Tag Archives: made into film

The Corsican Brothers: Alexander Dumas

“In a quarrel, the origin is not of any consequence.”

I’ve seen a couple of versions of The Corsican Brothers: The Douglas Fairbanks Jr. swashbuckler version

Corsican brothers

and the crude, hilarious Cheech and Chong version:

Also the Corsican Brothers

And that brings me to the source material: the novella from Alexander Dumas.

It’s 1841. The story begins with our narrator, a Frenchman who is journeying through Corsica, explaining the custom of claiming a night’s free board and lodging just by picking the “most commodious house,” and explaining you’re a traveller. The narrator (Alexander) explains this is seen by the owner of the house, as a honour, since you’ve picked his house out of the entire village.

Sounds like a bit of scam to me. Imagine trying to pull that these days.

Anyway, Alexander travels to Sullacaro, and notices that all of the houses seem fortified. In some of the houses, the windows are bricked up, or “guarded by thick planks , provided with openings large enough to pass a gun through.” The narrator selects the house that looks the finest but oddly enough is the only house that is not fortified. This is the home of the widow Savilia de Franchi, a woman about 40 years old, the mother of 21-year-old twin boys: Lucien and Louis.

Fortunately for the reader, the narrator is the sort of person who is interested in his surroundings. He’s given the room which belongs to the absent son, Louis, who resides in Paris, training to be a lawyer. It’s obvious from the room’s contents that Louis is a great admirer of all things French, and then the narrator meets Lucien, his brother’s opposite. In childhood, it was impossible to tell them apart, but now Louis wears French clothing, reads French books, while Lucien is deeply Corsican.

While Louis’ room is full of French books, Lucien, now an arbiter between warring factions, is more into weaponry. He  has an impressive arsenal which includes a dagger owned by the legendary Sampiero.

The narrator spends a day with Lucien who negotiates a truce to end a vendetta between two families–a vendetta which started over a chicken.

A hen escaped from the yard of the Orlandi, and flew over into that of the Colonna. The Orlandi went over to claim their hen, but the Colonna refused to give it up, claiming it as their own; the Orlandi then threatened to take them to a justice of the peace. The old mother Colonna, who kept the hen in her hands, then twisted its neck, and threw it in her neighbor’s face saying, ‘Well then, if she belongs to you, eat her.’ One of the Orlandi then picked up the hen, and was going to strike the offender with it; but at that moment, one of the Colonna, who, unfortunately, had a loaded gun in his had, took aim at him, and shot him dead on the spot.

And how many lives have now been paid for this scuffle?

There have been nine persons killed altogether.

And that for a wretched hen worth only twelve sous.

No doubt the hen was the cause; but as I have told you already, it is not the cause, but the result you must look at 

Over the course of his stay, the narrator learns that the two young men, Louis and Lucien are deeply bonded, and when one falls ill or is distressed, the other twin feels it, hundreds of miles away. Then the narrator returns to Paris and meets Louis. We see scores settled, and the way two cultures settle those scores:

not after the Corsican fashion, from behind a hedge, or over a wall. No, no, but after the French manner, with white gloves, a shirt frill and ruffles.

Once the stage is set, a fairly predictable course of events take place, and since this is an action-based vendetta story, there wasn’t any room for character development. Still I enjoyed the story for its strong Corsican bent, and the idea that twins possess an unearthly bond.

Advertisements

15 Comments

Filed under Dumas Alexandre, Fiction

Elle: Philippe Djian

“There is a line that must never be crossed.”

As an Isabelle Huppert fan, I was delighted to watch her in the recent film, Elle. She excels at playing difficult, non-mainstream women who have the tendency to go nuclear when things turn south. Elle was one of the more interesting French films I’ve seen lately, but the ending was a bit disappointing. I hoped the book by Philippe Djian would bring a little more clarity to the character of Michèle, and I was not disappointed.

Elle

The film is quite faithful to the book with just a few minor differences. In the film, Michèle owns a video game company and that job allows for a great deal of visual scope when exploring violence against women (and the violence of video games in general). The book, which depicts Michèle as the emotionless owner of a production company allows us to enter Michèle’s head and offers trains of thought that arguably explain her actions.

The book opens in the aftermath of Michèle’s brutal rape at the hands of a masked intruder. The shock of this act isn’t based so much in the aggression, but in Michèle’s actions afterwards. She doesn’t call the police. Instead she picks herself up, takes a bath and orders sushi for her son and his pregnant girlfriend.

This is not to say that Michèle isn’t shaken by the attack. She is. She buys Mace, changes the locks, searches the house with a meat cleaver, and becomes increasing aware of the vulnerability of living alone in a large house now that her grown son, Vincent and her ex-husband, Richard have left.  It takes her a few days before she tells anyone, and it’s as though she hugs the information about the rape close. She can’t stop thinking about it, but at the same time she acknowledges that she’s “known worse with men I freely chose.”

I am very upset about the way I’ve reacted to this whole thing, about the confusion it’s caused in me, seemingly more unimaginable and obscure with each passing day. I hate having to struggle against myself, to wonder who I am. Not having access to what is buried, buried so deep inside me that only the tiniest, vaguest murmur can be heard far away, like some forgotten, heart-wrenching and totally incomprehensible song. 

Almost from the first page we know that Michèle is different, and that difference can be traced back to her relationship with her father who’s locked up for a horrendous crime spree, the nature of which is revealed as the book continues. Michèle’s 75-year-old mother is still alive, and although she’s supported by her daughter, she maintains a young lover and intends, to Michèle’s disgust, to marry him. In the past, Michèle has “eliminated” her mother’s suitors by telling outrageous lies, but this lover can’t be shaken off.  Michèle thinks her mother is “a real slut.”

She looks like one of those terrifying old actresses-completely plastered over, breast lift at five thousand a pair, eyes all agleam, tanned to the hilt.

The rape occurs just before Christmas, and the novel unfolds over a short period of time with Michèle arranging a Christmas dinner to which she invites Richard and his new girlfriend, a hot, young thing, and the neighbours across the street, banker, Patrick and his wife, Rébecca. We see Michèle in the context of her complicated relationships with her ex husband, her best friend, Anna, Anna’s slimy “soulless” husband (and Michèle’s lover), Robert, Michèle’s son Vincent and his pregnant (by another man) girlfriend, Josie. Michèle has unemotional, but clinically proficient sex with Robert, and isn’t troubled by the fact that she’s banging her best friend’s husband. He was there at the right time and fills a need, but now she’s bored with him and wants to move on.

Everyone in Michèle’s life wants something from her. Her ex wants her to promote his lacklustre screenplays, her son “imbecile” Vincent who’s finally got a job at McDonalds wants financial support for himself, Josie, and the baby (whose father is in a prison in Thailand). Michèle’s mother also wants financial support, and Robert wants sex on demand regardless of Michèle’s mood or their location. It’s interesting that no-one wants affection or love, and that’s just as well as Michèle doesn’t have any to give away–well except for the cat. The novel excels by hinting at various motives behind Michèle’s behaviour, and it’s possible to walk away from the novel with multiple answers for what she does. For this reader this novel is much much darker than a revenge tale. Sometimes Michèle recalls her father–a man who seemed normal until he wasn’t. Similarly her rapist has “two faces” and in certain moments, she sees “a rather unfortunate overlapping of his two faces, which makes him at once attractive and repulsive, and not far from resembling my father.” We’ll never know what motivates Michèle, but for this reader, it’s a lot darker than the ‘cat-and-mouse’ suggested by the book’s blurb. The rape unleashes something in Michèle:

It’s this other me coming out, though I fight it tooth and nail. It;s a me that invites confusion, flux, unexplored territories

Elle will make my best-of-year list.

Emma’s review

Review copy

Translated by Michael Katims

Also by Philippe Djian & also recommended: Consequences

16 Comments

Filed under Djian Philippe, Fiction

The Old Jest: Jennifer Johnston

Jennifer Johnston’s short novel, The Old Jest, a coming of age tale, takes place over a number of days in 1920. The main focus is an 18-year-old girl named Nancy, and when the book opens it’s her birthday. On the cusp of adulthood, Nancy has finished school and plans to attend Trinity in the autumn. There’s not enough money in this faded Anglo-Irish gentry family to send her to Oxford university–plus there are rumblings of “a war with England.”

Nancy is an orphan. Her mother died some years earlier, and she never knew her father, a man who remains a mystery figure. She’s been brought up by her Aunt Mary who bears the burden of the household since her brother, Gabriel died at Ypres. Nancy’s grandfather, General Dwyer is “potty,” but these days we’d probably say he has Alzheimer’s. One of the biggest dramas in Nancy’s life is her crush on a young man named Harry who has his eyes on the bigger prize of the heiress Maeve.

the-old-jest

Nancy’s diary entries make up some of the novel, so we see her confessional thoughts, and her desire that her grandfather die “before we become damaged by his decay.” She’s still a girl, and yet she’s supposed to act like an adult. Nancy chooses her moments to flip back and forth as if she can’t quite accept the responsibilities and polite behaviour of adulthood.

Outside of the safety and security of Nancy’s home, civil unrest occasionally washes up on their doorstep. There’s mention of the Black and Tans, but life in the household is mainly untouched by what goes on in the outside world until Nancy meets an IRA man who’s hiding out in an abandoned beach hut she frequents. He calls into question everything she’s been taught to believe:

“After all,” he said gently, “Your grandfather was a killer too, and no one makes sarcastic remarks at him for that. Not at all. They gave him medals and a pension, He wasn’t even killing to defend his own fatherland, indeed the very opposite. He was taking other people’s land away from them. Creating an Empire for a little old lady with a thing like a tea cosy on her head.”

There’s a sweetness hovering over the novel that partially comes from Nancy’s innocence and zest for life. (Some readers found Nancy annoying–I did not.) Some of the sweetness comes from the idea that we are glimpsing the last days of a particular lifestyle–although Nancy is initially unaware of the truth of the family’s circumstances.

I liked this novel, which has the feel of a well-fleshed out short story, for its bittersweet glimpse at Nancy’s life; by the time the book concludes, it’s easy to see that her world has irrevocably changed. Her innocence is gone, and so her childhood passes away, leaving her to face an uncertain adulthood.

Review copy

12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Johnston Jennifer

Love and Death on Long Island: Gilbert Adair

“With each day now came an intensification of my secret life.”

Character is fate, as the saying goes, and yet how to explain the behaviour of a middle-aged British author, a recluse from the crass elements of modern culture,  who goes off the rails with his obsessive infatuation with a youthful American heartthrob?

Giles De’Ath, a middle-aged widower, has penned four novels decades earlier, and he’s earned “the ungrateful epithet of writer’s writer.” All four books, read mostly in France “shared the theme of sacrifice,” but ultimately not one of the sacrifices “is shown to have been justified.” In academic circles, various theories float regarding the meaning of De’Ath’s work, and over time, the author, who has steadfastly turned from public life, “returned to fashion.” De’Ath is writing again; this time it’s a non-fiction book called The Gentrification of the Void which is about to be published. It’s easy to call De’Ath a snob for eschewing modern values and tastes; he certainly looks down on most of the population  and believes that the “stupidity of the world is rivalled only by its ugliness.

love-and-death

One day, circumstances lead to De’Ath walking along an unusual route. He takes shelter in a cinema, and enters the showing for the wrong film. It’s a horrible, cheap third rate teen film called Hotpants College II. He’s about to walk out in disgust when a shot of a young male actor catches his attention, and this is the beginning of Giles De’Ath’s obsession with American heartthrob, Ronnie Bostock.

Soon, De’Ath can’t think of anything else but Ronnie. He stalks London newsagents for imported fan mags, deeply ashamed of his purchases but unable to squash the need to buy anything he can that features Ronnie. Next he buys a television (after learning the hard way that he needs one to play VHS tapes), and then it’s off to the video rental shop for Ronnie Bostock’s meagre backlist: Tex Mex and Skid Marks

I would rerun these two precious tapes of mine until scarcely a heartbeat was struck that I failed to anticipate the instant before. A film viewed this many times, I discovered, however mediocre may appear its point of departure, must always end by acquiring unto itself a special kind of beauty, the beauty of things that are or have come to seem inevitable. Each negligent and certainly unrehearsed gesture, each fortuitous element have swum unsuspecting into the camera’s ken–a face in the crowd, a fleeting, half-glimpsed landscape, some irrelevant, ‘non-signifying’ message just legible in a drugstore window or on an extra’s teeshirt–would by the umpteenth viewing have been branded into the film’s textures, its grain, its very pores, as though all along it had to be so and no other way, as though it were one of the cinema’s vocations, and perhaps its most elevated vocation, thus to statufy spontaneity, to render the incidental indelible, to hold the random to account.

De’Ath, who considers himself “asexual” studies Ronnie Bostock rather as someone studies a foreign language. He intellectualizes his obsession and comes to the conclusion that, even through the somewhat questionable lens of the sycophantic fan mag, there’s something pure and innocent about Ronnie when compared to the other actors of the same age range and status with their “haunched hips and shamelessly flaunted crotches.”

After De’Ath reads some distressing news about Ronnie’s future plans, De’Ath decides to travel to America to meet his idol. ….

The novel is written in the first person by De’Ath, and since this is a man who delights in being inaccessible (both literally and figuratively through his work), the narrator’s voice reflects the pedantic De’Ath through labyrinthine sentences. Imagine De’Ath’s voice as someone who prides himself in being apart from the common herd in a tribe of One. (I’m not going to detail the novel that De’Ath is trying to write but it shows how out-of-touch he is to even contemplate such an idea.)

We follow De’Ath’s mordantly funny journey as he descends into obsessed fandom, slyly buying teen mags and disposing of the unwanted pages far from home.  But De’Ath is never a figure of fun, for although he’s obsessed, he only once loses control; his fixation is systematic and directed.

I loved De’Ath’s perceptions of America. He’s very much the outsider but looks at America rather as a killjoy looks at an amusement park–understanding the allure while denigrating its attractions:

The remainder of that same afternoon I spent at the town’s hairdressing salon, where my hair was trimmed and my nails finely manicured by an obsequious little fusspot of a man who, with his own elaborately crimped and wavy locks, was the very image of a barber in a French farce; in the more expensive of its two men’s shops in search of a ‘stylish’ silk tie that might set off to advantage the pale grey, slim-waisted suit I had not yet worn in Chesterfield as it had been bought and laid aside for exactly the present occasion; then in a chic and overwhelmingly fragrant flower shop–located, possibly as the result of someone’s drolly irreverent sense of cause and effect, next door to the gun store-where I purchased a vast bouquet of white ‘long-stemmed’ white roses.

I thought I’d be writing a post about whether or not De’Ath benefited from the experience with Ronnie, but the novel is much deeper and darker than that, and I’m still mulling over the last few sentences.

There’s a wonderful film made of this book, and that’s what brought me to the novel.

18 Comments

Filed under Adair Gilbert, Fiction

The Bottle Factory Outing: Beryl Bainbridge

“She’d always wanted to go to Spain–she was very interested in flamenco dancing.”

In Beryl Bainbridge’s darkly funny novel, The Bottle Factory Outing, two roommates in a London boarding house, complete opposites in character and temperament, both work in an Italian-run, wine-bottling factory. Both young women have problems with men. Theatrical Freda, “she walked on in television serials very occasionally, either as a barmaid or as a lady agitator,” a large, domineering blonde, has a crush on trainee manager, Vittorio while Brenda, who’s fled a husband and a fearsome mother-in-law, spends most of her working day fending off the advances of her married boss, Rossi. Unfortunately Brenda, who never wants to make waves, and never wants to offend anyone, sends Rossi mixed signals. She tries to avoid his frantic requests that she join  him in the cellar for a quick grope while he plies her with wine, but she’s so passive, she goes along hoping, futilely, that she can thwart his more aggressive moves.

She couldn’t think how to discourage him–she didn’t want to lose her job and she hated giving offence. He had a funny way of pinching her all over, as if she was a mattress whose stuffing needed distributing more evenly. She stood there wriggling, saying breathlessly “Please don’t, Rossi,” but he tickled her and she gave little smothered laughs and gasps that he took for encouragement.

“You are a nice clean girl.”

“Oh, thank you.”

He was interfering with her clothes, pushing his hands beneath her tweed coat and plucking away at her jumpers and vest, shredding little pieces of newspaper with his nails. She tried to have a chat with him to calm him down.

Freda took Brenda under her wing after meeting her in a butcher’s shop but what attracted Freda to Brenda in the first place,”Brenda’s lack of control, her passion,” has grown stale. Now Freda is mostly annoyed by Brenda:

“You’re a born victim, that’s what you are. You ask for trouble. One day you’ll go too far.”

She lay down again and rubbed her toes together to warm them. “It’s probably all that crouching you did under dining-room tables during the war.”

The novels centres on, as the title suggests, a work outing arranged by Freda who is trying various tactics to ramp up her relationship with Vittorio, and she decides “she would have a better chance of seducing him if she could get him out into the open air.” The outing is supposed to include a visit to a stately home and a relaxed picnic. Of course, on the day of the outing everything goes horribly wrong, and while, by the time the outing takes place, numerous things have already gone badly in the lives of Freda and Brenda, author Beryl Bainbridge exceeds reader expectations as the plot takes an extremely dark, twisted turn.

bottle-factory

 

When you read a book for the second, or as in this case, the third time, new things seep out of the pages. For this reading, I was struck by how Freda and Brenda drove people to extreme behaviour. There’s Brenda’s “obviously deranged” mother-in-law trying to kill her, and what exactly did happened in Brenda’s marriage? It must have taken a great deal of bad behaviour for passive Brenda to take action. Then there’s Irishman, Patrick, who’s attracted to Brenda and who offers to come and fix her toilet. He’s another man who misreads Brenda’s rather limp signals. He’s also the odd man out at work:

Rossi treated him with suspicion, seeing he was Irish, following him about the factory in case he slipped a bomb beneath the cardboard boxes and blew them all to pieces.

And then there’s Freda, militant, aggressive Freda, who pulls out all the stops to lure Vittorio to her room in a shabby boarding house. Freda also drives men crazy, and there’s something nastily funny about how these two women handle the men in their lives. Freda pursues Vittorio avidly, and Brenda, tries, rather meekly, to fight men off. It takes the factory outing to bring these situations to a head with some very unpleasant results.

There’s a wonderful sense of comic timing to the novel–the attempted seductions and the thwarted seductions, along with the comic comings and goings that reminded me of a Shakespearean comedy, but also there’s wonderful timing in the silent, ignored horror of lives glimpsed off in the sidelines:

Brenda withdrew into a corner of the room, seating herself at the table beside the window. Across the road on the balcony of the third floor an elderly woman in a blue dressing gown and hat with a rose pinned to the brim waved and gesticulated for help. Brenda knew her gas fire had blown up or she was out of paraffin or the cat had gone missing. It was unfortunate that Freda had rented a room opposite a building devoted to the old and infirm-there always someone in need of assistance.

Here is Max’s review

Review copy

23 Comments

Filed under Fiction

The Wicked Go To Hell: Frédéric Dard (1956)

“It was an eerie spectacle, for the darkness obstructed the rest of the bodies so that the prisoners looked like the heads of fallen angels nailed to a backdrop of night, with their hands for wings.”

Pushkin Vertigo continues to publish some astonishing crime novels, and this is proved once more by a second Frédéric Dard novel, The Wicked Go To Hell which follows on the tail of Bird in a Cage. The Wicked Go To Hell follows the escape of two convicts–one a spy and one an undercover cop. There’s very little down time in this gripping tale, an exploration of identity and morality .

the-wicked-go-to-hell

The novel opens with a bureaucratic scene of a cop named Mérins meeting with his chief while groans of beating and torture taking place next door provide the incongruous background noise to what should be an office meeting. The man being beaten is a spy. He’s been interrogated five times, four times too many, according to the chief, but like many ideologues, the prisoner isn’t breaking. The chief has an alternate plan–he intends to place Mérins undercover in the same cell with the prisoner. They are supposed to buddy up and then plan an escape.

“We’ll lock you both up in the same jail cell… a tough one.. the sort of place that gives kindly old ladies the shivers. The pair of you will escape!

You’ll try to hole up somewhere and you’ll wait. The breakout will be big news. The head of the organization, knowing that his man has escaped, will want to get him back… At some point or other, he’ll break cover…Then, when you’ve got your hands on him…”

He made a chopping motion with the side of his hand. The gesture meant death.

‘Got it?”

The Chief expects that guards will be killed along the way, but hey, it’s all in the name of making the escape look authentic….

 

“Your second problem: the escape… Keep telling yourself, old son, that you’re acting unofficially.”

He repeated the word, spelling it out with great vehemence:

“Un-off-icially! The minute you leave the office I shall disown you! You know what that means?”

Sure I knew. He couldn’t help taking a sly sideways look at me.

“If you run into trouble, I won’t be able to lift a finger to help you, especially since escape won’t happen without breakages…”

The novel then shifts from the first person to the third–two freshly beaten men, handcuffed together, are thrown into a cell by a sadistic warden, where they join a third prisoner, a mute. The two new prisoners, Hal and Frank exchange names, but we don’t know which one is the undercover cop and which one is the spy. Each man expresses suspicion that the other has been planted in the cell as a “stool pigeon.”

Days of beatings pass in the airless, dank, dark prison; nights are full of screams, and then Hal and Frank hear that an execution of another prisoner is planned. They hatch a plan to escape on the day of the execution, and the plan gives them hope, raising their spirits:

They had grabbed it as they would a battering ram-and in fact their idea was itself a battering ram, with which they would try to smash down the gates….

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say the men escape, and that’s when the story really begins. ..

Although this is a novel about an escape, the atmosphere is incredibly claustrophobic–running from the dank, stinking cell to the outside world, the desperate men are chased and hunted, and exchange one hell for another.

In common with other titles in the Pushkin Vertigo line, The Wicked Go to Hell is an incredibly clever novel. Author Frédéric Dard deliberately blurs the lines between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ guys, stripping them of their identities so that we try to guess which one of the two men is the spy and which one is the undercover cop. All we have to judge them by is their current behaviour–which really is how we should see everyone–not by their uniforms or their status. Both men lose their identities as they become dehumanized prisoners. But then after the escape, we keep waiting for the reveal, and it comes, finally at the end of the wonderful story in which right and wrong blur into escape and survival. While both men begin this journey on opposite ends of the law, there’s a greater morality here in the bonds of friendship, debt and loyalty.

According to the afterword at the end of the book, Dard wrote 284 thrillers. I’m hoping that Pushkin mines this author’s work. The Wicked Go To Hell was made into a film. I’d love to see it.

review copy

translated by David Coward

Original title: Les Salauds en Enfer (1956)

16 Comments

Filed under Dard Frédéric, Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

24-hours

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

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

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

Review copy

Translated by Anthea Bell

14 Comments

Filed under Zweig Stefan

Bye Bye Blondie: Virginie Despentes

I gave up on the film version of Baise-Moi based on the book from French author Virginie Despentes, but that didn’t stop me from trying, and loving the film  Les Jolies Choses, based on yet another (sadly, untranslated) book from the author.  It was the latter film I thought of as I read Bye Bye Blondie, the story of a tangled relationship floating on a sea of fame and affluence.

The book begins with a woman in her late 30s, Gloria, whose real name is Stéphanie, washed up, living on benefits in the town of Nancy. Gloria could be called local colour at the bar where she hangs out, drinking, and it’s to this bar she gravitates after yet another violent break-up. This time it’s with her now ex-boyfriend, Lucas, and in the aftermath of the fight, she realizes that “she could have killed him. It came that close: a centimeter, a second! She diced with tragedy. He’d have had to be just that bit less quick, agile, or strong than her.”

Bye Bye Blondie

Gloria’s whole life gravitates around the bar where she’s well known. One of her few remaining friends is Michel who is smitten with a woman,
“a château bottled bitch,” named Vanessa, and to Gloria’s dismay, this relationship may be serious. Gloria is very intolerant of other people–especially women, and yet she always expects others to accept her aggressive, destructive behaviour.

Back in the bar, she looks around for L’Est Républicain, the local paper, and sees it clutched in the pink false fingernails of the woman sitting at the bar. Classic slut. Another regular. Always lots of makeup, come-hither eyes. She’s fat, dark-haired, no great looker, but not letting on she knows that.

Of course with a character like Gloria, you have to ask where things went wrong. How did she get to this point, “addicted to pointless anger,” and the first half of the book explores those questions with the result it’s obvious that middle-aged Gloria is not in a slump, no, she hasn’t moved beyond her adolescence. She’s a trainwreck, but she’s at the age that her actions can still impress those younger than her. Since her teenage years, obessive-compulsive Gloria has enjoyed throwing fits. To her they are an effective tool:

What she doesn’t tell him is how much of a kick she gets these days out of being aggressive. How much she loves the moment when everything tips over, when the other person is caught off balance and you have to go on, attacking, screaming, and seeing his fear. That’s the moment she likes. The pleasure she gets from it is dirty, degrading, filling her with shame-a filthy and superpowerful pleasure.

Never really able to settle on her own identity, in the 80s, she latched onto the Punk rock scene. But that’s not mentioning her stay at a mental hospital where she met the love of her life, Eric, a young man from a wealthy home, who, in the years following his break-up with Gloria, has become a successful television personality.

Blurbs about the book mention the inherent violence in heterosexual relationships, and while that’s not an arguable point when discussing this author’s work, other pertinent themes include the issues of class differences, status, and fame. The very things that attract us to someone in the first place are quite often the same things that guarantee doom.

I loved Gloria; I loved her ability to self destruct and to rise from the ashes. She’s funny, intelligent, and yet as her own worst enemy, she continually launches herself into a never-ending cycle of aggression. To Eric, locked into the world of the rich and famous, Gloria is a breath of fresh air, so he takes her to Paris and is “delighted to see the way she gets up people’s noses.” Gloria gets used to living in Eric’s world, and the question is: how long can she behave before creating another “nuclear disaster?”

There are many memorable scenes to carry away from this book. In one scene, Gloria is questioned by an “ancient” male psychiatrist who dislikes Gloria’s dyed red hair. He decides she’s “refusing to be a woman,” and locks her up.

And in another scene she’s shopping in Paris with Eric.

She waits in front of the luxury delicatessen, Fauchon’s, smoking a cigarette. She looks people up and down as they go in, actively detesting them. Elderly dyed-blondes, all twig-slim with ridiculous little dogs, hordes of Japanese women, young anorexic girls with strained faces, old ladies with white hair and Hermès scarves. The clichés aren’t misleading: rich people are just like you’d imagine them, weird, ugly and pleased with themselves. They can spot each other at a glance. Even when one of them dresses down, they keep something about them that says to their equals, “I’m one of us.”

She waits for him opposite Colette’s smoking another cigarette.

“Come in with me, don’t be silly.”

“I tell you it would give me conniptions.”

“You look like a horse stamping its foot outside. You’re scaring everyone.”

She wants to run between the aisles waving her hands in the air and screaming, pushing people over into the displays. Breaking all the glass, the mirrors, the windows. Punching the old hags in the face, kicking the salesgirls, jumping up and down on the fashion victims, smashing the balls of the bouncers.”

But my favourite scene has to be Gloria, stuck in long line at the post office. There’s annoying children, a demented old lady in a dressing gown, and a disgruntled customer:

A woman complains that there’s always a line at the post office. Gloria never at a loss for something to say, looks her up and down and retorts: “perhaps that’s because you only come here at busy times, you silly bitch.”

Gloria may be a trainwreck but she’s a disinhibited one, and it’s hard to disagree with some of her outspokenness, and while Gloria seems hell-bent on destroying conventional society and all of her relationships at the cost of her own comfort, there’s a tiny voice off on the sidelines that whispers we hope she can change her cycle of self-destructiveness but still remain true to herself.

We don’t get too close to the secondary characters in Gloria’s life, nonetheless there’s plenty to entertain here–the pub customers, life at the mental hospital, and parties full of the unhappy wives of rich, “repulsive pigs.” I would love to see the film version…

Translated by Siân Reynolds

Review copy.

20 Comments

Filed under Despentes Virginie, Fiction

Asylum: Patrick Mc Grath

“None of them noticed that she drifted through her days in a state of detachment and abstraction, functioning as she was expected to but not ever, totally there. None of them noticed but me. I was watching her.”

In Asylum, Patrick McGrath blurs the lines between those who treat mental illness and those who suffer from it. Perhaps, McGrath seems to argue, it’s even a matter of proximity…

Asylum is set at an institution for the criminally insane. It’s 1959 when psychiatrist Max Raphael, a dull, dispassionate, “reserved, rather melancholy” man brings his beautiful wife Stella, the daughter of a disgraced diplomat and his 10-year old son, Charlie from London to a walled asylum. Max is the new deputy superintendent, and the Raphaels take up residence in a large stone house just inside the walls. Max has his job and his patients to attend to, Charlie has school, but Stella doesn’t fit in with the other wives … what sort of life does she have within the confines of this “desolate” place?…

asylum

Stella is perhaps a trophy wife for Max, but they’re fundamentally mismatched. She’s bored, lonely, unhappy, sexually frustrated, and drinks too much. While the staff see the inmates as an entirely separate group of people, Stella, already alienated from the other hospital wives, resentful of the absolute power of the medical staff, doesn’t seem to be aware of a clear demarcation. Then she meets inmate Edgar Stark, an enigmatic artist who is restoring an old Victorian conservatory at the end of the Raphaels’ vegetable garden. Stark “functioned at a high level of intelligence,” but he’s subject to paranoid delusions, and years earlier, during a fit of violent rage, he murdered his wife, decapitated her and mutilated her head.

And if you think you know where this story is going, well you’re right. Even though she’s warned about Stark’s past, Stella heads straight for disaster.

The story is narrated, unreliably, by Dr. Peter Cleave, and we know through Cleave’s quiet, controlled narrative voice that something went horribly wrong with Stella. Interestingly, Cleave’s voice is so quiet, so controlled, that there are times when we forget that he is telling the story, and more importantly, that perhaps, just perhaps, he played a role in the events that took place.

The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now. Such relationships vary widely in duration and intensity but tend to pass through the same stages. Recognition. Identification. Assignation. Structure. Complication. And so on. Stella Raphael’s story is one of the saddest I know. A deeply frustrated woman, she suffered the predictable consequences of a long denial collapsing in the face of sudden overwhelming temptation. And she was a romantic. She translated her experience with Edgar Stark into the stuff of melodrama, she made of it a tale of outcast lovers braving the world’s contempt for the sake of a great passion.

The book isn’t simply the story of what takes place; it’s Dr. Peter Cleave’s narrative placed on top of past events. Here is a tale of illicit wild passion, of Stella growing increasingly out of control with the story told by Cleave’s  occasional, very occasional, clinical interpretation. It’s not that Cleave’s interpretation is incorrect, but it is inadequate, and just why his clinical interpretation of events is inadequate adds subtle psychological depths to the story. The way Cleave watches Stella and Stark echoes a behaviorist watching two rats in a laboratory–with one important difference; Cleave is not a disinterested observer, and hints of Cleave’s true feelings are buried deep in his narrative. He was opposed to Max’s employment at the asylum in the first place, and his decisions at vital points in the story bring his neutrality into question. It’s perfectly brilliant that Stella’s story should be told by an observer who is hardly disinterested. Edgar Stark, with his “restless, devious intelligence,” is Cleave’s pet patient, and Cleave, a sexually ambiguous character, is fascinated by Stella. There’s a section in the book when Stella and Stark have “urgent and primitive” sex on the ground. In the next paragraph, time has passed and Cleave questions Stella about her sex life with Stark. Interestingly, and hardly coincidentally, he says “I probed her gently,” a very telling, Freudian choice of words when he questions Stella to get the details. It’s a love triangle of sorts with all the physical passion between Stark and Stella, and Cleave a voyeuristic observer who holds limitless power at the asylum.

And that brings me to the book’s title: Asylum–a word that has more than one meaning–a place of refuge or an institution for the mentally ill. The ending packs a powerful punch with Cleave’s professional reasonableness teetering into creepy obsession.

Aslyum was made into a film. It’s well worth watching ( I just watched it for the second time), and although the plot is fundamentally the same in the book and the film, there are some differences. The book, as usual, is more complex and subtle. Peter Cleave is a much more invisible character in the book than in the film whereas Stella is much more off the rails.

15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, McGrath, Patrick

Grand Hotel: Vicki Baum (1929)

“It is an odd thing about the guests in a big hotel. Not a single one goes out through the revolving door the same as when he came in.”

Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel is set in 1920s Berlin and portrays a varied cast of characters who take rooms, for a range of reasons, at the best hotel in town. The first notable guest is Kringelein, a middle-aged, dying bookkeeper whose illness has liberated him from a mediocre life of servitude. After receiving a diagnosis, he leaves his home town of Fredersdorf and heads to the Grand Hotel in Berlin, longing to experience the lifestyle enjoyed by his employer, company director, Preysing. Taking all the money he can gather, Kringelein intends to live a life of luxury for a few months and live as he imagines Preysing, a man about the same age, lives. Initially given one of the hotel’s worst rooms thanks to the snobbishness of the staff, Kringelein pitches a fit until he gets the sort of room he thinks Preysing would enjoy. Ironically Preysing also comes to stay at the hotel, and he balks at the extravagance of his room. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that Preysing, who is not as affluent as he appears, is burdened with horrendous financial concerns.

Kringelein, “spending a month’s salary in two days,” strikes up an unlikely relationship with a fellow guest, the solitary, morphine addicted Doctor Otternschlag who guesses that Kringelein “wanted to seize one hour of crowded life before he died.” Dr Otternschlag, “a fossilized image of Loneliness and Death,” whose horribly disfigured face is a “Souvenir from Flanders,” sits in the lounge reading newspapers and asking daily for a letter which never arrives.

grand hotel

Another guest at the hotel is professional thief, Baron Gaigern, a very good-looking, charming man who lives lightly but expensively.

Gaigern was not a man of honor. He had stolen and swindled before now. And yet he was not a criminal, for the better instincts of his nature and upbringing too often made havoc of his evil designs. He was a dilettante amongst rogues.

It’s no accident that Gaigern is staying at the Grand Hotel. He’s not there for pleasure-he’s there for work, and it’s a job that causes him to cause between the two sides of his nature: self-interest or gallantry.

Another important guest is aging Russian dancer Grusinskaya who is accompanied by a coterie of faithful professionals who’ve sacrificed their lives to make hers easier. She possesses a valuable pearl necklace which she wears for every performance but now believes it brings bad luck. She’s already had plastic surgery, and is terrified of aging. Here she is looking at her reflection:

Grusinskaya fixed her eyes on her face as though on the face of an enemy. With horror she saw the telltale years, the wrinkles, the flabbiness, the fatigue, the withering; her temples were smooth no longer, the corners of her mouth were disfigured, her eyelids, under the blue makeup, were as creased as crumpled tissue paper.

In this novel, the guests represent a microcosm of Weimar Berlin society, and are all rather sad human beings. The war is in the not-so-distant past, and financial instability is glaringly present. Both Baron Gaigern and the doctor are veterans of WWI, but somehow the Baron remains a happy-go-lucky fellow, while the doctor is a shell of a man.

Since the focus is life in the hotel with its various comings and goings, Grand Hotel is not a traditional novel, but more a series of connected scenes as the guests meet and collide. There’s always a feel of the throw of the dice with a novel such as this; there’s no cohesive narrative which details the prior lives of our characters, but rather this is a group of diverse men and women thrown together by chance in a particular place, at a particular time. Each of the guests possesses some salient, unique, admirable, and achingly human quality: Grusinskaya possesses talent, Gaigern possesses a love of life, Kringelein possesses the will to pack a lifetime of living into a few weeks, and Preysing adores his family. All of these qualities are somehow or another challenged as the characters mingle in the hotel. The story dipped and lost its pace at a couple of points, but it’s well worth catching for the way the author bounces her characters off of one another, throwing them onto new pathways.

On a final note, while chewing over the idea that novels set in hotels capitalise on the idea that various types, who would not normally co-mingle. are thrown together, I began to count other, similar, scenarios: cruise ships, shipwrecks, people trapped by the elements, the work place.  Any others?

Here’s another review from The Bookbinder’s Daughter

Review copy.

Translated by Basil Creighton. Revised by Margot Bettauer Dembo.

34 Comments

Filed under Baum Vicki, Fiction