Tag Archives: kamikaze women

Killer in the Rain: Raymond Chandler (1935)

I wasn’t too far into Raymond Chandler’s Killer in the Rain when screenshots of Humphrey Bogart began popping into my head. Yes! This short story was adapted ‘(‘cannibalizing’ as Chandler called it) into The Big Sleep. The story is atmospheric, and certainly inspires visual images as you read it, and the film … well, the film is unforgettable.

Rain beat very hard against the windows. They were shut tight and it was hot in the room and I had a little fan going on the table. The breeze from it hit Dravec’s face high up, lifted his heavy black hair, moved the longer bristles in the fat path of eyebrow that went across his face in a solid line. He looked like a bouncer who had come into money. 

The story is narrated by a PI, a shamus who is hired by a self-made man, a wealthy Serbian named Dravec. Dravec has been sent to the PI by homicide detective Violets M’Gee. At first Dravec claims that he wants the PI to find his daughter, Carmen, but within a few minutes, Dravec, who is one of those physically powerful but emotionally immature men, admits that Carmen isn’t his daughter.

I just picked her up in Smoky, a little baby in the street. She didn’t have nobody. I guess I steal her, huh?

Carmen isn’t exactly faithful to Dravec who admits that “all the time some new guy and all the time a punk.” Dravec paid one punk 5 grand to clear off, but since there’s no shortage of creepy men, Carmen is now involved with Harold Steiner, a so-called “dealer in rare books” which translates to pornography.

So the narrator takes the case and the next night, during another rain storm, he tails Steiner from his business to his home. Carmen soon arrives, and some time into the stake out, shots are fired. The narrator bursts into the home and finds Carmen drugged, dressed (or undressed) for porno pix, and Steiner dead. Carmen may be the damsel in distress here, but Dravec is the only one who thinks he can ‘save’ her. She gives the narrator the creeps. There’s something not right about this woman:

If she had screeched, or turned white, or even keeled over, that would have been fairly natural. But she just giggled.

I began to hate the sight of her. Just looking at her made me feel dopey.

Her giggles went on, ran around the room like rats. They gradually got hysterical. I got off the desk, took a step towards her, and slapped her face.

“Just like last night” I said.

The giggling stopped at once and the thumb-chewing started again. She still didn’t mind my slaps apparently. I sat on the end of the desk once more. 

A few bodies later, the case is solved but not before the narrator gives us a glimpse into the ugly side of humanity. In this case he steps into a group of people whose behaviour leaves a rotting stench. There’s no joy in the solution of this case; just darkness, hopelessness, an inevitability, and yet at the same time, a determination not to slide down into the sewage with the lowlifes.

Philip Marlowe appeared as a character in the 1939 novel, The Big Sleep. His name does not appear in this short story, but the feeling of Marlowe is still there.

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Catalina: Liska Jacobs

“Dazzle a man and you blind him.”

From a few pre-publication quotes, I had a feeling that I’d love Catalina, a debut novel from Liska Jacobs. What is so attractive, so alluring about Kamikaze Women–self-destructive women whose messy personal disasters surround them in a blurring cloud of detritus? These are women who simultaneously attract and repel–women whose lives crumble at the foundations as they careen, hopelessly, from one catastrophe to another.

The Kamikaze Woman in Catalina is our narrator Elsa, who washes back up in California after being ‘let-go’ from her job as personal assistant to MoMA’s curator, the very married Eric Reinhardt. Elsa and Eric had an affair, and we don’t know what went wrong, but the affair ends with Elsa being given a “generous compensation” package by Human Resources. We get, right away, that Elsa is being discarded and paid off, but Elsa, hard-as-nails, but also interestingly brittle, doesn’t quite ‘get’ the fact that she’s been summarily dumped.

Catalina

Elsa begins to think that New York feels “predatory,” and so home to Bakersfield and her mother’s house, ostensibly to lick her wounds. But home doesn’t offer consolation:

Poor girl, the joke’s on you. You’re back. Your old life just waiting for you, like a second skin.

So Elsa escapes with a quick flight to LA and then it’s a short drive to Santa Monica. Elsa holes up in a luxury hotel, enrolling in a yoga course but going to the bar instead, dropping money even as she tries not to think about Eric from the blurriness of a cocktail of unknown drugs (stolen from her mother) and alcohol.

There are many bottles. Probably too many, I think. So I combine a few that look similar. Who cares? I definitely do not. After all. I’m doing what Eric suggested on that last day: Go Home. See your mother in Bakersfield. Be open to possibility. Fine, a blue one if the mood strikes, or maybe a white, or sea-foam green. So many possibilities. 

The scenes at the hotel are marvellous. The sniffy disapproval of the waiters and other guests as Elsa polishes off bottle after bottle of alcohol, ordering up coke though room service, and the way she teases a Lancelot in bellboy clothing.

Instead I call room service and order another Bloody Mary, which, I tell myself, is basically a salad. 

Finally, with numerous traumas and dramas played out, Elsa calls up her old friend Charly, who is married to Jared. Elsa expects her friend to be mired in domestic bliss, but it’s clear that there are problems between Charly and Jared. He makes cruel comments to his wife and keeps a lascivious eye on Elsa:

“Have you been working out?” he asks. I tell him the most exercise I get is lifting a wineglass to my mouth or opening a prescription bottle. This enthralls him. 

Elsa’s ex-husband Robbie now works for Jared, and so before long, Elsa finds herself on a trip to Catalina to attend a jazz festival with Charly, Jared, Robbie, his new girlfriend Jane and millionaire boat owner, the very alpha male, Tom. Tom’s family own ” a potato chip company, real American money.” 

He’s well groomed, scrubbed clean, and absolutely menacing. 

Of course, this trip is a recipe for disaster.  Charly’s marriage is unhappy, Jared is openly womanizing, Robbie still has the hots for his ex and Jane, a restaurant manager,  is … well… on the tiresome side. “She’s always doing some marathon or on a new diet.”  She’s “very animated. Her arms and hands wave as if she were an instructor worried about losing Robbie’s interest.” As for Tom, he says that Elsa, brought along on the Catalina trip as a date, reminds him of his first wife:

Hot as shit but absolutely bonkers. 

Catalina is the provocative, unsettling  story of one woman’s meltdown, but it’s also a story of a handful of people behaving badly. A novel of Bad Manners, if you will. Everyone thinks that wildly successful Elsa is back on an extended holiday, but Tom, who claims he can hear Elsa’s pills rattling in her bag, has Elsa’s number, and he delights in watching the trip implode as couples fight, friction escalates and lives collide.

The big question here is Elsa’s state before being dumped by Eric. There are elusive shards of the past tantalizingly submerged in the plot, and most of these float to the surface through Elsa’s memories of her marriage to Robbie. But this is a woman who doesn’t want to examine her life and her mistakes; she’s much prefer to blur the past, and the present, with alcohol and whatever pills she can dig out from the alarmingly diminishing supply which lurks at the bottom of her bag.  I loved Catalina; it’s just the sort of book I am always looking for and find so rarely–people behaving badly within the rails of polite society.

I squint to try to make out where the pier should be, where the Miramar is, where the airport and Charly and Jared’s house should be. Bakersfield just north and inland-New York and Eric a few thousand miles beyond that. It’s there, I’m sure. I suddenly feel lightheaded. Strange. Like catching your reflection, that moment just before recognition, when you are a stranger to yourself. 

Review copy

(The idea of Kamikaze Women comes from Woody Allen and the film Husbands and Wives.)

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The Last Weynfeldt: Martin Suter

“If he had lived in the world of his much-loved Somerset Maugham, he would have been one of those unmarried governors on a far-flung island who put on a tuxedo each evening for his solitary supper.”

The Last Weynfeldt from Martin Suter is the story of a wealthy middle-aged man named Adrian. While Adrian is the last of his family, he’s also the last of a certain kind of man, and that is evidenced by his very precise organized lifestyle, and his relationships. He believes that “regularity prolonged life.”

If you do the same things more often, go to the same places and meet the same people, the difference become subtler each time. And if the differences are subtler then time passes unnoticed. Someone you see every month instead of every year never appears to age. And you never appear to age to them.

Repetition slows down the passage of time.

So for this reason, Adrian patronizes the same tailor, visits the same restaurants and never changes his routine–this includes refusing to learn how to use a computer or a cell phone. Although he has no intimate relationships, he has two distinct sets of friends:

One was made up of people fifteen or more years younger than him. Among them he was seen as an exotic original, someone you could confide in, but also make fun of sometimes, who would discreetly pay the check in a restaurant, and help out occasionally when you had financial difficulties. They treated him with studied nonchalance as one of their own, but secretly basked in the glow of his name and money.

Adrian’s second set of friends “was composed of people who had known his parents, or at least moved in their circles.” These friends range in age from 60-80–in other words Adrian has no friends his own age.

the last weynfeldt

Adrian’s set of younger friends mostly sponge off of him. My personal favourite of these parasites is filmmaker Agustoni who’s milking Adrian for 100s of thousands of francs for a film project which has taken him all over the globe while being fully supported by his rich patron’s money. Agustoni plays the role of temperamental, creative artist to the hilt, refusing to be pigeonholed into such a ridiculous thing as a script. In spite of the fact that Adrian continues to shell out money, he never complains, but in typical human fashion, Agustoni’s hostility rises as his gratitude plummets.

Adrian is an interesting character–like many people who are born into a very structured upper class environment, he has never developed his own separate life, and we already know that he’s a sap with a fat wallet for the ‘friends’ who use him. He lived with his mother until her death, and the same elderly retainer who worked for his mother still cooks his meals. He had one great love in his life, Daphne, a woman who left but would have probably stayed if he’d just made the right gesture.

Adrian didn’t have enough talent to become an artist but as an expert in Swiss art, he’s an art evaluator and works for a big auction house in Switzerland. He lives in a 5,000 sq. foot Zurich apartment which is composed on an entire floor of a nineteenth century building. The rest of the building is leased by a bank which works to Adrian’s advantage as the bank’s security is a protection for his art collection.

Adrian has a life with certain enviable aspects. He’s well-respected and wealthy, but then again, it’s easy to see that this is a sterile existence–comfortable yet empty. Secure yet boring. And we, of course, are all waiting for the catalyst who will disrupt and disturb Adrian’s peaceful life.

The catalyst is, of course, a woman. A femme fatale of sorts, Lorena, a model on the verge of middle age who picks up Adrian in a bar. ..

Lorena is, at first, a fascinating, damaged woman, neurotic as hell, and prone to grand, self-damaging gestures–definitely a Kamikaze, and Adrian cannot resist. She resembles his lost love Daphne, and since Lorena is always in trouble, he’s only too happy to keep bailing her out of various messes–no questions asked. As the tale continues Lorena becomes less interesting, an opinion I share with Gert.

This is a tale of blackmail, art forgery, second chances and deceit that seems plotted for cinema. I liked this, but didn’t love it.

My imaginary film version stars Andre Dussolier as Adrian and Isabelle Huppert as Lorena (the real film stars other names).

Review copy

Translated by Steph Morris

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Black Wings Has My Angel: Elliott Chaze

“After all, no matter how long you live, there aren’t too many delicious moments along the way, since most of life is spent eating and sleeping and waiting for something to happen that never does. You can figure it up for yourself, using your own life as the scoreboard. Most of living is waiting to live. And you spend a great deal of time worrying about things that don’t matter and about people that don’t matter and all this you know the very day you’re going to die.”

I read Black Wings Has My Angel, a 1953 novel from Elliott Chaze in 2012. It not only made my best-of-year list, but it also became one of my all-time favourite books. Not many books crack that well-established list at this stage of my game.  Black Wings Has My Angel is perfect noir. It’s perfect in its set-up, it’s bleak, doom-laden outlook, and its characterisations of the soulless prostitute Virginia and the war damaged, escaped convict ‘Tim.’ These two people connect in a pact of distrust, lust and mutual greed, and although their heist goes as planned, their relationship with each other brings fate hurtling down upon them with a vengeance. When I saw that NYRB reissued the book, I decided to read it again and see if it was indeed as wonderful as I remembered. It was.

Our narrator, an escaped convict who calls himself Tim has taken a break from society by “roughnecking” on an drilling rig. He’s amassed a pile of money, has a plan to pull a heist, and when the novel opens, he’s in a hotel soaking in a tub when the bellboy delivers a prostitute. But this just isn’t any prostitute: this is Virginia, a gorgeous woman with a killer body who shouldn’t be turning tricks in this rinky dink town. Tim plans to whoop it up with a hooker for a few days and then move on, but his plans change and he finds himself moving on with Virginia.

Black wings has my angel NYRB

Ten dollar tramp” Virginia is beautiful, and she quickly shows she can’t be trusted, but she gets under Tim’s skin. Before long, he thinks he loves her, in spite of her telling him, “But when the money’s gone,” she said, “I’m gone too. I don’t sleep for thrills any more.” She’s like some exotic perfume that clings to his skin, and he convinces himself that they can pull a heist together. Although initially we don’t know much about either Virginia or Tim, over time, their pasts are revealed. While Tim, haunted by various experiences, appears to have been unable to readjust to society after life in a Japanese work camp,  Virginia is soulless, hard and empty. Perhaps that explains why Tim can never get enough of her. There’s simply nothing to get.

As smiles go, the one she’d given me was a fine one, but it was cold, too, if you know what I mean, plenty of stretch in the lips but no eyes or heart in it. Like her lovemaking. Mechanically splendid, yet as though the performance was the result of some remote control and did not really involve her. 

As so often happens with noir, we try to pinpoint just when things go wrong for the characters, at which point, Tim could have pulled out and moved on. And is always, we see a tangled path, years in the making that brings these two people–one damaged, and one soulless together. Initially it’s a physical fusion but their relationship is fated for entropy. While they plan a heist and live as a ‘normal’ suburban couple, they have a mutual goal to work for, but once their goal is achieved, they’re not happy, and begin to implode as fate waits, patiently, in the dark corners. There’s a circular quality to this noir story, a balance between crimes, murder and fate which is served up, finally, as a sort of rough justice.

For this re-read, I paid more attention to Tim’s attitude towards society and just where he started to go down a wrong path. Embittered by his father’s experiences as a dentist who rarely got paid, he sees society as grinding down men until they’re lobotomized into being grateful for life as a wage-slave, a humble clapboard house and a sparse lawn. And while it’s easy to think that his first mistake was taking Virginia along for the ride, that’s not true. I think of a quote from a Laurie Colwin short story: My MistressShe is the road I have travelled to her, and I am hers.”

Elliott Chaze’s skill creates sympathy for Tim, and this is in spite of the fact that he murders in cold blood. But perhaps part of our sympathy germinates for Tim when we compare him to Virginia. He has a lifetime to replay scenes in his head:

She was sitting on the floor, naked, in a skitter of green bills. Beyond her was the custodian , still simpering in death. She was scooping up handfuls of the green money and dropping it on top of her head so that it came sliding along the cream-colored hair, slipping down along her shoulders and body. She was making a noise I never heard come out of a human being. It was a scream that was a whisper and a laugh that was a cry. Over and over. The noise and the scooping. The slippery, sliding bills against the rigid body.

Review copy/own a copy

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Death’s Sweet Song (1955) by Clifton Adams

“Strangely, I felt nothing. I stood there and the pale sky became suddenly bloody as the violent sun lifted into a widening sky.”

American Pulp writer Clifton Adams (1919-1971) is primarily known for a long list of westerns written under several pseudonyms, but he also wrote a few noir titles. This brings me to Death’s Sweet Song–my copy comes in one of Stark House’s double releases along with its sister title Whom Gods Destroy which I’ll be writing up shortly.

Death's sweet songDeath’s Sweet Song is set in Oklahoma, and it’s the story of Joe Hooper, a WWII veteran who’s now back in the poky town of Creston, Oklahoma trying to squeeze a living from a gas station and 5 drab little cabins located at the back of the property. That iconic highway–Route 66–runs right in front of Hooper’s mortgaged property. Location was probably a selling point, but ironically now it’s a point that rubs a festering, open sore in Hopper’s mind as he watches the tourists drive by in a steady stream on their way to … somewhere else. The 5 crude cabins that he imagined he’d fill with tourists, stand empty and unrented, and with the endless flow of traffic passing by, it’s as though Hooper’s life is draining away along with all of his broken dreams.

The thermometer on the east side of the wash rack had reached an even hundred. I opened a bottle of Coke and stood in the doorway, watching the endless stream of traffic rushing by on the highway. License tags from everywhere–Nebraska, California, Illinois…. Where do tourists go, anyway, in such a hell of a hurry?

Depending on tourists for business is a particularly depressing prospect. As they drive by on the road to somewhere better, somewhere more interesting, the lack of business is just another painful reminder that there’s a big, bright world out there that Hooper’s not a part of. Is Hooper’s luck changing when a well-dressed couple in a blue Buick pull in and ask for a cabin for the night? Hooper can hardly believe the request:

There were five cabins behind the station and they were all vacant. Most of them would remain vacant, even during the tourist season. That’s the kind of place it was. I wondered about that while I put gas into his car. Here was a tourist with a new car, wearing expensive clothes, so why should he want to put up in a rat trap like mine when there were first-class AAA motels all along the highway?

The tiny, shabby cabins with their “cracked linoleum” cause the pouting blonde from the blue Buick to open her mouth in protest, but her complaints are ignored, and the couple, Karl & Paula Sheldon remain.

Hooper is right to suspect why this well-dressed couple should want to stay in one of his cabins when much more appealing accommodations are just down the road. In spite of the fact (or perhaps even because of it) that he has a long-term, patient girlfriend in town, he’s drawn to the ripe, skimpily-dressed, elusive blonde with the bone china skin. After another boring, predictable date with his girlfriend, Hooper finds himself creeping around the Sheldons’ cabin trying to get a glimpse of the hot blonde. He overhears Karl and another man planning a heist, and while Hooper initially plays with the idea of calling the sheriff, he decides, instead, that this is his opportunity to get ahead, and get the blonde in the process.

There are two ‘stories’ or examples that bolster Hooper’s decision to rehabilitate his life through crime–one example is Hooper’s father, a local doctor who’s worn down by work, all night house calls, and very little money to show for his labour. The other example is Herb, a local man who took tremendous financial risks, but eventually hit $5 million in oil. These two characters sit on opposite sides of the see-saw inside Hooper’s head. He doesn’t want to have a life like his father and he wants to hit the big time like Herb.

Death’s Sweet Song is written in a plain unadorned style–it’s the sort of book you could read and then imagine is easy to write, but there’s real skill in the way Clifton Adams develops his character of Joe Hooper. At first we make the mistake, as we’re meant to, of measuring Hooper’s character by his circumstances, but as events unfold, and the layers of well-known local small businessman fall away from Hooper, we see the simmering, bitter resentment seething underneath the surface. Oklahoma native Adams also reproduces the monotony of small town life in convincing ways while reinforcing Hooper’s boredom and festering desperation. Every time Hooper meets someone or talks to someone on the phone, they ask him ‘how’s the tourist business?‘ For Hooper, this is a particularly painful and ludicrous question which he avoids with trite answers, and yet the sense is conveyed that every encounter Hooper has with other locals just digs deeper into that festering sore of resentment that exists in his brain. Another recurring question–an unspoken one this time–is when is Hooper going to marry the very decent, sweet and understanding, Beth. Hooper’s relationship with Beth is another sore spot as far as he is concerned as everyone in town knows his business–how long he’s been dating Beth (too long), where their dates are (at the movies), and that Hooper isn’t playing fair by not popping the question (too bad).  Another interesting small-town tidbit included here is that Hooper knows that outsiders underestimate the locals, and yet he does the same thing himself.

Hooper is a perfect noir character–bitter, bored and trapped in a mundane life, he’s propelled into the undertow by the resentment of the respectable working life which has brought him nothing, and he’s fueled by his desire for an evil woman, and plenty of money to fund a new start. While the recently read German crime novel Silence is an exploration of guilt, Death’s Sweet Song is an exploration of the justification of crime & murder, and Hooper’s 1st person narrative gives us a ringside seat into one man’s dead-end life in which an opportunity to escape, a sex-lined exit appears–except that exit takes him straight to hell.

The out-of-the-way roadhouse is an iconic noir staple, and there’s just a slight variation here which reminds me of the setting of They Don’t Dance Much from James Ross. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, Frank was the man who walked into Cora’s life and set the chain of tragic events into motion, but it was a chain of events that were waiting to happen. The day Paula Sheldon showed up changed Hooper’s life, but similarly  it was a fate that was waiting for Hooper. He just didn’t know it.

The one word that kept hitting me was “murder.” To me it didn’t have the usual meaning. It was like thinking of cancer or TB. You get yourself branded with it and it kills you, only with murder you die in the electric chair instead of in a bed.

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A Crime by Heinrich Mann

2014

 

For German Literature Month 2012 I read Heinrich Mann’s novel, Man of Straw, a book which follows the life of an ultra-patriotic, pompous, proto-fascist petty bourgeois. There’s a film of the book, The Kaiser’s Lackey, and both the book and the film are highly recommended.

Der Untertan

Earlier in 2012, I read The Blue Angel–also known as Professor Unrat. This is the story of a professor, a widower, who teaches at a boy’s school in a small provincial town.  He discovers that some of his pupils are hanging around a disreputable club known as The Blue Angel and he takes it upon himself to catch the boys. While on his moral quest, he runs into the nightclub singer, Rosa (Lola Lola in the film) and so begins a self-destructive obsession.  The book and film differ in significant ways with the book allowing the professor to exact his revenge against the inhabitants of the town while the film version, from director Von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich, is tragic. My favourite scene in the marvelous film version is Marlene Dietrich singing “Falling in Love Again.” This is the scene where the professor loses himself to the singer, but the scene is extraordinary for the presence of the delicious Marlene Dietrich. There’s a moment at the end of the song, as she’s sitting on the chair, and she gazes into the camera. She knows she nailed the scene.

blue-angel-marlene-dietrich-1930

I’m bringing up these two books (both made into excellent films) written by Heinrich Mann for a couple of reasons: 1) Thomas Mann seems to the Mann brother most talked about and 2) I found a short story by Heinrich Mann available for the kindle. 99c for 10 pages–well there’s an argument both for and against the purchase (hours of work for very little compensation vs I was hoping for a novel…), but since I loved both Heinrich Mann novels I’ve read, plus the fact I’m reading a Goebbels biography (almost 1000 pages) in which Heinrich’s books were part of the book burning ceremony, well, it only seems appropriate that this author should make an appearance for German Literature month. So here’s the short story : A Crime.

The story opens with a retired cavalry officer, Captain von Hecht giving some words of advice about women to a younger man, and from the way he’s talking, we know he has some experiences in mind.

As far as great passion is concerned, the problem is that it never happens to be equally great on both sides. If it’s greater on your side, it’s a misfortune, but here one can say: activity wards off sorrows, or at least it often does. If, on the other hand, a woman’s passion becomes too great, you are seeking rest at the foot of a volcano: a shower of sulfur will bury you.

Then von Hecht goes back to 1882 and tells the story of being stationed in the small town of M. He quickly discovers that the only house worth visiting belongs to a merchant named Starke who has a beautiful wife:

I had seen her on the street, only from behind, to be sure, but she exaggerated the swaying of her hips as she walked. She had an overly short and thus perfectly round waist and striking thick brown hair. Her nose, in addition, was of a delightful fineness, with slightly mobile nostrils. When she smiled, she would bite her blood-red lips with her sharp white teeth as if she were biting into a peach, and her gray eyes would flash with dreamy, veiled curiosity. Later, in moments of transport, I saw silvery serpents flicking out their tongues in them.

There’s some wonderful imagery in that quote which tells us a lot about Annemarie, the wife of the merchant. She’s beautiful, she’s passionate and she’s bad, bad, bad. She’s one of those kamikaze women, a term coined by Woody Allen in the film Husbands and Wives: I’ve always had this penchant for what I call Kamikaze women… I call them kamikaze because they crash their plane right into you. You die with them.”

One look at Annemarie and Von Hecht is hooked. Perhaps the attraction is bolstered by boredom or lack of choices in the small provincial town, but whatever the motivations, von Hecht can’t help but feel sorry for Annemarie’s poor clueless husband. Of course, he’s not so sorry for the husband that he keeps his hands off the man’s wife. The unattractive, seemingly thick Starke is obviously outclassed in the marriage–not by his wife’s status (she has none) or her dowry (she was penniless), but he’s outclassed by her slyness and avarice. She’s a demanding wife, and, of course, she’s also a demanding mistress–one of “those women who take possession of even the slightest fragment of their lovers’ private lives.” With her extravagance and love of finery, Annemarie reminded me of Madame Bovary, and when von Hecht “inadvertently calls her Emma” neither he nor the reader is surprised by the connection. But there’s also an Anna Karenina connection here:

Once a woman whose rightful lot had been to be the mother in a conventional family has set off down the wrong path, she takes madder leaps than any other.

Those ‘mad leaps’ are at the heart of the story, but that’s as much as I’m going to give away. After finishing the story, I ran a search on the translator’s name (thanks for translating Heinrich Mann) and came across many more stories from this translator available for the kindle, including a dual language version of one Stendhal title. I’ll be digging through the list, hoping for more Heinrich Mann but open to whatever’s there.

Original title: Ein Verbrechen: translated by Juan LePuen

 

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Cécile by Theodor Fontane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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My Face For the World to See by Alfred Hayes

For its bleakness and its Hollywood setting, I loved My Face For the World To See (1958)–a dark tale of a tangled relationship between a married screenwriter and a very damaged would-be actress. At 131 pages, this New York Review Books release doesn’t waste words, and there’s the sense that this tale has been pared down to perfection. The story flings us right into the drama with an opening set at a beach house party with various Hollywood people in attendance. The screenwriter, who remains nameless throughout the story is bored and feeling alienated when he goes outside and spots a woman stepping into the ocean. He thinks he’s seen the girl before, but then again perhaps not. She looks, after all, like so many other pretty, leggy desperate young women who drift to Hollywood. He realizes that she is trying to commit suicide, so he pulls her out of the ocean, and the drama begins.

My face for the world to seeThe screenwriter, who’s in his late thirties, is well paid but not particularly happy. His wife of fifteen years, a woman he’s no longer attracted to, lives in New York with their child. He rents an apartment that’s a “little too bridal,” and has the occasional affair. He’s not a wolf by any means or a predator, but he’s used to being alone with his cynicism:

I thought of my wife. She was at a distance. The distance was in itself beneficial. I supposed I was being again uncharitable. She was what she was: I was what I was. That, when you came down to it, was the most intolerable thing of all. If only she weren’t, now and then what she was, always. If she’d let up a little or knock it off a little or hang it out for a good airing once in a little while.  God, marriage. No: it wasn’t marriage. There wasn’t, even on close examination, any other available institution, any other available institution you could substitute. There seemed to be nothing but marriage, when you thought of it, and when you thought of it, my god, was that all there was? That, and raising a family. That, and earning a living. That, and calling the undertaker.

This bleakly abbreviated view of the meaningless of life says a great deal about our narrator. He finds his tired marriage, strained by “something that resembled a truce,” suffocating; perhaps he married too young, and he has yet to find anything to substitute for any sort of meaning to his existence. Yet his attitude towards life extends beyond his marriage, and he hates New York, “that immense slum.” Hollywood isn’t much better as far as the screenwriter is concerned. He dislikes Hollywood and the money it generates. To him the town is “rotten” and its immense wealth has a “phantasmal quality.” In a town driven by money, power, and fame, all three leave him cold.

At this very moment, the town was full of people lying in bed thinking with an intense, an inexhaustible, an almost raging passion of becoming famous, and even more famous if they were; or of becoming wealthy if they weren’t already wealthy , or wealthier if they were; or powerful if they weren’t powerful now, and more powerful if they already were. There were times when the intensity with which they wanted these things impressed me. There was even, at times, a certain legitimacy to their desires. But it seemed to me, or at least it had seemed to me in the few years I had been coming and going from this town, there was something finally ludicrous, finally unimpressive about even the people who had all the things so coveted by all the people who did not have them. It was difficult to say why. It might have been only a private blindness, a private indifference which prevented me from seeing how gratifying the possession of power or the possession of fame could be. 

The meeting between the screenwriter and the young woman grows into a relationship. The woman lives in spartan circumstances, but she’s proud of what she’s accomplished while the screenwriter finds that he’s “wandered into a ‘unsuccessful’ life again.”  He senses that “something quite heavy, quite immovable, weighed her down.” When questioned, he’s frank about his marital status, and an affair begins–with the young woman accepting that what they have is a dead-end with no future. Not a great deal happens during the course of the affair–a few dinners, a disastrous trip to Mexico, and, of course, confidences, which include the woman’s troubled past, are exchanged.

Author Alfred Hayes chose to keep his two characters nameless–although there’s one point in which the woman refers to herself as Miss V. It’s much more difficult to write about a book in which the main characters are nameless, but what’s interesting here is that the lack of names adds to the general feeling of anonymity. These people live in Hollywood–a town, “true to its rhinestone self,” in which names are of paramount importance. The last thing anyone connected to the movie biz seeks is anonymity, but that’s exactly what these two characters have. The woman, of course, seeks fame–she wants to hit the Big Time with “my face for the world to see,” whereas the man doesn’t care for any of the usual gilt covered carrots that drive ambition in Hollywood. Then there’s the issue of the affair….  Why, oh why, would anyone be insane enough to get mixed up with this emotionally damaged woman? Yes, she’s attractive and available, but as the narrator points out, the town in swamped with beautiful, attractive women eager to make connections and more than happy to attend Hollywood parties. The screenwriter’s introduction to the young woman, her suicide attempt, should tell him all he needs to know. This is not a stable young woman, and an affair can only end in disaster for both of them. Why then, given the benefit of all the warning signals, does he take the green light and begin an affair? Vulnerability can be a weapon, and it can also be a magnet.

In Love is the story of two people in a relationship that sours even as it goes nowhere. My Face For the World To See, the finer book of the two, is the story of a relationship that goes to hell. Alfred Hayes has a self-interruptive style which is only occasionally apparent in My Face For the World to See whereas this style is pervasive in its repetitive uncertainty in In Love. This is a sparsely, beautifully written tale of damaged souls, with sentences that lap over our senses and recede slowly, leaving behind an emotional stain:

There was a noisy rush of water from the bathroom, and she appeared, ready for the evening, a smile she had chosen, I thought, from a small collection of smiles she kept for occasions like this, fixed upon her face.

Praise goes once more to New York Review Books for resurrecting a lost gem. How do they find their titles?

review copy

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