Tag Archives: madness

This Sweet Sickness: Patricia Highsmith

In Patricia Highsmith’s This Sweet Sickness, a novel of obsession and one man’s descent into madness, David Kelsey appears to have a decent life and a good future in front of him. He lives in a small town, and as a bachelor he rents a room in a boarding house. According to the landlady, he is the perfect tenant. He’s quiet, neat, pays his rent on time and never brings a woman back to his room. David’s workmate, a unhappily married man named Wes, certainly envies David his solitude. Wes complains abut his wife Laura constantly; apparently, according to Wes, she’s a cleaning fanatic, neurotic and prone to violent bursts of temper. Wes constantly wants David to visit hoping to ameliorate Laura’s anger. A new tenant at the boarding house, Effie Brennan, tries to strike up a relationship with David. She gets nowhere, but she becomes friends with Wes.

David is consumed with what he calls “the Situation.” He moved to this town and took the job for its large salary (1959, 25K), and he left behind, Annabelle, a girl he had just met in California. Even though he never made formal promises to Annabelle, he assumed she would wait for him, but Annabelle marries suddenly and moves to Hartford Connecticut with her new husband, Gerald Delaney. David, obsessed with Annabelle, refuses to move on. He’s written to Annabelle a few times telling her he loves her and she replied a couple of times. Undeterred by her marriage, he buys a remote cabin, furnishing it to what he imagines is Annabelle’s taste. He goes every weekend to the cabin, which he bought under the name William Neumeister. The name Neumeister may have initially been created as a means to buy this cabin with no one’s knowledge, but over time, it’s as if David is Neumeister–a more ‘confident’ man, perhaps a version of the self David would like to be. David tells everyone at the boarding house that he spends his weekends visiting his ailing mother in a nursing home (she’s actually long dead), but in reality, he spends that time at the cabin imagining that Annabelle is by his side, enjoying wine, enjoying the meals he cooks.

I don’t think that we can imagine David’s behaviour is healthy by any stretch of the imagination, but when the novel begins, David is still functional. He decides it’s time to press Annabelle to meet him in New York and when that doesn’t happen, and Annabelle tells him she has had a baby, he goes to her apartment to make her change her mind. …

Annabelle’s marriage to another man and then having a baby should be clear hints that she will never be David’s wife, but when reality hits David, instead of accepting it, his fantasies become more elaborate. To an outsider, David’s actions seem bizarre, but David’s actions are sealed with his own logic–a logic that underscores his desire to ‘spring’ Annabelle from her husband. This is great fiction, but at the same time, with David as our increasingly unreliable narrator, this is terrifying real. David’s first foray into violence increases his spiral into total insanity.

There are some cruel ironies to this tale. Effie Brennan is a lot like Annabelle in many ways, but David rejects her tentative attempts at friendship. David fails to realize that Effie loves him and finds her annoying. Here is this very nice, sweet, available girl, and she is arguably more interesting than Annabelle, but David only finds Effie “draining” and sees her as a nuisance. When it comes to Effie, he thinks it’s “easier to get rid of a bulldog with its teeth sunk in his wrist.” While he finds Effie intrusive, pushy and annoying, he never grasps that Effie’s behaviour and questions about his private life pale when compared to his single-minded insane pursuit of Annabelle. Life could be very very good for David, but his obsession controls all.

This Sweet Sickness easily makes my best-of-year-list. Highsmith follows the tense, claustrophobic trajectory of David’s terrifying descent into madness with bitter detail. David has led a double life for the past two years, lying about visits to his mother, while using the weekends to indulge in fantasies about the non-existence relationship with Annabelle in a non-existent life. When it’s clear that David’s imagined future with Annabelle will never materialize, he sinks into madness. The lines between David Kelsey and his alter-ego William Neumeister blur as the two identities blend into one.

David shut his eyes, lifted his glass and took three big swallows. Neumeister. He hadn’t thought of him in days until tonight, and there was little Effie keeping his precious secret. Neumeister had served his purpose, sailing serenely victoriously over tumultuous waters, up and down riding the waves, a strong ship in full sail. Neumeister had never lost. It was too bad Annabelle had never known Neumeister, even though Neumeister had in a way lived with her



Filed under Fiction, Highsmith Patricia

Lovesong: Elizabeth Jolley

In Elizabeth Jolley’s darkly comic Lovesong  Dalton Foster has been “returned” to his former community. We know there are various officials involved in this ‘return’: some sort of rehabilitation centre, a prison, and “Grayhead” a prison officer. We also know that there’s been “repeated sessions of cure, rehabilitation it was called,” and that a “sentence and a cure in various institutions” have taken up half of Dalton’s life so far. So now, Dalton is back living in his old neighbourhood, just around the corner from his former home. There’s been some sort of arrangement, and he’s living in a drab boarding house, Mrs Porter’s Establishment “a Home away from Home for Homeless Gentlemen,” along with a motley assortment of lodgers: a completely potty piano teacher named Miss Mallow, Miss Emily Vales (who is always on the lookout for “Mr Right”), several painted young men who work as dancers in “the entertainment line,”  and two young men who live together–one a waiter with AIDS and TB and the other, a doorman who is “getting a bust.” 


Dalton is alone, depressed, and let’s face: not all there.  He’s been offered a segue into so-called ‘normal life’ and society following his “cure,” through the patronage of a local family who happen to live in his old family home. He’s supposed to visit them upon occasion, but the mother, in loud telephone conversations to her sister, calls him the DP, the Displaced Person. During conditioning, the rehabilitation officer told Dalton about the need for “being sensible or being watchful,” yet Dalton is compulsively drawn to children. …

Life at Mrs Porter’s, “a houseful of discarded men and women,” is bizarre. It’s a “temple devoted to regret,” and there’s the spectacle of dear, departed Mr Porter’s hairball kept under a glass bell. Poor Dalton must wait for hours for the bathroom to be free, and he’s frequently pounced upon by the mad klepto Miss Mallow who repeatedly insists on showing him her incomprehensible references. Dalton is suspicious that Miss Vale, hunting for Mr Right, still recovering from thwarting an attempted kidnapping, is breaking into his room and reading his journals. Perhaps she is….

There’s a deep opacity to the novel. Things are seen through Dalton’s eyes, but he’s at best disturbed and damaged, at worst, deranged. He vacillates, unreliably, between the past and the present with flashes of his childhood, and it’s NOT a childhood that has been illuminated by later adult understanding.  The nomadic household was composed of his mother, his Aunt Dalton, and his father, named derisively Horsefly by his mother and aunt. What is going on between those two women as they shriek and intrigue, accompanied by the running joke that Horsefly is useless “The Excruciating Bore.”

“Like an officer’s boot, my dear,” Dalton’s mother screamed while they were dressing. “Like an officer’s thigh boot,” her voice intense with the pleasure of Aunt Dalton’s exquisite elegance resembling the handsome leg of a cossack, she said then, ‘”descending with virile intentions from his horse.” 

Dalton’s mother and Aunt refer mockingly to Horsefly as the Consul, but this is yet another way to humiliate the timid, gentle man who supports the family through hard, humiliating work.

“A Consul, yes” his mother would say, “but oh! why Trade of all things!” Her wailings were heard frequently from behind closed doors in either rented houses or the less fashionable hotels where they were often obliged to stay.

There are some sections which are notes taken on events within the boarding house, and in other sections depicting Mrs Porter and other guests, speech is written phonetically, so this may be a difficult novel for non-English readers.

I’ve read a few Elizabeth Jolley novels, and my favourite remains, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. Although we read blurbs of novels, reviews etc , it’s rare that we are unprepared for what’s inside the covers, but it’s always a wild ride with Elizabeth Jolley. There’s an eccentricity there that hovers dangerously close to madness. Jolley has a perceptive eye for irony, cruelty, and tragedy but laces it with human frailty and quirkiness. In Lovesong, it’s beyond eccentric, beyond quirky: it’s the Mad describing the Mad. Madness is the natural refuge for the human condition:

The last time he saw Aunt Dalton she was sitting up close to a horrible little plastic table banging a dish with a spoon and wearing a bib decorated with provocative slogans.

And kindness is the saving grace.

This novel is part of Lisa’s Elizabeth Jolley Week and also an entry in the Reading Australian Women Writers challenge.


Filed under Fiction, Jolley Elizabeth

Lenz by George Büchner

I admit that I’d never heard of Lenz–Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792) until this review copy from Archipelago Books . Wikipedia identifies Lenz as a Baltic German writer of the Sturm und Drang movement. Here comes a slight digression….what is it with these artists who slotted into significant literary movements? Did they feel as though they had to live the very essence of the movement they were part of? Take the Sturm und Drang movement, for example. Lenz is one of those authors who fall under the movement’s umbrella, and his life appears to be an embodiment of the movement. Of course, this sets the mind off thinking about Oscar Wilde and the Decadents, Charles Bukowski and Transgressive Fiction, Byron and the Romantics etc… There’s a lot here to chew on, but back to Lenz.

Lenz is composed of the 1839 novella Lenz by Georg Büchner, Mr. L ... by Johann Friedrich Oberlin, and an excerpt concerning Lenz from Goethe’s Poetry and Truth. According to translator Richard Sieburth, Büchner’s Lenz is “an experiment in speculative biography.” Lenz, the son of a minister, rejected the study of theology and instead turned to literature. He then left his studies to become a “tutor” to the two young barons von Kleist and followed them to a number of garrisons. Later, he made friends with Goethe and became part of a group of young writers. A period of some literary success followed, but Lenz’s relationship with Goethe turned sour, and at Goethe’s instigation, Lenz was thrown out of the Weimar court. The translator’s afterword goes into some detail about the incidents that took place, but to give a hint: the trouble erupts over a woman.

Lenz begins with our main character, Lenz, wandering on the mountains. A simple walk turns into a monumental, epic journey, and we are privy to Lenz’s increasingly fragmented thoughts. It’s not immediately apparent, but becomes so as the story plays out, that Lenz is on the fringes of a total mental meltdown:

Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides. Only sometimes when the storm tossed the clouds into the valleys and they floated upwards through the woods and voices awakened on the rocks, like far-echoing thunder at first and the approaching in strong gusts, sounding as if they wanted to chant the praises of the earth in their wild rejoicing, and the clouds galloped by like the wild whinnying horses and the sunshine shot through them and emerged and drew its glinting sword on the snowfields so that a bright blinding light knifed over the peaks into the valleys; or sometimes when the storms drove the clouds downwards and tore a light-blue lake into them and the sound of the wind died away and then like the murmur of a lullaby or pealing bells rose up again from the depths of ravines and tips of fir trees and a faint reddishness climbed into the deep blue and small clouds drifted by on silver wings and all the mountain peaks, sharp and firm, glinted and gleamed far across the countryside, he would feel something tearing at his chest, he would stand there, gasping, body bent forward, eyes and mouth open wide, he was convinced he could draw the storm into himself, he stretched out and lay over the earth, he burrowed into the universe, it was a pleasure that gave him pain

That passage captures the beauty of nature–its violence and its peace, and through the sentence structure we also see Lenz’s erratic state of mind. But this scene is nothing compared to what awaits. An Alsatian pastor takes Lenz in to his home, and it’s there that Lenz unravels. The novella is a fictionalised account of the three weeks Lenz spent with Oberlin.

The second part of this volume, Mr. L  is an extract from the diary written by Johann Friedrich Oberlin, the pastor who took on more than he planned when he took Lenz into his home. Oberlin chronicles three weeks of hell with Lenz throwing himself out of the window, trying to drown himself and getting way too familiar with a pair of scissors.

The third section’s matter-of-factness, written by Goethe, is in stark contrast to Lenz’s wildly irrational behaviour:

One is aware of that species of self-torture which, in the absence of any external or social constraints, was then the order of the dat, afflicting precisely those possessed of the most exceptional minds. Things that torment ordinary people only in passing and which, because unengaged in self-contemplation, they seek to banish from their thoughts, were instead acutely registered and observed by the better sort, and set down in books and diaries.


Of all the full- or half-time idlers intent on digging into their inmost depths, Lenz excelled in cultivating and perpetuating this state of conflict, and thus he suffered in general from that tendency of the age to which the depiction of Werther was meant to put a stop; but he was cut from a different cloth, which set him apart from all the others, whom one had to admit were throughly open, decent creatures. He, by contrast, had a decided propensity for intrigue, indeed, for intrigue pure and simple, without any particular goal in view, be it reasonable, personal, or attainable; on the contrary, he was always concocting some twisted scheme, whose very contortions were enough to keep him wholly entertained. In this way, throughout his life his fancies played him for a rascal, his loves were as imaginary as his hates, he juggled his ideas and feelings at whim, so that he would always have something to do. By these topsy-turvy means, he would attempt to impart reality to his sympathies and antipathies, and then would himself destroy this creation again; and so he was never of use to anybody he loved, nor did he ever do harm to anybody he hated, and in general he seemed only to sin in order to punish himself, only to intrigue in order to graft some new fiction onto an old one.

Obviously when Goethe wrote this, he was long out of patience with a man he once considered his friend–or at least someone you could safely invite into your home.  This volume gives us three very different views of Lenz–all of them unhappy, all of them tortured. Lenz seems to be a truly damaged individual–although Goethe indicates that at least some of the drama was fabricated. Lenz ended up in Russia, and he died there in 1792, aged 41, homeless on a Moscow street.

A few words on this edition… In terms of quality, the book reminds me of those excellent little high-quality pocket-sized editions from Pushkin Press. The cover is made of heavy card with flaps for both front and back covers. This is a dual German-English edition which is rather wasted on me as my two years of German stagnated after the discovery of the word “vater.” But really, this volume is a gem for anyone interested in German Literature (even if, like me, you can’t speak the language).

Special thanks to Amy at The Black Sheep Dances for arranging this review copy.


Filed under Büchner Georg, Fiction, Goethe