Tag Archives: writer’s life

C’est la Vie: Pascal Garnier

“Happiness for those unused to it is like food for the starving–a little too much can be fatal.”

The times are shaping my reading, and so I turned to an old friend for his signature bleakness, endless despair, death obsession and an exploration of the despicable depths of human nature. Who else could possibly cheer me up? Yes: Pascal Garnier, take me to the dark places of the human soul.

C’est la Vie is 11th Garnier novel I’ve read, and here are the rest: The Panda Theory, How’s the Pain?, Moon in a Dead Eye, The Front Seat Passenger, The IslandersBoxes, Too Close to the Edge, The Eskimo Solution, The A-26, and Low Heights. 

C’est La Vie is a rather different novel for Garnier. Yes it’s full of his signature themes but it’s also a lot lighter. 

Cest la vie

The book opens with middle aged author, Jean-François Colombier, meeting band member/drug dealer son Damian. They aren’t close, and the main point of the meeting, a rare event between these two, is so that Colombier can tell Damian that there’s a new woman in his life, journalist Hélène. Not that Damian cares. 

The book moves forward in time. Yet another relationship has turned sour, and  Colombier, who was so optimistic about Hélène, meets her in a restaurant to turn over the keys to her apartment. And it had looked so promising. 

Everyone has their little habits. You have to put up with them. We had lived together for five years, I with my nose in a glass, she with her nose in powder. Our different ways of anaesthetising ourselves. It wasn’t that I blamed her or that she blamed me but we were both upset because we had believed we would make it together. It’s not easy to escape the shipwreck of the forties, swimming in a dead sea as a thick as pea soup, with that island on the horizon that shrinks as you approach it. 

But perhaps things are looking up. Colombier’s relationship with Hélène may be dead but his new book brings him fame and fortune. He’s not “exactly rich,” but his career is paying off. Then at a book signing he meets a woman named Eve. She’s young, rich, stable and nurturing. Soon they are living together in her inherited chateau. It’s a dream come true. And yet ….

Things are just a little too rosy for Colombier, and feeling like he’s living in a “gilded dream,” he absconds for Paris–not exactly sure what he’s looking for, not exactly sure why he’s disconnected.

I would be in Paris, and then … I wasn’t sure what next. I had no plan other than to escape a life that seemed to belong to someone else and to rediscover what I was used to–a more mediocre existence.

Colombier finds adventure in the shape of a conman, a crazy old lady and a young girl he picks up at party. 

C’est La Vie is full of Garnier’s themes: an amused disgust with humanity, preoccupation with physical decay, and rampant disgust of the human body. Poor old Colombier has the humiliation of a boil on his bottom, and at one point looks at his reflection which isn’t improved by an all-night binge:

I had spent the previous evening drinking and looking in the mirror. The more I drank, the less I recognised the mottled skin dotted with blackheads, the nostrils filled with thick hair, and eyelids the colour of days-old ham that even the worst convenience store would have hesitated to sell to a blind man.

Garnier pushes the boundaries of his readers, and there are times when even I wince at some plot elements. Colombier comes off as a middle aged idiot whose angst and self-centeredness leads him to a surreal life lesson that scares him straight. We humans can have it all and it’s still never enough. This short novel isn’t nearly as bleak as the others I’ve read; it’s much less dark and is basically a middle-aged affluent man’s nightmare. It’s not my favourite, but I still enjoyed it. 

Translated by Jane Aitken

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On the Holloway Road: Andrew Blackman

“The only thing he believed in was chaos, for in chaos he saw the only small chance he had of feeling alive.”

Jack Maertens, would-be writer, sliding into middle age, lives with his patient, supportive mum in north London. Jack is stuck in a rut “trying and failing to finish a long, learned novel packed tight with the obscure literary allusions and authentic multicultural credentials that the publishers loved in those days.” Jack could have stayed spinning on his hamster wheel going nowhere for years or perhaps he would eventually have given up and crept away to find a job. But these things didn’t happen because Jack meet Neil.

Compared to my own sad, shambling existence in the shadows of lie, his was a kaleidoscope. I peeped from behind my mother’s curtains at the world outside and wrote about people like Neil.

Jack meets larger-than-life Neil in a kebab joint; they talk and spend an evening in a hashish tinged pub crawl, but it’s not a one-off. Neil enters Jack’s life and Jack’s “morose brooding […] suddenly gave way to a riotous drunken haze of colour and noise.” Soon Neil leads Jack on a wild road trip, with the two men, significantly, listening to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road while drinking and erratically driving Jack’s old Figaro up to Scotland. Opposites attract, we know that, but there’s a lot more afoot in this relationship. Jack is definitely attracted to Neil for his joie de vivre. Jack, hasn’t done anything much in the last few years of his life, and now he acknowledges that “Neil was doing enough living for the two of us.” Neil, unemployed, unemployable and a graduate from Feltham Young Offenders Institution takes over Jack’s life. Neil leads and Jack, lost in his failed ambitions, is happy to follow along and sample life Neil-style. Plus perhaps at the bottom of this Jack imagines that he can crawl out of the deep avoidance crevice he lives in, experience life once again, and finish that book.  

But then again, perhaps consorting with Neil is just a sub-category of Writer’s Block.

On the Holloway Road

Part-buddy book, part road trip, part examination of the authenticity of rebellion, the desirability of a world totally void of responsibility, and part an examination of the meaning of life, On The Holloway Road, a fairly short book at around 200 pages, follows the trajectory of Jack’s relationship with Neil as Neil enters Jack’s colourless life, takes over and starts igniting, figuratively that is, fireworks. But the fireworks eventually turn to bombs. 

Neil is chaos in motion; he can’t remain in one place for long; he needs action, activity. He’s manic and probably if I were a mental health professional, I’d conjure up an ICD-10 code. 

Jack’s tolerance for Neil ran farther than mine, but then that’s probably because I knew a ‘Neil.’ That’s not to say that I didn’t love reading about Neil, because I did. These kamikaze people are great fun to read about–but not so much fun when they start buggering up your life.  Jack’s patience runs out with Neil yet he’s still in Neil’s tail wind: first as a participant, then a spectator. 

Neil stood up abruptly and went over to a young suited man who was talking particularly aggressively into his phone about meetings and sales targets. He leaned over his shoulder and mimicking a female voice, said, “Come back to bed, big boy. I want you so bad it hurts.”

The poor man covered his phone too late, grabbed his bag and ran away from Neil pouring pleading explanations into the phone as he went. That kept us entertained for a time, but Neil, I now became aware, was like a child who tires quickly of every diversion. In the drunken, loud mobs of life in the pubs of Holloway Road I had never really noticed it, but sitting there in the sober neon glare of the morning, with my brain tired and sluggish, and nothing but the inside of a service station to look at, I felt Neil to be a vortex voraciously sucking life out of those around him and still constantly needing more. 

I absolutely loved this book; it’s funny yet poignant. The road trip is an adventure, and like all adventures it has its disastrous moments. Neil, much to Jack’s disgust, spews forth cheesy pick up lines that work on very young “giggling girls, barely old enough to be out of school,” intoxicated women, and a desperate lonely, abandoned wife. Jack is attracted to Neil for the way in which Neil appears to be fearless, but actually reckless is more applicable, and recklessness is wearing. There’s one moment when Jack longs for his resilient, non judgmental mother:

I felt an urge to turn around and drive back to London. I could be there by late evening, just in time to get my mother to make me a toasted sandwich before bed.

At first Neil’s behaviour seems refreshing and lots of fun until it continues … relentlessly… to the point of madness. It’s fascinating to see how Jack at first sees Neil as a Liberator (thinking Thomas Berger’s Neighbors) someone who has all the answers, but then how that gradually slips until Neil becomes this continual train wreck. What does it say about modern life when Neil–someone totally out of control–can appear as though he knows how to ‘live?’ I suppose that’s how cults start.

And here’s Emma’s review.

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An Answer From Limbo: Brian Moore

“The awful things I have done in dreams.”

Brian Moore’s An Answer From Limbo is a bitter look at the price of success, and how we lie to ourselves about our actions. 29-year-old expatriate Irishman, Brendan, lives in New York with his American wife, Jane, and their two small children. Brendan always swore he’d be a great writer, but his novel languishes unfinished. There are plenty of reasons for this: a shortage of time and the need to earn money for his family. When the novel begins, Brendan, is smarting from the news that someone younger than him, a man he considers less talented, has nailed a book contract. Brendan, who’s been sending his mother a pitiful allowance, decides to bring his mother over from Ireland to raise the children so that Jane can go back to work and so that he can finish his Great Novel.

an answer from limbo

Of course there are so many things fundamentally wrong with this plan. Mrs Tierney hasn’t seen her son in years, she’s never met his wife or the grandchildren and self-centered Brendan hasn’t filled his mother in on his plan to exploit her labour to accelerate this Great Novel.

My life in America has been caught up in marriage, in parenthood, in the pursuit of a wage, in the foolish vanity of the few short stories which I published here. My novel has been subordinated to these dilettantish things. I shall be thirty years old next December. I can no longer coast along on ‘promise.’ Performance is the present imperative. I must be Ruthless. I have only one life; I must do something with it. Time, I must find time. 

That quote reveals Brendan’s secret thinking. Fatherhood, marriage and earning a living are hardly ‘dilettantish’ things, but this is how he chooses to prioritize.

In the small New York apartment, Mrs. Tierney very soon realises that all is not well in the marriage. She sees things she shouldn’t; she hears things she could do without. Objectified with complete lack of consideration, Mrs Tierney is left to deal with 2 small children all day long, every day and asks only that she can attend church and mass, but neither Brendan nor Jane respect this. She is literally treated like a slave. Jane, who is going back to work for the first time, feels threatened. She nicknames her mother-in-law Mrs Let-Me. This was all Brendan’s Great Idea but he’s a moral coward, and so he ducks his responsibilities of being the mediator between the two women, and one day, Mrs Tierney’s religious beliefs take her too far. …

The novel is told through several points of view so sometimes the narrative is through Mrs Tierney’s eyes, sometimes from Jane, sometimes from Brendan, and sometimes in the third person. I felt sorry for Mrs. Tierney, who isn’t exactly in the best of health–although no one notices because it’s convenient not to. In spite of being a stranger in New York, Mrs Tierney manages to make some friendships which affirm her individuality and humanity–things that are completely ignored by her son and daughter in law. The plot concentrates on territory, and Jane feels that her mother-in-law encroaches on her territory–although of course both parents were all too happy to abandon their responsibilities at chosen moments. Jane falls prey to the office Lothario and this sets loose a chain of events

While I really liked this novel, there are a couple of cringe-worthy things. Jane has sexual fantasies, which like most fantasies are rather dark and involve all the sorts of sex she isn’t getting with meat-and-potatoes lover Brendan. The minute she gets a job and goes to work, the office Lothario is sniffing around and the inevitable happens. According to Jane, who knows it’s coming and wants it to happen, it was rape, and the lothario also thinks that Jane wants to be able to say it was rape. Women say no but they really want it, right?

“So,” Vito said. “I finally decide that she wants to but she wants to be able to say it was rape. I couldn’t stop him your honour, he attacked me.”

The book also reflects the characters’ racial attitudes and there are a few comments about homosexuals and lesbians.

The novel does a good job of looking at a writer’s life and the sacrifices that must be made in order to succeed–although in Brendan’s case, of course, he’s heartless and “ruthless.” He tells a doctor acquaintance, a man who runs a small literary magazine, that he’s quit his job, sent his wife back to work, and hauled his mother over from Ireland to take care of the kids.  The doctor praises Brendan for his ruthlessness.

“Exactly,” said he. “Ruthless, that’s just what I mean. Now I’m a surgeon, I cut people up. I’m a helluva cool surgeon, you ask them down at Saint Vincent’s, they’ll tell you I’m a cold one. But although I can cut people’s guts out, I’m chicken. Not like you. You came in her today, pale as plaster, and you told me your mother’s just arrived and she’s like a stranger to you and you’re worried if she’ll be happy here. What have I done, you said. But you’re play-acting. You don’t care. You brought her here without ever asking yourself whether she’d be happy or not. And the only reason you’re afraid now is because you’re worried your little scheme isn’t going to work. You don’t give a damn about your mother, really, All you care about now is finishing your book. And that Brendan I envy you.

I wanted to add that when I first started reading the book, I didn’t know Brendan’s age. Here are two young professionals in New York, working in publishing, and for a moment I thought they must be in their 40s, so it was shock to find that they are in their 20s….Things have changed.

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According to Mark: Penelope Lively

People, Diana had long ago realised, are what you are up against in life, especially those nearest and dearest to you.”

Biographer Mark Lamming has taken the high road with his career. At Cambridge he considered an academic career, but he wanted to write. He knew he was not a novelist but that he wanted “to live by writing.” So pushing aside the thoughts of a secure career and a pension, and aided by a “small income” from inherited money, he launched into a writing career as a biographer, essayist, and critic.  When Penelope Lively’s novel According to Mark opens Mark, now facing middle age, has established a modest, but respectable career, picking up work here and there. His collection of Somerset Maugham letters and his biography of Wilkie Collins have firmly established his career and now he’s beginning a biography of Gilbert Strong, a mostly forgotten writer who produced “awful” novels, essays and biographies.

According to Mark

Working through the trustees of the Strong estate, Mark travels from London to Strong’s home: Dean Close which now operates as a garden centre and is managed by Strong’s literary executor, granddaughter, Carrie. Due to a somewhat chaotic childhood, Carrie finds solace in gardening, and she doesn’t function well socially or with relationships—the exception to this being her relaxed relationship with her business partner, Bill. 

Carrie is not a reader, and she has little interest in the Strong biography. She has only sketchy memories of her grandfather, and when Mark first meets Carrie, he finds her disconcerting; “there was a provoking passivity about her.” Mark has spent the last 18 months studying every nook and cranny of Strong’s life, and he expects Carrie to show at least some interest.

A clock loudly ticked. Mark picked up his mug and put it down again; the coffee was fairly undrinkable. An occupational hazard; one of Strong’s former mistresses had given him food poisoning with take-away kebabs. He gazed at Carrie’s odd, rather childish face, and looked away. Green eyes, with little brown flecks. “It must have been different here then, with this place in full swing. All those weekend parties. Cary and people. I dare say you sat on his knee.”

“Whose knee?”

“Joyce Cary’s.”

“No,” said Carrie.

“You could have done,” said Mark, with faint irritation. “It’s chronologically quite possible, and he was a friend of your grandfather’s.”

“Well, I didn’t I’m afraid. Would you like some more coffee?”

“No,” said Mark hastily.

“They had servants and all that then,” Carried offered. “Him and Susan. Susan was the person her married after grandmother died.”

Mark sighed. “Yes. Quite.”

Carrie mentions two trunks of letters that are in the attic. Mark was unaware of this extra material and it means that his project will take much longer to complete. So he begins visiting Dean Close ostensibly to catalogue and read the letters but he finds himself drawn to Carrie. Mark’s loyal wife, Diana, who works in an art gallery, sniffs there’s something afoot. …

I enjoyed the book–especially the sections about Mark’s life as a biographer and his quest to find the ‘truth.’ He doesn’t realise that he’s going through a crisis of sorts. He’s spending his life writing about the lives of others–sacrificing to produce these books, and here he is devoting years to a writer who is forgotten–as he himself will be forgotten. Mark’s relationship with his wife, Diana is interesting. They’ve made sacrifices to lead this life they’ve chosen together, and they complement each other. For this reader, the character of Carrie was slightly problematic and unrealistic. So not my favourite Lively but good. 

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The Body of Jonah Boyd: David Leavitt

David Leavitt’s The Body of Jonah Boyd is narrated by Judith “Denny” Denham, a secretary who’s having an affair with her psychology professor boss, Dr. Ernest Wright. It’s the 60s and the story is told in retrospect thirty years later by Denny, and while it’s her story, it’s also the story of the Wright family.

It’s sticky enough that Denny is having an affair (one in a long series of affairs) with her married boss, but the entanglement doesn’t stop there. Nancy Wright, Ernest’s wife, “found” Denny at the hairdresser’s and insists on inviting her home as a “four-hand partner” for the piano. The idea is that Denny is supposed to replace Nancy’s former piano partner and best friend Anne. Denny accepts and so begins her relationship with the Wright family. Denny is frequently a guest at the Wrights’ home, and her invitation to Thanksgiving is secured. On weekends, Ernest and Denny often scurry up to his office above the garage for some gropey sex, while Nancy and the Wright children: Mark, Daphne and Ben are in other parts of the house. Denny doesn’t have a problem with all these complications and claims to keep her relationships with Nancy and Ernest cleanly separate, stating that “my friendship with Nancy was in certain crucial ways remote from my relationship with her husband.”  But is that true?

When Thanksgiving 1969 rolls around, the Wrights’ oldest child, Mark is a draft dodger in Canada, and that’s the Thanksgiving that Nancy’s best friend, Anne and her second husband, Jonah Boyd come to visit.

Denny, whose role was to replace Anne at the piano, has heard so many nauseatingly positive things about Anne that the reality is a shock.

Anne was wearing a wool coat that had been torn near the pocket and then clumsily restitched, and she carried an enormous, shapeless handbag. She had shaggy red hair that was graying at the roots, nicotine-stained teeth, a thick middle. Also her eye makeup was smudged in a way that suggested she had been weeping. 

All at once, a sensation of misplaced triumph welled up in me. This Anne was a far cry from the willowy creature Nancy had described. Certainly they could never have shared clothes! I admit, my rival’s sordid demeanor–not to mention the expression of concern and disappointment that claimed Nancy’s face as she gave Anne the once-over–sparked in me an unexpected confidence, and I shook Anne’s hand heartily. 

There are obvious marital problems between Jonah and Anne, and while Anne seethes and drinks too much, Jonah sets out to charm everyone. The fact that he succeeds so easily seems to bother Anne, and so she airs some of the marital dirty laundry. It’s not a particularly pleasant evening–especially when, after Jonah gives a reading of his soon-to-be-published novel, teenager Ben insists on reading some of his angst-ridden poetry.

It’s an evening to remember, and as Denny narrates the story we learn about the terrible things that subsequently happened to several of the people who attended Thanksgiving that evening. Years pass and then Denny runs into Ben again. …

Every story must begin somewhere and end somewhere. The author (or the narrator) takes a cookie cutter to life and offers readers just that piece. A large portion of Denny’s time must have existed outside of the Wrights but it seems that they are the most important part of her life. And what a tangled relationship she has with this family. At times she seems to wish herself Nancy’s daughter, and she admits “yearning” “to have been Daphne.” But when you put that in the context of Denny’s affair with Ernest, it seems rather incestuous–especially when there are a few times she sees her affair with Ernest as a sort of revenge against Nancy’s slights. Then there is another time Denny admits that she’s “besotted” with Nancy.  The Wrights seem to have various “needs” for Nancy too, so the relationship between Nancy and the Wrights isn’t a one-way street.

This was a reread. I was struck this time by Ernest’s philosophy to life. Ernest believes that “what people get, most of the time, is what they want,” and this philosophy seems to work itself into the later relationship between Danny and Ben. I wasn’t as convinced by the character of Denny this time around. This is a young woman who has a series of affairs with married men, yet asks nothing from them. Given her feelings about various members of the Wright family, somehow she seems  needy and not the cool I-need-my-space serial mistress type.

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Early Work: Andrew Martin

“Most of my friends were superficial and unpleasant.”

I’m a sucker for certain literary themes: and the flailing writer/academic is a great favourite, so Andrew Martin’s debut novel, Early Work, drew me in.  Protagonist Peter Cunningham is supposedly working on a novel, but … it’s not working out well.

Early work

The novel opens with Peter attending a party at the home of a “New Age-leaning woman named Anna whose family, through what specific brand of plunder I don’t know, owned a gigantic house out in horse country.”

Anna was magnificently curly-haired and just shy of troublingly thin, with a squished cherubic face that seemed to promise PG-13 secrets. She’s grown up in the area and had recently moved back for somewhat mysterious reasons, possibly involving a now ex-boyfriend’s arrest for dealing prescription drugs. She radiated the kind of positivity that suggested barely suppressed rage.

Anna’s “family compound” has the look of a “nouveau hunting lodge,” and Peter, who arrives solo as his long-term girlfriend, medical student Julia, is working, gets a good look at one of the guests through a kitchen window. The woman, Peter soon learns, is Leslie, and once they meet, an immediate banter flows:

Leslie grinned at me, the full-toothed thing, which, maybe, was the first tentative step into the abyss of the rest of my life, or whatever you want to call, it. Love.

Leslie is also a writer, and so the connections between Peter and Leslie are solidified. Peter disregards his current relationship and finds himself competing for Leslie’s attention over the dinner table. Quite soon, it’s clear that Peter’s relationship with Julia is problematic. He doesn’t care if she’s “thinking about someone else,” during sex, and while Peter considers that he’s “intellectually compatible” with Julia, he admits that “neither of us quite expected not to” have sex with “anyone else for the rest of our lives.” 

Dig a little deeper and there are failed ambitions on all sides here. Julia writes poetry, but has plunged into a medical career. Peter met Julia in college, but then he later moved onto Yale and discovered that the PhD program was, for him, a horrible mistake. Deciding “novelists don’t need PhDs. They don’t need shit,”  he dropped out and moved to Virginia to join Julia who was attending med school. The plan was that Peter would write the Great Novel, so as a couple, they’ve become each other’s complex excuses: his drop-out school war chest money supported Julia, and he will have the literary career Julia has turned away from. But as we all know, it’s just not that easy to write a novel let alone sell it:

the book was really a handy metaphor for tinkering with hundreds of word documents that bore a vague thematic resemblance to each other, but would never cohere into the, what, saga of fire and ice that were they imagining.

So this is why we find Peter teaching at a women’s correctional facility and chafing at his relationship with Julia.

I enjoyed parts of this novel and its take on career failures and failures in love. Peter’s voice was sharp and witty but occasionally grating. The main problem was that I really disliked the foul-mouthed Leslie and failed to see her charm. She’s a walking disaster (one of Woody Allen’s Kamikaze Women), but then when was love ever logical? Beyond that, the ending was wobbly, and it was difficult to connect with the characters who are a fairly privileged, vacuous spoiled lot.

review copy

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Life Sentences: Laura Lippman

Cassandra Fallows, soon to be 50 years-old, has two immensely popular, best-selling memoirs under her belt. The first, “My Father’s Daughter,” reveals her childhood, youth, and ends with the failure of her first marriage. The second book, “The Eternal Wife” tells how Cassandra’s second marriage went down the toilet, flushed with innumerable extramarital affairs. So fast forward to Cassandra’s third book: this one is fiction and it’s not selling well. Everyone connected with Cassandra urges her to return to non-fiction as that seems to be her forte.

Life sentences

Cassandra happens to catch a news story which refers to a crime that occurred decades before involving Calliope Jenkins, Cassandra’s former classmate, an afro-american woman whose baby disappeared. Since Calliope’s first child was removed by Child Protective Services previously, the baby’s disappearance, along with Calliope’s history of drug use, takes on sinister overtones. Calliope refused to talk, and the baby was never found. Calliope served 7 years in prison and was subsequently released. Cassandra’s next book begins to form in her head–not exactly “true crime” as she explains:

I don’t know what I’m writing, but there’s clearly a story there. She was one of us once. Not part of our gang, but a classmate. I want to figure out how the path deviates, how we end up in middle age, safe and snug, and she flounders so horribly.

So New York based Cassandra returns to her old stomping grounds, Baltimore, to uncover “the accidents of fate, the choices and temptations we faced.” Soon Cassandra is contacting former classmates: Donna, Tisha and Fatima. To complicate matters Donna is now married to Tisha’s brother who was Calliope’s one-time lawyer. Cassandra also tries to talk to Calliope’s first lawyer, the flinty Gloria, and Teena, the detective who worked on Calliope’s case. People connected with the case were forever tainted by it and the buzz is:

That case, it’s like a curse, isn’t it? Like something you’d see in an old movie.

Memory, truth and perception lie at the heart of this novel. I’ve read several Lippman titles, and Life Sentences is the most impressive. Cassandra has ‘bared all’ in her memoirs, but those memoirs are written according to her perceptions. She may have written ‘her story,’ but when she includes other people as bit players, some are offended. According to Cassandra’s childhood friend, Tisha, Cassandra “thought everything was about her. She’s incapable of telling a story where she’s not at the center.”

While on one level, Life Sentences is about what happened to Calliope Jenkins’ baby, it’s really about the stories we tell–the stories we tell ourselves, our interpretations of events. Those stories can remain safely in our heads, but when we air them to other people, especially other people who may ‘appear’ in those stories, the ‘truth’ slides into parallel, yet deviating, narratives. At one point, for example Cassandra finds herself questioning whether or not a publisher truly doesn’t remember meeting her (and turning down her first book) or whether he’s just trying to save face.

Early in the book, a woman attends one of Cassandra’s readings and asks why she gets to tell a story involving real people, and that is yet another issue that floats to the surface of this multi-layered novel: why should Cassandra tell Calliope’s story? How can she possibly do that? There are many times when Cassandra tries to pull Calliope from the fog of her childhood memories, and it’s clear that she did not know Calliope as other than a figure in the same room. Cassandra may have bared her own life to public exposure, but even then it’s through a lens of her construction. Does she have the moral right to co-opt Calliope’s story?

A middle-aged, twice divorced white Cassandra returning to her old stomping grounds and meeting her former Afro-American friends makes for fascinating reading. While Cassandra set out to tell Calliope’s story–whatever that may be–she runs headlong into what happened to several other women who were connected to Calliope’s case.

The solution to the mystery was the least satisfactory part of this otherwise interesting, highly readable book. The novel is populated with memorable characters including Calliope’s first lawyer, “famously, riotously deliberately seedy,” Gloria, former detective Teena, “if this was what pretty could become, what age could take away from you,” now permanently damaged physically and mentally who still considers the Calliope Jenkins case her ‘bête noire,’ and Cassandra’s philandering father, her “psychic tar pit,” a man who shapes his infidelities into a palatable narrative and massive love story.

Ignore the cover. It does the book no favours.

(The book includes a note from the author in which she explains that the Calliope Jenkins case is loosely based on a real crime.)

TBR stack.

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Difficult Women: David Plante

“You like difficult women, don’t you?”

David Plante’s non fiction book Difficult Women chronicles the author’s relationships with three women: Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and finally, Germaine Greer. What do these three women have in common? They are/were ‘difficult,’ according to the author, and by the time the book is finished, many questions are raised, not just about the relationships recorded in the book, but relationships in general. Why are we attracted to some people and not others? What do we seek in relationships? Why do we expect people to give us what we want when this so obviously won’t happen?

difficult women

It’s 1975 when the author goes to a shabby, depressing hotel in South Kensington for a meeting with Jean Rhys. Jean Rhys is now elderly, over 80, in trouble with her taxes, and a heavy drinker (no surprise there). The author, David Plante, is there in a professional capacity and ends up helping piece together Jean Rhys’s autobiography. It’s not an easy job. Jean’s mind wanders, she’s cantankerous, and manipulative. Anyone who’s read any of Jean Rhys’s novels shouldn’t be surprised to find the descriptions of an elderly Rhys depressing.

This section of the book raises ethical/moral questions. Jean Rhys is a wreck but should this be written about?  But why not? The details of her dodgy make up seem cruel, but then again, are writers, esteemed or otherwise, sacrosanct?

As her hands were shaky, her make-up was hit-and-miss; there were patches of thick beige powder on her jaw and on the side of her nose, her lipstick was as much around her lips as on them, the marks of the eye pencil criss-crossed her lids, so I thought she might easily have jabbed it in her eyes. But the eyes were very clear and blue and strong, and the angles of her cheekbones sharp.

Jean Rhys, naturally, has many stories to tell, mostly between drinks. It’s almost an entirely one-way relationship with Jean talking and the author listening. At one point he mentions his mother:

“How can you like listening to me talk on and on?”

I said, “I used to listen to my mother-“

The corner of her upper lip rose and her face took on the hardness of an old whore who, her eyes red with having wept for so long, suddenly decides to be hard. “Your mother?” she snapped. “I don’t want to hear about your mother.”

I shut up. I thought: What am I doing here, listening to her? Is it because she is a writer? I am not sure I have read all her books, not even sure I admire her greatly as a novelist. Is it because I want to know her so well that I will know her better than anyone else, or know at least secrets she has kept from everyone else, which I will always keep to myself? If so, why?

The relationship with Jean remains difficult. There are times when the author thinks about walking away, but he always returns but can never really pin down Jean’s true opinions. He never infiltrates Jean’s deeper, more intimate memories; she’s locked in the past, but it’s a version of the past which wavers under examination.

I think of how Hardy was protected by his wife, Florence, with a very specific presentation given to the world. After a certain age, mentally fragile people probably should stop giving interviews or limit access unless it’s under some protective supervision. (Of course, some people shouldn’t open their mouths in public, period, but that’s a different story entirely.)

The second section concerns Sonia Orwell. If the section on Jean Rhys is sad, the section on Sonia Orwell is depressing. The author describes Sonia’s tendency, as he sees it, to continually censure others–like some moral policeman. Sonia is a woman of very strong opinions, and over the course of the relationship, the author continually sees Sonia become involved in the problems of others–in a voyeuristic fashion, and when she becomes interested in someone, because of their problems, then she becomes a moral champion whose understanding cannot be matched.

She said, the hardness now, in her voice, “That’s nothing to joke about. It’s a very sad affair, a very very sad affair, and not to be treated frivolously.”

“I”m sorry,” I said.

My flowers in her hand, she said, “No one seems to understand what happens in human relationships, and the sadness of it all. It isn’t anything to joke about. It really isn’t.” 

Sonia also, according to the author, has the habit of picking a “victim” at her parties, “usually a male,” and then this person is belittled every time he opens his mouth. Again the author seeks a deeper, more personal relationship but it isn’t forthcoming. Sonia comes across as humourless, but the author persists in seeking out her company even though the results are mostly aversive.

The final, highly entertaining, section features Germaine Greer. The first view we have of Germaine Greer is not pleasant as she swears like a sailor at a toddler who isn’t fingerpainting ‘properly.’ To be perfectly honest, I came to this section without much prior knowledge of this feminist icon, but I left feeling impressed. What a woman! Yes, probably too much, too competent, too capable, too intelligent, too demanding for any one man, but the force of life bubbling under the surface of Germaine’s skin is evident. The author travels with Germaine Greer to Italy and later meets her in Tulsa, Oklahoma (of all places). In one scene, she chops up a testicle for her cats, in another she talks in Italian about shock absorbers, in another possesses all the technical terms to order up, in Italian, the “proper bricks” for a dovecot she designed. There’s a term for the “renaissance man, ” but what’s the female version?

I recognized that she was always doing something other in her mind, and as intense as her concentration was in what she was doing, there was an air about her of considering, more intensely, something else. I had the vivid impression from her of, at some high level, trying to sort out, not her personal problems , but other people’s problems.

Germaine clearly doesn’t tolerate boors or fools, and milquetoasts had better steer clear. While the author does achieve a personal relationship with Germaine, it’s not quite what he expected, and although these portraits are of three very different women, somehow they reflect back an image of the man who wrote them.

So one man’s view of three women. I wonder what they thought of him? The best biographies offer multiple opinions from multiple relationships. Ask ten different people their opinions of anyone, and you’ll get ten different answers. But here we have memoirs from a man who knew three incredible women. The book was apparently notorious in its day for its backstabbing betrayals. It’s probably less astonishing now, thanks to the invasive times we live in, but it’s still a fascinating read.

Review copy

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Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon

“A writer’s all, Alice, is not taken up by the real world. There is something left over: enough for them to build these alternative, finite realities.”

Fay Weldon’s book Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen takes the epistolary form from the author to her niece, Alice. I knew with the glorious combo of Jane Austen and Fay Weldon, two authors (and women) I admire, I couldn’t go wrong. And I was correct; this is delightful, humorous read, and yes while it’s about Jane Austen, the book is about a lot more than that. Weldon gives us her take on what it means to be a writer, what is means to be a reader, as well as sundry tips to Alice, poor girl, who seems, seen through this one-sided correspondence, to be a bit overwhelmed by … life. And who better to set this young woman straight than her Aunt Fay?

letters to alice

The 16 letters from Aunt Fay (inspired by letters written by Austen to her niece) appear to have started with 18-year-old Alice having a crisis. She’s at university and finds Jane Austen “boring, petty and irrelevant.” Not only does Fay Weldon urge Alice to continue reading, separating entertainment from enlightenment, but argues for the importance of reading literature as perhaps the one thing that can save in us in this life. And thus begins a marvellous description of The City of Invention:

Those who founded it, who built it, house by house, are the novelists, the writers, the poets. And it is to this city that the readers come, to admire, to learn, to marvel and explore. 

Let us look around the city: become acquainted with it, make it our eternal, our immortal home. Looming over everything, of course, heart of the City, is the great Castle Shakespeare. You see it whichever way you look. It rears its head into the clouds, reaching into the celestial sky, dominating everything around. It’s a rather uneven building, frankly. Some complain it’s shoddy, and carelessly constructed in parts, others grumble that Shakespeare never built it anyway, and a few say the whole thing ought to be pulled down to make way for the newer and more relevant, and this prime building site released for younger talent: but the Castle keeps standing through the centuries, and build as others may they can never achieve the same grandeur. 

Fay Weldon argues that “books can be dangerous,” and there’s the example of Alice’s mother who suffered “an overdose of Georgette Heyer” which led to her marriage to Alice’s father. There’s friction between Fay, her sister and brother-in-law, and disapproval of Aunt Fay’s relationship with Alice seeps through the pages. Over the course of the letters, we see slivers of this disapproval as well as extremely witty glimpses of Alice’s life as she converts her love affair with a married professor into writing a book.

Who reads Arnold Bennett now, or Sinclair Lewis? But perhaps soon, with any luck, they’ll be rediscovered. ‘How interesting,’ people will say, pushing open the creaking doors. ‘How remarkable! Don’t you feel the atmosphere here? So familiar, so true: the amazing masquerading as the ordinary? Why haven’t we been here for so long?’ And Bennett, Lewis, or whoever, will be rediscovered, and the houses of his imagination be renovated, restored, and hinges oiled so that doors open easily, and the builder, the writer, takes his rightful place again in the great alternative hierarchy. 

Using Jane Austen as an example, the author also discusses the importance of audience, and argues that while “the life and personality of writers” are not “particularly pertinent to their work,” that writers cannot be separated from “the times” in which they live. Of course, Jane Austen is a wonderful example of that argument. Some of the letters contain some fascinating information about marriage and birth rates during Austen’s lifetime, and just the few succinct statistics really hammer home societal expectations that Austen faced.

The letters also discuss the modern writer’s life as compared to that of Austen. Whereas a modern, published writer may attend book readings and be prepared to “have your own view on everything” it wasn’t so for Austen:

Jane Austen and her contemporaries, of course, did none of this. They saved their public and their private energies for writing. They were not sent in to bat by their publishers in the interest of increased sales, nor did they feel obliged to present themselves upon public platforms as living vindication of their right to make up stories which others are expected to read.

This book of letters is typical Fay Weldon fare: lots of energy, lots of opinions (and some of those opinions are most definitely and refreshingly not PC), and bucketloads of wit. This is a delightful read for fans of Austen, fans of Weldon or those who are considering writing, which is, as Weldon argues “not a profession, it is an activity, an essential amateur occupation. It is what you do when you are not living.”

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Hotel du Lac: Anita Brookner

“Good women always think it is their fault when someone else is being offensive. Bad women never take the blame for anything.”

Edith Hope, an unmarried author of romantic novels has done something bad. Initially we don’t know quite what ‘it‘ is, but whatever happened may have something to do with the affair she conducted with a married man. Edith is packed off, by a somewhat domineering friend, to a Swiss Hotel, the Hotel du Lac which gives “a mild form of sanctuary.”  It’s off-season in this grand, off-the beaten-track, old-fashioned hotel that accommodates to a certain type of guest catering to “the respected patrons of an earlier era of tourism.”

It seems to be permanently reserved for women. And for a certain kind of woman. Cast-off or abandoned, paid to stay away, or to do harmless womanly things, like spending money on clothes.

As an author, Edith is a veteran people-watcher and she is intrigued by the guests. There’s the very popular, elegant Mrs Pusey and her fleshy, robust daughter Jennifer, an aged comtessa who’s been shuttled off to the hotel by a daughter-in-law who doesn’t want her around, and then there’s the very beautiful, languid Monica who has an eating disorder which she shares with her co-dependent dog, Kiki.

hotel-du-lac

Edith watches Mrs Pusey “as if under hypnosis.” Mrs Pusey is a favoured guest with the hotel management and whereas Monica sometimes acts badly, Mrs Pusey can be relied upon to behave graciously.  Everything that Mrs Pusey does is an extravagant performance, from her entrance into the dining room, the tales of her tragic widowhood, to her drinking of tea. Since every performance needs an audience, Edith is co-opted by Mrs Pusey to listen to her “opinions, reminiscences, character readings or general views on life’s little problems.” The sole purpose for the Puseys to be in Switzerland seems to be shopping as “abroad was seen mainly as a repository for luxury goods,” especially lingerie. They’re always off buying knickers according to the refreshingly acidic Monica whose occasionally embarrassing displays are in welcome contrast to the affected manners of the Puseys and their self-loving, fawning mother-daughter routine.

Enter Mr. Neville… an attractive,  comfortably well off, divorced man whose presence shakes up the hotel’s female guests. It’s perhaps no surprise that he zeros in on Monica first, but by the next morning, she’s avoiding him. Assured and slightly sleazy, Mr Neville professes to have “the secret of contentment,” and he advises Edith that “to assume your own centrality may mean an entirely new life.”

Without a huge emotional investment, one can do whatever one pleases. One can take decisions, change one’s mind, alter one’s plans. There is none of the anxiety of waiting to see if that one other person has everlasting she desires, if she is discontented, upset, restless, bored. One can be as pleasant or as ruthless as one wants. If one is prepared to do the one thing one is drilled out of doing from earliest childhood–simply please oneself-there is no reason why one should ever be unhappy again.

Brookner’s books don’t quite seem to fit in the age in which they take place. I noticed this in Dolly, Undue Influence and Look at Me. All of these books concern single, genteel solitary women engaged in bookish professions. Occasionally some reference brings the reader to a recognition of the times, but it was so easy to imagine we were in the earlier world. Incidentally, Hotel du Lac reminded me of A Month by The Lake which is set in 1937.

In Hotel du Lac there’s once again the theme that the writer’s life and marriage/cohabitation don’t mix (it also appeared in Look At Me). There’s also the idea, touched upon in Look At Me and Undue Influence, that men like a certain kind of woman–these days we’d say ‘high maintenance.’ We only see echoes of Edith’s married lover’s wife, but even these tiny glimpses hint that she is one of Brookner’s high maintenance women. Interesting that the high maintenance women land the men (and sometimes the life of ease) while Brookner’s protagonists are left solo, wondering where they went wrong.

Once again, this is a Brookner novel I loved, and after reading the very melancholy Look At Me, I was ambushed by the book’s humour. I wasn’t quite sold by the ending (can’t give away spoilers here, but I don’t think that Edith would have even contemplated going down the same road twice–if you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean). But the rest of this wonderful book is perfect: Mrs Pusey and Monica are brilliant character studies. Monica’s edginess and irritability is in perfect contrast to Mrs Pusey’s saccharine perfection. Here’s Monica without her enabler for once:

“But where is Kiki?”

Monica’s face fell. “In disgrace. Locked in the bathroom. Well, you can’t expect a little dog like that to behave as well as he would with his own things around him. And the Swiss hate dogs. That’s what’s wrong with them, if you ask me.”

There’s one wonderful scene in which Mrs Pusey describes her married life with an emphasis on how her late husband used to spoil her, and this gives Mrs Pusey plenty of opportunity to wax on about her wonderful life, her amazing self-sacrifice and her wonderful things while commenting on how good the local shops are:

She dabbed the corners of her mouth again. “Of course, I have everything delivered,” she added. 

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