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The Ball at Sceaux by Balzac

“Only the poor are generous as a rule; the rich have always excellent reasons for not handing over twenty thousand francs to a relation.”

The Ball at Sceaux (Le bal de Sceaux), published in 1830, is one of the novels in Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine, and this well-crafted novella slots into the Scènes de la Vie Privée (Scenes of Private Life) category. Balzac is a master at depicting the human vices, and this creation is no exception. Here the vice is Pride.

First to place the story in its historical context:

It’s France post-Napoleon–although the backstory concerns past history. The story concerns the Comte de Fontaine and his family–specifically his youngest daughter Emilie. The Comte was loyal to the Bourbons and consequently was ruined. Later, he “refused the lucrative posts offered to him by the Emperor Napoleon,” and when it came time to marry, the Comte chose an impoverished but  ‘great name’ over a “rich but revolutionary parvenu.” Fortune eventually turned for the Comte after The Hundred Days and he received an appointment as an administrator. Attached to the king, the Comte managed to ensure that his children’s fortunes were secured. His three sons were placed well, and he married off two of his three daughters. These daughters and sons-in-law were not of “noble birth.” But no matter–after all, it is post French Revolution, and the marriages are sound and certain to bring security and wealth. This leaves the youngest daughter, Emilie de Fontaine yet to wed, and as it turns out, she is the most difficult. Perhaps this is because she is the youngest and she’s been spoiled:

Emilie had spent her childhood on the family estate, enjoying the abundance which suffices for the joys of early youth; her lightest wishes had been law to her sisters, her brothers, her mother, and even her father. All her relations doted on her.

Emilie is well-educated and beautiful, but she also has more than her share of flaws:

This enchanting veneer covered a careless heart; the opinion–common to many young girls–that no one else dwelt in a sphere so lofty as to be able to understand the merits of her soul; and a pride based no less on her birth than on her beauty. In the absence of the overwhelming sentiment which, sooner or later, works havoc in a woman’s heart, she spent her young ardor in an immoderate love of distinctions , and expressed the deepest contempt for persons of inferior birth.

Emilie’s pride and snobbery come to the fore when it’s time for her to marry. A parade of young men all fail to meet her exacting standards, and her abrupt dismissals of potential suitors are, at times, cruel. In some ways, each rejection seems to cause her pride and vanity to swell:

Wherever she went she seemed to be accepting homage rather than compliments, and even in a princess her airs and manner would have transformed the chair on which she sat into an imperial throne.

Balzac tells us:

As yet the graces of youth and the charms of talent hid these faults from every eye; faults all the more odious in a woman, since she can only please by self-sacrifice and unselfishness.

Where to start with that statement? Balzac is saying that Emilie can get away with this behaviour because she is young and beautiful. As the story plays out, it’s fairly obvious that Emilie has a cruel streak and that’s a character fault, of course–although apparently since she’s female, it’s a character fault to not go around acting with “self-sacrifice and unselfishness.”

In the Physiology of Marriage, Balzac mentions the problem of aristocratic pride and its role in unhappy marriages:

Before the Revolution, several aristocratic families used to send their daughters to the convent. This example was followed by a number of people who imagined that in sending their daughters to a school where the daughters of some great noblemen were sent, they would assume the tone and manner of aristocrats. This delusion of pride was, from the first, fatal to domestic happiness.

The insufferably proud Emilie wants a young, handsome, healthy, rich suitor, and she has a couple of other stipulations:

“Though young and of an ancient family, he must be a peer of France,” said she to herself. “I could not bear to see my coat-of-arms on the panels of my carriage among the folds of azure mantling, not to drive like the princes down the Champs-Élysées on the days of Longchamps in Holy Week. Besides, my father says that it will someday be the highest dignity in France. He must be a soldier–but I reserve the right of making him retire; and he must bear an Order, that the sentries may present arms to us.”

Of course, with a list of requirements like that, Emilie’s expectations are going to be tested and that is the heart of the story. What will happen if Emilie falls in love? Will love outweigh a coat-of-arms? Will she learn a lesson or will she get her just desserts? The nasty little twists and turns of this marvellous novella are classic Balzac–it’s those human vices once again, and what delightful havoc they play with his characters’ lives.

The Ball at Sceaux is available through Project Gutenberg. I downloaded my copy FREE for the kindle from Amazon. The nice thing about these editions is that a list of characters appears at the end of the text so that we can trace them in Le Comédie Humaine.

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Filed under Balzac, Fiction

All These Little Worlds: A Fiction Desk Anthology II ed. Rob Redman

I freely admit that I bought a kindle version of All These Little Worlds–an collection of short stories from The Fiction Desk–primarily for the promised short story from Charles Lambert. I’ve throughly enjoyed two novels from this author: Little Monsters and Any Human Face, and considered it worth the purchase of the collection for his short story alone. But I had a second motive afoot….Something exciting and rather daunting is happening in the world of publishing. It’s a paradigm shift of seismic proportions, and people are taking charge of their own writing careers through blogs and e-publishing. Conan Kennedy’s book: The Colour of Her Eyes–a superior crime novel in my opinion–and one that certainly surpasses many crime novels that went through regular channels of committee selection and publicity campaigns etc–is a prime example of an author acting on his own initiative and getting his book out there.

While publishing giants merge together, we’ve also seen a number of fascinating small presses spring to life: Pushkin Press, Archipelago Books, Dalkey Press, Europa Editions, Melville House, Oneworld Classics, Hesperus Press (I’m sure I forgot some names), and for those of us who don’t care for the bestseller lists, these small presses give an alternative. And that brings me to my second reason for buying All These Little Worlds–because it’s an effort by an independent voice. I’ll also admit to a sense of curiosity; I read a lot of short story collections, and some of the big names always get a showing. What about those who are not so famous?

All These Little Worlds includes nine stories, and as editor Rob Redman states in the introduction, while “it’s sometimes tempting to publish a themed volume,” it’s also a limiting choice. Whatever the selection process was, the result is superior, and if there is a dominant undercurrent in this volume, it’s arguably an underlying subversivenes that challenges our notions of traditional relationships

So here’s the story rundown:

Jaggers and Crown by James Benmore is the story of a comic team who rather like an an old married couple battled themselves and their demons through the course of several decades. It’s 2011 and Kevin Crown recalls his turbulent relationship with Sonny Jaggers. They first teamed together in the early fifties, and enjoyed a successful radio career before making the leap to television. A few years later, with Sonny’s drinking increasingly out-of-control, there’s a lucrative contract from ITV, and while Kevin is ambitious and conscientious, Sonny’s binges are taking a toll on the team. On the Fiction Desk blog , Benmore  explains that the story grew from his interest in British comedy programmes, and that if Jaggers is based on anyone, then that person would be Kenneth Williams. For this reader, the references to the scenes in which Jaggers and Crown share a bed is reminiscent of Morecambe and Wise, a remarkable duo who also shared a bed (you can find the skits on youtube). The story explores the turbulence behind the comedy and also shows how when one member of a comedy duo dies the survivor dies by default too.

Jennifer Moore’s Swimming with the Fishes is an odd but delightful tale of a couple of children whose sibling rivalry fixates on a fish tank. You’re not going to get any more info than that as I don’t want to spoil the story for those who’ve yet to read it. I don’t usually care for stories told by child narrators so I was skeptical at first, but the story is so perfectly written that I was never quite sure exactly what was ‘real’ and what was the child narrator’s imagination.

The third story is Charles Lambert’s Pretty Vacant–a title certainly inspired by one of my favourite bands–the Sex Pistols. It’s set in the 70s and here’s how it begins:

Three days before my fifteen birthday my father kisses me on the lips, pinches my left cheek until it hurts, says he’ll always love me and flies off to Madagascar with his new girlfriend, Mia. I’ve seen her once or twice in the back of his car or waiting outside his secretary’s office with a magazine, Bella or Chi, chewing the inside of her mouth, and I’ve wondered who she is. Someone who needs a job and is scared she might not get it, I thought at first, so I was half right; living with my father is a sort of job. My mother’s pretended not to notice . She’s getting ready to move into our summer house near Alghero.

The narrator, Francesca, is shipped off to a boarding school in England with the weak excuse that she needs to “perfect” her English. She’s angry and out-of-place, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that she hooks up with an admirer of the Red Brigades, Gary, a young man who hangs out in a nearby squat. Just as in Little Monsters, Lambert explores the adolescent world in which adults rarely venture, here we see the fallout of Francesca’s summer in exile.

Room 307 is from novelist Mischa Hiller. It’s the story of Callum, a married traveling salesman who runs into temptation. I loved this story for its moral complexities and the exploration of one event that will have lifetime consequences. Callum finds himself in a situation in which the choice he makes doesn’t bring quite the result he expects. Here’s Callum sitting in the hotel restaurant, lonely and bored as he waits for his unexciting meal to arrive:

He sipped at his half pint of lager and studied the generic artwork on the walls. he had stayed in many of this chain’s hotels and they all looked the same. same faux-traditional pub decor in the restaurant, same anodyne and inoffensive prints on the walls, same bored staff in white and black, same tiny en-suite bathrooms with mouldy grouting round the shower end of the bath. They didn’t even have a newspaper at reception he could hide behind, and he had left his petrol-station thriller in his room.

But Callum’s evening is about to change for the better… or so it seems….

Dress Code by Halimah Marcus, a wonderful story about a teacher who goes off the rails big-time, tied in very well to the recent reading of You Deserve Nothing. As the title suggests, this is a story that involves the element of school uniforms, and the story evolves around Episcopal Academy’s Casual Fridays“–the one day of the week when students are allowed to wear something other than their uniforms.  To English teacher, Linus, he “knew there’d be problems as soon as he read the letter [from admin], which included a list of forbidden garments and areas of flesh.” What happens to poor Linus is funny in a strange sort of way because as readers we can see it coming as we witness Linus stepping right into a PR/PC nightmare. Author Halimah Marcus captures perfectly the sense that teachers sometimes have that the best way to reach students is through honesty and utter equality, but that idea is a philosophical mirage as there are two sets of standards in the power-dynamic for students and teachers and Linus finds that out the hard way.

The Romantic by Colin Corrigan is the rather sad story of an Irish  one-armed poet who meets a lonely American woman in a pub. It’s a painful reality check evening in more ways than one.

In After all the Fun We Had by Ryan Shoemaker, a desperate school administrator, terrified by dwindling attendance figures goes all out to lure pupils back to the classroom. His methods become increasingly outrageous, and all this bribery devolves to its natural and comic conclusion.

In Glenda by Alan Jury, Charlie a young man whose wife has left him finds himself embroiled in a complicated relationship with his mother-in-law. Meanwhile his wife, Kathy is living with an “over-groomed sales director in Bristol.”

Glenda had first come to the house on the Saturday after Kathy had left him, and that same night the two of them had gotten riotously drunk together for the first time.

There’s another child narrator in Get on Green by Jason Atkinson. The child narrator is 4-year-old Tonya, and the story follows Tonya’s day at school as she moves from reality to sleep, role models to rebellion, and all this while school dominates with images of conformity.

Hunting for new authors, I read a lot of short story collections, and this is the best overall collection I’ve read this year. The 3rd issue of anthology is due out in the new year, and you bet I’ll be buying it. The anthology is available via subscription but I bought mine via the kindle. Rock on 21st century….

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Filed under Atkinson Jason, Benmore James, Corrigan Colin, Fiction, Hiller Mischa, Jury Alan, Lambert Charles, Marcus Halimah, Moore Jennifer, Shoemaker Ryan

The Colour of Her Eyes by Conan Kennedy

“This is not a girl,”  he told himself. “This is a little chemical time bomb standing here in front of me, waiting to go off.”

One of the best things about blogging, is that I get tips about books that I might not have found otherwise. So for Irish author Conan Kennedy’s The Colour of Her Eyes, I owe a big thank you to Tom at A Common Reader. Tom posted a review of the book a few months back. I read the review, had a (generous) sample of the book sent to my kindle, and then ordered a copy. For N. American readers, this book came at the ridiculous give-away price of $2.99.

The Colour of Her Eyes is a crime novel, a hell of a suspenseful page-turner (or should I say button pusher since I read it on the Kindle). When the novel begins, we know that a crime has been committed, and we also know that it’s something quite ugly. The story unfolds through a series of interviews conducted by D.I. Harris, a member of the Sussex police with John Stanley Dexter, a well-to-do married, middle-aged businessman who 15 years or so earlier worked, unhappily,  as a teacher at Walthamstow  School. The interviews–written in the form of transcripts–alternate with Dexter’s memories of his past and Harris’s mordant ruminations as he investigates the case. Just what that ‘case’ is unfolds in time as the combative interviews play out. Here’s Harris interviewing, or should I say, interrogating Dexter about a girl who attended the school:

“I’m a tit man. And I’m telling you she was wearing a skimpy little top with her tits poking out one end and her belly the other. Am I right?”

“Not quite.”

“Where did I go wrong?”

“Well in those days you wouldn’t see their stomach. It wasn’t the fashion.”

“Ok. You’re the  expert. On underage girls. I’m only the amateur here. But I bet I’m half right. I bet her tits were falling out of her top.”

“It was pretty low cut, yes.”

“You in the fashion business, the rag trade?”

“You know I’m not.”

“Well stop saying things like it was pretty low cut. What we both mean is her fucking tits were falling out of her fucking top. Am I right?”

“Ok, you’re right.”

“Good. Now. So what do we have here. This little teenage poppet. Tits all over the shop. With nice thighs.”

“I didn’t say that. Didn’t say anything about thighs.”

“No you didn’t, but you said she was wearing a skirt.”

“That is not the same thing.”

“Did she not have nice thighs?”

And so it begins again.

Dexter’s memories take him 15 years back into the past to 1996 when he briefly worked as a 25-year-old teacher:

Six months teaching and already he hated the little fuckers. Oh ok, put it a bit more diplomatically, he just didn’t trust teenagers.

He’s chaperoning a disco, feeling he was “too fucking old to be at a teenagers’ disco”   when he meets a 15-year-old teenage jailbait of a temptress who calls herself Moonshine–a girl with remarkable green eyes:

She still didn’t smile, but looked at him intensely. A lot more intensely that he would have expected, with the vodka and drugs and whatever else. That look reminded him of some animal behind bars, in a zoo. There’s a moment when it suddenly catches your eyes. And you realise that you haven’t a clue who is in there. This was that moment. It shook him up a little, unnerved him a bit.

I don’t want to look into this girl’s eyes, he realised.

She’ll draw me in. And I’ll drown. And I’ll end up on a sex register.

As it turns out, and it comes as no surprise, teaching just isn’t Dexter’s calling. He moves on to the business world and as would fate would have it, 5 years after the disco, as a sales manager, he runs into Moonshine (real name Ruth Taylor) who’s waitressing, supporting a child and who’s been on the game. Dexter eventually becomes a rather well-heeled executive who owns a large country home with the baggage of all the material accoutrements–including a pony for one of his children and a wife who demands some ridiculously pretentious social markers. While Dexter may be comfortable financially, there’s something missing from his life. Meeting Ruth again is a momentous occasion which changes Dexter and Ruth’s lives for ever, and then, rather strangely, fate seems to throw them together again in five-year intervals.

These meetings–which may or may not be chance–occur over the years, and Dexter discusses them partly through the police interviews, and partly through memory. Perhaps due to Ruth’s cynicism and life experience, gradually the age gap between Dexter and Ruth appears to shrink. Meanwhile Dexter’s discontent with his wife, Yvette grows:

No, Dexter couldn’t really stand Yvette.

But she was good with the children, and he loved her for that. And he had loved her for all sorts of things too, once. So he loved her for that too.

“She’s volatile,” he said to his boss that night, that particular night after Yvette had stormed out of the room. Not that it had to be any particular night. Yvette stormed out of rooms quite a lot. But disagreement about EU politics was her starting gun for the current storm. Yvette thought most countries should be like Belgium. Only more so.

Due to the novel’s clever structure in which gems of information are parcelled out through police transcripts and memories, author Conan Kennedy creates intensity, suspense, and an irresistible desire to get to the truth. The truth however, proves to be elusive, and Harris’s frustrations with Dexter grow exponentially. When the story begins, Dexter seems to be the main character, but as the plot plays out, that role seems to shift to Harris. There’s no small amount of envy directed from Harris towards Dexter:

A bloke turning fifty with a good job seems to have most things already. Apart from time, and youth, and young women in the bed. Yes, apart from that sort of thing.

Harris looked at women. Pretty. And pretty much out of reach, to a detective inspector turning fifty. Glass between me and the stuff in the windows, he decided, and too much time between me and the girls. Out of reach. Well shit, maybe not completely out of reach. But much like the stuff in the shop windows. He didn’t really want them an awful lot, or need them much. But he watched them anyway.

Harris, who’s fifty, looking at a quiet retirement, and attracted to a young female PC is aware that some of his behaviour crosses or least comes dangerously close to the borders of sexual harassment. Perhaps this explains his barely camouflaged resentment of John Dexter because his suspect is a man who’s crossed the lines of various taboos more than once. Kennedy creates a massive amount of tension–tension between private and public lives, tension between what is desired and what is attainable, and tension between the haves and the have-nots. With this much tension, something’s got to give, and that’s where murder enters the picture. As Harris notes:

That’s a bad triangle. Women and money and revenge.

A great deal of the novel is set in the drabness of the seaside town of Bognor Regis, and somehow the descriptions of the deserted beach and its “long rows of empty deckchairs” suit the atmosphere of this moody psychological crime novel.  I’ll admit that I was a bit disappointed in the ending and found myself with a lot of questions, but then, as I clicked to the final page….there’s a sequel! And no doubt some of the questions I have will find answers there. So… Conan, if you read this, where’s the sequel?

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Filed under Fiction, Kennedy Conan

An Episode Under the Terror by Balzac

An Episode Under the Terror, according to my copy, was published in 1831. This  story takes place in January 1793 in Paris, and you don’t need to be a student of French history to know that this was a time of turmoil. France had become a Republic, and on January 21st, 1793, Louis XVI was executed by guillotine. The story An Episode Under the Terror begins the day after the execution of Louis as a fearful old lady walks through the streets of Paris at night:

It had snowed so heavily all day long that the lady’s footsteps were scarcely audible; the streets were deserted, and a feeling of dread, not unnatural amid the silence, was further increased by the whole extent of the Terror beneath which France was groaning in those days; what was more, the old lady so far had met no one by the way.

Hearing footsteps steadily behind her, the old lady imagines that she’s being followed by a spy. She is not, however, deterred from her mission, and she continues on her errand to a pastry-cook’s shop. The old woman is dressed plainly with no powder on her hair, but in spite of this, it’s very easy for the pastry-cook and his wife to spot their customer as a noble woman:

The manners and habits of people of condition were so different from those of other classes in former times that a noble was easily known, and the shopkeeper’s wife felt persuaded that her customer was a ci-devant, and that she had been about the court.

The old lady pays her last gold louis for the contents of a small pastry box and returns home to a cold garret she shares with two other people. She’s followed home by the same man who followed her to the shop. Is he a spy? Will he denounce the old woman and the two other residents who are hiding under the most miserable of circumstances?

Even though this is a very simple story, Balzac gives a sense of the uncertainty unleashed by Reign of Terror. The shopkeepers feel some pity for the old lady but they are “drawn two ways by pity and self-interest.” As usual there are some marvellous observations from Balzac on the subject of human behaviour and money–this is seen through the behaviour of the pastry cook who fleeces the old lady and feels a momentary prick of conscience for his thievery.

One of the issues Balzac brings up is that the priest, a Jansenist, in the story refused to take “the Oath.” Another issue that emerges in the story, and one of quite surprising prescient is the subject of individual responsibility. The priest discusses the current “wickedness” and the stranger asks if he will be punished for his “indirect participation.” 

“But do you think that an indirect participation will be punished?” The stranger asked with a bewildered look. “There is the private soldier commanded to fall into line–is he actually responsible?”

The priest hesitated. The stranger was glad; he had put the Royalist precisian in a dilemma, between the dogma of passive obedience on the one hand (for the upholders of the Monarchy maintained that obedience was the first principle of military law), and the equally important dogma which turns respect for the person of a king into a matter of religion. 

While I wasn’t that interested in the wrestling of religious dogma, the stranger’s question–just how responsible was he for ‘following orders’ resonates today. How can loyalty or obedience to a king, a president or a general trump individual conscience or morality?

Balzac was born in 1799, so he hadn’t been born when the events of the story take place. Balzac’s mother gave birth to a first son in 1798, nursed him herself, and he died a few weeks later. Honoré Balzac was sent off to a wet nurse, the wife of a gendarme at Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire. He was four years old when he returned home to his parents in Tours, and this separation from his mother set the tone for his relationship with her–and perhaps all women.

My copy came free on the kindle, but it’s also available on Project Gutenberg.

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Filed under Balzac, Fiction

L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories (Rockstar Games)

One of the features I really like about the Kindle (apart from the free classics) is the way stories, novellas, and novels not published anywhere else find their way onto this device. Example: I came across L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories for the princely sum of 99 cents. How could I not buy this?

Ok, so what do you get for your 99 cents?

That Girl by Megan Abbott

See the Woman by Lawrence Block

Naked Angel by Joe R. Lansdale

Black Dahlia and White Rose by Joyce Carol Oates

School for Murder by Francine Prose

What’s in a Name by Jonathan Santlofer

Hell of an Affair by Duane Swierczynski

Postwar Room by Andrew Vachss

Charles Ardai, the founder of Hard Case Crime, wrote the introduction which explains that Rockstar Games set out to create a classic noir experience,” and that LA Noire puts the player “into the shoes of Cole Phelps” former Marine now a member of LAPD. In addition to creating the game, Rockstar Games also “invite[d] some of the most acclaimed living practitioners of the noir storytelling art … to each write a new short story inspired by the world of LA Noire.” Some of the stories, apparently, are inspired by cases in the game.

I’m a Megan Abbott fan, so I was happy to see her included, and her story, The Girl is a female-centric tale that focuses on the tawdry side of Hollywood. I’ve read all of Abbott’s novels, btw, and The Song is You is my favourite. The Song is You was inspired by the real-life, unsolved disappearance of actress Jean Spangler. It’s a bitterly haunting novel, and I found myself thinking about it as I read The Girl. The Girl is set in a “famous” LA house, and I know which house inspired Abbott here. It’s a “Mayan fortress made of ferroconcrete blocks stacked like teeth.”

The protagonist of the story is an actress called June. She doesn’t have much of a career, but she’s married to a gangster named Guy, and this career move has removed some of the desperation from June’s life. June’s agent tells her that she’ll meet Huston at the party:

“Key Largo. The part’s perfect for you.”

“Claire Trevor’s got it sewn up between her thighs,” June said softly, looking up at the house from the open door of the agent’s middling car. “Ten years, every bed I land in is still warm from her.”

“She’s not married to Guy,” the agent pointed out.

“You see how far that’s got me,” June said.

Ok, this is a Hollywood party of the movers and shakers, the power people of Tinseltown. June has already admitted that she’s slept around to get parts. What else is she willing to do?

The first few years in Hollywood, times were hard and June shared apartments, rooms, even, with a hundred girls, their shared pillowcases flossy with their peroxided hair.

Working counter girl, working  as an extra, working as a department-store model, a girl to look pretty at parties, she got by, barely. She even filled her teeth with white candle wax when they turned brown and died.

She said she would do things, and she wouldn’t suffer for them. She’s seen where suffering could get you, and it wasn’t her bag.

So she hustled and hustled and finally found the ways to get all those small roles at Republic, B-unit jobs at Fox. She never could be sure, though, is she was making headway or running on her last bit of garter-flashing luck.

I am a fan of Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series, so it wasn’t too surprising that another favourite story came from this author. Lansdale’s story, Naked Angel, is about patrolman Adam Coats who finds a dead body frozen inside a huge block of ice.

Downtown at the morgue the night attendant, Bowen, greeted him with a little wave from behind his desk. Bowen was wearing a white smock covered in red splotches that looked like blood but weren’t. There was a messy meatball sandwich on a brown paper wrapper in front of him, half-eaten. He had a pulp-Western magazine in his hands. He laid it on the desk and showed Coats some teeth.

I wasn’t sure which was worse–thinking that the morgue attendant’s smock was covered in blood or realising that he was eating a messy meatball sandwich a few feet away from the stiffs.

Another favourite I’m going to mention is Hell of an Affair by Duane Swierczynski. This is the story of Bill Shelton, an underpaid Los Angeles surveyor who thinks he gets lucky when he picks up a waitress named Bonnie. Wait. I’ll revise that. She picks him up. Bad sign. A few dates and a little tongue hockey later, Bill’s ready to do whatever it takes to get Bonnie out of trouble.

These are classic noir tales: the easy pick-up femme fatale, affairs torched by lust, greed and ambition, and our characters lured by opportunity only to be tricked by fate. Some of these short stories have the feel that they could be fleshed out into novellas, but hey for 99 cents, I’m not bitching.  And if you want the low-down on the other stories, knock yourself out and spring for a copy.

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Filed under Abbott Megan, Block Lawrence, Fiction, Lansdale Joe R, Oates Joyce Carol, Prose Francine, Santlofer Jonathan, Swierczynski Duane, Vachss Andrew

The Duel by Joseph Conrad

“To the surprise and admiration of their fellows, two officers, like insane artists trying to gild refined gold or paint the lily, pursued a private contest through the years of universal carnage.”

5 novellas all called The Duel? What a brilliant idea from Melville House Publishing to reprint these classic titles with special features. The five novellas are:

Casanova’s The Duel

Chekhov’s The Duel

Conrad’s The Duel

Kleist’s The Duel

Kuprin’s The Duel

Melville House offered a free e-copy of Conrad’s novella, so I grabbed the chance to read it. Conrad’s The Duel was made into a marvellous film directed by Ridley Scott, called The Duellists. Regular readers of this blog know that I am fascinated by the film-book connection, and I am also fascinated by duelling, so this novella appealed for dual reasons….

The novella begins during the Napoleonic wars and concludes with the restoration of the Bourbons in a post-Napoleonic France. Tumultuous years indeed for men who fought for the emperor, but also some rather dodgy times when Napoleon was exiled, returned to fight again, and then was finally defeated at Waterloo. A disaster, of course, to bet on the wrong pony, but then again some people go with the flow, and that brings me back to The Duel.

The Duel charts the relationship between two officers in Napoleon’s army. These men are cavalry officers and complete opposites in temperament, appearance and background. The two officers are Feraud and D’Hubert–both lieutenants in the Hussars when the story begins in Strasbourg. D’Hubert, a dashing, tall, lithe young man from a wealthy prominent family has already been selected from the herd for special attention. He’s “attached” to the general in command and serves as an officier d’ordonnance.  Even at this early stage of his career, it’s easy to see that D’Hubert will be successful–if he survives–his selection denotes the recognition of his talents with the Hussars. He’s a trusted aristocrat and he’s given duties that require a touch of diplomacy.

The trouble begins when Lieut. D’Hubert is sent to talk to Feraud regarding a rumour afoot that Feraud dueled with a civilian and “ran that civilian through this morning. Clean through, as you spit a hare.” The civilian is from a prominent family, and Feraud, whose conduct is considered “positively indecent” has angered the general. D’Hubert has been sent to place Feraud under house arrest–partly for his own safety and partly to let the situation cool down, but he finds Feraud already gone from his lodgings. He’s off flirting at the home of a home of a notorious young matron. Astonished at Feraud’s cheek, D’Hubert hustles off to the home of Madame de Lionne to place Feraud under house arrest.

D’Hubert finds Feraud, and he explains that Feraud must lay low for a while. Feraud finds such a command ridiculous and protests while defending the duel:

Was I to let that sauerkraut-eating civilian wipe his boots on the uniform of the 7th Hussars?

This first meeting sets the tone for the relationship between the two men and also outlines their basic personalities. D’Hubert obeys the orders handed down from the general without question, and Feraud, who’s impulsive and hot-tempered, inherently listens to other ‘codes’–other rules that are deeply ingrained in his nature. Feraud’s loyalties run deep and political expediency is an anathema as he operates on passion rather than logic. It’s fairly easy to predict that D’Hubert, the recipient of gilded patronage will go far while Feraud, a Gascon commoner will ultimately sacrifice career to his notions of loyalty and honour.

When Feraud is told he’s under house arrest, things between D’Hubert and Feraud go from bad to worse.  Emotions explode and Feraud goes berserk:

“I am reasonable! I am perfectly reasonable!” retorted the other with ominous restraint. “I can’t call the general at account for his behaviour, but you are going to answer me for yours.”

D’Hubert finds himself fighting Feraud in the garden of Feraud’s lodgings where the ‘seconds’ are a deaf gardener and a horrified old lady who watches from an upstairs window. These absurd circumstances strip the duel of its ceremony and its notions of honour. For D’Hubert, the duel is reduced to little more than a brawl. It’s an ignoble position but one D’Hubert can’t avoid:

This was most unsuitable ground, he thought, keeping a watchful, narrowed gaze, shaded by long eyelashes, upon the fiery stare of his thickset adversary. This absurd affair would ruin his reputation of a sensible, well-behaved, promising young officer. It would damage, at any rate, his immediate prospects, and lose him the goodwill of his general. These worldly preoccupations were no doubt misplaced in view of the solemnity of the moment. A duel, whether regarded as a ceremony in the cult of honour, or even when reduced to its moral essence to a form of manly sport, demands a perfect singleness of intention, a homicidal austerity of mood.

 And so begins the long-drawn out conflict between D’Hubert and Feraud. The two officers fight in Napoleon’s campaigns, and in between campaigns they meet and conduct a series of duels. Distance, war and even rank intervenes–duels are only to be held between those of equal rank, so when D’Hubert is promoted, he cannot be challenged by Feraud.

While this is essentially a story of two men who battle out their differences using a variety of weapons, this is also a story of two men cast together by circumstance. Feraud appears to take umbrage at D’Hubert’s existence, and part of this must certainly lie in the fact that D’Hubert, one of “these generals’ pets” leads a life of privilege. This is noted by Fearud immediately through the general’s preference for D’Hubert, and this privilege continues to emerge as France’s rulers shift. D’Hubert’s armour of privilege, sensed by Feraud, comes to full bloom with the defeat of Napoleon.

Underneath the quarrels, the bravado, the duels, and the misplaced sense of honour, Conrad seems to broach the question: who is the better man? D’Hubert whose cool head and privileged position allows him to remain in favour even as the tide turns? Or is Feraud, the hot head, the better man for his placement of insane loyalty over his own hide?

This edition at 112 pages comes loaded with extras–a cornucopia of articles (including an extract from Napoleon’s memoirs), illustrations, the entire French Code Duello (French code of conduct concerning duels and duellists) and various background materials. Of particular note is The History of Conrad’s Duel: Dupont vs. Fournier. This details the true story of a series of duels that were held between 1794-1813 between Dupont and Fournier, two officers in Napoleon’s army. This short piece ends with a dig at the French:

And thus ended this long-protracted affair. Surely none but Frenchman would have carried on such a tragicomedy for so long a time.  

On a final note, the coterie of disappointed, bitter Napoleonic soldiers surrounding Feraud reminded of Philippe  Bridau in  Balzac’s The Black Sheep. Although the latter really is a much nastier piece of work.

(Kuprin’s The Duel, Chekhov’s The Duel, and Casanova’s The Duel are all reviewed on this blog)

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Kiss Her Goodbye by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

When you went to Florida, you took your fishing rod. For Manhattan, a rod of a different kind was called for.”

American crime author, Mickey Spillane created his iconic fictional flawed hero, Mike Hammer decades ago, and it’s nothing short of fantastic to see Hammer back, badder than ever, for this 2011 release. Over the years, Spillane produced a series of books featuring Hammer and his faithful sidekick, his long-term loyal secretary and lover, Velda. Many of these books made it to film (I, The Jury, My Gun is Quick, Kiss Me Deadly, The Girl Hunters just to name a few). When Spillane died in 2006, it seemed as though Hammer would die with him, but Spillane left several unfinished manuscripts behind, and in the week before his death he told his wife:

“When I’m gone, there’s going to be a treasure hunt around here. Take everything you find and give it to Max–he’ll know what to do with it.”

The ‘Max’ referred to by Spillane is another giant of American crime fiction, Max Allan Collins. Collins is the creator of a dazzling number of crime series featuring some marvellous characters including Eliot Ness, Dick Tracy, and my personal favourite, Quarry. If none of these sound familiar to you, try the film Road to Perdition based on the author’s book. In my opinion, Collins is Spillane’s natural successor in the world of American crime writing. Clearly Spillane saw Collins in that light, and trusted his abilities enough to leave him the incredible legacy of a bunch of unfinished manuscripts–manuscripts other writers (and many publishers) would kill to get their hands on. Max Allan Collins, by the way, was a long-term fan of Spillane’s and the two men later became friends.

This brings me back to Kiss Her Goodbye–the latest of Spillane’s manuscripts to make publication through Max’s creativity and understanding of just what Spillane was all about. Kiss Her Goodbye follows Dead Street, The Goliath Bone (Spillane was working on this novel right before his death), and The Big Bang–all Spillane/Collins collaborations. Hard Case Crime will publish The Consummata later this year (and you bet I’ll be reading it), and for lucky fans there may be more to come.

Spillane’s Kiss Her Goodbye came to Max as “plot, character notes, as well as a shorter false start.” Max eventually “combined, shaped, and expanded” two “partial manuscripts” into Kiss Her Goodbye. The result is a kick-ass, violent, Hammer novel which will make one of my top reads of 2011.

Kiss her Goodbye finds Hammer aging, recuperating, and very possibly mellowing in the Florida sunshine. It’s been about a year since the mob shoot-out that left Hammer badly wounded, but at least he was better off than his enemy, psychotic gangster, Sal Bonetti. Initially not expected to survive, Hammer’s recuperation has been long and painful, and even now he’s not what he once was.  

Hammer receives a phone call from New York homicide cop, Captain Bill Chambers that Hammer’s old mentor, retired cop Bill Doolan is dead. The official version is that Doolan, suffering from terminal cancer, has committed suicide, but Hammer doesn’t swallow that line. He flies to New York and begins digging into the circumstances of Doolan’s death. While it appears to be a clear-cut case of suicide, Hammer sniffs a few details that don’t add up. And then there’s every indication that Doolan was working on something just before he died….

When Hammer first arrives back in New York, he’s reluctant to be there, reluctant to be back in his old killing grounds and as far as New York’s concerned, he’s ready to “kiss her goodbye.” In spite of the fact that he’s recognised everywhere he goes, and that he’s such a New York fixture that Cohen’s Deli even names a sandwich after him (The Mike Hammer mile-high sandwich), Hammer isn’t happy to be back:

Now it was the city’s turn to pass in review and it did a lousy job. Nothing had changed. No sudden sense of deja vu–the smells were the same, the noise still grating, the people out there looking and waiting but never seeing anything at all. If they did, they sure as hell didn’t let anyone know about it.

While New York is essentially the same, Hammer isn’t. He suffers from aches and pains and still has a piece of a bullet lodged in his buttocks. Initially, he isn’t interested in returning to the world of New York crime: 

I’m not in it any more. I haven’t the slightest faintest fucking desire to get wrapped up in that bundle of bullshit again. I’ve done it, it’s past me. I’m retired.

For an example of the genre, it really doesn’t get any better than Kiss Her Goodbye. This explosive PI crime novel is firmly rooted in pulp, and while the story begins with a damaged Hammer, once he’s back in New York where he belongs, he gradually moves from alienation to thinking that  “I was getting the feeling that I was back in my own ballpark again.” He morphs from sleepy, invalided semi-retirement, aches and pains and pill-popping to hair-trigger, violent action. He’s a virtual killing machine.

Since this is a Hammer novel, there are some beautiful babes and also, believe it or not, some humour, Hammer style. As Pat tells Hammer:

As I recall, killing people and banging dames is where you excel, and sometimes there’s a blurring between the lines.

The women in Hammer’s life are a study in contrasts: there’s Chrome, a sultry South American singer who has a permanent gig at Club 52–the go-to-destination for coke and roman-style orgies, and there’s also the new assistant DA, shapely Angela Marshall:

She looked like a schoolteacher you were really afraid of and also wanted to jump.

While power-suited Angela sees Hammer as some sort of male anachronism, there’s a chemistry between the two:

To you,” I said, “I’m an exercise. A far-out, way-out exercise to test your inherent abilities and your well-honed skills. Until now, everything has gone your way, because you have that glossiness beautiful girls get on their way to being women–that smooth surface that makes guys slide right off them. But someplace, way back, somebody smart warned you to watch out for a guy who had sandpaper on his hands, and who wouldn’t slide off at all. You never thought you’d need that kind of guy, but baby, you do now.”

Hammer isn’t exactly what you’d call gallant with the women in his life. He’s too cynical and grounded in jaded realism for roses and chocolates:

Breakfast with a real doll can be damn exciting. They’re awake, showered, and manicured, and all the weapons are pointed right at whatever chump is dumb enough to be sitting across from them. To such dolls, the guy on the other end of the fork is the big, ripe, plum ready for the plucking, because that world of economic dominance he dwells in, whatever male aggression he possesses, are overshadowed by the two most basic hungers.

And finally, lest I give the wrong impression that the novel floats on action alone, there are some beautiful atmospheric passages:

Down on the street, the rain had let up. But a low rumble of thunder echoed across the city. There was an occasional dull glaze of cloud-hidden lightning in the south, and when the wind gusted past, I could smell more rain coming–the kind that was held above the buildings until it was soaked with debris and dust, and when it came down, it wouldn’t be a cleansing rain at all.

Hammer, back in New York, where he belongs…

My copy of Kiss Her Goodbye came courtesy of the publisher via netgalley

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Dostoevsky Translations Part II

Here are two more passages comparing translations of Dostoevsky’s The Demons

The Constance Garnett translation free on the kindle:

Part I, Chapter 5–The Subtle Serpent:

Varvara Petrovna rang the bell and threw herself into an easy chair by the window.

“Sit here, my dear,” She motioned Marya Timofyevna to a set in the middle of the room, by a large round table. “Stepan Trofimovitch, what is the meaning of this? See, see, look at this woman, what is the meaning of it?”

“I …I …” faltered Stepan Trimovitch.

But a footman came in.

“A cup of coffee at once, we must have it as quickly as possible! Keep the horses!”

“Mais, chere et excellente amie, dans quelle inquietude…” Stepan Trofimovitch exclaimed in a dying voice.

 “Ach! French! French! I can see at once that it’s the highest society,” cried Marya Timofyevna, clapping her hands, ecstatically preparing herself to listen to a conversation in French. Varvara Petrovna stared at her almost in dismay.

We all sat in silence, waiting to see how it would end. Shatov did not lift up his head, and Stepan Trofimovitch was overwhelmed with confusion as though it were all his fault; the perspiration stood out on his temples. I glanced at Liza (she was sitting in the corner almost beside Shatov). Her eyes darted keenly from Varvara Petronova to the cripple and back again; her lips were drawn into a smile, but not a pleasant one. Varvara Petronova saw that smile. Meanwhile Marya Timofyevna was absolutely transported. With evident enjoyment and without a trace of embarrassment she stared at Varvara Petronova’s beautiful drawing-room–the furniture, the carpets, the pictures on the walls, the old-fashioned painted ceiling, the great bronze crucifix in the corner, the china lamp, the albums, the objects on the table.

 

Here’s the Pevear/Volokhonsky version. Part One Chapter 5: The Wise Serpent:

Varvara Petrovna rang the bell and threw herself into an armchair by the window.

“Sit down here, my dear,” she motioned Marya Timofeevna to a seat in the middle of the room, by the big round table. “Stepan Trofimovich, what is this? Here, here look at this woman, what is this?”

“I … I…” Stepan Trofimovich began to stammer …

But the footman came.

“A cup of coffee, now, specially, and as quickly as possible! Don’t unhitch the carriage.”

“Mais, chère et excellente amie, dans quelle inquiétude …” Stepan Trofimovich exclaimed in a sinking voice.

“Ah! French! French! You can see right off it’s high society!” Marya Timofeevna clapped her hands, preparing rapturously to listen to conversation in French. Varvara Petrovna stared at her almost in fright.

We were all silent, awaiting some denouement. Shatov would not raise his head, and Stepan Trofimovich was in disarray, as if it were all his fault; sweat stood out on his temples. I looked at Liza (she was sitting in the corner, almost next to Shatov). Her eyes kept darting keenly from Varvara Petrovna to the lame woman and back; a smile twisted on her lips, but not a nice one. Varvara Petrovna saw this smile. And meanwhile Marya Timofeevna was completely enthralled; with delight and not the least embarrassment she was studying Varvara’s beautiful drawing room–the furniture, the carpets, the paintings on the walls, the old-style decorated ceiling, the big bronze crucifix in the corner, the porcelain lamp, the albums and knickknacks on the table.

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Dostoevsky Translations Part I

The issue of Dostoevsky translations arose recently, so here are some comparative samples for anyone interested:

The Possessed or The Devils translated by Constance Garnett. This is available free on the kindle:

 Chapter 1:

In undertaking to describe the recent and strange events in our town, till lately wrapped in uneventful obscurity, I find myself forced in absence of literary skill to begin my story rather far back, that is to say, with certain biographical details concerning the talented and highly-esteemed gentleman, Stepan Trofimovitch Verhovensky. I trust that these details may at least serve as an introduction, while my projected story itself will come later.

I will say at once that Stepan Trofimovich had always filled a particular role among us, that of progressive patriot, so to say, and he was passionately fond of playing the part–so much so that I really believe he could not have existed without it. Not that I would put him on a level with an actor at a theatre, God forbid, for I really have a respect for him. This may all have been the effect of habit, or rather, more exactly of a generous propensity he had from his earliest years for indulging in an agreeable day-dream in which he figured as a picturesque public character. He fondly loved, for instance, his position as a “persecuted” man and, so to speak, an “exile.” There is a sort of traditional glamour about those two little words that fascinated him once for all and, exalting him gradually in his own opinion, raised him in the course of years to a lofty pedestal very gratifying to vanity.

Here’s the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation (which I think is worth the price plus you get a foreword & translator’s notes):

The Demons

Chapter One-Instead of an Introduction:

In setting out to describe the recent and very strange events that took place in our town, hitherto not remarkable for anything, I am forced, for want of skill, to begin somewhat far back–namely, with some biographical details concerning the talented and much esteemed Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky. Let these details serve merely as an introduction to the chronicle presented here, while the story itself, which I am intending to relate, still lies ahead.

I will say straight off Stepan Trofimovich constantly plays a certain special and, so to speak, civic role among us, and loved this role to the point of passion–so much so that it even seems to me he would have been unable to live without it. Not that I equate him with a stage actor: God forbid, particularly as I happen to respect him. It could all have been a matter of habit, or, better, of a ceaseless and noble disposition, from childhood on, towards a pleasant dream of his civic stance. He was, for example, greatly enamoured of his position as a “persecuted” man and, so to speak, an “exile.” There is a sort of classical luster to these two little words that seduced him once and for all, and, later raising him gradually in his own estimation over the course of so many years, brought him finally to some sort of pedestal, rather lofty and gratifying to his vanity.

To be continued….

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Fearless by Rafael Yglesias

The discussion of the outsourcing of airline maintenance has crept into the news lately. Not exactly a reassuring scenario, and it certainly doesn’t encourage me to discard my deep attraction to train travel. Anyway, this seemed like an excellent time to turn to Fearless by Rafael Yglesias–the story of an airline accident and the fallout on the lives of those who survive. If the title sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve seen the 1993 film version featuring Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez. I rather like Jeff Bridges, and his recent subversion of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit reinforces my opinion of him as an actor.

But back to the book….

Of course, since I’d seen the film years ago, I knew–more-or-less–what to expect. An airline crash is not a pleasant subject, and this is not a book you’d want to carry on a plane to read unless you have a sadomasochistic twist or you have a secret desire to get thrown off the plane for tormenting your fellow passengers with the topic.

Fearless begins with business partners, the owners of an architect firm, Max and Jeff flying from Newark, New Jersey to California for a business meeting. Max is terrified of flying. There always seems to be one person like Max on every flight. You can spot them by their nervousness, but Max is unusual for a fearful flyer as he’s delved into the subject of  airline disasters:

Thanks to his morbid study of air disasters he allowed himself to be panicked only during takeoff and landing. That psychological bargain was the best he could do to master his fear of flying.

But forty-two minutes into the flight, there’s “a dulled and yet definite explosion.” Things don’t immediately go wrong, but then the plane drops from the sky. There is a crash of course, but for the passengers strange things happen to their sensation of time in the approximately twenty-minute period from the first boom until the crash. Some things are etched in the memories of the survivors while other events are obscure or surreal. The terror felt by the passengers is visceral. Reading the book, gave me the sensation that I was watching the event–helpless to stop the plane’s horrific descent.

It really is a stroke of brilliance of the part of the author that he creates Max as a character with a strong flight phobia. Max has spent a considerable time dwelling on accident reports as if he wanted to face and understand his fears. Now in the middle of an imminent crash, all his past reading has made him an informed participant. While other passengers don’t understand what is happening, Max grasps every detail:

The plane found a ramp in the air and swooped up it, levelling. They were much lower, perhaps no more than ten thousand feet off the ground; Max didn’t know, he was guessing. He noticed that the right wing dipped and then rose abruptly, without the usual smooth sway. Instead the plane jerked like a drunkard stumbling on his way home, landing heavily on each foot, threatening to topple over, rescued only by an equally precarious tilt the opposite way. Max peered at the wings and saw the flaps were up. They had been in that position before the roll, and after it, and again before the sudden drop. They hadn’t moved. Their immobility probably wasn’t a choice made by the captain, more likely he had no control over them. If so, Max had read that meant they would eventually crash. He had read about the safety backups: everything was supposedly designed to prevent such a catastrophic failure. If somehow the impossible had occurred and the captain couldn’t steer, then they were doomed.

I read this passage and wondered if I would want Max’s knowledge of airline crashes if I were in his shoes….

There’s some irony to Max’s position. When he booked the flight, always nervous about flying and armed with research about plane crashes, he’d checked to see what sort of plane he and Jeff would be flying on:

Aware of the DC-10’s history of death, Max boarded this one only after losing a fight against doing so. Max, as usual, had been careful to phone ahead to find out what model plane was scheduled. He had been told their flight was on an L-1011. At the check-in counter (always making sure, always cautious) he casually asked again and was terrified the instant the agent said that the equipment for their flight had been changed from the safe L-1011 to this, the DC-10 deathtrap. Pulling at Jeff’s arm and whispering shyly, like a little kid coaxing a parent, Max argued to Jeff that they should wait for a later flight.

As the plane’s rapid uncontrolled descent continues, Max experiences a range of emotions: fear, of course, and then a peevish sort of glee that he was right about the plane. This is followed by a strange serenity as he lets go of his fear. If you’ve ever experienced this sort of sensation, then you never forget it, and the author captures Max’s state of mind perfectly.

I don’t think I’m giving away too much here, but a crash does occur, and Max becomes a hero of sorts known as the “Good Samaritan.” Max denies that he earned this title, and the novel’s surreal crash scenes leave some details deliberately vague. Following the crash, Max returns home, but he’s not the same Max. He’s survived and now “fearless” as the title implies. He strikes up relationships with two fellow survivors–a precocious child named Byron, and a young woman named Carla. He also becomes part of a lawsuit against the airlines, and this involves remembering the details of an event he’d rather forget.

Fearless presents a narrative challenge as the common presentation of events is inverted. Usually when the subject is disaster, the plot often builds up to the catastrophe with the denouement of who survived and who didn’t. It’s neither the fault of the novel nor the fault of the author that the sections of the novel that detail the crash are the most intense parts, but by the time the crash is over, I found myself committed to following Max’s actions as he begins acting rather bizarrely and has little patience with the emotional demands of his family.

Given the intensity of the descriptions–how the passengers felt, and the sensations they experienced (at one point the floor seems to give way), I have to conclude that the author, Rafael Yglesias must have interviewed survivors or at the very least read survivor accounts in order to convey the intensity of the minutes before the crash and then the lifetime of emotions that remain.

My copy came from Open Road Media by way of Netgalley and my Kindle.

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