Tag Archives: New York Review Books

First Love: Gwendoline Riley

Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms takes a cold analytical approach to the narrator’s toxic relationships with her parents. Children can’t escape their parents’ mind games until they learn the rules of engagement, and then they should refuse to play. Through shared features, First Love could be considered a tangential novel to My Phantoms. Both novels are narrated by young women, and the mothers in both novels share characteristics and geographic locations. The mothers in these two novels could be the same person, seen through a less critical eye in First Love, and it’s a toss up whether the father in My Phantoms is more repugnant than the father in First Love. The major difference between the novels is the emotional territory. The narrator in My Phantoms focuses primarily on her mother. In First Love, the narrator has two major relationships–both toxic, but the narrator’s relationship with her mother seems like party-time compared to her toxic intimate relationships.

The novel begins with the narrator, Neve, a writer/teacher who has moved to London, to live with Edwyn. When the novel opens, they have been living together for 18 months. There’s the sense that perhaps things were good earlier in the relationship (“I’d watch for Edwyn in the evenings.”) But the relationship has declined and consists of a barrage of emotional abuse. Edwyn is now a sick man; he’s middle-aged, is post-heart surgery, and is in constant pain. Neve remains in the home living under a barrage of insults. Neve and Edwyn even marry at one point on the advice of his lawyer. The scenes between Edwyn and Neve are dreadful–not just the insults, but the slow torture of one person slicing into another’s every word. There are times when Neve begins to chat, as one does to one’s partner, but Edwyn isn’t having it:

I was casting around for something to say, and then as soon as I’d said it–“Lonely”–I knew what was coming. Finding out what you already know. Repeatedly. That’s not sane, is it? And while he might have said that this was how he was, for me it continued to be frightening, panic-making, to hear the low, pleading sounds I’d started making whenever he was sharp with me. This wasn’t how I spoke. (Except it was.) This wasn’t me, this crawling cautious creature. (Except it was.) I defaulted to it very easily. And he let me. Why? I wonder how much he even noticed, hopped up as he was. No, I didn’t believe he did notice. That was the lesson, I think. That none of it was personal.

Over time and some very painful, spiteful scenes, Neve learns how to cope. Numbed to the point of compliance, she knows when dealing with Edwyn, not to try and clarify. Instead she learns how to placate:

So it was both strange, and dreadful–I knew it–to feel that I was managing him, in a way. Beyond bringing him out of himself, or my genuine interest; that I was maintaining this keen and appreciative front as a way to keep him calm, or to distract him. Like –I don’t know–throwing some sausages at a guard dog.

Post Edwyn, Neve’s life is better for his absence, but still her life seems flat, stark and joyless. In the past is Neve’s ‘great’ love, a man named Michael. The affair did not end well, and for some reason, Neve reconnects with Michael when he drifts back into her life. Michael is a strange, self-focused man, and his relationship with Neve has fuzzy edges. Neve’s friendships seem more successful. Loved her friend Bridie whose texts leave Neve with a feeling of missing out, but when they finally meet, it seems that Bridie is prone to exaggeration and her life is a mess.

Neve’s mother is very like the mother in My Phantoms–a woman who throws herself into a frantic round of social activities while not enjoying it in the least. Her mother’s relationships with men are problematic–she invites herself to visit a younger man in America, and so the trip is destined to disappoint in a life full of disappointment and exclusion. The behaviour of Neve’s father, a man who ate himself to death, probably goes a long way to explaining why Neve stays with Edwyn. She has no idea what is normal, and there are no doubt financial reasons behind Neve’s continuing to live under Edwyn’s abuse. Sharp, dark and bitter, First Love makes my best-of-year list.

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My Phantoms: Gwendoline Riley

Gwendoline Riley’s novel, My Phantoms, is a detailed painful look at divorced parents through the eyes of Bridget, one of two daughters. I came to this novel with no expectations, and found bitter observations and a blistering analysis of two flawed people who met and unfortunately had 2 daughters. While childhood and child-parent relationships are fraught with emotional issues, the author uses the precision skill of a practiced, emotionally detached surgeon to dissect these relationships. The father-child interactions here are toxic, but the decades longer mother-daughter relationship is even more so.

Bridget’s parents divorced when she and her sister, Michelle, were very young. So when Bridget begins her analysis of her parents, it’s post divorce and we are in the long bitter period of visitation. Bridget’s father, Lee, is a horrible man–no he doesn’t molest her or whack her; he harasses her and perhaps I’ll ‘generously’ say attempts to engage her by belittlement. He seems to be threatened by Bridget’s intelligence and education. “His company was something to be weathered.”

Bridget’s almost reptilian nature coldly records her father’s petty, predictable behaviour. He nurses an image of himself as authentic, a “swashbuckling bandit.” He brags about not paying maintenance to his X, and “could never hear enough about the inadequacy of people who weren’t him.” Yes a real winner.

Later, when I applying to universities, he told me that at his job interviews he always put his feet up on the desk, lit a cigarette and asked the panel what they could do for him. Was that from television? I wonder. I’m afraid that one might have been taken from life.

It is strange when somebody talks to you like that. When they’re lying, but somehow you’re on the spot. Was he trying to impress us? But that could hardly be the case: you couldn’t value someone’s good opinion while thinking they would buy this kind of crap. And then there was the fact that no one was required to respond to his grandstanding.

After hearing about Bridget’s awful father, we learn about Bridget’s mother, Helen. ‘Hen,’ is also a difficult person. Post divorce Hen begins a “programme of renewal” in Liverpool which involves chaotically throwing herself into hobbies, outings, and events which hold little or no interest. Bridget notes that her mother “was never not out, it seemed. She was never not busy.” Yet “the fabled friends never materialized.” The one person who remains in Hen’s life is a gay man, Griff:

They were a sort of old-style double act, with him the tyrantacolyte and her in a state of perpetual effort.

The novel is almost in 2 parts: Bridget’s childhood and then Bridget as an adult. While reading Bridget’s childhood memories I hoped things would improve with time, but adulthood doesn’t seem much better. However, it must be admitted that Bridget’s adulthood is seen only as it pertains to her mother Hen. In childhood Bridget was subject to her parents’ whims and fancies, and in adulthood tensions remain and games–oldies but goodies–are played.

Bridget’s mother lives in Liverpool and later in Manchester so their meetings are, mercifully few, but nonetheless the annual birthday date is an arena for challenges, snide observations, and sly criticisms. The book is beautifully written, and I felt as though I knew Bridget’s parents. I had tremendous sympathy for Bridget the child–many of us must endure parents who appear to have no genetic connection to us, but by the time Bridget the adult appeared, I wanted her to lighten up. Bridget’s mother is a flawed sometimes frustrating human being but honestly… is she that bad? OK so you have little in common with your mother, but is that her problem or your problem?

She painted a beguiling picture, if you were susceptible to that kind of thing: lonely only child; breathless little girl who had to do this and had to do that. I was not susceptible, but then nor did I ever quite feel that I was the intended audience when she took on like this. There was some other figure she’d conceived and was playing to. That’s how it felt. Somebody beyond our life.

Slowly we see the lines of Bridget and Hen’s carefully crafted relationship–adversarial, toxic, petty. Why isn’t Hen allowed to meet Bridget’s long-time companion, John? Why isn’t Hen allowed into Bridget’s home? Who has the problem here?

This is the sort of book that can get under your skin and one which will generate a range of opinions. One of the most fascinating things here (and I’ll admit I was fascinated by several–it’s like watching a slow poisoning) is the underlying idea of the narratives we give our lives and the lives of others. The novel was, for this reader, a intriguing read. It raises some great questions about the cross generational transference of toxic behaviour. Bridget initially is the recipient/observer of her parents’ behaviors and games, but then when she is an adult, she’s into the games too. I cringed at several points when she lodged a pointless barb like a poison arrow at her mother.

The brilliancy here is embedded in Bridget’s description of her mother’s life narrative. Most people tend to have a narrative of their lives–some are spot-on and some are wildly inaccurate. In this novel, Bridget has a narrative of her mother’s life–Hen’s life is one of disappointment and exclusion. Hen has tried throwing herself into a social whirl but somehow never is included, and her life long friendship remains with Griff who seems alternately tickled and frustrated with Hen. Bridget seems to take a perverse delight in poking her mother for reactions that will then slot into that grim narrative. Additionally Bridget contributes to that narrative by excluding her mother from her life, refusing to let her visit her home to meet her long-time boyfriend, and keeping contact to a superficial minimum. My Phantoms is an excellent–albeit depressing read.

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Fathers and Children: Ivan Turgenev (1862)

Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Children, perhaps better known as Fathers and Sons, is a look at the tangled state of Russian society through two young men, Arkady Kirsanov and Bazarov. They met at university in Petersburg and appear on the surface to share a great deal of common values, but when they arrive at the Kirsanov estate, known as Marino, the friendship unravels.

Arkady is welcomed home by his widowed father, Nikolai, and Nikolai’s brother, former army officer, Pavel. The estate is in disarray–in 1861, serfs were freed under Tsar Alexander II. The former owners then received taxes from those same freed serfs as compensation, but in the novel, which opens in May 1859, serf emancipation has yet to take place; Nikolai, however, has freed his serfs already and has a useless manager for his estate. Just taking a look around the estate, it’s clear that the new system isn’t working. It probably wasn’t working under the old system either.

Nikolai who owns 5,000 acres and, at one point, “200 souls” has taken a young serving girl, Fenichka as his mistress. While Fenichka is portrayed as innocent and almost fey, the novel steers away from the uglier aspects of exploitation and places Fenichka in a state of awe for Nikolai rather than plodding obligation.

Fenichka has given birth to a son, so Arkady has a new half brother. While this fact might startle other only sons, Arkady takes it in stride. Fenichka is secreted away in part of the house when Arkady returns, but Basarov and also Pavel make a point of seeking her out. Pavel, who was once slated to have a meteoric military career, made the fatal error of falling in love with an unstable married Russian woman. Pavel’s obsession for this woman led him to abandon his career, but the affair came to naught and Pavel, a dispirited man, has retreated to Arkady’s estate. Every aspect of the estate needs attention: but Pavel is a dilettante. He has long nails, wears backless red Chinese slippers and sports a fez.

Not long after Arkady and Bazarov arrive, these two young men explain to Nikolai and Pavel that they are nihilists. Both Nikolai and Pavel struggle with that announcement–especially since Bazarov, who is ‘lower’ socially than the Kirsanov family, treats Pavel with disdain. Bararov is a medical student who is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the older generation. To Bazarov, while he has marginal tolerance for Arkady’s father, he considers Pavel to be useless.

He’s an odd fish, that uncle of yours,” said Bazarov, sitting in his dressing gown by Arkady’s bedside and puffing at a short pipe “What a dandy, in the depths of the countryside! Those fingernails, those fingernails–he should get them framed!”

“Of course, you don’t know,” answered Arkady, “but he was quite a lion in his day. I’ll tell you his story sometime.. He used to be very handsome, women went crazy over him.”

“Well there you are! It’s all for old time’s sake, then. Sadly, there’s nobody out here for him to fascinate. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He has such amazing collars, they look as if they’re made of marble, and then that perfectly shaved chin! Honestly, Arkady Nikolayich, it’s a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so. But he’s an excellent man all the same.”

“A museum piece! But your father’s a fine chap. Wastes his time reading poetry and hasn’t a clue about managing his estate, but he’s a good sort.”

Arkady and Bararov are seen as sons through their relationships with their respective fathers. Both fathers place more significance into the relationship than their sons, and Arkady and Bazarov minimize their fathers under the ‘label’ of Duty rather than become embroiled in the their emotional lives.

At one point in the novel, Arkady and Bazarov launch out into society when they visit a relative. Bazarov may have revolutionary thoughts but when it comes to women, he discovers that he’s just the same as other men. Characters with revolutionary beliefs are portrayed as superficial posers. Bazarov is perhaps the most serious of the lot, but as a nihilist, his outlook on life is bleak. Avdotya Kukshina, who calls herself Eudoxia holds salons for revolutionary dialogue, but she’s as pedestrian and pretentious as they come. The young widow, Odintsova becomes a sort of femme fatale who hastens Bazarov’s doom. When considering the ending (which I won’t detail), we see the simultaneous erosion of friendship and nihilism, both countermanded by love and desire.

Review copy

Translated by Nicholas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater

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The N’Gustro Affair: Jean-Patrick Manchette

As a Jean-Patrick Manchette fan, I was delighted to see that New York Review Books Classics released another title: The N’Gustro Affair. The book is described as a ‘thinly disguised’ retelling of the abduction and murder of Ben Barka who opposed King Hassan II of Morocco. This is a timely release given the revolting murder of Jamal Khashoggi; somehow the two crimes, no doubt because of despicable commonalities, seem tied together.

The book opens with a few opinions about Henri Butron; there’s not much good to say–he’s a “mythomaniac” and a “pathologically case.” From those first impressions, then the book segues to Butron “wearing a smoking jacket” as he records his version of events in a tape recorder. “His own life fascinates him,” but he is rudely interrupted by two assassins who make short work of Butron. One of the assassins calls the police saying “Butron has committed suicide,” and the other grabs the reel from the tape recorder. The assassins wait for the police to arrive and then make a cordial departure. Butron’s recording is delivered into the hands of Marshal George Clemenceau Oufiri who listens with merriment at Butron’s sordid, braggartly tale.

Butron’s tale is clearly laced with the fabrications of an psychopathic egoist. At school he confesses “I could have been brilliant had I cared to be but I didn’t.” Butron, a petty, violent thief consider himself amazingly intelligent, but he also boasts about his sexual conquests. Butron’s version of his life is interrupted with observations and facts from others. These versions meet on some salient points but diverge when it comes to Butron’s fantastically inflated opinion of himself. Butron is a dangerous thug whose submersion into right wrong politics, where he proves to be a useful idiot, creates a patina of idealism on his basic revolting nature.

It’s a commentary on society that someone like Butron, a nasty little man, should not only be tolerated but supported and used to further political aims. The N’Gustro Affair is not easy reading–full of Butron’s grubby bragging about women and violence, it’s nauseating to read about this human cockroach. The long, interesting intro goes into the Ben Barka case, but it’s one of those mixed bag situations where the intro helps you understand the background and the connection with the Ben Barka case but at the same time pulled me away from the plot. My least favourite Manchette to date.

Review copy Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

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Valentino and Sagittarius: Natalia Ginzburg

Natalia Ginzburg’s 2 novellas Valentino and Sagittarius both focus on the magnetic pull of family–even if a family member is toxic. It often occurs to me that we tolerate certain toxic behavior in family members and relatives, while we would distance ourselves from others if they behaved in the same way. This can certainly be argued for both of Natalia Ginzburg’s stories, told by narrators who are blindly accepting of the horrible behaviour of family members who drag them to the ground.

In Valentino all the hopes for the rise of family fortunes is invested in the sole ne’er do-well son. The tale is narrated by Caterina, Valentino’s sister who lives with her brother and parents in a tiny rented apartment. There’s also Clara, a married sister, who also needs support, a woman with “constant toothache” who has three children. Caterina attends a teacher training college and tutors children in her spare time. Valentino’s expenses are “never-ending” and never questioned as he is “destined to become a man of consequence.” Valentino’s father believes his son will become a world-famous doctor:

Valentíno himself seemed void of any ambition to become a man of consequence; in the house, he usually spent his time playing with a kitten or making toys for the caretaker’s children out of scraps of old material stuffed with sawdust, fashioning cats and dogs and monkeys too, with big heads and long, lumpy bodies. Or he would don his skiing outfit and admire himself in the mirror; not that he went skiing very often, for he was lazy and hated the cold, but he had persuaded my mother to make him an outfit all in black with a great white woolen balaclava; he thought himself no end of a fine fellow in these clothes and would strut about in front of the mirror first with a scarf thrown about his neck and then without and would go out on to the balcony so that the caretaker’s children could see him.

Valentino, a self-centered peacock, has a constant stream of girlfriends; “Teenagers wearing jaunty little berets and still studying at high school.” Imagine then the shock experienced by Valentino’s family when he announces that he’s going to get married and then brings home his fiancée, Maddalena, an extremely ugly, “short and fat” much older heiress.

It’s clear that Valentino’s motives are venal, and he really can’t stretch out the ‘famous doctor’ fantasy for much longer. While you might imagine that Valentino’s family would be relieved that he’s marrying money, they are hostile to the match. Even though Maddalena is extremely generous to her husband’s family , they never forgive her for marrying Valentino–as if somehow she’s ruined his potential.

Sagittarius is narrated by an unmarried woman who lives with her impossible widowed mother. There’s another daughter at home, Guilia, who, after a failed romance, marries a Jewish doctor on the rebound. The mother quarrels with her husband’s family after selling off some family land, and so she moves, daughters in tow. She imposes herself on her sisters who’ve managed to run a china shop quite efficiently without her help. The bombastic widow who has an overinflated idea of her competence tries to muscle in on the shop to no avail. And then the widow meets the shady Signora Fontana, a woman whose tatty glamour appeals to the widow, and the two women plan to open an art gallery together.

Both darkly humorous novellas focus on the way the main characters mistreat their families–Valentino is a sponger, controlling everyone in his life with his dubious, superficial charm, and he transfers his appalling behaviour from his family to his wife. He’s never held accountable for his fecklessness, and so we see how someone who is a User carries on being such for the rest of his life. In Sagittarius, the widow controls everyone by nastiness; she’s abrasive to her family and yet bends over backwards to accept so much rubbish from Signor Fontana. Again: that truism of how we can be considerate to others while treating family like indentured servants who are expected to tolerate bad behaviour. Both novellas had a 19th century feel to them, so much so that modern references were a bit of a shock.

Translated by Avril Bardoni

 

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No Room at the Morgue: Jean-Patrick Manchette

“I was fucking sick and tired of being taken for a ride.”

Disgraced ex-cop Eugene Tarpon turned private eye has hit rock bottom. There’s no business, bills are due and Tarpon drinks to forget his woes. He’s about to pack in this latest stage of his failed life and move back home with his mother when a beautiful woman arrives asking for help. Memphis Charles, and no that’s not her real name, is covered with blood. She says her roommate Griselda has been murdered, her throat slit, and instead of calling the police, she asks Tarpon for help. But Tarpon, smelling a rat tells Memphis to leave him alone and call the cops:

If there was a murder, or suicide, or who knows what, you’ve got to call the police, that’s all there is to it. You don’t go running to a private investigator. Not in real life. And then, in real life, a private investigator deals with divorce, store security and, when he has more prestige than I do, industrial spying. Not violent death.

But Memphis, who is apparently a rather resourceful woman, knocks Tarpon unconscious and disappears…

Not a good start.

No room at the morgue

Soon Tarpon is buried up to his neck in a mess which involves Griselda, aka Louise, a murdered porn star, whose resume includes such classics as Forbidden Caresses and The Desires of the Tartars. Thrown into the investigative mix are bombs, drugs, organized crime, pissed-off policemen and even some anarchists who might as well be escapees from The Big Lebowski. As Tarpon digs deeper into Griselda’s murder and the subsequent disappearance of Memphis Charles, the case grows murkier and murkier. The cops investigating the case have no respect for Tarpon as his past doesn’t reflect well on their profession:

“There are two kinds of private detectives,” said Coccoli. “Ex-cops and ex-cons. And sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. Judging by their actions.”

No Room at the Morgue contains a dash of humour which is created by Tarpon’s attitude to life and danger. As characters insert themselves into the investigation, it becomes clear that several parties are involved in the hunt for Memphis Charles, and all of these people think that Tarpon knows more than he does. So for a great part of the novel, he’s followed, beaten up, threatened and kidnapped. Tarpon doesn’t exactly have clues but he just picks up whatever trails open up before him, and he employs recklessness as a tactic.

I heard a car start up behind me and follow me slowly. The engine was old. If that was the tail they were sticking on me, it lacked discretion. But the vehicle ended up passing me a little before Alésia and pulled over near the curb, about ten meters in front of me, and the door opened halfway. I headed straight toward it. That’s how you get killed in the movies.

Movies vs real life is a sub-theme in the book, and it’s a sub-theme accentuated by the characters who swarm over Tarpon’s life. The book’s humour makes it different from the other novels I’ve read from this author: The Mad and The Bad, Fatale, The ProneGunman, 3 To Kill. These 4 noir novels are much darker, however, all 5 are shadowed with political elements.

Tarpon is a character we want to hang with; he’s cynical yet that darkness is alleviated by a wry humour. He’s done bad things, he’s made terrible mistakes, and he’s “broken by alcohol and regrets.” This first Tarpon novel introduces a character who is salvageable–a man whose principles and recklessness make him an anchor for the cases he has in his grubby future. Let’s hope that the publication of this book means that NYRB will publish more.

Great title, great cover.

Review copy

Translated by Alyson Waters

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The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives: Diane Johnson

I’d never heard anything about Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith (1821-61) before I picked up Diane Johnson’s book, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives. If you’d described the book to me, I probably would have rejected it as there are aspects to this history that would normally drive me crazy.  But the book, which is described as an “alternate biography”  and includes hypothetical and occasional filling in of gaps, is quite extraordinary. The author argues, and proves, that while Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith existed as an aside in other, more famous, peoples’ lives she had a rich and historically ignored life of her own.

The life of Mary Ellen is always treated, in a paragraph or a page, as an episode in the lives of Peacock or Meredith. It was treated with a certain reserve in the early biographies because it involves adultery and recrimination, and makes all the parties look ugly. More recent biographies of Meredith repeat the received version of the story with a brisk determination, a kind of feigned acceptance: we know that these things, regrettably, do indeed happen. 

Mrs. Meredith’s life can be looked upon, of course, as an episode in the lives of Meredith or Peacock, but it cannot have seemed that way to her. 

Mary Ellen was the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, married and widowed within a brief period of time, and then she met George Meredith who was 7 years younger. And what a miserable old sod Meredith sounds like. So perhaps it’s no wonder that Mary Ellen took a lover and ditched her neglectful spouse, but there was no happy ending for Mary, and who could have expected it in the 19th century.

Mrs Meredith

Mary Ellen’s first husband was Edwards Nicholls, “the wild, sexy son of a general of the Royal Marines,” and they were married, happily by all accounts, for a few “glorious months,” before he drowned trying to rescue a friend. Mary Ellen, 23 years old, returned home to her father, a pregnant widow. Four years later, she met George Meredith, “a brooding neurasthenic fussy about his food, obsessed with achieving literary success, and hardly ever wanting to leave the house.” They were “together” for 8 years.

After running off with her lover, Mary Ellen died of kidney disease in 1861. Convenient for many perhaps and thus she sank into history. Yet author Diane Johnson shows that Meredith, who used a flexible version of the truth whenever he recalled his former wife, never really recovered from the relationship–continually working her character, “drawn from his evergreen memories,” into various forms in his novels. 

He had never ceased to brood over her–her presence is invoked in novel after novel.

The book opens, after an excellent introduction from Vivian Gornick, with Mary Ellen’s poorly attended funeral. It’s a somewhat fanciful beginning with some details that surely must be speculative (the young vicar is embarrassed, for example) but instead of being annoyed, as I usually am by such fancies, I was drawn into the misty story of Mary Ellen, a woman whose short life wasn’t much fun, who struggled with poverty and abandonment and was haunted by the knowledge of an imminent early death.

Snippets of Mary Ellen’s childhood underscore her somewhat unconventional upbringing thanks to her “too-indulgent” father. Literary figures dot Mary Ellen’s life: James Hogg, Mary Shelley, and Claire Clairmont. These details hint at the inevitable rebellion of Mary Ellen when faced with the loneliness of a drab marriage, so it’s no great surprise that she fell in love with pre-Raphaelite artist, Henry Wallis, But Mary Ellen may have been born in the Romantic Age, but she was married in the Victorian Age, and Victorian attitudes to scandal buried her story.  Her poignant letters and notebooks reveal the realities of her married life to Meredith coupled with details of a troubled, rich inner life. Since Meredith lived to a ripe old age while the long-deceased Mary Ellen faded into obscurity, Meredith controlled both the narrative of his dead wife’s character and also the narrative of their life together. And the truth? Meredith kneaded the truth into an acceptable narrative even hinting that he had been trapped into marriage by Mary Ellen when certainly her literary connections gilded the deal. 

Somewhere, in some British parlor, she looks out of a painting called Fireside Reveries, and the people who see her every day may wonder–or perhaps it never occurred to them to wonder–whether the lady over the mantel was ever anyone real. 

review copy

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Diary of a Foreigner in Paris: Curzio Malaparte

“How kind France is when it is noble.”

Malaparte, a play on the name Bonaparte, was a journalist whose real name was Kurt Eric Suckert. Malaparte (1898-1957) initially supported the Italian fascist movement, but later fell foul of the Mussolini regime and was arrested and imprisoned multiple times. Malaparte certainly got around. In The Skin, Curzio Malaparte, as a liaison officer with the American forces, takes a look at the ugliness of Naples in 1942. In The Kremlin Ball, Malaparte is in 1929 Stalinist Russia.

Both The Skin and The Kremlin Ball echo a thought that rolls in frequently: amazing eye witness accounts cannot be exchanged for history books, and then comes a second thought: while all these things happened in incredible times, I’m glad I didn’t live through them.

diary of a foreigner in paris

Diary of a Foreigner in Paris finds Malaparte in the City of Light, but since it’s 1947, Paris is a changed place. In 1933, Malaparte left Paris and returned to Italy where he was arrested and imprisoned. After a stint in the Regina Coeli prison, he was sent to the island of Lipari. Malaparte recalls that although he had many friends, it was only his French friends who “defended” him. So Malaparte, who enlisted in the French army at age 16, and whose mother was French returns in 1947 to a country he knows well and loves. He considers himself not to be a “foreigner in France,” but France has changed.

There are some famous people in these pages: Rossellini, Jean Cocteau, Camus, Henry Muller, François Mauriac. At a dinner party, Malaparte feels uncomfortable and senses “a hint of animosity, of repulsion, of dislike.”

Everyone looks at me as if I were not only a foreigner but an uninvited guest.

An icebreaker comes from Henry Muller who tries to smooth things over:

recalling my years in Paris, my time in prison. François Mauriac interrupts him to say that many people in France suffered a great deal in prison as well, that it’s rare to find a Frenchman who hasn’t been in prison, etc.

Malaparte thinks “it’s not my fault if Mussolini declared war on France, if he behaved badly toward France. I think that certain foreigners who came to Rome before the war to pay homage to Mussolini are rather more responsible than the Italians who had no choice.” So hardly a warm welcome for Malaparte.

Malaparte is, at least for this reader, somewhat disingenuous since he supported Italian fascism, fought as a fascist soldier and praised the Wehrmacht at least initially–even if he fell foul of Mussolini later. Yes he was exiled and imprisoned, but the introduction from Edmund White explains that Malaparte is a “mythomane” and that he was “under house arrest in his luxurious villa in Capri and several times imprisoned for short stays in Regina Coeli in Rome, he claimed  for his assiduous anti fascism.” (In reality, he “siphoned off public funds” and remained an avid supporter of Italian fascism.) Mussolini’s son in law personally intervened for Malaparte’s freedom from exile to Lipari.

With WWII still close in the rear view mirror, other intellectuals find it hard to mingle with Malaparte, and it’s easy to see why.

Time passes, to be sure. Oh, does time pass. No one is still Catholic in 1947 the way one was in 1933. Then one was Catholic in a freer, more personal way. Today it’s more political. 

This is an interesting, somewhat fragmentary read. It’s more impressionistic than The Kremlin Ball and The Skin, and more philosophical (even if his sometimes twisted thinking is bizarre).  For example, at one point, he outrageously argues that “Gide is the high priest of a religion whose sacrificial altars are at Dachau.” Malaparte tries to make sense of what he interprets as general, wide changes in France and in the French. Of course, there’s never any personal responsibility here, any acknowledgement. At one point he’s asked why he didn’t desert, and decides that the criticism directed towards him is “amusing.” According to Malaparte “there’s no longer any sense of humour in Europe.” So WWII and the Nazis sucked a lot of ‘fun’ out of the world; Malaparte’s comment is tactless at best. 

Collaboration was born from the sense of feeling like a winner alongside the Germans. And I wonder why those in the Resistance, why I myself, don’t feel like winners alongside the Anglo-Saxons and the Russians. What is so indigestible for us Europeans about the Russian and Anglo-Saxon victory?

Mythomane and fabulist–this is a study in a very particular personality with Malaparte revealing more about himself than he ever imagined.  For this reader, while this book is my least favourite of the three I’ve read, Malaparte, who obviously feels rather aggrieved by his lack of welcome, by is, above all, a wonderful stylist, and the very scene in which he throws up his hands and asks “what do they want of me?” shows, rather queasily, how slippery people argue their way out of anything. 

Review copy

Translated by Stephen Twilley

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Malicroix: Henri Bosco (1948)

Henri Bosco’s moody novel Malicroix, set in the nineteenth century, drops the reader right into the plot when the narrator, a 25-year-old man receives a letter informing him that he has been “left an inheritance: some marshland, a few livestock, a tumbled down house. ” So a modest legacy, but, Mégremut an orphan raised by his father’s relatives, is intrigued. The property was owned by his reclusive uncle, Cornélius de Malicroix, the Marquis de Malicroix. The young man’s father’s relatives, the “gentle and patient Mégremuts,” don’t want him to go, but he is drawn to the situation, partly by curiosity and partly by some aspect of his nature.

I felt myself to be a Mégremut when I was among them, for their gentleness is quite infectious. But, left to myself, I rebecame a Malicroix, with a sort of secret drunkenness and a strange fear. For this Malicroix, unknown to all, hidden within the blackest part of myself, seemed more alive than all the Mégremuts who inhabited me with ease. 

Cornélius de Malicroix’s notaire, a man called Maître Dromiols sends an “itinerary” and so Mégremut sets off to meet a coach at an “old signpost at the intersection of two poor tracks.” The scene reminded of Great Expectations when Pip meets the convict, Abel Magwitch. Not that the scenes are the same, but nonetheless, the bleakness and the loneliness of the landscape form a visual and emotional connection between the two books. 

Malicroix

By this point, the novel gains Gothic dimensions which continue as Mégremut travels to an island. There on the island, he takes up residence in his late uncle’s home, a house in which “everything was so clearly reduced to the soberest utility.” The house comes equipped with a laconic servant named Balandran and a large Briard, Bréquillet. Eventually Maître Dromiols, an unpleasant man, arrives accompanied by his strange, much abused servant, Uncle Rat. Dromiols then reads the terms of the will: Mégremut must stay in the house for three months. If this term is completed, then he will be given a letter with instructions for a “mission.” It’s all very mysterious and all very cryptic. 

It’s daunting to imagine living in this bleak area for three months, and initially Mégremut has no intention of doing so, but he gets the feeling that Dromiols wants him to fail. Mégremut, curious to discover why his uncle chose to live his life in this bleak place, decides to remain and discover the mystery at the heart of this Gothic novel of revenge and long standing blood feuds.

The novel, a slow, dense, rich read focuses on nature. There are some gorgeous descriptions here. The island is not a particularly habitable place–and that’s at the best of times. At worst, the island seems forbidding, dangerous and hostile. Nature is powerful, angry and violent. Which poses more danger for Mégremut? Nature or Man?

In the Camargue, the wind is drunk. It stamps, swirls, loses its head. Nothing can withstand its ravages. A bare land, pale water, and, on the horizon, the white-capped sea, bristling as it arrives from the distance. Everything succumbs to the law of the wind: water, plants, man, beasts. 

Translated by Joyce Zonana

Review copy

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Marrow and Bone: Walter Kempowski

Walter Kempowski’s Marrow and Bone is a road trip novel rife with a sense of historic reckoning. The tale is set in 1988, West Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jonathan Fabrizius, the centre of this story, is a middle-aged journalist, navigating a middling career. He doesn’t make enough to support himself, but he has an uncle, a furniture manufacturer, who supplements his income with a monthly allowance. Jonathan is a war orphan. His father was a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht who died on the Vistula Spit on the Baltic coast. As for his mother, following a horrendous, freezing journey from the Eastern front in a cart, she died in East Prussia after giving birth to Jonathan. This bare bones story provides Jonathan with his sense of identity, and while the history is murky and lacks details, it has provided a sort of heroic, romantic structure of his past.

As far as suffering was concerned, this guaranteed him an unparalleled advantage over his friends.

Jonathan lives in a fabulous but decaying building which somehow managed to survive the bombing of WWII. His peculiar girlfriend, Ulla, who works part time at the municipal art gallery, also lives there. It would be a stretch to say that they live together, for while their rooms connect, they both block their room’s access with furniture. That’s a statement, so it’s probably more accurate to say they share things together: such as sex and outings. Ulla is fascinated by “depictions of cruelty in the visual arts,” so her “shelves were full of books showing all sorts of Inquisition torture” But she’s also interested in modern atrocities but “none of these terrible images left the slightest impression”on her.

Marrow and Bone

With Jonathan’s relationship with Ulla moving towards a termination (that he’s unaware of) he receives an invitation from the Santubara car maker. The company offers Jonathan a job, a trip to East Prussia. It’s a “test-driving tour for motoring journalists to convince them of the outstanding quality of its latest” car. Jonathan agrees and soon finds himself on a road trip accompanying diminutive harem-pant wearing Frau Anita Winkelvoss, and race car driver Hansi Strohtmeyer.

There’s humour in the Germans’ attitude towards Poland and the Polish. This ranges from amusing (Jonathan, Anita, and Hansi tend to make sweeping, unflattering generalizations) to queasy observations. 

She praised the fact that they’d been able to take a shower in this hotel without a problem and was astonished that all the Poles were so friendly. To us Germans! After what we did to them. A third of the population exterminated and all the towns and cities destroyed.

Along the way to their destination, the three Germans stop at various historic sites such as Danzig and Marienburg which “the Russians had used for target practice.” At one point several groups of Germans converge: the homeland association, and a delegation from Bremen, the “Socialist Pupils Council of the Rosa Luxemberg Comprehensive there to see “what sort of fascist revanchism was being played out.” Touring the sites has awkward moments with the Polish tour guide leaving out “the invasion of Poland by the German Wehrmacht.” It’s entirely possible that members of the homeland association “had been here before, as children, with their school or with the Hitler Youth.” At one point the German tourists see an exhibition of concentration camp drawings, and the “homeland association slunk past these,” while a teacher “perked up” and yet another tourist, who had been imprisoned in Dachau wants to move on. 

The book, with dark humour, examines how these Germans ‘deal’ with their history and “the business with the Jews.” Frau Winkelvoss has definitely moved on from “all that Jewish stuff,” and her ignorance shows. Another major theme is human suffering as spectacle. The characters here are removed from human suffering–it’s a thing of the past, history or even Art. 

In Stutthof they had a pleasant surprise, as Hansi Strohtmeyer put it: the concentration camp was shut. 

At one point the three travellers visit Hitler’s Bunker, and again, Jonathan, while the most informed of the three, seems to lack understanding of Hitler’s psychology. This is in many ways a book that deals with our ‘roots’ and confronting our personal and national mythologies and history, and for Jonathan, finally, the trip has an unexpected emotional impact. 

Review copy

Translated by Charlotte Collins

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