Tag Archives: relationships

Bye Bye Blondie: Virginie Despentes

I gave up on the film version of Baise-Moi based on the book from French author Virginie Despentes, but that didn’t stop me from trying, and loving the film  Les Jolies Choses, based on yet another (sadly, untranslated) book from the author.  It was the latter film I thought of as I read Bye Bye Blondie, the story of a tangled relationship floating on a sea of fame and affluence.

The book begins with a woman in her late 30s, Gloria, whose real name is Stéphanie, washed up, living on benefits in the town of Nancy. Gloria could be called local colour at the bar where she hangs out, drinking, and it’s to this bar she gravitates after yet another violent break-up. This time it’s with her now ex-boyfriend, Lucas, and in the aftermath of the fight, she realizes that “she could have killed him. It came that close: a centimeter, a second! She diced with tragedy. He’d have had to be just that bit less quick, agile, or strong than her.”

Bye Bye Blondie

Gloria’s whole life gravitates around the bar where she’s well known. One of her few remaining friends is Michel who is smitten with a woman,
“a château bottled bitch,” named Vanessa, and to Gloria’s dismay, this relationship may be serious. Gloria is very intolerant of other people–especially women, and yet she always expects others to accept her aggressive, destructive behaviour.

Back in the bar, she looks around for L’Est Républicain, the local paper, and sees it clutched in the pink false fingernails of the woman sitting at the bar. Classic slut. Another regular. Always lots of makeup, come-hither eyes. She’s fat, dark-haired, no great looker, but not letting on she knows that.

Of course with a character like Gloria, you have to ask where things went wrong. How did she get to this point, “addicted to pointless anger,” and the first half of the book explores those questions with the result it’s obvious that middle-aged Gloria is not in a slump, no, she hasn’t moved beyond her adolescence. She’s a trainwreck, but she’s at the age that her actions can still impress those younger than her. Since her teenage years, obessive-compulsive Gloria has enjoyed throwing fits. To her they are an effective tool:

What she doesn’t tell him is how much of a kick she gets these days out of being aggressive. How much she loves the moment when everything tips over, when the other person is caught off balance and you have to go on, attacking, screaming, and seeing his fear. That’s the moment she likes. The pleasure she gets from it is dirty, degrading, filling her with shame-a filthy and superpowerful pleasure.

Never really able to settle on her own identity, in the 80s, she latched onto the Punk rock scene. But that’s not mentioning her stay at a mental hospital where she met the love of her life, Eric, a young man from a wealthy home, who, in the years following his break-up with Gloria, has become a successful television personality.

Blurbs about the book mention the inherent violence in heterosexual relationships, and while that’s not an arguable point when discussing this author’s work, other pertinent themes include the issues of class differences, status, and fame. The very things that attract us to someone in the first place are quite often the same things that guarantee doom.

I loved Gloria; I loved her ability to self destruct and to rise from the ashes. She’s funny, intelligent, and yet as her own worst enemy, she continually launches herself into a never-ending cycle of aggression. To Eric, locked into the world of the rich and famous, Gloria is a breath of fresh air, so he takes her to Paris and is “delighted to see the way she gets up people’s noses.” Gloria gets used to living in Eric’s world, and the question is: how long can she behave before creating another “nuclear disaster?”

There are many memorable scenes to carry away from this book. In one scene, Gloria is questioned by an “ancient” male psychiatrist who dislikes Gloria’s dyed red hair. He decides she’s “refusing to be a woman,” and locks her up.

And in another scene she’s shopping in Paris with Eric.

She waits in front of the luxury delicatessen, Fauchon’s, smoking a cigarette. She looks people up and down as they go in, actively detesting them. Elderly dyed-blondes, all twig-slim with ridiculous little dogs, hordes of Japanese women, young anorexic girls with strained faces, old ladies with white hair and Hermès scarves. The clichés aren’t misleading: rich people are just like you’d imagine them, weird, ugly and pleased with themselves. They can spot each other at a glance. Even when one of them dresses down, they keep something about them that says to their equals, “I’m one of us.”

She waits for him opposite Colette’s smoking another cigarette.

“Come in with me, don’t be silly.”

“I tell you it would give me conniptions.”

“You look like a horse stamping its foot outside. You’re scaring everyone.”

She wants to run between the aisles waving her hands in the air and screaming, pushing people over into the displays. Breaking all the glass, the mirrors, the windows. Punching the old hags in the face, kicking the salesgirls, jumping up and down on the fashion victims, smashing the balls of the bouncers.”

But my favourite scene has to be Gloria, stuck in long line at the post office. There’s annoying children, a demented old lady in a dressing gown, and a disgruntled customer:

A woman complains that there’s always a line at the post office. Gloria never at a loss for something to say, looks her up and down and retorts: “perhaps that’s because you only come here at busy times, you silly bitch.”

Gloria may be a trainwreck but she’s a disinhibited one, and it’s hard to disagree with some of her outspokenness, and while Gloria seems hell-bent on destroying conventional society and all of her relationships at the cost of her own comfort, there’s a tiny voice off on the sidelines that whispers we hope she can change her cycle of self-destructiveness but still remain true to herself.

We don’t get too close to the secondary characters in Gloria’s life, nonetheless there’s plenty to entertain here–the pub customers, life at the mental hospital, and parties full of the unhappy wives of rich, “repulsive pigs.” I would love to see the film version…

Translated by Siân Reynolds

Review copy.

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Filed under Despentes Virginie, Fiction

Willful Disregard: Lena Andersson

“It’s all about manipulating the recipient into feeling what you want them to feel.”

In Swedish author Lena Andersson’s novel, Willful Disregard, thirty-one-year-old Ester Nilsson, freelance writer, a “poet and an essayist” is asked to give a paid lecture on artist, Hugo Rask, a man “rated highly for his moral fervor in a superficial age.” Through her research, she begins to feel a strong interest in Rask, “her sense of affinity with its subject grew,” and when she meets him that interest blossoms into a strong attraction. From the very beginning, Ester confuses Rask’s “frequently quoted assertions,” as an artist “obsessed with morality in his work,” and his apparent sensitivity with the flesh and blood man.

Ester, who has led a fairly quiet and sheltered life, is in a “quiet, harmonious relationship with a man who left her in peace while satisfying her physical and mental needs,” and unfortunately, she’s never met a man like Rask before. After the lecture, Rask approaches Ester, grabs her hands, kisses her cheeks and tells her:

No outsider has ever understood me so profoundly and precisely.

A more experienced woman would probably regard Rask’s comment with suspicion, but from that moment on, Ester is a goner…

Willful disregard

Unfortunately for Ester, she can’t stop thinking (or talking) about Rask.  She thinks she can “develop a friendship with Hugo, an elective affinity.” She tells a friend about Rask and says, “we’ve made contact at a deep level and we’re going to be friends.” Consequently, Ester’s friends and acquaintances realize she’s falling in love before she does:

Before you understand where the emotion is going to lead, you talk to anyone and everyone about the object of your love. All of a sudden, this stops. By then the ice is already thin and slippery. You realize that every word could expose your infatuation. Feigning indifference is as hard as acting normally, and fundamentally the same thing.

Ester takes a casual invitation from Rask seriously and begins hanging around his studio which also serves as his home. Although the warning signs are flashing that she’s one of several women in Rask’s life, she thinks they have something ‘special.’  A few texts from Rask later, and she’s losing weight and ignoring her partner of 13 years.

As the plot spins out, there’s Ester, a woman who’s a stranger to casual sex, convinced that she has this special connection with Rask–after all Rask, himself, even said that. Rask, who maintains a coterie of worshippers, is a slippery character, and even though the story is told in the third person, with its necessarily limited point of view, it becomes screamingly obvious that Ester is the only one interested in a relationship.

This is the story of an obsessive relationship. Ester doesn’t even get the courtesy of a brush off–her life is full of unanswered texts and unreturned phone calls, but there’s some quirk to Ester’s personality that will not allow her to walk away with dignity. Most women would, I think, get the message. Instead Ester, infected with “the malarial love itch that is always latent once it has invaded the cells,” conjures up the notion that “there was something holding him back. Perhaps there were unknown obstacles.” She frequently consults “the girlfriend chorus,” an invisible collective group who urge Ester to move on, but she can’t and consequently she humiliates herself repeatedly.

If we wanted to be cruel, we would call Ester a stalker, or at least let’s say that’s what Rask would call her, but he is a game player and in one marvelous scene in the novel, we see how when Ester appears uninterested, his vanity demands that he reel her back in.

Willful Disregard is the sort of book which will spark various arguments and debates about relationships and for this reason it’s a perfect book for book groups. I always feel a bit divided about making a comment that a particular title would be a good choice for a book club as I tend to shy away from book club choices, but in this case, Willful Disregard is practically guaranteed to encourage opinions–I even argued against myself at a few points in this excellent, thought-provoking novel. I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for Ester at first, and I found her obsessive nature rather unsettling, but as the novel played out, it became easier to see how Rask brought out Ester’s vulnerabilities.

It’s possible to read this as a book about obsessive love, but on another level the novel has a definite philosophical tint to it, and asks questions such as: is there such a thing as responsibility in relationships? How much of an explanation is owed to a sex partner? In a perfect world, a couple would sit down and discuss just what sex means before it happens, and in this case, Ester, who looks as sex as a serious commitment, could have really used such an occasion. Think of a pre-nup, well this would be a pre-sex. I’m thinking of a neighbor who, after his wife dumped him, would bring home a string of young women for the night. In the morning, he’d lower the boom, and when the women, invariably asked when they’d see him again, he’d explain he didn’t want a relationship right now. My personal favourite was that he was ‘too fragile’ for a relationship. So I’d see these young women drive off Were they disappointed? Did they care? Would they wise up?

There are occasions when Rask and Ester debate about various philosophical subjects and it becomes quite obvious that they are talking about their own relationship. There are a couple of points when the novel pushes the philosophical too hard–for example, Ester writes an essay and the extensive details of this rejected essay bog down the reading. That very minor complaint aside, I really loved this novel and hope that more of the author’s work makes it to translation. I’ve seen Rasks in action, and author Lena Andersson nailed it.

The one who wants least has the most power.

Review copy

Translated by Sarah Death

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Filed under Andersson Lena, Fiction, Uncategorized

Happy Are the Happy by Yasmina Reza

Other people’s happiness often seems somehow aggressive.”

Structurally, French author and playwright, Yasmina Reza’s novel Happy Are the Happy reminded me of Daniel Kehlmann’s excellent Fame. Both novels do not follow a straight narrative, but instead the book is constructed of multiple interconnected voices. While in Fame, the theme centered on identity, fame and the cell phone, in Reza’s Happy Are the Happy, the focus is happiness. Through 21 chapters and 18 voices, questions regarding the ephemeral nature of happiness emerge: what does it take to make a person happy, why do we sometimes deliberately seem to sabotage ourselves, and is happiness even possible for the sane?

Part of the fun with this book is picking out the connections between the characters who include a bickering married couple: Robert and Odile Toscano, their friends the Hutners, Loula Moreno–an attention-seeking trainwreck of an actress who admits she prefers “the dangerous irrational type,” Chantal–the mistress of a married man, Doctor Chemla, a well-respected oncologist who equates passion with abasement and pain, and a couple of Chemla’s patients.

happy are the happyI’m not going to distill each chapter and every voice into a couple of sentences–instead I’m just going to mention my favourites, and I’ll start with the very first chapter which is told by Robert Toscano, a married man who tells the story of a traumatic trip to the supermarket with his wife Odile. The simple quest for food turns into a debacle over cheese choices and a knock-down-drag-out occurs in the supermarket in front of an audience of amused/appalled innocent spectators. Since I have a fondness for watching bickering couples in the supermarket, this chapter had great appeal. Of course, in the case of the Toscanos, the problem really isn’t about the cheese in the cart; it’s about the power structure of the marriage, and about knowing the other partner so well, it’s all too easy to know which buttons to push to raise the irritation factor to dangerous levels.

I stand close to Odile and say in a low voice, I’m counting to three. You understand? And for some reason, at the moment when I say that, I think about the Hutners, a couple of friends of ours who are curled up together inside a willed state of conjugal well-being. Lately they’ve taken to calling each other “my own.” I don’t know why the Hutners cross my mind at the moment when an opposite madness has come over me, but maybe there isn’t really a whole lot of difference between Let’s eat well tonight, my own, and I’m counting to three, Odile, in both cases the effort to be a couple causes a kind of constriction of the being, I mean there’s no more natural harmony in Let’s eat well, my own, no not at all, and no less disaster either, except that my I’m counting to three causes a shiver to pass over Odile’s face, a wrinkling of the mouth, the infinitesimal beginnings of a smile, while I must absolutely refrain from beginning to smile myself, of course, as long as I don’t receive an unequivocal green light, even though I really feel like smiling, but instead I’ve got to act as if I haven’t noticed a thing, and so I decide to count, I say one, I whisper the word distinctly, the woman right behind Odile has a ringside view, Odile pushes a bit of discarded packaging with the tip of her shoe, the line’s getting longer and not moving at all, its time for me to say two, I say two, openly, generously, the woman behind Odile practically glues herself to us, she’s wearing a hat, a kind of overturned bucket made of soft felt, I can’t stand women who wear that sort of hat, a hat like that’s a very bad sign, I put something in my look intended to make the woman back off a yard or so, but nothing happens, she considers me curiously

The impasse between Robert and Odile, in the queue for the cheese counter, continues… I loved this chapter because it captures the tension, the build-up and the petty bickering only a couple can perfect to such exquisite levels. And this chapter, the first in the book, is a wonderful introduction to all of Reza’s robust, engaging, genuine voices. Odile Toscano has her own chapter, and this one takes place in the bedroom during another back-and-forth squabble. This time it’s over Odile reading late at night. Robert wants the light off and Odile refuses. The tension is high in this latest power struggle, and with the light being turned on and off, Odile can no longer follow the plot to her book.

I’m cold, I want to pull up the comforter, but it’s stuck under Robert, who inadvertently sat on it. I tug at the comforter. He lets me try to pull it out from under him without lifting himself an inch. I haul on it, groaning slightly. It’s a mute and completely idiotic struggle. In the end, Robert gets up and leaves the room. I turn to the preceding page to figure out who Gaylor is. Robert reappears fairly quickly. He’s got his pants back on. He looks for his socks, finds them, puts them back on. He leaves the room again. I hear him in the hall, opening a closet and rummaging around. Then he goes back into the bathroom, or so it seems to me. On the preceding page, Gaylor’s in the back of a garage arguing with a man named Pal. Who’s this Pal?

Yasmina Reza explores the nature of happiness in one of its more bizarre manifestations through a couple of cancer sufferers. Vincent Zawada relates how he takes his elderly mother, Paulette, for radiation therapy:

While waiting for her radiation therapy session at the Tollere Leman clinic, my mother scrutinizes every patient in the waiting room and says in a barely lowered voice, wig, wig, not sure, not a wig, not a wig … Maman, Maman, not so loud, I say, everybody can hear you. What are you saying? my mother asks. You’re muttering under your breath and I can’t understand you. –Have you turned your ear on?–What? –Where’s your hearing aid? Why don’t you have it on?–Because I have to take it off during the radiation

You normally wouldn’t expect much humour in this situation–a room full of people waiting for their cancer treatments–but here we see that Vincent’s mother is facing treatment, but she still delights in certain things. She finds it “reassuring” that she’s not the “oldest person here” while noting that another patient “won’t last a month.” She also delights herself by telling someone that she’s the doctor’s “pet patient–he says, you’re completely atypical, translation, you should have croaked a long time ago.” There’s also happiness to be found in a flirtation with another patient. This episode shows how the things that make us happy–in the case of Paulette, she needs to feel unique and attractive–continue to make us happy throughout our lives. Also we see how Paulette’s ability to live in the moment allows her to feel happy in spite of her disease. Fellow cancer patient Jean Ehrenfried appears twice more in his own chapters, and at one point he has to listen to the woes of Darius, a self-centered friend who’s visiting Jean in the hospital. Darius, according to Jean “cheated” on his wife “night and day,” so why is he sure he can never be happy again now that his wife finally leaves him for the landscaper?

But my favourite chapter, and it wasn’t easy to pick one, concerns the Hunterts who would seem to have the perfect, sickeningly sweet relationship. According to Robert Toscano the Hunterts are curled up in “a willed state of conjugal well-being,” and willed is the operative word here. While it may appear that they have made this firm decision to be happily married, there’s a lot more under the surface. In fact they have to cope with a son locked up in an institution who thinks he’s Céline Dion. Is it best to leave him happy and delusional waiting for the fans to arrive or to try to bring him back to the misery of reality?

Some readers who seek a linear narrative may not like the book’s structure, but for this reader, since the book is more thematically based, the structure was more than acceptable, and the chorus of voices absolutely delightful. While exploring the nature of happiness, Reza establishes an interesting triangular relationship with the reader, for many of these stories show troubled lives of people who are coping with various dilemmas all told in (with one possible exception) a generous amount of humor. Various theories of happiness drift to the surface as the chapters continue: do we have to be insane in order to be happy, why do we cause our own misery, and why do the bad circumstances endured by others give our lives a sense of superiority? And should we, as Jean notes, “refer to happiness as an end in itself“? Happiness, when it appears in the novel, comes in flashes of unexpected moments as these characters traverse their complicated lives and confront infidelity, friendship, passion, illness, marital strife and the never-ending travails of every day life. The book begins with a Borges quote–a quote that says a lot about our chances of happiness:

Happy are those who are beloved and those who love

and those who can do without love.

Happy are the Happy.

In a strange coincidence, Emma from Book Around the Corner saw a play by Yasmina Reza and posted about her experience a day after I picked up the book. After reading the vibrant chorus of voices in Happy Are the Happy, I can only imagine that the author’s plays are every bit as alive and witty as this book.

Review copy.

Translated by John Cullen

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Filed under Fiction, Reza Yasmina

In Love by Alfred Hayes

After finishing Electrico W, I turned to In Love by Alfred Hayes–another book which coincidentally examines the subject of love. While Electrico W looks at various ways we love people, In Love is the story of a man who can’t understand where his relationship with a woman went wrong. This explains why he finds himself sitting on a bar stool telling his sob story to the first girl who’ll listen to him.

In LoveAlfred Hayes, born in Britain in 1911, moved with his family to America when he was 3. He was a reporter, a screenwriter, and a novelist before his death in 1985. The New York Review Books edition of In Love includes an overview, by Frederic Raphael, of the writer’s career. There are some peculiarities about the career of Alfred Hayes–one time he received credit as “Albert Hayes,” for example, and ultimately it seems as though Hayes just missed an “A-list career.” The intro brings up the fact that Hayes wrote a poem “I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night,” and I can’t help but wonder if, given the anti-red tendencies of Hollywood thanks to J. Edgar Hoover and McCarthyism, there was payback for that poem–a poem which surely couldn’t have missed the beady eyes of Hollywood commie hunters. But back to the book which begins with this opening sentence:

Here I am, the man in the hotel bar said to the pretty girl, almost forty, with a small reputation, some money in the bank, a convenient address, a telephone number easily available, this look on my face you think peculiar to me, my hand here on this table real enough if one doesn’t look too closely.

Drinking dacquiris in a hotel bar as “the afternoon dies,” the man tells his story of how he was once in a relationship with a nameless young woman who lived alone in a tiny apartment in New York. She’s divorced and has a small child named Barbara who lives with the woman’s recently remarried mother. The story-teller maps out his relationship with the woman, and it’s as though he imagined that this would stretch on endlessly into the future:

I realize now that I had accustomed myself, without admitting it, to thinking of her as being always in this place, in these surroundings, that to me the studio couch and the drapes drawn to protect her from the imaginary peeping toms, and even from the disorder of her medicine cabinet, were permanent. She would exist among these love letters and these portraits for as long as I loved her. I did not, of course, think of myself as loving her forever, but neither did I think of the time when I would stop loving her. No, what I thought, I suppose, really was that this scene would remain forever unchanged: downstairs, in the vestibule, I would ring her bell, the buzzer would answer and release the door, I would climb the familiar stairs, noting the same odor in the hallway, hearing in winter the same concealed hiss of steam, and she would always be there, available, pretty, young, seated with her legs tucked under her on the studio couch among the colored pillows, the radio or the Victrola playing; and we would, in those fixed ceremonials, go out to some restaurant, choose a place where we could dance, because she liked to dance, or bored, choose from the always diminishing number of movies we had not seen one that still remained to be seen, taxiing homeward later, and eventually, evening after evening, in the darkness, with the drapes drawn and the lights extinguished, on the studio couch, uncovered now and the pillows scatter on the floor, make love. It was a very convenient and fixed and unvarying idyll I had in mind, a simple sequence of pleasures that would not seriously change my life or interfere with my work, that would fill the emptiness of my long evenings and ease the pressures of my loneliness, and give me what I suppose I really thought of as the nicest amusement in all the amusement park: the pleasure of love.

That very long quote gives a sense of this author’s self-interruptive style but also grants a deep insight into the storyteller’s mind. He’s gone back over the memories of this broken love affair repeatedly, adding details until he has successfully recreated and reconstructed this past, now-vanished life. It’s in this quote that we see the narrator’s painful, and occasionally raw acknowledgement  of his actions, and this is important, because at other times in this novel, it would seem that he’s incredibly selfish and basically clueless about just where he went wrong. We find out that while the narrator is very happy with the situation, the woman has some rankling discontent. This is, after all, post WWII America, and the woman carries not only the social stigma of a divorce, but also the additional sense of failure as a mother who can’t even raise her own child. She considers herself “mixed up,” but she also wants to remarry, have another child, and have a home. It doesn’t seem too much to ask for, but in spite of this modest ambition, she finds it “hard to gouge out of the reluctant mountain her own small private ingot of happiness. “Apart from this insidious sense of failure, she’s also frightened of living alone and keeps  a tear gas gun “recommended to her by a doctor” on the coffee table. The ever present fear of a male intruder has caused her to generate an elaborate escape plan along with a “military strategy.”

but it seems to me now that all this disorder, so much in evidence, and so little cared about, came from the fact that she considered the life that she was leading then as only temporary. This house, the way she lived, was only a hasty arrangement, thrown together to cover a time in her life which she did not consider too important, and in which she did not feel any necessity for putting things into any sort of final order. The final order had not yet arrived; she was waiting for it to arrive.

Of course, things cannot remain the same forever, and one night, the woman goes out with some friends and is propositioned by a very wealthy, “rather heavy solid” man named Howard who offers her one thousand dollars to spend the night with him. If that rings a bell, then you are right, and the intro mentions the fact that this is the same occurrence that stirs the action in the film Indecent Proposal.

The offer made by Howard eats away at the girl. Should she or shouldn’t she? She tells the narrator–after all, he “insisted that she had the perfect right” to see other men as they have a commitmentless relationship. She debates her choices and the theoretical consequences while repeatedly weighing the narrator’s range of responses. The doors to the relationship are open. She wears no hardware, so a peculiar situation evolves–an elaborate tango of possession between the three characters……

While the novel would seem to offer a narrator who doesn’t have a clue about what went wrong, scrapping the surface, we see a man who’s deeply puzzled by his actions, or inactions, more than anything else, and this is why he’s still scratching away at the relationship some time later through a story told to a total stranger at a bar. The novel asks what it means to be “in love,”–is commitment or exclusivity part of the equation? And are there are game rules here which bar manipulation?

It took me some time to get beyond the author’s style and the opaque narrator’s seemingly unpleasant selfishness and endless self-focus. Ultimately, the narrator’s self-focus is not egomania, but a hopeless attempt to understand his “paralysis,” and the actions that finally broke his inaction. I suspect that readers will have a range of reactions to the story as this is the sort of novel that we inevitably smear with our own experiences. Some may be repelled by the narrator, and part of this character seems to want us to despise him–as he despises himself even as he appears to endlessly relive a situation in which he cannot reconcile his actions to his desire.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Hayes Alfred

Electrico W by Hervé le Tellier

A few months ago, I read On the Edge,  a German novel by Markus Werner, the story of two men and their relationships with an enigmatic, elusive woman who appears only in memories. Electrico W by French author Hervé le Tellier is the tale of two men who desire the same woman, but in this case, the woman is not particularly interesting, and this raises the question, of course, why people are attracted to someone they don’t even like.

electrico wJournalist Vincent, the narrator of Electrico W lives in Lisbon as the Portuguese correspondent for a French newspaper, and he’s assigned to write an investigative piece on a murder trial of a serial killer who wears chain mail underwear. Following his father’s suicide and the break-up of his relationship with a woman called Irene, Vincent decided to leave Paris and buy a small apartment in Lisbon, his mother’s birthplace and the origin of some pleasant childhood memories. Now in Lisbon, Vincent has two goals: to finish a novel about Pescheux d’Herbinville (he already has a title) and to translate a “collection of bizarre short stories” by the obscure writer Jaime Monstestrela (there’s a fictional biography on Wikipedia, if interested). Living in a rented room, Vincent’s isolation comes to an end when Antonio, a war photographer, telephones and asks Vincent to move in with him so that they can follow the Pinheiro murder trial together. There’s a reversal situation already afoot between the two men: Vincent is French, has left Paris and now plans to live in Lisbon while Lisbon native Antonio has settled in Paris. When the two men meet, Antonio confesses that he hasn’t been back to Lisbon for years and mumbles that “a thing with a woman” is the root cause, so here we have one man who fled Paris to forget a woman, and another man who has moved to Paris and hasn’t returned home because of some situation with a woman.

With stops and starts in the trial that leave the two men with time on their hands, they swap stories about their pasts and some old love affairs. Sharing identical hotel suites that are “exact mirror images of each other” connected by doors, the two men soon learn that they have much more in common than they realized.

Vincent gauges that Antonio is mired in a sticky relationship, but it’s a relationship in which Antonio has the upper hand. This is contrast to Vincent’s now broken relationship with Irene where Vincent was always the underdog, hoping for a bone, and he’s still obsessed about a woman who really wasn’t worth his attention:

Antonio didn’t love this woman, and I thought of Irene again, and the memory of her terrifies me because it’s everywhere in me, ready to spring up as soon as I’m alone, when all it really is is regret.

She had agreed to see me more than once, had accepted my tender advances, and even, though she rejected my too urgent desire every time, I like to think she always did so gently. She asked only that I be patient. I waited for her love to blossom, as she insisted it should. My feelings grew stronger by the day, and more painful too. I had fallen in love with every detail of her face, with her girlish grin, and even her cruelty.

Perhaps it was the distance she maintained that chained her to me, in the same way that the coolness I sensed in Antonio must have been holding the woman who called him from Paris.

That’s enough of the plot. What follows is an elaborate, gently amusing, and yet still poignant dance between the characters as Vincent dreams up a ‘plan’ to fix things. Through his characters Hervé le Tellier examines what it means to be ‘in love,’ and it should come as no surprise that love–that all-encompassing word–is one of the most complicated emotions on the planet. Love to one person means control, dominance and ownership, but to another it may mean worship and submission. I have a saying: “You don’t want some people to love you,” and by that I mean that there are some people whose love is a cruel, corrupting emotion that contaminates and is best avoided. The extremes of love also appear in more subtle forms–the book that Vincent is writing concerns Pescheux d’Herbinville who was, possibly, the participant in a duel that killed mathematician Évariste Galois in 1832, and the root cause of the duel is thought to be … a woman. Author Hervé Le Tellier thus seeds the clever idea that while duels dramatically solved fights over women in the 19th century (and earlier), these days men have only their wits and their wooing skills–such as they are–to rely on. Since Vincent’s wooing skills have already proved to fail miserably, that leaves his wits….

The story examines first love in all its pristine power, and then there’s also an examination of what love means to different people. Some people take love lightly–whereas others love deeply. Do we change how we love with each new relationship or are we fundamentally the same–the variant being solely the object of our desire? Why does Vincent love Irene (he loved her the moment he saw her) as she’s so obviously not worth Vincent’s obsessive devotion, and if she isn’t worth this sort of attention, then the obsession must spring from Vincent himself.  What happens when a woman who enjoys her power over a man, misusing him cruelly, discovers that she’s now longer worshipped? Will she move on to another victim or try to revive that worship in her former admirer?

Electrico W, which is the name of a tram line in Lisbon, is written as a novel by Vincent, who after seeing Antonio as a “character in a book,” decides to write a novel about his experiences in Lisbon, and it’s this story that takes us back to Antonio’s youth in the days of Salazar’s fascist dictatorship.  Hervé le Tellier is a member of the French literary group Oulipo, founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François le Lionnais. I was a bit worried that I’d end up with a novel that had no punctuation, but all the play comes in the story itself in the blend of fact and fiction, the comic with the tragic.

 Translated by Adriana Hunter

Review copy

Electrico W led me to think about John Lee’s Love Theory, and the way he identified six “styles” or “colors” of Love. If you are curious to see what kind of lover you are, here’s a quiz:

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This Close by Jessica Frances Kane

A few years ago, I read the excellent novel The Report by Jessica Frances Kane. This was an unusual book which concerned the 1943 Bethnal Green Disaster, a horrific true incident. Given the subject matter, The Report could potentially have been a very dry read, but the story was written with impressive sensitivity which effectively conveyed the lasting impact of the tragic event for those involved.

This CloseNow author Jessica Frances Kane follows up that first novel with a collection of 12 short stories: This Close–a collection that focuses on the complexities of relationships. In the first story Lucky Boy, and my favorite in the collection, the author delicately explores the silent, impenetrable divisions of class. The protagonist, a young man named Henry patronises a dry cleaners operated by two young Korean women. Over time an uneasy ‘big-brother’ relationship develops between Henry and Owen, the young son of one of the owners. It’s an awkward relationship, and one that Henry is never comfortable with, but then again, he’s not comfortable with using a dry cleaning service in the first place or with “members of the service industry” in general. Henry understands, unlike his much more affluent friend Christina, that most people who “serve” others aren’t thrilled about it, and bear no deep-abiding love for those in a higher station in life who can afford to make life a little easier for themselves. 

I’d observed Christina’s family and friends and the way they sometimes talked about their relationships with members of the service industry. I thought it was a way of seeming to have servants without admitting you wanted them. Mr. Greene, for example, an expensive florist Christina’s parents had been using for years, was said to have been waiting to do Christina’s wedding since she was a baby. ‘He just loves her,” her mother would croon.

It’s the Gone-with-the-Wind fantasy–our slaves/servants love us so much, they would be happy to be slaves for us even if they weren’t paid!  As Henry becomes more involved with Owen, he simultaneously becomes more involved with Christina. We know these parallel paths can’t continue–something has to give. There’s a moment when Henry’s life could go in an entirely different direction, but then again there are plenty of indications that he’s not a decisive person and will bend with the stronger wind.

Some of the stories in the collection are connected, and this device somehow made the stories seem richer. Perhaps this is because the author picks up her characters at several points in their lives or views them from different angles. In American Lawn, Pat answers an ad for a plot of land placed by a man named Kirill. Kirill who has limited English, and who lives in an apartment, wants a piece of land that he can garden in exchange for vegetables. The plan goes well, until the boundaries of the relationship become blurred and complicated by the neighbor Janeen. Essentials of Acceleration brings more focus on to  Pat’s neighbor “go-getter” Janeen.

One family–John, Elizabeth and their daughter Hannah appears at different times in their lives in three connected stories: The Stand-In, The Old Beginning, and another favourite Local Birds. The problems within the family are re-visited with each subsequent story and the problems haven’t gone away but have morphed or mutated, so the mother, Elizabeth who is”disengaged with the world” in The Stand-In is still basically the same in Local Birds, a story that occurs much later in the characters’ lives, but the difference is that over the years, Hannah no longer tries to understand her mother’s peculiarities. In Local Birds, it’s John’s retirement party, thrown by Hannah for her father and some of his closest work associates. Elizabeth makes a brief appearance, but with her typical behaviour, she soon bows out:

Once upon a time Hannah would have searched for reasons, too, desperate to placate and include a mother who needed to remove herself. Now she is calm and helpful, a remarkable transformation. John wonders how she managed it. He thinks of all the times he might have intervened in the past, all the roads he might have gone down trying to negotiate between them during the difficult years. He believes not one of those roads would have led here, to this night, the three of them together. His mistake would have been to assume at any point that their problems were more than a stage. Everything is stages. He’s glad he stayed out of it.

Of course, John’s thoughts aren’t exactly accurate. Elizabeth’s withdrawal is not a “stage” as it’s a continued behaviour. Nothing is ‘solved’; it’s simply that now Hannah, for better or worse, now accepts her mother’s behavior without question. Is this a sign of maturity on Hannah’s part, an acceptance of the inevitable, or a sort of denial that there’s a problem?

Other connected stories are: Lesson,  First Sale, Double Take, Night Class–all glimpses at moments in the lives of a woman named Maryanne and her son, Mike. Lesson and Night Class both felt rather undeveloped and were snapshots rather than substantive stories, but apart from that This Close is an excellent, polished and perceptive collection. I’ve read a lot of short stories over the years, and while I’ve found many new authors this way, I’ll add that collections of interconnected stories by one author have a special allure, and reading this collection reminded me of Ellen Gilchrist’s Rhoda stories. Many of the stories in This Close explore the fuzzy space between the people we are and the people we’d like to be through the turning points in various relationships. While the recognition of the difference between who we are and who we’d like to be is a sign of maturity, the author, shows us that turning away from opportunities to become a better or different person can also be an acceptance of an easier choice of less self-examination, and in lives scarred by misunderstandings, miscommunications and mistakes, often the easier path is the road of less resistance and change.

Review copy

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NW by Zadie Smith

If I had to describe Zadie Smith’s latest novel, NW, I’d say ‘brilliant but difficult.’ That’s a compliment, but at the same time I can see why many readers would drop out along the way. This is a novel set in a distinct geographical area of London, the NW (Northwest) of the title, but specifically focusing on Willesden–an area with a vast social history:

A great hill straddles NW, rising in Hampstead, West Hampstead, Kilburn, Willesden, Brondesbury, Cricklewood. It is no stranger to the world of letters. The Woman in White walks up one side to meet the highwayman Jack Sheppard on the other. Sometimes Dickens himself comes this far west and north for a pint or to bury someone. Look, there on the library carpet between Science Fiction and Local History: a knotted condom filled with sperm. Once this was all farm and field with country villas nodding at each other along the ridge of this hill. Train stations have replaced them, at half-mile intervals.

That passage gives the essence of the author’s style–a vibrant cacophony of voices and colliding lives in this exploration of class and race through friends and their relationships. At the heart of the story are two women–friends from childhood. Keisha has moved on from her beginnings and transformed into Natalie while her friend Leah appears to be locked in the past–stuck on the spot, left wondering about the validity of her choices while the rest of the world whirls by. Has Natalie matured, and this is the novel’s great question, or is maturity just another way of describing an upwardly mobile, affluent life?

The novel begins with Leah, a young white woman of Irish background, who lives with Michel, a French hairdresser of African descent, opening the door to the apparently distressed Shar. Leah’s neighbourhood is questionable, and even opening the door and letting this young woman in–someone who attended the same underachieving school, is an act of bravery, and even a sort of social defiance as it later turns out. The intruder is Shar, and she wants money, she claims, to go and visit her ill mother in the hospital. As in often true in good Samaritan acts, the decision to help Shar is based in Leah’s perception of herself, and this is our introduction to Leah.

This seemingly small incident has a ripple effect with serious ramifications for Leah. For Leah, time has stood still since she finished “three years of useless study” which culminated in the collection of a degree in Philosophy which has no practical application and does not translate to her employment as “the only white girl on the Fund Distribution Team.” Leah seems disconnected with her life, as if she washed up, shipwrecked in this place, in a relationship with no idea exactly how she arrived there.

Meanwhile Leah’s childhood friend, Natalie aka Keisha, “the girl that done good,” now a married barrister, invites Leah and Michel to dinner parties at their posh home, and it’s here amongst the other guests, that Leah and Michel stick out rather uncomfortably. Not that Michel seems to notice.

Nothing in Leah’s childhood prepared her for the frequency with which she now attends dinner parties, most often at Natalie’s house, where she and Michel are invited to provide something like local colour. Neither of them know what to say to barristers and bankers, to the occasional judge. Natalie cannot believe that they are shy. Each time she blames some error of placement but each time the awkwardness remains. They are shy, whether Natalie believes it or not. They have no gift for anecdote. They look down at their plates and cut their food with great care, letting Natalie tell their stories for them, nodding to confirm points of fact, names, times, places. Offered to the table for general dissection these anecdotes take on their own life, separate, impressive.

I can’t review the book without touching on the author’s style, and at this point I’ll add that I am not a fan of experimental writing. Don’t hand me a book that has pages without punctuation and even stream of consciousness is pushing it. These techniques may be fun for the author, but they annoy me.  Nonetheless, with these prejudices in mind, some of Zadie Smith’s stylistic decisions worked excellently, and she’s a genius for dialogue. Here for example, is a passage from one of Natalie’s swanky dinner parties. You can almost hear the dishes and cutlery, the mastication of the teeth, and the banal comments made to the person on the right by her upwardly mobile, and smug guests, safe in the cocoon of their ever-growing affluence.

Many of the parents are immigrants–from Jamaica, from Ireland, from India, from China–and they can’t understand why they have not yet been invited to live with their children, as is the custom, in their countries. Technology is offered as a substitute for that impossible request. Stairlifts. Pacemakers. Hip replacements. Dialysis machines. But nothing satisfies them. They worked hard so that we children might live like this. They “literally” will not be happy until they’ve moved in our houses. They can never move in our houses. Pass the heirloom tomato salad. The thing about Islam. Let me tell you about Islam. The thing about the trouble with Islam. What do you think, Samhita, yeah what do you think, Samhita, what’s your take on this?  Samhita, the copyright lawyer. Pass the tuna. Solutions are passed across the table, strategies. Private wards. Private cinemas. Christmas abroad. A restaurant with only five tables in it. Security systems. Fences. The carnage of a 4×4 that lets you sit alone above traffic. There is a perfect isolation out there somewhere, you can get it, although it doesn’t come cheap.

Other stylistic maneuvers did not work so well for this reader. The lack of inverted commas, at least for the first part of the book caused me to wonder, more than once, who was saying what, or even if these statements were thoughts rather than speech. While the first section of the novel concerns Leah, the second section moves ahead with Felix, a recovering drug addict who think he’s putting his past behind him and moving forward in a new relationship with the dynamic Grace. At first there was a sense of frustration that Leah was more or less left behind while Felix’s story developed. This section, however, was so good, I quickly forgot my grumbling and submerged myself into Felix’s story as he buys a dilapidated sports car from upper class Tom, the sort of person we might find sitting around the table at one of Natalie’s soirées.  

One of the novel’s very best scenes takes place between Felix and Annie, his former fellow addict and sometime sex partner. It’s in this scene that the entire notion of ‘getting ahead’ and ‘moving on’ is dragged out into the open and trammelled on by the very confident and self-possessed Annie. Note the appearance of inverted commas:

“You listening? Next level. People can spend their whole lives just dwelling. I could spend my whole life dwelling on some of the shit that’s happened to me. I done that. Now it’s time for the next level. I’m moving up in the game. And I’m ready for it.”

“Yes, yes, I’ve grasped the metaphor, you don’t have to keep repeating it.”

Annie lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply and exhaled it through her nose.

“Life’s not a video game, Felix–there aren’t a certain number of points that send you up to the next level. There isn’t actually any next level. The bad news is that everyone dies at the end. Game over.”  

It’s these sorts of vibrantly alive scenes that, for this reader, made up for the rest of the novel’s difficult moments. After finishing the book, I found myself returning and chewing over Annie’s arguments. She’s arguably one of the most fucked up people in the book, and yet she’s intelligent, coherent, perfectly comfortable in her own skin, and living in poverty. She is mentally in the sort of place that Leah can’t seem to reach. Leah is being propelled ahead by the current, but she’s not altogether copacetic with ‘moving up,’ and Leah, who is “faithful in her allegiance” to her roots certainly doesn’t want to be the sort of person that Natalie has become. There’s an uncomfortable undercurrent to the lives of these Londoners, and the novel questions society’s notions of “the next level.” Acquiring affluence is arguably a questionable goal, and yet that is the quest for the characters here who appear to succeed in a sink or swim society while other lost characters, Nathan Bogle is just one example, are wrecked and washed up by crack. I found myself wondering what would happen in Zadie Smith’s NW if we mixed up the characters a bit and invited Annie to Natalie’s table? Would Annie and Leah be friends? Would Felix admire Michel? How would someone like Natalie cope with someone as potentially myth-puncturing as Annie? These are all rhetorical questions, of course, because that’s the whole point of ‘moving on.’ You drop those people who no longer fit in.

A writer of Zadie Smith’s standing can get away with a lot of idiosyncratic moves that would trash a newer, humbler writer. The Big Questions here, and each reader will decide independently, are whether 1) the novel works and 2) whether Zadie Smith is aware of the unevenness and inconsistencies of the novel. For this reader, it’s a resounding yes to both questions.

Thanks to John Self at Asylum for recently interviewing Zadie Smith and reviewing the book.

Review copy.

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Life is Short and Desire Endless by Patrick Lapeyre

I’ll admit that thanks to its title I wasn’t sure about Patrick Lapeyre’s novel Life is Short and Desire Endless (La Vie est Brève et le Désir Sans Fin). I’ll back up and say that I’m not much of a romantic and largely consider such storylines as twaddle, but I decided to give the book a go as I am a sucker for the complex ideas of French cinema. French books, French cinema…there has to be a common ground there somewhere, right?

While ostensibly this is a novel about two men who are obsessed with the same elusive woman, there’s much more at play here than the classic love triangle. The novel begins with forty-one-year-old married translator, Parisian Louis Blériot on his way to visit his parents who live way out in the boonies. His cell phone rings and it’s Nora, a British woman he had an intense affair with two years before. They didn’t exactly break up, but rather Nora ‘moved on,’ and as it turns out, this is an established pattern of behaviour.

Nora is, apparently, back in town. Just as she swoops back into Blériot’s life without warning, she also left her London-based, American financial services lover, Murphy Blomdale in a similar fashion. Blomdale comes home to the “chilling sense” that Nora is gone, and he’s right. So we have two men on edge: one, Blomdale, dumped without an explanation, and the other, Blériot, picked back up after a two-year-absence by Nora who acts as though she might have stepped outside for five minutes to go collect the post. She’s back, she says, to begin a career as an actress, and when she runs low on funds, there are no less than two men (Blomdale and Blériot) to fund her venture and extravagant spending.

If it sounds as though I didn’t like Nora, then you’ve guessed correctly. I didn’t. But I loved the book and the way the author competently explores complex relationships between people who are behaving badly. This is not a common variety of love triangle with two men panting over one woman. Instead the story line expands to other people who are impacted by Nora’s behaviour–Blériot’s wife, Sabine whose sangfroid is propped up by her superior financial position, and then there’s also Laura, a former friend of Nora’s who never quite recovered from their teenage friendship.

The novel goes back and forth in time to crucial moments in the relationships between the characters, including the day Blériot met Nora, the day Blomdale met Nora, scenes of Blériot’s marriage and the occasions various characters meet to try and make sense of what happens and just why, precisely, two men allow Nora to wreck their lives. Here’s Blériot trying to get sympathy from his gay friend Léonard who acts as “spiritual advisor” and “dissolute priest“:

“You see, my lovely, I’m afraid I don’t really understand your heterosexual misery,” says Léonard. “I really must be from a different species, with different pleasures and different kinds of suffering.”

“On top of all that,” Blériot continues, not believing a word of what Léonard has said, “I now find myself the proud owner of the sum total of two shirts, one pair of shoes, and fifty-seven euros in my bank account.”

“I left you some bills in the dresser drawer, but if it’s not enough, you can ask me for whatever you want.” Léonard tells him, apparently convinced this is a case of monomania.

“Would five hundred be too much?” asks Blériot at the precise moment that, in a London park, Nora’s tapping into Murphy’s pocket–they could be a couple of professional cadgers in action.

Léonard who “adores issues of conjugal sophistry” has problems of his own with desire. He’s ill for one thing, and his current lover is Rachid–a man who’s relegated to the kitchen and forbidden to talk to visitors. Having hot-tempered Rachid in the kitchen doesn’t stop Léonard from desiring other men, and he admits that as his disease progresses all he can think about is “sex and more sex,” as if he’s trying to pack in experiences in the short time he has left.

By far my favourite character here is Blériot “who amazes himself with his psychotic ability to lead this double life.” He’s arguably the most flawed of the bunch in terms of culpable behaviour–even surpassing Nora (for reasons I can’t expose). He has a good sex life with his wife–a woman who gives him a lot of rope even if it’s frozen with ice, and yet Blériot desires Nora who is unstable, unreliable, unfaithful, and a spendthrift:

he married the most intelligent and devoted of women, the one best equipped to make him happy, and if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t hesitate for a moment.

His conjugal affection has never actually been as vehement as he claims, and their relationship, despite intermittent bonds of complicity and tenderness, has become more or less incomprehensible.

Blériot describes his wife as having “her finger hovering over the red button for years.” Is part of Blériot’s problem in the marriage that his wife is wealthy and immensely successful? It’s certainly not a relationship of equals and Blériot’s erstwhile occupation as a translator is mainly hobbled together and partially serves as a cover to stay at home and do nothing much at all. We are told that Blériot has experienced “confiscated credit cards, frozen bank accounts” There’s still undeniable passion between Blériot and Sabine, and yet Nora seems to fulfill Blériot’s need to be irresponsible.

It’s incredible, he realizes, just how much damage this girl can do to him. You would think she was one of those hallucinogenic substances that dilate our perceptions while simultaneously destroying our nerve cells.

Some scenes yield glimpses of Blériot’s parents, and here’s another pathological marriage  with unaddressed complexities that in some ways echo Blériot’s relationship to Sabine. Blériot’s father experiences “expiatory humiliations constantly inflicted on him (preferably in public)” and these “have broken his last scraps of resistance.” As a result he spends an inordinate amount of time in a basement room, and Blériot suspects that “one day the old boy will sneak down there with his sleeping bag and never come back up.”

The novel explores, as the title promises, the subject of desire. Why do we desire what is bad for us? Why do we pursue someone we desire when common sense screams otherwise? Lapeyre seems to argue that desire has its own logic and its own timetable. The novel is not without wicked humour, and most of this comes from Blériot’s frantic efforts to keep both his unhappy marriage and his turbulent affair–which is not grounded in reality–afloat.

Some of the back and forth in time was a little difficult to follow, and Blomdale is not a fully realised character, but those quibbles aside, author Lepeyre captures the insanity of an affair, the pathological aspects of a marriage in crisis, and the highly addictive aspects of desire. Somehow I suspect that our reactions to the novel may say a great deal about who we are. Translated by Adriana Hunter. Review copy from the publisher.

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Spring by David Szalay

Think of the thousands of people you meet over the course of a lifetime. Then deduct the ones you can’t stand. Of those left, how many can you actually maintain a relationship with for, let’s say, an hour, a month, six months, a year? If you start looking at relationships in terms of reduction, it seems amazing that people ever live together let along manage sustained relationships that last decades. Then I begin to wonder if relationships are simpler when you’re younger. After all relationships in middle age tend to bring a lot of baggage to the table, and this is just one of the problems in David Szalay’s relationship novel Spring.

From the description of the book, it was difficult to gauge whether this tale, ostensibly about a relationship between a couple of Londoners, would be something I’d enjoy, and a surface glimpse of the description could lead to the conclusion that this is a ‘light’ romantic read. Instead Spring is a clever look at the difficulties in a burgeoning relationship between the main characters James and Katherine. It’s 2006, post-boom, and that in itself is a grabber for me.  James is on the downside on the economy and leading a severely diminished life: “For quite a few years the space in which he lives has been shrinking.”  But now he’s in the process of trying to edge his way back up, and middle-class life is beginning to look like an attractive prospect. James has a “checkered past” which includes being a film producer (0nce), a pizza shop owner, and the owner of a dodgy internet site which offered racing tips. At the top of his game, he owned an internet start-up worth millions, lived with a trophy girlfriend, and was the owner of a posh house on Victoria Road that “was never properly finished.”  

And then nothing, and the liquidators seized the house on Victoria Road while the Milanese artisans were still tiling the single-lane swimming pool…

 He stirs the razor in the scummy water. The next spring–après le deluge–found him washed up in Fulham. Then there were other places, each smaller than the last, and finally Mecklenburgh Street. The ex-local-authority flat is in an unfaced terrace of London brick. The front doors of the houses are painted black-dust-bleared fanlights, massed doorbells. The basement flats have their own entrances. Metal steps, textured like a fire escape, tack down via a square landing. The area is littered with dead brown leaves. The bedroom curtains are permanently closed.

He pulls the plug and the shaving-water noisily sinks away. No more magnificence. Now he just wants things to be okay. He wants somewhere okay to live. An okay job. One or two holidays a year. Perhaps a few modest luxuries. A middle class life in other words. And a woman. Of course a woman.

The woman James hopes to make a permanent fixture in his life is Katherine–a woman he met at a wedding. She works as a manager of a luxury hotel, but her life is complicated by the fact that she’s still married and separated from her photographer husband. This makes Katherine a woman in transition. Are people in transition more vulnerable? When the novel opens, James and Katherine have been seeing each other for a couple of months, and James is no nearer to gauging Katherine’s true feelings for him. A recent getaway to Marrakech didn’t seem to stir the romance James expected, and instead for part of the trip Katherine seemed oddly detached.

The novel goes back in time to their first sexual encounters–no overly detailed passages here, but the author does not spare his characters any humiliation in their initial awkward sex. There’s no real question of love between these two, or even of passion. It’s more about how two people got to this point in their lives, and how they deal with loneliness while trying to recoup their lives from disaster.

The author’s focus on the delicate and often desperate politics of James and Katherine’s relationship has both its funny and poignant moments, but one of the primary difficulties James faces is trying to understand just where he stands with Katherine. While neither character is particularly likeable, they are not unsympathetic. Author Szalay doesn’t put all of his character cards on the table immediately, so we discover things about James, for example, at the same moment as Katherine. While James has an edge of shadiness (just what is going on with his part ownership in a racehorse, for example?) Katherine is a cipher. She can’t seem to make up her mind about what she wants–sex or  no sex, time alone or time together. For his part, James isn’t able to read Katherine well. Should he push her? Is she too passive? Does she just need time or is this an excuse?

I just need some time on my own, she said. I need a weekend on my own. I need to get my head together. I haven’t stopped moving since we got back from Marrakech. I haven’t had any time to myself. I still haven’t finished unpacking  … I’m sorry.

Then she said, Thanks for understanding. Thanks for making it easy for me.

Later he wondered whether he had made it too easy for her. What should he have done though? Made a scene? Tried to force her to see him? Even if he had wanted to do that, he just didn’t seem to feel enough at the moments when it might have been a possibility. He only felt a kind of numbness, and the infantile frustration of not getting what he wanted.

The two main characters engage in a somewhat tepid relationship that ostensibly is supposed to allow them to get to know each other better, and while James and Katherine eat together and sleep together, they seem to be worlds apart. Spring explores the painful difficulties that encompass that well-worn phrase ‘getting to know’ someone, and Szalay reveals what a hopelessly bogus statement that is even as James and Katherine negotiate their pasts, morality, personal space and parties attended by a few truly desperate souls.

Spring is not a perfect novel. At a couple of points the narrative shifts to a different point-of-view and this proves to be distracting and jarring–especially since the author has spent such effort on the intense relationship focus between the two main characters. That complaint aside, Szalay writes marvellously. Here’s Freddie, long-term acquaintance of James:

On Monday they meet in Earls Court–one of those streets of trucks stampeding past exhaust-fouled terraces, of youth hostels, and veiled slummy houses full of subletting Australians, and other houses with tarnished nameplates in Arabic on the doors and the paint falling off in stiff pieces. There, under a two-star package-tour hotel, they meet. Freddie is piquey and jaundiced. In one of his down moods. His hair looks like it has slipped off his head–there is none on top, where the skin has the look of a low-quality waxwork, or the prosthetic scalp of a stage Fagin, but plenty further down, where it trails like the fringe of a filthy rug over his collar–the old collar, white-edged with age, of an otherwise blue Jermyn Street shirt stolen from his landlord.

One last point, the back cover states that Szalay was born in Canada and that he’s named as “one of the twenty best British novelists under forty.” Does Canada claim him too? How does that nation-claiming thing work?

Review copy courtesy of publisher.

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Mine Own Executioner: Nigel Balchin (1945)

People in my job nearly always get sent the wrong half of a marriage.”

I read an article in which the name of author and screenwriter Nigel Balchin (1908-1970)  is mentioned–along with the claim that he’s one of the most undeservedly neglected writers of 20th century British fiction. Well that’s certainly true in my case as I’ve a number of his books on my shelf–all unread. I’ve been interested in Balchin for some time, and I’m drawn to his books not so much for the neglected contributions to British literature idea, but because a few of his books have been made into films. And a couple of them are noir films, so I finally pulled one of those books off my shelf and read it.

I’d say for about the first 2/3 of Mine Own Executioner, I enjoyed what seemed to be a decent, but fairly average, novel. This is the tale of a London psychologist, a few of his patients, and his troubled relationship with his wife. At about the point of the last 1/3 of the book (just guessing here as I didn’t mark the actual turning point), the novel evolved into something else entirely. I was ambushed by the book’s turn, didn’t see it coming,  and by the book’s conclusion, I was ready to believe that there’s something to this business that Balchin is a greatly neglected writer.

The protagonist of Mine Own Executioner is London psychologist Felix Milne, a man who splits his working time between treating wealthy patients who bore him to tears and poor patients who have a range of serious problems. When the book begins, it’s clear that while Felix  is busy devoting himself to the problems of others, he has a number of unresolved problems of his own. In a typical ‘physician heal thyself’ manner, Felix is often unfairly short-tempered with his pleasant, far-too understanding wife, Patricia, even while he extends endless, patient sage counseling to those who seek his advice.  Felix’s marriage is in trouble–nothing terribly dramatic, but there’s the sense that the spark has long gone, and what’s left is an old, tired machine that just barely manages to do its job. Felix and Patricia are at the point of acknowledging that their marriage may be over. The domestic situation isn’t helped by the fact that Felix is attracted to Patricia’s long-term friend, the very dangerous blonde Barbara. This attraction is painfully obvious to Patricia while Barbara’s patsy of a husband, Peter, remains oblivious to the warning signs. He’s so idiotically oblivious, in fact, that he corners Felix and asks him to take Barbara on as a patient in order to discuss her “sex complex.”

Whoa! Sex complex? Isn’t it a bit unethical for a psychologist to agree to accept a friend (he lusts after) as a patient? Well this took place on page 17, so I was expecting the novel to concentrate on Felix’s unhappy personal life and the dangerous relationship he has with man-eating Barbara. While the novel delves into Felix’s rather bad behaviour, for the most part the novel focuses partly on the inner politics behind the scenes at the Norris Pile Clinic where Felix works for a pittance treating charity cases. Another large section of the novel concerns one of Felix’s most disturbing cases, the very damaged Adam Lucien.

Lucien was shot down while flying a spitfire during WWII. He ended up as a prisoner of the Japanese, and after a long period of torture, interrogation, and imprisonment, Lucien managed to return home, but according to his wife, he’s different. He has a permanent leg injury, but the mental damage is far worse, and Mrs Lucien pleads for Felix’s help after Lucien tries to strangle her. Felix agrees to take on Adam Lucien, a tricky subject, as a patient, but he has serious reservations. Mainly Felix is concerned that he may be out of his depth….

I have a weakness for novels that include therapists, so Mine Own Executioner had a special appeal for me.  Here’s Felix discussing the benefits of therapy to Barbara:

Barbara took her cup and lit another cigarette. “seriously, though, Felix, what do you do to people? I’ve always wanted to know.”

“Well, it’s like this,” said Milne slowly. “The theory of the thing, very roughly, is that in most of us there are two people. One is the natural person, that has various desires and instincts; and the other is the conventional person that believes in the law, and morality, and religion and so on. So there tends to be a scrap between what we want to do and what we know we ought to do.”

The irony of that little speech, of course, is that while Felix can see this in other people and help them resolve their problems, he cannot manage to help himself. He sees his relationship with Patricia as appealing to one side of his nature while Barbara appeals to the dark side, and he tries to explain away this attraction to his wife:

“There’s a bit of me,” he said slowly, “that’s never grown up. It stays at about mental age twelve. Most of the time I’m very grown up indeed. If I weren’t, I couldn’t do my job. But outside the job I come up against this thing. It takes all sorts of forms. You know most of them. I get fun–and not such very nice fun–out of teasing and bullying you. I sulk if a certain sort of thing happens that I don’t like. All sorts of things like that. You know them, don’t you?”

“Some of them, I think.”

“Yes. Well this business with Barbara is a part of that thing. The thing that attracts me about Bab is that it’s so obvious–a sort of deliberate childish wantonness. When she throws herself at your head, she does it like a naughty kid trying to get another kid to be naughty. I know that sounds awful, but I don’t mean that there’s anything charming about it at all–not to an adult. People always talk about a ‘naughty child’ as if it were something too, too sweet. A naughty child isn’t sweet at all. It’s usually rather ugly and a nuisance. But it’s often attractive to other children.”

Patricia said, “And of course Bab does it all very well. It’s always been her technique.”

“I don’t know. In my saner moments it always seems too crude for anything. But it exactly rings the bell for my twelve-year-old bit.”

He sat for a moment in silence.

“What I’m trying to show you is why it happens, and yet why I’m so sure it doesn’t matter fundamentally. It happens because Barbara exactly appeals to a messy twelve-year-old, which is what I am in some ways. And  it doesn’t matter because there’s nowhere it could possibly lead. It’s simply a childish game whose whole point is that it’s forbidden.”

That’s Felix’s rationalisation, presenting his attraction to Barbara, in a nutshell. While he tells his wife it’s innocent and childish, he calls Barbara a “bad little slut” to her face. Wonder how he’d handle a patient stuck in the same dilemma. While the novel begins with Felix dwelling on his own problems, he soon faces the greatest challenge of his career when he tries to treat Lucien.

Since this was published in 1945, there are some derogatory references to the Japanese. But aside from that, Mine Own Executioner really is a terrific novel, a wonderful example of WWII British noir. The film version cuts out some of the uglier (interesting) aspects of the book–I doubt that the 40s were quite ready for some of the aspects of this tale, but in spite of the fact that the film is bleached for public consumption, it’s well worth watching–especially if you’re drawn to noir or tales which involve aspects of psychology.   

For more information on Nigel Balchin, check out the website http://www.nigelmarlinbalchin.co.uk/

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