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Of Human Bondage: W. Somerset Maugham (1915)

“It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched, for they are full of the truthless ideals which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real they are bruised and wounded. It looks as if they were victims of a conspiracy; for the books they read, ideal by the necessity of selection, and the conversation of their elders, who look back upon the past through a rosy haze of forgetfulness, prepare them for an unreal life. They must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life. “

W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage, is an intense character study of Philip Carey from his unhappy childhood through his life as a young man. The book is labelled a bildungsroman, and in this case, the label is a reductive. Of Human Bondage had been in my to-read list for years, and this wonderful book makes my Best-of-Year list.

Philip’s life does not begin well. He is born with a club foot, a deformity which shapes his entire life. His father, a London doctor, spent above his means and died unexpectedly, leaving a widow, pretty Helen and his small son just a tiny amount of money. When Philip is 9, his mother dies and he’s left in the care of his paternal uncle, William Carey, a Vicar and his wife, Louisa. William and Louisa are a childless couple, and life at the vicarage is dull and restrictive. While Aunt Louisa loves Philip and tries to do her best for the boy, life at the vicarage is built around the selfishness and self-importance of the vicar. William Carey earns just 300 pounds a year, not a great deal, so he is the one who eats an egg while his wife nibbles nervously at bread and butter. The pompous, miserable, querulous vicar is the one who goes on holiday while Louisa stays home. If Philip is a ‘good boy’ he may get the top of his uncle’s boiled egg. With the household built around the idea that the vicar is the most important creature in the house, the addition of a small, lonely, unhappy boy is not easy. The vicar, who did not approve of Philip’s parents, intends that Philip should enter the church. Shipped off to boarding school, Philip, due to his club foot, suffers great torments at the hands of the other boys. It’s at boarding school, Philip finally finds a friend, but it’s a friendship based in Philip’s deep insecurities and need for love.

When he’s a young man, Philip refuses to try for an Oxford scholarship and instead, using his small inheritance, goes to Germany. He’s desperate to ‘live’ and escape the suffocating life in the vicarage. His aunt’s sad, dreary existence seems to be an incentive to gain experience abroad. Philip returns home and studies accounting but decides that is not for him, and so, possessing a little artistic talent, he moves to Paris to study Art. Eventually realizing that he will never be a great artist, he returns to England and begins his training as a doctor. Philip meets a cockney waitress named Mildred and she becomes the bête noire of his life.

Our lives are defined by our experiences and our choices and so it is with Philip. He obsessively pursues the dreadful Mildred, and she treats him abominably. She drifts in and out of Philip’s life, using him shamelessly, and each time she returns and leaves, her degrading treatment of Philip is worse and worse. She is a horrid creature; she understands Philip in terms of how she can manipulate him, but she sees his code of behaviour, his ‘niceness’ as weakness. Philip falls as low as a human being can go in terms of money, and it’s only when he hits rock bottom that he begins to surface.

It’s through Philip’s interactions with Mildred we see how relationships fill a need. Philip has nothing in common with Mildred, but think of a key and a lock, they ‘fit’ together, and while even Philip recognises that the awful passion he has for Mildred is self-destructive, he can’t stop.

He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with one than happiness with the other.

So enough of the plot, but onto some of the significant people Philip meets. He has a sexual relationship with an older woman in his uncle’s home and after her successful conquest, he abandons her without hesitation. He meets a repellent young female art student in Paris, and fails to see her deep poverty until it is too late. He meets a fellow artist who gives him a rug saying it explains the meaning of life, and through his hospital work, he befriends a patient, Thorpe Athelny–a man of grandiose ideas who has a large, lively family.

After finishing the novel, I chewed over the entire ‘bondage’ idea. Philip is hostage to many things: his deformity, religion, money, sexual desire and his need for love. Philip tries to find freedom, the illusory idea of freedom, by leaving the stifling atmosphere of the vicarage, but he carries his human limitations with him to Germany and later Paris. He experiences many failures and disappointments while observing the failures of others who also seek freedom, fame or the meaning of life. Maugham addresses the idea of what it means to be ‘free’ and this is the question that haunts Philip until the novel’s conclusion. Freedom isn’t ‘out there,’–it’s not a geographical location–it’s metaphysical and Philip must overcome his emotional and mental hurdles in order to achieve freedom of the mind. Only then does he have a shot at happiness.

There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence. Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free. His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty. What he did or left undone did not matter. Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing. He was the most inconsiderate creature in that swarming mass of mankind which for a brief space occupied the surface of the earth; and he was almighty because he had wrenched from chaos the secret of its nothingness.

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The Wife: Meg Wolitzer

All over the world, husbands and wives routinely and somewhat pointlessly ask one another: Are you okay? It’s part of the contract; it’s the thing to do, because it implies that you care, that you’re paying attention, when in fact you might be deeply and relentlessly bored.”

Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Wife, is the history of the long, tired marriage of the Castlemans. As with any long marriage, it’s changed over the years, but this marriage also bears the scars of innumerable infidelities, and the total absorption of the wife’s identity into her husband’s career and public persona. Joe Castleman is an author on the tail end of his career, and he and his wife Joan fly to Helsinki to attend a prize ceremony which will give Joe a prestigious award along with a large sum of money. The novel opens with the couple on the plane and with Joan deciding that she’s fed up with Joe and her marriage.

“Will you have some cookies, Mr. Castleman?” a brunette [stewardess] asked him, leaning over with a pair of tongs, and as her breasts slid forward and then withdrew. I could see the ancient mechanism of arousal start to whir like a knife sharpener inside him, a sight I’ve witnessed thousands of times over the decades. “Mrs Castleman?” the woman asked me then, in afterthought, but I declined. I didn’t want her cookies or anything else.

Now age 64, Joan is going to leave her 71-year-old husband. Joe was Joan’s married professor when they met in 1956, and just a few meetings in his office led to sex. According to Joe, his first wife, Carol was “insane. Locked-ward certifiable,” but the affair ‘freed’ him from marriage and brand-new fatherhood. Even though Joe walked out on Carol and new baby Fanny, for years he got mileage out of the idea of the tragic loss of a relationship with his daughter. Over the years, Joan has come to understand that Joe’s display of more introspective, sensitive emotions are simply for show: his ‘anguish’ about losing his baby daughter, supposed ‘sensitivity’ towards women, and he “always did self-doubt very well.” When a writer appears to shows such great sensitivity and understanding towards his subjects, it’s easy, as readers, to assume that he is actually that sensitive and caring in person. But in reality, it’s all about Joe. Always has been. Always will.

The book follows the trajectory of the Castleman’s marriage–a relationship which is established immediately with Joan as Joe’s helpmeet, cheerleader, and general fan. Yet Joan’s first glance at Joe’s early story is a shock. It’s shallow and cliched, but Joan doesn’t tell him it’s crap, because after all she exists as a mirror to reflect back Joe’s monolithic ego. Joan supported Joe after he lost his college position, and so it became very necessary to Joan that Joe succeed–that all the mess, sacrifice (her own writing) and upheaval was actually worth it. Joe’s first novel, The Walnut, a huge success, was “pure autobiography.” His success continued for decades, but his last two novels have been mediocre and his popularity, his relevance, is fading.

Yet critics had always admired Joe’s vision of contemporary American marriage, which seemed to plumb the female sensibility as thoroughly as it did the male, but amazingly without venom, without blame. And early on in his career, his novels had made the leap into Europe, where he was considered even more important than in the States. Joe’s work was from the old, postwar “marital” school–husbands and wives stranded in tiny apartments or boxy, drafty colonials in suburban streets with names like Bethany Court or Yellow Swallow Drive. The men were deep but sour, the women, sad and lovely, the children disaffected. The families were crumbling, full of factions, American. Joe included his own life, using details from his childhood, his early adulthood and then his two marriages.

Joan and Joe eventually have three children–and of course they exist only to extend, brighten or tease out Joe’s image for his friends and public. Joan, who has already sacrificed any sort of career to be Joe’s personal sounding board/ therapist/pimp, also sacrifices her relationships with her children to follow Joe around the globe. Yes no wonder their marriage is successful, because it’s all about Joe, and if Joan ever took her foot off that pedal, she would go the way of Carol in a heartbeat.

The Castleman’s marriage seems a success to outsiders, mainly because it continues, but it continues with intense repeat humiliations for Joan, with her turning a blind eye to innumerable affairs. By the time I was halfway into the book, I was waiting for the big scene where Joan told Joe what a dickhead he is, but then again she doesn’t exactly have the moral high ground. Like every marriage, it’s complicated, and Joan is, at times, complicit in Joe’s tackier behaviour–helping Joe with his ‘research’ on prostitutes and even orgies. …The tremendously disappointing ending undermined the book’s entire message. The story jettisoned from the launch pad with marital fury and fizzed, anticlimactically, with keeping up that old, stale image of a united marital front. With Joe’s gigantic ego and intense selfishness, I waited for him to get his comeuppance, but alas I was destined for disappointment, although there are hints of a possible future revenge.

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Ghosts: Edith Wharton

As the evenings lengthen, it’s the perfect time for ghost stories. Edith Wharton is not a name I typically associate with spooky tales, but here’s a collection of ghost stories from New York Review Classics. Some are ghost stories certainly, perhaps the most famous being The Lady Maid’s Bell, but others focus on the psychological. Many of the stories bring up the question as to whether ghosts are real or if events, as related, can be believed. I tend to think of ghosts being specific to certain locations; restless spirits who haunt houses or castles, perhaps reliving tragic events that are permanently imprinted in the fabric of the universe. Most, but not all, of the stories here follow the ‘residual haunting’ model, and when it comes to resident ghosts, it seems that people either love to discuss them, or clam up when the subject comes up for discussion. The contents:

All Souls’
The Eyes
Afterward
The Lady’s Maid’s Bell

Kerfol
The Triumph of Night
Miss Mary Pask
Bewitched
Mr Jones
Pomegranate Seed
The Looking Glass

The narrator in All Souls’ tells a story about her cousin, Sara Clayburn. Sara, now a widow, lives in a large, isolated 18th century house called Whitegates. The house “seemed remote and lonely to modern servants,” but Sara “inherited,” from her mother-in-law, a couple of long-employed servants. It was thought, once Sara became a widow, that she would move from Whitegates, but the house had been in her husband’s family for years, and so she remained. One October, while out walking at dusk, Sara passed a woman who said she was on her way to the house to see “one of the girls.” Harmless enough… but on the way back to the house, Sara fell and injured her ankle. The doctor makes a visit and cautions bed rest, planning to return in 2 days time. Then a curious thing happens–a servant brings food and a thermos of tea. Sara orders it to be removed but the maid leaves the food and exits the room.

The next day, when the servants don’t appear, Sara finds herself in a completely deserted house. All the servants have disappeared. … I really liked this story but found the ending unsatisfying.

The Eyes is rather intriguing. In this tale, 8 men gather and exchange ghost stories. The curmudgeonly Andrew Culwin, who believes that “all men were superfluous and women necessary because someone had to do the cooking,” surprises the rest of the company when he claims to have seen two ghosts.

Afterward is the story of a married couple, Mary and Edward Boyne, who on the hunt for an ancient British mansion, buy a place in Dorsetshire called Lyng. There’s talk bandied about concerning the resident ghost but the Boynes think this is all part of the fun. The Boynes move into Lyng and Mary notices that Edward begins to change. Mary becomes convinced that the house is indeed haunted.

The Lady’s Maids’ Bell is a classic ghost story, and rather a good one, for if we ask if ghosts exist, and answer in the affirmative (or unsure) then the next question, surely, would be: under what circumstances do they appear? Back to the resident ghost, and ghosts that are locked to location, have some unfinished business, or cannot rest. The Lady’s Maid’s Bell fits all those categories.

Kerfol also fits into those categories, but the setting is different and the ghosts are dogs. Here the ghosts are also locked to location, and it’s a location where terrible events are permanently imprinted on the area. This is a tale of a brutish 17th century man who ruled over his home, Kerfol, in Brittany. Kerfol is now for sale (imagine why?), and the narrator goes to take a look at it:

Certainly no house had ever more completely and finally broken with the present. As it stood there, lifting its proud roof and gables to the sky, it might have been its own funeral monument.

Mr. Jones is the story of Lady Jane, a woman who unexpectedly inherits Bells, a house that has been in the family for centuries. Lady Jane has spent her life travelling, but when she sees Bells, she falls in love with the place.

A silence distilled from years of solitude lay on lawns and gardens. No one had lived at Bells since the last Lord Thudeney, then a penniless younger son, had forsaken it sixty years before to seek his fortune in Canada.

Although the house has not been occupied by an owner for years, servants continue to live there. Right away there are two mysteries. The first mystery concerns the identity of a family retainer known as Mr. Jones who rules the house and the servants with an iron rod. The second mystery concerns a long-dead Viscountess. Lady Jane visits the on-grounds chapel with its monuments of long dead ancestors, and here she sees a sarcophagus of a Viscount:

“Born on May 1st, 1790, perished of the plague at Aleppo in 1828” and underneath in small cramped characters as if crowded as an afterthought into an insufficient space: “Also his Wife.” That was all, no name, dates, honours, epithets, for the Viscountess Thudeney. Did she, too, die of the plague at Aleppo? Or did the ‘also’ imply her actual presence in the sarcophagus?

I shan’t discuss all the stories, but will say that the collection offers a range of well-worth reading variations on the ghost story.
review copy

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Rider on the Rain: Sèbastien Japrisot (1992)

First: Rider on the Rain, the book was published in French in 1969 (per Goodreads), but Sèbastien Japrisot also wrote the screen play for the 1970 film which featured Charles Bronson with Jill Ireland in a supporting role. They met during filming while she was married to David McCallum. Bronson married Jill Ireland in 1968, and they were together until her death in 1990. The film showcases Bronson “at his brutal best,” and this period was the beginning of his film heyday, with the cult film, Death Wish still in his future in 1974.

So now onto the book: 25-year-old Mélancolie Mau, Mellie, lives in the dreary seaside resort town of Le Caps-des-pins. It’s the sort of place with one road in and one road out.

A peal of thunder, a grey river spattering in a downpour, a horizon blurred by autumn. And then the wheels of a bus send up great glistening sprays of water, and the river becomes a road running the length of a desolate peninsula, somewhere between Toulon and Saint-Tropez.

There’s the idea that not much happens here–at least it doesn’t until a stranger gets off the bus. Mellie sees the man, a man with a shaven head, carrying a bright red bag, get off the bus. Later, she tries on a dress in a shop owned by a friend. In the casual atmosphere, Mellie neglects to close the cubicle curtain and she catches the stranger staring at her through the shop window:

She is transfixed, as if mesmerized by his own fascination.

The stranger breaks into Mellie’s home and brutally rapes her. Mellie, who seems like a fragile young woman, calls the police but changes her mind. When she discovers the rapist in her basement, she strikes back. …. From this point, life changes for Mellie. She has discovered exactly what she is capable of, but in spite of this incredibly powerful knowledge, she chooses to sink back into her role as a wife, a rather docile wife to her macho dickhead of a husband. But then another man arrives on the scene, an American, Harry Dobbs. He’s looking for the stranger, and the bag he carried, and he knows that Mellie is hiding something. …

The dialogue is written in screenplay format, and the descriptive passages evoke images of the film. The novel is probably going to mean more to you (it did to me), if you’re a fan of the film. Harry’s relationship with Mellie, which becomes a sort of cat-and-mouse, is intriguing. It’s also fascinating that Mellie chooses to NOT tell her husband about the rape. On one level, this seems logical as her husband would go ballistic and probably start accusing her of somehow inviting the incident and ‘liking it.’ So ultimately it’s just easier not to tell him, but then also there’s the idea that Mellie keeps a certain section of herself submerged and secret. She has a “serene and well-groomed appearance” and yet “her nails are bitten to the quick.” There’s a level of protection, especially when dealing with a husband such as Tony, of withholding part of the self. He has no idea who she is–he’s constructed a version of her in his mind and then demands she conform to that. Yet Harry penetrates Mellie’s wall, her defenses. He intuitively knows that her outward fragility is a disguise, a bluff, a method of dealing with her surroundings. Ultimately: do we ever want people to know what we are capable of ?

Review copy. Translated by Linda Coverdale

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What Was She Thinking: Zoe Heller

“You never appreciate what a compost your memory is until you start trying to smooth past events into a rational sequence.”

Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking, a tale of how Sheba, a married woman, a teacher, has a sexual relationship with Steven, a 15 year old pupil could have been ripped from the headlines, so perhaps, then, it’s not too surprising to discover that the author was inspired by a real-life case. The absolute brilliant aspect of the book is the unreliable narrator, Barbara, a bitter, caustic, lonely single woman, who works with Sheba. Barbara’s version is, in her words, “her own account of Sheba’s downfall” in which she played a “minor role.” In a sense, there are three people in this sordid relationship: Sheba, Steven and Barbara. Media opinion swirling around this case declares that Steven is the victim and that Sheba is the predator. But it’s also arguable that Barbara, who played a critical role in this mess, is the supreme predator. Barbara, possibly a closeted lesbian (I’d argue against that) or then again possibly just lonely, is a long term history teacher when Sheba arrives as the new pottery teacher in the art department at an appalling London school. At first Barbara dislikes Sheba, but in common with many teachers at the school, she quickly falls under Sheba’s spell. There’s something about Sheba that’s magical: she’s disingenuous, and just … nice. But as nice as she may well be, she’s fresh meat for the school delinquents. When Barbara steps in to help Sheba with a discipline problem, the two women strike up a relationship, and soon Barbara is visiting Sheba’s home where she meets Sheba’s daughter, Polly, Ben, her Down’s syndrome son, and Richard, her much older, egotistical husband.

“You’re Barbara,” a voice said. I looked up and saw a tall man with a lot of crazy grey hair standing in the doorway, peering at me through thick spectacles. “Hello,” he said. “I’m Richard.” Sheba had mentioned that her husband was older than her; I was taken aback to discover by how much. Richard was not yet what you could call elderly, but middle age was no longer a plausible category for him either. His shoulders had begun to slope in the manner of overburdened coat hangers. The backs of his hands had a shiny, yellowish look.

Sheba is infantilized by her pedantic husband. He “condescended to Sheba, as he condescended to everyone. And whenever he got a little tired, or felt the spotlight shift momentarily from himself, or had one of his opinions challenged too vigorously, he tended to lapse into petulant babyness.” By looking at Sheba’s family life, it’s easy to see that Steven was a reaction to her life and marriage. Sheba admits that with Richard, she’d “been allowed to stay a child.” That’s one way of looking at it. Barbara who understands Sheba’s childhood notes that it came instinctively to Sheba to step in the role of “handmaiden to a great, pompous man.”

So onto Steven, the grubby, grotty 15 year-old who is so attractive in Sheba’s eyes, that she’s weak at the knees and drops her knickers. Steven is boorish, coarse, not particularly intelligent, and let’s face it … throughly uninteresting. Of course this is not a relationship that is going to last. Sheba is an intelligent, yet oddly naive woman who puts her life, her career, her reputation into the hands of a yobo. As for Steven… he’s mad about Sheba until she bores him.

What Was She Thinking is a perfect illustration of one of my pet theories: it matters not what or who the love object is, the love object is a vessel for the lover’s needs.

Barbara’s unreliable narration is as wickedly sharp as anything written by Muriel Spark. If we were to interview Sheba, we would probably get some sobby soppy version of her great “amour,” and Steven would probably present his own version of events (he does this later in the book), so how perfect that the narrator should deliver the tale with her own twisted, unreliable agenda. Barbara is a very lonely woman–a woman with resentments when it comes to the lives of others, and she’s spent a lifetime being left outside of the social sphere. While Barbara seems to love Sheba, there’s also a deep layer of resentment towards her. There are hints of another female friendship that turned rancid, and then when a male teacher appears to offer a hand of friendship, it opens the door to treachery. Barbara is content to take crumbs from Sheba, even as she circles around her, warding off a rival teacher, weaving a web of intrigue and dependency. But it’s when Sheba shows her lack of concern for Barbara’s cat (her sole companion) that Barbara’s claws come out. ….

This was a reread for me and I enjoyed the book with its deliciously wicked sense of humour even more the second time around. Here’s a final quote thrown in for fun. Oh the road to hell is paved with good intentions:

Such do-gooding fantasies are not uncommon in comprehensive schools these days. Many of the younger teachers harbour secrets hopes of “making a difference.” They have all seen the American films in which lovely young women tame inner-city thugs with recitations of Dylan Thomas. They, too, want to to conquer their little charges’ hearts with poetry and compassion.

And look where good intentions (or smokescreen?) led Sheba…. There’s more than one way to blow up your life.

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Nightmare Alley: William Lindsay Gresham (1946)

“Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough.”

William Lindsay Gresham’s powerful, bleak, fate-laden, noir novel Nightmare Alley follows the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, a man whose talents take him to the top of his game, but whose character leads him to destruction. When the novel opens, Stanton is a young carny worker. He works as an assistant to the “seeress” Madame Zeena, and while his questions may seem to reveal naivete, in reality Stanton is absorbing his environment, learning the tricks of the trade, grasping the complexities of human nature. At the carnival, there are some talented performers, others that fill a spot, but perhaps the most perplexing ‘act’ is ‘the Geek,’ in a ten-cent “attraction.” The Geek is touted as a man/beast, and to demo this, he crawls around in a pit and bites the heads off of live chickens. Stanley can’t imagine anyone wanting to be a geek, and wonders how the act is created. The owner, who also is ‘the talker’ (announcing the acts to the gullible marks) explains how geeks are ‘made.’

You pick up a guy and he ain’t a geek-he’s a drunk. A bottle-a-day booze fool. You tell him like this: ‘I got a little job for you. It’s a temporary job. We got to get a new geek. So until we do you’ll put on the geek outfit and fake it.‘ You tell him, ‘You don’t have to do nothing. You’ll have a razor blade in your hand and when you pick up the chicken you give it a nick with the blade and then make like you’re drinking the blood. Same with rats. The marks don’t know no different.‘”

Hoately ran his eye up and down the midway, sizing up the crowd. He turned back to Stan. “Well, he does this for a week and you see to it that he gets his bottle regular and a place to sleep it off in. He likes this fine. This is what he thinks is heaven. So after a week you say to him like this, you say, ‘Well, I got to get me a real geek. You’re through.’ He scares up at this because nothing scares a real rummy like the chance of a dry spell and getting the horrors. He says, ‘What’s the matter? Ain’t I doing okay?’ So you say, ‘Like crap you’re doing okay. You can’t draw no crowd faking a geek. Turn in your outfit. You’re through.’ Then you walk away. He comes following you, begging for another chance and you say, ‘Okay. But after tonight out you go.’ But you give him his bottle.

That night you drag out the lecture and lay it on thick. All the while you’re talking he’s thinking about sobering up and getting the crawling shakes. You give him time to think it over, while you’re talking. Then throw in the chicken. He’ll geek.

This early powerful scene is emblematic of the entire plot: degradation is a process in a world in which nothing is what it seems; discover a person’s weakness and you have power over them.

“Human nature is the same everywhere. All have the same troubles. They are worried. Can control anybody by finding out what he’s afraid of. Works with question-answering act. Think out things most people are afraid of and hit them right where they live. Health, Wealth, Love. And Travel and Success. They’re all afraid of ill health, of poverty, of boredom, of failure. Fear is the key to human nature. They’re afraid. …”

Stan looked up past the pages to the garish wallpaper and through it into the world. The geek was made by fear. He was afraid of sobering up and getting the horrors. But what made him a drunk? Fear. Find out what they’re afraid of and sell it back to them. That’s the key. The key!

Madam Zeena, is a good-hearted married woman, who sticks by her drunken sot of a husband, but she’s happy to have young Stanton on the side. The problem is that Stanton, true to his nature, isn’t happy with these occasional trysts. He wants Zeena all the time, and so a maneuver by Stanton leaves Zeena a widow. This is the first awful act that Stanton commits, and while he’s afraid his actions will be discovered, he justifies himself. Yet now that Stanton has Zeena full-time, he casts his eyes on younger prey, and moves on young, malleable Molly, a sort of orphaned carny mascot whose freak show act as Electric Girl involves her, barely dressed, receiving electric shocks.

Stanton’s character, horribly flawed and twisted, is revealed throughout the novel in his subsequent actions and decisions. He steals, he manipulates, he defrauds, and he murders. He’s a terrible person, but yet not wholly unsympathetic. (I counted the decent things he did.) He’s damaged and haunted by his childhood and plagued by nightmares. Life is a Nightmare Alley, we are all pursued by our demons. Ever since he was a kid Stan had a recurring nightmare:

He was running down a dark alley, the buildings vacant and menacing on either side. Far down at the end of it a light burned, but there was something behind him, getting closer until he woke up trembling and never reached the light.

The novel follows Stanton on his path to success. From the carnival’s sideshows, he moves onto mentalism, and then he morphs into the Reverend Carlisle–seeped in spiritualism, he’s ready to conjure up the dead for the grieving wealthy. But Stanton, never satisfied, is restless for more. Stan’s demons both drive him and haunt him throughout the book, yet when he confronts them, he’s so traumatized by the experience, he, in his weakness, seeks out the professional help of succubus Dr. Lilith Ritter.

The 1930s world of Nightmare Alley is a ugly place: as the title implies, it’s a nightmarish place–beginning with the carnival that exploits its employees and its audience, but the real nightmare here is life and human nature. With most of the characters in the book, human flaws gnaw from within. Stanton brings on his own downfall, and it’s inevitable.

The novel, structured in chapters which are represented by Tarot cards, was slow to start. This novel was banned and its sexual frankness and ugly view of the world is shocking for its times. Unforgettable.

“The rest of them drink something else: they drink promises. They drink hope. And I’ve got it to hand them.”

After reading this, I listened to the audiobook version which is marvelously read by Peter Berkrot

Own a copy/review copy

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The Price of Salt: Patricia Highsmith (1952)

Working as a temp during the Christmas season at a bustling upscale New York department store, 19-year-old Therese is an aspiring set designer. She has a small apartment and a devoted, boyfriend, Richard, and yet while her whole life and career are ahead of her, she feels that something is missing. Working as a temp “intensified things that always bothered her […] the pointless actions, the meaningless chores that seemed to keep her from doing what she wanted to do, might have done.” Since Therese wants to break into theater set design, her feelings of ennui, being locked in the doldrums, are perfectly natural. But is there something else simmering in Therese? Abandoned as a child and brought up in a Catholic orphanage, it’s possible that Therese’s sense of disconnection is rooted in her early lack of attachments. Perhaps that explains her lukewarm feelings towards Richard.

Then one day, a woman comes into the store looking for a gift:

Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away.

Therese waits on this customer and later sends her a card. The woman, married with a child, is Carol, and she returns to the store. Soon a relationship strikes up between the two women. Just what this relationship is, isn’t clear to Therese at all (or this reader) and at one point, it seems possible that Therese is attracted to the older woman. But then again, Therese has no family. Is she seeking friendship? Is she looking for a mother figure? An older sister? Soon Therese, neglecting an increasingly sulky Richard, is spending time at the woman’s large country home, and it becomes evident that Carol, in the midst of a grubby divorce, has a lot of problems.

The plot moves forward with Carol and Therese’s growing relationship, Therese’s burgeoning career, Carol’s divorce, and the small circle of society in which both women move. While it’s not clear exactly what is brewing between Carol and Therese, equally subdued characters, suddenly Therese is avoiding Richard. Curiously Carol, in the midst of ending her own unhappy marriage, encourages Therese to keep trying with Richard. When Carol’s friend, Abby enters the scene, jealousy rears its head.

Weaved with an incredible sense of loneliness and individual isolation, The Price of Salt is a love story, but since its creator is Highsmith, while there’s tenderness and sensitivity, there’s also the threat of violence. When the two women ditch New York and head west, Carol’s unpleasant husband, Harge, bent on winning the custody suit, has the two women followed by a grubby PI. While Carol is somewhat discreet, Therese, who has no idea what she’s up against, makes clumsy mistakes. There are touches of Thelma and Louise, and there were so many ways this novel could have taken. Instead, we see two women drawn to each other and then separated by a society that censors love between two women, and the love between these two women is contrasted to the male-female relationships in these pages which include conformity and possession. Particularly powerful is the idea that it’s so much easier to conform to society’s expectations of heterosexuality. Therese loves Richard’s family, and clearly wants to belong on some level, but then Carol is proof that marriage and a child is a poisonous road to travel.

I’ve never done anything to embarrass him socially, and that’s all he cares about really. There’s a certain woman at the club I wish he’d married. Her life is entirely filled with giving exquisite little dinner parties and being carried out of the best bars feet first–she’s made her husband’s advertising business a great success, so he smiles on her little faults. Harge wouldn’t smile, but he’d have some definite reason for complaint. I think he picked me out like a rug for his living room, and he made a bad mistake. I doubt if he’s capable of loving anyone, really. What he has is a kind of acquisitiveness, which isn’t much separate from his ambition. It’s getting to be a disease, isn’t it, not being able to love?

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A Kiss Before Dying: Ira Levin (1953)

One of the most enthralling, creepiest books I have ever read, Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying is a chilling journey into the mind of psychopath, Bud Corliss, a good-looking, decorated WWII veteran who returns to his hometown as a hero but then finds that the normal, difficult slow paths to money and success are ‘beneath’ him. Starter jobs aren’t good enough and college “would only be an unnecessary stopover on the road to the success he was certain awaited him.” He moves to New York, but the world does not shower him with the recognition he thinks he deserves. 5 months and 6 jobs later there’s a period of “serious self-analysis,” (Levin’s ironic touch adds to this tale) with the result that Bud “took out his fountain pen and made what he considered to be a completely objective list of his qualities, abilities and talents.” He finds a rich, older widow and easily slips into the role of gigolo, but the widow has a series of toyboys all with a short shelf life. Following that experience, Bud plots to snare a wealthy young bride and moves to Blue River, Iowa to attend Stoddard College: “a country club for the children of the Midwestern wealthy.”

It looks as though Bud’s plans will be successful when he finds the insecure, needy Dorothy Kingship, the daughter of a wealthy copper manufacturer. But there’s a hiccup in Bud’s plans when Dorothy announces she’s pregnant. Bud knows that Dorothy’s father is strict and that in light of the unexpected pregnancy, Dorothy will most likely be cut off from the family coffers. Bud decides his choices are: 1) to marry Dorothy, lose the fortune and end up working menial jobs with a wife and baby dragging him down, or 2) ditch Dorothy in which case he’s sure Mr Kingship will hunt him down and ensure Bud’s ruin. Then Bud decides that there’s a 3rd scenario: first come pills to bring on an abortion, but they don’t work (“why hadn’t the goddamn pills killed the girl?“) His anger at Dorothy builds as Bud sees his plans thwarted, and in his narcassistic mind, it’s all her “fault.” His justifications pile on like speed dominoes–after all he hadn’t really wanted sex… it was just to “seal” the deal. From this line of thought, murder is the next step. …

Bud is a list-maker, so throughout the novel he faithfully, coldly and calculatingly lists his plans with pros and cons, and it’s through these plans we see the twisted logic of the psychopathic mind. After Dorothy’s murder, which is ruled as a suicide due to Bud’s cold-blooded staging, Bud is at first thrilled by his own brilliance and the “flawless success of his plans. He should be walking on air, smiling at strangers, toasting himself with secret Champagne. Instead there was this dull, leaden letdown feeling. He couldn’t understand it.” Of course the letdown feeling is caused by the slowly dawning realization that without Dorothy, he’s back at square one. And after all that hard work too. “All that planning hadn’t advanced him in the slightest.”

Bud returns home to his doting, indulgent mother to lick his wounds. He works another boring job, but internally he’s advancing to the next stage of the game. Of course this all takes ‘study’ and preparation. Although the Dorothy ‘episode’ may have been a failure, he turns it into a brilliant success; he can’t help himself–it’s the self-love kicking in, and so he keeps a collection of his twisted plans. His depression begins to evaporate:

Towards the middle July, however, he began to slough off his dejection. He still had the newspaper clips about Dorothy’s death locked in the small grey strongbox he kept in his bedroom closet. He began taking them out once in a while, skimming through them smiling at the officious certainty of Chief of Police Eldon Chesser and the half-baked theorizing of Annabelle Koch. He dug up his old library card, had it renewed and began withdrawing books regularly; Pearson’s Studies in Murder, Bolitho’s Murder for Profit, volumes in the Regional Murder series. He read about Landru, Smith, Pritchard, Crippen. Men who had failed where he had succeeded. Of course it was only the failures whose stories got written–God knows how many successful ones there were. Still it was flattering to consider how many had failed. Until now, he had always thought of what happened at the Municpal building as Dorie’s death. Now he began to think of it as Dorie’s murder. Sometimes, when he had lain in bed and read several accounts in one of the books, the enormous daring of what he had done would overwhelm him. He would get up and look at himself in the mirror over the dresser. I got away with murder, he would think. Once he whispered it aloud. “I got away with murder!” So what if he wasn’t rich yet. Hell he was only 24.

When Dorothy’s guilt-ridden sister, Ellen suspects that Dorothy was murdered, she quietly begins an investigation. She uncovers a few male suspects and the wolfish behaviour of these young men sound alarm bells when in reality the danger is closer than she can imagine. Perhaps the greatest character here is DJ Gordon Gant, a man who meets Ellen and can’t forget her. His dogged persistence eventually costs him his job.  Although Gant has nothing to gain, and at great personal cost, he insists on giving Dorothy’s father, a man who has abdicated his parental role, a wake-up call. Bearers of bad news are typically seen as more trouble than the threat they report. Sometimes we want to bury our heads  in the sand and we must be dragged into reality kicking and screaming. While this is certainly true in this tale, it’s also true that the average person cannot conceive of the nature of Evil. An average person cannot imagine how a psychopath thinks, and this is one of the reasons this book is so powerful–we are privy to Bud’s twisted thinking, his objectification of other human beings and his monumental self-worship.

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Miami Blues: Charles Willeford (1984)

Frederick J. Frenger Jr., career criminal and a “blithe psychopath,” freshly released from his latest prison sentence, heads to Miami with a wallet full of stolen credit cards. He arrives at Miami airport with plans to steal luggage and hold up in a hotel room while he plans his big heist. When he’s hassled by a zealous Hare Krishna, Frenger reacts with violence and the Hare Krishna dies. So there’s Frenger’s explosive entrance into Miami, and when you see someone enter like that, you know they’re going to exit with a bang. Once in the hotel, Frenger, with the assistance of a ‘helpful’ bellman named Pablo, orders up a hooker, and this second action by Frenger tangles him in a cord of Fate. The waif-like hooker’s name is Pepper, and although she looks underage, she’s a 20 year-old college student named Susan Waggoner.

Why, Freddy wondered, is she lying to me? No college would ever accept this incredibly stupid young woman as a student. On the other hand, he had known a few college men in San Quentin. Although they usually got the best jobs there, they didn’t appear to be any smarter than the majority of the cons.

Needing a car and a place to stay, Frenger decides to play house with Susan, claiming they will have a platonic marriage. Susan is a lousy prostitute and the stupidest one Frenger has ever met. Still she suits his plans and she’s disposable. In the meantime, Homicide detective Hoke Moseley begins investigating the murder of the Hare Krishna. It’s an odd murder and Hoke is interested in how it occurred. As he approaches the investigation, Hoke inadvertently and unknowingly spins into Frenger’s path. Frenger hates cops and so he decides to ‘fix’ Hoke.

Miami Blues has Charles Willeford’s signature dry savage wit. The humour here comes partly from Susan’s naivety and stupidity. She’s pimped out by her brother, and there’s a whole back story here I won’t give away, but I could swear I heard the background music from Deliverance whenever Susan tells her sad story. With her offer of free blowjobs and giving Pablo a 50/50 cut, it’s clear this career is not for Susan. She’s a bizarre mix of character traits: naïve and innocent–yet utterly corrupted, stupid and yet a survivor. Sometimes innocence opens the gates of hell and sometimes innocence gives you a free pass:

Freddy unwrapped the bath sheet and dropped it on the floor. He probed her pregreased vagina with the first three fingers of his right hand. He shook his head and frowned.

“Not enough friction there for me,he said. “I’m used to boys, you see. Do you take it in the ass?

“No, sir. I should, I know, but I tried it once and it hurt too much, I just can’t do it. I can give you a blow-job if you like.”

“That’s okay, but I’m not all that interested anyway. You really should learn to take it in the ass You’ll make more money, and if you learn to relax–“

That’s what Pablo said but I can’t.”

The sardonic humour comes from the telling of this tale and in the portrayal of Hoke, a great series character whose life is a wreck. He’s divorced, handing over half his paycheck in alimony, living in a flophouse motel, trying to hang onto his false teeth (his abscessed teeth were removed in the morgue by the local pathologist). The teeth have quite a role to play in this violent tale. Hoke isn’t a humorous character, but it gets to the point that he’s beaten down so far you can’t see the nailhead. The novel spins around these three characters: Hoke, the slow-moving, low-key thorough detective, Susan, the world’s stupidest prostitute, and Frenger whose vicious acts carve a path of destructive violence. This is a man who is capable of the most brutal acts and the brutality isn’t relative to the provocation–Frenger, who thinks all his mistakes in life can be chalked up to his “altruism,” doesn’t possess a ‘scale of response.’

It took Hoke twenty minutes to find his teeth, but they had landed in a cluster of screw-leaved crotons and weren’t damaged. He put them into a fresh glass of water with another helping of polident and wondered what in the hell he was going to do next.

This is hard-boiled detective fiction: violence and sex. But in this novel, they are the same thing.

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Tides: Count Edouard von Keyserling (1911)

“She felt like a traveler stranded in some God-forsaken little wayside station, who sits in the dismal waiting-room and finds himself steeped for a while in the melancholy of a life that does not belong to him.”

In Count Edouard von Keyserling’s novel Tides (Wellen), a handful of German aristocrats visit a resort on the Baltic Sea, and a simple holiday becomes the battle ground for the preservation of societal standards. It’s the early 1900s and disaster lies ahead, but there’s also the sense that this elite society is fading into oblivion.

The widow of General von Palikow “Generalin” is at the resort with her companion, Fraülein Malwine Bork. They are to be joined by the Generalin’s daughter, the Baroness von Buttlär and her three children: Lolo, Nini and Wedig. Also to join the party are the males in the family: the mustache-twirling Baron and Lolo’s dapper fiancé, Hilmar von dem Hamm, a Lieutenant in the Brunswick Hussars. It’s clear that the domineering Generalin is at the top of the totem pole when it comes to rank, and several sentimental, “tender” observations made by Fraülein Malwine Bork are patronizingly suppressed.

The family’s holiday will be the last before Lolo’s marriage to Hilmar von dem Hamm. It’s a love match; well Lolo is madly in love with her fiancé, and since it’s a very suitable match between social equals, everyone is happy.

Other visitors to the area are the retired government official, witty, entertaining bachelor Privy Councillor Knospelius (we are told he has a “deformity”) and Doralice Köhne-Jasky, a beautiful young married Countess who fell in love with Hans Grill, a lowly artist hired to paint her portrait. She scandalized society by running away from her elderly husband who then subsequently suffered a stroke.

Doralice’s presence shocks, threatens and excites various members of the Generalin’s party. The Baroness, who seems to take the news particularly hard, practically faints away when she hears that Doralice is nearby, but then given her husband’s philandering ways, she has every reason to be worried. The middle-aged Baroness “worn out by motherhood and housewifely duties” is a bit on the neurotic side and lacks her mother’s serene detachment. Even Lolo notes that her mother’s temperament seems “strangely out of harmony with the sea.”

“Of course, I knew it would come out. You were already jealous of Madame Grill. But, my dear Bella, your husband is after all not a man of that sort. Oh well, yes, there was that little affair with the housekeeper–it’s time you forgot that. Now and then in the springtime the Cuirassier officer in him wakes up, it’s like a sort of hay-fever; but it’s you women with your jealousies that drive the men to wrong ideas. No, my dear Bella, why are we what we are, why have we our social position and our ancient name, if we are to be afraid of every runaway little wife? You are the Baroness von Buttlär and I am the widow of General von Palikow. Well, doesn’t that mean that we are two fortresses to which people who don’t belong to us have no entrée? And now let us go to bed and sleep quietly as though there were no Madame Grill. We simply issue a decree–and Madame Grill ceases to exist.”

Fraülein Malwine Bork as a bridge between the Generalin’s high society and the lower echelons, has notions, that occasionally are quietly voiced and quickly squashed, as she questions the rigid nature of society:

But Countess Doralice herself was once just such a poor little fortress.

The younger generation are swept up in the romantic tale of Doralice’s flight and long to meet her. Pretending that Doralice doesn’t exist is great in theory but poor in practice–especially since the Generalin’s three grandchildren are determined to fabricate excuses to run into her, and then events take place that bring all the characters together.

Tides is an examination of elite Prussian society. Doralice, married off to an elderly husband, threatens the foundations of that secure society when she rebels and runs off. She must be ostracized as she is seen as a dangerous, contaminating influence. Doralice is a tragic figure; she escaped the suffocation of her controlling husband, thirty years her senior, only to find that she’s married to Hans and living in a dingy little cottage. A beautiful bird in the Count’s gilded cage, she seems to have exchanged one cage for another. Hans is just as displeased with Doralice as the Count was. The Baron and the lieutenant make no attempts to hide their desire for Doralice, who is, after all, seen as a woman who’s ready to abandon all for love, and Hans, jealous and insecure, becomes obsessed with painting the sea. He begins leaving Doraclice on her own. She finds she’s just as bored and lonely now, with her supposed ‘freedom’ as she was when married to the stuffy Count–a man who trained her daily. No wonder she ran off.

But it was his method of training to act as if she were what he wanted her to be. He was constantly praising her for the ideas that he wished to instill into her: he was, as it were, imposing upon her his ideal Doralice by acting as if she were already there. If, for example, she was too obviously amused in the company of a young man at a party, then he would say: “We are perhaps somewhat exacting, perhaps too sensitive, we cannot always get the society of our own choosing; but you are quite right about that young man, his manners are objectionable and we will do our best to keep him at a distance.” Or at the theatre she may have laughed gaily outright at a piece which displeased the count and on the way home he would say: “We are perhaps too censorious in these matters, but we found the play disagreeable, not to say shocking; however, it doesn’t matter, you are quite right, it was a mistake on my part to bring you to see it. I ought to have known ma petite Comtesse better: forgive me for this once.” And it was the same on every occasion: this ideal Doralice. that was imposed upon her, intimidated her, tyrannized over her, constrained her like a dress that was not made for her.

The male wandering eye is ever present in the tale–even 15-year-old Wedig is eyeing the servant girls, and as the tale continues the formidable Generalin becomes a more sympathetic figure. Finally the magnificent ocean, beautifully described here is the force of nature so destructive, so uncontrollable, that its hunger and strength levels all else.

Also translated as Waves. Edouard is also spelt elsewhere as Eduard.

Translated by Arthur J. Ashton. The picture above is Waves, the Dedalus edition. Translated by Gary Miller.

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