual novel–no doubt the visuals are encouraged by the descriptions of the tourist attractions, but the visual qualities of the novel extend beyond promontories and magnificent views. We can see St Arnaud confidently strutting around with military precision, and although no monocle was mentioned, I gave him one. And then there’s Cécile, a flawed woman who seems to live and breathe in these pages as she walks slowly around the hotel grounds like some delicate, fragile and rare hot house flower, perfumed, exquisite and yet whose existence depends on the care and attentions of others.  The mystery that keeps von Gordon on edge is subtly addressed by Fontane by clues which are embedded in the story. It’s the novel’s denouement that lifts these clues to the fore, and then we realize that the truth was staring us in the face all along. Cécile is a fascinating heroine–a product of her time and circumstances, she’s flawed and superficial, and yet she’s not without feelings and neither is she unsympathetic. The novel’s conclusion leaves the reader with a deeply unsettling and unanswered question regarding the nature of Cécile’s unhappiness.

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Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What We Did On Our Holidays by Geoff Nicholson

Moving along with the third novel in my Year of Geoff Nicholson brings me to What We Did On Our Holidays, a dark, wickedly funny, and nastily subversive novel which follows the trials and tribulations of one man who drags his family off on a tent holiday. What We Did On Our Holidays was actually the first Nicholson novel I ever read, and while I recognised that I’d found a seriously different author, the book also made me a devoted fan.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a weakness for books which depict people on their holidays. There are several reasons for this: Holidays are high stake events, but expectations don’t mesh with reality. Plus close confinement serves to highlight family fractures that perhaps have been deftly avoided or even unnoticed. You could definitely say that middle-aged Eric, our narrator, and the man who plans and organises the family hol, has no idea what he’s in for.

Eric’s 45th birthday is approaching. Wanting to “get off this rat race” for a while, and suffering from “an intense bout of middle-aged angst,” Eric overrules his family’s objections, and books two weeks in a caravan in the Skegness Tralee Carapark and Holiday Centre. Already by page 2, we know that there’s something wrong with Eric. His narrative presentations are somehow off. Here he sounds as though he swallowed the Holiday Centre advertising brochure:

It is a well-designed, attractively appointed, carefully screened, compact site, on level ground, with trees and bushes, sloping gently towards the sea on one side, with small but sylvan hills to the rear. It has outstanding panoramic views and is genuinely picturesque. There are extensive showering and toilet facilities, a site shop, a launderette, a children’s playground, and calor gas supply.

Perhaps Eric is just one of those boring, dull people who never show a spark of life or original thought. He suffers humiliating encounter after humiliating encounter with various characters in and around the holiday camp. Someone let the loonies out, and they’re all there to victimize poor Eric–there’s the psychotic policeman Hollerenshaw who’d like to fit Eric up for every crime that’s occurred in the area, a crooked car-dealer named Honest Iago, a gang of violent bikers, a disaffected shop clerk who’s ready to get violent for better pay, a stuttering bingo caller, and some sexually rapacious acrobatic dwarves. And what is going on with the Garcias in the caravan next door?

Eric may seem to be the meek recipient of constant abuse, but there’s a lot more to Eric than meets the eye. After all, any man whose Joan Crawford obsession is strong enough that he needs to take a coffee table book of his idol on holiday can’t be all bad, right? Perhaps still waters run deep.

I find it fairly hard to say just what Joan had that really hits the spot for me. Of course she was sexy and statuesque, but who wasn’t in those days? of course she had flashing eyes, a finely chiselled nose with flaring nostrils, and a warm, melting mouth. She was distinguished, determined, passionate, perhaps a little haughty. But she had something more than all of these. She had class. She was also something of an icon.

In later years it was revealed that Joan had appeared in blue movies before she got her big break. That didn’t exactly gild the lily but I never held it against her. It only made me feel a deep compassion for her; and it proved,. as if proof were necessary, that above all else Joan was a survivor.

But Eric is not just under assault from the strangers who cross his path–his family is also revolting (deliberate pun). His daughter Sally has turned into a religious maniac, and son Max decides that Skegness is a great place to go primitive. As for Eric’s wife, Kathleen, who packs up 4 suitcases of dirty laundry to take on holiday, she’s the originator of such vomit-worthy dishes as turnip and corned beef flambé, and she’s also a raving nymphomaniac who’s reading a book called Canine Orgasm. Eric calls it pornography, but Kathleen defends the book as erotica. Not that this insatiable woman needs any more ideas on the subject, mind you.

All of Eric’s sorry misadventures are recorded in diary entries. These entries amount to one humiliating encounter after another, but there are also a few lists such as Eric’s “pet hates” and his “political statement.” It’s through these very private lists and diatribes that we see that underneath Eric’s moronic exterior lurks some strange and equally moronic thinking:

Unions are a very good thing if they protect workers’ rights, but a bad thing if they become all militant and subversive.

I think people should be free to walk the streets without being molested by the police, and they should certainly be allowed to sleep in their own caravans, unless of course they’re criminals, in which case the police should go in fast and hard. It doesn’t pay to have a soft police-force. I think most police are doing a good job but there’s always one bad apple and unfortunately I seem to have met him. I’m no fan of capital punishment but how else can you make people see sense?

I think education’s to blame. Everybody’s entitled to an education, but sometimes it seems to me that all we’re doing is educating people to be unhappy with what they’ve got. They all think they’re so bloody clever. And if the State can’t provide a good education then it’s only fair to be able to send your kids to school so long as they don’t turn out a bunch of toffee-nosed snobs and poofs.

While the holiday was designed to bring Eric and his family closer, confinement in the tatty, smelly caravan has the opposite effect. Sally, Max and Kathleen all behave badly and go wild in their own ways. Here’s Eric remonstrating with Max about his behaviour:

“Don’t you see Dad, this is all a sham.”

He gesticulated wildly at me, at Kathleen and Sally, at the caravan, at the world beyond. He picked up his plate, scooped the food in his mouth, licked the plate clean and threw it over his shoulder.

“If rejecting civilisation means an end to good table manners, then it seems a sorry show to me,” I said.

Max roared again. He knocked over the table, snatched up a chair and smashed it against the caravan wall. He started to leave.

“Just where do you think you’re going, young man?”

After some more animal noises he said very distinctly, “I’m going native.”

“In Lincolnshire?” I demanded, incredulous, but it was too late to argue with him. He was already out of the door and disappearing on all fours.

I suppose this wasn’t exactly the effect I’d hoped my little chat would have, and if I had my time again I’d probably be more gentle with him, though frankly I’m still not sure exactly what I did wrong. Kathleen began talking to me again and accused me of being a bully and a home-wrecker, which I hotly denied. Nobody bullies Max these days. Basically I’m sure it will do Max the world of good to get away from the nest for a while, and, if nothing else, at least our little exchange has cleared the air.

These humiliating encounters which always have bad results for Eric typically end with this sort of peculiar non-response, so the last passage will give you a sense of the novel’s tone. This repetition is the novel’s weakness as a normal character wouldn’t take this, and after each anti-climatic encounter, I started to wonder if Eric was heavily medicated, but then again, we are seeing all this through Eric’s eyes, and just how reliable a narrator is he? Author Geoff Nicholson ties all the madness together in a very satisfying and transgressive manner, and by the novel’s conclusion as events spiral out of control, it’s clear that while Eric’s world is a strange, inhospitable place, perhaps Eric’s head is even a worse place to be. I could waffle on about how What We Did On Our Holidays is a subversive exploration of the moral bankruptcy of modern family life, and while that’s true, the book is also a good laugh for anyone who’s been stuck with their family for two miserable holiday-from-hell weeks.

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Infrared by Nancy Huston

I’ve been curious about the novels of Nancy Huston for some time, thanks to the enthusiasm of Emma who first put this Canadian author on my radar. Infrared is the latest novel from Huston; it’s the story of Rena, a forty-five-year-old photographer who arranges a holiday for her father and step-mother in Florence. Right away, I was intrigued by the premise as I have a weakness for stories about people on holiday–after all people unmoored from their usual social surroundings and obligations make great subjects for fiction.

The holiday begins with signs of trouble. Seventy-year-old Simon Greenblatt and his second wife, Ingrid arrive from Montreal and check into the Hotel Guelfa in the middle of the night after they “narrowly escaped a tragedy.” In this case, the tragedy involved Simon and Ingrid getting lost and temporarily losing the most important piece of their luggage en route to the hotel. When Rena joins them, arriving from Paris the next morning, the tone for the holiday is set, and for the rest of the week, she’s more or less dragging them from one tourist destination to another. The days are short and frustrating for Rena; Simon and Ingrid often don’t get started until noon and then frequent meal breaks and rests absorb a huge portion of what’s left. All of this empty time for Rena lends itself to contemplation of her past life.

While there’s a sense that Simon and Ingrid operate at an entirely different speed to Rena, there are also different types of discourse taking place in this triangular relationship . There’s an insider discourse between Simon and Ingrid which excludes Rena, but then Rena and her Timothy Leary worshipping father also have a way of speaking to one another which excludes Ingrid. As for the words which pass between Ingrid and Rena, well they’re loaded with disapproving innuendo. Here’s Rena ordering for Simon and Ingrid in a cafe:

“But …you speak Italian!” exclaims Ingrid.

No, not really, it’s just that … communication’s so much easier between strangers.

“Easy to be a ployglot,” says Ingrid, pursuing her reflection on Rena’s linguistic gifts. “when you’ve been married to a whole slew of foreigners and travelled to the four corners of the world for your profession.”

And what of the “slew of foreigners” Rena married? Ingrid’s comment makes her step-daughter sounded like a polygamous transient. She’s been married three times–although when Rena discusses her sex life with Subra, her imaginary doppelgänger, she professes to have been married four times. To be perfectly accurate, Rena lives with her current much younger muslim love-interest, Aziz, who is dealing with his own problems back in Paris. Aziz and Rena are not married yet, and if his mother has anything to say on the matter, a marriage will never take place. Here’s Rena on her choice of husbands:

Fabrice the Haitian, Khim the Cambodian, Alioune the Senegalese, and Aziz the Algerian–were all, thanks to the unstinting generosity of French colonialism, francophones…as, indeed, were my Québecois lovers–all the professors, truck drivers, waiters, singers and garbage men whose t’es belle, fais-moi une ‘tite bec, chu tombé en amour avec toué graced my teenage years…I much preferred them to my anglophone neighbours and classmates–far too healthy for my taste, approaching sex in much the same way as they approached jogging (though usually removing their shoes first), interrogating me in the thick of things as to the nature and intensity of my pleasure, and dashing off to shower the minute they’d climaxed.

That passage should give you a good sense of Rena’s voice and also her attitude towards sexuality (note this is not a book for prudes). Rena takes what she wants, and she also enjoys being taken. She acknowledges that there’s “something hypnotic about a man’s desire,” and this feeling she describes rather interestingly as a mixture of “fright and euphoria.” That a man has “chosen” her provides a “violent thrill,” which always manages to amaze her. An interesting emotional response to sex and desire.

As the book continues, and Rena provides a guided tour of the splendours of Florence to her father and stepmother who are both decidedly underwhelmed by the city’s beauty and much more interested in its pastries, Rena falls to contemplation of the past, and that includes her troubled familial relationship. Gradually, as the narrative moves back and forth between first and third person, we discover the deeply troubled tracks of Rena’s past.

For this reader, and it’s entirely a matter of personal taste, I’ve long since been OD’ed with the sort of revelations regarding Rena’s childhood. Bring on something new, I say, and the new and interesting part of this novel concerns not the major dirty revelations of  Rena’s wee years but instead her difficult relationship with her father (what was he thinking?), her  interest in photography and how her profession ties into her views on sexuality. For Rena, sex is very much about giving and taking. She approaches the act of sex–no matter how often it is repeated or with how many different partners–with awe and the sense of a gift. Perhaps this explains why she loves to photograph her lovers as they climax, and also why she enjoys taking photographs of lover’s lovers–in fact My Lover’s Loved Ones is even the title of one of Rena’s photography shows. I’ll add here that while some of Rena’s memories of sex are real, others are pure fantasy and exercises in the distracting power of seduction.

Rena seems to understand that with the act of sex, one gives a little of oneself away. She literally achieves this with photographic mementos taken with infrared film in order to disguise the features of her lovers, but she is fully aware that while partners share their bodies, sex is also a study in selfishness. She photographs prostitutes who exist for their male clients by renting out their bodies without any of the ramifications of pregnancy or responsibly for the males, and in their turn”few hookers mentioned anything vaguely synonymous with desire or pleasure; all, on the other hand mentioned money.”

There’s a lot going on in Infrared, and while the book’s intelligence and the author’s talent is never in doubt, the book’s two main storylines–Rena shepherding her father and stepmother through Florence and the memories of Rena’s past and career–compete with each other. The former storyline is diminished by Rena’s story, and so it fades from view constantly, almost making the trip a backdrop, and yet right at the end, the novel veers back to the familial relationship with a crisis that is somewhat predictable. For this reader, there was a lot that worked, and a lot that didn’t.

Another review can be found on Kevin’s blog.

Review copy from the publisher.

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The Odds by Stewart O’Nan

“She said she’d never loved anyone but him and dissolved into tears, as if it were a new confession and not her usual grievance.”

The Odds from Stewart O’Nan is a prescient novel that explores a few days in the life of married couple Art and Marion Fowler. Why prescient? In middle age, Art  and Marion rode the wave of the economic boom, buying an old home which was priced above their means and then remortgaging it in order to fix it up. Now post boom, about to lose their house, buried in credit card debt, on the brink of filing bankruptcy and both of them unemployed, the novel begins with Art and Marion on a miserable bus trip to spend Valentine’s Day at Niagara Falls. While their mission is ostensibly for Art to win enough money at roulette with his “surefire” method to get out of debt, there’s a second mission afoot. Although they plan to divorce in order to hide assets, it’s their wedding anniversary, and Art hopes to convince Marion that he still loves her.

The final weekend of their marriage, hounded by insolvency, indecision, and stupidly, half secretly, in the never distant past ruled by memory, infidelity, Art and Marion Fowler fled the country. North to Canada. “Like the slaves,” Marion told her sister Celia. They would spend their last days and nights as man and wife as they’d spent the first, nearly thirty years ago, in Niagara Falls, as if, across the border, by that fabled and overwrought cauldron of new beginnings, away from any domestic, everyday claims, they might find each other again. or at least Art hoped so. Marion was just hoping to endure it with some grace and get back home so she could start dealing with the paperwork required to become for the first time in her life, a single-filing taxpayer.

Art books the “Valentine’s Getaway Special” and while I’d never intended to go and visit Niagara Falls, after reading The Odds, now I have plenty of reasons not to. This tawdry mini-vaca is “$249, inclusive of meals and a stake of fifty Lucky bucks towards table games” which probably sounded like a great bargain to Al when he booked it. Well it is a bargain I suppose if you don’t mind standing in line for hours, suffering food poisoning, and being herded around like cattle.

I’ve never understood the attraction to gambling, and the idea of the cheap package holiday which includes a casino has no appeal, but in spite of the negative (or even perhaps rather nastily because it) I was certainly committed to the trip along with Art and Marion. There’s an irony to all of this, of course, as Art and Marion have plunged into irreversible financial disaster, and yet Art is now, suddenly and rather too late, calculating just how much money the trip is “saving” them “in gas, not to mention parking.” Naturally the trip to Canada on the bus is miserable, and that’s just the beginning…. 

Al and Marion spent their honeymoon decades earlier at Niagara Falls. There’s something old and sad about a couple returning to the scene of the crime three decades later. I suppose that if the marriage is good, then perhaps the return would be a happy one, but in this case Al and Marion’s marriage is in the toilet, and memories of infidelity serve to wash up the detritus of the past. Not that this couple bicker. Instead they keep their thoughts mostly to themselves. Here’s Marion adroitly avoiding Al on the bus:

She addressed her mystery again, tilting it to the beam of light from the overhead console. She read two or three a week, the pile of cracked and yellowing paperbacks on her nightstand dwindling as the one on the marble-topped table by the front door grew until it was time to trade them in at the Book Exchange. “I’m reading,” she’d say when his hand was advancing under the covers, and he would retreat.  

The plot tracks Al and Marion’s tired attempts at sightseeing. Everywhere they turn, they’d surrounded by honeymooners grappling each other, passionately, and no matter what they do, they can’t escape themselves or the painful memories of infidelity:

It was common enough for her to bring up the subject on special occasions, as if she’d been waiting for the perfect moment, lobbing it into the middle of her birthday dinner or their anniversary. She had a genius for self-pity that defeated even his. He liked to believe that by act of will and the passage of time he’d gotten beyond thinking of Wendy every day, while Marion, who’d never met her, tended her memory like a widow.

While Al imagines that the impending divorce is a mere formality, Marion sees it as a permanent change, so we read their conflicting versions of the future as well as their bitter memories of the past. When it comes to the intricate details of a troubled marriage, Stewart O’Nan has the inner politics down.

“Want a neck rub?” Art offered.

“I’m just tired of sitting.” She shifted and went back to her book, ignoring him again.

These little rebuffs, he would never get used to them. Years ago he’d come to accept that no matter how saintly he was from then on, like a murderer, he would always be wrong, damned by his own hand, yet he was always surprised and hurt when she turned him down. Gently, perhaps, but flatly, straight to his face, dismissing him as if he were a servant, his assistance no longer needed.

Chapter titles are also facts: “Odds of being killed in a bus accident: 1:436,212,” is one example, and the chapter title reflects the content to come. Without giving away too much of the book, I can say while I enjoyed the inner politics of a tired, damaged marriage, the ending came as a disappointment. This may just be my nasty mind. A friend recommended reading Last Night at the Lobster, the book she considered O’Nan’s best. The Odds certainly convinced me that I want to read this author–who is sometimes given the name “The Bard of the [American] working class,” again.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley. Read on the kindle.

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Filed under Fiction, O'Nan Stewart

Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean

“Look, I’m not the sort who goes around shagging willy-nilly like that.”

After finishing The Tartar Steppe, I needed a complete change of pace–preferably something funny. I stood there staring at my overcrowded shelves and then I saw Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean. I’d bought this book after reading a glowing review of Dean’s latest book, The Old Romantic at A Common Reader. The cover looked promising–two deck chairs (not exactly positioned to indicate compatibility) on the beach. Surely I told myself, Becoming Strangers would be light and funny, right?

Becoming Strangers has its light, funny sections (mostly mined from scenes of marriage and adultery), but it’s also about death and dying. The first few pages reveal Jan–a Belgium man in his 50s whose six-year battle with cancer has reached its final lap. He’s been told it’s inoperable (it has spread to his liver and pancreas), and that nothing more can be done. In a sombre scene, his two adult sons arrive with tickets for Jan and his wife, Annemieke to an expensive, Caribbean resort. “This was going to be their last holiday.” That simple short sentence made a depressing impact, and on that note, I went to bed.

Well so much for light and funny.

The next day brought a flush of optimism and the memory of how much Tom at A Common Reader enjoyed Dean’s other novel, so I picked up Becoming Strangers once again and was very glad I did. Dean’s novel is funny, yet sad & serious–a powerful combination which offers an unusual look at marriage’s till-death-do-us-part phase.

The main character is Jan–a man whose life hasn’t been easy for the past few years, but there’s one thing that’s served him well through illness and operation after operation, and that’s his belief that “good manners” go a long way. He treats everyone with the same degree of courtesy–from his appalling wife, Annemieke, to his concerned doctors and his dutiful sons–they all get the same treatment. This polite distancing is how Jan deals with his imminent death, but no one seems to notice that this is Jan’s coping mechanism–a buoy that enables him to float (with the help of morphine) through the last few months.

Unfortunately Jan isn’t treated with the same courtesy he extends to others. The main culprit here is Annemieke–a woman who at 49 is bursting with life and health and who is fed up with waiting for her husband to die. She’s also desperate to not appear to be her age, and that includes some outrageously funny and obnoxious sexual behaviour. Normally, a “last holiday” would be filled with poignancy and sadness, but when Jan and Annemieke land at the resort, she hits the ground running:

“She was going to have a holiday that suited her. She would make the most of the spa. Her own health deserved some attention. Hadn’t the doctors said that it’s often the carer’s well-being that gets completely neglected.”

 Annemieke has no intention of wasting time hanging out with Jan, and his feeble attempts to go sightseeing are met with nimble avoidance:

“I thought we might make an excursion, he said pleasantly. We could hire a car. Have a look round the island.”

“I’m not a sightseer, Jan,” she said, “as you know.”

She gave herself a good wash; she wanted to feel just right when she lay down on that massage couch. These indulgences were fraught in so many ways. Money and time ticking away while you tried to feel good. An indifferent masseur or beautician, an unpleasant manner, a painfully deep rub or treatment, thin towels, or the sight of herself, under bright lights in a full-length mirror–any of these could ruin it.

He was standing when she left.

“We might have lunch together” he said.

“You look after yourself, I shouldn’t want to hold you up.”

Annemieke, on a mission to prove her sexual attractiveness, prowls around the resort, and when she’s not milking her husband’s illness for sympathy, she’s showing off her breasts as often as possible. She strikes up an acquaintance with a couple of Americans, Jason and Missy while Jan is drawn to an elderly British couple, George and his wife Dorothy. Jan and George, bound to lives they don’t quite connect with, form an unlikely relationship:

“She wasn’t keen to come, the missus,” he admitted to Jan. “She’s a stay-at-home sort. She’s sitting in the room now. Blimey, we might as well be at home. She’s got her book and a cup of tea, she’s all right. I’ve always had to drag her along with me to whatever we did. She wasn’t always a homebody but she’s got worse lately, likes to sit on her arse all day; thinking she says she is, or reading,”  he raised his eyebrows and sighed. “Always seems as if she’s on the same page.”

“I suppose my wife feels the same way about me,” Jan said, finishing his drink.

“Oh yes?”

“Sure. I also like my own company.”

“I’m not sure that’s the case with the old girl. Sometimes it’s hard to get through to someone even if you’ve known them your whole life. The years seem to make it harder, as a matter of fact. Like you’ve found thousands of ways to get around them, detours, you know, road closed, follow diversion. Do you know what I mean?”

There are so many wonderful scenes in this book, and I can’t describe them all, but my favourite section occurs when Annemieke goes off with Jason and Missy on a yacht while Jan leaves with George & Dorothy, and fellow guests Laurie and born-again christian Bill Moloney. Jan’s wonderful day is contrasted with Annemieke’s experience listening to Jason waffle on with his obsession: locking people up.

 Another marvellous aspect of the novel is its characters. One of my favourites is poor beleaguered resort manager (“Total Experience Manager”), Steve Burns. While Jan opts to maintain his relationships through polite, distanced behaviour, Steve is forced to wear the same polite mask with the guests. He’s forced to walk a very thin line between keeping the guests happy and keeping his job, and the pushy American guest, Jason, treats Burns with scorn at every opportunity. As events at the resort play out, and the behaviour of the guests degenerates, Steve, who isn’t particularly likeable, finds his job increasingly difficult and repugnant at times with this load of holidaymakers:

Burns felt like a fruit, handing out leaflets, drawing pencilled circles on maps, reminding the punters of the Saturday night events they left the hotel. He’d spotted two women of a more mature persuasion, ‘Silvers’ as they called them in the business, passing comment on him from their huddled position in two cane armchairs, looking at him over their fishing expedition leaflets. He’d asked if he could help them and heard snorts of laughter as he’d walked away. He’d fucking sashayed, he was sure of it, it was the trousers, and then he’d turned around like some Butlin’s poof and told them off with a very camp, ‘now, now ladies, none of that. it was a loathsome business at times.

Holidays are peculiar things. So much is invested in making them a good experience and holidaymakers are supposed to go home with good memories along with the customary souvenirs. Holidays also have a way of highlighting problems in relationships–after all, some relationships are unravelling and forced intimacy isn’t going to help. Becoming Strangers explores the forced interactions, the relationships which grow from proximity, and the behaviour of the guests who feel unleashed far from home.

Some people may not enjoy this novel. There’s no resolution and the plot tosses together some elements that are not ‘handled’ in a traditional way–more power to Louise Dean, I say.  The sharp inner dialogues blend well with the outward behaviour of these diverse characters and the roles they’ve long tired of.

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Filed under Dean Louise