Tag Archives: middle age

Guys Like Me: Dominique Fabre

“There are no second acts.” The narrator of Dominique Fabre’s novel Guys Like Me is a 54 year-old-year-old office worker. Due to a lack of personal details, the narrator remains throughout the story, an Everyman, gray, balding, a little out-of-shape, a little overweight, one of the many anonymous divorced, solitary men we see at work, at the supermarket, or on the streets every day.  Once he was married but he made a lot of mistakes and was divorced years earlier with the usual acrimony; move on to middle age and he’s still alone. There has been a string of women but none of the relationships were serious–except one that lasted two years and which left our narrator damaged and wary of involvement. So here he is full of regrets, a sense that he’s failed as a father, living alone in a three room apartment in Paris. He’s employed, more or less going through the motions, and with occasional contact with his twenty-six-year old son Benjamin. Guys Like MeUnmoored from any structure in his life, finding common ground in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the narrator has attempted to create some meaning to his existence.

It started when I turned forty, like most guys I know. I sponsor a little orphan, a little Haitian boy as it happens, and every year I keep the letter he sends me, a completely stereotypical letter to the white man who sends him a check for twenty-five euros ever month. A year after my divorce I also started volunteering in a hospital, but that way of doing good didn’t suit me all that much, because often, the next day, I’d start to feel symptoms, and more than once I fell ill. How can you give a hand to someone who’s dying anyway? I never figured out the answer to that. There were support groups too, with shrinks, only it bored me, and I stopped, it wasn’t my thing. Then I met a woman I was hoping to get love from, but nothing like that happened. I was forty-four when I discovered that you can hope to get love in return for a washing machine, two installments on a car, and other things like that, I was cured of that woman, and of others in the long run.

The narrator has a good friend, Marc-André, a man he admires a great deal because although he too was divorced, he’s somehow managed to throw himself back into the game, remarried and has a patchwork family with this second wife. Marc-André pulled the narrator out from his depressive slump, and the narrator acknowledges that Marc-André is “braver than me, he’d been strong enough to start all over again from scratch.” Marc-André has a philosophical approach to life:

We talked some more about guys, old friends we’d lost touch with, after a while it became painful to live with too many of these memories, it’s age, Marco said. And time. You can’t do anything against time.

Another main male character here is Jean–a man the narrator bumps into on the street when the book opens. And here’s a quote that gives a good sense of the writer’s style:

He looked familiar, from where I was. From where I was it might still have been possible, somehow to turn around and walk away, even though obviously I would never have turned around and walked away of my own accord. But a car might have started, in which case I’d have had to get out of the way, or I might have looked the other way and not seen his reflection in a shop window. I’d have reacted by saying to myself what does that guy want with me? And I’d probably have ignored him, I’d probably have forgotten him. His face looked drawn, but his hair wasn’t gray. I’ve almost lost my hair. Sometimes I run my hand through it, and there’s nothing there. My ex-wife used to laugh when I did that, and I don’t think I took it well. I don’t like taking a wrong turn, but it’d be right to say that when we met again we’d both taken a wrong turn. Maybe our lives, too: lots of wrong turns placed end to end, you can never reconstruct the whole journey.

Jean, a man whose “good times were already behind him” before he was thirty, is also alone but he’s unemployed and desperate for work, so the narrator and Marc-André pull together to help Jean out of his slump. Although author Dominque Fabre doesn’t overwork the connection between the three men, Marc-André, Jean and the narrator, it’s easy to see that there’s a hierarchy of social functionality. Marc-André has successfully managed to build another life for himself from the debris of his first marriage, but Jean is a total failure–the sort of man any rational woman would run from, and that leaves our narrator in the middle of this totem pole of functionality. He occasionally wobbles near the cliff edge (gluing together and mounting business cards for a room decoration) and he struggles with despair, but at the same time, he knows he must make some sort of effort to form interests and relationships. And this is where the book’s central motif comes into play: there are millions of middle-aged men divorced, lonely and adrift, and while the narrator notices Jean’s decline and asks himself “how could a guy like that get to this point?” it’s clear that the narrator could so easily become as dysfunctional as Jean. The narrator belongs to a dating site but finds that his dates are “pretty dull,” and that the “women [are] obsessed with their age, in a hurry to rebuild their lives.” An interesting comment since he posts a younger photo of himself in his profile. Of course, we don’t get an opinion from the women the narrator meets, but since he says he “soon stopped putting on a show,” I’d imagine that his dates find him dull too, but then he meets a woman, whose screen name he initially dislikes, through the site. It’s through this tentative relationship that we see the awkwardness of a middle-age romance between damaged lonely people who juggle need with fear and who consequently set boundaries as a safety net, balancing the desire for intimacy and love with the fear of rejection and disillusionment.

Of course, there was an enormous loneliness there, it was like a kind of ocean, the messages people sent each other hummed with it. These last few years I’d met two or three women who were real culture vultures, and I’d run away after the sixth exhibition or the fifth museum. There had also been a woman I liked, ten years younger than me, but she’d taken off after three dates and I couldn’t blame her. She sent me a long recorded message two weeks later the gist of which was that she was looking for somebody better than me, a younger guy who could be the father of her children. Three women I’d slept with, without hope or despair, just like that.

In this loosely plotted novel, we follow the narrator through his life, his relationship with his son, his friendship with Marc-André, his attempts to help Jean, and his dating experiences. All of this is very well done indeed, and I loved the author’s melancholic, yet ultimately optimistic style, and the way in which the narrator’s voice, at times almost hypnotic, is created in such a way as to appear to be from a man who is used to his own solitary company. The excellent central motif of  “guys like me” which has the paradoxical result of making the narrator simultaneously one in an anonymous crowd and yet highly individualistic is occasionally overworked, but that’s a minor quibble. Regret is an emotion felt at every age, and yet during the 50s, regret rolls in with the accompanying realization that it may be too late to fix our lives; Fabre captures that feeling perfectly.

I’d pass guys like me, you also see us, younger ones, waiting at the ends of platforms, in large stations, at the beginning  and the end of the school vacations.

French title: Les Types Comme Moi Translation: Howard Curtis Review copy.

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A Game of Hide and Seek: Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve read four Elizabeth Taylor novels so far. Loved a couple of them and liked the others. A Game of Hide and Seek–a subtle, clever novel about middle-aged regret falls into the latter category.

The novel opens with its two central characters, Vesey and Harriet during the holidays in the countryside. Vesey is going off to Oxford in the autumn, “his next steps would take him over the threshold of a new and promising world” but for the moment he’s staying with his aunt Caroline and Uncle Hugo and their two children, Deirdre and Joseph. Former suffragette Caroline is best friends with Harriet’s mother, Lilian, and both women were once arrested for their beliefs. There’s the sense that there’s an immense gap between generations. Harriet “fulfilled none of the ambitious desires” of her mother, and Vesey is an annoyance to his uncle:

Hugo Macmillan had still much of that poetic ebullience which distinguished so many young men just before the 1914 war. He suggested in middle-age, a type of masculinity now perhaps vanished to the world; the walking tours in perfect spring weather, Theocritus in pocket: an aesthetic virility. He had gone on being Rupert Brooke all through the war–a tremendous achievement–and was only now, much later, finding his enthusiasms hardening into prejudices and, sometimes, especially with Vesey, into a techy disapproval of what he did not understand. His old-fashioned liberalism now contained elements of class-hatred; his patriotism had become the most arrogant nationalism. His love and sympathy for the women of his youth, his support in their fight for a wider kind of life, made him unsympathetic to the younger women who came after. Every feminality these young girls (he even called them Flappers) felt free to adopt and they were fewer than usual at that time) he openly despised.

Although Taylor never overworks this idea, there’s the sense that this younger generation are a disappointment for their elders: Hugo, who fought and survived WWI, feels “antagonism” for Vesey’s “laziness and his cynicism.” These days feminism is “a weird abnormality,” and Caroline and Lillian wonder what they fought for.

a game of hide and seekLong summer days are spent by Vesey and Harriet playing hide-and-seek with the children and while the game spins away the hours, it’s also a way for 18-year-old Vesey and Harriet to spend time together alone. Harriet is in love with Vesey, but Vesey looks forward to what he assumes is his brilliant future. While Caroline predicts a mediocre academic career for Vesey, he imagines himself as an influential “literary figure [rather] than as a man at work.” There’s an arrogance there that translates to occasional cruelty towards Harriet. Harriet’s romance with Vesey is brought to an abrupt halt, and Harriet begins work as a junior shop assistant in a dress shop. The “senior” assistants are all single women, desperate and rather sad, given to extreme beauty treatments geared towards increasing their shelf life–including man-eater Miss Lazenby who “was always plucking her eyebrows ” until she “had scarcely any eyebrows left, only an inflamed expanse.”

Harriet is gently courted by solicitor Charles Jephcott, a much older man who assumes a fatherly role rather than a romantic one. Charles is boring, respectable, courteous–everything probably to balance the outrageousness of his famous actress mother, Julia, whose main goal in life, and one in which she succeeds admirably, is to “draw attention to herself.” And so, at a bad time in her life, and because she has loved and lost,  Harriet agrees to marry Charles.

Fast forward almost twenty years, and Vesey, now a down-on-his-heels, second-rate actor returns, and all of Harriet’s feelings are reawakened….

A Game of Hide and Seek has some marvellously drawn scenes, for example when Charles insists Harriet attend a performance of Hamlet with Vesey playing Laertes. Charles knows full well that the play will be shabby, and he hopes that the performance will take some of the gilt from Vesey. Possibly the best aspect of the novel is its wonderful secondary characters: the shop assistants at the dress shop, the Jephcott’s Dutch servant Elke, who writes long letters home explaining her confusion about the English, Harriet’s daughter, Betsey who appears to have inherited her grandmother’s histrionic tendencies, and Charles’s awful mother Julia who finds Harriet “dull and slavish,” as she “hovers round [Charles] like a Praying Mantis.” She’s waiting for the marriage to crack and is delighted by the idea that her daughter-in-law might have a lover.

The novel, while exploring the depths of a revived love affair, is not sentimental or even romantic. Instead the novel asks questions such as: Do we get second chances in love?  Or is there a point at which it’s too late to begin again? There’s something very poignant about Vesey, twenty years on, stripped of his youthful arrogance, and what of Harriet who is afraid of showing her middle-aged body?

While I really liked the novel, and find that it sits well in my memory, I couldn’t help the sneaking thought that the sum of the story was not equal to its parts. The secondary characters remain very strongly in my mind, and their creation required a sharp, wicked sense of humour. However, for this reader, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Vesey would have fallen for the middle-aged Harriet any more than he fell for the 18-year-old version–although I did contemplate that perhaps she represented, for him, the moment in his youth when he thought he had the world at his feet. Living with Charles for twenty years has caused his dullness to infect Harriet, and although we know that she’s unhappy and unfulfilled, yet still I wasn’t convinced that Vesey was ever serious about Harriet. But then again, perhaps he wasn’t….Back to that game of hide-and-seek.

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Kerrigan in Copenhagen by Thomas E. Kennedy

“A man can never know too many barmaids, he thinks.”

After watching the hilarious comedy film, Klovn, I’ve been fascinated by all things Danish. Following 60 episodes of Klovn the series, The Killing I and II, as well as anything else I can get my hands on, I find myself at Kerrigan in Copenhagen, a novel by American author Thomas E Kennedy. This is the story of Kerrigan–a divorced Irishman in his 50s who’s writing a travel guide about Copenhagen. The result is part travelogue and part novel, with the result that if you plan of taking a trip there, you could take Kerrigan in Copenhagen along and the book would serve as an entertaining guide–especially if you plan to go on a pub crawl.

kerrigan in copenhagenKerrigan, a rather depressed and unhappy man, trying to cope with the bitterness of a broken marriage that to him seemed happy, is in Copenhagen to write a book, “a sampling of one hundred of the best, the most historic, the most congenial of Copenhagen’s 1525 serving houses” for a travel guide called, appropriately, The Great Bars of the Western World. Kerrigan, who sees himself as a “failed poet” doesn’t feel very inspired by his project; the writing part doesn’t seem too thrilling, but the research isn’t too bad at all:

It is the city of a hundred vices and fiteen hundred serving houses, bars, cafes-more of them than one will ever come to know in a lifetime without a major effort. Kerrigan has decided to make that effort.

Kerrigan’s mother was born in Copenhagen, and so Kerrigan’s return is a spiritual journey, a symbolic return to the womb–not that he notes that. Kerrigan is too broken and disillusioned to do very much at all.  Armed with a well-worn copy of Finnegan’s Wake (“Not that he ever expects to finish reading it,”) and accompanied by his attractive, knowledgeable 57-year-old research associate, Kerrigan visits and samples various drinking establishments as part of his contract. Kerrigan in Copenhagen is packed with cultural information about this city and Danish customs, and we see Kerrigan and Annelise visiting various establishments while along the way, information regarding Kerrigan’s private life is gradually pieced together.  Quite obviously the author loves the city, and at times the novel feels like a lot more like a travel guide with just a touch of fiction (note the extensive bibliography at the end of the book). I was in the mood to read and learn about Copenhagen, so the travel guide aspects proved realism and were fine with me: 

If he goes right, to Charlie Scott’s at Skindergade 53, he will have the opportunity to enjoy Jazz Under the Stairs, featuring the astonishingly energetic Australian clarinetist and singer Chris Tanner, and possibly bump into guitarist and composer Billy Cross , who is the nephew of Lionel Trilling and does the best arrangement of “Blue Suede Shoes” that Kerrigan has ever heard and who inter alia has been lead guitar for Bob Dylan and occasionally comes into Charlie Scott’s although there, Kerrigan will no doubt drink many pints of inexpensive pilsner and will also be drunk and late for his associate.

This is not a fast-paced or action-packed read. Instead, the pacing here is typically & realistically leisurely as Kerrigan and Annelise discuss some of Denmark’s more famous citizens: Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen:

“Moving right along,” he says. “What cafés did he frequent in Copenhagen?”

“The only café I know of that Andersen frequented was the Caffé Greco in the Via Condotti in Rome,” she continues. “Casanova, Canova, Goethe, Gogol, Byron, Liszt, the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. Andersen used to go to Greco in 1833 when he was in Rome for the first time. He was twenty-eight. Just before he got famous.”
 “Let’s see,” Kerrigan says. “In 1833 Kierkegaard would have been twenty, right?”

“Yes. And writing in his journals about the sins of passion and the heart being nearer to salvation than the sins of reason!”

“Sounds a bit like Andersen.”

“To Kierkegaard,” she says, “Andersen was a ‘sniveler,’ the word he used in a review of  Andersen’s third novel. Kierkegaard was one of his sternest critics.”

“How did Andersen take to criticism?”

“Generally he would weep,” she says, laughing, and he cannot resist joining her, and somehow their laughter a century and a half ago makes him feel stronger in the realization that despite being a great artist, Andersen was pretty much a jerk and a baby.

“I read somewhere,” she continues, “that when he visited Charles Dickens in England, Dickens found Andersen lying facedown on the lawn of Gad’s Hill, Dickens’s home, weeping. Another bad review. Andersen also stood on the bank of Peblinge Lake–just a few blocks from here-and wept.”

Kennedy’s readers will be better served if they are a literate bunch interested in Danish culture, but while the emphasis is on Denmark, many authors pop up for discussion, including: Proust, Dickens, Maupassant, Sir Walter Scott, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Goethe, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The book’s full title is Kerrigan in Copenhagen: A Love Story, so we can too easily predict the path of Kerrigan and Annelise. We cannot, however, so easily predict the places these two characters visit or the various people they meet in this remarkable, much-loved city which acts as a marvelous backdrop for a energizing renewal for both Annelise and Kerrigan. Kerrigan in Copenhagen is the third novel in the author’s Copenhagen Quartet ( In the Company of Angels, Falling Sideways, Kerrigan in Copenhagen, & the soon-to-be-released Beneath the Neon Egg).

Review copy.

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Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban

Suppose,” I said, “some sort of turtle freak decided to steal the turtles and put them back in the ocean. What would he need for the job?’

Ed Park’s introduction to the wonderful novel, Turtle Diary, written by Russell Hoban (1925-2011), tells us that this is “one of the great novels of middle age,” for not only are the dual protagonists two middle-aged lonely people, but they each understand the sort of old age that awaits them just around the corner. Hoban, who was an American ex-pat, lived in Britain and a large part of his work was written for children. It can’t be coincidence, then, that one of the two narrators, Neaera is an author and illustrator (as Hoban was) of children’s books while the other narrator is William, a divorced man (as Hoban was at one point), estranged from his children, who lives in a small boarding house and works at a bookshop. Right away, of course, we know these are different times; the boarding house is very respectable and full of solitary characters with bizarre habits that evoke the shabby gentility of Muriel Spark

Turtle diaryThe alternating narrators are William G. and Neaera H, both in their 40s, both living in London, and both drawn to the plight of the sea turtles who swim endlessly in zoo tanks they have long since outgrown. These two lonely, solitary people approach the zoo and the turtles and each feels a connection to the trapped animals imprisoned in cells far too small and endlessly swimming to a destination they will never reach. After looking at the sea turtles, William is depressed:

Sea turtles. two or three hundred pounds the big ones must have weighed. Looping and swinging, flying in golden-green silty water in a grotty little tank no bigger than my room. Soaring, dipping and curving with flippers like wings in a glass box of second-hand ocean. Their eyes said nothing, the thousands of miles of ocean couldn’t be said.

And here’s Neaera’s reaction:

There they were in the golden-green murk of their little box of sea, their little bedsitter of ocean. One almost expected a meter in the corner of it where they had to put in 5p to keep the water circulating. Thousands of miles in their speechless eyes, submarine skies in their flipper wings. no beach of course, no hot sand for the gravid females to crawl up to, to lay their eggs.

William and Neaera exist in separate lives and yet their eerie connection is made through parallel thought processes & universal consciousness. In the earlier quotes, for example, William notes that the turtle tank is a space “no bigger than my room,” while Neaera, who at that point doesn’t even know William exists, notes their tank is a “little bedsitter of ocean.” These sorts of connected thoughts occur repeatedly throughout the novel, so that we understand why William and Neaera, two very different people, both come to the separate conclusion that the turtles must be liberated from captivity. It is as though some strong force drives them to the zoo and then compels them to act. 

Although William and Neaera are both distressed by the plight of the turtles, they are drawn back repeatedly. Inevitably, they notice one another, and then one day, Neaera walks into the bookshop where William works, and while both characters feel a desire to walk away from the plight of the turtles, they discover a deeply rooted moral obligation to release them back into the sea. Neaera understands William so well that he’s not entirely comfortable with her, but there again he can’t deny either the “eerie” connection they have, or the idea that “there’s another one of me locked up alone in a brain with the same thoughts.

Turtle Diary is a story of Animal Liberation published back in 1975 when the world had an entirely different attitude towards the term, but the book is primarily the story of two lonely people who feel driven to do something about a situation that disturbs their moral universe, and the big question is: will William and Neaera also be liberated by the experience? And from what do these characters need to liberated? Delightful alternating narratives reveal two lonely Londoners who deal with their own demons: William tormented and intimidated by the flagrant, daily selfishness of another lodger, and Neaera, the author of the successful Gillian Vole series who agonizes that she’s “caged” and exploited a water beetle who lives in a fish tank in her flat. She considers the beetle for story material. Possibly something along the lines of Victoria Beetle, Secret Agent:

It was past three in the morning and I was staring into the green murk of Madame Beetle’s tank. The plants are all shrouded in long green webs of algae, there are white and ghostly bits of old meat hanging around about blooming with mould, the sides of the tank are very dim. It’s like the setting for a tiny horror film but Madame Beetle doesn’t seem to mind. I can’t think now how it could have occurred to me that I might write a story about her. Who am I to use the mystery of her that way? Her swimming is better than my writing and she doesn’t expect to get paid for it. If someone were to buy me, have me shipped in a tin with air-holes, what would I be a specimen of ?

Turtle Diary is ostensibly the story of two people appalled at the living conditions of turtles,  but this is ultimately a story about middle age, loneliness and despair. While the sea turtles swim endlessly in a tank searching for a beach that will not appear, our characters live in a state of imprisonment fueled by self-doubt, loneliness, and an inability to connect. Yet who is there to connect with? Neaera’s oily neighbour,  “unemployed actor” Webster de Vere, a shark in the human ocean, appears to “live[s] off old ladies.” And there’s something decidedly predatory about his eyes which look “as if he’s pawned his real ones and is wearing paste.” William, in his boarding house, has to share a bathroom with the other tenants including the mysterious, Sandor who leaves the cooker greasy after preparing his foul-smelling breakfasts and trails pubic hair behind after using the bath. While William & Neaera’s lives aren’t terrible, they are terrifyingly ordinary, and Neaera mulls over the question of whether or not people would choose to lead the lives they find themselves locked into:

It occurred to me then to imagine lives packaged and labeled and ranged on shelves waiting to be bought. I couldn’t think of any likely brand names right off except Brief Candle. And what if the ingredients were listed on the box? Many lives would go unsold, they’d have to discontinue some of the range. Sorry we don’t stock that life any more, there was no demand for it really. Hard Slog for example or Dreary Muddle, how many would they sell a year? On the other hand Wealth and Fame would move briskly even with a Government health Warning on the packet.

Middle age can be a trying time for those who find themselves washed up on this shore, so lest I give the wrong impression about Turtle Diary, the book is full of playful humour. Some of the humour comes from Neaera’s marvelous observations of various zoo animals, but some of it comes from William’s slips:

The sea turtles are on my mind all the time. I can feel something building up in me, feel myself becoming strange and unsafe. Today one of those women who never know titles came into the shop. They are the source of Knightsbridge lady soup and they ask for a good book for a nephew or something new on roses for a gardening husband. This one wanted a novel, ‘something for a good read at the cottage.’ I offered her Procurer to the King by Fallopia Bothways. Going like a bomb with the menopausal set. She gasped, and I realized I’d actually spoken the thought aloud: ‘Going like a bomb with the menopausal set.’

She went quite red. ‘”What did you say?” she said.

“Going like a bomb, it’s the best she’s written yet,” I said, and looked very dim.  

Turtle Diary is a unique book. I’ll be exploring more Russell Hoban shortly as this book makes my best of the year list. There’s a sort of magic at work here–almost as if Neaera and William are animals in the zoo observed by us the readers who’ve paid the price of admission to study a not-so-rare-species. I can see the cage plaque now: Middle Aged Lonely Londoners in Their Natural Habitat.

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