Patricia Highsmith, Carol

Patricia Highsmith, Carol. Bloomsbury pb, 2014. First published in the USA as The Price of Salt in 1952

Squeezing this last post in this month before I go on my travels, so there’ll be a hiatus here at TD for a while.

I’ve not read Patricia Highsmith before, but had read some very positive reviews of her psychological thrillers, and have seen films like Strangers on a Train (directed by Hitchcock in 1951) and The Talented Mr Ripley. Carol is very different.

The author explains in an Afterword that the inspiration for the novel came in 1948, soon after she’d finished Strangers, and was living in New York. Being short of cash she took a temporary job in a department store as a sales assistant in the toy department. Like Therese in the novel, she was assigned to the doll section:

One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat.

Patricia Highsmith, CarolShe went home and wrote up an 8-page story outline in her notebook. This was one of those germs of an idea that Henry James has written about; they simmer in the author’s mind for a while and then emerge as works of fiction.

Here’s how the scene plays out in the novel:

Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were grey, colourless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away.

The 19-year-old Therese, an aspiring stage set designer, has had a coup de foudre. What follows is a compelling account of a passion that turns out to be mutual, but beset by the hostility and prejudice against lesbian relationships that were prevalent at the time – and still are, sadly, in some places.

Carol is a wealthy housewife in her thirties, married but soon to be divorced. Her husband uses the situation to ensure he is awarded custody of their little girl.

Therese and Carol go on a road trip out west. They are being followed by a detective hired by the husband. He’s as cynical and unsympathetic as the man who hired him, and the society that spawned them both. The cat and mouse pursuit and suspense that follows is heart-stopping and makes for a compelling read.

Carol was played beautifully by Cate Blanchett in the 2015 film (directed by Todd Haynes).

Not surprisingly, Highsmith published the novel in 1952 under an assumed name; her usual publisher wouldn’t touch it because of its lesbian theme. Big mistake: it sold over a million copies when it came out in paperback.

There’s an excellent introduction in this Bloomsbury edition, by Val McDermid. As she says, it’s ‘a polished and accomplished work’. I recommend it.

 

Writers are monsters: Elizabeth Taylor – Angel

Elizabeth Taylor, Angel. First published 1957; my edition: Virago Modern Classics, 2013.

‘Writers are monsters’, Hilary Mantel concludes in her introduction to this VMC edition. The gloriously inappropriately named protagonist of Elizabeth Taylor’s novel is a bestselling writer (born in 1885) of terrible romantic fiction. She’s the antithesis of her creator: Taylor writes her meticulously acute observation of ordinary lives, usually in unexciting suburban bourgeois settings, able through her sensitive writer’s antennae to pick up the tiniest signals of emotion and strangeness; her style is crisp, clear, restrained. Angel writes outrageously romantic, borderline salacious period melodramas with two-dimensional characters, dredged up from the shallow pool of her limited sensibility in luridly clichéd, overwritten prose. She’s opinionated and ignorant, and hates books and reading almost as much as she dislikes real people and life:

She had never cared much for books, because they did not seem to be about her…

When asked by her publisher when they first meet what authors she’s read and liked, she’s at a loss:

“I quite liked Shakespeare,” she admitted. “Except when he is trying to be funny.”

Angel escapes from and triumphs over reality in her daydreams; ‘she was menaced by intimations of the truth’. Henry James aspired to write ‘the real thing’; Angel

had removed herself, romantically, from the evidence of her senses: the reality of what she could learn by touching, tasting, was banished as a trivial annoyance, scored out as irrelevant.

These adolescent fantasies develop into her badly written stories as antidote to her drab, squalid life above a grocer’s shop in a dismal slum in a bleak industrial city.

It’s a novel that’s as bitter about the dreadful taste of a reading public that makes Angel a fortune from her scribbling as it is about the awful, exposed solitude of the writer’s life.

Elizabeth Taylor, cover of 'Angel'Perhaps that sounds a bit grim – but it’s a very funny, beautifully written book. From the opening words, when we’re treated to the only direct quotation in the novel of Angel’s execrable, purple prose style – an extract from a story written for her teacher (though it’s a style imitated viciously by one of her subsequent publishers) – it’s clear that Taylor has created a deliciously outrageous monster.

There are telling glimpses of the mediocrity of the adults around her that inspire Angel’s venomous animosity from the outset, such as that dull, narrow-minded teacher at a pretentious but useless private school:

She doesn’t believe I wrote it, she thought, glancing with contempt at the flustered little woman with the slipping pince-nez and bird’s-nest hair. Who does she think wrote it if I didn’t? Who does she think could? What a way to spend your life – fussing about with school lessons, getting chalk all over your skirt, going home to lodgings at night to work out the next day’s Shakespeare – cut to page this, line that, so that we don’t have to read the word ‘womb’.

The narrative voice has the wit, insight and sharp eye for detail that is all Taylor; Angel would never be capable of that selective kind of descriptive detail. But it’s a voice that also accurately expresses the viciousness and arrogance of the schoolgirl who so despises this harmless, commonplace teacher. It foreshadows the sheer nastiness, narcissism and intolerant cruelty that Angel displays throughout her life whenever someone criticises her work (which is clearly terrible), or has the temerity to challenge her fiery, rude and obstinate behaviour.

It’s perhaps this aspect of the novel that’s so brilliant. Anyone who’s ever aspired to write has to deal with the conflicting emotions brought about by the critical comments of those who read their work.  Angel has such a wilfully inflated, delusional view of her own brilliance that she’s incapable of accepting criticism gracefully, or of learning from it. She believes she’s perfect, so improvement is a logical impossibility in her view.

Maybe there’s something in this mixture of ‘great vanity’ and self-belief that all aspiring writers experience, but rarely admit to.

Here’s a typically astute piece of humour that also serves to draw attention to the egregious lack of self-awareness in Angel’s character; she receives fanmail, but also letters from clergymen complaining that she’s corrupting the morals of the young:

…these letters gave her a sense of power and she enjoyed reading them…she did not write for children. Letters which merely made carping criticisms, about flowers coming out in the wrong season, Orion appearing in the night sky in August, or some confusions with Greek deities, she put down as the work of literary critics, a part of their general scheme against her.

Typical of Angel, to make the expression ‘literary critics’ into an expletive (as ‘do-gooders’ or ‘anti-fascists’ are for extreme right-wingers). And notice that it’s ‘confusions’ and ‘deities’, plural! That hint of paranoia, too. Wonderful.

Then she picks up another reader’s letter:

“Dear Madam,” she read, “Since you can only describe what you write of from your own experiences, we must deduce from this fact that you are nothing but a common whore. Please keep your excesses to yourself and spare yours in disgust, Lover of Literature.”

When her husband roared with laughter on reading this, Angel ‘looked at him in amazement which changed to cold disdain.’ She can’t understand why he finds it – and her – hilarious, and then she feels sickened and angry; ‘he must be mad’, she concludes. The London EC4 postmark ‘meant nothing to her’; her vanity exceeds her boundless ignorance, for it is, of course, that of Fleet Street and the heart of English publishing.

I wrote in February about Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories and about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

The wolf and the lamb: a fable for our times

I was going to post about Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Angel, which I recently finished reading, but was diverted by an entry in an old notebook of mine about this fable of the wolf and the lamb. It resonates even more today, given recent events in the world.

Three fables of Aesop in the Bayeux tapestry By Joseph Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Three fables of Aesop in the Bayeux tapestry By Joseph Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. The wolf and the lamb is the last one

The beast fables of Aesop (620-c 560 BCE), themselves often derived from more ancient oriental sources such as the Buddhist Dipi Jatakas, were adapted by the Roman poet Phaedrus (15 BCE-50). The text that follows is from a prose translation by H.T. Riley, published in London, 1887, available at Project Gutenberg; I’ve made minor adjustments in line with the original Latin text.

THE WOLF AND THE LAMB.

Driven by thirst, a Wolf and a Lamb had come to the same stream; the Wolf stood above, and the Lamb at a distance below. Then, the villain (thief or brigand, lit.), prompted by hunger (or ‘wicked throat’), trumped up a pretext for a quarrel. “Why,” said he, “have you made the water muddy for me while I am drinking?” The wool-bearer, trembling, answered: “Please, Wolf, how can I do what you complain of? The water is flowing downwards from you to where I am drinking.” The other, disconcerted by the force of truth, exclaimed: “Six months ago, you slandered me.” “Indeed,” answered the Lamb, “I was not born then.” “By Hercules,” said the Wolf, “then ’twas your father slandered me;” and so, snatching him up, he tore him to pieces, killing him unjustly.

This Fable is applicable to those men who, under false pretences, oppress the innocent.

More pertinent is the alternative version by Christopher Smart (1722-71), which ends :

Abash’d by facts, says he, “I know

’Tis now exact six months ago

You strove my honest fame to blot”—

“Six months ago, sir, I was not.”

“Then ’twas th’ old ram thy sire,” he cried,

And so he tore him, till he died.

To those this fable I address

Who are determined to oppress,

And trump up any false pretence,

But they will injure innocence

By Jean-Baptiste Oudry - artsy.net, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48311782

By Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1686-1755 – artsy.net, Public Domain

The fable was adapted many times subsequently; La Fontaine (published 1668-94) of course, but also by the Scots makar, Robert Henryson (fl. 1460-1500). Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about his version (adapted slightly):

It’s about widespread social breakdown. The Lamb appeals to natural law, to Scripture, and to statutory law, and is answered by the Wolf with perversions of all these. Then Henryson in his own person comments that there are three kinds of contemporary wolves who oppress the poor: dishonest lawyers; real estate tycoons intent on extending their estates; and landowners who exploit their tenants.

To this could be added, in our day, the power-crazed in all walks of life, including politics.

I shall be going on holiday soon, so may not post much for a while; meantime I hope to post the Angel piece before I go.

Leopardi on life: Zibaldone revisited

In August 2015 I wrote about Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) and his enormous collection of reflections and thoughts, the Zibaldone. A critical study published yesterday by Peter Lang, Oxford, A System that Excludes all Systems: Giacomo di Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri, by Emanuela Cervato, has this summary on the publisher’s website:

For many decades Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri has been seen as a collection of temporary thoughts and impressions whose final expression is to be found in the published poems (the Canti) and satirical dialogues (the Operette morali). The conceptual consistency of the work was thereby denied, privileging Leopardi the poet over Leopardi the thinker.

This book shows that such a perceived lack of coherence is merely illusory. The Zibaldone is drawn together by an intricate web of references centring around topics such as the ambivalent concept of nature; the Heraclitean «union of opposites» (ancients and moderns, poetry and philosophy, reason and imagination); and the tension between the desire for happiness and the impossibility of its realization. Largely unknown to the English-speaking world until its translation in 2013, the Zibaldone is Leopardi’s intellectual diary, the place where dialogue with the ancient classical traditions evolves into modern encyclopaedism and what has been described as «thought in movement». It establishes Leopardi as one of the most original and radical thinkers of the nineteenth century.

Zibaldone

My copy

My 2013 Penguin hardback copy, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco d’Intino, was translated by a principal team of seven scholars, with additional material by others.

That 2015 post of mine suggested that Leopardi had influenced writers including Walter Benjamin and Samuel Beckett. It’s not a book for reading in sequence from page 1; it lends itself better to dipping in. Here’s an example of the sort of material such a strategy brings out.

I found I had highlighted this passage, on p. 183, entry numbered by the editors as 273:

The majority of people live according to habit, without pleasure or real hopes, without sufficient reason for continuing to live or doing what is necessary to stay alive. If they thought about it, apart from religion they would find no reason for living and, though unnatural, it would be rational to conclude that their life was absurd, because although having begun life is, according to nature, justification for continuing it, according to reason it is not.

Now this also sounds to me a bit (if you strip out that reference to religion, from which Leopardi was struggling to detach himself, it seems) like Camus.

This took me to the entry ‘life’ in the topic index. The quotation above is the first citation; this is the second, which also has a Camus/Sartre element:

The question of whether suicide helps man or not (which is what knowing if it is reasonable or not, and can be chosen or not, comes down to), can be reduced to these simple terms. Which of the two is better, suffering or not suffering? …[he mulls these options over for several lines, then…] And we conclude that since not suffering is more helpful to man than suffering, and since he cannot live without suffering, it is mathematically true and certain that absolute not being is more beneficial and more fitting to man than being. And that being is, precisely, harmful to man. And therefore anyone who lives (if you take away religion) lives because of a pure formal error of calculation: I mean the calculation of utility (p. 1069, entry 2549)

Other entries in the index extend the term to ‘[Life] is not necessary’; ‘What is life?’; ‘Why are we born?’…’Life is an evil in itself’, and so on.

I’m not qualified to examine Leopardi’s philosophy with any rigour; I can only dabble like this and make facile connections and observations. The editors in their introduction explain that he lived at a time after the first generation of Romantics known in Italy as an age of ‘discontent, frustration, melancholy’; Leopardi was grappling with ‘the existential choice between life and death’ (p. xii).

He was born in the Papal States, in Recanati in the Marche. His provincial, ultra-conservative family gave him a strict Catholic education, and expected him to become a priest. His deep study of philology and  the classics and then of contemporary literature, however, lured him in a different direction.

Benjamin Arcades coverHe paved the way in his writing, it would appear then, for Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, the existentialists and post-structuralists. His Zibaldone, like Benjamin’s Arcades Project, can be read as hypertext.

I need to look at the poetry, in which he also found release.

‘Rain and mist and darkness’: Patrick McGrath, Spider

Patrick McGrath, Spider Penguin 1992, first published 1990

Several of the books I’ve recently read deal with the traumatic impact on a child of the loss of their mother and the father’s cold, cruel behaviour, usually intensified by his replacing his wife with someone unsympathetic to that child.

That’s the case in William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow and Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter. Even in Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, the eponymous heroine’s story is precipitated by the death of her parents and her decision to leave the unloving, constraining sanctuary she’d temporarily found with her brother and his family.

McGrath, SpiderPatrick McGrath (born in London in 1950, long resident in Canada then the USA) deals in darker areas of the human psyche. It’s not surprising, therefore, that his eponymous first-person narrator, Dennis Cleg, bizarrely but appropriately nicknamed Spider, will react to his family drama in far more extreme, dangerous ways than the characters in the books I just mentioned.

It’s a painful experience, reading this novel. Spider slowly spins out his web of a story in  sections of flashback – to the childhood when his father abused and tormented both his wife and young son, and to a present when it gradually becomes apparent that the grown-up Spider is living in some kind of halfway house after release from a mental institution.

He has trouble with the time frames: past intrudes into the present, and it’s not always possible for the narrator to distinguish then from now, reality from fantasy. He hears voices and disturbing noises in the attic. He loves the ‘rain and mist and darkness’, the ‘wetness and darkness and skies like thick gray blankets’ of grimy London slum of his childhood. His voice often resorts to that list structure and repetition of such details to evoke an obsessive attention and reaction to his bleak, modern-gothic surroundings.

The adult Spider spends his solitary days walking, sitting by a canal smoking roll-ups and trying to avoid looking at the gas-holders. He has a thing about gas, for reasons only revealed near the end.

I found this troubling and unsettling to read, not always in a rewarding way. I know when he was a child McGrath’s father was medical superintendent at Broadmoor Hospital, treating criminally insane inmates, and that he himself worked in a Canadian top security unit in a mental health centre. He uses this first-hand experience to chilling effect in his writing.

It’s never possible to rely on this narrative’s veracity; Spider’s story becomes increasingly incoherent and contradictory as his disintegrating mind circles around the objects caught in his web of memories and fantasies. There’s a murder, but he refuses to accept that he committed it, even though it results in his being institutionalised for decades. As a drastic coping mechanism he learns to split his identity or personality, one representing his ‘good’ side, the other that’s been ‘poisoned’ and gone ‘bad’.

He has an unhealthy attitude to sexual matters, and takes prurient interest in his father’s tarty replacement for Spider’s much-loved mother. Here’s his reaction to one of his father’s more vicious outbursts against her:

“It’s my fault – you go to sleep, it’s all right, I’m fine now.” And she leaned over to kiss me on the forehead, and I felt the dampness of her tears on her face. Oh, I hated him then! Then I would have killed him, were it in my power – he had a squalid nature, that man, he was dead inside, stinking and rotten and dead.

McGrath excels at using language to reproduce the voice of a deranged, troubled person; here the fractured or disjointed syntax and pulsating rhythms and repetitions are deeply disturbed and disturbing. Spider struggles with extreme emotions or challenging events; then he becomes, as he puts it, ‘uncoupled’ – a term that’s richly suggestive.

I can’t say then that I enjoyed this novel. Its deeply disturbed, damaged narrator’s voice is insidious, like a nightmare that you can’t wake from.

If you’re interested you might like my thoughts on the two other McGrath novels I’ve posted about:

Asylum (1996), which is the best of the three, in my opinion: again it deals with a psychologically disturbed man in…well, an asylum, and the wildly dangerous affair with him that the institution’s medical director’s wife enters into.

Constance (2013) has a narrator less psychotic than these other two, but still emotionally and mentally unstable.

David Cronenberg, himself not averse to exploring the disturbed psyche, filmed Spider in 2002. David Mackenzie directed Asylum in 2005.

 

 

Denis Johnson r.i.p.

I hadn’t intended posting today, but couldn’t let the passing of Denis Johnson last week go unacknowledged here.

Born in 1949, he was a product of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was taught by Raymond Carver. The influence of this seminal ‘dirty realist’ shows, although Johnson, also a poet, doesn’t just write that tough, stripped-to-bone minimalist prose – although he’s very good at it – he’s also capable of glorious poetic flights of language.

Denis Johnson I’ve read four of his books. By far my favourite is the earliest of them: his short story collection Jesus’ Son (1992). With its title taken from one of Lou Reed’s grittier drug songs, it’s about a bunch of drifters, vagabonds, addicts and dreamers who hang around mostly in the Pacific Northwest of America.

Try ‘Emergency’, which is brimming with Johnson’s exuberant weirdness. Here’s how it opens:

I’d been working in the emergency room for about three weeks, I guess. This was in 1973, before the summer ended. With nothing to do on the overnight shift but batch the insurance reports from the daytime shifts, I just started wandering around, over to the coronary-care unit, down to the cafeteria, et cetera, looking for Georgie, the orderly, a pretty good friend of mine. He often stole pills from the cabinets.

They clumsily tend to a man with a knife in his eye. Drive out in the desert and pick up an enigmatic hitch-hiker. There’s a hallucinatory drive-in cinema. A pregnant roadkill rabbit. Here’s a typical snatch of dialogue with the hitch-hiker.

‘Who’s this guy?’ Georgie asked.

‘This is Hardee. He lived with me last summer. I found him on the doorstep. What happened to your dog?’ I asked Hardee.

‘He’s still down there.’

‘Yeah, I heard you went to Texas.’

‘I was working on a bee farm,’ Hardee said.

‘Wow. Do those things sting you?’

‘Not like you’d think,’ Hardee said. ‘You’re part of their daily drill. It’s all part of a harmony.’

Denis Johnson His novella Train Dreams (2012) is less grimy, but still rugged. It’s set in the American west in the early twentieth century. A good place to start with the longer fiction – but still only 116 pp.

I wrote in passing HERE a while ago about his epic Vietnam novel Tree of Smoke (2007), which I found a little patchy, but still very powerful. I seem to have mislaid my copy, so there’s no picture here.

That leaves The Name of the World (2000) and his most recent novel, The Laughing Monsters (2015), a sort of existential thriller in the Graham Greene manner, set in various countries in Africa.

His was one of the most distinctive voices in modern fiction; a great loss to literature.

Shipwrecked Lives: William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow

William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow (Vintage paperback, 2012; first published in two parts in the New Yorker in 1979, then in book form, 1980)

This novel has the same deceptively low-key style and tone as that recent word-of-mouth hit, Stoner. My first reaction was that this is as good, if not better – perhaps because it compresses so much intensity of feeling into just over 150 pages.

It’s a tale of elemental, doomed passion in rural Illinois in the 1920s. Two neighbouring tenant farmers are as close as brothers. Then one falls in love with the other’s wife, and an affair starts. When the betrayed husband finds out, he kills his former friend. The lives of both families had already started to unravel; after the murder, they implode.

That’s not a spoiler: the fatal gunshot rings out on the first page. Two pages later we find out who shot whom, and why. This is not a murder mystery; it’s about what drives a pair of men who love each other like a modern David and Jonathan to such extremities. Maxwell does this with penetrating insight and emotional integrity.

The structure is intriguing: the narrator, who was about ten when the murder happened, is a man looking back on these events fifty years later. He lived in the same small town as these farmers, and was a schoolmate of the murderer’s son. Both boys have seen the happiness of their young lives destroyed: the narrator, by the death of his mother in the 1918 flu epidemic, which also killed his brother, and caused his already emotionally distant father to become even colder towards him; Cletus Smith, the other boy, whose parents divorce as a result of the wife’s adultery. After the murder, worse follows.

They find consolation in each other, these boys. The narrator is a sensitive, unsporty bookworm, bullied at school, compounding his sadness at home. The two boys are drawn to play together, unconsciously forming another close bond of friendship like that of the two farmers, and at the end of each day’s mutually consoling company, say the farewells that give this book its title. A few years later, the narrator treats his friend badly, in a way that causes him to feel piercing guilt for the rest of his life.

William Maxwell, So Long, See You TomorrowIt’s an unusual genre – based on fact, with real place names and details that featured in Maxwell’s own life. The psychological development of the innocent narrator’s young self is what grips the attention, how he tries to make sense of what was so violently broken through no fault of his own (and the same applies for Cletus); strangely, the melodrama of the adultery, murder and suicide among the grown-ups forms the backdrop, the catalyst to the two boys’ descent into despair. A passing reference to a remark by Ortega y Gasset sums up this aspect of the novel: life is, the narrator recalls the philosopher remarking, ‘in itself and forever shipwreck’.

The lives of the women in this drama are also brilliantly and economically evoked. Even before the events that wreck all their lives, Clarence Smith, Cletus’ father, sees his wife as the woman who, ‘in the sight of God,’ owes him

love, honor and obedience. Other people, with nothing at stake, see that there is a look of sadness about her, as if she lives too much in the past or perhaps expects more of life than is reasonable.

There, obliquely and suggestively, is what explains the whole biblical-Shakespearean tragedy of this story, and its emotionally stifling rural social and cultural setting. She’s a prairie Emma Bovary.

It’s hard to find anything else brief enough to quote that might convey the Maxwell voice that makes of this material such an original and compelling narrative – it’s a slow-burning, low-voltage style with few literary embellishments or stand-out passages of ‘fine writing’. The effect is cumulative, unnoticed as you go along, like breathing.

There’s a section I’d marked in ch. 5 where there’s a description of a carriage drive in the countryside when the narrator was an even smaller boy; the landscape, says the narrator, is much the same once the town limits are passed:

Plowed fields or pasture, all the way to the horizon. There were trees for the cattle to stand under in the heat of the day, and the fields were separated from each other by Osage-orange hedgerows that were full of nesting birds.

The conversation in the front seat of the carriage was about what was growing on both sides of the road: corn, wheat, rye, oats, alfalfa. The women, blind to this green wealth, talked about sewing and ‘receipts’ – the word they used for recipes. I was of an age to appreciate anything that looked like something it wasn’t, and when we passed a cluster of mailboxes I would turn and look back. Long-legged wading birds is what they put me in mind of…

It’s the prose equivalent of a Japanese watercolour: much more is intimated at than is overtly represented. Metaphor, it’s implied, is for the immature mind.

A few pages later the narrator explains what he’s about. As he no longer knows where his boyhood friend Cletus is, the only possibility of ‘making some connection with him’ is through ‘trying to reconstruct the testimony he was never called upon to give.’

If any part of the following mixture of truth and fiction strikes the reader as unconvincing, he has my permission to disregard it. I would be content to stick to the facts if there were any.

I found it impossible to disregard what follows. The attempt to rediscover the doomed innocence of those boys (and adults) is reminiscent of Le Grand Meaulnes, with some of the elegiac quality (without the baroque style) of Proust.

There’s a heartbreaking account of Cletus’ loyal, loving dog and her sad fate – another vividly realised, unsentimentally portrayed aspect of this family drama. Some good cats, too, sitting in the cow barn in a row, waiting ‘with their mouths wide open for somebody to squirt milk down their throats.’

No cure for marriage: Javier Marías, Thus Bad Begins

Javier Marías, Thus Bad Begins (Hamish Hamilton hardback, 2016) 503pp

When I started this blog back in 2013, Javier Marías was one of the first novelists I posted about. He’s surely one of the most important and gifted writers of fiction alive today.

Two years ago I wrote about his 2013 novel The Infatuations (link HERE, with further links there to my several posts on his superb ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy).

If you’ve ever read Marías you’ll be aware that he tends to work over the same themes, tropes and motifs in most of his work: love and death, fidelity, memory and treachery – in the domestic sphere, especially in a marriage, and the public – justice, truth and lies. Sex features prominently, and Shakespeare. Perhaps most important of all: what we do when we tell stories about these things, or listen to such stories – is it possible to represent reality? Do stories represent reality, like novels?

Marías, Thus Bad Begins Once read, novels are ‘soon forgotten’, Marías wrote in The Infatuations. In his 2016 novel Thus Bad Begins it’s people’s lives that are said to be transitory and forgettable. Most of all of these themes are rehearsed in the opening three pages of the novel. It begins:

This story didn’t happen so very long ago – less time than the average life, and how brief a life is once it’s over and can be summed up in a few sentences, leaving only ashes in the memory…

Except of course Marías is going to devote 500 more pages to this story, not ‘a few sentences’. One of his better jokes; oddly, for such a dark, disturbing novel, there’s a lot of humour.

He introduces his two central characters, Eduardo Muriel, a director of B-movies, and his wife, several years his junior, Beatriz Noguera. The events our narrator, Juan de Vere or Vera (ie ‘truth’) relates took place in 1980 when he was just 23, and the Muriels some 20 years older than that. Spain was still reinventing itself after that long, estranging dictatorship of Franco, and divorce was still illegal.

Marriage was, then, ‘for life’ in those days, and ‘an escape route’ hard to find: hence the need for deceit, secrets; harder for women, who, if they’d had an extramarital ‘escapade’,  would have to live the life of an ‘impostor’, ‘disguise a new being before it even had a face to show the world’ (one of many resonances from Marías’ previous novels; the Oxford Hispanist Peter Wheeler, a central character in ‘Your Face Tomorrow’, pops up in a bit part). But these bitter thoughts are those of de Vere, who finds it hard to understand why anyone would ‘contract’ a marriage; only disease and death share that verb, as if all ‘augured ill or presaged doom or were, at the very least, painful’:

…but, unlike them, there was definitely no cure, no remedy for marriage, no resolution. Or only through the death of one of the spouses, a death sometimes silently longed for, and, less often, sought or induced or prompted, usually even more silently or in deepest secrecy.

All that would then remain of them would be ‘a brief memory. Or, on occasions, a story. A tenuous, rarely told story, since people tend not to tell stories about their personal life’…

The style is instantly recognisable as that of Marías: that convoluted syntax with its accumulating parallel or subordinate clauses (he habitually deploys ‘or perhaps’, ‘and yet’, ‘I suppose’, ‘or so it seems’ – all of these appear on the first page), which delay resolution and pile on alternative possibilities and modalities. The truth is as elusive or evasive as syntactic closure in a Marías novel.

Therein lies his appeal. He teasingly, with endless circumlocution, spins his thrilling plot from such multiple, beautiful threads – for his plots are comparable to those of great thriller-noir film auteurs like Hitchcock, who’s namechecked prominently in the narrative (there’s a trace of ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Rear Window’ in this one, with its unsettling sense of voyeurism and obsessive, secretive observation of characters, men and women, unaware of the male gaze upon them), or novelists like Hardy, Conrad and Stevenson, all of whom he translated into Spanish (sexual deception and coercion in Tess, perhaps, and a prominent plot device involving a crucial letter; spies, secret agents and skulduggery from the other two authors).

But he does it with a highly original, knowing, postmodern flourish, relishing the telling (and withholding) of his story and his manipulative, entrancing magician’s craft as much as Faulkner, Nabokov and that arch spinner of shaggy dog stories, Laurence Sterne (and yes, he translated all of them, too.)

So this is a gripping, heartbreaking novel of love and betrayal in a marriage, and the shame and remorse of traitors, and desire for vengeance and retribution in the betrayed. Forgiveness is withheld too long; love festers. A tragic marital secret revealed lies at its heart, and its disclosure to the reader, long delayed, is devastating.

The plot of Hamlet provides a kind of template (although Rumour’s Prologue to Henry IV.2 is also a running thread). De Vere is recruited by the wronged husband to act as his spy. Not on the treacherous wife, but on the husband’s lecherous old friend, who he suspects committed ‘vile acts’ against women.

De Vere portrays himself from the outset as a modern Polonius – ‘there’s nothing original about me’ he says, twice (although on the second occasion he adds, ‘nor, I suppose, about any of the others’). He gains the confidence of a man ‘in order to betray him’, a deception that causes him frequent spasms of guilt. Instead of an arras, de Vere spies on his target, engaged in a sordid tryst inside a Catholic sanctuary, from the top of a tree. When he’s challenged by a nun when he descends, the scene is like a comic take on Hamlet’s ‘get thee to a nunnery’ speech.

There are the usual lengthy monologues on all of these key themes. Their presence in this domestic tragedy is linked overtly to their counterparts in the bloodstained, labyrinthine Spanish political past: the stories, crimes, denunciations, blackmail, revenge and brutal atrocities perpetrated during the Civil War, and then worse that followed during the aftermath, then again after Franco’s death.

There was a ‘pact of forgetting’ after Franco, when Spaniards collectively showed ‘open distaste for and aversion to revenge and betrayal’, and ‘fallacious tales’ and brazen, ‘barefaced lies’, ‘secrecy and concealment’ proliferated. They erased or embellished memories, all traces of these earlier crimes and cruelties — a central factor in this novel, echoed in the domestic tragedy enacted in the Muriel household. Private talk mirrors the public discourse; ‘concealment and disguise’ became the order of the day.

De Vere comes to learn the expediency of ‘giving up trying to know what we cannot know, of removing ourselves from the hubbub of what others tell us throughout our life, so much so that even what we experience and witness seems more like a story told to us…’ And:

Households are full of rejections and slights and mortifications and insults, especially behind closed doors (and sometimes one gets shut inside with them by accident).

Once we learn the ‘facts’ of what happened,

Perhaps it’s best to shrug one’s shoulders and nod and ignore them, to accept that this is the way of the world.

Only then does ‘worse remain behind, because at least it is over. And thus bad only begins, the bad that has not yet happened.’

I’m not sure I get that. It seems to be a philosophy of stoical resignation – Hamlet’s lesson. Readiness is all (an axiom quoted in the narrative).

I didn’t find this ‘public/private’ structure is robust enough to sustain such a lengthy narrative. For the first time in my reading of Marías I found myself wanting to skip yet another meandering, portentous discourse on a philosophical topic that teetered on the edge of banality (so death is final, is it?).

In this post-truth world, however, there’s a sad contemporary relevance to a novel that, despite these longueurs, is still a stirring read.

Apologies that this post has become so long. It’s a long, richly complex novel, and I found it difficult to be brief.

 

Podcast with magpies: another Aside

It’s just over four years since I started this blog. Back then I had no particular vision of what Tredynas Days was to be: I wanted it to be a place where I could express something of my experience, especially in a literary sense.

Among my earliest posts were some random notes from that excellent website, Public Domain Review. I also reviewed the trilogy of Javier Marías novels I was reading at the time: Your Face Tomorrow. (I’m currently reading Thus Bad Begins, bought when it was published last year, but I’ve only just got round to reading it. Hope to post about it soon.)

And I posted a piece of flash fiction. There are just six such pieces in this category if you check the list on my homepage. The last one was back in June 2014.

As my work for this academic year is slowing down and I have a bit more time, I thought I’d post another. Mrs TD says it’s a bit dark, but maybe I was feeling that way back when I wrote it (it’s from a notebook dating from 2011). Here it is.

Magpie

Pica Hudsonia. By Louis Agassiz Fuertes (artist), Olive Thorne Miller (author, pseudonym for Harriet Mann) (The Second Book of Birds) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Podcast

Seven magpies arrange themselves like baubles in the ash tree in my garden. They cackle with an air of conspiracy, as if they’ve planned something nefarious, and have shown up to watch it pan out.

The rain sweeps along the river valley.

It is only three o’clock but already it is getting dark – rather, the pale light dims.

I am listening to her podcast. Her digital voice lives on. When she was ill I looked after her as efficiently as I could, and she asked me every day not to forget her. You’ll listen to my voice, she said, won’t you? To the podcasts I’ve recorded?

I assured her. And I do listen, every day. Until the magpies arrive and watch me.

Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter

Barbara Comyns, The Vet's Daughter

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition

This is not a review of Barbara Comyns’ fourth novel, The Vet’s Daughter, published in 1959 (she died in 1992). I’ve written about two of her others in previous posts (links at the end), so have I think already established the nature of her highly idiosyncratic approach to narrative voice, plot and character dynamics. All tend to be at the same time naive, deceptively simple, yet also dark, tending towards a kind of surreal gothic , and skewed in their world view. Odd things are narrated as if they were everyday; the banal is often rendered extraordinary.

All I need to do to give an idea of The Vet’s Daughter, then, is to quote from its opening page.

A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would most likely have worn kneecaps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, ‘You must excuse me,’ and left this poor man among the privet hedges.

This man possibly reappears in the penultimate page for no explicable reason, just as the encounter with the teenage vet’s daughter here simply serves to show the apparent randomness and lack of agency in her life.

Why bother to tell us about those privet hedges? Or that the ‘poor man’ is to be pitied because of his wife’s religious persuasion? How bizarre that she should liken his condition to that of a horse with kneecaps (do they wear such things? If so, why does he resemble on thus attired, rather than just a regular, naked-legged horse? Is it because they live a life of toil and drudgery? Maybe she’s projecting on to him something of her own miserable existence with her tyrannical, sadistic father. Maybe, like Stephen King, she’s establishing a suburban setting of ordered tranquillity and banality – the hedges, the railway bridge, the lamp – in order that the domestic horrors to come are all the more upsetting.

That ‘heavy rainbow’ simile is good. There is no magical crock of gold at its end, of course. Quite the opposite, as the next paragraph begins to show.

That her life is oppressive begins to become clearer there:

I entered the house. It was my home and smelt of animals, although there was no lino on the floor. In the brown hall my mother was standing; and she looked at me with her sad eyes half-covered by their heavy lids, but did not speak. She just stood there. Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so, if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.

Although this narrating voice seems like that of a naive child, then, there’s a highly sophisticated literary sensibility at work here. That use of ‘although’, seemingly irrelevant, implies that either there is carpet – which would absorb and retain animal smells – or bare floorboards – which suggests parsimony in the head of the house. Or else the disconnectedness of the clause reflects that in her consciousness, all sense of normality and rational connection having been shattered or diminished by her father’s despotic control.

The hall’s brownness connotes a dismal, squalid colourlessness and lack of joy and love – a state that rapidly becomes frighteningly evident. The sadness of her mother’s eyes, her speechlessness, slight build, the slope of her shoulders: all demonstrate heartbreaking vulnerability in this hall of misery.

We soon learn, too, that her teeth have been knocked askew by her abusive, violent husband. He’s a monster of fairytale-ogre proportions. This is also hinted at in that closing sentence: he’s a vivisectionist’s supplier, quick to have sickly animals ‘destroyed’ – a category in which he includes his long-suffering wife and daughter.

I’m not  sure I can say I enjoyed this novel. Its bleak picture of a psychopathic husband and father, portrayed by a voice so gentle and unassuming, makes for almost unbearable reading at times.

I wrote about Our Spoons Came From Woolworths HERE last year

Sisters by a River HERE