Tag Archives: relationships

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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The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

Here’s a link to my review at Mostly Fiction of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe. I came across Coe’s name in a collection of short stories, and so I was interested to try a novel. I really liked this book but was disappointed in the ending, and I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way. But I liked the novel enough to try another Coe at some point. Suggestions welcome.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a very modern novel, and by that I mean that it focuses on the meaning of relationships in the internet age. The novel’s protagonist, lonely, under-employed Max doesn’t really have a clue about relationships, and at one point he even creates a fictional internet identity in order to maintain a covert correspondence with his ex-wife. This is a novel that covers a number of big issues extremely well while still maintaining a lightly humorous tone. Those issues include relationships, loneliness, the changing face of Britain, privacy in the internet age, and outsourcing. As Max embarks on a trip to the Hebrides to promote toothbrushes, he finds himself questioning some key events from his past, and author Coe very cleverly weaves in the true story of Donald Crowhurst.  In isolation, Max begins to compare his road trip with Crowhurst’s fictional voyage around the world.  

I’m not going to write a full review, but I am including one of my favourite quotes:

I was now driving past the old Longbridge factory. Or rather, I was driving now past the gaping hole in the landscape where the old Longbridge factory used to be. It was a weird experience: when you revisit the landscapes of your past, you expect to see maybe a few cosmetic changes, the odd new building here or there, the occasional lick of paint, but this was something else; an entire complex of factory buildings which used to dominate the whole neighbourhood, stretching over many square miles, throbbing with the noise of working machinery, alive with the figures of thousands of working men and women entering and leaving the buildings–all gone. Flattened, obliterated. Meanwhile, a big billboard erected in the midst of these swatches of urban emptiness informed us that, before too long, a phoenix would be rising from the ashes : a “major new development” of “exclusive residential units” and “retail outlets,” a utopian community where the only things people ever have to concern themselves with were eating, sleeping and shopping; there was no need to work anymore, apparently, none of that tiresome stuff about clocking in at factory gates in order to do anything as vulgar as making things. Had we all lost our wits in the last few years? Had we forgotten that prosperity has to be based on something solid and tangible? Even to someone like me, who had done nothing more than skim the papers and the news Web sites over the last couple of weeks, it was pretty obvious we were getting it badly wrong, that knocking down factories to put up shops wasn’t turning out to be such a great idea, that it wasn’t sensible to build an entire society on foundations of air.

Special thanks to Tom for pointing me in the direction of this entertaining book.

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The Old Romantic by Louise Dean

Last year, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Louise Dean’s novel, Becoming Strangers, and then this year I was fortunate indeed to get my hands on a review copy of Dean’s latest, The Old Romantic. It’s reviewed at Mostly Fiction, so I won’t repeat myself too much here, but here’s a brief outline:

The novel begins with a reunion-from-hell for the long-estranged Goodyew family. Barrister Nick has spent years avoiding his parents, and part of that avoidance is manifested in his attempts to reinvent himself. He used to be called Gary, and when he dropped the name and attended university, he left his working class roots behind. Or so he thought.

The reunion takes place at Xmas with Nick and his girlfriend, upwardly mobile spa owner Astrid, picking up Nick’s grumpy old dad, Ken and his second wife, June for Xmas dinner at the home of Nick’s younger brother Dave. Within just a couple of pages, we see a tangled mess of relationships and the sort of nasty remarks that are only ever directed towards family members. The rest of the novel follows the relationships between the Goodyew family as various events occur.

If you’ve ever wondered why you bother with your relatives, then chances are you will enjoy the book. It’s lively and very, very bitterly funny in its exploration of family politics.  Nick’s dad Ken is arguably the star of the show, and as the book continues there are many hilarious scenes which made me laugh out loud. One of the best scenes takes place at a swanky restaurant at dinner attended by Astrid’s parents, the snobbish Linda and Malcolm, Nick and Astrid, and Nick’s dad Ken. This is an important meal, Ken is the unexpected guest, and Astrid’s parents receive no advance warning. Ken (who reminds me a great deal of Albert Steptoe) dominates:

Ken slapped the closed menu down onto the table. ‘All too dear,’ he said, tight-lipped and final.

Nick’s professional experience in dealing with difficult people in challenging circumstances persuaded him to coax the old boy.

‘It’s actually very reasonable, Dad. A nice, elegant menu, not too pretentious. If you tot it up, it works out quite a good deal if each of us takes the prix fixe.’

But he wasn’t speaking Ken’s language. ‘Too dear.’ Ken reiterated.

‘There’s liver and bacon, Dad, on at fifteen. You like liver and bacon, don’t you? That’s right up your street.’

‘Do me a favour! Fifteen nicker for a bit of offal. They sin you coming, sunshine.’ Ken made a bid of the other couple’s opinion. ‘What d’you think, Malcolm? Dear, innit?’

Nick leant back in his chair, putting his mouth close to his father’s ear, to escape the audible range of their table.

‘Just fucking order something, all right?’

Ken closed his eyes.

A bit later, Ken makes his menu choice:

Ken cleared his throat. ‘I’ll have the tamada soup.’

‘The…what’s that? I can’t see it on the menu….’ said Linda, with murderous eloquence.

‘There’s always a tamada soup on the menu.’

Malcolm tried to look wry and debonair, both old-fashioned and modern, with one side of his face doing the 1950s and the other lost in space.

‘Tomato soup.’ Astrid came to the rescue. ‘As in Heinz.’

‘That’s the job,’ said Ken.

‘He doesn’t get out much,’ said Nick to the waitress.

‘And tap water, please,’ said Ken. ‘From the tap, please, miss. Yes. Thank you. And I’ll have some bread with my soup, ta. I don’t drink much, do you Linda? Don’t feel the need.’

So two winners in a row from Dean. 

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In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are. In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.

Just one quote from Damon Galgut’s superb novel, In a Strange Room. This 3-part story is ostensibly about 3 journeys taken by a South African character named…Damon, but it’s also about relationships and impermanence with parallels drawn between journeys taken and relationships endured. For my full review go to Mostly Fiction. I’m pimping the book here because it’s so very, very good. (Disclaimer: copy from publisher) I really can’t praise this book enough for the way in which the author concentrates on distances between people who are cast together in journeys–two of which are as hellish as the relationships between the characters.

For another take on the book (equally positive) go visit Kevin, and if, like me, you’re curious about Galgut’s other work, go here to Charles Lambert’s blog. 

In a Strange Room is, by the way, a Booker Prize loser.

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The Merry-Go-Round by W. Somerset Maugham

“As if hell were needed when every sin brings along with it its own bitter punishment.”

The Merry-Go-Round, an early and largely forgotten novel from W. Somerset Maugham is not considered his best, but it’s one of my favourites. The Merry-Go-Round was written in 1904 following Mrs Craddock (another great favourite) in 1902. The main character in Mrs Craddock is Bertha Ley, and she’s the niece of Miss Mary Ley, the main character in The Merry-Go-Round.

Set in Edwardian England, The Merry-Go-Round concerns the troubled relationships between several people. The central character is Miss Ley, a fifty-seven-year-old spinster who inherits a comfortable sum of money from a cantankerous elderly aunt. Independent and strong-willed in her youth, in middle-age Miss Ley has very definite ideas about male-female relationships.  As a keen observer of people, her sardonic, practical view of the foibles and vanities of human nature establish Miss Ley as a witty hostess. Soon her friends become involved in various relationships and mesalliances that put Miss Ley’s theories about life, love and marriage to the test. Miss Ley rather unexpectedly finds herself becoming a confidant, an advisor and also “a censor of morals.”

Shortly after the novel begins, Miss Ley invites a handful of acquaintances to dinner, and this event introduces the main characters and kickstarts their stories, dramas and tragedies. Guests for the evening include: Mrs. Castillyon (whose husband is a member of parliament), Basil Kent, Dr. Frank Hurrell, Reggie Bassett and his overbearing mother Mrs. Barlow-Bassett, the attractive widow Mrs. Murray, Miss Ley’s cousin, Algernon Langton, Dean of Tercanbury and his middle-aged daughter Bella.

Over the course of the book, these characters plunge into love affairs and marriages for a variety of reasons and with a range of results. Barrister Basil Kent, a promising writer, although attracted to Mrs Murray, decides to do the honourable thing and offer marriage to the beautiful barmaid Jenny. Dr Frank Hurrell, a man whose “passions were of the mind rather than of the body” chafes at his career in Harley Street and longs for something unknown. Mrs. Castillyon, bored with her marriage, abandons herself in a destructive affair with Reggie Bassett, and Bella Langton at age forty falls in love with a twenty-year-old bank clerk named Herbert Field.

Maugham explores the relationships between unequals in his masterpiece Of Human Bondage. It’s obviously a theme that fascinated Maugham and in The Merry-Go-Round, there are three  such inequitable relationships (one I shan’t mention due to spoilers). Bella Langton marries Herbert Field–a man considered her social ‘inferior’ and Basil marries Jenny against Miss Ley’s advice. The marriages have different results, and while Bella and Herbert love each other, there are additional factors which impact their relationship. Basil imagines a Pygmalion scenario–with himself, naturally, as the purveyor of culture and education, and Jenny as the eager, lowly and grateful pupil. After marriage, however, Jenny’s charms are lost on Basil and he quickly finds himself bored with his wife and ashamed to introduce her to his friends. He stashes her at home and then attends his social functions alone. Jenny of course, hasn’t essentially changed since Basil first cast eyes on her; Basil’s infatuation simply dies, and with his sexual enthrallment satiated, he loses interest. In doing the so-called honourable thing, and meeting the moral obligations he feels are demanded of him, Basil becomes unintentionally cruel and tragedy results.

It’s been more than 100 years since Basil’s creation, but many of us will still identify with his decision to ‘do the right thing.’ But just what is the ‘right thing’ is a question for some debate. Miss Ley is vehemently opposed to the match and she expresses her feelings unreservedly. In her view, Basil has already caused Jenny considerable damage which will only be compounded by marriage–an act she feels is motivated from “selfishness and cowardice.” Here’s Miss Ley giving Basil her opinion:

“Are you sure you don’t admire a little too much your heroic attitude?” she asked, and in her voice was a stinging coldness at which Basil winced. “Nowadays self-sacrifice is a luxury which few have the strength to deny themselves; people took to it when they left off sugar because it was fattening, and they sacrifice themselves wantonly, from sheer love of it, however worthless the object. In fact, the object scarcely concerns them; they don’t care how much they harm it so long as they can gratify their passion.”

In Basil’s case, Miss Ley sees the misguided passion as Basil’s drive to “sacrifice” himself by marrying Jenny. Basil is motivated by the desire to not seem like his mother, the one-time notorious Lady Vizard whose affairs (Basil imagines) scandalized society–when in fact prissy Basil was the only person outraged. Basil tends to place impossibly high standards of behaviour on people and is perhaps destined to be disappointed in his relationships:

“Basil had not the amiable gift of taking people as they are, asking no more from them than they can give: but rather sought to mould after his own ideas the persons with whom he came into contact.”

The relationship between Reggie Bassett and Mrs Castillyon remains, for me at least, the most fascinating relationship in the novel. While the vast social differences in Basil and Jenny’s marriage are certain to leave bitter recrimination, it’s uncertain just who is going to be the casualty in the twisted relationship between the shallow, spoiled, selfish, petulant Reggie, and the bored superficial Mrs Castillyon. Socially, Reggie is used to prostitutes and at first can’t believe his luck at discovering a ‘loose’ woman of his own class (a woman, he assumes, who will pay her own way). Reggie fails to understand that Mrs Castillyon is mainly a tease and initially has no intention of becoming his mistress. The scenes detailing the first steps in the affair between Reggie and Grace Castillyon are especially delightful. Invitations to tea and to the theatre mask elaborate games in which Reggie and Grace test and exploit each other’s boundaries.

Miss Ley doles out advice when asked and sometimes when she isn’t asked, and throughout the novel, she is also an observer of the silliness and hypocrisy of others. Lady Vizard’s compulsion to drop the occasional French word into conversation provides just the right degree of snobbery and pretension to the upper class set, and this develops into scorn when she discovers Basil’s marriage to Jenny. Some of the narrative is stiff, and the novel seems a little unkind to most of the working class characters who either steal (Jimmy Bush), get drunk (Bridger) or get “into trouble” (Fanny Bridger, Jenny Bush). On the other hand, the upper classes suffer from priggishness (Castillyon, Basil) and selfishness induced by boredom (Grace Castillyon, Reggie).

The first time I read The Merry-Go-Round many years ago, I thought that Maugham’s novel preached virulently against marriages between different classes. Now, however, I find myself moving away from that opinion. While Basil’s marriage to Jenny is disastrous, the third, completely unexpected, marriage that takes place between two characters may or may not be successful. Miss Ley seems to think that the marriage could well be the making of the weaker, shallow character–in spite of the class differences between the newlyweds. Perhaps it is safer to say that a marriage that begins as a “favour” to the other person or as a “sacrifice” is doomed to failure, and that at the very least, respect, if not affection must be present in order for the union to have a chance of success.

Maugham’s characters share a great capacity to make themselves unhappy, and Miss Ley realizes that most of this stems from humans’ failure to understand their deepest motivations. So much unhappiness could have been spared these characters if they’d only understood themselves a little better. Here’s Basil blaming his mistakes on society:

“In this world we’re made to act and think things because others have thought them good; we never have a chance of going our own way; we’re bound down by the prejudices and the morals of all and sundry….The world held up an ideal, and I thought they meant one to act up to it; it never occurred to me that they would only sneer.”

I don’t buy Basil’s theory that his actions were dictated by society–in his case it was rather the opposite. Everyone advised him not to marry Jenny. But it is that vast dichotomy that exists in most of us–the gap between who we think we are and who we really are–that trips up Basil. He thinks he can marry Jenny and make the best of it when in reality he patronizes her, is deeply ashamed of her and imagines that she “drags him down” to her level.

So at the end of the novel, The Merry-Go-Round has stopped. Some characters alight and some continue with their delusions. Some fortunate characters get a second chance at life, and some…do not.

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