Tag Archives: siblings

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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French Leave by Anna Gavalda

What we were experiencing at that moment–something all four of us were aware of–was a windfall. Borrowed time, an interlude, a moment of grace. A few hours stolen from other people …

For how much longer will we have the strength to tear ourselves away from everyday life and resist? How often will life give us the chance to play hookey? To thumb our noses at it? Or make our little honorarium on the side? When will we lose one another, and in what way will the ties be stretched beyond repair?

A few weeks ago, I watched a marvellous French film, Je L’Aimais, and on the closing credits, I caught that the film was based on a novel by Anna Gavalda. Off to Wikipedia to discover that Anna Gavalda is a big deal in France, and the good news is that a few of her books have been translated into English. There’s a short story collection: I Wish Someone Were Waiting for me Somewhere, and novels too: Hunting and Gathering (made into the film Ensemble, C’est Tout), Consolation, and Someone I Loved. The latter was the basis for the film Je L’Aimais.

So I picked up French Leave which at 108 pages is a novella. The narrator of the story is twenty-something Garance, who is, as it turns out, one of four siblings–with brothers Simon & Vincent, and older sister Lola. French Leave is a seemingly simple tale which focuses on the events of just a single day. The day is supposed to be a trip to a wedding, and Simon and his wife, Carine give Garance and later Lola, a lift. In the first few pages, the strong characterisations and the bitchy undercurrent between Garance and Carine caught my attention. It seems that Garance and Lola were initially thrilled to welcome Carine, a pharmacist,  to the family:

When we heard about our stroke of luck–that we were about to have a purveyor of anti-wrinkle creams in our family, a licensed Clinique vendor and Guerlain reseller–my sister Lola and I jumped up on her like little puppies. Oh! What a warm welcome we had in store for her that day!

But the romance is over when Carine breaks the news that there will be no discounts for her new sisters-in-law, and from that moment on, Garance and Lola exploit Carine’s predictability by playing some nasty mind games aimed at rattling Carine’s sense of security:

Now we like to ride her about all that. Every time we see her, I tell about my friend, Sandrine who is a flight attendant and the discounts she can get us at the duty-free.

For example:

“Hey Carine … Give me a price for Estée Lauder’s Double Exfoliating Nitrogen Generator with Vitamin B12.”

You should see our Carine, lost in thought. She concentrates, closes her eyes, thinks of her list, calculates her margin, deducts the taxes, and eventually goes: “forty-five?”

I turn to Lola: “Do you remember how much you paid?”

“Hmm … Sorry? What are you talking about?”

“Estée Lauder’s Double Exfoliating Nitrogen Generator with Vitamin B12, the one Sandrine brought back for you the other day?”

“What about it?’

“How much did you pay?”

“Gosh, how do you expect me to remember … around twenty Euros, I think  …”

Carine repeats what she said, choking on her words: “Twenty Euros! Estée Lauder’s D-E-N-G with Vitamin B-12! Are you sure about that!”

The game continues… and it’s always so easy to set up Carine because, according to Garence, she’s so “predictable” and falls for it every time.

While Garance paints a beautifully, although simply detailed picture of her unpleasant sister-in-law (a worrying nag who sits with her knees tightly together), it’s also a reflection back on Garance that she and Lola join forces to pick on Carine. The siblings are very close, and even though circumstance created an entirely different childhood for the younger two siblings (Garence and Vincent) compared to the older two (Vincent & Lola), there are bonds here that newcomers to the family will never fully understand. Perhaps there’s even a faint antagonism towards in-laws in general.

Simon, Lola, & Garence run off to look up Vincent who’s working as a guide at an ancient French chateau, and the four siblings spend one enchanting day together. Author Gavalda argues that while siblings share impenetrable bonds, spouses share experiences and values that siblings cannot fathom. So while Garence and Lola pick at their sister-in-law and fail to understand why their brother tolerates Carine’s pettiness, the sisters are shut out of their brother’s relationship with his wife. Ultimately, French Leave is an exploration of both the depth and the narrowness of familial relationships.

The novella reminded me a great deal of the Bertrand Tavernier film, A Sunday in the Country–perhaps this is due to the emphasis on family relationships, the countryside setting, and the fact that the events take place over the course of a languid day. French Leave is written with a very light touch, and it would be easy to miss this novella’s depth amidst the dialogue. Parts of this seemed so real–the bitchy comments from relatives at the wedding, and the machinations between Lola and Garance. I hope French Leave makes it to film. It’s excellent raw material.

Translated by Alison Anderson

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Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

“How easy it is to slip out of a harness. You just slip out of it, that’s all.”

Author Cynthia Ozick seems to have had a tangled relationship with Henry James. James’s later novels were the subject of Ozick’s Master’s thesis, and at one point she felt that James’s influence had managed to spread to the dialogue of her first novel Trust. I’ve never read any Ozick, so this was the first for me. I decided to read Foreign Bodies because it is loosely based on James’s The Ambassadors, and I’ve also seen the book described as a retelling of the classic tale. I’ll admit that if I hadn’t started out knowing about the James connection, I don’t think that I would have jumped to the conclusion that Ozick was leaning on James. That’s a compliment to Ozick since she was apparently influenced by James’s novel, using it as a springboard for her own tale but then updating it to 1950s America and Paris.

Foreign Bodies begins with a few lively letters back and forth between divorced Bronx schoolteacher Bea Nightingale and her wealthy California-based brother, Marvin. Here’s Bea at the beginning of the story, forty-eight years old and firmly entrenched in a rut:

She was one of that ludicrously recognizable breed of middle-aged teachers who save up for a longed-for summer vacation in the more romantic capitals of Europe.

Bea and Marvin have been estranged for years. There’s no one single infraction–no great wound or fight that drove them apart; it’s more a question of distance and a difference in temperament. Marvin is married and lives in a mansion that resembles a transplanted castle; his dotty wife Margaret is locked up in some sort of asylum (euphemistically styled a ‘rest home’), and he has two adult children, Julian and Iris. Julian is apparently living the bohemian life in Paris and refuses to come home while Iris is a promising chemistry graduate student. Unexpectedly Bea gets a letter from Marvin, and he basically orders Bea to get to Paris, search for Julian and bring him home. Marvin is, he claims, too busy to see to the problem himself, and it’s obvious that Marvin’s letters are designed to guilt Bea into action:

You ought to be in touch more. When I see how thick Iris is with Julian, I realize how derelict my own sister’s been.

Marvin’s request is, of course, intrusive both to Bea and to Julian. Julian, who’s now involved with a displaced Romanian refugee (“human debris discharged from the diseased bowels of Eastern Europe” ) has no intention of returning home to his domineering, obnoxious father, so Bea’s attempts at ‘rescue’ fail miserably. Tenacious Marvin doesn’t give up easily, however, and he ascribes Julian’s refusal to return to Bea’s failure as an aunt, a sister, and as a human being. Julian’s sister Iris enters the mix, and even Bea’s ex-husband, Leo, a man Bea’s been divorced from for over twenty years and who is now a wealthy Hollywood music theme writer, enters the drama. Within a short period of time, Bea’s quiet, orderly life is in chaos.

There’s a lot going on this book. The New World vs. the Old (one of James’s themes, of course), but here the New World is sliding into McCarthyism along with bigotry to European refugees who have uncertain pasts. Not that it’s a great deal better in Paris and a few scenes paint a vivid portrait of a ‘charity’ devoted to relocation of refugees to somewhere…anywhere else. The story is also about familial relationships and how we put up with so much bad behaviour from relatives with whom we have very little in common.

There’s subtle humour here as Bea is thrust into the hub of her brother’s family dynamic. She’s the person least responsible for the mess, but she finds herself accused of being responisble for the chaos that ensues. Not too surprisingly, given their father’s temperament and his drive to dominant, both Julian and Iris experience a sort of liberation in Paris and have no desire to return home. Left to their own devices in Paris, unemployed Julian writes dark tales while Iris becomes mixed up with a charlatan.  But lest I make the mistake of making Bea seem the victim here, I should clarify and say that she isn’t. While she’s largely acted upon, frustrated and annoyed she takes matters into her own hands. There’s one moment when Bea acts in an  incredibly authoritative way when she makes a decision she has no right to make. Interestingly, the events provide liberation of sorts for Bea too.  

While Bea and her choice of modest career is ridiculed by both her brother and her  ex-husband, Bea is far more content with her lot than either Marvin or Leo. At first Bea feels no curiosity or obligation towards her niece and nephew, but she’s slowly dragged into the family drama through a role that’s scripted by her rude, selfish, domineering brother–an impossible man who pens his autocratic demands on fancy notepaper which boasts a fake crest.  

Ozick’s tale illustrates that family drama escalates as it leaks out from the nuclear family and spreads to Bea on the other side of the country. Foreign Bodies is not so much about the corruption/enrichment of the Europe experience but rather it’s about the complexities and absurdities of familial relationships. When Bea reaches out to her unknown nephew and niece, she’s treated to rebuffs and ridicule, and this of course highlights the idea that people frequently treat family members–even unfamiliar ones–poorly. Both Iris and Julian view Aunt Bea as their father’s sister–his emissary, and they don’t recognise her individuality or even question why she’s estranged from her brother. Bea becomes the convenient scapegoat for the family’s morass of tangled drama

There were several points in the novel I wondered why Bea bothered. Marvin’s letters to Bea are so rude, so patronizing, I found myself asking why on earth Bea bothered with this temperamental lot. Marvin, a quintessential bully who finds people either useful or expendable, was obnoxious when he was young and in the assurance of an affluent middle-age, he’s impossible. There’s no in-between. Hence the wife in the asylum, and this section is laced with comedy and tragedy. This brings me to the novel’s subtle observations on relationships between siblings. Marvin thinks Iris and Julian are tight. Iris agrees. This second relationship between siblings comes under scrutiny at the novel develops. Foreign Bodies argues that sometimes it takes a family crisis to reveal the truth about dodgy relationships between family members we thought we knew so well.

Kindle copy courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via netgalley

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