Tag Archives: teacher & student

The Finishing School: Muriel Spark

“And jealousy is an affliction which, unlike some sins of the flesh, gives no one any pleasure.”

The title of Muriel Spark’s short novel, The Finishing School, conjures up images of proper young ladies attending an elite institution in Switzerland. Scratch that: Spark’s finishing school, College Sunrise, is a second rate shady venture run by a young married couple, Nina and Rowland. The school, with its 9 students, is mobile and “would move somewhere new every year.” This impresses parents with the boho-ness of their children’s education, but it’s also a way for Nina and Rowland to escape debts and outrun the need for a permanent license. Rowland, a would-be novelist, teaches the school’s creative writing course. As his novel continues to remain patchy and unfinished, Nina has taken over more and more of the business side of the school in order to allow Rowland to “conserve his literary strength.” Nina and Rowland’s relationship strains to breaking point when one of the students, the very confident 17-year-old Chris, begins to write a novel.

Of the 9 students, some with questionable family members, Chris causes Rowland the most “disquiet,” and when Rowland realizes that the first chapter of Chris’s historical novel about Mary Queen of Scots, is good, he initially peevishly tries to discourage Chris. But Chris won’t be discouraged. Rowland becomes depressed, “off his food,” and so begins an intricate game of jealousy and obsession. Nina, buried with work, begins to wonder if she made a mistake marrying Rowland:

She looked at Rowland’s unfinished supper and felt a wave of panic. She was afraid that something was happening to Rowland beyond explanation with which she would be unable to cope.

Nina becomes aware that what is going on is Rowland’s head isn’t normal. She suggests that Rowland write about Chris “to get him off your chest.” Rowland’s random observations are supposed to be the beginnings of a springboard for Rowland’s novel:

Was Chris inside the gates lurking? Could he be a peeping tom under the guise of a researcher for his own novel? What was he really up to sitting around the bar of the hotel next door? He says he’s 17 but to me he seems older. Is he 17? Perhaps 19. Pallas Kapelas is not yet 17. Chris is very friendly with her. Does he sleep with Pallas? If so he’s a pedophile.

Initially, being able to jot down weird accusations against Chris helps, but the more Rowland writes, the more hate filled vitriol he spews. There’s a lot of humour here as Rowland sinks into his obsession with Chris, and Nina, realizing she must move on, begins an affair. Rowland is, of course, oblivious that his wife has a lover.

Chris has never experienced jealousy before but he finally recognizes this emotion in Rowland. And of course, Chris’s novel, about the murder of Rizzio, follows the inevitable path of this powerful, toxic emotion. A visiting scholar (the school’s only requirement is that they should be cheap) points out that Elizabeth I was deeply jealous of Mary, Queen of Scots. What a chain of jealousy we have here: Lord Darnley is jealous of Rizzio, Elizabeth I is jealous of Mary and Rowland is jealous of Chris. Rowland soon comes to believe that Chris, who is actively talking to publishers and bragging about a film version of his still un-published book, is actually hindering the writing of his novel.

Certainly Rowland gains no pleasure from his thoughts about Chris, and since he can’t sway Chris’s confidence, he contemplates murder. Will the finishing school become a finishing-off school????

An awfully nice boy Rowland said. In his tone was a touch of regret as if Chris had been an awfully nice dog that however, for some overwhelming reason, had to be taken to the vet to be put down.

And later:

I could kill him thought Rowland, but would that be enough?

The Finishing School is a wonderful example of Muriel Spark’s biting, sometimes cruel, wit. No one comes off well here: the parents who are so happy to get rid of their children (at a cut rate price) that they don’t ask too many questions, Nina whose “Comme il Faut” class teaches the students useless trivia such as what they should do if they see a python, or Rowland who can’t accept his own failures.


Filed under Fiction, posts, Spark, Muriel

Exposed: Jean-Phillipe Blondel

“I have loved those who have passed through my life and left their mark on me for a few hours, a few weeks, a few years.”

Jean Phillipe Blondel’s The 6:41 to Paris  is a novel about middle aged regret and how the choices we make forge the people we become.

Exposed has some thematic similarities to the plot of The 6:41 to Paris; this is a novel which explores the hard-to-define relationship which exists between middle aged English teacher Louis Claret and his former pupil, Alexandre Laudin, now a famous artist.


The relationship that exists between pupil and teacher is an interesting one. It’s fabricated, of course, so therefore, somewhat artificial. The teachers are static, in place, more or less, while over the years hundreds and hundreds of students pass through their classrooms. Do teachers remember their students? If so which ones do they remember and why? Which ones stand out? Can they predict who will be successful and who will not? And what of students? Which teachers do they remember and why? All these questions float to the surface of the novel. According to Claret:

I think a teacher signs a tacit contract with his students from the moment they walk into the classroom. It goes beyond a pact of nonaggression. It is an agreement that stipulates that even over the years, there will be respect between us, and … how should I put it … mutual protection. 

Claret receives an unexpected invitation to attend a gallery opening in the Alexandre Laudin’s provincial hometown. Claret has been aware of his former student’s success, “a steady ascension” but he never expected the invitation. Now 58 year old Claret, divorced, alone and close to retirement, decides to attend and get some free food at least.

I remember smiling as I studied Alexandre Laudin’s portrait in the paper. I hardly recognised him. He didn’t look like the student I had taught English to, twenty years earlier. I must have had him in première, but he made no impression of me. I smiled, the way I did every time I used the verb “to have” to describe the relation between student and teacher. Monsieur Bichat? I had him in cinquième. You’re lucky you didn’t get that old bag Aumont. This is how we define ourselves, us and them. We belong to each other for a few months. Then we set one another free again. We forget one another.

But for some reason Alexandre Laudin hasn’t forgotten his former English teacher. Why is Claret invited to the gallery opening?

Claret plans to grab some food and leave. As for the paintings, they are “disturbing, yes, but not really all that innovative.” And Claret comes to the conclusion that Alexandre “seemed to be repeating himself lately, the same themes same use of color, same brushstroke.”  Alexandre seeks out his former teacher during the opening and tells Claret that he “wanted to turn the page” in his work, then the two men part. Claret is then surprised when Alexandre contacts him a month later and asks to meet. This meeting is followed by Alexander’s request to paint Claret.

A somewhat odd relationship follows with Claret posing for paintings. These are sessions which lead Claret to meditations and memories of his life. For his part, Alexandre opens up about his troubled relationships with other students.

It’s not clear exactly what Alexandre wants from Laudin–then he asks Claret to pose without his shirt, and then the request moves to being painted in the nude….

Obviously given the title, this is being about Exposed both literally and figuratively–how hard it can be to connect with people and expose our needs. As a reader, I preferred 6:41 to Paris as I found Alexandre’s somewhat fragile ego (here he is world famous and still bruised by events of 20 years ago) somewhat tedious. But that’s just me. Others may be able to identify with Alexandre’s Bete Noire (s). It’s always interesting to read about people who push the boundaries of others–especially when it comes to comfort level. We often allow ourselves to be nudged, bending to politeness, and then when we realise how many boundaries have been crossed, we wonder how it happened without our noticing.

This is a slow, meditative read. The ending feels unsatisfactory and I wanted some sort of clearing of the air between the two main characters.

Review copy
Translated by Alison Anderson.


Filed under Blondel Jean-Philippe, Fiction

Dear Mr M: Herman Koch

“At first the man feigns patient interest in an adjustable bed frame or a chest of drawers, but before long his breathing grows labored and he begins tossing glances toward the checkout counters and the exit, like a dog smelling the woods after a long trip in the car.” 

I loved Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner and liked Summer House with Swimming Pool. These are both very different novels but they share some characteristics: black humour, nasty people, and skewed morality. Dear Mr M, a story of revenge, focuses on a famous writer who is oblivious to the fact that he’s being stalked. The writer, M and his stalker, Herman have deep connections, and over the course of the novel, those long-standing ties are gradually revealed through several perspectives.

The novel opens with Herman narrating. It’s a strong invective as Herman spits abuse at M, a writer he despises, but this isn’t dislike based on M’s professional shortcomings. No, what exists between M and Herman is personal and has putrefied over the last 40 years.


A sense of menace arcs over the narrative as Herman watches M which isn’t hard to do since Herman is M’s downstairs neighbour. A game of cat-and-mouse is afoot with the mouse, M, so deeply buried in his own writerly concerns that he’s oblivious to Herman’s malicious activities.

M’s breakthrough novel was Payback, a fictionalized account of the real-life disappearance of a history teacher named  Jan Landzaat. Landzaat was last seen by his pupil, the teenage Laura (with whom he’d been having an affair) and her high school boyfriend, prankster, Herman. Landzaat, who’d been dumped by Laura (and Mrs Landzaat) wasn’t taking Laura’s rejection well when he barged into Laura’s life and the remote home owned by her famous father. There’s no one single story about what happened that weekend, but Landzaat was never seen again. …

But forty years have passed. M’s career is now in eclipse. He’s married to a much younger woman, and above all else, he’s tired–tired of the pathetically small attendance at book readings, tired of the same boring, and sometimes hostile questions, tired of interviews. M, the object of Herman’s decades-long venom is seen as a rather pathetic man who can’t even rustle up a decent cup of coffee in the local cafe. Herman wonders if M “is aware of his own mediocrity?”

In fact, you should see your face when you’re extolling your own intelligence. Your face, and the look in your eyes. It’s the look in the eyes of a rabbit who has misjudged the distance to the other side of the expressway–and realizes too late that the headlights bearing down on it are already too close to dodge. A look, in other words, that doesn’t believe itself for a moment, that’s paralyzed by the fear that the first tricky question will expose it as a fraud, once and for all.

A mediocre writer serves a life sentence. He has to go on. It’s too late to change professions. He has to go on till the bitter end. Until death comes to get him. Only death can save him from mediocrity. 

Koch shows us that there are two ways of perceiving men who have relationships with much younger (underage) woman–they can be seen as predators, which is the common view, or idiots. At first Landzaat seems to be a middle-aged predator, but as the plot continues, he morphs into a pathetic, emotionally weak loser who can’t accept the fact that Laura, his teenage lover, realizing that she’s made a horrible mistake, has moved on. Laura takes the nuclear option, and that leaves Landzaat alone in the aftermath of his affair’s destructive path. Through Herman and Laura’s eyes, we see how the young perceive the aging loser, and to Herman, every teacher is a loser:

Nowhere is the odor of mediocrity more pervasive than at a high school. It’s a smell that works its way into everything, like the stench of a pan of soup that has been bubbling on the burner for too long.

Dear Mr M, for its acrobatic, nasty subversive wit made me chuckle with sheer delight. Nothing is sacred here, and all of the characters are fair game for the author’s acerbic vision. Koch mines the deep well of student dislike for their teachers, so Herman’s observations about his “dropping like flies” high school teachers are vicious. Each “sad announcement,” for Herman, is just an occasion when “you had to keep your mouth shut and look serious, but what we mostly felt was a sense of justice having been done.”  Koch captures the students’ perceptions as teachers being old and decrepit, boring people who are so mediocre, they might as well die now and get on with it. And then of course, there’s that “one spectacular finish” by social studies teacher Harm Koolhass who “less than half an hour after a midnight landing in Miami,” takes a “wrong exit”:

Somehow we couldn’t reconcile the two images–the trousers and the beaded bag on the one hand, the corpse hanging out of the car with its neck twisted at a strange angle on the other. As though the halls, the classrooms and the auditorium of the Spinoza Lyceum were the worst possible preparation for a violent demise in an American B-movie.

Dear Mr M, shares some thematic connections with The Dinner (the insular world of youthful morality) and Summerhouse with Swimming Pool (a predatory male and an underage girl), but it’s ultimately not as successful a novel. While the first half or so of Dear Mr M was very strong indeed, the plot began to lag when it shifted to Herman’s high school days, and the story’s pacing cools down to teenage friendships and a certain ordinariness. These sections just couldn’t match the ingenuity, viciousness and hilarious spleen of the first half of the novel. That said, in the last chapter, Koch pulls the strands together brilliantly, and the novel ends on a splendid note. Flawed as the novel is, I’ll still read anything from this author.

Review copy

Translated by Sam Garrett


Filed under Fiction, Koch Herman

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance by Elizabeth Jolley

Last year when I posted a list of The Best of 2011, Gummie from Whispering Gums mentioned that she hoped I’d have an Australian category included in the Best of 2012. This seemed a good idea, so I’ve made a point to read a few Aussie books this year. While Tirra Lirra by the River is still the best Australian novel I’ve read this year, a serious challenge to that title appeared as I read and laughed at Elizabeth Jolley’s novel, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. I’ve read a couple of Jolley’s novels, and I considered them ok–nothing more, nothing less. Before Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, I certainly wouldn’t have considered myself a fan, but that all changed with this extremely funny, subversive novel that’s really a novel within a novel for Miss Peabody’s Inheritance is a marvellous example of metafiction.

So here’s the premise:

Miss Dorothy Peabody is a lonely middle-aged spinster who works an office job in London and scurries home every night to take care of her demanding, bedridden mother who has the uncanny ability to know whether or not the downstairs furniture has been dusted. Nothing much ever happens in Miss Peabody’s dreary life, and a daring act for Miss Peabody is to get into the lift and squeeze between the males with “Je Reviens of Worth Paris dabbed on her wrists and behind her ears.” Miss Peabody has a secret yen for romance, and as a people watcher she notes the lurid office affair between the married Mr Bains and Miss Truscott, embellishing the affair with her imagination. There’s only one bright element to Miss Peabody’s life, and that is her amazing correspondence with the Australian  novelist, Diana Hopewell.

After reading Diana’s novel, Angels on Horseback, Miss Peabody writes a fan letter, and to her astonishment, Diana replies. Soon a lively correspondence begins between the two women. Miss Peabody sends details of her life, work and her dreams, and Diana writes about her horses and her beautiful ranch in Australia. Diana is also writing a new novel, and she includes the latest installments for Miss Peabody, and through the correspondence, Miss Peabody is drawn into Diana’s story of Pine Heights, an exclusive boarding school for girls….

In Diana’s installments, she introduces the world Pine Heights–a boarding school which is managed on a tight budget by the idiosyncratic headmistress, stout, middle-aged Miss Thorne (picture an Aussie Miss Fritton from St Trinian’s). Miss Thorne, also known as Prickles, is a strange blend of conformity and radicalism. A proponent of an annual school bra-burning ceremony, she has little time for men and every year she enjoys an annual holiday in Europe with her current companion, the nervous, clingy Miss Edgely, and Miss Thorne’s long-term friend Miss Snowdon, a matron of Queen’s Hospital.

Both Miss Snowdon and Miss Thorne have the same kind of figure; a portliness brought on by years of responsibility, plenty of money, comfortable accommodation and good meals. Both women have the education, the background and the capabilities required for their positions. neither of them care too deeply for other human beings and they are not dangerously touched or moved by the human predicament.

Miss Edgely shares some of the qualities but, by contrast, is small. She has no taste and far less money.

Miss Peabody receives, via her correspondence with Diana, installments of the novel, so the delightfully funny Miss Peabody’s Inheritance goes back and forth between Miss Peabody’s personal life (which grows increasingly out of control) and Miss Thorne’s fictional trip to Europe.  In these installments, Miss Thorne, Miss Snowdon and Miss Edgeley make their annual Mecca to “the wine houses at Grinzing,” but this time, Miss Thorne elects to take schoolgirl Gwendaline (Gwenda) Manners along. Gwenda’s widower father recently re-married a young Brazilian woman, and after bouncing a cheque for Gwenda’s tuition and board, he more or less disappeared. Miss Thorne argues that a trip to Europe is just what Gwenda needs and that it will give her “a little finishing,” but is Miss Thorne really motivated by altruism or lust? Miss Edgely “all but smashed the place up” in a jealous rage at Gwenda’s inclusion in their annual holiday, and as the trip continues via installments to Miss Peabody, a disaster unfolds with unexpected consequences.

Over the course of the holiday, we see how the formidable Miss Thorne organises her relationships so that she’s always in charge, always has the upper hand and always gets what she wants. Poor boring Miss Edgely:

Somewhere between Vienna and Paris Miss Edgely gets left behind in a station lavatory, the novelist’s letter starts straight in without any enquiries or remarks of a personal nature.

“D’you think I’ve got time?” Miss Edgely asks.

“Oh, rather! Edge of course you have, but don’t be all day.” Miss Thorne notices that the guards are slamming the doors of the Express. All around them are the noises of departure. She knows Miss Edgeley has not really time. Whistles blow and flags wave.

As Miss Peabody continues to receive letters from Diana which include fragments of the adventures of Miss Thorne, she begins to live for the arrival of the next letter, and as she burrows deep in the lives of Diana’s fictional characters, Miss Peabody begins to lose her grip on reality.

Miss Peabody’s evenings had become another world. A world of magic and enchantment. She lived for the evenings and for the time spent with the novelist’s letters and the composing of her own replies.

All the different things her mother asked for hardly mattered. The petulant voice calling down the narrow stairs could not remove the anticipation of her happiness.

Miss Peabody’s correspondence with Diana serves to broaden her horizons and it also brings several titillating issues to the fore. For example, partly inspired by Miss Snowdon’s paper, The Forgotten Placenta, Miss Thorne hopes to organise a lecture at the school for the edification of the “gels” as she calls them: Chasing the Orgasm: How When and Where. This makes rather shocking reading for the very sheltered Miss Peabody, and the correspondence between Diana and Miss Peabody ultimately has startling results.

Often with novels that have a clear division (in this case the division is between the life of Miss Peabody and the letters from Diana), there is a range of quality, and one strain becomes stronger than another. Not so with Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. In fact the two strands come together and mesh extraordinarily well. Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, is of course about loneliness, but it’s also about how little we human beings need to jettison our imaginations beyond our lowly, and often restrictive conditions.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Jolley Elizabeth

Confusion by Stefan Zweig

“Since that evening when the man I so venerated opened up like a shell that had been tightly closed and told me his story, since that evening forty years ago, everything our writers and poets present as extraordinary in books , everything shown on stage as tragic drama, has seemed to me trivial an unimportant. Is it through complacency, cowardice, or because they take too short a view that they speak of nothing but the superficial, brightly lit plane of life where the senses openly and lawfully have room to play, while below in the vaults, in the deep caves and sewers of the heart, the true dangerous beasts of passion roam, glowing with phosphorescent light, coupling unseen and tearing each other apart in every fantastic form of convolution? Does the breath of those beasts alarm them, the hot and tearing breath of demonic urges, the exhalations of the burning blood, do they fear to dirty their dainty hands on the ulcers of humanity, or does their gaze, used to a more muted light, not find its way down the slippery, dangerous steps that drip with decay?”

Stefan Zweig’s novella Confusion is a frame story narrated by a sixty-year-old professor, who at the end of his career in the Department of Languages and Literature, is presented with an “expensively bound” collection of his published works. The professor, Roland, notes that while the articles, no matter how trivial, are organised like a “well-swept staircase,” in reality, his life has not been this well-structured. The collected articles present just the surface of Roland’s life and that “missing is the name of the man from whom all my creativity derived.” And then Roland takes us back to his mis-spent youth

A young Roland, the son of a headmaster from a small Northern German town, is sent to Berlin to study English. Since he hates books, he’d rather much join the army or the navy, but Roland’s father “with his fanatical veneration for universities” insists that his son should receive an education, so Roland finds himself in Berlin, away from home for the first time. With absolutely no interest in the lectures “a morgue of the spirit,” Roland instead throws him enthusiastically into a life of debauchery. He’s a good-looking young man and he discovers, to his delight, that his female conquests are “cheaply won.” The fun comes to an end, however, when his father comes to visit and discovers that his son does not attend his lectures. Roland is sent away from Berlin to attend university in a small provincial town in central Germany.  

Roland is expecting more of the same–in other words, he expects to be as bored in his new location as he was in Berlin, but to his astonishment, when he tracks down his Professor of English, instead of finding a dusty old dinosaur, he finds an older man with a vigorous mind and a deep love of Elizabethan literature, a man whose lectures are so infused with enthusiasm, that his love for his subject is contagious. Roland finds his professor “curiously challenging,” and for the first time in his life, he felt a “superior force,“–a man he wishes to emulate.

In no time at all, desiring to be closer to his idol, Roland takes a room in the same building as the professor. There are some days and some evenings when the two men enjoy energetic discussions, but then there are periods when the professor disappears only to reappear days later rather the worse for wear. The professor’s much younger wife is always excluded but nonetheless she manages to lurk in the background when Roland visits his mentor. Is she jealous? Does this explain why she eavesdrops on their conversation?

For most of the novella, we see Roland as a young man, a confused young man–a man who doesn’t understand his emotional responses to various situations. While the big mystery here is just what the professor is up to, it’s fairly easy to guess the answer before Roland arrives at any conclusions, but the interest in the story comes not from the mystery behind the professor’s behaviour as much as it’s derived from Roland’s youthful and naive responses to the various difficult situations he encounters. This is essentially the story of how a young man matures and sees that his idol has feet of clay. Who cannot identify with this story? Who hasn’t admired someone formative only to discover that they are not the ‘perfect’ construct our imagination has created?

One of the elements I enjoyed about the novella was its buried sexuality which appears to come not only from young Roland but perhaps from Zweig himself:

We live through myriads of seconds, yet it is always one, just one, that casts our entire inner world into turmoil, the second (as Stendhal has described it) the internal inflorescence, already steeped in every kind of fluid, condenses and crystallizes–a magical second, like the moment of a generation, and like that moment concealed in the warm interior of the individual life, invisible untouchable, beyond the reach of feeling, a secret experienced alone.


I never understood and loved Berlin as much as I did then, for every cell in my being was crying out for sudden expansion, just like every part of that overflowing, warm human honeycomb–and where could the impatience of my forceful youth have released itself but in the throbbing womb of that heated giantess, that restless city radiating power? It grasped me and took me to itself, I flung myself into it went down into its very veins, my curiosity rapidly orbiting its entire stony yet warm body–I walked its streets from morning to night, went out to the lakes, discovered its secret places.

My copy from New York Review Books is translated by Anthea Bell and contains an introduction, which adds greatly to the novel, by George Prochnik. Prochnik tells us of Zweig and his wife’s joint suicide in 1942  and states “the question of how he could allow his much younger and cherished second  wife to follow him into the realm of the shades is the only real outstanding mystery of his death.” The introduction goes into some depth on the subject of Zweig’s literary career, his dread of aging and the fear of having to “live on as one’s own shadows.”  Zweig, who was Jewish, made an “unwise” statement regarding Hilter’s 1930 victory: “a perhaps unwise but fundamentally sound and approvable revolt of youth against the slowness and irresolution of ‘high politics’ .” And, of course, we all know how that ended.

Zweig eventually fled from Austria and began a nomadic existence which ended in his suicide. My impression from other pieces I’d read was that Zweig committed suicide in Brazil due to the continued successes of the Nazis, but Prochnik’s excellent introduction throws a different light on the matter.

Confusion from Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) is part of Caroline and Lizzy’s joint celebration of German Literature month, and thanks to both of them for their energy and enthusiasm in organising this event.


Filed under Fiction, Zweig Stefan

All These Little Worlds: A Fiction Desk Anthology II ed. Rob Redman

I freely admit that I bought a kindle version of All These Little Worlds–an collection of short stories from The Fiction Desk–primarily for the promised short story from Charles Lambert. I’ve throughly enjoyed two novels from this author: Little Monsters and Any Human Face, and considered it worth the purchase of the collection for his short story alone. But I had a second motive afoot….Something exciting and rather daunting is happening in the world of publishing. It’s a paradigm shift of seismic proportions, and people are taking charge of their own writing careers through blogs and e-publishing. Conan Kennedy’s book: The Colour of Her Eyes–a superior crime novel in my opinion–and one that certainly surpasses many crime novels that went through regular channels of committee selection and publicity campaigns etc–is a prime example of an author acting on his own initiative and getting his book out there.

While publishing giants merge together, we’ve also seen a number of fascinating small presses spring to life: Pushkin Press, Archipelago Books, Dalkey Press, Europa Editions, Melville House, Oneworld Classics, Hesperus Press (I’m sure I forgot some names), and for those of us who don’t care for the bestseller lists, these small presses give an alternative. And that brings me to my second reason for buying All These Little Worlds–because it’s an effort by an independent voice. I’ll also admit to a sense of curiosity; I read a lot of short story collections, and some of the big names always get a showing. What about those who are not so famous?

All These Little Worlds includes nine stories, and as editor Rob Redman states in the introduction, while “it’s sometimes tempting to publish a themed volume,” it’s also a limiting choice. Whatever the selection process was, the result is superior, and if there is a dominant undercurrent in this volume, it’s arguably an underlying subversivenes that challenges our notions of traditional relationships

So here’s the story rundown:

Jaggers and Crown by James Benmore is the story of a comic team who rather like an an old married couple battled themselves and their demons through the course of several decades. It’s 2011 and Kevin Crown recalls his turbulent relationship with Sonny Jaggers. They first teamed together in the early fifties, and enjoyed a successful radio career before making the leap to television. A few years later, with Sonny’s drinking increasingly out-of-control, there’s a lucrative contract from ITV, and while Kevin is ambitious and conscientious, Sonny’s binges are taking a toll on the team. On the Fiction Desk blog , Benmore  explains that the story grew from his interest in British comedy programmes, and that if Jaggers is based on anyone, then that person would be Kenneth Williams. For this reader, the references to the scenes in which Jaggers and Crown share a bed is reminiscent of Morecambe and Wise, a remarkable duo who also shared a bed (you can find the skits on youtube). The story explores the turbulence behind the comedy and also shows how when one member of a comedy duo dies the survivor dies by default too.

Jennifer Moore’s Swimming with the Fishes is an odd but delightful tale of a couple of children whose sibling rivalry fixates on a fish tank. You’re not going to get any more info than that as I don’t want to spoil the story for those who’ve yet to read it. I don’t usually care for stories told by child narrators so I was skeptical at first, but the story is so perfectly written that I was never quite sure exactly what was ‘real’ and what was the child narrator’s imagination.

The third story is Charles Lambert’s Pretty Vacant–a title certainly inspired by one of my favourite bands–the Sex Pistols. It’s set in the 70s and here’s how it begins:

Three days before my fifteen birthday my father kisses me on the lips, pinches my left cheek until it hurts, says he’ll always love me and flies off to Madagascar with his new girlfriend, Mia. I’ve seen her once or twice in the back of his car or waiting outside his secretary’s office with a magazine, Bella or Chi, chewing the inside of her mouth, and I’ve wondered who she is. Someone who needs a job and is scared she might not get it, I thought at first, so I was half right; living with my father is a sort of job. My mother’s pretended not to notice . She’s getting ready to move into our summer house near Alghero.

The narrator, Francesca, is shipped off to a boarding school in England with the weak excuse that she needs to “perfect” her English. She’s angry and out-of-place, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that she hooks up with an admirer of the Red Brigades, Gary, a young man who hangs out in a nearby squat. Just as in Little Monsters, Lambert explores the adolescent world in which adults rarely venture, here we see the fallout of Francesca’s summer in exile.

Room 307 is from novelist Mischa Hiller. It’s the story of Callum, a married traveling salesman who runs into temptation. I loved this story for its moral complexities and the exploration of one event that will have lifetime consequences. Callum finds himself in a situation in which the choice he makes doesn’t bring quite the result he expects. Here’s Callum sitting in the hotel restaurant, lonely and bored as he waits for his unexciting meal to arrive:

He sipped at his half pint of lager and studied the generic artwork on the walls. he had stayed in many of this chain’s hotels and they all looked the same. same faux-traditional pub decor in the restaurant, same anodyne and inoffensive prints on the walls, same bored staff in white and black, same tiny en-suite bathrooms with mouldy grouting round the shower end of the bath. They didn’t even have a newspaper at reception he could hide behind, and he had left his petrol-station thriller in his room.

But Callum’s evening is about to change for the better… or so it seems….

Dress Code by Halimah Marcus, a wonderful story about a teacher who goes off the rails big-time, tied in very well to the recent reading of You Deserve Nothing. As the title suggests, this is a story that involves the element of school uniforms, and the story evolves around Episcopal Academy’s Casual Fridays“–the one day of the week when students are allowed to wear something other than their uniforms.  To English teacher, Linus, he “knew there’d be problems as soon as he read the letter [from admin], which included a list of forbidden garments and areas of flesh.” What happens to poor Linus is funny in a strange sort of way because as readers we can see it coming as we witness Linus stepping right into a PR/PC nightmare. Author Halimah Marcus captures perfectly the sense that teachers sometimes have that the best way to reach students is through honesty and utter equality, but that idea is a philosophical mirage as there are two sets of standards in the power-dynamic for students and teachers and Linus finds that out the hard way.

The Romantic by Colin Corrigan is the rather sad story of an Irish  one-armed poet who meets a lonely American woman in a pub. It’s a painful reality check evening in more ways than one.

In After all the Fun We Had by Ryan Shoemaker, a desperate school administrator, terrified by dwindling attendance figures goes all out to lure pupils back to the classroom. His methods become increasingly outrageous, and all this bribery devolves to its natural and comic conclusion.

In Glenda by Alan Jury, Charlie a young man whose wife has left him finds himself embroiled in a complicated relationship with his mother-in-law. Meanwhile his wife, Kathy is living with an “over-groomed sales director in Bristol.”

Glenda had first come to the house on the Saturday after Kathy had left him, and that same night the two of them had gotten riotously drunk together for the first time.

There’s another child narrator in Get on Green by Jason Atkinson. The child narrator is 4-year-old Tonya, and the story follows Tonya’s day at school as she moves from reality to sleep, role models to rebellion, and all this while school dominates with images of conformity.

Hunting for new authors, I read a lot of short story collections, and this is the best overall collection I’ve read this year. The 3rd issue of anthology is due out in the new year, and you bet I’ll be buying it. The anthology is available via subscription but I bought mine via the kindle. Rock on 21st century….


Filed under Atkinson Jason, Benmore James, Corrigan Colin, Fiction, Hiller Mischa, Jury Alan, Lambert Charles, Marcus Halimah, Moore Jennifer, Shoemaker Ryan

You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

“Fear. That is what separates the hero from the common man. It’s crossing the room. It’s not complicated.”

After concluding Alexander Maksik’s novel, You Deserve Nothing, I began to wonder just who the  ‘you’  refers to.  Could it refer to Will Silver, an American who’s ditched his wife for vague reasons and now teaches at a swanky Parisian school for over-privileged teens? Could it refer to Marie, a young girl who develops a huge crush on Will? Could it refer to Gilad–another adoring pupil of Silver’s? But then again, by the time the novel ends with an emptiness created by absence and a lack of explanations, perhaps  ‘you‘  refers to all those involved in this page-turner tale of teacher-pupil classroom power dynamics & transference.

The story unfolds through three perspectives, and the first three short chapters are narrated by Will, Gilad and Marie post trauma and scandal. The story then moves swiftly back to the past, and we see Will Silver, a young teacher separated from his wife, living in Paris and teaching under dream conditions. By dream conditions,  I should clarify that Will teaches a sum total of four classes; all of the students are bright, inquisitive, already wrapped in a sound education, and what’s more the class size is very small–perhaps, as it turns out, too small….

Will is a dedicated, dynamic and charismatic teacher who’s teaching for the third year at the International School (ISF) in Paris. His reputation in the school is such that students look forward to his classes; he has a way of posing vital questions to his students even as he challenges their cocooned beliefs. Parents–mainly diplomats, high-ranking military personnel and wealthy businessmen–invite Will to their homes and thank him for his genuine interest in their children. Most of the students, while wealthy and privileged, lack stability in their lives, and Will is the intellectual figure that all the students aspire to impress and imitate. While some of the students are extremely cultured and sophisticated, other students suffer from the other issues:

These kids like Mike Chandler who were fluent in several languages and cultures, who were so relaxed, so natural in exquisite apartments at elaborate parties, who moved from country to country, from adult to adolescent with a professional ease, were not the standard at ISF.

Most were kids who’d been plucked from an Air Force base in Virginia and deposited in Paris, who resented the move, refused to adapt. The move only strengthened their faith in conservative American politics. They refused France. Their rebellion was, by default, an adamant rejection of their new home and all things French. Their families bought food from the commissary at the American Embassy. Kid’s who’d return from weekend trips talked excitedly about the Taco Bell and Burger King they’d found at Ramstein.

You Deserve Nothing covers some very familiar ground, but Alexander Masik’s first novel rises above the crowd for its treatment of philosophical and moral issues. While this is manifested in the choices made in the multiple, sometimes conflicting narratives, the moral and philosophical issues also exist as an undercurrent to the drama that takes in the lively and realistic classroom scenes. Silver designs a senior seminar course which includes coverage of Sartre, Camus, Macbeth and Existentialism. He leads the discussions with the aim of sparking independent thought & intellectual curiosity, but Silver runs into some fairly common problems when it comes to the topic of religion, the issue of choice, & taking responsiblity for the decisions we make. The classroom dynamic, however, also begins to encompass Silver’s not-so-secret personal life, and Silver, who’s been put on a pedestal by most of his worshipful students, does not live up to their expectations or follow the creed he teaches. While classroom discussion is supposed to dissect and discuss hypothetical situations, Silver’s behaviour gradually comes under condemnation from all those around him.

It’s very easy to jump in on the band wagon and call for Silver to be run out-of-town, that’s not the only issue here.  Undercurrents of jealousy run between the students, and classroom politics impact what happens–everyone idolizes Silver, and it’s painful for worshippers to witness the fall of someone who’s been judged to be morally superior. In some ways, this is a coming-of-age novel, at least it is for Gilad who finds the entire distasteful episode devastating. To Gilad, who’s half in love with Silver, his hero is a positive male role model–perhaps the man he’d like to be, and certainly a man to be contrasted to his own brutal, half-drunk and abusive father. Gilad is essentially the confused outsider–someone who tries to make sense of it all, and although he’s not directly involved, he’s certainly impacted by the events that take place. Gilad, a sensitive and idealistic young man, can’t understand his parents’ troubled relationship, but as his mother explains, life isn’t always what you expected it to be:

People used to tell me when I was young that I didn’t know what I was capable of, that my intelligence was limitless, that I could do anything. Which I’ve come to realize is true in both directions. I never imagined that I was capable of this life. It would have seemed impossible to me when I was younger, but god do we surprise ourselves. They never tell you that what we surprise ourselves with may be disappointment.  

There’s an incident in the novel that I’m still mulling over. Without ruining the novel with spoilers, both Will and Gilad bizarrely walk way from a horrific event and don’t consider offering to be witnesses. The subject simply never comes up. I’m not sure if this is a failure on the part of the novel or if this is an intentional development which illustrates both Will and Gilad’s detachment from events. I think I’ll land on the latter.


Filed under Fiction, Masik Alexander