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The Wicked Go To Hell: Frédéric Dard

“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)

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Last Weynfeldt: Martin Suter

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

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

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

Repetition slows down the passage of time.

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

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

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

the last weynfeldt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy

Translated by Steph Morris

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Black Wings Has My Angel: Elliott Chaze

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

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

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

Black wings has my angel NYRB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Burning Secret: Stefan Zweig

Pushkin Press just released the Collected Novellas of Stefan Zweig which includes the following titles:

Burning Secret

A Chess Story

Fear

Confusion

Journey into the Dark

collected novellas

Burning Secret is the story of a young boy who’s staying with his beautiful mother in an Austrian hotel in Semmering when their quiet, idyllic, and at times boring stay (f0r the boy at least) is interrupted by a young man, “a baron from a not particularly illustrious noble family in the Austrian civil service.” With the Baron’s “inability to tolerate solitude,” the first thing he does is to check the hotel register. He’s looking for a “little light-hearted flirtation,” to ease the boredom. In the dining-room, he sweeps a gaze over the guests and a first glance leads him to think there’s “no chance of even a fleeting adventure.” We don’t exactly get a good impression of this baron. He’s:

a man who will never overlook any erotic opportunity, whose first glance probes every woman’s sensuality and explores it, without discriminating between his friend’s wife and the parlour-maid who opens the door to him. Such men are described with a certain facile contempt as lady-killers, but the term has a nugget of truthful observation in it, for in fact all the passionate instincts of the chase are present in their ceaseless vigilance: the stalking of the prey, the excitement and the mental cruelty of the kill. They are constantly on the alert, always ready and willing to follow the trail of an adventure to the very edge of the abyss. They are full of passion all the time, but it is the passion of a gambler rather than a lover, cold, calculating and dangerous.

This isn’t the entire quote, but it’s clear that Zweig made a study of this type of man. The Baron is a Ludic lover, and woe to the woman who takes him seriously.

Just as the Baron has accepted that a boring stay at the hotel awaits, another guest appears in the dining room: “a type he liked very much, one of those rather voluptuous Jewish women just before the age of over-maturity, and obviously passionate, but with enough experience to conceal her temperament behind a façade of elegant melancholy.” But she’s accompanied by a small pale boy named Edgar. The boy could be an impediment to seduction or a way into her company. …

There’s a wonderful scene in the dining room with Edgar’s mother very well aware of the Baron’s presence. She pretends to be unaware of his existence, but everything she does at the table becomes a performance for him. The Baron and ‘Mama’ are two erotically charged magnets. The Baron knows that “only sensuous attraction could stimulate his energy to its full force,” and that signals “the game could begin.” As for Edgar’s mother, “she was at that crucial age when a woman begins to regret having stayed faithful to a husband she never really loved, when the glowing sunset colours of her beauty offer her one last, urgent choice.”

The Baron makes a point of befriending the boy and promises him a puppy…

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to reveal. While the Baron and Edgar’s mother are central to this story, Burning Secret is really a coming-of-age story, and as such, in some ways the novella reminded me of Agostino. In Alberto Morovia’s novel, a boy is left to his own devices for the summer while his mother spends time with a lover. Agostino is extra baggage, and so is Edgar. The difference between the two boys is that Edgar is drawn into the affair and is more than a spectator; he’s a participant, and this episode in his life becomes a major factor in his relationship with his mother.

While I am not overly fond of stories told from the view of a child, Burning Secret (and this was made into a film BTW) shows the confusion experienced by Edgar as he’s courted by the Baron and then dumped. Edgar is too young to understand what is going on, but he senses that the Baron is a threat. Zweig captures the child’s mind with Edgar’s observations–observations that the child cannot fully understand–why, for example, are his mother’s lips redder than usual, and what is the connection between being sent out of the room and what happened between his father and the French governess? The meaning of these events seem secret to Edgar and he longs, in his loneliness, to understand the adult world that whirls so mysteriously around him.

Zweig creates a story, a child, and a chain of events that we can identify with. He’s a lonely child, confused and possessive, a protective son, and at times an annoying boy who is used as a pawn in a love affair. With a brilliant ending, Zweig winds up the story, creating a segue from the child to the man.

The other novellas will be covered in additional posts with the exception of Confusion which is here.

Translated by Anthea Bell

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Executive Suite: Cameron Hawley (1952)

Competence is a whip in the hands of a taskmaster,  and the lash cuts all the deeper when the whip is held by a perfectionist.”

Cameron Hawley’s novel, Executive Suite, a story of ambition and workplace politics opens in New York with the unexpected sudden death of 56 year old Avery Bullard. Bullard, who’s in New York to eliminate a man as a prospective executive vice president for the Tredwell Furntiure Corporation, suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and dies in the street as he is about to enter a cab. The man who was interviewed for the job witnesses the death and immediately dumps his stock in the Tredwell Corporation, and at the same time a woman passer by picks up and steals Bullard’s wallet. Bullard’s last act was to wire his secretary and order an emergency meeting of his five vice presidents so while the police in New York try to discover the identify of the dead man, back in Millburgh, Pennsylvania, at the Tredway Tower, the corporation’s company headquarters, the five vice presidents are supposed to dump their plans and prepare to gather together.  Everyone involved knows the meeting is to announce the new executive vice president, so no one can refuse. The last Executive VP died of a heart attack a few months before and the seat has been naggingly vacant ever since. The question on everyone’s mind is : who will Avery Bullard select? While the five men mull over their positions, we readers know that Bullard is dead and the bigger question is who will take over as the new president?

Loren P. Shaw: Vice president and Comptroller-ruthlessly ambitious, and of all the five vice presidents, his mask “was the best.”

Jesse Grimm: Vice President for Manufacturing: “his one weakness … demanding perfection from his machines but too quick to excuse the lack if it in his people.”

Fred Alderson: Vice President and Treasurer. The oldest of the vice presidents, he’s due to retire in 4 years.

J. Walter Dudley: Vice President for Sales–“practiced master of the art of winning quick friendships.”

Don Walling: Vice President for Design and Development. The newest of the five vice presidents. A self-made man ‘discovered’ by Bullard

The story goes into the minds of each of these men as they contemplate who will be selected as executive vice president, little knowing that with Bullard’s death, the stakes have drastically changed. Through these different minds, author Cameron Hawley explores just what work means to each man. Jesse Grimm, for example, no longer feels any satisfaction from his job and he has plans to retire imminently. J. Walter Dudley has recently found new zest in life through a no-strings relationship with a furniture shop owner, and Alderson thinks he deserves the executive VP spot since he’s been there the longest. Of course, the great irony is while the 5 VPs scramble around in various power plays assuming that the stake is the Executive VP spot, with Bullard’s death, the stakes have suddenly become much greater.

executive suiteAvery Bullard is, of course, absent after page one, but his presence dominates the lives of everyone who knew him. Originally a furniture salesman, he salvaged the Tredway Furniture Company from bankruptcy after the suicide of its founder and eventually merged seven other furniture companies which then formed the Tredway Corporation. He was a remarkable man who spent an energetic lifetime building his corporation while discovering and mentoring people. VP Don Walling was ‘discovered’ by Bullard, and it’s a debt Walling thinks he can never repay. Even Tredway’s largest stockholder, Julia Tredway Prince owes a tremendous debt to Bullard’s willpower and generosity. A few minor characters also exist to show what a powerful personality Bullard had–there’s loyal secretary, Erica Martin–“always in the bufferland between Avery Bullard and his vice-presidents,” and even an elevator man who’s devoted to the company president. But while Bullard demanded total and complete loyalty from his employees, some people–usually the wives, resent Bullard and his domineering presence in their lives. Mrs Alderson, for example, dreads the idea that her husband may become executive VP as she feels that she has already ‘lost’ her husband to the company. They live in the old Bullard home, a house she hates, because, according to her husband, “Mr. Bullard thinks it’s what we should do.”

But even the house, bad as it was, had not been the worst thing that Avery Bullard had done to her. Put in its simplest terms–and all of the years of loneliness had given Edith Alderson plenty of time to reduce everything to the simplest of terms–Avery Bullard had taken her husband away from her. He had turned her life into a meaningless sham of being married to a man whose first loyalty she could not claim.

This is very much a novel about American business. In some sense, Executive Suite reminded me of John O’ Hara’s Ten North Frederick–the story of Joe Chapin, a lawyer who is already dead when the novel begins, but whereas Joe Chapin was ‘steered’ through mediocre life by class, Bullard, a titan of industry, definitely created his own fate.

In its depiction of ambition, back stabbing office politics, and the issue of balancing home life with career, the book is relevant today. The novel can be faulted for its depiction of the female characters, but this is inevitable since this is a book about men and their careers while the wives linger in the sidelines. At one point, Walling praises another woman, glowingly to his wife, saying that she ‘thinks like a man,’ while another wife remembers only those people who’ve come to dinner, and she can recall the menu served down to minute detail. In this novel, Hawley asks some big questions: what do men ‘get’ from their careers, is it possible to balance work and home and still be successful, and what exactly brings job satisfaction? One character discusses compartmentalizing work and home and there’s the idea that one of the reasons the divorced Bullard was so admired was because he seemed to have achieved something with his life that other men envied. Ultimately, the novel argues that emotional choices in the workplace must be overridden by rational decisions; we don’t necessarily have to ‘like’ those we pick for the job.

I read some descriptions of this book as a page-turner. I found the book slow-going and it seems best read in big chunks rather than picking it up and putting it down as there are a lot of characters to keep track of here. One final thought–books written today about career and the workplace environment seem much more cynical. We see workers, anonymous and replaceable in a large corporate setting, doing anything but work. Thinking here of Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan.

Cameron Hawley (1905-1969) also wrote the novel Cash McCall which was also made into a film.

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She Who Was No More: Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac (1952)

After reading Vertigo and The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, both books from Pushkin Press’s new Vertigo imprint, I couldn’t resist plunging into She Who Was No More. For film fans, She Was No More was made into Les Diaboliques–a far more appropriate title for a wicked tale of adultery, devilish deception and murder

she who was no moreThe book opens with travelling salesman Ferdinand Ravinel waiting, with his mistress, Lucienne, for the arrival of Ravinel’s wife Mireille. Lucienne has lured Mireille to this spot, a house in Nantes, in order to murder her. Ravinel and Mireille have only been married for five years, and this cold, calculating plot to murder Mireille and collect the life insurance has consumed the last two of those years. After they collect the insurance money, the plan is that Lucienne & Ravinel will move to Antibes where Lucienne, a doctor, will then buy a medical practice. But Ravinel is supposed to get a payoff too:

He gazed at a shining carafe which magnified a piece of bread till it looked more like a sponge. Antibes … A smart shop–for he was to set up on his own too. In the window would be air guns for underwater shooting and all the gear for frogmen. Rich customers. And, with the sea in front and the sunshine, your mind would be full of pleasant, easy thoughts that didn’t make you feel guilty. Banished the fogs of the north. Everything would be different. He himself would be a different man. Lucienne had promised he would. As though seeing the future in a crystal, Ravinel saw himself sauntering along the beach road in white flannels. His face was tanned. People turned to look at him.

Lucienne met Mireille, became her physician, and even moved in with the married couple at one point. Imagine the married couple, Ravinel and Mireille, as a fundamentally unhealthy organism and Lucienne as the disease that moves in and takes over. Lucienne is a repellent character–utterly cold-blooded, a seemingly nerveless creature, and yet underneath “her outward coolness, you could see she was strung up and anxious.”

Strange how unfeminine she was. Even when they made love… How had she ever became his mistress? Which of them had really chosen the other. At first she had taken no notice of him, behaved almost as if he wasn’t there. She had seemed only interested in Mireille and she had treated her more like a friend than a patient. They were the same age, those two.

Obviously Lucienne, who has a much more forceful personality than Ravinel, appeals to his worst characteristics. An underachiever, he’s weak and unhappy with his life for reasons he can’t identify. He describes Mireille as a “nice little thing. Insignificant, however,” and yet from Ravinel’s thoughts, we get a picture of a woman who’s a good wife and rather pleasant (much more pleasant than Lucienne).  Ravinel doesn’t even like Lucienne; she has several habits he loathes–including the way she devours her meat almost raw. There’s none of the grand passion/lust found in other stories with a similar frame–I’m thinking here of The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity For Ravinel, sex with either Lucienne or Mireille is a bit of a let-down. With Lucienne, sex is almost surgical; it’s “brief, hasty intercourse, sometimes on a consultation room couch, within a yard of an enameled trolley on which stainless-steel instruments were laid out under a sheet of gauze.”

On the sexual side, things had not gone any better with Mireille than with Lucienne. Possibly it was his own fault. Lack of experience. Or had it been his luck to come upon nothing but frigid women. Mireille had done her best to pretend, but he had never been taken in. She had remained completely unmoved, even when she had clutched at him with an ardor that was meant to be ecstatic. As for Lucienne, she had never bothered to pretend. Love-making left her cold, icy cold, if it didn’t positively irritate her. That was the difference between them. Mireille took her duties seriously, and it was a wife’s duty to respond in the flesh. Strange that she couldn’t succeed. She was so feminine, so human, that there ought to have been a streak of sensuality in her somewhere.

Ravinel has a wife he likes but he undervalues and a mistress he’s terrified of disobeying. Quite a dilemma for the man who plans to murder the former in order to be with the latter.

The emphasis in She Who Was No More is on the psychological aspects of murder, and we see the story through Ravinel’s perspective as he rationalizes and justifies his actions. At one point, he says that in a way, it’s Mireille’s “own fault” they have to murder her after which he immediately tries to make himself the victim while carrying her unconscious body. Murdering Mireille is just a way, or so Ravinel thinks, of reinventing himself into the man he’d like to be. Once the crime is committed, everything begins to fall apart, and Ravinel, already established as an inherently weak character, finds himself, with increasing paranoia, resorting to a childhood vision of the “next world.”

We’re not meant to like anyone here, and it’s that total lack of sentiment which allows the reader to toss aside sympathy and pity and instead concentrate on the puzzle and the paranoia in this tale of the survival of the most wicked.

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