Tag Archives: infidelity

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

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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

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Filed under Fiction, Söderberg Hjalmar

Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand: Franz Werfel

At 107 pages, Franz Werfel’s novella Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand is a powerful story concerning a day in the life of a high-ranking Austrian bureaucrat who faces, or believes he faces, a moral crisis. The book is intriguingly called a ‘prequel to what is known as Holocaust literature,‘ and the events in the book (with memories of the past) take place in 1936 after the passage of the Nuremberg Laws the year before. The morally complex story very delicately, yet significantly, touches on anti-Semitism, herd mentality, the impending horror, and a complete absence of moral courage on the part of its main character.

The book opens with its main character, Leonidas Tachezy reveling, smugly, in his success.

Whenever Leonidas felt consciously pleased with himself, he smiled–dashing and mocking at the same time. Like so many handsome, healthy men in fine form, men who had risen to a high position in life, he tended to feel an exceptional well-being during the first hours of the morning.

We could say that Leonidas is a self-made-man. He’s just celebrated his fiftieth birthday and has reached the pinnacle of “his brilliant career.” The son of an “impoverished high school teacher,” he made a marginal living “tutoring rich, fat, and stupid boys.”  The future looked bleak, but he became successful thanks to two fortuitous turns of fate: his study partner, a Jewish student, committed suicide and left his suit to Leonidas. Leonidas took the suit, had a few alterations made and managed to attend some grand society events where he met a wealthy heiress, the much younger beautiful Amelia Paradini.

If one were to question his world view, he would openly admit that he regarded the universe as a venue whose sole intent and purpose was to pamper those divinely favoured like him, from the bottom to the top, and to furnish them with power, honor, splendor, and luxury. Wasn’t his own life absolute proof of this charitable disposition of the world? It took just one bullet in the room next to his shabby student’s digs to inherit a practically brand-new tuxedo. And from there on his life was a song.

That passage highlights Leonidas’s shallow morality. There’s no poignancy about the death of his study partner–just the feeling that the good luck he deserves fell his way. Amelia “pushed” the marriage against the wishes of her family, and since this is a woman who gets what she wants, the impoverished Latin tutor married the “richest heiress in the city.” So here they are twenty years later; he has a tremendous career, Amelia is the perfect trophy wife, and they mingle with the cream of Austrian society. Amelia spends hours pampering herself with “constant cosmetic care,” and there are no children. Leonidas “as the determined defender of his undivided pleasure [he] had never entertained a desire for children,” but he catches himself looking at his wife’s youthful body and thinking “we pay for those virgin breasts with childlessness.”

Pale Blue InkLeonidas is shaken from these disturbing thoughts by a stack of letters which await his attention. Most of them are obviously business correspondence, but one of the envelopes, addressed in pale blue ink sticks out from the rest. He recognizes the handwriting as belonging to Vera Wormser. He met Vera, a Jewish woman, when she was just 14, and years later he had an extra-marital affair with her. It’s one of the more shameful episodes of his past–an episode that he’s refused to deal with on many levels, but now the moral consequences of that affair appear to have washed up on his doorstep just as he’s trying to distance himself from anything Jewish….

Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand is a wonderful story, and that’s thanks to the story’s simple framework but also the examination of Leonidas’s undeveloped conscience. A small portion of the story exposes Leonidas’s hypothetical legal defense in which he pleads for mercy and understanding, and we see how Leonidas, a shallow, superficial human being, cannot quite grasp the moral implications of his behaviour. Moral consequences, for Leonidas, don’t really exist–they are like some faded memory he can’t quite recall, a shadow he can’t quite see, and any anguish he feels is for himself alone. And yet.. and yet… there is a moment when Leonidas cannot hide from the fact that he is a morally reprehensible human being, but even as this fact sinks in, he leaves that knowledge “back in the perfect darkness,” closing the door forever on any possibility of moral growth.

Apart from Leonidas’s so-called moral crisis, one section of the book includes a meeting between several Austrian bureaucrats who have to make a decision regarding an important medical faculty appointment. A world-renowned Nobel Prize-winner in medicine is about to passed over for the nomination because he’s Jewish and instead a relative nobody may get the appointment. This appointment becomes not so much a moral dilemma for the bureaucrats as a political one, and the meeting is a glimpse into expediency and moral cowardice. Strangely, knowing that he must face Vera Wormser, Leonidas finds himself championing Bloch’s appointment as he feels “wrapped up in the fishy community.” The meeting and later Leonidas’s rejection of “another atrocity story” are all connected to the “train [is] clattering through his head.” In spite of the fact that the novel begins with Leonidas smug in his comfortable little world, there’s an underlying anxiety, a subtle white noise, that runs through the novel along with the sense that Leonidas is somehow unaware, or deliberately ignoring the moral significance of political events that are about to consume the world. There’s a storm heading Leonidas’s way. How will he deal with it?

Today the world presented itself as a mild October day with a kind of strained, capricious youthfulness that more resembled a day in April. Over the expanse of vineyards that formed the Heitzing district’s border, thick, fast, fast-moving clouds scudded snow white with sharply delineated edges. Where the sky opened, it featured a naked and, for this time of year, nearly shameless spring blue. The garden, which had hardly changed color, retained that leathery persistence of summer. Light breezes, as mischievous as little street Arabs, blew from different directions with the leaves, which still clung fast to their branches.

My edition from the Verba Mundi International Literature series is translated by James Reidel and includes a translator’s note at the beginning of the book. There’s a brief biography of Franz Werfel (1890-1945) and an interesting overview of the real-life people who formed the characters in the book. James Reidel calls this book Werfel’s “lost jewel,” and after reading the book, it seems surprising that Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand isn’t better known. It deserves to be.

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Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Bored women join clubs and volunteer. Sad women have affairs”

At one point, early in the novel Hausfrau, protagonist, 37-year old Anna, an American living in Switzerland, asks her therapist, Doktor Messerli, “Is there a difference between shame and guilt?” This is an interesting question from a bored married woman who engages in a series of affairs right under her banker husband, Bruno’s nose, and it’s interesting because Anna feels neither shame nor guilty, just temporary relief as she hits one violent orgasm after another.

But why is Anna having these affairs? Is there some sort of central point to her behaviour or is she simply self-destructive? The novel begins with a simple sentence: “Anna was a good wife, mostly,” and it’s that qualifier that drew me into this tale, of a bored, displaced housewife, living in the town of Dietlikon, who turns away from her home life to seek sensation.

hausfrauAnna & Bruno have three children and a stagnant marriage. Anna has never really adjusted to life in Switzerland; she’s decided to try and learn German when the novel begins, but the classes seem more a segue and alibi for torrid affairs than anything else. As the plot unfolds we see Anna, the housewife, who’s  really anything but, disappearing day after day to meet a lover while her mother-in-law takes care of the children, fixes the meals and generally steps in to take up the considerable slack left in Anna’s highly noticeable, lengthy absences.

To say Anna isn’t easy to like would be putting it mildly. She’s self-focused, depressed, morbid, and emotionally disconnected from her life. Night after night, her husband retires to his home office, shutting out Anna, and rejected repeatedly, her response is to arrange assignations with her lover, almost as though she’s begging to be caught–an exposure which at the very least should bring her festering marriage problems to a head.

We ask ourselves where things went wrong? Is Anna simply a neglected wife who gets attention elsewhere? Or can part of her estrangement be blamed on the fact that she’s an ex-pat, confined by and not assimilated into Swiss culture after living in the country for nine years?

So her world was tightly circumscribed by the comings and goings of locomotives, by the willingness of Bruno, Anna’s husband, or Ursula, Bruno’s mother, to drive her places unreachable by bus, and by the engine if her own legs and what distance they could carry her which was rarely as far as she’d have liked to go.

With its graphic sexual details and an extremely unlikable self-focused main character, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau is certain to offend some readers. I’ve read some reviews which complain about the graphic sexual content and others which somehow equate Anna’s lack of self-knowledge with the author. Here’s my thoughts on those two complaints:

The graphic, repellent sexual details were ugly, and yet they created a jarring noise that directly contrasted with Anna’s subdued, emotionally disconnected life. These details also illustrate the affairs for exactly what they are: devoid of romance or lover’s talk, all that’s left are violent, profane, increasingly risky couplings.

Just because an author creates a selfish, unlikable character, this does not mean that the character’s lack of insight reflects back onto the author. While this is a third person narrative, we only see things through Anna’s perspective, so her husband is cold and withdrawn, her mother-in-law is disapproving. But by the time the novel ends, we readers have an understanding of Bruno and Ursula–even if Anna does not. This is a novel likely to generate a lot of debate if picked up by a book group. Some readers will be alienated by Anna’s behaviour, and some may take the simplistic view that there’s a moral message here (x happens when you commit adultery), and this is definitely not a book to be read by the already-depressed. Is Anna supposed to be a sympathetic character? Does the author intend us to feel sorry for Anna? Yes and No… I think Anna is supposed to be sympathetic in as far as someone is sympathetic when they labour under a major delusion and when they spiral out of control and desperately need help, but Anna is also selfish, self-focused and as far as her marriage goes, she refuses to take responsibility for something really major.  We see everyone through Anna’s eyes. She never examines her own behaviour or her treatment of other people. Also notable is Anna’s opinion of her mother-in-law, Ursula, a woman Anna dislikes and silently criticizes, but who seems to be raising Anna’s three children single-handedly while Anna disappears for her afternoon sexual encounters. Frustrating in her passivity, yes there are times you want to shake Anna silly and say: ‘you have a lot to be happy about. Get over yourself. Get a divorce if you’re that unhappy, but do something.’

Anna has a therapist, a Doktor Messerli, who becomes increasingly frustrated with Anna as the therapy fails to produce results. As the book continues, the possible cause of Anna’s depression is revealed, and then Anna’s husband, Bruno, instead of being an inattentive bore, becomes something else entirely. While Anna careens through her life, craving sensation after sensation, avoiding the deep cause of her self-destructive behaviour, the author has clearly created a character who’s supposed to be out of control, but at the same time, she cannot get beyond the suffocating membrane of depression. Anna appears to be extremely passive in a go-with-the-flow way, but she asserts herself sexually with men, and takes the initiative. She’s passive in her relationship with her husband, but with him, she’s throwing clues in his face, silently screaming for him to pay attention.

Occurring monthly, at least, were dozens of instances into which she commended a task into Bruno’s hands. It was he who dealt with local bureaucracy, he who paid the insurance, the taxes, the house note. It was he who filed the paperwork for Anna’s residency permit. And it was Bruno who handled the family’s finances, for he was employed as a mid-level management banker at Credit Suisse. Anna didn’t even have a bank account.

First impressions would indicate that Bruno is controlling. But has Anna simply abdicated her responsibilities? Are the affairs a type of rebellion? This is a novel certain to generate a lot of opinions–my opinion is that Anna, as an ex-pat, is initially forced to abdicate those responsibilities, and then it simply becomes a way of life. When people step into life in another country, they cannot grasp how their lives will change and the extent of the things they are sacrificing, so it’s notable that Anna’s first affair is with a fellow American.

Given that the book’s title is Hausfrau, it should come as no surprise that underlying Anna’s troubled marriage, there’s a plot thread concerning the lives of other secondary female characters. Anna’s acquaintance, Edith, for example, also takes a lover and claims it’s a move that improves her skin. There’s another character, Mary, a fellow student in Anna’s German class, who is intriguing. Mary is married, addicted to cheesy romance novels, has children, is on the plump side and appears to be a veritable Betty Crocker. She befriends Anna and Bruno, and says she is glad to have a female friend. But there are no  less than three occasions when Mary’s actions hint at some dark ulterior motive. In spite of the fact I disliked Anna and was frustrated by her repeatedly, I liked Hausfrau. I liked the chances the author took in creating an amazingly self-destructive character who reminds me of two great fictional characters whose names I won’t mention as to do so would be a plot spoiler.

Marina Sofia’s review, and thanks Marina for pointing me towards Hausfrau in the first place.

Review copy

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Amherst by William Nicholson

“You can have passion or you can have gratification, but you can’t have both.”

American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) led a reclusive life in Amherst,  Massachusetts, busily writing poems, and while no one really grasped the extent of her work until after her death, many of her poems are full of passion while others are full of her preoccupation with death. The passion in Emily Dickinson’s poems has fascinated readers and critics alike as it adds a mystical sense of romanticism to a reclusive life that was, apparently, devoid of sex and romance.

Amherst, (UK title: The Lovers of Amherst) from British author William Nicholson, is an ambitious novel that follows two interlinking story strands: in the present, Alice Dickinson (no relation), a young, London-based copywriter decides to head to Amherst to investigate background for an idea for a screenplay based on the scandalous love affair between married Mabel Loomis Todd, a faculty wife, and equally married college treasurer, Austin Dickinson, brother of Emily.

amherstIn the second story thread, the novel traces the love affair between Mabel Todd and Dickinson. Orbiting around these two lovers are Emily Dickinson (whose house served as a meeting place for the lovers), Mabel’s compliant husband, and Austin’s wife, Sue who was also Emily Dickinson’s great friend.

In the present, Alice travels to Amherst, and through an old lover, she has a contact in Nick Crocker, an Englishman, an academic (who was) teaching at Amherst College. He’s married to a very wealthy woman, and has a reputation as the college Lothario. Alice stays with Nick and in spite of her initial reservations, she throws herself into a passionate affair with Nick. Alice’s affair with Nick, in terms of age, echoes the affair between Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd. The minute Alice shows up on the scene, the people she speaks to expect her to fall in bed with Nick, and she does…

As the novel progresses, the two story strands follow the arc of these two affairs: Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd, and Alice & Nick. Of course there are some similarities between the two relationships, but there are also some marked differences. Whereas Mabel Todd’s entrance into Austin Dickinson’s life seems to be the event he’s been waiting for, Alice, initially forms a very negative opinion of Nick. Here they are on a tour of the Amherst cemetery:

Nick sweeps one arm round the cemetery.

“All these dead people,” he says. “If they could speak, what would they say to us? They’d say, ‘Love all you can, love everyone you can, as much as you can, as often as you can. You’re going to be old and alone soon enough. And you’re going to be dead forever.’ “

He opens the truck door for her to get in.

“Quite a speech,” says Alice. “In praise of promiscuity.”

“Oh, please.”

He shuts the door, goes round to the driver’s side.

“As far as I can tell from our brief acquaintance,” he says, “you’re not a fool.” He starts the engine, makes a three-point turn, backing among the graves.” Spare me the herd-think.”

This interaction between Nick and Alice is indicative of their overall relationship. He argues that “Love isn’t a limited resource. It’s not a cake that’s going to run out. It’s the very opposite. The more you love, the more love there is.” Whether Alice knows it or not, she’s being seduced slowly but surely by Nick’s philosophy. There’s a moment later when she reconsiders her low opinion of Nick and his behaviour towards women, and she seems to almost willingly let go of her arguments against Nick’s philosophy. I don’t buy the scenario of Nick healing the damaged co-eds he beds–that’s an archaic thought and one that sounds like a great excuse, but Alice, probably thanks to her youth, buys it, or perhaps, and this is an intriguing idea, perhaps she wants to believe it as she’s in the frame of mind to throw caution to the winds and engage in a relationship with a much older man as a way of immersing herself in her screenplay. She’s done all the touristy things in Amherst, and perhaps throwing sanity to the winds is the thing she needs to do to ‘feel’ her material. At one point, Alice thinks that the screenplay will focus on Mabel “who chose life in all its mess and hurt, not Emily, who withdrew into the sepulchre of her own room.” Is this the frame of mind that sways Alice into ditching her common sense and begin an affair with Nick?

When the novel began, I thought I’d enjoy the present day relationship more than the 19th century affair between Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd. Strangely enough, both Nick and Alice are uninteresting and clichéd, and fade next to the 19th century adulterous coupling of Mabel Todd and Austin Dickinson. Diary and letters between Austin and Mabel, sometimes rather awkwardly weaved in, reflect the state of mind of these two lovers, and it’s impossible not to feel sorry for Austin Dickinson’s wife, Sue, who seems to be expected to go along with the programme, and is seen as a bit of a spoilsport for reacting negatively and causing a fuss. The main problem with Austin Dickinson and Mabel’s relationship is so typical–the reader begins to wonder how much is true and how much is imagined, and the author admits he had to imagine the scenes between the lovers. By comparison, Nick and Alice’s affair seems rather like flogging a dead horse. Alice morphs from being a seemingly sensible young woman to being an emo mess. Nick is the standard lothario who excuses his actions by his ‘seize the day’ philosophy, and while that’s certainly a way to get through life, it’s notable that this extends almost exclusively towards sex and not life in general. Plus there’s one very irritating scene in which Alice and Nick, after a romp in bed, in a very typical academic way, analyze the perceived sexual content of Emily Dickinson’s poems.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, William Nicholson details the research conducted for the book along with an explanation that his fictional characters have appeared in previous books: The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, All the Hopeful Lovers, Motherland and Reckless.

Review copy.

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Anna Karenina: the ball scene

“The ball had just begun when Kitty and her mother stepped on to the central staircase, which was bathed in light and embellished with flowers and powdered footmen in red livery. From the interior came a steady rustle of movement which filled the rooms like bees buzzing in a hive, and while they adjusted their hair in front on a mirror between the potted plants on the landing, the delicately clear sounds of the violins in the orchestra could be heard striking up the first waltz in the ballroom. An old gentleman in civilian dress who had been adjusting his grey whiskers in front of another mirror, and exuded the smell of cologne, bumped into them on the staircase and stood aside, clearly admiring Kitty, whom he did not know.”

While a reread is sometimes a disappointing mistake, picking up Anna Karenina again was a rich experience, and this time I appreciated the novel’s cinematic qualities. But first a word on the initial structure. The novel, in a new translation from Rosamund Bartlett, opens with a family in chaos due to the discovered infidelity of the father, Oblonsky, Anna Karenina’s brother. Is Tolstoy telling us that there’s something wrong, a bit of moral code missing in Oblonsky and his married sister, the beautiful Anna Karenina? We can imagine that it may have been perfectly normal and acceptable in society for an affluent, upper class married man to maintain a mistress or have the occasional affairs, but Oblonsky really went over the top when he carried on with his children’s governess under his own roof. Oblonsky’s wife, Dolly, is deeply humiliated and while Oblonsky knows he was ‘wrong, ‘ he’s wrong on his terms:

‘And the worst thing of all is that the blame is all mine, all mine, and yet I’m not to blame. That’s the whole tragedy of it.’

and

He had even thought that, as a worn-out ageing, no longer pretty woman, wholly unremarkable, ordinary, simply the good mother of a family, she ought by rights to be indulgent.

Enter Anna to the rescue–that respectably married woman-a woman who married for status and is playing her role as the wife of the much-older Karenin well. She sweeps into her brother’s home and with a few token phrases of understanding, she swiftly restores order to the marriage. So we’re back to ‘happy families again’ –a phrase that is so important to this particular novel. When Anna arrives at her brother’s home, she’s already met Vronsky, of course. They set eyes on each other at the train station, their hearts are racing, the chemistry is undeniably there, and Anna’s obvious fluster whenever she sees the dashing Vronsky just adds to the steam.

Vronsky, we’re told, is a bit of a player. He flirts with young society girls and gives their families reason to think he’s serious, and this is exactly the situation involving Kitty and her silly mother; both of them misunderstand Vronsky’s intentions; they think he’s about to propose and he thinks his attentions to Kitty are just fun and enjoyable. But then again, perhaps there’s something wrong with Vronsky’s moral compass too. After all, his mother had a scandalous number of love affairs during her marriage.

Onto the ball–that fatal ball in which Kitty’s hopes are dashed and Anna and Vronsky are magnetically drawn towards each other. I didn’t like Anna much at this point because of Kitty who’s about to have a complete meltdown, and for her part, Kitty adores Anna. Kitty begged Anna to wear lilac; it was a naïve request, for Anna knows the colour that showcases her beauty.

Slowing his step now, Korunsky waltzed directly over to the crowd in the left corner of the ballroom, repeating ‘Pardon, mesdames, pardon, pardon, mesdames,’ and after navigating through the sea of lace, tulle, and ribbons without catching on a single feather, he spun his partner round sharply, exposing her slender legs in their lacy stockings, and causing her train to spread out like a fan and cover Krivin’s knees. Korunsky bowed, straightened out his shirt-front, and proffered his arm in order to escort her to Anna Arkadyevna. Blushing deeply, Kitty removed her train from Krivin’s lap and looked round for Anna, her head spinning a little. Anna was standing talking, surrounded by ladies and men. She was not in lilac, which Kitty had so set her heart on, but in a low-cut black velvet dress, revealing her curvaceous shoulders and bosom like old chiseled ivory, rounded arms, and tiny slender hands. The entire dress was trimmed with Venetian lace. On her head, in her black hair, which was not augmented by any extension, was a small garland of pansies, and there was another on the black ribbon of her sash, between pieces of white lace. Her hair arrangement was inconspicuous. Only those obstinate little locks of curly hair constantly escaping at the nape of her neck and on her temples were conspicuous, and they enhanced her beauty. There was a string of pearls around her strong, chiseled neck.

Kitty had seen Anna every day, was in love with her, and had pictured her definitely in lilac. But now she had seen her in black, she felt she had not understood the full extent of her charm. She now saw her in a completely new and unexpected light. She realized now that Anna could not have worn lilac, and that her charm consisted precisely in the fact that she always stood out from what she wore, that what she wore could never be noticeable on her. The black dress with its sumptuous lace was indeed not noticeable on her; it was just a frame, and all that was visible was her simple, natural, elegant, and yet also light-hearted and vivacious self.

 

And here’s the same passage from translator Joel Carmichael:

And Korsunsky waltzed off directly toward the throng in the left corner of the room, slowing down and repeating “pardon, mesdames, pardon, pardon, mesdames,” tacking about in the sea of lace, tulle, and ribbons; and without touching a feather, he turned Kitty round so sharply that her slender ankles in their openwork stockings were exposed as her train spread out like a fan and covered Krivin’s knees. Korsunsky bowed, squared his open shirt front, and held his arm out to take Kitty over to Anna. Kitty flushed and took her train off Krivin’s knees; a little dizzy, she looked around in search of Anna. Anna  was not in lilac, which Kitty had set her heart on, but in a black, low-cut velvet dress that showed off her full shoulders and bosom, which looked carved out of old ivory, her rounded arms and tiny slender hands. Her dress was completely trimmed in Venetian lace. In her black hair, all her own, she wore a small garland of pansies, which were also in the black band of her sash, among the white lace. Her coiffure did not catch the eye; the only thing noticeable about it were the willful little tendrils of curly hair that always escaped at her temples and the nape of her neck, and added to her beauty. There was a string of pearls around her sturdy, chiseled neck.

Kitty had been seeing Anna every day, was in love with her, and invariably imagined her in lilac. But now, when she saw her in black, she felt she had never realized her full charm before. She saw her now as something completely new and unexpected. Now she realized that Anna could never be in lilac, and that her charm consisted of just that–she always stood out from her dress; it was never conspicuous. The black dress with its rich lace was also unnoticeable on her: it was merely a frame, what was visible was only herself, simple, natural, elegant, and at the same time gay and full of life.

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Anna Karenina: Leo Tolstoy

Rereading Anna Karenina in a new translation from Rosamund Bartlett was a marvelous experience. I had thought that I’d remembered the novel well, but for this read, so many fresh elements of the plot and the exquisite intricacies of the characters surged to the surface. In the introduction, Bartlett mentions an interesting point when she discusses how our feelings towards some of the central characters shift:

Rather than take responsibility for her own actions, Anna alights on omens–the accident at the railway station, her recurrent dreams–and prefers to blame fate. Just as there are times when Karenin is not an unsympathetic character (as when he is filled with compassion after the birth of Anna’s daughter, for whom he feels a tender affection), there are times when the reader’s identification with Anna is challenged by her wilful and egotistical behaviour. If Tolstoy’s characters change during the course of the novel, it was because his attitude towards them changed as his own thinking developed. It is, therefore, not wholly surprising that Anna Karenina can be seen ‘as an array of readings that contradict and diverge from each other, and that cluster around an opposition between personal truths and universal truths’ as Vladimir Alexandrov has shown in his examination of the novel’s many possible meanings.

I’m not going to talk about the plot; if you don’t know it, read the book, but instead I’m going to concentrate on a couple of scenes as, for this read, the thing that hit me the most, is what an amazingly cinematic novel Anna Karenina really is.

anna kTime and time again, Tolstoy creates the most breathtaking scenes. Whether it’s domestic discord, episodes of gastronomic excess, the first stirrings of sexual attraction, the frantic tension of a horse race, or the excitement of a ball, Tolstoy’s words paint, with bold strokes, the incredible world of human emotions exposed through the social interactions between a dazzling array of wonderful characters.

Early in the novel, Anna’s married brother, bon vivant Stepan Arkadych Oblonsky dines at a Moscow restaurant with his friend Levin. Meanwhile Oblonsky’s home is in an uproar over the discovery of Oblonsky’s affair with his children’s’ governess. How perfect that the novel began by showing how an extra-marital affair destroys the harmony of the Oblonsky home and the subsequent desperate necessity to restore order. It’s also through Oblonsky’s affair we see how extra marital relationships can be tolerated if they are discreet. Just as Oblonsky cannot pass over a plate of rich food, he could not pass over the pretty little governess, and while he realizes that this was bad form, and he feels a tinge of regret, he also thinks that his wife, whose looks are fading, should understand.

So here we have a man of robust appetites; we know he couldn’t control his sexual appetite under his own roof, and then we see his appetite for food in a scene with the aesthete, Levin. Oblonsky owes money to his two favourite restaurants, the Angleterre and the Hermitage, but choses the former as that’s where he owes the most. An interesting choice as it tells us a lot about Oblonsky who considers it “bad form to avoid that hotel.” So with his hat on a “jaunty angle” he enters the dining room “giving out orders to the obsequious Tatars carrying napkins who were dressed in tails.”  Oblonsky is the sort of man who lives lightly and is popular with his peers and underlings; he’s a man whose privilege and position suit him.

Poor, lovesick Levin, who’s in Moscow to propose to Kitty is about to discover that there’s a formidable rival, Vronsky, on the scene. Levin would prefer to eat “cabbage soup and buckwheat kasha,” but Oblonsky, whose appetite isn’t dampened by moral matters, orders up enough gourmet food to feed an army:

“I’ll say! Whatever you say, it is one of life’s pleasures.” said Stepan Arkadych. “So, my good fellow, we’ll have two dozen oysters, or maybe that’s not enough–let’s say three-dozen, some vegetable soup…”

“Printenière,” prompted the Tatar. But Stepan Arkadych clearly did not want to give him the pleasure of naming the dishes in French.

“Vegetable soup, you know? Then turbot with a thick sauce, then … roast beef: but make sure it is good. And capons, I think, and some fruit salad too.”

Remembering Stepan Arkadych’s practice of not naming dishes according to the French menu, the Tatar did not repeat what he said, but gave himself the pleasure of repeating the whole order from the menu: “Soupe printanière, turbot sauce Beaumarchais, Poularde á l’estragon, macèdoine de fruits…’ and then, as if on springs, he managed in the blink of an eye to put down one bound menu, pick up another, the wine menu, and present to Stepan Arkadych.

“And what shall we have to drink?”

“I’ll have whatever you want, but not too much, maybe some champagne,” said Levin.

“What do you mean? To begin with? Actually maybe you’re right. Do you like the one with the white seal?”

“Cachet blanc,” prompted the Tatar.
“Well, give us some of that with the oysters, and then we’ll see.”

“Certainly, sir. What table wine would you like?”

“Let’s have some Nuits. No, a classic Chablis would be even better.”

“Certainly, sir. Would you like your cheese?”

“Oh yes, Parmesan. Or is there another that you like?”

“No, I don’t mind what we have,” said Levin, unable to repress a smile.

And the Tatar hurried off with his coat-tails billowing out over his wide haunches, only to sprint back five minutes later with a plate of shucked oysters in their pearly shells, and a bottle between his fingers.

Stepan Arkadych crumpled up his starched napkin, tucked it into his waistcoat, rested his arms comfortably, and made a start on the oysters.

“They’re not bad, he said, prising the slippery oysters from their pearly shells with a small silver fork, and swallowing one after the other. “Not bad,” he repeated, looking up with moist and shining eyes, first at Levin and then at the Tatar. Levin ate the oysters too, although the white bread and cheese was more to his liking. But he was in awe of Oblonsky. Even the Tatar, after uncorking the bottle and pouring the sparking wine into shallow, slender glasses, was looking at Stepan Arkadych with a distinct smile of pleasure as he straightened his white tie.

And here’s the same quote in a translation from Joel Carmichael:

“I should hope so! No matter what you say that’s one of life’s pleasures,” Oblonsky said. “Well then, my good fellow, let us have two–no, that’s too little–three dozen oysters, vegetable soup—“

“Printanier,” murmured the Tatar, but it was plain that Oblonsky had no desire to give him the pleasure of naming the dishes in French.

“–vegetable, you know, then the turbot with a thick sauce, then roast beef, but make sure it’s all right, and then capon, eh?” Oh yes, and stewed fruit, too.”

The Tatar, taking note of Oblonsky’s way of not referring to the dishes according to the French menu, did not repeat what he said, but gave himself the satisfaction of repeating the whole order according to the menu: “potage printanier, turbot sauce Beaumarchais, poularde  á l’estragon, macédonie de fruits…” then instantly, as though on springs, he put aside one menu in a cardboard cover and took up another, the wine list, which he held out to Oblonsky.

“What should we have to drink?”
“Whatever you please, but not too much–champagne!” said Levin.

“What, to begin with? But of course, please, let’s. D’you like the white seal?”

“Cachet blanc,” the Tatar chimed in.

“Well, let’s have that with the oysters, then we’ll see.”

“Yes, Sir. And the table wine, sir, what would you like?”

“Let’s have the Nuits. No, the classic Chablis–that would be better.”

“Yes sir. And your own special cheese, sir?”

“Why yes–the parmesan. Or would you like something else?”
“No, it doesn’t matter at all,” said Levin, who couldn’t help smiling.

The Tatar darted off, his coattails flying; five minutes later he flew back with a dish of opened oysters in their pearly shells and a bottle between his fingers.

Oblonsky crumpled his starched napkin, put it inside his waistcoat, and settling his arms comfortably on the table set about the oysters.

“Not bad at all,” he said, tweaking the quivering oysters out of their pearly shells with a silver fork and gulping them down one after another. “Not bad at all,” he repeated, raising his moist, glistening eyes first toward Levin, then toward the Tatar.

Levin ate the oysters, though he liked white bread and cheese more. But he was admiring Oblonsky. Even the Tatar, as he adjusted his white tie after drawing he cork and pouring the sparkling wine into the thin, wide glasses, looked at Oblonsky with a smile of obvious pleasure.

I read a few comments about yet another translation of Anna Karenina being on the market, but personally, I think it’s wonderful that publishers are still printing new translations. But apart from that I much preferred the Rosamund Bartlett translation to the one I had on my shelf. In the quote, the personality of the Tatar seeps through. Another scene to follow…

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Puffball by Fay Weldon

With its emphasis on fertility, infidelity, bad parenting and the ancient magical pull of Glastonbury Tor, Fay Weldon’s novel Puffball illustrates the human capacity for creating turmoil. The drama begins when Liffey and Richard, childless Londoners who’ve been married for seven years stumble upon Honeycomb Cottage during a weekend in the country.

Many people dream of country cottages. Liffey dreamed for many years, and saw the dream come true one hot Sunday afternoon, in Somerset, in September. Bees droned, sky glazed, flowers glowed, and the name carved above the lintel, half hidden by rich red roses, was Honeycomb Cottage and Liffey knew that she must have it. A trap closed around her.

And so all the trouble begins. At first Richard, the breadwinner, insists that they can’t leave London, but Liffey, an office temp and the possessor of a small inheritance, argues that at last she’ll be able to write that novel. Eventually a deal is struck between Liffey and Richard; they’ll buy the cottage if she’ll have a baby, and he’ll stay in London and return on the weekends. The rational reader knows, of course, that this is a recipe of disaster, but since this is a Fay Weldon novel, we also know that we’re in for some fun as the characters scramble around and make a mess of their lives.

puffballOn the day Liffey and Richard discover the seemingly idyllic cottage, they romp around in the grass for a quickie. Little do they realize that they’ve attracted the attention of the neighbours Mab and Tucker.

“Isn’t she skinny,” said Mabs, watching through field glasses from the bedroom of Cadbury Farm. Her husband Tucker took the glasses.

“They grow them like that in the city,” he said. They both spoke in the gentle, caressing drawl of the West Country, mocking the universe, defying its harshness. “You don’t know they’re from the city,” Mabs objected. “They’re not from round here,” said Tucker. “No one round here does it in public.”

Liffey, eager to begin her new life in the country decides to rent the London flat, a wedding present from Richard’s parents, Mr & Mrs Lee-Fox to a couple she’s known for a short time. Liffey, already established as an impractical character with little sense of finances, imagines that the rent (which she immediately discounts) from the flat will cover the cost of rent for the cottage and that there’ll be a profit besides. Fat chance of that happening….

Mory and Helen moved in a couple of hours after Richard and Liffey had left. With them came Helen’s pregnant sister and her unemployed boyfriend, both of whom now had the required permanent address from which to claim Social Security benefits.

With Liffey stashed in the country in the life of her dreams, everything begins to go to hell. Richard, resentful and on the loose in London, begins a period of sexual experimentation. Liffey, pregnant and stranded, relies on the help of her neighbours Mabs and Tucker. Mabs, at Cadbury Farm, is the daughter of Mrs Tree, a herbalist, and whereas Mrs Tree’s concoctions are supposed to heal various ailments, Mabs, who has more than a streak of malevolence, fancies herself as a bit of a witch. Mabs sees Liffey as a “candy on the shelf of a high-class confectioner’s shop. Mabs would have her down and take her in and chew her up and suck her through, and when she had extracted every possible kind of nourishment, would spit her out, carelessly.” With her husband and gaggle of half-starved, neglected children in her thrall, Mabs, who “seemed to have a hot line to the future,” dominates the farm and tends to get her way. Liffey and Richard’s friends Bella and Ray who “wrote cookery columns and cookery books” in the throes of mid-life crises have marriage problems of their own, and while they actively encourage the move to the country, behind Liffey’s back they ridicule country life.

I really liked the way Fay Weldon sets up the story of a seemingly happily married couple whose lives are derailed by Liffey’s desire to move to the country. This decision creates a fissure in the marriage, and then most of  the other characters exploit the situation in one way or another. There’s the sense that the universe is somehow out of balance, but all throughout the marital mayhem, the presence of Glastonbury Tor in the distance seems to provide a positive influence, and when Liffey is tuned in to her unborn child, a healthy almost supernatural force comes into play.

One of Fay Weldon’s favourite themes is the viciousness of women towards each other, while men, little more than troubling nuisances who philander their way in and out of women’s lives, are the prizes women battle over. That theme is dominant here too with Mabs feeling threatened by Liffey, and Liffey’s friends Bella and Helen ripping Liffey’s life to shreds behind her back. It’s as if Fay Weldon tells us that if women would only cease squabbling over male spoils, then the world would be a much more productive, albeit less interesting place.

Another theme here is fertility seen through Liffey’s pregnancy which is recorded in almost excruciating gynecological detail. You could definitely hand this book to someone as a 101 on pregnancy.  Nature, in the world around us, is seen to be an unstoppable force, but there’s also human nature with its powerful sex drive, and the desire to nest and raise a family. By the time the novel concludes, there’s the sense that much of our behaviour is defined by powerful hormonal drives.

This is the second reading of Puffball for this die-hard Weldon fan. The first time I was busy laughing at the way these characters almost insanely wreck their lives (the sub-plot which follows the renters/squatters in Liffey’s old flat is hilarious). This time I paid more attention to the various examples of parenting in the book. Liffey’s mother, Madge, a “lean, hard-drinking prematurely white-haired teacher of chemistry in  a girls’ school in East Anglia,” is a ‘hands-off’ parent. She’s sees motherhood as a type of trap, an obligation, and agrees to visit her daughter reluctantly  “I suppose it is the kind of thing a mother is expected to do. Once you’re given a label you never escape it.”

Richard’s mother is a bundle of “nervous energy,” and the news of an impending grandchild spurs her to action, “as if some trouble, pacing for years behind at a steady distance, had suddenly broken into a jog and overtaken her. She started knitting at once, but there was a tenseness in her hands, and the nylon wool cut into her fingers.”

Continuing on the spectrum, Bella and Ray are benignly neglectful parents. If they can fob their children off on other people, they’re happy. The presence of an au pair releases them to pursue their self-indulgent affairs, and their children appear to grow up in spite of their parents–although their diet deteriorates drastically when the au pair leaves. Mabs and Tucker have differing views on parenting. He thinks it’s ok to kick the poorly-fed dog whereas she’d rather whack her poorly fed children. Of course all these examples of less-than-perfect parenting (another favourite theme from this author) makes you wonder why people have children in the first place, but they are the natural fall-out of the confused coupling of the adults. In spite of the fact that this is a comic look at marriage and parenthood, the book is full of Fay Weldon’s wise, cryptic humour. She boldly rips the shallowness of female friendships, the inauthenticity yet convenience of the office affair, the results of a parent who fails to love a child, and so often in a Fay Weldon novel, chaos must be endured before any sort of rationality can be achieved.

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The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt

“It’s always the memories you comb through the most avidly that fade the fastest, that are eclipsed  by–what to call it–? a sort of memory-fiction. Like a dream. Whereas the things we forget totally, the things that sneak up on us in the middle of the night, after thirty years–they’re so uncannily fresh.”

Sometimes reading choices are serendipitous, and that is definitely the case with David Leavitt’s excellent novel The Two Hotel Francforts as it turned out to be a perfect companion piece to a novel I read earlier this year: Transit. While Transit (which is highly recommended, by the way) depicts desperate Jewish refugees trying to exit Marseille, The Two Hotel Francforts depicts two affluent couples–one American, the other Anglo-American–in Lisbon in no particular hurry to embark on the SS Manhattan for New York.    

We met the Frelengs in Lisbon, at the Café Suiça. This was in June 1940, when we were all in Lisbon waiting for the ship that was coming to rescue us and take us to New York. By us, I mean, of course, us Americans, expatriates of long standing mostly, for whom the prospect of returning home was a bitter one.

The narrator is Pete Winters, a General Motors executive stationed in Paris, who is married to the very high-maintenance, temperamental and neurotic Julia. Being married to Julia is like devoting oneself to a cause, but since Pete acknowledges that “she was never satisfied, my Julia,” it’s a thankless, wearying task. When pursuing Julia, he “disregard[ded] every warning sign” which included Julia’s own mother who told Pete “I beg you to reconsider” when he indicate his desire to marry her daughter. Now, the marriage isn’t about passion, love or even friendship–it’s about one person absorbing the other’s demands, neediness and neuroticism:

All my life, I saw, I had been looking, in the absence of any pressing desire of goal, for a purposefulness outside myself on which I might, as it were, ride piggyback. It could have been a religion, it could have been a political party, it could have been a collection of musical instruments made from shoeshine boxes. Instead it was Julia.

As the background of this couple is teased out, we learn that Julia and Pete have lived in Paris for 15 years now in a mausoleum of a showcase apartment. They moved to Paris at her insistence, and “she had sworn” that she would never return to America. Julia intended to be a writer, but “she could only write first chapters. The middle, the vast middle, defeated her.” Instead, she’s become an empty woman who shops and decorates endlessly and is terrified that her many relatives will swoop into her home. She claims to see various relatives in various places and these sightings cause her to panic & run into hiding. Pete, who is used to dealing with Julia’s hysteria, isn’t convinced that these sightings are legitimate.  It’s with a sense of defeat and a low-grade panic that Julia counts the days until the SS Manhattan arrives. Julia schemes to stay in Portugal, and there’s the hint, from this story that’s narrated about the long-ago past, that something goes terribly wrong:

And how funny to think that when all is said and done, she was right and I was wrong! For we would have been perfectly safe in Portugal. Well it is too late for her to lord that over me now.

With money and the appropriate papers, Lisbon is a decent place to wait for a ship sailing for America. After all, “everything that was scarce in France and Spain was plentiful here: meat, cigarettes, gin. The only trouble was overcrowding.” As the refugees pour in, “hotel rooms were nearly impossible to come by.” As a consequence, there’s a desperate end-of-the-world air to Lisbon, with some people staying up all night long at the casino. The Winters are the lucky ones. They have somewhere to go and the papers to ensure they get there.  They are also lucky enough to secure an excellent room at the Hotel Francfort, but with Julia insisting that she doesn’t want to leave, there’s a great deal of tension between Pete and Julia. Then the Winters meet Iris and Edward Freleng and their elderly dog, Daisy. Meeting the Frelengs is a welcome distraction for Pete Winters, but Julia dislikes them. Iris begins to absorb some of Julia’s demanding fitfulness, and this gives Pete a little respite from Julia’s 24-7 care. The meeting seems fortuitous, and the Frelengs offer Pete, at least, interesting intelligent company for the week or so before their ship arrives. But just what is the Frelengs’ game? ….

the two hotel francfortsStrong on characterization, the novel sets the scene by showing how Pete feeling “almost giddy with relief and gratitude,” leaps at the apparent lifeline thrown to him by the Frelengs. Pete is mentally exhausted by herding the unwilling Julia to Lisbon, and the Frelengs, who are peers in the same socioeconomic status, appear to absorb some of Julia’s neediness. Julia’s impossible personality does not deter the Frelengs who seem determined to ‘buddy up,’ and the very first time the Winters meet the Frelengs, Iris drags an unwilling Julia off to see the vet blatantly ignoring Julia’s protests and disgust with Daisy.

It seems natural, at first, that the Frelengs, who write detective novels under the name Xavier Legrand, should want to spend the next 7-10 days in the company of the Winters, but then again, Julia doesn’t exactly attract friends. Her petulant self-focus is expressed almost the moment she meets the Frelengs and the two couples exchange thoughts about the war that has ripped their life plans apart:

“Us?” I said. “Oh we’ve been lucky.”

“And just how is that, pray tell?” Julia said.

“Well, we’ve made it this far without getting killed, haven’t we? A ship’s coming to rescue us. And when you think what some of these poor devils wouldn’t give to have a ticket on that ship–“

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see why their having to leave their homes is any worse than our having to leave our homes,” Julia said.

“Oh, but it is,” Iris said. “Because we’ve got somewhere to flee to, haven’t we? Whereas all they have to look forward to is exile–that is, if they find a country willing to accept them.”

“But it’s exile for us, too,” Julia said. “France was our home, too.”

It’s impossible not to draw parallels between The Two Hotel Francforts and Ford Madox Ford’s excellent novel The Good Soldier, for while the setting is different, both novels examine two marriages and the problematic relationships sparked between the two couples years after the events take place. Leavitt’s intriguing title, The Two Hotel Francforts hints at the duplicity at play in the novel, and that duplicity exists on several levels. No one is quite what they seem and everyone reveals what they want people to see–no more than that.

For Edward, his broad shoulders notwithstanding, was mercurial. You could reach for him, and sometimes you would grab hold of him. But sometimes all you would grab hold of was a reflection of a reflection in a revolving door.

The ‘rules’ and dynamics of any marriage are impenetrable to outsiders, and both the Winters and the Freleng’s marriages are pathological, but in very different ways. While we know almost immediately how toxic the Winters’ marriage is, just what keeps the Freleng’s marriage together isn’t apparent at first–although the dog Daisy is arguably part of the visible gel that bonds Iris and Edward. Their lives appear to coalesce around Daisy, and it’s because of her they declined to take a ship to England. As these two couples wait for the ship that will take them to New York, the foundation of European civilization is in a state of upheaval; people are running for their lives, and here, just as the Winters and the Frelengs appear to have reached safety, their lives are ripped apart by duplicity and will never be the same. The four main characters, whose actions are clouded with desire, desperation and selfishness, are thrown together by circumstance as the world spins from unbridled fascism. They all lie to each other and to themselves, and as Iris tells Pete:

Poor thing, you’re such an innocent in some ways. Such a novice. You think there’s a protocol to all this … But there are no rules here. We’re beyond rules.

While the narrator of Ford Madox Ford’s novel, The Good Soldier, is classically unreliable, the narrator of The Two Hotel Francforts appears to be reliable. But after I put the book down, I chewed that decision over, and concluded that Pete Winters, in the depths of the lies he contrives, could possibly be unreliable in his version of events. Was his marriage to Julia quite how he portrayed it with him as the unhappy factotum for his wife’s neurotic demands? After all, we only have his version of things decades later. If you can’t already tell, I loved this novel for the way in which Leavitt depicted the complexities of these two toxic, brittle marriages–both kept together by a set of unspoken rules.

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (spoilers)

Recently, I read and thoroughly enjoyed M.E. Braddon’s book, The Doctor’s Wife. It was her take, if you like, on Madame Bovary, a novel of, in Braddon’s opinion, “hideous immorality.” Personally, I don’t believe that she really thought the book was immoral (people in glass houses, etc), but since Madame Bovary wasn’t in wide circulation in England at that particular time, her ‘moral outrage’ was a great excuse to fly on Flaubert’s coat-tails. Reading Braddon’s book led to a discussion here regarding the source material, and as a result,  Emma  and I decided to re-read Madame Bovary. This is either my fourth or fifth rereading, but it’s been at least a decade since the last sweep, and every time I re-read, I always wonder, will I enjoy the book as much this time?

I’m a believer in re-reading favourite books. Every 5 years or so, I re-read Jane Eyre, and it seems to be different every time I read it. Of course, the book hasn’t changed, and so my responses to the book tell me about myself more than anything else.  After this latest re-reading, I could write a series of posts on Madame Bovary; Baudelaire was right when described the novel as “essentially suggestive, and capable of inspiring a whole volume of commentary.” Originally serialized in 1856, Madame Bovary was published in book form in 1857 and sold 15,000 copies in two months.

Madame BovaryI’m not going to spend a great time of time on the plot–most of us know it because even if we haven’t read Madame Bovary, it’s one of those books with a plot that’s widely referenced, but for the benefit of this post, briefly, this is the story of Emma Bovary, a farmer’s daughter, convent-educated and with an unfortunate love for finery, who lands a widower, mediocre doctor Charles Bovary for a husband. It’s a wild mis-match with Emma, beautiful & passionate, flitting through her short life like a doomed firefly. Her dullard of a husband isn’t a bad man, but he never understands Emma, and allows her so much freedom that she destroys them both with her financial decisions.

After reading Madame Bovary hard on the heels of The Doctor’s Wife, there are inevitable comparisons, but I was struck by the dissimilarities more than anything else. Braddon’s characters are much better people–much less selfish and self-indulgent.

Charles Bovary is a weak man. His life has always been directed by someone else–first his mother who manages his education (and a good thing too) and who then marries him off to a shriveled, supposedly wealthy widow. We only get brief glimpses of the first Mrs. Bovary (someone I paid more attention to for some reason this time), and none of them are good.

She had to have her chocolate brought to her every morning, and expected to be waited on hand and foot. She was for ever complaining of her nerves, of the state of her lungs, of her many and various ailments. The noise of people moving about made her feel ill, but no sooner was she left alone than she found her solitude unbearable. If anyone came to see her, it was, she felt sure, because they wanted to make certain that she was dying. When Charles came home of an evening, she would bring her long skinny arms from beneath the bedclothes, clasp them about his neck, make him sit on the edge of the bed, and then tell him of her woes. She accused him of neglect, of loving someone else, and always ended up by asking for something to take for her health, and a little more love-making.

Poor Charles Bovary. No wonder, then, that he plunges off the deep end and decides to marry for love the second time around. Too bad that Emma doesn’t feel the same way, but as her father considers “that she had too good a mind for farming,” Bovary looks like a good match, and since the Rouault farm isn’t exactly overrun with suitors, a match is made. Emma has successfully established a foot up in society. Emma’s marriage to Charles is followed by extensive feasting, and two days later, Charles returns to his practice.

The couple in Braddon’s novel, The Doctor’s Wife, Emma and Charles Bovary’s literary counterparts, are Isabel Sleaford and George Gilbert. While Charles Bovary is a bit dense and weak, Braddon’s George Gilbert is a genuinely good man, from good stock, and much loved by his patients. Charles Bovary’s parents on the other hand are problematic–his father is essentially a wastrel, saved from the gutter by his steely-spined wife, and he opts out of involvement for most of the book. Isabel and George Gilbert at least have a honeymoon, but it’s a fairly miserable one with George counting pennies and pledging no more than a 10 pound note on the event. And then there’s the matter of poor Isabel’s wedding dress, picked out by her future husband: brown. It’s dull and a horrible disappointment. It’s impossible to imagine Emma Bovary wearing a brown wedding dress or allowing Charles to make the choice.

The two novels also differ on the issue of out-of-control consumerism. After the honeymoon is over, Braddon’s Isabel Gilbert wistfully attempts to beautify her drab home and add some decorative touches. All her ideas are immediately nixed by her husband and Isabel retreats once more into her beloved books. Emma, as we know, goes wild with credit.

And what of books? Emma Bovary is influenced by the novels of Walter Scott:

she grew enamoured of historic scenes, and dreamed of old oak chests, guard-rooms and medieval minstrels. She would have loved to spend her days in some ancient manor-house like the damsels in long-waisted gowns who dawdled away their time beneath Gothic traceries, chin in hand, their elbows resting on stone sills, watching white-plumed horsemen come galloping from afar on sable chargers. At that period of her life she cultivated a passion for Mary Stuart, and indulged in an enthusiastic veneration of all illustrious and ill-starred ladies. Jeanne d’Arc and Heloise, Agnes Sorel, La Ferronnière the beautiful, and Clémence Isaure, shone for her like comets from the dark immensities of history

Emma certainly loves finery, and we know she studies “descriptions of furniture” in the novels of Eugène Sue. Emma turns to books “seeking in their pages satisfaction by proxy for all her longings.” Charles’s mother sees Emma’s reading as the root of the problem, and tells her son that reading isn’t helping Emma at all:  “reading novels–a lot of wicked books full of quotations from Voltaire which hold priests up to ridicule.”  Braddon’s Isabel Gilbert reads constantly too–it’s her one escape from a dull life, but in Isabel’s case we learn about specific characters she admires: Ernest Maltravers, Steerforth, Henry Esmond, and Florence Dombey. Isabel Gilbert’s husband doesn’t mind if his wife reads all day long–even if he doesn’t understand the attraction. It’s fairly easy to conclude that while Isabel and Emma are both bored and trapped in loveless marriages, Isabel’s temperament allows her to accept her life and find solace in books. Emma, however, beats against the bars of her marital prison, and as her life spirals out of control, she seems far too restless to read. Then again, there’s the sneaking idea… could Emma ever be happy? What would have happened if she did run off with Rodolphe? Something tells me Emma is born to be restless and discontent.  She’s one of those kamikaze women.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Emma Bovary and Isabel Sleaford is passion–Emma is a woman who desires sex while Isabel does not seek sexual gratification outside of marriage. There are several passages that reference Emma’s sexual appetite. After her wedding night, for example, guests note that Charles acts as though he’s the virgin while Emma “gave no indication that anything had happened to her.” Emma is a passionate, sensual woman and through her affairs and her secret life, she is unleashed from her bourgeois upbringingIsabel’s love, on the other hand, is very cerebral–much more the embodiment of courtly love. Emma, however, gets down and dirty. While she’s seduced by Rodolphe, her first lover, by the time she gets to Léon, she’s the seducer. Flaubert isn’t shy about letting us know that Emma craves sex.

All the time she was playing the part of the virtuous wife her mind was on fire with memories of the familiar head with its black hair falling in curls over a sun-tanned brow, of the figure at once so strong and so elegant, of the man who combined intellectual experience with such fervent desire.

And:

He became her mistress far more completely than she was ever his. Her kisses and her tender words stole away his heart. Where had she learned the arts of a power to corrupt which was so profound so well disguised, that it appeared to be almost disembodied?

And:

when next she saw him, she was more on fire, more exigent, than ever. She flung off her clothes with a sort of brutal violence, tearing at her thin stay-lace so that it hissed about her hips like a slithering snake.

Another element of the novel that struck me this time is how expertly Flaubert shows that Emma’s affairs do not occur in a vacuum. Rodolphe is compared (favourably of course) by Emma to Bovary, and then when the affair dips, her hopes rise in her husband through the surgery he intends to perform on the unfortunate human guinea pig, Hippolyte. When the surgery fails, and all of her ambitions for her husband are crushed, Emma returns to the affair with even more abandon.

Flaubert, IMO, is a better stylist than Braddon. There are many stunningly beautiful passages in the novel:

The round crimson moon was coming up on the horizon beyond the meadows. It rose rapidly between the poplar branches, which obscured it here and there like a ragged black curtain. Then it emerged, brilliantly white, lighting up the empty sky; moving more slowly now, it let fall on the river a great splash of brightness which broke into an infinity of stars. The silver gleam appeared to turn and twist upon itself as though it had been a headless snake covered with shining scales. At other moments it resembled some monstrous candelabra scattering from each long arm a rain of melted diamonds.

For this read, I decided to pick a favourite scene, and the award goes to the segment in which Emma and Léon arrange to meet at the cathedral. Emma writes a letter cancelling the  “arrangement for the meeting,” and then she decides to personally deliver the letter which really, almost comically and certainly preposterously, undermines the sham of her fragile moral stance. This little diversion shows us that Emma isn’t being entirely honest with herself, and that she loves to add drama to the intrigue. Plus this maneuver has the benefit of making Léon work a little harder to ‘seduce’ Emma. I loved this scene for the way in which the verger insists on giving the tour while the lovers can’t wait to get away from him. Plus the presence of the verger and his lecture serves as the backdrop of morality for our soon-to-be lovers, so it’s appropriate that Diane de Poitiers is referenced. No doubt she’d be someone Emma admired. I loved the way Léon hustles Emma out of the cathedral into the hired carriage practically panting the whole way, and it’s here of course, that their first sexual encounter takes place. Not too surprising that the sex-in-the-carriage scene should end up being one of the most scandalous scenes in the book, and one that even his publisher suggested Flaubert should cut.

While of course I remembered how Emma died, I’d oddly enough forgotten how she gobbled the arsenic. She rushed to her death as she rushed to her lovers. It’s a desperate scene and one that made me pity Emma–a woman who never understood herself.

Flaubert’s masterpiece, incidentally, was inspired by the all-too real story of Eugène Delamare, a medical man who, like Bovary, was blind to his second wife’s extravagances and flagrant infidelities.

See here for Emma’s post

Translated by Gerard Hopkins

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Filed under Fiction, Flaubert Gustave