Tag Archives: New York Review Books

Difficult Women: David Plante

“You like difficult women, don’t you?”

David Plante’s non fiction book Difficult Women chronicles the author’s relationships with three women: Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and finally, Germaine Greer. What do these three women have in common? They are/were ‘difficult,’ according to the author, and by the time the book is finished, many questions are raised, not just about the relationships recorded in the book, but relationships in general. Why are we attracted to some people and not others? What do we seek in relationships? Why do we expect people to give us what we want when this so obviously won’t happen?

difficult women

It’s 1975 when the author goes to a shabby, depressing hotel in South Kensington for a meeting with Jean Rhys. Jean Rhys is now elderly, over 80, in trouble with her taxes, and a heavy drinker (no surprise there). The author, David Plante, is there in a professional capacity and ends up helping piece together Jean Rhys’s autobiography. It’s not an easy job. Jean’s mind wanders, she’s cantankerous, and manipulative. Anyone who’s read any of Jean Rhys’s novels shouldn’t be surprised to find the descriptions of an elderly Rhys depressing.

This section of the book raises ethical/moral questions. Jean Rhys is a wreck but should this be written about?  But why not? The details of her dodgy make up seem cruel, but then again, are writers, esteemed or otherwise, sacrosanct?

As her hands were shaky, her make-up was hit-and-miss; there were patches of thick beige powder on her jaw and on the side of her nose, her lipstick was as much around her lips as on them, the marks of the eye pencil criss-crossed her lids, so I thought she might easily have jabbed it in her eyes. But the eyes were very clear and blue and strong, and the angles of her cheekbones sharp.

Jean Rhys, naturally, has many stories to tell, mostly between drinks. It’s almost an entirely one-way relationship with Jean talking and the author listening. At one point he mentions his mother:

“How can you like listening to me talk on and on?”

I said, “I used to listen to my mother-“

The corner of her upper lip rose and her face took on the hardness of an old whore who, her eyes red with having wept for so long, suddenly decides to be hard. “Your mother?” she snapped. “I don’t want to hear about your mother.”

I shut up. I thought: What am I doing here, listening to her? Is it because she is a writer? I am not sure I have read all her books, not even sure I admire her greatly as a novelist. Is it because I want to know her so well that I will know her better than anyone else, or know at least secrets she has kept from everyone else, which I will always keep to myself? If so, why?

The relationship with Jean remains difficult. There are times when the author thinks about walking away, but he always returns but can never really pin down Jean’s true opinions. He never infiltrates Jean’s deeper, more intimate memories; she’s locked in the past, but it’s a version of the past which wavers under examination.

I think of how Hardy was protected by his wife, Florence, with a very specific presentation given to the world. After a certain age, mentally fragile people probably should stop giving interviews or limit access unless it’s under some protective supervision. (Of course, some people shouldn’t open their mouths in public, period, but that’s a different story entirely.)

The second section concerns Sonia Orwell. If the section on Jean Rhys is sad, the section on Sonia Orwell is depressing. The author describes Sonia’s tendency, as he sees it, to continually censure others–like some moral policeman. Sonia is a woman of very strong opinions, and over the course of the relationship, the author continually sees Sonia become involved in the problems of others–in a voyeuristic fashion, and when she becomes interested in someone, because of their problems, then she becomes a moral champion whose understanding cannot be matched.

She said, the hardness now, in her voice, “That’s nothing to joke about. It’s a very sad affair, a very very sad affair, and not to be treated frivolously.”

“I”m sorry,” I said.

My flowers in her hand, she said, “No one seems to understand what happens in human relationships, and the sadness of it all. It isn’t anything to joke about. It really isn’t.” 

Sonia also, according to the author, has the habit of picking a “victim” at her parties, “usually a male,” and then this person is belittled every time he opens his mouth. Again the author seeks a deeper, more personal relationship but it isn’t forthcoming. Sonia comes across as humourless, but the author persists in seeking out her company even though the results are mostly aversive.

The final, highly entertaining, section features Germaine Greer. The first view we have of Germaine Greer is not pleasant as she swears like a sailor at a toddler who isn’t fingerpainting ‘properly.’ To be perfectly honest, I came to this section without much prior knowledge of this feminist icon, but I left feeling impressed. What a woman! Yes, probably too much, too competent, too capable, too intelligent, too demanding for any one man, but the force of life bubbling under the surface of Germaine’s skin is evident. The author travels with Germaine Greer to Italy and later meets her in Tulsa, Oklahoma (of all places). In one scene, she chops up a testicle for her cats, in another she talks in Italian about shock absorbers, in another possesses all the technical terms to order up, in Italian, the “proper bricks” for a dovecot she designed. There’s a term for the “renaissance man, ” but what’s the female version?

I recognized that she was always doing something other in her mind, and as intense as her concentration was in what she was doing, there was an air about her of considering, more intensely, something else. I had the vivid impression from her of, at some high level, trying to sort out, not her personal problems , but other people’s problems.

Germaine clearly doesn’t tolerate boors or fools, and milquetoasts had better steer clear. While the author does achieve a personal relationship with Germaine, it’s not quite what he expected, and although these portraits are of three very different women, somehow they reflect back an image of the man who wrote them.

So one man’s view of three women. I wonder what they thought of him? The best biographies offer multiple opinions from multiple relationships. Ask ten different people their opinions of anyone, and you’ll get ten different answers. But here we have memoirs from a man who knew three incredible women. The book was apparently notorious in its day for its backstabbing betrayals. It’s probably less astonishing now, thanks to the invasive times we live in, but it’s still a fascinating read.

Review copy

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Filed under Non Fiction, Plante David

Katalin Street: Magda Szabo

“In my dreams I call out to them, but they keep on walking, until finally they disappear from sight.” 

Magda Szabo’s wonderful novel, moves from 1934 to 1968 as it follows the fate of three neighbouring Hungarian families who live in Katalin Street. When the book opens in post WWII, surviving members of the families live, communally, not far from their original homes. These surviviors have been washed through various sweeping events: from normality to fascism and now … “social rehousing” under communism in a depressing Budapest flat “on the sixth floor of a relatively new block.” 

No work of literature, and no doctor, had prepared the former residents of Katalin Street for the fierce light that old age would bring to bear on the shadowy, barely-sensed corridor down which they walked in the earlier decades of their lives, or the way it would rearrange their memories and their fears, overturning their earlier moral judgements and system of values.

[…]

But no one had told them that the most frightening thing of all about the loss of youth is not what is taken away but what is granted in exchange. Not wisdom. Not serenity. Not sound judgement. Only the awareness of universal disintegration.

First seen in the 30s, the families are the widowed noble Major Biró and his son Bálint, whose care is overseen by the housekeeper, Mrs Temes; earnest schoolteacher Elekes, his frivolous wife, and their two daughters, Irén and Blanka. Finally there’s the Jewish family, the Helds, with war hero, dentist Dr. Held hoping his medals bring protection for himself, his wife and their only child, the fey, fragile Henriette. After WWII, the Elekes are the only intact family. The Helds have been exterminated, but the ghost of little Henriette lingers over the families, unable to move on, curious about the fates of the people she knew so well.

Katalin street

The novel opens in the 50s with the straggling members of the two surviving families, now three generations deep, living together in the tiny flat with just a few pieces of furniture from their former homes. Mr Elekes, whose belief system has been completely destroyed is taken out for a walk twice daily “as you would a dog.” Blanka, who clearly is disturbed, lives far away on a Greek island, and her strange disconnection isn’t seen as a cause for alarm by her mother-in-law, but the signs of a good “biddable” daughter-in-law. The plot goes back in time to 1934 with some of the story told by Irén and with the narrative also slipping into third person. These characters discover that their morality clashes with ever-changing politics; it’s “no longer safe” to mention friendships or beliefs. A man can be a war hero one day and an enemy of the people the next. A woman can be a good party member one year and a Stalinist informer the next.

If the idea of a ghost as a character puts you off, as it did me, then be reassured. Somehow, in this quiet, melancholic novel, Magda Szabo creates a ghost as a believable character. The surviving characters, haunted, literally and figuratively, cannot move away from their shared pasts, and so it seems perfectly natural that Henriette should remain locked in connection with those she knew in life. She can visit the past and the present, yet unable to help the people she observes, she serves as a witness of the terrible cost these living characters have paid for survival.

In spite of its serious subject matter, there’s a glorious lightness to the novel. Yes, surviving characters are irrevocably destroyed by events that took place, but there’s a playfulness here which pulls the story from depression, and the playfulness is mostly manifested in the ghost of Henriette who is able to visit the home of her past and drop in to visit her loving parents as they go about their daily tasks. Henriette rubs elbows with their ghostly forms but they have the tendency to become disturbingly immature in the presence of their parents.

When they spoke to her they did so as the parents she had known, but if their own parents came looking for them, or if they wanted to be with their parents, they would instantly change and become noisy and boisterous. Mr Held. once so quiet and reserved in his speech, would begin to fret, or shriek with laughter and gabble nonsense;upon which her grandfather whom Henriette would in normal circumstances have been delighted to see, would seize him by the wrists and swing him around until he squealed with joy. Whenever Mrs. Held saw her own parents approaching she would immediately push Henriette away and start to yell, “Mummy, Mummy!” clapping her hands and spinning around.

Henriette shows us an alternate version of time in which the trials of the present are a mere phase. Henriette, who longs to see the people she loved as they once were–happy and optimistic–is perhaps, ultimately, the luckiest character of the lot. The living “ached with longing for the dead,” but at least she can visit the past that the others dream of.

review copy

Translated by Len Rix

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Late Fame: Arthur Schnitzler

“You don’t know the effect that the applause of hundreds of enthusiastic listeners, that the praise of the press–that fame will have on you.”

Arthur Schnitzler’s novella, Late Fame examines the tricky labyrinths of self-delusion through the dreams and desire for literary glory. This novella, originally intended for publication in a magazine, was resurrected from Schnitzler’s archives, and its title, published now decades after its creation, has an irony which is underscored by the material itself.

Late Fame

Eduard Saxberger is a 69-year-old civil servant, a bachelor, who has had a successful career, and who lives alone, contentedly, in a pleasantly appointed house. His life is disrupted by the arrival of Wolfgang Meier, a young poet, a member of the “Enthusiasm society,”  who gushingly asks if Saxberger is the author of The Wanderings.

Saxberger has almost forgotten his long-dead and buried dreams of literary fame. At first when he rereads the poetry he wrote so many decades before, painful memories awake:

The whole sorry life that he had led now passed though his mind. Never had he felt so deeply that he was an old man, that not only the hopes, but also the disappointments lay far behind him.

Meier understands why Saxberger stopped writing poetry:

It’s the same old story. At the start, we’re satisfied to have just our own pleasure in our work and the interest of the few who understand us. But when you see those coming up around you, winning a name and even fame for themselves-then you would rather be heard and honored as well. And then come the disappointments!  The envy of the talentless, the frivolity and malice of reviewers, and then the horrid indifference of the public. 

Charmed and flattered by the reverence shown by Meier, Saxberger mingles with the young writers, the self-styled “hope of young Vienna,” and so begins a period of renewal in Saxberger’s life. He discovers that while he loves listening to these young people praise his work, he’s bored when asked to critique another’s poems. He joins these “writers who stay apart from those following the beaten track,” and once again Saxberger dreams of literary fame. …

Late Fame is a delightful tale which follows Saxberger’s ‘renewal’ which comes to a crisis point when he’s asked to write a new poem for a public reading–a reading which will, the poets claim “show that rabble,” who will “get the shock of their lives.” A great deal of the story’s humour is found in the relationships within the group of writers. These include various poets, an unemployed actor, and a rather shopworn actress who “doesn’t fit into regular theatre life.” From a distance, she looks impressive, but as she comes closer to Saxberger, he sees “the strangely ravaged lines of the face itself.” The penetrating stares she insists on sending Saxberger make him uncomfortable.

According to the group, anyone not in their circle are “the talentless ones,” “careerists,”followers of literary fashion.” Schnitzler captures not only the seductiveness of fame, but also how easy it is to cloak ourselves in self-delusion. This circle jerk of poets and writers support each other with claims of being ‘true’ and chafe against the lack of fame while skirting the possibility of lack of talent. In their circle, they survive on mutual admiration as they bolster each other’s lack of progress. We’ve all met people like this, and we all know how impossible it is to break through the tough membrane that protects the talentless. Does Saxberger profit or suffer from this experience? That’s for the reader to decide.

This bittersweet tale of fame lost and found will make my best-of-year list.

Jonathan’s review

Max’s review

Translated by Alexander Starritt

Review copy

 

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Down Below: Leonora Carrington

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my fascination for books set in asylums, and that brings me to artist and writer Leonora Carrington’s short book: Down Below, a New York Review Books release. The book runs to 112 pages and includes a substantial background of Leonora Carrington’s life as a lead-in to the period she spent in an asylum. And here’s the rich and influential  for you, her nanny was “sent out” in 1940 in a submarine to “fetch Leonora back” from the asylum. At least she got lucky there. Marina Warner’s introduction shows Leonora clearly already on the rebellious side when she met, at age 19, the married artist Max Ernst. After Ernst sorted his “genital responsibilities,” they lived together in France until the German invasion. At that time, Ernst was arrested and Leonora fled to Spain.

Down Below

Down Below covers Leonora’s flight to Spain, a journey fraught with strange thoughts, danger and portents of death. She meets a man named Van Ghent and imagines he has “nefarious” powers:

I was still convinced that it was Van Ghent who had hypnotized Madrid, its men and its traffic, he who turned the people into zombies and scattered anguish like pieces of poisoned candy in order to make slaves of all. One night, having torn up and scattered in the streets a vast quantity of newspapers which I believed to be a hypnotic device resorted to by Van Ghent, I stood at the door of the hotel, horrified to see people in the Alameda go by who seemed to be made of wood. I rushed to the roof of the hotel and wept, looking at the chained city below my feet, the city it was my duty to liberate. 

She plays in the park at night, decides that Van Ghent is the “enemy of mankind,” and visits the British embassy where she tells the consul that the war is “being waged hypnotically by a group of people–Hitler and Co.- who were represented in Spain by Van Ghent.” The consul decides Leonora is mad, she’s passed through the hands of several physicians but ends up, finally, in an asylum in Santander.

From this point, everything goes downhill. The narrative becomes much more surreal as Leonora claims to be “transforming my blood into comprehensive energy–masculine and feminine, microcosmic and macrocosmic.” After reacting violently to staff, she’s strapped down and force fed through tubes inserted into the nostrils. She loses sense of time and place, and as the narrative becomes more surreal, it’s impossible to know what is real and what is imagined. She believes she’s the “third person of the Trinity,” and imagines a country named Down Below where she will be ‘purified.’

This is all quite painful reading, and the author’s matter-of-fact tone doesn’t make it easier or any less depressing. This isn’t an it-can-happen-to-anyone asylum memoir as Leonora clearly had problems with reality, had some sort of psychic breakdown, and with her violence and behaviour, she desperately needed help. Unfortunately, the treatment she received seemed to make things worse. Leonora Carrington is considered a major figure of the Surrealist movement, so it’s perhaps not too surprising that her memoir of the time spent in an asylum should resemble a surreal nightmare. Down Below has a patchy history and was “reconstruct[ed]” which probably explains the occasionally truncated feeling of the narrative.

Review copy

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Like Death: Maupassant

“Daylight poured into the enormous studio through an open bay in the ceiling: this oblong of brilliant light–an immense perforation in the remote azure infinity–was ceaselessly crisscrossed by sudden flights of birds.”

Maupassant’s delicately sensitive novel, Like Death is an exploration of aging, love and to a lesser degree the hollowness of fame. Painter Olivier Bertin is at the pinnacle of his long successful career, and yet although he’s achieved fame and material success (unlike most artists) he’s not a happy man. But neither is he unhappy–rather, he is bored and discontent. Now Bertin is at an impasse in his career and he’s beginning to wonder if he’s lost his “inspiration.” Every idea he has seems stale.

Rich, famous, the recipient of many honors, he remains, toward the end of his life, a man unaware of the ideal he is pursuing.

His art follows the style worshiped by dictated tastes of the Academy: “great historical scenes” and “living men along classical lines.” But a successful artist does not work in a vacuum.

Perhaps, too, the world’s sudden infatuation for his work–always so elegant, so correct so distingué–has had a certain influence on his nature and kept him from being what he would in the course of things have become. Since the triumphs of his early work, a constant desire to please has unconsciously haunted him, secretly impeding his development and attenuating his convictions. his craving to please, moreover, had shown itself in a great variety of forms and contributed a good deal to his renown.

Countess Anne de Guilleroy, the wife of a conservative politician, has been Bertin’s mistress since posing for her portrait many years earlier. She’s promoted his work and encouraged him in “considerations of fashionable elegance,” so in other words, she’s helped his career and kept his art safely in the commercially successful category. Over the years, their relationship has waxed and waned; he’s had other mistresses but he always returns to her, and “her life [is] a constant combat of coquetry.” At this point in time, facing old age, Bertin’s regretting that he couldn’t marry her and that he is alone.

like death

Everything for Bertin and the Countess changes with the arrival in Paris of Annette, the Countess’s 18 year old daughter who’s there to be married off to a wealthy young man…..

An almost macabre dance between Bertin, the Countess and her daughter begins to take place. Bertin is awed by the young girl and considers her even more beautiful than her mother. Is she his next, most significant, muse? Meanwhile the Countess begins to wonder if her daughter is her fatal rival.

Like Death boldly confronts aging as Bertin feels jealous of the young girls fiance but sadder still is the fact that the Countess finds herself a poor rival against her daughter’s youth. So we see aging as the enemy of love: Bertin falls in love with a young girl who likes him but doesn’t conceive of him as a romantic suitor, and the Countess sees herself aging and is desperate to be attractive. There’s, of course, an immense sense of futility here as Bertin, thinking she’s his next muse, plies Annette with expensive gifts, and the Countess decides never to stand next to her daughter in bright light. In another writer’s hands, this could be a farce, but Maupassant grants both Bertin and the Countess dignity.

In one very poignant scene, the Countess prays for her beauty to remain, that she can stay attractive for just a few more years.

Then, having risen, she would sit before her dressing-table, and with a tension of thought as ardent as if in prayer, she would handle her powders, her cosmetics, her pencils, the puffs and brushes which gave her once more a beauty of plaster, daily and fragile.

While Like Death is not as perfect as Bel Ami, thanks to its subject matter, it’s relevant, and Maupassant shows incredible empathy as he gently explores the Countess’s fears and vanity.  As I read this I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, a novel in which a sculptor, in his search for the perfect woman, courts three generations from the same family.

Review copy

Translated by Richard Howard

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Schlump: Hans Herbert Grimm

Novels about combat in WWI seem to have commonalities (trenches, lice, endless shell bombardment, and various body parts strewn across the ground). And, of course, there’s always the sense of terrible waste. Hans Herbert Grimm’s (1896-1950) novel, Schlump contains many of the usual WWI scenes we’ve come to expect, and its 17-year-old protagonist, who’s later called a ‘lamb to the slaughter’ while on his first leave back home, goes off to war, like many young men, with absolutely no idea of the horrors that await him.

He pictured the sun shining, the grey uniforms charging, one man falling, the others surging forward further with their cries and cheers, and pair after pair of red trousers vanishing beneath green hedges. In the evenings the soldiers would sit around a campfire and chat about life at home. One would sing a melancholy song. Out in the darkness the double sentries would stand at their posts, leaning on the muzzles of their rifles, dreaming of home and being reunited with loved ones. In the morning they’d break camp and march singing into battle, where some would fall and others be wounded . Eventually the war would be won and they’d return home victorious. Girls would throw flowers from windows and the celebrations would never end.

Schlump became anxious that he was missing out on all of this.

Of course, Schlump enlists and at first he gets lucky. Training camp is “great fun,” and after that, Schlump’s ability to speak French lands him office work, and so at age 17 he is “responsible for the administration of three villages.” Men march in and men march out, and all the time, Schlump is “glad not to have been with them.” But of course, Schlump’s good luck can’t last forever, and eventually he ends up at the front lines.

schlump

Schlump is an interesting fictional character, and we immediately get that sense from his name alone. No hero would have that name, and while Schlump is not an anti-hero, rather he’s an observer, a participant by default and a largely optimistic fellow in spite of all the death that surrounds him. Over time and with horrendous experiences, he “had become smarter.” Yet in spite of everything there’s still an innocence about him, and a moment comes when he decides he must “distinguish himself.

During the course of the novel, Schlump is wounded and manages to get home on leave, and each subsequent leave reveals the deteriorating situation at home. At one point his mother starves herself beforehand so that there’s bread for Schlump when he returns. There are many memorable scenes here: the collecting of unexploded shells “because raw iron was needed back in Germany. The men were promised seven pfennigs for each piece,” and although the German soldiers risk their lives to collect these shells, they are never paid for their troubles. In another scene emblematic of the dearth of military strategy, an officer comes up with the plan to “bring back a British soldier, dead or alive, from the enemy trenches,” and Schlump goes along with another  German soldier to complete this mission.

In one quote, Grimm accentuates that enemies in life are levelled by that great denominator: death

Here lay a multitude of corpses–Germans and British, all mixed together. At one point they’d collected in a heap, as if in death they were trying to warm themselves. All were lying on their stomachs, heads turned to the side, revealing their greenish faces, teeth glinting faintly between pairs of black lips. Rifles, gas mask s everything in a muddle, soaked in blood and more blood.

My NYRB edition states, in the introduction, that Grimm met with East German authorities in 1950 and two days later committed suicide. I’ve been watching The Weissensee Saga on television, a wonderful series set in East Germany, so I have my ideas about what Grimm’s meeting was about and why he opted to commit suicide. Schlump was not a literary success. It’s not first-rate literature and the novel competed against All Quiet on the Western Front which was published around the same time. All Quiet on the Western Front is a seminal WWI novel, a book that can potentially profoundly impact the reader. Schlump doesn’t have that power, and yet it’s still disturbing, still manages to get under the skin.

Jacqui’s review is here.

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

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Loving: Henry Green (1945)

Henry Green’s novel Back  is the story of a soldier, now an amputee who returns home to England while WWII rages on. The title, obviously, refers to the man’s return; he’s changed, his world has changed. Loving, published a year before Back, must then refer to the relationship between the newly appointed butler, Raunce and the maid, Elsie. There’s a secondary romance but more of that later.  The story is set in a grand house owned by an upper class Anglo-Irish family with the servants, in theory, making sure that everything runs smoothly. These two groups of people–the masters and the servants–move in different worlds, but when things go wrong, as they do several times in the novel, there are comic results which reveal the inherent paradoxes within the upstairs-downstairs relationships.

loving

The grand country house is owned by the Tennants, but the son (and heir) of the house, Jack, is off at war, and most of the servants are British (the one irish servant isn’t allowed in the house). There are rumours that the Germans may invade, rumours that the IRA may attack, and the servants, isolated from events in Britain, except for the occasional letters, are cocooned from the deprivations of rationing, and spared the German bombing raids. The male staff members know that if they step foot back on British soil, they’ll be conscripted. So here they are, sitting out the war, hearing its distant rumblings, isolated from their home land.

The novel opens with the death of the elderly butler, Eldon, who unbeknownst to the lady of the house, Mrs Tennant, has been steadily ripping her off over the years. Charley Raunce, formerly the head footman and now butler by default (where else would Mrs Tennant get a replacement in wartime?) ‘inherits’ Eldon’s notebooks. One shows how much he’s been siphoning off the estate, and the other is a sort of reference guide of visitors–its information directed towards getting tips.

The death of Eldon heralds a mini-crisis within the household as head housemaid, Mrs Burch can’t accept Raunce’s promotion. Raunce’s promotion is a shake-up of the established power structure, the unspoken element the entire house runs on.

Not a great deal happens in this story: the cook’s disruptive nephew arrives, scrawny and ill-fed from England, a peacock is murdered, the peacocks are locked up, a valuable ring goes missing, and Mrs Jack (whose husband is away fighting) is caught in bed with a naked man. Through all of these incidents, just what should be aired and what should be kept secret (away from Mrs Tennant) become the points of action. These incidents serve to underscore the separate worlds of the two classes, and the problems that ensue when those world collide.

Loving is a sort of upstairs-downstairs book with an emphasis on the latter. Dozens of peacocks roam the estate–beautiful and yet rather useless, and somehow they seem emblematic of the Tennant family who are largely clueless about what is going on under their noses. The war rages on outside this country, but the Tennants, who care nothing for Ireland, are mostly concerned with the cold dinners delivered to the nursery and the dearth of coloured blotting paper:

“You write to London for the blotting paper of course?”

“Yes Madam but this is all Mr. Eldon could get. I believe he was going to speak about it.”

“No, he never did,” she said, “and naturally it would be hopeless trying to buy anything in this wretched country. But tell me why if there are several pastel blues can they do only one shade of pink?” 

“I believe it’s the war Madam.”

She laughed and faced him. “Oh yes the shops will be using that as an excuse for everything soon.”

If Raunce’s promotion leads to a mini-crisis in the house, the disappearance of a ring is near catastrophic. The servants, and not Mrs. Tennant’s well-known carelessness, are immediately blamed, and this leads to a very funny scene with the insurance investigator and even accusations that the cook is a drunk:

“I think everything’s partly to do with the servants,” Mrs. Tennant announced as if drawing to a logical conclusion.

“The servants?” Mrs. Jack echoed, it might have been from a great distance.

“Well one gets no rest. It’s always on one’s mind, Violet.”

There’s very much the bitter-sweet sense that we are privileged to see a vanishing world. Violet, Mrs Jack, is in love with another man, in a relationship that will not survive if her husband returns from war. If Jack dies in war, what will happen to the house? The Raunces of this world are not the Eldons. The servants are restless and consider other lives; there are no ties to Ireland, no sense of permanence:

“No, what’s going’ on over in Britain is what bothers me. The ways things are shapin’ it wouldn’t come as a surprise if places such as this weren’t doomed to a natural death so to say.”

Another wonderful revival from New York Review Books

Lisa’s review is here.

Review copy

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Back: Henry Green (1946)

“Have women gotten hold of you, Summers? Is that it?”

In Henry Green’s novel, Back, Charley Summers returns to England after years in a POW camp. It’s a rough homecoming as Charley is minus a leg and Rose, the woman he loved, died in his absence. Rose gave birth to a son while Charley was gone, and he’s half convinced the boy is his. One of the first things Charley, who is damaged and lost, does is visit the cemetery where Rose is buried, but there he bumps into her husband James, and this is the first of many unexpected twists in this ultimately optimistic gentle comedy of errors.

back

Charley seeks out Rose’s parents, the Grants, but it’s a strange welcome as Mrs. Grant, who appears to suffer from Alzheimer’s initially thinks Charley is her long-dead brother John, but then she realises the visitor isn’t John:

“What are you doing here?” Mrs. Grant demanded, looking at Charley between her fingers and cringing.

“He’s here to take a cup of tea with us, dear,” the husband said. This time he glared. She did not notice because she never took her eyes off Charley.

“I don’t like it,” she muttered.

“I’m very sorry,” Charley Summers said to Mr. Grant.

“Just pay no attention,” this man replied. But it was not as easy as all that. for Mrs. Grant took control by throwing herself back into the sofa to thrust her head into one of its soft corners, from which she began to shriek, muffled by upholstery.

In confidence, Mr. Grant tells Charley he has a “surprise” for him and gives him a London address, telling him to visit the woman who lives there, Nancy Whitmore, a young war widow. Charley isn’t interested in what he suspects to be a matchmaking attempt but circumstances lead him to the woman’s address and there he finds the widow who appears to be Rose’s “living image.” While Nancy denies she’s Rose, Charley isn’t convinced and he decides instead that Nancy/Rose is a prostitute, the ‘widow’ handle is a fiction, that she’s possibly a bigamist who’s run away from her husband and her child, and that it’s his job to ‘save’ her. In reality, it’s Charley who needs to be ‘saved.’

Gradually, the great love story that we first think existed between Rose and Charley vaporizes. What’s left is an image of Rose, full of life, and having a fling with Charley even as she wrapped him around her finger.

Throughout the story, Charley, one of those marvellously unworldy characters, floats through his life either clueless or labouring under misunderstandings. He thinks Rose was the love of his life, he thinks the child she had might be his, he invites his secretary, a woman he’s not attracted to, to the country for a weekend without really meaning to. In contrast, he’s surrounded by people who are savvy and even conniving. Take Rose’s husband, the widowed fat James who runs rings around Charley. Then there’s Charley’s landlady Mrs Frazier, what is she really after? And then there’s  the ubiquitous Middlewitch, an indefatigable Lothario whose “love life defied description,”  in spite of (or even aided by) a”chromium plated arm.” Middlewitch is turning tales of his war experiences into amorous opportunities, and here he is discoursing about women:

“Extraordinary meeting you like this,” Mr. Middlewitch replied. “No, it’s curiosity,” he went on, “they’re the same as cats, when you scratch with your finger under the newspaper, which have to come and see what you’re about. They’re like this. They know you’ve lived the most unnatural damned life through no fault of your own for years, so want to get under your skin. Because it wasn’t only Yvonne. Practically every girl I know had a go at me. Turned it to very good advantage, too, I did, on more than once occasion, I can tell you.”

The greatness of this novel can be found in its comic timing which mostly resides in Charley’s innocence. Conversations take place without Charley really understanding what is going on, sometimes he’s talking at cross-purposes or else he’s missing a beat. Many of the characters have vague, fuzzy connections (Mrs’ Frazier’s relationship to Mr. Grant, for example) and in Charley’s mind, a great conspiracy emerges, and at one point, he wonders if it’s a case of “white slave trading.”

This is my first, but it won’t be my last, Henry Green novel; I’m currently reading Loving. Back is highly recommended especially if you enjoyed  A Month in the CountryWhile in Back the war is still waging, it’s mostly in the background here (there’s one wonderful scene where the sky is full of planes “drone after drone” flying to Germany) and the emphasis instead is on optimism: healing, surviving and moving on.

“Yes,” he said, “we all of us came back to what we didn’t expect. There’s a number of people dropped out in everyone’s lives. I’m not sure but they do seem a long time over our soup.”

review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Green Henry

His Only Son: Leopoldo Alas

Miserable marriages exist both in real life and in fiction, but with fictional miserable marriages, readers have the opportunity to chuckle at the domestic enslavement of others. The author, Leopoldo Alas (1852-1901) in this case, presents just the right blend of unhappiness and characters who either asked for it or who juggle their marital discord with some sort of coping mechanism.

his-only-son

Emma Valcárcel, we are told, is a “spoiled only child,” who at age 15 kidnaps her father’s handsome, poor, and stupid clerk, Bonifacio Reyes, and strong arms him into an elopement. Emma ends up in a convent, and Bonifacio, in Mexico, tries “earning his living as the rather inept editor of a newspaper, whose main purpose was to insult others.”  In time, Emma, a wealthy heiress, and with her Uncle Juan Nepomuceno as her guardian, marries a sickly older man, and is a widow within a year. Emma, who rules the Valcárcel family like some sort of benevolent despot, arranges for Bonifacio to be given a job that will bring him back into her orbit. The plan works and they are married.

It’s not a happy marriage, and Emma turns to her family for adoration (most of her male relatives are infatuated with her–but her fortune may have something to do with that). Bonifacio, finding a flute that belonged to Emma’s father, learns how to play. Since Bonifacio is a handsome man, Emma delights in dressing him up in expensive clothes, and showing him off on social occasions, but he never has any money of his own.

Following a miscarriage, Emma’s health and temperament, are in decline, and Bonifacio, who tries to pursue a separate life through the more bohemian crew at the local opera house, becomes a nursemaid/slave to Emma’s petulant demands for massages given with various lotions. She “despised her husband more with each day that passed, considering him useful only as a handsome physical presence,” and “telling Bonifacio off became her one consolation.”

His willingness to submit to all the intimate tasks of the bedroom, to his patient’s many complicated whims, to the sad, tender voluptuousness of convalescence, seemed to Bonifacio viewed from outside, not the natural aptitude of some saintly, fussy hermaphrodite but the romantic excesses of a Quixotic love applied to the minutiae of married life.

Juggling Emma’s tyrannical demands for domestic servitude, Bonafacio begins an affair with a third rate opera singer Serafina, even as he is slowly bled for money by her other lover, Mochi, the opera company impressario and lead tenor. Since Bonafacio has no money of his own, he turns to Emma’s uncle for a loan.

The book’s introduction, written by translator Margaret Jull Costa, mentions that one of the criticisms of Leopoldo Alas’s best known work, La Regenta, is that  “Alas had stolen the plot of Madame Bovary.” That being the case, then of course, it becomes significant that the dominant female character of His Only Son is named Emma. While Madame Bovary’s doom was driven by debt, Emma Valcárcel also has problems with money management.

Her one talent was for spending money. Kindly Juan Nepomuceno, formerly Emma’s legal guardian and now her administrator, would happily have shooed away all the flies–in the form of her relatives–who buzzed around the rather shrunken honeycomb of her inheritance, but this simply wasn’t practicable because his niece had grown so fond of all the members of the Valcárcel family, past, present, and future, that she demanded they be treated with the utmost generosity.

Emma knows that her uncle is ripping off her estate, but she doesn’t care. She glories in it. While Emma Bovary had romantic ideals that led to her destruction, Emma Valcárcel romanticizes the portraits of her deceased ancestors.

No wonder His Only Son was banned. The novel portrays a hypocritical society rife with adultery and corruption. After Emma’s father’s death, it was discovered that he left behind “a whole tribe of bastard children,” and that “the lawyer’s chastity had not been quite as perfect as everyone thought; his real virtue had consisted largely in prudence and stealth.”  

Even though this tale of adultery and money-grubbing has all the earmarks of tragedy, Alas turns his scenes into domestic farce. While adultery has drastic results in Madame Bovary, here adultery acts as an aphrodisiac in Bonifacio’s marriage. The women in His Only Son are very strong characters with the men weak and led by the nose, but it’s still the men who somehow or another have the power.

The excellent introduction explores the subversive nature of His Only Son, and the way the novel exemplifies the “clash between romanticism and realism.” It’s in this clash between the two schools of thought–Romanticism and Realism, that most of the novel’s humour is to be found. This New York Review Books edition also includes the novella Dona Berta.

Review copy

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

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Filed under Alas Leopoldo, Fiction

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. by Eve Babitz

“Not that I like to blame things on tequila, but…”

Eve Babitz: it’s not what she sees or who she’s with, it’s her wryly witty observations that make Slow Days, Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., from New York Review Books, so much fun to read. So who is Eve Babitz? According to Wikipedia, she seems to be mostly famous for who she slept with, but if you dig around a bit, shove the notoriety aside, then you find her work as an artist and as a writer. Matthew Specktor’s introduction tackles the issue of how Babitz’s notoriety buries her books: “to start laying out the names of Babitz’s paramours is to begin building the wall that obscures our view of her work.” Specktor also points out a major point with Babitz’s work: yes she may have slept with this or that famous person, but these very real people are “largely pseudonymous, or brushed aside in a way that feels aptly dishabille.” Babitz’s reputation, unfortunately, seems to subsume her books, and while I approached Slow Days, Fast Company prepped for pretentious name dropping–there’s none of that here, and instead the book is a refreshing, disarming perspective of California life. Whether it’s Bakersfield, Orange County, Forest Lawn, Palm Springs or even something as simple as California rain, Babitz’s canny observations make us see things through her eyes, and that’s quite a vista.

slow days fast company

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. is a series of essays–each gives a snapshot of some aspect of the author’s California 1960s and 70s life. Her writing is a mesmerizing blend of worldliness mixed with innocence, and the result is, ultimately, unique and fascinating. A part of the Hollywood fast track glamour scene, nonetheless, Babitz managed to mix with the in-crowd but always kept an outsider’s critical eye. While it’s clear that Babitz loves California, still she always maintains a healthy skepticism about the lifestyle as, for example, when she mulls over the thought that “in Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”

One essay finds Babitz visiting a fan in Bakersfield. It’s a unique area–you can think you know California and then you visit Bakersfield and realise that it’s a world apart. It’s an epic journey for Babitz: “It takes two hours for an ordinary person to get from Hollywood to Bakersfield, so I planned on three.”  She mingles with the locals and marvels, with an anthropologist’s interest, at the social mores, but always with curiosity–never condescension. The scene at the Basque restaurant echoed my own experience: “The forty of us from the party went to the White Bear and thirty-nine of us were prepared for what happened next. I was not.”

If I had a favourite essay, it would have to be Emerald Bay, which records a visit Eve Babitz made with Shawn, a gay man, who becomes her constant companion. In this affluent community, Babitz meets a boring woman called Beth Nanville, and while the essay could have dwindled into a diatribe of the affluent set in Orange County (where everyone is “so sadly hideous and Nixony,“) instead, the essay becomes a soliloquy of just what the author missed in the deeper, indecipherable side of Beth Nanville.

Ultimately, there was so much I liked about Eve Babitz, and this was unexpected from the things I’d read about her. I applauded the way she kept her love affairs more or less off the page; I loved the way she acknowledged feeling claustrophobic in San Francisco; I laughed when she describes her stylish friend Pamela and how she keeps  “hoping for something that is evil and brilliant to come out of her boyish mouth, but all she ever says is ‘Why aren’t there any men in this town?’ ” But here is, I think, the best quote from a highly quotable book:

Since I’ve started carrying a book everywhere, even to something like the Academy Awards, I’ve had a much easier time of it, and the bitterness that shortens your life has been headed off at the pass by the wonderful Paperback. Light, fitting easily into most purses, the humble paperback has saved a lot of relationships for me that would have ended in bloodshed.

A big thank you to Jacqui for reading and reviewing Eve’s Hollywood. I was on the fence about Eve Babitz’s work, but after reading Jacqui’s review, I decided to take a chance. Sometimes books written by people who are famous for being famous are pretentious, egotistical and boring. Not so Babitz. She has a remarkable eye and this book has a freshness that belies the society Babitz lived in.  Slow Days, Fast Company; The World, The Flesh and L.A. is highly recommended for regular readers, Emma, Carolina, Marina, Max, and, of course, Jacqui.
Review copy

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Filed under Babitz Eve, Non Fiction