Tag Archives: siblings

A Severed Head: Iris Murdoch

“In almost every marriage there is a selfish and an unselfish partner. A pattern is set up and soon becomes inflexible, of one person always making the demands and one person always giving way. In my own marriage I early established myself as the one who took rather than gave.” 

Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head opens with our smug married narrator, claret merchant Martin Lynch-Gibbon, winding up a languorous afternoon with his much younger mistress, Georgie.  Christmas is approaching, and for Georgie it’s not an easy time as she won’t be seeing Martin; he’ll be spending a quiet holiday with his wife of 11 years, Antonia. Martin admits to himself that he “misled Georgie about the success” of his marriage. Privately, he considers himself very happily married and it’s clear that Antonia and Georgie occupy some sort Ying-Yang design in Martin’s life (and mind). The two women are polar opposites, and by the end of an afternoon of blissful love with Georgie, Martin is practically purring like a cat. Martin, who’s rather patronizing to Georgie,  brushes over her disappointments, her loneliness, her needs…

I did not fall desperately in love with Georgie; I considered myself by then too old for the desperation and extremity which attends a youthful love. But I loved her with a sort of gaiety and insouciance which was more spring-like than the real spring, a miraculous April without its pangs of transformation and birth. I loved her with a wild undignified joy, and also with a certain cheerful brutality, both of which were absent from my always more decorous, my essentially sweeter relationship with Antonia. I adored Georgie too for her dryness, her toughness, her independence, her lack of intensity, her wit, and altogether for her being such a contrast, such a complement, to the softer and more moist attractions, the more dewy radiance of my lovely wife. I needed both of them, and having both of them I possessed the world.

Both women exist, it seems for Martin’s needs, and if by the end of that quote, you’re annoyed by Martin, then hang on and read the book. Martin is about to get his just desserts. …

A severed head

While Martin is busy in his little love nest with Georgie, Antonia is busy with intrigues of her own. She’s undergoing psychotherapy with American Palmer Anderson. Martin knows Antonia has a case of “tremendous transference,” and that Palmer’s “good at setting people free.” We see the warning signs before Martin does, and after leaving Georgie’s place, he returns to the luxurious home and waits for Antonia. She drops the bombshell that she’s dumping Martin and moving in with Palmer. According to Antonia, marriage is “an adventure in development” and that their union isn’t “getting anywhere.” Martin responds: “one doesn’t have to get anywhere in a marriage. It’s not a public conveyance.” 

There’s the question of ethics. Palmer is having an affair with a married patient, but that’s the not only taboo that exists within the pages of this novel. It would probably be natural to imagine that with Antonia exiting the marriage, Martin would cling to Georgie, but no, he avoids her; she was a complement to Antonia, the antidote if you will, and they exist as a pair of bookends. The relationships “strangely nourished each other.”

Martin mentions early on that Antonia is 5 years older than him, and at several points in the novel, he notes, fondly, that she’s aging, and he tends to mention her in the same sentence as his mother–not a good sign. Hilariously, on some level, Palmer and Antonia recognize this, and while Martin is belligerent at his wife being ‘stolen’ (as he sees it), Palmer and Antonia begin to assume the role of parents with Martin as their ‘sick’ child who must be nursed through the agony and pain of the break-up. Together, Palmer and Antonia want to dissect everything with Martin, so when Antonia discovers Georgie, it adds fuel to the madness. 

A Severed Head is a focused novel and includes just a handful of characters: Martin, Antonia, Palmer, Georgie, Martin’s siblings Alexander and Rosemary, and Palmer’s sister Cambridge don, Honor Klein. They are all mentioned in the first chapter, and they rotate, in their chaotic relationships, rather like a Shakespearean comedy. There are several points in the novel when Martin (who starts out as classic dickhead and then becomes a buffoon) describes difficulty in seeing his way through mists and fogs. This is, of course, literal, but by the end of the book, Martin’s impaired ‘sight’ is figurative. He’s the last person to grasp what’s been going on right under his nose. 

 I loved this book; in its exploration of the ridiculous, bad behaviour of  a handful of educated, privileged people who have far too much spare time on their hands, it’s brilliant and funny. There’s nose-punching, dramatic scenes and inappropriate groping as these upper middle class people find themselves actors in a tawdry drama. 

There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly-taken-for-granted relationship. 

Special thanks to the Gerts for their recent review of Murdoch’s Under the Net which motivated me to dig out one of my many unread novels from this author.

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A Little Lumpen Novelita: Roberto Bolaño

“I knew in the kingdom of crime there were many stages and levels and no matter how hard I tried, I would never reach the top.”

“Now I’m a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime,” and so begins Roberto Bolaño’s book, A Little Lumpen Novelita. It’s an intriguing beginning to an intriguing story. Bianca and her younger brother are orphaned after their parents are killed in a car accident. They remain living in the family flat in Rome, but there’s not enough money to survive. The brother takes a job at a gym, while Bianca starts working at a salon. I’ll rephrase that: Bianca starts working at a salon while her brother says “it was stupid to work, that we could live happily on the pension we got from the government, on the income from our orphanhood.” But the budget is too tight, and so the brother who thinks he can go to eating just one meal a day, finally acknowledges they need money and gets the job at a gym.The brother dreams of being Mr. Universe.

The siblings drift into a life of apathy. It’s an existence; they “killed time watching TV, first the talk shows, then cartoons” They drift along until one day the brother comes home with two men he’s met at the gym. “One was from Bologna, the other from Libya or Morocco.” As the story progresses, these two men become interchangeable in more ways than one.

My brother had met them at the gym, where they did some kind of work that was never clear to me. Sometimes I got the impression that they were trainers, a job with a certain prestige, and other times that they were just sweepers and errand boys, like my brother. Either way, they were always talking about the gym–and so did my brother, with a fervor new to me–and about protein diets and meals with names that had the ring of science fiction, like Fuel tank 3000 or Weider energy bars (all the nutrients you need for the body of a champion!).

But soon Bianca is supporting herself, her brother and his two friends. The atmosphere and situation at the flat are bizarre. Everyone avoids confrontation, and yet there’s a definite silent chain of power combined with the threat of violence. Bianca’s brother is clearly afraid of these two men who have long overstayed their welcome. Then the three males hatch a plan to get rich, and of course, Bianca is the pivotal figure in this grubby scheme:

It’s best not to think about these things. They’re here, they touch us, they’re gone, or they’re here, they touch us, they swallow us up, and it’s best–always–not to think about them. But I kept thinking, waiting for the coffee to be done, and I asked myself what my brother’s friends meant by saying that their luck would change, how exactly they planned to change their luck (their luck, not mine or my brother’s, though in a sense their luck would have an effect–any idiot could see that–on my brother’s luck and maybe even mine), what they were ready to try, how far they were expected to go to get their luck and ours to turn around. 

Bianca is our narrator and she’s somewhat unreliable. She acknowledges that when she embarks on this life of crime her story gets “fuzzier.” Her tale is told in retrospect so how much is due to hazy memory, how much she’d just not rather think about, and how much is due to the inexperience (at the time) of youth, well it’s up for grabs. In some ways this story reminds me of Modiano, but it’s sharper than Modiano in its focus. But I liked this tale, and how Bianca crossed so easily into criminality. Bianca and her brother are both passive by nature, and once they find themselves involved in crime, swept along by forces more malignant than themselves, it seems up to Bianca to either pull the crime together or else make some decisive move to escape. This is beautifully written. Bolaño doesn’t fill in all the gaps for us; instead this is Bianca remembering a murky, desperate point–a crossroads in her life.  The tale illustrates how impossible it is capture a certain state of mind from an earlier point in life, why we made the decisions we did, and that impossibility goes a long way to explaining the tale’s murkier points.

Translated by Natasha Wimmer

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The A-26: Pascal Garnier

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of Pascal Garnier. With A-26, I’ve now read 8 of his novels, and sad to say, I finally found one I disliked. Of course, I was forewarned by Max’s review. A-26 was, unfortunately, Max’s first Garnier, and if it had been my first Garnier, it might well have been my last…

A-26 is the story of two siblings: Bernard and his insane sister Yolande. Wait a minute … I’ve made it sound as though Bernard is sane. He’s employed, takes care of Yolande (in a very loosely defined way) and even has a relationship with a former girlfriend, the resentful Jacqueline (now unhappily married to some other sucker). But Bernard isn’t normal at all … he’s a serial killer, and a sick one at that.

A26

A-26 had some of the hallmark signs of the other Garnier novels I’ve read (and loved)–the idea that when you kill someone you are doing them a favour by sparing them more time in this horrible world, a sparse yet descriptive style and the continual motif of death and decay. Yolande (otherwise known rather appropriately as Yoyo) is a hoarder who has refused to step outside of her home since her head was shaved for sleeping with a German during WWII. As far as Yoyo’s concerned WWII still rages outside her door and while Bernard may say he’s going off to work, he’s really part the Resistance. Yoyo’s only contact with the outside world is through a hole drilled for her benefit in the shutter.

Depending on her mood, she called it the ‘bellybutton’ or the ‘world’s arsehole.’

Yolande and Bernard’s world spins to its end stage when Bernard is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He isn’t afraid to die, and neither is he particularly sorry to leave the world behind. Living with his insane sister who spends her days concocting the most appalling meals, death will be a release for Bernard. Meanwhile Yoyo’s big concern is where to find the space for his body:

‘Bernard’s not gone to work today, he wasn’t up for it. He’s getting tireder and tireder, thinner and thinner. His body’s like this house, coming apart at the seams. Where am I going to put him when he’s dead? There’s not a bit of space left anywhere. We’ll get by, we’ve always got by, ever since I can remember. Nothing has ever left this house, even the toilet’s blacked up. We keep everything. Some day, we won’t need anything else, it’ll all be here, for ever.’

For this reader, while the themes of A-26 certainly fit with the other Garnier novels I’ve read, the black humour, so characteristic in his novels, couldn’t wash away the bad taste of several scenes: the death of victims and the cruelty to animals. While I often feel as though I don’t care what happens to Garnier’s despicable characters, I am, at least, interested in their destructive and self-destructive journeys as the novels careen towards the grand finales. In the case of A-26, I couldn’t care less.

Both Moon in a Dead Eye and Too Close to the Edge concern people who make disastrous retirement decisions, and as it turns out life in a gated community and in the bucolic countryside (respectively) is far more dangerous than living in the big city. While bad things happen to people, there’s the nagging feeling that they’ve brought it upon themselves–at least partly. How’s the Pain? is the story of a dying hit man who hooks up with a rather guileless young man. The juxtaposition of these two characters–dark and light–brings balance to the tale. In The Front Seat Passenger, the main character deserves what he gets. The Islanders concerns another whacko set of siblings, and while the novel takes a turn towards madness, plied with disgusting details, these characters, for the most part, turn on each other. The Panda Theory pushed my acceptance in a couple of scenes, but IMO A-26 went over the edge in its descriptions. Yoyo’s madness is intriguing, but the scenes involving animals left me with no room to care about these people who are a waste of oxygen. I get that Bernard and Yoyo’s life is threatened by the imminent arrival of a motorway, but A-26 for this reader was just unpleasant.

I delayed reading A-26 as I’d read Max’s negative review and had no new Garnier novels in sight. I didn’t want the last one I read to leave a bad memory, but The Eskimo Solution is due to be released 9/16.

So for anyone interested, here’s an order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Boxes

The Panda Theory

A-26

translated by Melanie Florence.

 

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The Wicked Stepmother:Michael McDowell & Dennis Schuetz (writing as Axel Young)

“I’m thinking of murdering him in front of a large crowd of strangers. I have to do it myself,” Verity explained, “because hit men don’t take plastic.”

Authors Michael McDowell (1950-1999) known primarily for horror fiction and Dennis Schuetz, published the campy, over-the-top The Wicked Stepmother in 1983, and thanks to Valancourt books, this title is back in print. It’s full of spiteful, grasping people behaving badly, and I don’t know if it was the author’s intention for readers to find this entertaining book funny in a nasty sort of way, but that’s exactly what it is.

The book opens with spoiled trust fund brat Verity Hawke Larner, the eldest of the three Hawke children still asleep in bed at noon when she’s woken by Louise Larner, her mother-in-law calling from Boston. Verity is married, but separated from Louise’s ne’er-do-well son, the good looking, sleazy low-life drug dealer Eric, but to complicate matters, Louise is also a partner of the real estate company owned by Verity’s father, Richard Hawke, which “handled some of the most exclusive properties in Boston.”

wicked stepmother

This first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book. As Verity struggles from sleep, she tries to remember the name of the man in bed next to her (“It starts with a B,”) and claims she quit her most recent job due to “burnout,” which is a euphemism for too many nights partying on cocaine. Louise insists that Verity drive from Kansas City where she settled two years earlier (as that’s “where the car broke down,”) and return to Boston for a family party.

Verity doesn’t make the party but shows up a few days later at the family mansion in Boston to discover that her father is dead. He collapsed in Atlantic City “slumped across a Blackjack table” just a few days after marrying Louise, and as Louise sniffingly explains to her new step-children, “We only had four days together–but they were perfect days.”

So that leaves Louise as the “wicked stepmother” of the title inheriting, what she imagines, is all of Richard’s estate. At the reading of the will, Louise is stunned by the revelation that although she inherits a decent amount, she doesn’t get everything, and that includes the Hawke mansion, and the eight million dollar trust fund to be divided between Verity and her siblings Jonathan and Cassandra. Louise, who is driven by avarice, then reasons that her stepchildren must die… one by one…

The private lives of the Hawke siblings are explored as part of the plot, so we see promiscuous Verity downing screwdrivers for breakfast and snorting cocaine every chance she gets while Jonathan follows his punk rock band girlfriend, and Cassandra moves on from being a magazine editor.  The lives of these three siblings who never have to worry about a paycheck or having a place to live are in direct contrast to Louise and her son who are both rotten, but also dangerously rapacious, to the core. There are a couple of scenes which are shocking in their complete heartlessness when these two loot the belongings of the dead.

Wicked Stepmother smacks of the 70s with its references to a Lime green Toronado and a yellow Cadillac, and the plot has the feel of a fictionalized tacky ‘true crime’ novel, with the bones of the novel being the lurid crimes fleshed out by the authors’ imagination. Some of the scenes and the dialogue are completely over-the-top, but in spite of the lack of subtlety in characterizations which feeds the novel’s theatricality, the violence, when it occurs is unexpected, shocking and chilling. Living under the protection of money, high society and the looming trust fund fails to prepare the Hawke siblings from the determined greed of Louise whose desire for the Hawke mansion has no moral bounds.

If this were made into a film, I’d place it in the very capable hands of one of my cultural icons, John Waters. He’d be the right person for the job–an assault of the rapacious, murderous self-made on the unprepared, upper classes of Boston.

Review copy.

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The Nest: Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

“How had they raised children who were so impractical and yet so entitled?”

When “self-made” Leonard Plumb created a trust fund for his four children, he knew, from his own bitter family history, that “abundance proffered too soon led to lassitude and indolence, a wandering dissatisfaction.” He didn’t intend to leave his children rolling in money, so he delayed the disbursement until the youngest, Melody, was 40 years old. He wanted his children to make their own way in life and not count on a cushy payout, and reasoned that a lump sum coming in their 40s would be:

“a little something to sit atop their own, inevitable financial achievements […] and pad their retirement a bit, maybe help fund a college tuition or two. Nothing so vast as to be truly significant”

Unfortunately, Leonard’s well-intentioned plans didn’t work out the way he reasoned. He could not have predicted that “as the fund grew so, too, would his children’s tolerance for risk.” Leo, the eldest, at forty-six, has made and wasted millions and is about to be cleaned out by his avaricious soon-to-be ex-wife, Victoria, a “world-class spendthrift.” Jack, a gay antique dealer, has secretly been paying his bills by using a line of credit against a vacation home he owns with his husband. Bea, a “formerly talented” writer can’t finish a novel and now works for a literary magazine called Paper Fibres which may appear to be keeping afloat but is really financed by the owner, Paul’s elderly maiden aunts. After years of scrimping but still living beyond their means, Melody whose “fortieth birthday glowed like a distant lighthouse, flashing its beam of rescue” plans to use her money to send her twins to expensive schools and pay off her house loans. All of the siblings, with the exception of Bea, have counted on “the Nest” to bail them out of their self-created financial woes.

the nest

A few months before Melody’s 4oth, a drunk and wasted Leo, a “narcissistic sociopath” (according to Victoria) ditches his wife at a wedding and causes an accident which leads to a permanent disability for the 19 year old waitress who is the passenger in his careening Porsche. Terrified of scandal, and wanting to avoid any financial involvement, Leo’s mother, the widow Plumb, always remote, “disengaged” and now remarried, but with power of attorney over the trust account, decimates “the Nest” by paying off the waitress and her family. After all, Leo, she reasons, is “the least needy and therefore, the one she thought of with the most fondness.” Leo, who’s been holed up in rehab, returns to New York, to the remains of his ruined life and to face his angry siblings. All that remains of “The Nest” is a fraction of the amount the four Plumb siblings expected. This is a disaster that everyone must face and one that has lasting repercussions for all involved.

Set in New York, the literal ‘nest’ for the siblings, the novel manages to capture the nuances and recent history of the city–the incredibly high cost of housing, the aftermath of 9-11, and the impact of AIDS on the gay community.

The Nest, a debut novel from Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney is caustically funny, and most of the humour comes from the self-destructive behaviours of the Plumb family–most notably Leo who is a charming philanderer always managing to step away from disaster while others mop-up. Sweeeny has a sharp eye which focuses on the subtleties of sibling relationships, and how dynamics established in childhood never really alter with the passage of time. While the tale’s focus is humour, there are a lot of painful truths here. The promise of a generous mid-life inheritance has done little for the Plumb siblings other than cause them to plan for the big payday, and as a result of the money they think is headed their way, they’ve all (with the exception of Bea) made horrible financial moves, delayed maturity, and have refused to face some realities.

The book’s humor keeps up a good pace throughout the novel, which, given the content– squabbling, desperate siblings and a depleted inheritance, is no small feat. I particularly loved the scenes of the Plumb parents–long deceased patriarch, Leonard Plumb and his inappropriate enthusiasms for his work, and his widow Francie who can’t keep her children’s birthdays straight, thinks Melody needs Botox, and when it comes to the matter of using “The Nest” to bail out Leo has to “contend with this execution squad of her own children.” The scene in which Melody recalls her only childhood party is priceless. It’s lamely organized by her mother, Francie, who’s furiously downing martinis wearing a silk kimono which “this early in the day was a very bad sign.”

But then Francie started singing “Over the Rainbow” and only a few verses in she started to weep. “Mom?” Melody said, weakly.

“It’s just so, so sad,” Francie said. She turned to them. “The studios killed Judy Garland. They killed her. That voice and what a tragedy. They made her and then they killed her.”

The girls were sitting quietly, nervously giggling. “Uppers to work all day. Downers to sleep at night. She was just a kid.” Francie stood now, facing them, her robe gaping a little in front. “I wanted to be an actress. I could have gone to Hollywood.”

One of the criticisms I read about the novel is that while readers enjoyed it, they considered ‘light.’ I recently read Tessa Hadley’s The Past, another novel about siblings and inheritance, and while The Past is a deeper novel with stronger characterizations and a gorgeous sense of the passage of time, The Nest‘s delightful humorous approach should not eradicate the serious messages here regarding our frequently unhealthy relationships with money.

Review copy

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The Past: Tessa Hadley

“Had anyone, Alice insufferably said, ever seen her with a book?”

I’ve been circling the work of Tessa Hadley for some time, attracted by the themes, and yet reluctant to commit as I’ve never been not quite sure of the substance. The description of The Past was something I could no longer resist, and now, after turning the last page, I want to read everything this author has written.

The premise of The Past is simple enough–four siblings congregate on the country home of their now deceased grandparents for a three week holiday with the purpose of deciding, finally, whether to sink money into the decaying former rectory, or sell it and split the profit. Of course with four siblings–three female and one male, now all firmly in middle age, we can expect some complicated familial politics, and Tessa Hadley delivers the delicate nuances of these relationships exquisitely.

The Past

Harriet is the eldest sibling. She’s unmarried but has a partner, Christopher who’s always off riding his bicycle somewhere. Serious, plain Harriet has spent her youth devoted to political causes and is currently involved with “advising” asylum seekers. She’s unattractive and feels severely challenged by the idea of femininity. Perfume, makeup, putting together an attractive ensemble of clothes… these things escape her and proximity to her sister Alice’s femininity always leads her to feel secretly inadequate.

Next in age is Roland, a university academic and the author of several successful books–he’s on his third wife, Pilar, a glacial, perfectly groomed, intense Argentinian lawyer who, adopted by right wing elite during the Dirty War, rejects left-wing politics as annoying frivolity. Roland and Pilar are accompanied by Roland’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, Molly.

Then there’s 46-year-old failed actress Alice–once so promising but now she’s not sure if she’s made a mess of her life. Very conscious of her appearance, she’s waiting for the next man to come along, and in the meantime, she drags along Kasim, the son of a former lover, for the holiday. Alice wonders “whether people seeing them would think Kasim was her lover, or her child.”

The youngest sibling is Fran, a teacher and the distracted mother of two fey children–Ivy and Arthur. Fran’s musician husband is also glaringly absent from the gathering.

It’s supposed to be a family holiday with no outsiders–a rule broken by Alice when she drags Kasim along, but then Alice feels justified since Roland is bringing his new third wife, and at this point, to the sisters, Roland’s wives seem temporary phases of his life: “Roland and his seraglio – as Alice called them, though not to his face.” The sisters disliked Roland’s second wife, Valerie, and consider the marriage a disaster.

-Roland should think about us when he gets married so often. Fran said. -All over again, we have to learn to live with a new wife. We’d got used to Valerie.

-Sort of used to her.

-I wasn’t ever used to her, Ivy said.

-Her voice was screechy and her head went like a chicken’s when she walked.

-Like this, said Arthur, imitating it.

Alice said wasn’t it such a relief, now that Valerie was a thing of the past, to be able to come out with the truth at last?

At the house, various dramas play out between the siblings, the children, and their guests. The children, locked into their own impenetrable world, and left largely to their own devices, discover a secret at a nearby abandoned, decaying cottage. Alice and Pilar, polar opposites in temperament, clash over who has the proprietary relationship with Roland, and Harriet finds herself befriended by Pilar; it seems an incongruous friendship, and even Harriet has to brush away some uncomfortable thoughts:

When Harriet was twelve or thirteen, she’d had a friend at school whom she’s loved and who had used her, sending her on pointless little errands, finding out where she was vulnerable and prodding there, resorting to her company when there was no one more interesting, dropping occasional kindnesses like crumbs. Harriet had tidied this memory away, believing it belonged safely with childish things; now she remembered her mother’s impatience with this friend’s exploitation, and her own inability to explain what she knew about it -that the abjection was not a downside, but the essential fabric of her love.

While the plot of this novel is certainly enough to capture interest, it’s the author’s rich style which elevates this marvelous novel:

Alice and Kasim stood peering through the French windows: the interior seemed to be a vision of another world, its stillness pregnant with meaning, like a room seen in a mirror. The rooms were still furnished with her grandparents’ furniture; wallpaper glimmered silvery behind the spindly chairs, upright black-lacquered piano and bureau. Painting were pits of darkness suspended from the picture rail. Alice had told her therapist that she dreamed about this house all the time. Every other house she’d lived in seemed, beside this one, only a stage set for a performance.

As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the house and the influence of their long deceased grandparents had a pivotal role in the lives of the siblings. Their mother died while they were still quite young, and “their father had gone to pieces –  which was forgivable – and run off to France with another woman, leaving his orphaned children behind -which wasn’t” Tessa Hadley creates a unique world centered on the four generations who’ve lived in this splendid old house, and shows us, with admirable insight, the evolution of essential personality traits that both undermine and support these individuals in their lives and their familial relationships. While Fran is not quite as fully developed a character as her siblings, and at times she seems like an addendum to this tale, somehow by the last page, this mirrors the plot of this wonderful tale of family dynamics, sibling politics and unspoken family crisis.

New growth sprouted livid green, the tan mulch under the pines in a plantation had darkened to ox blood, unripe blackberreies were fuzzy with grey mould. Beside a path a bank had sheared away ina  smear of red mud; skirting around it they saw  into the raw root-gape, like flung arms, of a tree upended, its deep hole whiskery with torn roots.

Review copy

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Saturday Night at the Greyhound: John Hampson (1931)

I stumbled across Saturday Night at the Greyhound by John Hampson while perusing Kindle titles from Valancourt Books. I’d never heard of the novel or the author before, so I was surprised to learn that this debut novel, published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, was a “smash hit” in its time. According to the introduction from Helen Southworth, Hampson was born in Birmingham, his family had a brewery, and after that failed he worked in hotels and restaurants. He spent time in prison for stealing books but eventually became a paid caretaker for a Down’s Syndrome child, and with this job to support him, was able to write. This is a very short novel, around 111 pages, a story of violence, domestic strife and pub life set in 1930s Britain.

Ivy Flack, born and raised in a Birmingham pub, knows the business very well, and on her own, or with her brother, Tom, she could have been a successful businesswoman. Unfortunately, Ivy, courted by many men, has the bad judgment to marry the worst of the lot. A series of financial disasters finds Ivy, Fred Flack and Ivy’s brother, Tom trying to run a Derbyshire rural pub, but failure is imminent. With Flack, drinking, giving away or gambling the profits, the Flacks are on the edge of ruin. Flack is one of those glib, egotistical men who never acknowledge their failures, and he refuses to face up to the fact that Ivy’s nestegg is practically all committed to debt. Flack loves running a pub; he’s generous with free drinks, and he’s on the tail end of an affair with barmaid, Clara. Clara, the bastard daughter of the local, now-dead squire, longs to escape from the village, and while she isn’t in love with Fred, she’s ready to use him as her ticket out. Clara’s mother, the malevolent Mrs Tapin also works in the pub. The pub can’t support the Tapins but Flack refuses to fire them.

Saturday nightThe book opens with Mrs Tapin who “ loved four things–money, gossip. thinking, and Clara.” She has “seen fourteen men take over the Greyhound Inn in her time. Fourteen and none of them made it pay.” Of course it doesn’t help the Flacks that Mrs Tapin is robbing them blind. Tom knows that the Tapins are no good, and he understands that if he and Ivy ran the pub alone, they’d scrape a living from it. Ivy, always weak where Fred is concerned, believes that her chronically unfaithful husband is tempted by other women, and she refuses to throw him out. So when the novel opens, our central characters, tied by their relationships to one another, are trapped trying to make a success out of the Greyhound.

There are some marvelous insights into the running of a pub, and exactly what separates a successful publican from a failure. Ivy, Tom and Fred are out-of-their-depth in the countryside where customers are marginal and free-spending travelers are rare. From their hard-working parents, Tom and Ivy learned how to run a pub:

From business acuteness they never refused to drink with a customer, but while beer was paid for, all they consumed was cold tea from a hidden jug.

Hampson’s story explores how decent, hardworking characters destroy themselves through love–Ivy in her relationship with Fred, and quiet, serious Tom through his love for sister. So in many ways Hampson constructs a different sort of love triangle.

While part of the novel moves back into Ivy and Tom’s publican history at the Crown and Cushion in Birmingham, the majority of the plot concentrates on one pivotal Saturday night at the Greyhound. Saturday night brings the most business to the pub, and this night is no exception, so the evening begins with preparation for the custom to come, and then follows the events of that evening.

Good old Brum, there was no other place quite like it. Those were the days; from the Bull Ring came a steady flow of custom during the house’s open hours. Market-men, porters from the Midland Station, and the street hawkers used the place regularly, and there had always been a good number of chance people.

Readers should be warned that there is an incident of horrible animal cruelty committed by one of the characters. It’s a scene with an image I would rather not have had planted in my head. We are obviously meant to see the act as horrendous, and it’s an incident that adds to the tension, but that didn’t make it any easier to read, and in a way, after that, the rest of the story paled in an anticlimactic fashion. Overall, animals don’t fare well in this story but serve to show the brutality of the human race; at one point a departing publican, who can’t sell his chickens to Flack, wrings their necks before moving on, and a villager regularly presents dead chickens at the pub, blaming the Flack’s greyhound for their deaths and demanding recompense.

Hampson introduces an upper class couple into the story, and one of the characters is deeply affected by the events she witnesses. Interestingly, she is the sole character altered by events, and this adds to the bleakness of the tale. The story is strongest in its setting and depiction of pub life with an overweening sense of evil that lingered after the last page of this ultimately unsatisfying tale. There’s an agelessness to the story; it could have easily been the 19th century, and that perhaps is due to the various human emotions that brace this tale: lust, love and hatred.

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Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd

Towards the end of Three Brothers, the latest novel from British author Peter Ackroyd, a main characters, Daniel, one of the three brothers in the title, writes a book about London. One of the book’s themes “concerned the patterns of associations that linked the people of the city,” and that theme also dominates Three Brothers–a novel about connections and estrangement.

The three very different brothers of the title are born in post-WWII Camden and all share the same birthday but are born one year apart. It’s a bizarre coincidence, just the first in a novel of many coincidences and eerie connections. The boys, Harry, Daniel, and Sam are the product of Philip, a failed writer turned night watchman who married a young woman named Sally. Early in the boys’ childhood, Sally disappears, and it’s assumed–although never discussed–that she’s run off. Later in the novel, that mystery is solved.

Three brothersLiving in a depressing household without a mother, the boys grow apart rather than bond together. Harry, the seemingly resilient, popular, confident oldest boy, dumps school as soon as possible, and begins his meteoric newspaper career as a lowly messenger boy. His life choices are driven by ambition. The middle son, bookish Daniel, is studious, and introspective; his  ambition takes a slightly different form. He studies, passes the 11 plus, sails to grammar school and university. Abandoning his humble council house origins, and eventually becoming a successful academic, he cannot embrace his own social and sexual identity.

The youngest brother, Sam is the best human being of the bunch: kind, generous, and yet he’s solitary, has difficulty with social interactions and experiences strange visions. The latter is so much a part of Sam’s life that we don’t immediately know the divisions between reality and fantasy. Yet in spite of Sam’s handicaps, while the novel traces the very different lives of these three brothers, and the choices that shape their sad and lonely lives, it’s Sam’s ability to reach out and forgive that takes this tale in an expanded direction. His choices place him squarely in several mysteries: what happened to his mother, for example and also he becomes involved in the murder of a connective character.

It’s impossible not to consider Dickens with the introduction of one of the characters, the anachronistically named Jackdaw, an “emaciated” thief/rent-boy/fence, who “operated south of the river in Southwark and Bermondsey. He had a reputation for viciousness,” and has been known to beat and/or “slash” his enemies. London then, be it the London of Dickens or the London of Ackroyd  (Ackroyd’s books include a biography of Dickens and a biography of London), remains the same immutable force–a city of vast corruption, poverty, cannibalizing ambition, and many dirty secrets filed away in the offices of the rich and powerful. Ackroyd’s allusion to Dickens is loud and clear in this lecture given by Daniel, traumatized by the sordid viciousness of the literary world who always finds solace in literature:

“What we have to explain, in Bleak House, is the imagery of the prison.” The first supervision had begun on time.
“It is perfectly obvious that, in most of Dickens’s novels, the city itself becomes a form of penitentiary in which all of the characters are effectively manacled to the wall. If it is not a cell, it is a labyrinth in which few people find their way. They are lost souls.”

“But what then,” the young man in spectacles asked him, “do we make on the continuing use of coincidence?”

“That is the condition of living in the city, is it not? The most heterogeneous elements collide. Because, you see, everything is connected to everything else.”

Three Brothers can be viewed as an argument to Dickens’s timelessness and craft. Just as Dickens’s novels include many lost boys: Oliver Twist, Pip, and David Copperfield who all struggle with identity and establishing a place in society, Ackroyd offers us three young men: Harry, Daniel, and Sam–all largely clueless about the invisible forces in the lives as they struggle, flounder and face moral compromise. This is a world of connections, so there’s a direct line from the newspaper office to the slum landlord to the government, and of course, while this is not exactly startling, this intricate web of power is always there impacting the lives of the three brothers in ways they initially do not realize.

There’s a pervading sadness to this tale. The three brothers all launch into vastly different lives, and Harry and Daniel are, in terms of all worldly measurement successful, yet happiness eludes them–perhaps because happiness was never included in their plans. Harry, who trades integrity for success, is lauded by his insufferable crude, coarse employer Sir Martin Flaxman who tells a crowd at a party: “Most [reporters] are arse-lickers. Tame Poodles pretending to be guard dogs. But not Harry. He knows what he is. He likes it.” The irony to that statement is that Harry rises to the top simply because he obeys orders and doesn’t stir the murky waters of the shady corrupt London power-brokers.

Similarly Daniel, who enjoys an academic and publishing career, confides to a friend: “I feel” he said, “that I’m on the sidelines of everything. There’s something really great going on somewhere, but I have nothing to do with it.” Harry and Daniel with their fabricated pasts never quite manage to connect to their lives–their identities are suits of clothes donned for the duration. Sam, who is another Dickens “lost soul” just like his two brothers however, is different. I never quite bought his visions or the eerie connective moments between the three estranged brothers, but it’s Sam’s open generous, ambitionless heart that eventually leads the reader to the novel’s secrets.

Review copy

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A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor

Peter Taylor (1917-1994) was born in Trenton, a city in Tennessee that appears in A Summons To Memphis, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel for 1987. There are a few autobiographical features to this story, but they are just trimmings in a slow-moving, eloquent novel about family dynamics and a crisis bad enough for siblings to gather to take action. There’s always a division of opinion when it comes to prize winners, and this also applies to Taylor’s novel, but for anyone out there who’d like to try some Southern American Literature (which is its own sub-genre), this is a great place to start, for while the ‘Southernness’ of the novel may seem foreign or even quaint, most of us will be able to identify with the toxic family dynamic, and perhaps, most importantly, there’s no Southern dialect to wrestle with.

a summons to memphisOur narrator is 49 year-old Phillip Carver, a man who escaped from his Memphis family years before and is now living in New York as a book editor. He was living with a much younger woman, but something has gone wrong with the relationship–nothing easily identifiable, but they’ve separated. Phillip was originally one of four children, but his older brother was killed in WWII–there’s the sense that at worst he got himself killed on purpose, and at best, threw his life away. Now there are the three siblings left–all unmarried, and that’s enough to make the reader sit up and take notice. Phillip keeps in contact with his family mainly through the newsy letters written by his two middle-aged, spinster sisters. Their mother died two years before, and that leaves their geriatric father on his own. Thanks to the letters, Phillip is aware that many elderly widows have been inviting the elderly Mr. Carver for dinner, but things have taken a more serious turn; he’s been seen at local night spots with much younger women, and now, he’s announced his imminent marriage:

The courtship and remarriage of an old widower is always made more difficult when middle-aged children are involved–especially when there are unmarried daughters. This seemed particularly true in the landlocked backwater city of Memphis some forty-odd years ago. At least it is a certainty that remarriage was more difficult for old widowers in Memphis than it was over in Nashville, say, or in Knoxville–or even in Chattanooga, for that matter.

That opening paragraph sets the scene and the tone of the book–along with the theme that life in Memphis is different from life in Nashville–a most important factor once we uncover the Carver family history. Phillip receives two separate phone calls–one from each sister, Betsy and Jo, demanding that he come back home (his summons to Memphis) and assist in thwarting their father’s plans for matrimony.  As Phillip sits in his Manhattan apartment he recalls various similar case histories in which family members banded together and had their elderly parents hauled off into hospitals, dragged into court, or held prisoner on their own plantations away from “any female predator in Memphis.”  All these stories caused Phillip discomfort and embarrassment when he first heard them, and he never expected this to occur in his own family.  Of course, these situations do occur frequently, and then many questions erupt regarding inheritance, mental competence and whether or not the bride to be is a gold-digger. The sense we get from Phillip is an overwhelming embarrassment and shame that his father’s nocturnal activities with a much younger woman have become the source of jokes in the community–mainly thanks to his sisters who hold court at various social events while they recall their father’s attempts to dance and how foolish he looks trying to keep up with people young enough to be his grandchildren.

At this point, A Summons to Memphis may sound like an old familiar story as the adult children gather for an ‘intervention,’ but here’s where the story is different–Phillip goes back into the family’s past, and a complex set of familial relationships are uncovered which reveal exactly why those sisters are unmarried. At one time the Carvers lived in a mansion in Nashville but the father was ruined by a Mr. Lewis Shackleford, who was also, unfortunately, their neighbour. More than forty years earlier, the family moved to Memphis in 1931 for a fresh start, and while the father’s law practice was successful, Phillip’s mother sank into “nearly thirty years of real or imagined invalidism,” and the scars from the Nashville move remained permanently damaging. Now the plump middle-aged sisters run a successful real estate company, and according to Alex Mercer, Phillip’s best friend and a professor at Memphis State University, they are “the laughingstock of Memphis.”

The awful fact was that with figures by no means any longer youthful they often got themselves up in the most extreme fashions that only the most sylphlike and dashing young girls should have worn in any given year–even the most daring fashions, one might say. If, for instance, low backs were favored for evening gowns, their backs would be bare down to the divide in their rather sizable buttocks. Or if particularly low necklines were in vogue, then theirs would plunge between mountainous breasts practically to the navel. If slit skirts were the fashion, then my sisters’ would be vented well above the knees, exposing fleshy thighs which by this time in my sisters’ lives were indeed of no inconsiderable size. Whenever I was at home I had ample opportunity to observe all Alex told me about them was true. They would sometimes come by father’s house before they went out of an evening to ask Father and me to inspect their ridiculous getups. If we were shocked, then they would laugh uproariously. Sometimes I felt their appearance was as big a joke to themselves as to everyone else. But laughingstock or not, I could seldom manage a smile even at the grotesquery of my sisters’ costumes or the awful incongruity of their figures with the alluring postures they assumed. Because I would always see in them still vestiges of the beautiful older sisters of my Nashville boyhood.

That quote gives a strong sense of the author’s languid style. This is a very slow-moving, eloquently constructed novel, and while the title, A Summons to Memphis may indicate that much of the tale takes place there, it’s more a signifier of a family in crisis, and most of the novel is devoted to Phillip’s memories and the telling of his family’s history. This really is a wonderful book, an exquisite example of Southern Literature, with its unhurried, placid style, and exposition of Memphis society. But even more than that, there’s the sense that the Carver family would seem quite strange to an outsider, but Phillip’s narration makes sense of it all, exposing the central paradox at the heart of the family dynamic. The lines of familial responsibility and intervention shift and alter with time. Some family wounds take a long time to heal, and in order for us to mature, we need to forgive, or at the very least, forget:

Forgetting the injustices and seeming injustices which one suffered from one’s parents during childhood and youth must be the major part of any maturing process. I kept repeating this to myself, as though it were a lesson I would at some future time be accountable for. A certain oblivion was what we must undergo in order to become adults and live peacefully with ourselves. Suddenly my sisters seemed no longer a mystery to me. I understood much of their past conduct as never before. They were still, while actually in their mid-fifties, two teenaged girls dressed up and playing roles. It was their way of not facing or accepting the facts of their adult life. They could not forget the old injuries. They wished to keep them alive. They were frozen forever in their roles as injured adolescents.

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Consequences by Philippe Djian

“Evil’s out of hand in this country.”

Earlier this year, Emma pointed me in the direction of Philippe Djian’s novel, Consequences. It’s a great title as the main character, Marc, a middle-aged professor whose failed literary career has led him to teach creative writing, has reached his 50s in a life full of bad choices that is still, miraculously, consequence-free. But this is all about to change, and it changes rapidly within the first few pages. After an evening of drinking, Marc drives one of his young students back to his “lair” for “one full night of fun.” The next day, the girl, whose name he can’t remember, is dead. Marc doesn’t hesitate; he disposes of her body in a deep crevice on a hillside in the nearby woods.

consequencesStrange reaction … but then everything about Marc is a little strange. Not that the casual observer would necessarily pick up the warning signs right away. After all, Marc is a professor, middle-aged, and lives with his sister, Marianne. The fact that he lives with his sister is a little worrying, and then again they are awfully close. On the surface, Marc seems a ‘normal’ libidinous middle-aged professor who compensates for life’s disappointments by engaging in meaningless sexual encounters with students.

Quite a few years ago, he’d understood that the time had come to take advantage of certain perks that came with his profession–for lack of the better rewards that he had to stop expecting. One day, by a kind of miracle, one of his students began to glow as he looked at her–from the inside out, like a Chinese lantern with a wonderful gleam–but was, despite this, insipid and ordinary, almost devoid of interest, and absolutely incapable of putting two sentences together. Yet, just as he was brutally jeering, in front of other students, at work she’d turned in, he was blinded by a blast of heat. And this girl turned out to be the first in a fairly long series, as well as one of the most satisfying lays he’d ever had.

Richard Oslo, the department head, a real cretin in Marc’s opinion, isn’t the least attractive to women, so Marc congratulates himself that he may not have gained the directorship, but at least he can seduce any woman he wants. To Marc, this “reestablishes the balance.” Marc congratulates himself on a narrow escape from some messy consequences with the dead girl and starts lining up his next affair with a student who “was making use of lower and lower necklines as the year advanced.” There’s no shortage of eager young female students, it seems, but all of Marc’s erotic machinations fly out the window when he meets Myriam, the gorgeous red-headed step-mother of the missing girl. Marc, who normally steers clear of mothers, has never had sex with a woman older than 26. He’s powerfully attracted to Myriam, and since her husband is somewhere in Afghanistan, she’s alone.  Marc is warned to stay away from Myriam by Richard Olso, who sees a PR nightmare ahead, but Marc is already hooked into the chase:

Certainly a department head had a more comfortable salary, and the power that came along with it, especially in these uncertain times, had to be very enjoyable. Yet attracting women, turning the heads of widows, students, housewives, and holding on to that gift, appealing to these fucking women before you even opened your mouth, without putting the slightest effort into it–well, he said to himself, now that was something that gave pause for thought.

He wouldn’t have traded places with Richard, There was no sense thinking about it for hours. Ten or so years ago, his life had changed. It made a 180-degree turn the day he realized how something that seemed so complicated was really so easy. Things took on a different cast. And what a relief that had been! What a profound rebirth, in fact.

From there to thinking he wasn’t against extending his hunting grounds to mothers, to the parents of students and the like, was a step he took easily.

One very clever device utilized by Djian is the collision of consequences. Initially Marc, who ironically is teaching a course of “John Gardner and moral literature,” escapes all the consequences of his actions–his casual affairs, and the way he treats his female students. As the days pass, the author gradually reveals glimpses of Marc and Marianne’s childhood, so that we see how these middle-aged siblings live, daily, with the consequences of their childhood. Memories of the past and actions of the present are interwoven until the consequences of both collide.

At 195 pages, this is a slim, deeply unsettling novel, and one that is very easy to underestimate. Initially when Marc doesn’t question why the girl died and he decides, casually, to toss her body into the crevice, the plot seems implausible or at least sketchy. As the book unfolds, events as they are explained or presented to us by Marc become increasingly questionable. I’m used to an unreliable narrator in the first person. Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here and Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks are both superb example of just how far authors can go (and have fun) with narratives told by unreliable narrators. Philippe Djian takes the riskier road less travelled and for this novel, using the third person, he tells the story through Marc’s eyes.  It’s all so very cleverly done, and yet because this is a third person narration, Djian initially risks alienating the reader with a story that appears to have implausible actions committed by the main character. All the red flags would have popped up sooner with a first person narration, but the third person narrative places an additional murkiness to events in this dark tale of crime, twisted relationships, and the inability to escape the consequences of one’s actions and experiences. The cover, reflecting the narrative in multiple ways, is a perfect choice for the novel. 

Translated by Bruce Benderson.

This is the second Djian novel I’ve read, and I’d rate Consequences above Unforgivable. So thanks Emma for another great recommendation.

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