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After the Fireworks: Three Novellas by Aldous Huxley

“Ostrichism–it’s the only rational philosophy of conduct.”

In Aldous Huxley’s novella, After the Fireworks, fifty-year-old bachelor, author Miles Fanning is in Rome for his annual stay in Rome with his “oldest friend,” Colin Judd, a man Fanning confesses that he doesn’t like, but still a man who is an asset. It’s through Fanning’s relationship with Judd that we first get a glimpse at this famous author’s character, and it’s not a particularly flattering portrait. Fanning uses Judd for his house in Rome, and because of the free accommodations, he’s willing to let the possessive Judd fuss over him.

after-the-fireworks

Most of Judd’s competition is in the form of Fanning’s female fans, and Fanning, knowing this, has the habit of teasing Judd, provoking his friend’s jealousy.

He was having his revenge. Nothing upset poor Colin Judd so much as having to listen to talk about women or love. He had a horror of  anything connected with the act, the mere thought, of sex.

Fanning has received a letter from a twenty-one-year-old fan, Pamela Tarn, who just happens to arrive in Rome. Fanning, who sometimes has affairs with his women fans, knows that Pamela is too young for him, and he knows that he shouldn’t take advantage of her youth or the fact that she worships him. Fanning is happy to flirt with Pamela as she’s an attractive girl with “impertinent little breasts,” and after all, it’s very flattering to have a young, beautiful girl hanging on his every word:

There was even something quite agreeable in resisting temptation; it had the charms of a strenuous and difficult sport. Like mountain climbing.

He mentions Pamela to an old, female friend, Dodo, a woman he contemplated having an affair with years earlier. She knew Pamela’s mother Clare, and according to Dodo, Clare, a mediocre woman, was a fantasist when it came to her GPs (grand passions) and so-called Caprices. It seems likely that Pamela, “vamping by correspondence,” may be a lot like her mother–a born groupie.

What she’s seen of the world she’s seen in her mother’s company. The worst guide imaginable, to judge from the child’s account. (Dead now, incidentally.) The sort of woman who could never live on top gear, so to speak-only at one or two imaginative removes from the facts. So that, in her company, what was nominally real life became actually just literature. Bad, inadequate Balzac in flesh and blood instead of genuine, good Balzac out of a set of nice green volumes

 

After the Fireworks is an interesting tale for its exploration of an author’s relationship with a particularly persistent fan. Fanning enjoys the attention from attractive female fans, and yet also cringes at the thought that anyone ‘understands’ him. He’s well aware that women read his books, identify with the heroines, and imagine that their lives are part of some sort of epic romance (sometimes with him in the picture). It’s a phenomenon known as “Miles Fanningism”

The plot contains some chapters with Pamela writing, rather immature observations about Fanning, in her diary, while inadvertently revealing her youth, inexperience, and unrealistic worship. After the Fireworks has a literal and figurative meaning with Fanning arguing, logically, in one particularly strong passage, why they shouldn’t engage in a love affair, but the problem is that Pamela won’t take no for an answer…

This could have been written as a tragedy (Anna Karenina is mentioned) but instead this is an excellent novella about human folly. Just because we know we shouldn’t do something, doesn’t mean that we will behave sensibly. The story had a Jamesion feel to it, and no doubt the location accentuated the connection.

This is one of three novellas published in a single volume. The others are Two or Three Graces and Uncle Spencer. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale and was pleasantly surprised by Huxley. Isn’t that a great cover?

Review copy

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Siracusa: Delia Ephron

“An eight-day vacation-how could that hurt”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for tales about people on holiday, and that explains why I was drawn to Delia Ephron’s novel, Siracusa. This is a tale of two married couples who decide to spend a holiday together in Siracusa, Sicily. Both of the marriages under scrutiny here are pathologically troubled, and yet on the surface, everyone functions within those troubled relationships. But more of that later…

New Yorker Michael is a Pulitzer prize-winning play writer who’s stymied with his novel (featuring his alter ego and heavily influenced by The Red and the Black). He’s cheating on his wife, journalist Lizzie, who in the internet age, can’t quite seem to find her niche. Years earlier, Lizzie had a fling with Finn, who is now a restaurateur in Maine and married to Taylor, a beautiful blonde who heads the tourist bureau in their hometown. Finn and Taylor have a 10 year-old daughter, Snow. They all met in London the year before and had a great time, and this year Lizzie plans a trip to Italy. First stop Rome and then on to Siracusa.

siracusa

Siracusa is told through four different narrative voices–the only character we don’t hear from is Snow ( a wise choice by Ephron). Snow, according to Taylor, suffers from Extreme Shyness Syndrome. Well I suppose that’s one way of putting it. In reality, the child is disturbed, extremely manipulative and communicates, sometimes in “clucks,” with Taylor acting as both Snow’s conduit to the world and as her mostly intuitive interpreter for the rest of the company. According to Finn, Taylor, “doesn’t have a clue where she ends and the kid begins.”

While the two marriages here are pathological, I’d say that Taylor’s relationship with Snow trumps the lot. Taylor (think Blonde American Princess), who already has a superiority complex, and thinks that she’s married beneath her, sees her daughter as perfect.  Snow is an accessory to Taylor’s beauty and perceived pedigree, but since Snow and Taylor sleep together, the child also acts as a wedge between Taylor and Finn. Not that Finn really ‘gets’ it. This is a man who takes life lightly; he smokes secretly (breaking his promise to Taylor) and is busy contemplating an affair of his own.

Ephron does an excellent job of showing just how dysfunctional marriages still manage to function. The dynamic between Finn, Taylor and Snow is appalling, yet everyone acts as though their interactions are normal–as if Taylor’s relationship with Snow isn’t pathological. Taylor orders food for Snow, speaks for her, voices her opinions, and even tells Snow how to react emotionally to her father’s laughter. Taylor may think she’s helping her daughter but in reality, she’s enabling Snow’s  behaviour.

Taylor, wrapped up in her daughter, never letting her out of sight, admires Michael as a great writer, and Snow… well Snow develops a crush on Michael. Egomaniac Michael, sensing Snow’s worship begins paying her attention. In the meantime, Taylor thinks the whole holiday has been organized by Lizzie so that she can get her hooks into Finn. As for Finn, he sees something that puts him in a moral quandary, and Lizzie is so busy trying to get Michael’s attention, she doesn’t see some warning signs.

Although you never know in a marriage who is responsible for what, do you? Husbands and wives collaborate, hiding even from themselves who is calling the shots and who is along for the ride.

Given the festering nature of these two marriages, and that these people decide to holiday together in order not to be alone with their respective spouses, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the holiday goes horribly wrong, and that some of the characters find themselves in therapy afterwards. Ephron’s tale, however, is not as predictable as it might seem to be. …

Some authors can never seem to pull off creating different voices, but there are four very convincing separate voices in this tale. Through the different narratives, Ephron shows us how these two sets of spouses don’t really know each other at all. The fussy, perky slightly neurotic voice of Taylor is convincingly annoying.

Whenever we go on a trip, Finn, Snow, and I stay in the same room. Snow and I sleep in the double bed. Finn takes the cot because he stays out late. That way no one gets disturbed. Because of running a restaurant, Finn is an owl. Sex in this culture, it’s importance, is overrated, and that’s all I’m going to say on the subject.

And in contrast here’s Finn:

I felt like something dirty she’d forgotten to wash off. Tay threw herself into packing. I watched that sick enterprise–the compulsively neat way she folded things. One uneven crease and she begins again.

I had fun reading this. About the first half of the book is spent in the build up to Siracusa, and on one night there’s a seemingly innocent conversation that takes place around the dining table when the adults all answer the hypothetical question whether or not they’d “give an alibi to someone you loved for a crime they committed.” An all-important moment as it turns out…

I don’t know if I was supposed to find the novel funny. Perhaps that’s a question for the author, but for this reader, the novel was nastily funny (I laughed in quite a few places as the situation devolved). Aside from Lizzie, all of the other characters are appalling people, so if you want to read about likeable people, then this book is not for you. Delia Ephron has a disturbingly canny eye when it comes to dissecting the complicated politics of marriage. Taylor, for example,  is insufferable but rather than confront her, Finn refuses to take things seriously and makes everything a joke. Taylor is constantly referencing her divorced mother, and Finn gets his digs in with comments such as Taylor’s dad “escaped.” Then there’s the entire Snow Situation… this child gets so much attention and yet still manages to slip under the parental radar.  When bad things happen, in “Siracusa. Where everything went in the shitter, we know these characters brought this all upon themselves.

Review copy

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Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido

“It beats me,’ said my Aussie, as we watched the oncoming drizzle, “why nobody thought of turning this place into a penal colony and exporting the British populace en masse to Australia.”

Barbara Trapido’s novel Brother of the More Famous Jack, originally published in 1982 has recently been reissued. I’ve seen the book described as a coming-of-age novel, and that’s a good description, but at the same time, if it fits, then the ‘coming-of-age’ is a long slow process for the main character as she moves through three major love affairs from age 18 to her 30s. Life is seen through the eyes of a very impressionable young woman from a modest background who’s propelled forward by education into the exotic, eccentric and chaotic world of the Goldmans–a large, sprawling family headed by Professor Jacob Goldman. Eighteen year-old Katherine first meets Professor Goldman when he conducts an interview with her for a University place. Katherine’s deceased father was “a modestly comfortable local greengrocer” and her narrow-minded mother insists on a “genteel North London day school” in order to “acquire the right accent and be fit to mix in the right circles.” Goldman, an outspoken, confident, and bombastic intellectual isn’t what Katherine’s mother had in mind as the sort of person to help shape her daughter. “An impressive and powerful left-wing philosopher up from the East End,” Goldman is an overpowering individual who shows kindness to Katherine, and over time she becomes a part of the Goldman extended family.

Brother of the more famous jackYou never know when you first meet someone what sort of role he or she is going to play in your life. In Katherine’s case, when she meets the Goldmans and falls in love with the entire family, she has no idea that she’s taken a very specific life course, one that will have profound impact on her choices.

It was a marriage characterized among other things by the fact that Jacob was alternately infuriated and enchanted by Jane’s resolutely playing the country wife. There is no doubt that it influenced the paths that I chose to tread.

Shortly after meeting Goldman for the interview, Katherine finds herself at his home, as the guest of a mutual friend, architect John Millet, a man who plays a strange game with the Goldmans–flirting outrageously with Goldman’s heavily pregnant wife Jane, a “neglected Burne-Jones in Wellingtons” while planning to seduce Katherine under their roof. Katherine suspects, and she’s spot on, that she’s being used as some sort of jealousy tool by Millet. While Goldman dominates the family and rules the roost, Jane, who shares the same opinions with Katherine about Austen’s Emma, is quietly fascinating:

I find her wonderfully gossipy and conspiring. We are drawn together into an intimacy not only by the melodrama in the onion patch, not only by a happy accidental affinity of mind, but because I believe that I answer a need. As women do, she has sacrificed distant female friendships on the altar of a contented marriage. She has been assimilated into her husband’s tribe of male academics, male bohemians, male politicos, and predominantly male children. She makes rapid commitments with the logical clarity of hallucination. She tells me at once that she jacked in Oxford after knowing Jacob for three days and went to live with him instead.

The weekend at the Goldman’s Sussex countryside home seals Katherine’s fate. As an only child from a sterile, confining social-climbing home, she’s entranced by the Goldmans and their boisterous, argumentative and disinhibited children. Professor Goldman’s unabashedly gropes his wife in front of everyone, and his continual references to sex rubs off on the entire family in one way or another. Unlike his father Jacob, the eldest son, Roger, conventional and never comfortable with sex, is destined to become a pillar of the establishment. In another scene Jacob’s small daughter has decided suddenly to inform guest John Millet about physiology:

“Jane’s baby is going to get born through a very stretchy hole,” she says. “And only girls have them. If you’re a boy or a girl you stay a boy or a girl, you know.’ There is more sex education about than I have encountered in my whole life.

That short quote says a lot about the Goldmans’ family dynamic: the children refer to their parents by their first names, and no subject is taboo. Katherine, whose home life is restrictive and conservative, doesn’t see the pathological implications under the surface of the Goldman family and instead she’s entranced by the foreign experience of candid behaviour which we can see borders on rude and abusive at times.

This simple weekend sets Katherine on a course that defines her life well into adulthood–through three major love affairs–all influenced by the Goldmans. It’s not until Katherine is in her 30s that she has occasion to re-evaluate her impressions of the family.

When I picked up Brother of the More Famous Jack, I thought I was going to read a book set in Academia. Although Jacob is a professor, there’s very little here about academic life, and instead the novel is much more about Katherine’s three major loves affairs (which include one disastrous relationship with a very macho, fascistic and bombastic Italian–and am I the only one who thinks that he shares some characteristics with Jacob?). Like most coming-of-age stories, this is a bittersweet tale, and yet also at times quite funny. There’s one wonderful scene when Jane Goldman wants to persuade her son, Jonathan, the “flower child” to take the Oxford Entrance Exam and she’s not getting much help from her husband. Here’s a scene between Katherine, Jane and Jonathan:

‘Katherine is going abroad,’ she said. ‘She’s got herself a very nice job. There’s a moral in that, somewhere, which you might pick up.’

‘Piss off,’ Jonathan said to her. ‘Where are you going, Katherine?’

‘Rome,’ I said. ‘I got some Italian money today. Can I show you my Monopoly money?’ I pulled out of my purse my wad of wonderful lire. We gazed at them, the three of us. Jane started suddenly with new inspiration.

‘You wouldn’t stoop to bribery, would you, Jontikins?’ she said.

Jonathan, who had relaxed over the banknotes, returned to his hostile stare.

‘It’ll take you a lot of fucking Smarties to get me to write that exam, lady,’ he said.

‘I was thinking more of something like six hundred pounds,’ she said. ‘Stay and write the exam and I will give you six hundred pounds. You could have a better time in Europe with the money, you know.’ Jonathan left the room, but suddenly he was there again.

‘You haven’t got it,’ he said.

Although never overplayed, there’s a subtle thread of feminism in this tale–mostly seen through the strong connection between Jane and Katherine and the choices & sacrifices they make in their lives. Katherine’s quiet, steady narrative voice is one of the book’s stronger attractions as she wades through identity, love, rejection and loss in a life full of characters whose dominant personalities vie with her meeker ways.  Author Barbara Trapido was born in 1941 in South Africa but now lives in the U.K. I’d never heard the name before seeing this book which, incidentally comes with a glowing review from author Maria Semple. While I didn’t love the book, I liked it a lot and would definitely try another book from this author. Loving the book may hinge on whether or not the readers are as beguiled by the Goldmans as our heroine, Katherine.

Review copy

 

 

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