Tag Archives: retirement

A Private View: Anita Brookner

“The girl possessed an unusual gift:she brought everyone to the brink of bad behaviour.”

After a string of Anita Brookner novels from the female perspective, it was a change of pace to come across A Private View. The protagonist of this novel is 65-year-old, freshly retired George Bland. When the novel opens, he’s having a boring time in Nice. There’s too much time on his hands and too much time to think, and so he returns to his London flat to resume his retirement. But shortly upon his return, his life is disrupted by the arrival of a young woman, Katy Gibb who commandeers the opposite flat. George finds that his life of orderly calm is now subject to disturbing thoughts and longings. Will the man who’s spent his whole life with caution as the dominant force, now suddenly become impulsive and throw caution to the winds?

a private view

Thematically, A Private View has the most in common with Visitors (of the ones I’ve read so far). Visitors is the story of a widow who temporarily houses a young man, and his presence forces the widow to question her life and her choices. Katy Gibb has the same impact on George, but in George’s case, Katy wheedles and manipulates her way into George’s life against his better judgement, flagrantly dangling herself rather like a piece of ripe fruit.

George, to outsiders, and certainly to Katy, seems to be mundane and boring. He loves his routine, goes to bed early and never overindulges. The reader, however, is privy to George’s inner thoughts and concerns that perhaps he’s been too cautious in his life. Born into poverty, and used to a life of modest means, he put off marriage to his teenage sweetheart, Louise, until she got fed up waiting and left George to marry someone else. And then there’s the memory of George’s dearest friend Putnam, who died before he could retire, before Putnam and George could put all of their retirement travel plans into reality:

They had waited for too long, and the result was this hiatus, and the reflection that time and patience may bring poor rewards, that time itself, if not confronted at the appropriate juncture, can play sly tricks, and, more significantly, that those who do not act are not infrequently acted upon.  

It takes George a while to see Katy for what she is, and even though he’s onto her game, he’s still torn by desire and even pity. For George, Katy represents everything he isn’t, everything he didn’t do with his life. Her presence unearths the question of regret, and offers George, devilishly, the opportunity to indulge in behaviour he’s always cautiously avoided.

While Brookner uncovers George’s private thoughts, he still (in complete privacy) isn’t entirely honest with himself, cloaking his desire with denial and excuses.

He knew that he was not being quite honest with himself: he had been stimulated by the sight of the girl’s appetites (for there had been more than one in evidence) and intrigued by her, as if she were a puzzle sent to beguile him in these bewildering days of leisure, this life so free of incident and adventure

Overall, George was far too easy on Katy, who had an over inflated opinion of herself and could have done with a swift kick in the bum.

On another level, I was mildly irritated by George’s thoughts that he never spent money. He eats out about twice a day, just returned from Nice, and I lost count of the number of taxis he took. But these are symptoms of Brookner’s rarefied world. In most of the other Brookners I’ve read, the female protagonists have some sort of bookish employment but also have independent means. George, who stayed at the same job for decades, has a pension which was added to when Putnam made George his beneficiary, so again no money worries. It’s interesting to note that while the protagonist of Visitors had a deeply rooted fear of having her home taken away by nefarious means, Katy doesn’t hide her designs on George’s flat.

order of preference so far:

Hotel du Lac

Look at Me 

Dolly

Visitors

Friends and Family

Undue Influence

A Private View (bottom of the list because Katy was so repellent)

 

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Filed under Brookner Anita, Fiction

The Stranger Next Door: Amélie Nothomb

“There are no exterminators for neighbors.”

Emile and Juliette Hazel have been married for 43 years, and when Emile retires from his job as a Greek and Latin high school teacher, the couple look forward to the perfect retirement. In their minds that means moving from the hustle and bustle of the city to the pristine peacefulness of a small isolated house in the country, “less out of a love of nature than out of a need for solitude.” They can’t believe their luck when they find the House:

When we saw the House, we had a wonderful feeling of relief: this place we’d been aspiring to since childhood existed after all. If we had dared to imagine it, we would have imagined a clearing just like this one, near a river, with this house-the House-pretty, invisible, a wisteria climbing its walls.

Yes, a dream come true. What could possibly go wrong?

The Stranger next door

So Emile and Juliette, a loving couple who look forward to growing old together, buy the house and move in. They are four miles from the village of Mauves, but not to worry, they have a neighbor. A doctor, no less, and surely having a doctor nearby is a good thing, isn’t it?….

A week after moving in, at four in the afternoon, there’s a knock at the door. The gargantuan Dr Palamedes Bernardin, a morose man who resembles a “depressed Buddha,” stays exactly two hours. It’s a horrible visit for the Hazels as they try everything possible to engage the monosyllabic Bernardin in conversation. But what’s even worse is that the visit becomes a dreaded, oppressive, tedious daily event. Initially the Hazels employ a series of tactics: escape, frivolity, open-ended questions and even boredom–anything to put an end to Bernardin’s visits, but nothing works. And then they meet his wife.

The Stranger Next Door, from Belgium author Amélie Nothomb, with its twisted dark ironies and black humour should appeal to fans of Pascal Garnier. Garnier seems to take delight in throwing his characters into adverse circumstances–circumstances in which we have a good laugh at their discomfort as they struggle, and are captured, in the mighty fist of fate. That same sort of feeling is here, but the tale is told in the first person. We enter the mind of Emile–a man who feels trapped by politeness, and who, over time, driven to breaking point, feeling smaller in the eyes of his wife, takes a dark path from which there is no return.

And here’s one of my favourite quotes, ironic under the circumstances:

It’s true that someone will always say that good and evil don’t exist: that is a person who never had any dealings real evil. Good is far less convincing than evil, but it’s because their chemical structures are quite different.

Like gold, good is never found in a pure state in nature: it therefore doesn’t seem impressive. It has the unfortunate tendency not to act; it prefers, passively, to be seen.

Evil, on the other hand, is like a gas: it’s not easy to see, but it can be detected by its odor. It’s most often stagnant, disbursed in a suffocating sheet; initially this aspect makes it seem inoffensive, but then suddenly you see it at work and you realize the ground it has won, the tasks it has accomplished. And by then it’s all over; gas cannot be expelled.

Many of us have had to deal with obnoxious neighbours and/or pushy people in our lives, so the situation in the book feels very real and makes us question how we would react in the circumstances. Pushiness is a type of manipulation because it forces the target to move out of the comfort zone and engage in behaviours he, or she, would not normally employ.  The Stranger Next Door , a delightful, darkly funny, nimble surprise, will make my best-of-year list.

Translated by Carol Volk

Originally published as Les Catilinaires

 

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Filed under Fiction, Nothomb Amélie

Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier

Yes, it was like living on holiday, the only difference being that holidays came to an end. It was as though they had bought themselves a ticket to the afterlife; they no longer had a future.”

I thought when I read How’s the Pain, I’d found my favourite Pascal Garnier novel, but the decision was premature. How could I know what was in store for me in Moon in a Dead Eye, a darkly funny look at a ‘dream’ gated retirement community and its handful of pathetic inhabitants. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that people sometimes make strange retirement decisions–some move across country to places they’ve only ever visited briefly; others move to houses they’ve bought sight-unseen over the internet, others strip their retirement nesteggs to build dream retirement homes out in the middle of nowhere only to find themselves running out of money or ripped off by contractors, and spouses who’ve lived together for 40 years decide they can’t take another day, pack a suitcase and split.   All these observations and memories came back to me as I read Moon in a Dead Eye

Moon in a dead eyeMartial and Odette Sudre retire from Paris to Les Conviviales, a retirement community in the Midi. Concerned about the increased violence in their Parisian neighbourhood, the retirement community seemed to be the ideal alternative–especially when the estate agent told them that they “exactly fitted the owner profile the property company was seeking.” It was a hard-pressure sell, and Martial and Odette, narcotized by the thought they’d be surrounded by people just like them, signed on the dotted line….

Now, three months later, it’s December and Martial and Odette arrive to discover that they are the sole inhabitants of the community. True, there’s Monsieur Flesh,  a caretaker-manager, a surly antisocial type, but what happened to all the other promised residents, the activities director, the sunny weather? But not to worry… there’s another couple due to arrive in March or April.

Martial and Odette are like shipwreck survivors washed up in a ghost town. Odette, the one who pushed for the move in the first place, refuses to be unhappy with their decision to move, so she throws herself into her new life and hobbies which is probably just as well as there’s nothing else to do. First she starts making crappy apple jelly, and then moves on to torturing her husband with culinary ‘surprises’ from around the world. Imagine how thrilled they are when someone else finally moves in. Maxime (with his false teeth and dyed black hair)  and former ballerina Marlene Node, another retired couple of course, move in up the street. From a distance the Nodes seem younger than the Sudres, but up close, it’s a different story. If these two couples met elsewhere, they’d instinctively avoid one another, but if there are only four of you living inside a gated community, you don’t have a choice but to become friends.

They engaged in the customary small talk for a quarter of an hour, all the while studying each other closely out of the corners of their eyes, like naturalists examining a newly discovered species.

So now we have 4 people, 2 couples in this forced friendship created by circumstance. Then a fifth person moves, a younger, single woman named Léa. By this point, the other four residents are desperate for a new face:

She had been a little taken aback to find the four of them on her doorstep. The removal men had only just left and she had barely had time to get her breath back. They stood there smiling like Jehovah’s witnesses, the tall one especially, Maxime Node. He was the one who introduced everybody, showing them off as though trying to get a good price for them. Then they all began talking at once, each of them impressing on her their willingness to help. They didn’t seem like bad people, but they still frightened her a bit. Too eager, too smiley, too many outstretched hands … so old and wrinkled it was hard to tell whether they were grasping or giving.

A gated community exists to keep out the riff-raff, and the residents who buy into such an arrangement are happy with that idea. M. Flesh is there to make sure that the outside world doesn’t creep in and intrude on their fabricated middle-class isolation, but the lengths he goes to are extreme. Plus then there’s the whole gate part of ‘gated community.’ At what point do you become locked in instead of the world being locked out? When gypsies move in and set up an encampment down the road outside of  Les Conviviales, paranoia reigns and all hell breaks loose.

Moon in a Dead Eye is savagely hilarious, and most of the humour comes from snobbery & paranoia. Garnier doesn’t spare his characters; they’re a sad lot whose empty lives become worse when they move into this gated community.  Aging lothario Maxime sees the poor as “vermin” infesting society, and when he’s inside a gated community with people in his own economic sphere, he can only associate with a couple in his peer group. In theory this should comfort Maxime, but the isolation only fuels his paranoia. Maxime finds the company of people his own age disconcerting as he’s spent the last few years denying the fact that he’s aging, and he spends a considerable amount of time and energy to disguising, unsuccessfully, his age. Living in a retirement community just confirms the fact that Maxime is no longer young, and this fuels his feeling of exposure and vulnerability. The ‘security’ of the gated community feeds the paranoia gnawing at Maxime until any difference seems unacceptable and threatening:

A lezzie, that’s what she was! A dirty bloody lezzie! … The only reason they’d bought this dump was because they’d been assured their neighbours would be of a certain caliber, no one too foreign, no dogs, no cats, no children or grandchildren for more than two weeks at a time … Well, if they were going to let lesbians in, it would be fairy boys next!.

While in the past in Orléans, feeling as though he lived a life under siege, Maxime carried a revolver, but he’s no more secure now–especially after the gypsies appear. They’re just more people who according to Maxime are “out to get us and take our things.” Living in isolation, even in a place that theoretically safe, hasn’t done Maxime any favours.

They had been burgled three times in recent years. The residential neighbourhood of Orléans  where they had lived for many moons had become a prime target for the scum who came in from the outlying boroughs. Nothing could stop them, not the most sophisticated alarm systems or the patrols that took place day and night. They were everywhere and nowhere, gnawing away like vermin at the foundations of the stable, quiet life people had worked so hard to build.

Living in this retirement community is a sort of living-death, a hibernation phase just prior to the permanence of death. Garnier shows how this sort of isolation is unhealthy and contributes to the idea that any sort of difference (class, wealth) feeds paranoia. Although the subject matter is different from the dying hitman of How’s the Pain and the disaffected killer in The Panda Theory, once again I’m reminded of Jean-Pierre Manchette, probably because of Garnier’s merciless view of the bourgeoisie. 

Review copy/own a copy.Translated by Emily Boyce

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Filed under Fiction, Garnier Pascal