Tag Archives: infidelity

His Only Son: Leopoldo Alas

Miserable marriages exist both in real life and in fiction, but with fictional miserable marriages, readers have the opportunity to chuckle at the domestic enslavement of others. The author, Leopoldo Alas (1852-1901) in this case, presents just the right blend of unhappiness and characters who either asked for it or who juggle their marital discord with some sort of coping mechanism.


Emma Valcárcel, we are told, is a “spoiled only child,” who at age 15 kidnaps her father’s handsome, poor, and stupid clerk, Bonifacio Reyes, and strong arms him into an elopement. Emma ends up in a convent, and Bonifacio, in Mexico, tries “earning his living as the rather inept editor of a newspaper, whose main purpose was to insult others.”  In time, Emma, a wealthy heiress, and with her Uncle Juan Nepomuceno as her guardian, marries a sickly older man, and is a widow within a year. Emma, who rules the Valcárcel family like some sort of benevolent despot, arranges for Bonifacio to be given a job that will bring him back into her orbit. The plan works and they are married.

It’s not a happy marriage, and Emma turns to her family for adoration (most of her male relatives are infatuated with her–but her fortune may have something to do with that). Bonifacio, finding a flute that belonged to Emma’s father, learns how to play. Since Bonifacio is a handsome man, Emma delights in dressing him up in expensive clothes, and showing him off on social occasions, but he never has any money of his own.

Following a miscarriage, Emma’s health and temperament, are in decline, and Bonifacio, who tries to pursue a separate life through the more bohemian crew at the local opera house, becomes a nursemaid/slave to Emma’s petulant demands for massages given with various lotions. She “despised her husband more with each day that passed, considering him useful only as a handsome physical presence,” and “telling Bonifacio off became her one consolation.”

His willingness to submit to all the intimate tasks of the bedroom, to his patient’s many complicated whims, to the sad, tender voluptuousness of convalescence, seemed to Bonifacio viewed from outside, not the natural aptitude of some saintly, fussy hermaphrodite but the romantic excesses of a Quixotic love applied to the minutiae of married life.

Juggling Emma’s tyrannical demands for domestic servitude, Bonafacio begins an affair with a third rate opera singer Serafina, even as he is slowly bled for money by her other lover, Mochi, the opera company impressario and lead tenor. Since Bonafacio has no money of his own, he turns to Emma’s uncle for a loan.

The book’s introduction, written by translator Margaret Jull Costa, mentions that one of the criticisms of Leopoldo Alas’s best known work, La Regenta, is that  “Alas had stolen the plot of Madame Bovary.” That being the case, then of course, it becomes significant that the dominant female character of His Only Son is named Emma. While Madame Bovary’s doom was driven by debt, Emma Valcárcel also has problems with money management.

Her one talent was for spending money. Kindly Juan Nepomuceno, formerly Emma’s legal guardian and now her administrator, would happily have shooed away all the flies–in the form of her relatives–who buzzed around the rather shrunken honeycomb of her inheritance, but this simply wasn’t practicable because his niece had grown so fond of all the members of the Valcárcel family, past, present, and future, that she demanded they be treated with the utmost generosity.

Emma knows that her uncle is ripping off her estate, but she doesn’t care. She glories in it. While Emma Bovary had romantic ideals that led to her destruction, Emma Valcárcel romanticizes the portraits of her deceased ancestors.

No wonder His Only Son was banned. The novel portrays a hypocritical society rife with adultery and corruption. After Emma’s father’s death, it was discovered that he left behind “a whole tribe of bastard children,” and that “the lawyer’s chastity had not been quite as perfect as everyone thought; his real virtue had consisted largely in prudence and stealth.”  

Even though this tale of adultery and money-grubbing has all the earmarks of tragedy, Alas turns his scenes into domestic farce. While adultery has drastic results in Madame Bovary, here adultery acts as an aphrodisiac in Bonifacio’s marriage. The women in His Only Son are very strong characters with the men weak and led by the nose, but it’s still the men who somehow or another have the power.

The excellent introduction explores the subversive nature of His Only Son, and the way the novel exemplifies the “clash between romanticism and realism.” It’s in this clash between the two schools of thought–Romanticism and Realism, that most of the novel’s humour is to be found. This New York Review Books edition also includes the novella Dona Berta.

Review copy

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa


Filed under Alas Leopoldo, Fiction

The Other Side of the World: Stephanie Bishop

“In the mind one jumps from one intensity to another, the hours in between elided and lost. It is the failure of life to stand out.”

Set in the 60s, Stephanie Bishop’s novel, The Other Side of the World, a story of displacement and cultural identity, follows the decision of a young married British couple to emigrate to Australia. While the decision to emigrate is supposed to create new opportunities, in reality, the move brings disaster to an already troubled marriage.


The novel opens with artist Charlotte Blackwood leaving the doctor’s office after discovering that she’s pregnant for the second time. This is not news that Charlotte wants to hear as she already has Lucie, a seven month old baby, at home. Charlotte isn’t coping well with motherhood; these days we’d probably say that she’s suffering from postpartum depression. It’s clear that Charlotte, stressed to the max, doesn’t enjoy being a mother, and it doesn’t help that she has no time to paint. Meanwhile Charlotte’s Anglo-Indian husband, Henry is in the final throes of finishing his degree and is lecturing at Cambridge. When a brochure advertising emigration to Australia arrives with the slogan, “Come Over to the Sunny Side!” Henry can’t get the images of a sunnier, better life out of his head. They live in a cramped, damp country cottage with black mold creeping on the walls, and it’s impossible not to contrast the photos of Australia with the realities of their living situation.

In his mind he sees a kind of paradise: sunlight, blue sky, pineapple and steak, golf and tennis.

After one particularly harsh winter, with Lucie deathly ill, Henry who misses the Indian climate, suggests they move to Australia. At first Charlotte refuses, but then, gradually, worn down, physically and mentally she agrees to the plan–somehow thinking that the day of departure will never arrive.

Henry, Charlotte. Lucie and baby May travel to Perth, arriving in the heat of summer, and as far as emigrants go, they’re landed on their feet. Henry has a job teaching English at the university, and they’ve arranged to rent a large house with a big garden. Anglo-Indian Henry, who’s never quite made the adjustment to England, finds that, in spite of his enthusiasm and dedication, he’s not exactly fitting in with his university colleagues. Meanwhile Charlotte doesn’t fit in either, but neither does she try, and then she meets someone who expresses interest in her painting.

The Other Side of the World recreates the emigrant nostalgia for the ‘old country,’ so Charlotte, who didn’t want to move in the first place, doesn’t remember any of the negatives they faced, only the highlights of the English climate, and just as Henry idealized India, Charlotte, who dreams of England at night, now idealizes her former life in England

She and her children at home amid the foxgloves and the hollyhocks. Then she”ll keep her apples wrapped in paper in a box in the cool of the cellar. She’ll wake to hear cuckoos in the summer morning. She’ll make jam from rose hips and hedge plums. She’ll not mind the cold, she thinks remembering the pleasure of gathering sticks and logs from the woodland in the Autumn dusk. 

And what of Henry? Henry doesn’t miss England. He misses the distant memories of his childhood in India. To Henry, “England was always secondary, always derivative, always an aftereffect of a story.”

He remembers this from long ago: a different boat pulling out from the a different port. His mother crying. Crowds, smoke, the heat. Birds circling in the sky. In the heart of the country there were fields of marigolds. Elsewhere, high mountains of green camellia. He used to long for these things. 

The Other Side of the World has a very interesting premise: a husband and wife who emigrate to Australia, with the husband, who doesn’t feel a bond to England, pushing the decision. The two main characters, Charlotte and Henry, fail to connect, and instead, they struggle in their own private hell.  The pain of absence for a loved country throbs through the narrative, and unfortunately, Henry and Charlotte don’t miss the same country. I loved the scenes of struggle with the garden. It’s such a common mistake to attempt to grow plants we loved from the ‘old country’ in a new, different climate.

The casual racism directed towards Henry is echoed by Charlotte’s rigid, narrow, judgmental view of Australians. Charlotte cannot make the adjustment, and quite frankly never tries. To Charlotte, scenes of beauty in Australia are not accepted for what they are, but are only for constant comparison. Charlotte never really grapples with the fact that a move to Australia means making and accepting change; it takes years to adjust. Years to wake up in the morning and realize what country you are in. You lose and you gain. Simple as that.

While the author’s descriptions of the emigrant experience, the climate and the landscape are amazingly evocative, there’s a heavy sense of depression that hovers over the plot which emanates mostly from Charlotte who moves through life in a hazy fog. There are several descriptions of her children as babies: drool, vomit, endless sickness, and it’s quite clear that Charlotte doesn’t enjoy motherhood. It’s not necessary to like characters in order to enjoy a work of fiction (on the contrary, I enjoy reading books about nasty people,) but in this instance, Charlotte’s selfishness oozes through the plot, and effectively impacts the book negatively with Charlotte’s behaviour subsuming and blunting the author’s skillful language. The plot’s conclusion leaves a lingering dissatisfaction, and there’s the sense, at least for this reader, that Charlotte still has an emptiness inside that nothing will ever fill.

Here’s Lisa’s review. 

Review copy



Filed under Fiction

Commonwealth: Ann Patchett

“Half the things in this life I wish I could remember and the other half I wish I could forget.”

Ann Patchett’s engaging novel, Commonwealth, begins in the 1960s, in California, at the home of detective Fix Keating. It’s his second daughter, Frances’s christening, and while most of the guests are fellow detectives, there’s a gatecrasher, Albert Cousins, otherwise known as Bert, a lawyer from the district attorney’s office. Bert attends, bringing along a bottle of gin, and it’s on this day that the lives of the Keating and the Cousins families begin to blow apart, but no one knows it yet. Taken that way, in hindsight, the christening party is a moment in time, a moving snapshot of the lives of Patchett’s characters. The novel, rooted in that event, then extends out over the next fifty years with other snapshots, following the lives of its characters as they merge for various events–some happy, some tragic, and some just marking the passage of time.


Bert, who hails from Virginia, is an unhappily married man, but he doesn’t acknowledge it. He dragged his wife, Teresa to California, and now they have three children, Cal, Holly, and Jeannette, with another one on the way (who’ll be a second boy, a “pyromaniac” named Albie). Bert gatecrashes the christening as an excuse to not engage with his overworked wife, demanding children and the chaos called home. As the novel continues, we see that avoidance is a way of life for Bert, and it’s a pattern of behaviour that will have dramatic, tragic consequences for the other characters.

The stunningly beautiful, blonde Beverly Keating, who catches Bert’s eye, has two  daughters with Fix: Caroline and Frances (Franny). There’s a sense about her that she’s the kind of perfect woman who will always land on her feet, and that feeling is proved correct as the plot reveals her various incarnations.

Beverly was always in the pictures the children brought back from summer, as if Catherine Deneuve happened to wander by while they were playing in the pool or swinging in the swings and stepped accidentally in the frame as the shutter snapped.

So here we have a cast of four adults: Fix and Beverly Keating, Bert and Teresa Cousins and between them, six children. Over the course of fifty years, we see divorce, families blending, with Bert and Beverly becoming less-than-enthusiastic stepparents, and as the six children merge into one ad-hoc family, they develop relationships among themselves, creating bonds strengthened by being set adrift.  Although these 10 characters have a shared history, exactly what that history is is open to interpretation. In adulthood, Franny, a young woman who can’t quite find a path in life, meets a much older, successful author, who takes her childhood story, makes it into a bestselling book, and this causes questions to arise, once again, about the past.

Some reviews state that the novel is plotless. Rather, let’s go back to that snapshot image. Patchett doesn’t give us a linear narrative, and takes us back and forth in time, concentrating on some characters through significant family events, so we see how certain choices develop into major pathways. Teresa is the unsung hero here, struggling to manage a job to support her four children and receiving very little credit for it.

In Commonwealth, and the title is explained as the plot plays out, Patchett has created an engaging, tender look at the lives of her characters. It’s the bite of the narrative, the power of perspective and Patchett’s adept portrayal of messiness of life that elevate this novel.

Here’s Fix talking to his daughter Franny:

“And how about old Bert? How’s he doing?”

“He seems okay.”

“Do you talk to him very often?” Fix asked, the soul of innocence.

“Not nearly as often as I talk to you.”

“It isn’t a contest.”

“No, it’s not.”

“And he’s married now?”

Franny shook her head.


“But there was a third one.”

“Didn’t work out.”

“Wasn’t there a fiancée though? Somebody after the third one?” Fix knew full well that Bert had had a third divorce but he never tired of hearing about it.

“There was for a while.”

“And the fiancée didn’t work out either?”

Franny shook her head.

“Well that’s a shame,” Fix said, sounding as if he meant it

Caroline recently posted about errors and cliches in a short story written by Ann Patchett called Switzerland that is part of the novel Commonwealth. After reading Caroline’s post, I had reservations about reading the book. My concerns turned out to be unfounded–Commonwealth was excellent–I loved it, but if I had to pick fault with the novel, then that complaint would be the section in which Teresa flies to Switzerland to meet her daughter, Holly. We don’t see a lot of either Teresa or Holly in the book, and this section, which stuck out as clunky, did not blend well with the rest of the story. But apart from that, Commonwealth is an entertaining, engaging read.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Patchett Ann

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman: Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig’s novella, Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, opens with guests at a French Riviera resort gossiping and “obsessing” over an incident that took place at the Grand Palace Hotel. A new guest, a handsome, charming young Frenchman man, arrived one day a little after noon and spent his time in a whirl of activity. The young man left abruptly that same evening, claiming that he’d “been suddenly called away.” Imagine the shock, when the guests learn late that night that a married woman, Madame Henriette, the wife of “a stout, thick-set manufacturer from Lyon,”  has left her husband and two children to run off with the young Frenchman she just met. Tongues start wagging with the delicious gossip which is fed by a dramatic scene from the husband, and the gossip leans to earnest discussion about whether or not the married woman, a “minor Madame Bovary,” is crazy to leave her husband and family behind or whether her actions can be understood.

You will understand that such an event, striking like lightning before our very eyes and our perceptions, was likely to cause considerable turmoil in persons usually accustomed to an easygoing existence and carefree pastimes. But while this extraordinary incident was certainly the point of departure for the discussion that broke out so vehemently at our table, almost bringing us to blows, in essence the dispute was more fundamental, an angry conflict between two warring concepts of life. 

The debate between the guests takes a very specific form which focuses on morality:

But what aroused so much indignation in all present was the circumstance that neither the manufacturer nor his daughters, not even Madame Henriette herself, had ever set eyes on this Lovelace before, and consequently their evening conversation for a couple of hours on the terrace, and the one-hour session in the garden over black coffee, seemed to have sufficed to make a woman about thirty-three years old and of blameless reputation abandon her husband and two children overnight, following a young dandy previously unknown to her without a second thought.

Some of the guests, who struggle to accept that Madame Henriette ran off with a man she just met, believe that there was a “clandestine affair” conducted long before the assignation at the hotel, and the dominant opinion is that “it was out of the question for a decent woman who had known a man a mere couple of hours to run off just like that when he first whistled her up.” The narrator, however, perhaps a romantic, takes the position that it was “probable in a woman who at heart had perhaps been ready to take some decisive action through all the years of a tedious, disappointing marriage.”  


Our narrator, defending Madame Henriette, who he believes was “delivered up to mysterious powers beyond her own will and judgement,” finds himself in the minority opinion while the other married couples “denied the existence of the coup de foudre with positively scornful indignation, condemning it as folly and tasteless romantic fantasy.” An elderly widow, an Englishwoman, Mrs C, who has an “eccentric obsession” with the behaviour of the now-absent Madame Henriette, seems fascinated by the narrator’s moral stance. As the narrator’s holiday comes to an end, Mrs C tells her own story of twenty-four hours of madness….

This superb novella argues that married women, especially of a certain privileged class, are cocooned from life’s passions and ugly realities, and are, therefore, vulnerable to love affairs.  Are they kept like little pets in gilded cages? The story of Madame Henriette and Mrs C echo all stories of other great fictional heroines: Anna Karenina leaps to mind–although of course, Zweig’s story doesn’t follow the aftermath of Madame Henriette’s decision. While Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is concerned solely with the impulsive decisions of two women, nonetheless, there’s an arc to the story that continues beyond the first page. Anna Karenina, one of literature’s great tragic heroines, threw aside her tedious marriage for love, and we all know how that story ended. Madame Henriette’s fate will most probably be ignominious. Zweig allows us to imagine the consequences of her rashness, but he tells us, instead, the story of Mrs C’s extraordinary behavior.

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is a beautifully constructed, almost perfect tale of two women who went off the rails. There’s a 19th century feel to this story, and the narrator tells us almost immediately that the events he describes took place “ten years before the war.” So it’s a tale told in retrospect by someone who can’t forget either Madame Henriette or the confidences of Mrs C, a woman haunted by her actions decades after they took place.

Review copy

Translated by Anthea Bell


Filed under Zweig Stefan

The Long View: Elizabeth Jane Howard (1956)

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel, The Long View begins in London. It’s 1950. Mr. and Mrs. Fleming (and I hesitate to call them Mr. and Mrs. as it makes them sound like some joint entity, which they are most definitely not)–Conrad and Antonia–have been married for 23 years. They have two children: Julian and Deirdre. Julian is on the brink of marriage to June Stoker and Daphne is in the throes of a love affair, which, even with an unexpected complication, is about to end.

It’s the evening of a dinner party for eight to celebrate Julian’s engagement to the very boring, very ordinary June Stoker. The dinner party is described in tedious, predictable detail before it occurs, and so we know that Mrs. Fleming isn’t looking forward to it but she “sank obediently to the occasion.” The big unknown of the upcoming evening is whether or not Conrad Fleming will bother to show up to the dinner party that he demanded and arranged.

Julian and Deirdre are total opposites. Whereas Julian is controlled. unemotional, doesn’t like fuss and has very distinct ideas about a wife’s ‘duty'( like his father), Deirdre is a mess. She’s constantly in the throes of some love affair or another and seems to always juggle two men at once:

one, dull, devoted creature whose only distinction was his determination to marry her, in the face of savage odds (the other, more attractive, but even more unsatisfactory young man).

In the build-up to the dinner party we also meet June Stoker, a young woman who’s marrying to escape a suffocating home life, and yet it’s also clear that marriage to Julian isn’t going to be an easy solution.

the long view

So the dinner party, with its awkward moments, takes place, and Mr. Fleming who has “constructed a personality as elaborate, mysterious and irrelevant, as a nineteenth-century folly” shows up. This is a man who doesn’t “care in the least about other people, […]. He cared simply and overwhelmingly for himself.” Thinking about his wife, he rues the fact that “he had at one period in their lives allowed her to see too much of him. This indirectly had resulted in their children.” His son, Julian, bores him, and he thinks his soon-to-be daughter-in-law is an “exceptionally, even a pathetically, dull young woman.” He expects the marriage to end badly for his son, with “two or three brats, and a wife, who, drained of what slender resources had first captivated him, would at the same time be possessed of a destructive knowledge of his behaviour.”

Mr. Fleming, who is very smug about “trying not to be a father of any kind,”  echoes Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Bennet, but Mr. Fleming is a much more malevolent version, and whereas Mrs. Bennet is really a horrid creature, Mrs. Fleming, who after 23 years of marriage is “literally exhausted” by her husband, now lives her life in a strangely disconnected way. With her sad acceptance, she echoes Mrs. Dalloway, and no doubt the upcoming dinner party was at least partially responsible for that. The dinner party is an event that we could expect the family to enjoy–at least on some level, but it only serves to reveal the pathology of the Flemings’ marriage, and leaves Antonia with the  acknowledgment that “after their first three years she had spent the remaining twenty fighting the battle of his boredom.”

Personally, I think the battle is long lost. We learn that Conrad Fleming is constantly unfaithful; the dramatics of his various mistresses amuse him (“During luncheon, a woman, nearly in tears, and with a Viennese accent, telephoned and asked for Mr. Fleming,”) and by the end of the evening, we see Antonia, at 43, contemplating “the skeleton of perhaps twenty-five years ahead of her on which she must graft some fabric of her life.”

While the pages of the Fleming’s lives move backwards in time, we are privy to Conrad Fleming’s thoughts, but always this is Antonia’s story. 1942 shows us the Flemings’ marriage in wartime, 1937–the Flemings are on a holiday in France, Conrad departs, unable to bear family intimacy for a moment longer, and he faces a crisis in his marriage. Then it’s back to 1927 to the Flemings’ wedding and a honeymoon in Paris. Finally it’s 1926, and a painfully shy 19-year-old Antonia is overshadowed by her aging beauty mother’s need to constantly criticize the daughter who possessing youth, is a potential rival.

The novel’s interesting structure begins by showing us a marriage in which both partners have reached some sort of toxic point in a relationship that is long past stagnation. But the glimpses of earlier years grant us a better view of the perennially unfaithful Conrad, a maddening character, who when he marries Antonia and sweeps her off to Paris, has very decided views:

“I’ve bought you a house, you know.”

“Have you? I wasn’t worrying. Why should I? Where is it?”

“Ah. I am not going to tell you tonight. If you don’t like it, we will get another. But I haven’t furnished it at all.”

“Then we shall not go straight back there?”

“Oh, no. The first step is to put you in it, and then choose things that will go with you.”

“Are they not to go with you also?”

“I am a chameleon,” he said, with a gentle sardonic gleam.

And so over the years, Antonia, now Mrs. Fleming “a great big beautiful doll” installed in the two beautiful homes the Flemings own, finds herself as she says “a sort of scene shifter for Conrad” a man who “likes an elaborate setting.”

By the time the book concludes, we have answers to how the Flemings’ marriage got to this point, and while I was very annoyed by Conrad and wished someone would puncture that insufferable ego, the book argued that we don’t arrive at any given moment in our lives by chance. We have walked certain pathways, turned at certain signposts; there are reasons why we are where we are.

Finally, I have to include this quote because I loved it. This is spoken by Antonia’s friend Leslie, who is a widow at the dinner party, but we also see her married and pregnant in France before the war. Here she is warning June, who isn’t even married yet, about what to expect when she’s pregnant.

Dreadful books about its age and weight at every conceivable moment, and ghastly yellow knitted matinee coats (what are they so often yellow?) and letters from hospitals, and photographs of other people’s babies so that you can see exactly how awful it’s going to look when it’s larger.

I liked this–didn’t love it. The novel slowed down at a few points, and the writing is very mannered. Still, I will definitely be reading more from this author. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s third marriage was to Kingsley Amis, and that makes her a stepmother to Martin Amis

Review copy



Filed under Fiction, Howard Elizabeth Jane

Burning Secret: Stefan Zweig

Pushkin Press just released the Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig which includes the following titles:

Burning Secret

A Chess Story



Journey into the Dark

collected novellas

Burning Secret is the story of a young boy who’s staying with his beautiful mother in an Austrian hotel in Semmering when their quiet, idyllic, and at times boring stay (f0r the boy at least) is interrupted by a young man, “a baron from a not particularly illustrious noble family in the Austrian civil service.” With the Baron’s “inability to tolerate solitude,” the first thing he does is to check the hotel register. He’s looking for a “little light-hearted flirtation,” to ease the boredom. In the dining-room, he sweeps a gaze over the guests and a first glance leads him to think there’s “no chance of even a fleeting adventure.” We don’t exactly get a good impression of this baron. He’s:

a man who will never overlook any erotic opportunity, whose first glance probes every woman’s sensuality and explores it, without discriminating between his friend’s wife and the parlour-maid who opens the door to him. Such men are described with a certain facile contempt as lady-killers, but the term has a nugget of truthful observation in it, for in fact all the passionate instincts of the chase are present in their ceaseless vigilance: the stalking of the prey, the excitement and the mental cruelty of the kill. They are constantly on the alert, always ready and willing to follow the trail of an adventure to the very edge of the abyss. They are full of passion all the time, but it is the passion of a gambler rather than a lover, cold, calculating and dangerous.

This isn’t the entire quote, but it’s clear that Zweig made a study of this type of man. The Baron is a Ludic lover, and woe to the woman who takes him seriously.

Just as the Baron has accepted that a boring stay at the hotel awaits, another guest appears in the dining room: “a type he liked very much, one of those rather voluptuous Jewish women just before the age of over-maturity, and obviously passionate, but with enough experience to conceal her temperament behind a façade of elegant melancholy.” But she’s accompanied by a small pale boy named Edgar. The boy could be an impediment to seduction or a way into her company. …

There’s a wonderful scene in the dining room with Edgar’s mother very well aware of the Baron’s presence. She pretends to be unaware of his existence, but everything she does at the table becomes a performance for him. The Baron and ‘Mama’ are two erotically charged magnets. The Baron knows that “only sensuous attraction could stimulate his energy to its full force,” and that signals “the game could begin.” As for Edgar’s mother, “she was at that crucial age when a woman begins to regret having stayed faithful to a husband she never really loved, when the glowing sunset colours of her beauty offer her one last, urgent choice.”

The Baron makes a point of befriending the boy and promises him a puppy…

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to reveal. While the Baron and Edgar’s mother are central to this story, Burning Secret is really a coming-of-age story, and as such, in some ways the novella reminded me of Agostino. In Alberto Morovia’s novel, a boy is left to his own devices for the summer while his mother spends time with a lover. Agostino is extra baggage, and so is Edgar. The difference between the two boys is that Edgar is drawn into the affair and is more than a spectator; he’s a participant, and this episode in his life becomes a major factor in his relationship with his mother.

While I am not overly fond of stories told from the view of a child, Burning Secret (and this was made into a film BTW) shows the confusion experienced by Edgar as he’s courted by the Baron and then dumped. Edgar is too young to understand what is going on, but he senses that the Baron is a threat. Zweig captures the child’s mind with Edgar’s observations–observations that the child cannot fully understand–why, for example, are his mother’s lips redder than usual, and what is the connection between being sent out of the room and what happened between his father and the French governess? The meaning of these events seem secret to Edgar and he longs, in his loneliness, to understand the adult world that whirls so mysteriously around him.

Zweig creates a story, a child, and a chain of events that we can identify with. He’s a lonely child, confused and possessive, a protective son, and at times an annoying boy who is used as a pawn in a love affair. With a brilliant ending, Zweig winds up the story, creating a segue from the child to the man.

The other novellas will be covered in additional posts with the exception of Confusion which is here.

Translated by Anthea Bell

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Zweig Stefan

The Woman Taken in Adultery: Theodor Fontane

“She’s got a bit of Geneva chic. But what does it all add up to? Everything from Geneva is secondhand for a start.”

Back to German Literature Month and this time it’s a novella from Theodor Fontane (1819-1898). Fontane’s most famous work is arguably Effi Briest, and The Woman Taken in Adultery, an earlier work, is another tale on the same theme: an unhappy marriage and infidelity. The book’s back cover states that the book is “remarkable” for its portrayal of adultery with a “happy ending.” Compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, well yes, the book has a “happy ending,” and yet somehow the conclusion wasn’t as ‘happy’ as I expected.

a woman taken in adulteryUnder scrutiny here is the marriage between financier van der Straaten and his much younger, charming wife, Melanie. It’s Berlin in the 1880s and the van der Straatens, parents of two girls, have been married now for ten years. Before marriage, Melanie was a Caparoux or de Caparoux (depending on who you’re talking to), the daughter of French-Swiss nobility, and although her childhood was wrapped in privilege, her father, a consul-general died young and left only debts behind. As a penniless 17-year-old, she married 42 year-old van der Straaten. Very early in the story, we get a sense of van der Straatan’s temperament; he “oscillated between the earthy and the sentimental, between one extreme and another.” Melanie ‘manages’ her husband, flattering him, and she “played with the man whose plaything she appeared and pretended to be.”  She loves spending time alone in the country villa as “her supremacy depended on self-control, and to be free of this restraint was her constant secret desire.”

Van der Straaten is an extremely wealthy man but he’s a problem when it comes to society: “he had been too little in the world and had failed to acquire a generally acceptable degree of polish or even a bearing suitable to his position.” In chapter one, we’re told that van der Straaten is frequently asked if he’s related to a famous actor who has a similar name. These days, there’s a good implication to being asked if you’re related to an actor–but in 19th century Germany…. the question is loaded with social snobbery. This theme, that van der Straaten, although good-natured, doesn’t quite ‘fit’ into society, continues, and as the story develops, we see that the financier’s behaviour pains his wife, Melanie. Trouble appears in the marriage when van der Straatan insists that Rubehn, a former cavalry officer, soon-to-be apprentice, take up residence in his home.

There’s a dinner party scene in which van der Straaten dominates his guests and while the scene itself was rather tedious, it’s the after-dinner conversations that spark interest as the departing guests share their opinions of the van der Straatans’ marriage. Some of the guests have sympathy for Melanie van der Straaten and consider that she, an elegant woman of refined sensibilities, is wasted on her husband. Others don’t share that opinion and consider that Melanie’s impoverished family have no bragging rights.  Melanie’s brother-in-law, Major Gryczinski, married to Melanie’s younger sister, Jacobine de Caparoux, has his own opinion:

When they were in the middle of the brightly lit square, the lovely young woman nestled fondly against her husband and said, “what a day that was, Otto, I did admire you.”

“It wasn’t as hard for me as you think. I just play with him. He’s just an old child.”

“And Melanie! She feels it, you know. And I’m sorry for her. You’re smiling? Aren’t you sorry for her?”

“Yes and no, ma chère. Nothing in the world comes free. She has her summer villa and her picture gallery.”

“Which she doesn’t care for. You know how little it means to her.”

“And she has two charming children…”

“For which I almost envy her.”

“There you are,” laughed the major. “We all have to learn the art of making do with what we have. If I were my brother-in-law, I should say…”

But she closed his mouth with a kiss, and the next moment the carriage drew to a halt.

It would seem that Jacobine and Major Gryczinski married for love, but another guest speculates that the Major selected his wife on the basis that he would acquire a useful, extremely wealthy brother-in-law. But regardless of speculation, Melanie’s marriage to van der Straaten had to be an advantageous move for her younger sister. Would the major have married Jacobine if she didn’t have this advantageous, powerful connection? Would Jacobine even have been in society if Melanie hadn’t made a great match? These questions linger, unspoken, underneath the Gryczinskis’ criticisms.

Fontane initially “rejected the title as too aggressively moralistic,” but the title (based on a real life incident) works rather interestingly with the plot’s argument against moral judgment. The title also highlights an early scene in the story when van der Straaten, fascinated by a Tintoretto painting, acquires a copy. Van der Straaten’s later behaviour, in the face of his wife’s affair,  illustrates that he’s a decent, good-hearted man–not someone who passes moral judgment–even when he suffers. Looked down upon by the fussy, snobby society forced to accept him because of his financial standing, he’s a much better person than those who patronize him behind his back.  The Woman Taken in Adultery, IMO, is not as good as Effi Briest. Melanie van der Straaten’s marriage isn’t miserable enough, and the love affair isn’t charismatic enough to rouse much emotional investment, but it is an unusual tale of adultery when compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. There’s very little moral judgment here–and most of the moral judgment within these pages comes from Melanie van der Straaten’s eldest daughter–a sensitive girl who sees that Rubehn is a threat immediately.

Translated by Gabriele Annan


Filed under Fiction, Fontane Theodor

The Last September: Nina de Gramont

“I remember turning-the sunlight so much flatter, in that direction, pixels from staring at the water still dancing in front of my eyes.”

Nina de Gramont’s novel The Last September is described as a murder mystery, and while a murder occurs soon after the book opens, this is essentially the story of how love corrodes into a troubled marriage.  The story is narrated by Brett, who when the novel opens, is struggling to finish her PhD thesis (after 8 years) on Emily Dickinson. Brett, her husband, Charlie and their 15 month old daughter are staying in Charlie’s father’s rundown beach house in Cape Cod Bay. This could be a romantic setting, but romance isn’t part of the equation. Simmering resentments linger under the surface of the marriage as Brett struggles to write while Charlie abandons his share of child care seemingly oblivious to Brett’s need to work. This unsettling tableaux unfolds into a picture of a marriage that is falling apart at the seams.

I’m not giving anything away to say that Charlie is brutally murdered, and that Brett assumes the killer is Charlie’s schizophrenic brother Eli who has a history of violence when he goes off his meds. As Brett struggles with guilt and might-have-beens in the aftermath of the murder, slowly, the story of Brett and Charlie’s marriage unfolds.

The Last SeptemberAt university, Brett was best friends with pre-med student Eli, and through Eli, she met Charlie, the much more charming, live-lightly brother. A one-night stand later finds Brett wondering how she could have misinterpreted Charlie’s intentions, but she picks up the pieces of her shattered ego and carries on with her studies. Meanwhile Eli descends into schizophrenia, and eventually his illness brings Brett back into Charlie’s orbit.

The eventual solution to the murder comes as an understated event–far from the usual settings of police interviews and line-ups. Instead the story is solidly on the tragedy of Brett’s marriage and the many mistakes made along the way. The story is beautifully written, and yet I’ll admit no small frustration with Brett–a woman who seems to be moved along more than once by those with much stronger characters. Like many other women before her, Brett has multiple warnings that Charlie is an irresponsible womanizer, and yet she can’t resist that excessive charm and attention. Once again, the very traits that attract become the nails in the coffin of a dying marriage.

Woven into Brett’s tale is her love of Emily Dickinson, and while these passages seemed occasionally over applied to the love story of Brett and Charlie, the Dickinson thread also underscored the overall problem of having a romantic nature to begin with. Brett had ample warning about Charlie but nonetheless plunged ahead into marriage with a man who’d already shown his true nature.

Ultimately this is a story of regret & loss: Brett’s lost relationship with Eli, Eli’s loss of mental stability, Brett’s lost marriage to Charlie. Here’s Brett reacting to Eli’s absence and building a future that never happened for Eli:

For a while I tried to e-mail Eli, to update him on Tab [the cat] and find out if he was ever coming back to school. But he never answered. After a month or so went by, I helped his roommates pack up his things to ship back to his parents’ winter house in New York.

“He’s in some swanky hospital outside Boston,” one of the roommates told me. “It’s called Maclean.”

I knew about Maclean from studying poets and listening to James Taylor. In my mind, it was like a boarding school with rolling green lawns and maybe a swimming pool and tennis courts. I imagined Eli lying on a grassy hillside under a broad, blue sky, writing poetry in a spiral notebook. That image comforted me, even as the years unfolded without ever hearing from him. Eli went away. He had treatment. He was cured. Maybe when he got out he enrolled in a different college, went on to med school, got married.

Life is seen as a series of damaging incidents, and yet at the same time, Charlie, who’s gone not long after the novel begins, is one of those people who’s made of different, impervious material. Sailing through life with few cares, Charlie never realises how much he hurts people simply because he never sustains damage. The two brothers present an interesting contrast. While Eli is definitely mentally ill and is expected to cause problems , Charlie is deemed  “normal” by societal standards, and yet Charlie damages those who love him. A highly readable novel, the emphasis here is on a troubled marriage and not the murder mystery.

Review copy


Filed under de Gramont Nina, Fiction

Among the Ten Thousand Things: Julia Pierpoint

“He hummed to himself, to the night. Things would turn out okay. For him, somehow, they always had, and so they always would.”

Among the Ten Thousand Things, a debut novel from American author Julia Pierpoint, is the story of the disintegration of a family after infidelity is revealed. The ugly revelation sets the marriage and family into freefall, but in reality decay was already set in place–the big difference is that the acknowledgement of infidelity forces the lid off this fractured marriage.

Deb has been married to successful New York artist Jack Shanley for years. They have two children: Simon, 15 and Kay 11. Deb was once a ballet dancer, but now she teaches ballet. She finds that she can’t encourage her pupils to sacrifice all for a career in ballet as to do so “would feel like a lie.”

At twenty-two and twenty-three, at parties with regular people, nondancers–they’ll coo over you like a rare bird. Which you are, to them. You are sinewy grace and bone, everywhere tight, from your tied hair to your pointed toes. And you’ll feel yourself a liar there too, because in the corps you are one of so many. Your own mother needing binoculars to pick you out.

Jack arrived on the scene at the time when Deb, in her mid twenties, was finally accepting that she was stuck in the corps and didn’t have the presence to rise to stardom, unlike her friend, Isabel who is about to publish her memoirs. So marrying Jack and taking the route of marriage and family was a way of saving face rather than acknowledging that she was giving up.  Now Deb is 41, and Jack, who has just trashed his second marriage, is 55.

among the ten thousand thingsWhile it’s easy to like Deb, a woman who’s learned to compromise, it’s also easy to really dislike Jack. He’s had many affairs, and his fame in the art world yields the usual fans, wannabes and groupies. His latest affair is with a much younger unstable woman–someone who unpredictably decided to strike back against Jack by sending all their correspondence to his home:

 In some other context, he could have gotten hard, reading it all over. He thought if she had only sent the letters straight to him, he might even have fucked her again. But that wasn’t what the girl wanted, sex. Probably it wasn’t ever what she wanted. Women were always deceiving him about that. He was always lowballing their demands.

The novel follows the fallout of the affair, and author Julia Pierpoint creates an interesting structure within the novel when the couple part, possibly temporarily, by including a segment that gives a synopsis of the future, and then the novel segues back to the present before adding another segment in the future. This eloquently adds a poignant historical dimension to the destroyed family, and we see their home left empty in their absence, gathering dust and crumbling like some lost, ancient civilization–a sign of things to come:

For eighteen days the apartment sat empty. Fine dusts and pollen collected on the windowpanes, and the mirrors stood with no one in them. Nothing in or out of the closed-circuit space. Only the wireless went on invisibly complicating the air.

Deb and the children depart to a vacation home in Jamestown while a glum Jack dumps the family cat at his mother-in law’s and heads, in some sort of primeval move to his mother’s home in Houston where his step-father sniffs that there’s something wrong. The novel follows Jack in Houston and then Arizona while other sections follow Deb and her children in Jamestown.

This is a promising debut novel, an age-old story of adultery and break-up with some modern angles to the tale. Simon for example retreats into a problematic relationship of his own, and Deb, who has absorbed the emotional impact of the affair alone, feels that she has to ask her children’s opinions on the subject of where their father should be allowed to sleep.

As a reader, I’m not keen on tales of teens or children, so the parts of the novel which followed Simon and Kay was less interesting to me than the sections which focused on the adults: Deb’s tricky compromises, and Jack’s slippery, destructive morality. These are two individuals who live in the same home but have very distinctly separate worlds. Deb is a believable character–a disappointed woman who is trying ignore Jack’s behaviour and make the best of a fractured marriage, but self-focused Jack, whose career is in freefall, doesn’t make it easy:

Jack liked to hammer a lot of thoughts out on the train. The hardest part of a marriage–of living with anyone–was those first ten minutes after walking through the door. Questions about his work, his lunch, his trip home, which in his mind had barely ended, and answers to questions he’d not asked, so many words flooded him

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Pierpoint Julia

Doctor Glas: Hjalmar Söderberg

“There’s no dream of happiness that in the end doesn’t bite its own tail.”

One of the positives of blogging is connecting with people who share similar tastes, and that brings me to one of my internet finds: Doctor Glas, a Swedish novel from Hjalmar Söderberg (1869-1941) published in 1905. I had to go back and double-check that date because Doctor Glas is a remarkably modern novel for its discussion of a number of taboo subjects: abortion, euthanasia, adultery, marital rape, prostitution and repressed sexual passion, and yet, at the same time, this is an archetypal story of an older husband who stands in the way of a couple of lusty young lovers. Shades of The Postman Always Rings Twice lurked in the corners of my mind as I read this, but there are, of course, numerous differences between James Cain’s story and this Swedish novel, but one of the most glaring differences has to be the approach to morality, for Doctor Glas is a inner contemplation of the ‘right’ to murder someone who is causing misery for others.

Doctor GlasIt’s turn-of-the-century Stockholm and Doctor Glas is much-respected professional, a bachelor, and a virgin. A quiet introspective man, he epitomizes the sort of figure patients trust, but almost immediately, Söderberg challenges the doctor’s professionalism by allowing us a glimpse into his mind. A doctor can’t pick his patients and Glas has a patient he loathes, Pastor Gregorius, a man “whose dreadful physiognomy stick[s] up from the pulpit like a poisonous mushroom.” Gregorius has a succulent young wife, and, he believes, an “irregular heartbeat.” Glas would be delighted if this patient died as he’d “be rid of the sight” of him. It’s a clever scene as we can both identify with, and be troubled by the doctor’s attitude. Gregorius is an unpleasant person, so we can join in with Glas’s thoughts, and yet it’s disconcerting to imagine a doctor wishing his patients dead.

Of course, there’s a little bit more behind the doctor’s dislike for his patient. Mrs Gregorius is also a patient, and later it develops that she wants Glas to cook up a medical reason which will ‘excuse’ her from her marital obligations. Glas makes a point of not interfering in the lives of various female patients who arrive “weeping, begging, and pleading,” for abortions. He has a “prepared speech” which he “always recites on occasions like this,” and that speech includes words regarding his “regard for human life, even the frailest.”  Glas believes that these things have a way of sorting themselves out, but this isn’t based on any moral decision–he thinks “respect of human life,” is “base hypocrisy,” and that “Duty” is a “splendid smokescreen.” His decision to refuse to perform abortions rests solidly with the Law as he knows it “would be foolish to risk everything,” for a desperate woman who would no doubt spread the word to her friends. Yet in spite of his policy of non-involvement, he becomes embroiled in the personal life of Pastor and Mrs Gregorius. Glas feels a great deal of disgust with the human condition which allows him to distance himself from the herd, and it’s very easy for him to sympathise with Mrs Gregorius’s desire to be excused from sex with her husband. They’ve been married for six years, but according to Mrs Gregorius, her husband’s demands have always been “difficult,” but “recently it’s become unbearable.”

“I don’t know how it put it,” she said. “What I wanted to ask if you is rather strange, and it may be completely against your principles. I have no way of knowing how you feel about matters like this. But there’s something about you that inspires trust, and I don’t know anyone else to confide in, no one else in the world who could help me. Doctor, couldn’t you talk to my husband? Tell him I’m suffering from some illness, something gynecological, and that he has to give up his rights, at least for a while?”

Doctor Glas immediately decides to help but he still has a question:

“But,” I interrupted, “the pastor isn’t young any longer. It surprises me that at his age he can cause you so much … distress. How old is he, anyway.”

“Fifty-six, I think. No, perhaps he’s fifty-seven. Though he looks older, of course.”

A few more questions later, and Mrs Gregorius confesses to Glas that the real reason she can no longer abide her husband’s touch is because she has a lover. So she’s given Glas a reason to refuse, but no, he jumps in with both feet and in this fashion becomes complicit in the affair….

The story is written in the form of a journal kept by Doctor Glas, so there’s many introspective, philosophical moments, many memories. There’s a memory of a girl he loved and lost and at another point, he discovers the identity of Mrs Gregorious’s lover. He begins to question his actions, and wonders if he’s become a pimp, and he decides that no, he’s “saved her from something terrible” but that “beyond that, what she does with herself is her own business.” But of course, once having broken his own rule against personal involvement, Glas finds himself in freefall on a very slippery slope.

Doctor Glas has been compared to Crime and Punishment and Thérèse Raquin, and both books are mentioned by Doctor Glas, and those allusions, of course, set the tone for the mental atmosphere surrounding the taking of a human life. I was reminded of my favourite Woody Allen film: Crimes and Misdemeanours–a film that deals with the subject of the guilt and how, in the absence of law or consequences, a person can become their own judge and jury in the aftermath of a murder. Doctor Glas argues that the weight of moral decisions rests on the individual–not fate and not god. This is a psychologically complex novel in which motivation and manipulation fester beneath surface. So thanks to both Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and Max (Pechorin’s Journal) for pointing me towards this wonderful novel.

Life, I don’t understand you. Sometimes I feel a spiritual vertigo, a whispering and murmuring that warns me I’ve gone astray

Caroline’s review

Max’s review

Review copy/own a copy

Translated by Rochelle Wright


Filed under Fiction, Söderberg Hjalmar