Tag Archives: writer’s life

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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The Death of the Author: Gilbert Adair

“Reader, I tell a lie.”

Gilbert Adair’s Love and Death on Long Island  features a reclusive author who fell in love with an American heart-throb, and after enjoying this dark tale of obsession, I turned to Adair’s The Death of the Author. This book also features another middle-aged, bachelor author, but this time it’s Leopold Sfax, a man whose egomania exceeds even that of Giles De’Ath in Love and Death on Long Island. Giles De’Ath looks positively humble and congenial next to the malignant Leopold Sfax, a smug, celebrity professor who is enthroned at New Harbor, one of America’s most prestigious Ivy League schools. Sfax is a philosopher, theorist and critic best known for The Theory–an approach to criticism which has dominated campuses across the country since the 80s. Sfax is “the most celebrated critic in the United States,” and with The Theory applied to literature, “the Author was to find Himself declared well and truly dead.”

I had demonstrated that it was for the text to ‘write’ its author rather than vice versa, the presence of a human sensibility somehow embedded with that language, within that text, had at last been understood for what it truly was: an absence, a void. The old and handy pedagogical dichotomies, the so-called binary oppositions that had once served to authenticate the truth and completeness of the Author’s interior universe–identity and difference, nature and culture, self and society–had at last been reversed or dissolved.

The book opens with Sfax meeting Astrid, a “flickeringly brilliant if too conventionally focused” former graduate student, who tells him she plans to write his biography. Sfax, our first person narrator, is obviously not thrilled by the proposition and tells her that he will cooperate but that she will not ‘get’ him–that no one ever has. Perhaps that reaction isn’t too surprising from a critical theorist, or is there something else afoot? Something far more sinister? How much of Sfax, paradoxically, lies in his theory?

I proposed that, again, in every text, there would fatally arrive what I called an aporia, a terminal impasse, a blank brick wall of impenetrability, an ultimatum of indetermination, when its self-contradictory meanings could no longer be permitted to coexist in harmony and its fundamental ‘undecidability’ would undermine for ever the reader’s most fundamental suppositions.

Following the meeting with Astrid, Sfax begins to tell his own story, and yet even as the narrative of reinvention flows, holes appear in Sfax’s past–his life in France during the Occupation, the disappearance of a friend, his decision to move to America with “its bright patchwork of opportunity, its whole candid candied hugeness,” his humble beginnings in a book shop and his leap into academia with “the chance to no longer toil in some obscure store, handling other man’s books the way a bank teller must handle other men’s money.”

the-death-of-the-author

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss of this slim novel of 135 pages, but I will say that if you enjoy novels about campus life and academic skullduggery, you should try this novel. Obviously Gilbert Adair has fun here (referencing Barthes) with this tale of university competitiveness, backstabbing academics and the unassailable qualities of dominant theories that hold academic disciplines in thrall. Even Giles De’Ath from Love and Death on Long Island is mentioned here in a passing reference to being an advocate of the Theory.

Adair, who breaks through that fourth wall, has a marvellous way with words which trickles down through his insufferable, snotty narrator. Here’s Sfax’s great enemy in the department, a hapless, harmless fellow named Herbert Gillingwater:

a kind of Peter Pan in reverse, never known to have been young. Indeed, his mousy nicotine-stained moustache and frankly sepia beard impressed one as older even than he was, deeply unappetizing hand-me-downs from some ancient parent; and it was claimed of him, an old maid of a bachelor, that if the striation of the corduroy suits he wore in all weathers looked as raggedly corrugated as it did, it was that he would freshen it simply by plunging it every six months or so into a sinkful of boiling water and detergent.

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Love and Death on Long Island: Gilbert Adair

“With each day now came an intensification of my secret life.”

Character is fate, as the saying goes, and yet how to explain the behaviour of a middle-aged British author, a recluse from the crass elements of modern culture,  who goes off the rails with his obsessive infatuation with a youthful American heartthrob?

Giles De’Ath, a middle-aged widower, has penned four novels decades earlier, and he’s earned “the ungrateful epithet of writer’s writer.” All four books, read mostly in France “shared the theme of sacrifice,” but ultimately not one of the sacrifices “is shown to have been justified.” In academic circles, various theories float regarding the meaning of De’Ath’s work, and over time, the author, who has steadfastly turned from public life, “returned to fashion.” De’Ath is writing again; this time it’s a non-fiction book called The Gentrification of the Void which is about to be published. It’s easy to call De’Ath a snob for eschewing modern values and tastes; he certainly looks down on most of the population  and believes that the “stupidity of the world is rivalled only by its ugliness.

love-and-death

One day, circumstances lead to De’Ath walking along an unusual route. He takes shelter in a cinema, and enters the showing for the wrong film. It’s a horrible, cheap third rate teen film called Hotpants College II. He’s about to walk out in disgust when a shot of a young male actor catches his attention, and this is the beginning of Giles De’Ath’s obsession with American heartthrob, Ronnie Bostock.

Soon, De’Ath can’t think of anything else but Ronnie. He stalks London newsagents for imported fan mags, deeply ashamed of his purchases but unable to squash the need to buy anything he can that features Ronnie. Next he buys a television (after learning the hard way that he needs one to play VHS tapes), and then it’s off to the video rental shop for Ronnie Bostock’s meagre backlist: Tex Mex and Skid Marks

I would rerun these two precious tapes of mine until scarcely a heartbeat was struck that I failed to anticipate the instant before. A film viewed this many times, I discovered, however mediocre may appear its point of departure, must always end by acquiring unto itself a special kind of beauty, the beauty of things that are or have come to seem inevitable. Each negligent and certainly unrehearsed gesture, each fortuitous element have swum unsuspecting into the camera’s ken–a face in the crowd, a fleeting, half-glimpsed landscape, some irrelevant, ‘non-signifying’ message just legible in a drugstore window or on an extra’s teeshirt–would by the umpteenth viewing have been branded into the film’s textures, its grain, its very pores, as though all along it had to be so and no other way, as though it were one of the cinema’s vocations, and perhaps its most elevated vocation, thus to statufy spontaneity, to render the incidental indelible, to hold the random to account.

De’Ath, who considers himself “asexual” studies Ronnie Bostock rather as someone studies a foreign language. He intellectualizes his obsession and comes to the conclusion that, even through the somewhat questionable lens of the sycophantic fan mag, there’s something pure and innocent about Ronnie when compared to the other actors of the same age range and status with their “haunched hips and shamelessly flaunted crotches.”

After De’Ath reads some distressing news about Ronnie’s future plans, De’Ath decides to travel to America to meet his idol. ….

The novel is written in the first person by De’Ath, and since this is a man who delights in being inaccessible (both literally and figuratively through his work), the narrator’s voice reflects the pedantic De’Ath through labyrinthine sentences. Imagine De’Ath’s voice as someone who prides himself in being apart from the common herd in a tribe of One. (I’m not going to detail the novel that De’Ath is trying to write but it shows how out-of-touch he is to even contemplate such an idea.)

We follow De’Ath’s mordantly funny journey as he descends into obsessed fandom, slyly buying teen mags and disposing of the unwanted pages far from home.  But De’Ath is never a figure of fun, for although he’s obsessed, he only once loses control; his fixation is systematic and directed.

I loved De’Ath’s perceptions of America. He’s very much the outsider but looks at America rather as a killjoy looks at an amusement park–understanding the allure while denigrating its attractions:

The remainder of that same afternoon I spent at the town’s hairdressing salon, where my hair was trimmed and my nails finely manicured by an obsequious little fusspot of a man who, with his own elaborately crimped and wavy locks, was the very image of a barber in a French farce; in the more expensive of its two men’s shops in search of a ‘stylish’ silk tie that might set off to advantage the pale grey, slim-waisted suit I had not yet worn in Chesterfield as it had been bought and laid aside for exactly the present occasion; then in a chic and overwhelmingly fragrant flower shop–located, possibly as the result of someone’s drolly irreverent sense of cause and effect, next door to the gun store-where I purchased a vast bouquet of white ‘long-stemmed’ white roses.

I thought I’d be writing a post about whether or not De’Ath benefited from the experience with Ronnie, but the novel is much deeper and darker than that, and I’m still mulling over the last few sentences.

There’s a wonderful film made of this book, and that’s what brought me to the novel.

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Filed under Adair Gilbert, Fiction

Malice: Keigo Higashino

“It comes down to character.”

Police procedurals are not my favourite type of crime book; I’ve said that many times, but then I read the Japanese crime novel, Malice from Keigo Higashino with contains a plot that managed to do something entirely different from the typical procedural. Malice, with its emphasis not on the perpetrator (we know who committed the crime around the first third of the novel,) but on the psychology of motive is a fascinating read as the detective in charge of the case refuses to take the case’s solution at face value.

So here’s the plot: best-selling novelist Kunihiko Hidaka is murdered in his home the night before he leaves for Vancouver with his wife of one month, Rie. Everything was packed and ready for the move, but Hidaka, alone at the house, was working on a serialized novel. Hidaka was found dead inside his locked office inside his locked house. Yet someone entered the home, bashed Hidaka over the head with a paperweight and then strangled him with a telephone cord. Both Hidaka’s wife and his best friend, a writer of children’s stories, Osamu Nonoguchi have alibis for the time of Hidaka’s death. On the day of Hidaka’s murder, he was visited by a young woman, Miyako Fujio, who was trying to persuade Hidaka to rewrite his novel, Forbidden Hunting Grounds as it portrayed the life of her brother (stabbed by a prostitute).  Police Detective Kyoichiro Kaga begins his investigations. ….

malice

Malice is told, mainly, through the two voices of Osamu and Detective Kaga. The two men were teachers at the same school together, briefly, but Kaga gave up teaching to become a police detective while Osamu eventually became a full time writer. Osamu, for his own purpose, has written down accounts of the crime including the last time he saw Hidaka. Osamu visited Hidaka on the day of his death as did Miyako Fujio, so Detective Kaga requests Osamu’s accounts in order to help him piece together the crime.

With a couple of slips made by the killer, it doesn’t take too long for Kaga to solve the crime, and while he’s pressured to close the case, there’s something that doesn’t quite add up. A mental duel begins to take place between the detective and the perp–a lazier detective would walk away, but Kaga isn’t satisfied with the solution to the crime. Determined to discover the truth, Kaga keeps digging. Eventually he uncovers a simmering resentment, so evil, it’s staggering in its ambition.

Malice was another foray into Japanese crime, and it was an intense, ingenious, deeply psychological read which showed this reader that the police procedural can be full of unpredictable twists and turns. The witness statements and the detective’s speech at the end of the book were a little rough, but apart from that, Malice is highly recommended. The plot interested me, in particular, because it argues that the victim has no one to speak for them.

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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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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.

dear-mr-m

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

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