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Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge

Dürrenmatt post 2: The Pledge – Requiem for the Crime Novel. 

This is the last of the five novellas in my paperback Picador edition.

There’s a link to Grant’s post on it at his 1st Reading blog in my previous post. He summarises the plot and comments perceptively on the significance of the frame narrative as a crucial element of the novel. This enables the world-weary, experienced detective (the main narrator) to challenge the crime writer’s methods and explain why he disdains his moribund genre of novel writing – hence the subtitle.

He concedes that it may be ‘morally necessary’ for the puzzle or contest to be resolved by the detective in these stories so that goodness and justice prevail over evil and crime. But the ‘rules of the game’, as in chess, don’t apply or even exist in the real world he operates in. Life is more random.

Dürrenmatt Novels coverThe story he tells to justify his argument is a fascinating example of metafiction serving to highlight the weaknesses in the genre he (and FD) criticises. He’s able to highlight, through this story of the investigation of a serial child sex-murderer, the way a chance accident, a random, unpredictable event can foil the most brilliant detective like Matthaï in this story.

Unlike the two Inspector Barlach novellas discussed in my previous post, this story doesn’t simply favour the detective’s intuitive, spontaneous approach over the conventional scientific-rational police methods of his colleagues. The neatly symmetrical generic plot with its satisfyingly neat conclusion is exposed and debunked. The black-and-white morality of the conventional murder mystery is nevertheless as blurred as it is in the Barlach stories. Justice is again ultimately shown to be an illusion.

Like the classic tragic hero in drama, Inspector Matthäi’s hubris in this story causes his downfall. His arrogant ‘pledge’ to the parents that he’ll catch the killer of their daughter arises from his arrogant confidence in his detection skills (plus he panics and is desperate to escape their despair so blurts out what pops into his head). In fact his logical methods and his motivation become increasingly irrational, obsessive and as deranged as the killer’s.

By refusing to abide by the ‘rules’ of the genre, Dürrenmatt ingeniously subverts the genre he is simultaneously rewriting. As Grant says in his post, he thus explores and problematizes the moral dilemmas and philosophical questions that are raised by this cunningly framed plot. There’s even a grim humour in his exposure of the flaws in the famous crime writer’s (the frame narrator’s) predictable fictional conventions. It’s this self-referential destruction job that makes the novella so intriguing and rewarding.

One of my less impressed initial reactions was that the rash promise (or Pledge) to catch the criminal made to the murder victim’s family was a cliché. I’ve seen this trope countless times in recent TV crime dramas. In most cases the detective making the promise is inexperienced, and allows their emotional response to the grieving family, or their over-confidence in systematic, scientific detection methods, to cloud their judgement.

But then I reflected that FD was doing this in 1958. I’ve little knowledge of the history of the crime genre, but I’d have thought this was pretty innovative at that time.

The subversive ingenuity of this novella was made even more apparent for me when I read at the Univ. of Chicago Press site (link in previous post) that this prose fiction work is a reworking of an original TV play by FD. He was dissatisfied with the conventionally neat ending of that drama, in which the murderer is caught as a consequence of the brilliant Inspector’s relentless and systematic detection methods. It seems he thought this trivialised the story. He deliberately reworked the ending so that the chance accident that Matthaï didn’t or couldn’t anticipate thwarted his success and plunged him into his own moral and mental dissolution. The solving of the case is less important than the sad fate of Matthäi in this subversion of the generic convention.

FD’s achievement here puts me in mind of DH Lawrence’s famous statement in his essay ‘Morality and the Novel’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays (1914):

Morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance. When the novelist puts his thumb in the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality.

FD enacts this dictum in The Pledge at Matthäi’s (and the conventional crime novel’s) expense.

Isn’t he guilty, in doing so, however, of putting his own thumb in the scale to pull down the moral balance the way he prefers it? Or is this in fact just a realistic acceptance of the amorality of the world?

Sean Penn directed a film version in 2001, also called The Pledge, starring Jack Nicholson. If you’ve seen it I’d be interested in hearing your opinion: is it as good as the novel?

 

 

 

Novels of Friedrich Dürrenmatt: pt 1- introductory

The Novels of Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Picador, 1985 (who didn’t bother crediting the name of the translator.)

In my previous post I admitted to having reservations about autofiction. This time it’s crime/detection fiction I’m delving into – another genre I don’t find particularly congenial.

There’s no particular reason for this. I haven’t even read that much of it. A few so-called Golden Age authors like Margery Allingham, some Sherlock Holmes stories. I suppose most of my knowledge of the genre comes from films and tv.

It’s the formulaic nature that perhaps puts me off. There’s a crime, a detective or law officer has to solve the puzzle. Usually they have some character eccentricity: Holmes’s drugs, violin and slightly sociopathic tendencies; or the ‘tec is an elderly, matronly lady who seems more appropriate for a church bazaar than investigating decorously grisly murders…Nowadays, in the media anyway, he’s (it’s usually ‘he’, though of course there are some women, like Sarah Paretsky’s VI Warshawski; I heard some of her stories dramatized on radio, and liked them) usually troubled, perhaps alcoholic, divorced, a bit of mess in his personal life, lonely, but professionally a maverick who breaks all the rules – to brilliantly intuitive effect.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-90) was born in Konolfingen, SE of Bern, Switzerland. The son of a pastor, he spoke Oberland Swiss-German dialect; German was a second language for him, and I’ve seen it suggested that this perhaps accounts for the plainness and supposed occasional awkwardness of his German prose style (I don’t read German so can’t comment; the translation here is a little stilted at times, but that might be down to the anonymous translator).

Dürrenmatt Novels coverOf course FD is best known as a dramatist, but he wrote in a number of genres (see the essays at the Univ. Chicago Press site noted below). This battered old Picador paperback contains five of his novels.  They were all written in the fifties, apparently to earn money when he was strapped for cash and opted for this popular mode of fiction because it was more likely to be lucrative in sales terms than his drama (it was).

Four of them are “neo-noir” detective/crime stories set in Switzerland. They toy with the usual conventions, but subvert them. They are pervaded by the pessimistic, cynical and nihilistic tone of some elements of postwar Europe. There’s also an edge of satire or criticism of the author’s homeland’s neutral stance in that recent war against fascism.

This probably accounts for some critical descriptions of the novels as philosophical or existentialist thrillers rather than detective stories. All are entertaining and full of quirky characters and pacy action; it’s not surprising they’ve been adapted many times for dramatization and film. Some even started out as dramas and were converted into prose fiction. I’ll focus here just on the first two, involving Inspector Barlach as the anti-Holmesean hero; more on the rest next time.

In The Judge and the Hangman there’s the classic setup: the demonically clever master criminal – a Mephistophelean Moriarty – has made a grim bet with the equally clever Barlach, forty years before this narrative is set, that he’d commit the ‘perfect crime’ in front of him and the cop would be unable to do anything about it. He succeeds.

He then sets out to do the same thing over and over. The cop, now Inspector Barlach (who also features in The Quarry), is always outsmarted. Now dying of stomach cancer, he knows his deadly enemy, now living locally, is the prime suspect for this latest murder on his patch – the victim is one of his own detectives, and that he needs to nail his man before his disease kills him.

A startling twist at the end brings everything to a conclusion that’s so unexpected and symmetrically neat that it’s a little too contrived, and there’s a dry and cynical exploration of the notion of natural justice. Dürrenmatt in all four of these novels refuses to play entirely by the rules of the genre – in fact he makes those rules and their workings part of the substance of his narratives.

[Textual note: there’s a more recent University of Chicago Press translation of the fiction of FD by Joel Agee, 2006; Essay on his fiction at their website by Theodore Ziolkowski]

Bloggers I follow who have written about FD mostly used the Chicago UP edition with its snarling dog on the cover – he was apparently phobic about big dogs, having been attacked by a vicious one in his youth.

Grant on the two Insp. Barlach stories, at 1st Reading, recommends them to any reader who enjoys ‘morally complex issues’ in fiction, not just lovers of crime fiction; links in the comments there to:

Jacqui Wine’s Journal ( her post was part of Lizzy Siddal’s German Reading Month in 2015), compares FD with Simenon (indeed Barlach has been called the Swiss Maigret) and singles out some excellent quotations, including the trope of chess players engaged in a mortal battle of intellects.

Marina Sofia at Crime Fiction Lover on The Judge and his Hangman (with a ‘gloriously pulpy’ cover image), and at her own blog on Suspicion (aka The Quarry) here, finds similarities with Josephine Tey. One of her key quotations: ‘the law isn’t the law: power is’. She sees the novel in the context of Cold War brinkmanship and suspicion; ‘how can humanity survive on nihilism alone?’

Lizzy Siddal’s own post on Barlach (in a series on crime fiction in German, and specifically the genesis of Swiss authors) finds both plots (as I did) rather contrived to the point of fairy tale-like, with contrived resolutions and implausible situations (why would the bed-bound, dying retired detective in The Quarry place himself in the clutches of the suspected Nazi mass murderer and exponent of surgery without anaesthetic on his victims, without any backup? The denouement is comic-book implausible, with an anti-superhero Jewish Spiderman clone as deus ex machina.)

Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings more recently wrote about the same collection as me; her post, part of the Read 1951 project, is about The Quarry, which she found compelling, ‘brutal’ but ‘necessary’ – in the sense of its salutary message about ensuring unspeakable events in the past must not be repeated. Also pertinent as I write this, shortly after the poignant ceremonies on the beaches of Normandy after the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

Grant also posted on The Pledge here (using the Pushkin Vertigo edition). I hope to write more about this interesting novella – the best in this collection – next time, as this post has already become too long.

PS: Centre FD at Neuchâtel website: exhibitions, artworks by him, etc., located at his former home to the west of Bern.

 

Authority: Maude Veilleux, ‘Prague’

Maude Veilleux, Prague. Translated from the French by Aleshia Jensen and Aimee Wall. QC Fiction, Montréal, 2019.

So far I’ve resisted reading the obvious candidates in the recently revived fashion for autofiction – the likes of Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner – and perhaps most egregiously Karl Ove Knausgård. When I first read this ARC of Montréal writer Maude Veilleux’s novel Prague I found myself deep in autofictional narrative, and felt uneasy.

It’s a genre that’s uncomfortable with third-person narrators, invented or ‘well rounded’, invented characters and, well, plots (by definition ‘untruthful’). I’m too old, I thought, for this kind of stuff. It’s for the social media generation.

Veilleux Prague coverAt one point our unnamed female narrator, who seems as far as I can tell a pretty close match (or alter ego) to what can be known about the real-life author, feeling depressed and in the throes of an existential crisis, writes that she ‘turned to Facebook to validate [her] existence’. Just as these shared online photos and words confirm her being ‘present in the world’, it’s a record of herself, so by making this novel similarly “authentic”, ‘I could also say: I have a book, I exist. It validated my pain.’ Elsewhere she says that writing alone could save her. Seems to me this is more than autofiction: more of a testament of fiction as personal Cartesian salvation.

The narrator self-consciously presents herself on stage, for performing at poetry readings for example, as

…vulnerable. I take care to look pretty. Perfectly groomed. Perfectly made up. Batting my eyelashes with timed grace…My fragility is my strength. But what they don’t know is that I’m a force of destruction, an enchantress. The prey and the predator.

When the boyfriend, Sébastien, sees pages of this novel in draft, and she’s afraid he’ll react badly:

He smiled, a little uncomfortable. He said: I sound like a jerk…like the boyfriend in that Nelly Arcan book, Hysteric. I hated that guy.

I smiled.

I told him I would be sad to lose him.

 

The novel opens with her and her soon-to-be lover joking about going to Prague largely because he likes Kundera. It ends with her visiting Kafka’s grave in that city, and a sort of manifesto emerges:

Maybe my interest in intimate stories lies in the encounter with the other. Without falsehood or façade.

She explains why she – this narrator – decided ‘to write autofiction in 2016, ten years after Nelly Arcan.’

I had to look her up. Sex, death and suicide; she killed herself in 2009 aged 36, as she predicted in her fiction (except there she said she wouldn’t make it to 31; Prague’s narrator is 31). These all feature prominently in Prague. The narrator admits to a ‘fascination with suicide’, even attempts it. There’s a lot of graphic sex; the narrator says she and her husband are bisexual; the affair with Sébastian is something of a departure for her. It all comes violently BDSM with him, to the point where the woman almost dies: ‘I wanted to believe he could kill me.’ He squeezes her neck harder: ‘I thought he must love me a little.’

Thanatos and Eros. The death drive and the sex instinct, destruction and creation. Maybe writing fiction is a kind of struggle with these drives, seems to be one message?

(Annie Ernaux, another exponent of a kind of confessional autofiction, is also quoted.)

When she worries that her life experience is being ruined because she writes it into her novel, and writing about it is destructive of life, the lines between reality and story are blurred. Like the enchanted (or cursed) Lady of Shalott the narrator can’t just observe the world; she has to participate, experience it, but to do so precludes artistic creativity and destroys her – life, for her, is destructive. But she enchants Lancelot with her ‘lovely face’.

So a novel about writing a novel is really a novel about living, as existentialists might say, authentically. Like all good novels? The story itself becomes the truth.

As I reread the novel I began to appreciate it more. Its choppy, curt sentences, the fragmented structure, non sequiturs and non-linear narrative, chronological shifts. It’s not an imitation of real life, after all, or stream of consciousness. It’s as much a construct, a fiction, as more conventional fiction. Hence all those literary allusions.

On p. 88 the narrator inserts this one line paragraph:

Lies are a device often used in fiction.

If all novels are lies (it’s the Cretan liar paradox) then so is autofiction. For all its apparent self-revelation, unveiling and demasking, its self-absorption, it’s still fiction. This is on p. 77:

The height of narcissism. To make a novel of yourself. To make yourself into a novel to give yourself a little meaning. Mostly, to be afraid of not existing.

I have no way of knowing if this is ‘true’ – but it’s as valid a form of fiction as Kafka’s tortured explorations of identity and reality, or Melville’s, Chaucer’s. In fact all fiction, as Philip Roth has kind of suggested, is a sort of autofiction – but it’s not autobiography.

No shaping, no representations. Creating characters didn’t really appeal to me anymore. What could I do with those invented lives?

Jonathan Gibbs at his blog Tiny Camels, wrote about autofiction last year here. He says (much more coherently than I’m doing in these ramblings) it’s possible to like this kind of fiction and the other, more conventional kind. They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive – provided we don’t condemn the kind of narrative that adopts anything other than the ‘I am a camera’ kind of approach, subverting and disrupting the reader’s position. Who can tell how ‘invented’ the lives in any work of fiction can be? Look up the person’s biography and compare the fiction: they’re different, even if there’s a superficial resemblance in the detail. See how that phrase about batting the lashes ‘with timed grace’ works in a way that surely couldn’t in non-fiction.

This has turned out to be not so much a review as a musing. A muddle. Sorry about that. I’m still trying to figure out what I make of this exhilarating, baffling novel.

Kudos to Montréal publishers QC Fiction for continuing to turn out risky and unconventional translations of Canadian fiction.

Rebel without a cause: Lissa Evans, Old Baggage

Lissa Evans, Old Baggage. Black Swan paperback, 2018

Old Baggage is a prequel to Lissa Evans’ earlier novel Crooked Heart, posted about here in March. Mattie Simpkin is struggling to find purpose after the partial achievement of the goal of the radical suffragist movement, specifically the WSPU, to which she’d belonged earlier in her life. It’s 1928, not a random choice for the historical setting; it was the year of the Equal Franchise Act, which gave all women over the age of 21 the right to vote, whether they owned property or not.

Evans Old Baggage coverDesperate for a project into which to pour her indomitable energy and sense of outrage at the patriarchy (she’d been a vigorous exponent of direct action and civil disobedience, and still carries a wooden club in her handbag), she persuades young, largely working-class girls to join her eccentric ‘Amazons’ club on Saturday mornings in the park. Her bossy regime involves instilling in the girls the virtues of debating and recreation, such as healthy outdoor activities – including unladylike javelin-throwing. Asked about the point and propriety of this, she retorts with a typically cadenced and fiery aphorism worthy of her idol, the 17C author and priest Thomas Fuller:

“As a protest; as a means of defence; as an exercise in coordination. Weapons are not only for those who begin disputes, they are for those who wish to end them.”

She fails to realise that for most of these girls attendance probably means forgoing their one ‘lie-in’ of the week; on all the other days they rise early from bed to go to their menial, gruelling jobs, or to help out, like leading light Ida, with the never-ending ‘women’s work’ in the domestic sphere which is their destiny. The younger ones are missing out on less high-minded pursuits: boys, the cinema, fairgrounds.

The third aspect of this eccentric club’s aims, Mattie explains, is training. When a girl asks training for what, she replies, with similarly grandiose eloquence:

“For your lives as twentieth-century women, to enable you to take your places as equals in society, in Parliament and in the professions.”

Force-feeding poster WPSU 1910

Force-feeding poster for the WSPU by Alfred Pearce nom de plume “A Patriot” – http://www.historyextra.com/article/social-history/10-facts-about-suffragettes, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70437901

What’s interesting and unusual about this novel is that the author confronts the essential dilemma of her middle-class protagonist in ways that expose the problem for women like her in bringing her laudable social and political ideals – Mattie always makes her girls feel valued – into line with the reality of the privileges and ease of her class, in contrast with the deprivation and squalor endured by most working people at that time – Mattie’s struggle isn’t anything like as tough as theirs.

She’s what is sometimes disparagingly called here in the UK a champagne socialist. Evans is excellent at portraying Mattie’s genuine and resolute ambition to encourage young working-class women to fulfil their potential against all the odds stacked against them. But she’s an idealist who misguidedly believes that good intentions and (invoking her beloved literary-philosophical guru Thomas Fuller again) ‘invincible determination’ are all that’s needed to ‘accomplish almost anything,’ which in her case means equality for all. She lacks insight into herself, her protégées and her motives, and empathy with those closest to her.

It’s revealing that Mattie reveres Fuller, the biographer, historian and divine. Like him she adores linguistic elegance and exuberance: epigrams, words as weapons. She must also have been aware that he’s an unlikely hero for a left-leaning rebel like her; he supported the Royalist cause during and after the English Civil War, using his wit and literary brilliance to oppose the revolutionaries.

Evans is thus covertly signifying the basis of Mattie’s problem: she’s a single-issue campaigner who believed that women’s suffrage would eradicate every frustration they endured under the patriarchy.

The most cogent aspect of this highly entertaining novel is Mattie’s learning a painful lesson: that for equality for women to be achieved would involve a seismic change in society. It’s a critique of those middle-class suffragists and radicals like her who failed to recognise this. Former bourgeois suffragist icons like the Pankhursts are accurately portrayed in these pages as abandoning their cause to become ultra-nationalists during WWI – the kinds of flawed idealists that Mattie very nearly becomes.

But she does undergo an epiphany as a consequence of her pig-headed self-righteousness. Women she betrays or lets down teach her that any cause is bigger than her own ego, and that not all women have the leisure or wealth to support a pet project that will simply provide cosmetic improvement to the illness, humiliation and degradation endured by the working classes – and particularly women – in the early 20C. She learns a salutary lesson in humility, the importance of loyalty to her friends, and in not letting sentiment and impetuosity cloud her judgement.

One crucial aspect of the anti-climax felt by radical activists once the purpose of their cause has apparently been achieved is revealed in Old Baggage with the sad fates of some of Mattie’s former fellow-suffragists, now, like her, rebels without a cause. Ten years on they’ve mostly become middle-aged and lost. Some are sad alcoholics; several have become seduced by the rise of fascism – a sinister presence throughout the novel, seen especially in the macho militaristic struttings of a Mussolini-loving ‘Empire League’ that one of these former suffragists promotes with the support of her Mosley-esque politician husband to rival the proto-hippy free spirits of the Amazons; some will bow to the inevitable and marry – for middle-class women there was no other socially acceptable destiny.

In an echo of that ambivalently feminist 1893 novel by George Gissing, The Odd Women, Etta, one of these superannuated suffragists explains, aware that she’s potentially selling out the sisterhood, why she’s considering this matrimonial escape: she’d hate giving up her work as a health visitor helping working women and their families who lived in poverty and disease, but would like babies of her own. Besides, she adds, she was lucky to find a man at all; most women don’t. At a recent school reunion she attended, nineteen out of the thirty girls in her class were ‘spinsters’:

“…apparently, the newspapers are calling us ‘the surplus women’. “Like a drawer full of forks,” my friend Minnie said, “when all the knives have been stolen.”

This novel is full of sympathy for women’s fight for emancipation and equality at this period of history (a fight that’s still in progress) but it never descends into cosy nostalgia or rose-tinted sentimentality; there’s a tough edge to it, a strong sense of the harshness of the struggle, especially for women, and many of the female characters depicted suffer tragedy and terrible hardship. The betrayal the novel portrays of the suffragist cause by some of its erstwhile leaders and the parallel rise of fascism are timely warnings for our own era.

For further insight into this topic I recommend a set of materials at the British Library website under the heading ‘Votes for Women’, especially an article there written by historian Sarah Jackson: ‘”Women quite unknown”: working-class women in the suffrage movement.’ It provides a fascinating account of the Suffragist movement – especially women from the working classes, who were singled out for much more brutal treatment by the police and penal system, including vicious beatings, illegal incarceration and torture. The leaders of the various factions in the movement were largely upper class, treated with relative deference by the law, and suspicious of the broader egalitarian and libertarian aims of their less privileged sisters.

Lissa Evans has given stirring fictional voice to some of these unknown women – not ‘odd’ or ‘surplus’, but effective and heroic in ways that Mattie comes to recognise involved greater sacrifice and heroism than her own well-meaning but misguided, flamboyant posturing.

Noel, the little boy who becomes a key character in the sequel, Crooked Heart, set over a decade later during WWII, appears at the end of the novel as a means for Mattie to put right the mistakes she’s made and redeem herself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joan Sales, Uncertain Glory

Joan Sales (1912-83), Uncertain Glory. NYRB Classics, 2014. Translated by Peter Bush from the Catalan, first published 1956, revised and expanded several times thereafter.

Catalan writer Joan Sales began Uncertain Glory in 1948 in Barcelona after nine years of exile abroad. I read most of it in La Floresta, near Sant Cugat, just the other side of the mountain from that city this spring while visiting family there.

Sales drew upon his experiences of fighting in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). He relates the struggle from the viewpoint of the losing, divided Republican side. Of course English-speaking readers are familiar with George Orwell’s slightly occluded version of his own experience of initial anarchist freedom in Catalunya followed by internecine hostility between the Republican factions (goaded in part by the Russian Communist commisars) and anarchic preparations of fighters like him in Barcelona during the war, and of the squalor and privations of the Aragon front, in Homage to Catalonia.

Joan Sales, Uncertain Glory cover

My copy of the novel lit by the Catalan sun near Barcelona

This is an epistolary account. It begins with the letters of Lieutenant Lluís, a lawyer before the war, to his brother Ramón. His partner Trini – a member of a fiercely anarchist family, and of forthright independent views herself — is bringing up their child in straitened circumstances in the Catalan capital, from food shortages to indiscriminate bombing and shelling by the approaching fascist forces. It’s a city of factions; the extremist Republicans hunt the priests who are seen to have colluded with Franco’s fascist insurrection against the democratically elected Republican government, while diehard Catholics, even those who oppose Franco, cling on to their old beliefs. Trini is moved to become baptised, despite her innate opposition to Catholicism, as a result of the murderous, vicious treatment of Catholic devotees by those she sympathises with politically.

Lluís hardly ever writes to her – causing her much distress. Instead he becomes infatuated with the carlana – the lady of the local Castel, whose Fascist sympathising husband was murdered by the Republican forces.

His letters reveal his slowly growing awareness that her interest in him is largely due to the influence he can exert on her behalf to protect herself and her own child from the unconstrained violence all around them.

Although there are harrowing descriptions of the atrocities committed on both sides, these are slightly less significant for the conflicted Lieutenant than his attempts to make moral sense of the chaotic world he finds himself in, and of his own emotional volatility.

Trini’s letters to their mutual friend, an eccentric cynic named Soleràs, form the second section. He provides solace and emotional support that Lluís is uninterested in providing. The third section consists of the letters of one of Lluís’s soldier comrades – a former seminarist, one of a number of colourful characters with whom Lluís serves.

If that all sounds a bit muddled, well, it is. But it’s hard not to be moved by the passions of the characters, mediated through their letters – not just political and philosophical passions, but sexual and religious.

This translation uses the expanded fourth edition of the Catalan novel, and in my view would have benefited from a less expansive treatment. The final set of letters in particular reprises much of what’s gone before, or offers little of greater interest than the first two parts. Quotations and allusions abound from Spinoza, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire and others, adding a portentous tone to the novel.

Lluís’s heartless treatment of Trini hardly endears him to the reader. She’s a much more interesting, rounded and mature character.

The ardour, suffering and inexperience of the Catalan Republican fighters are familiar from Orwell’s (and Hemingway’s) accounts, but Sales is able to give a more detailed, impassioned, insider’s portrayal. His insight into the betrayals, split loyalties and divided allegiances of those caught up in the struggle just about makes up for the over-long and repetitive digressions.

There’s an interesting interview with the translator, Peter Bush, at Lizzy’s Literary Life blog, posted in May this year.

Update 4 June: I forgot to mention the film version of the novel, with the Catalan title Incerta glòria, directed by Agustí Villaronga in 2017, available on Netflix (can’t comment on it as I haven’t seen it yet). Not to be confused with the 1944 Raoul Walsh film Uncertain Glory set in WWII.

 

Balzac, William Maxwell and Jane Austen

Balzac, Domestic Peace cover

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), Domestic Peace and Other Stories. Penguin, 1958. Translated from the French by Marion Ayton Crawford. Don’t you just love those old Penguin Classics covers?

Most of these early stories were originally published 1830-32. The title story is the best, a nasty tale of aristocratic sexual predation in the pre-Revolutionary world of aristocratic ‘easy manners and moral laxness’. The Revolution and the Terror features in most of the other stories, too, with plots involving summary executions, cruelty, treachery and retribution.

‘Colonel Chabert’ also stands out. A Napoleonic officer reported dead at the battle of Eylau returns to life in Paris during the post-Revolutionary restoration to reclaim his old identity – and wife. She has remarried, and with callous cynicism refuses to acknowledge him. This well crafted story, much redacted and revised by Balzac, was filmed several times.

‘The Abbé Birotteau’ is more of a Trollopeian clerical comedy with a dark edge. Unlike Warden Harding, our Abbé’s innocence is no protection from the harshness of his world, or from the landlady he unwittingly upsets.

Mostly, though, the stories are rather dour and stodgy fare. The world Balzac depicts is dyspeptic.

Maxwell Chateau coverWilliam Maxwell (1908-2000) The Château (1961). Is this a travel book or a novel? At times I felt it was the former, as accounts of life in bomb-scarred France just after the war (1948) became just a little too detailed. A few too many new French acquaintances are introduced.

The young American Rhodes couple, touring Europe for four months, are charmingly flawed: desperate to be liked and accepted, to savour the culture and language of France, with which they’d ‘fallen in love’ – but never quite able to lose their essentially alien Americanness: “you don’t really understand one another,” reflects Harold on how difficult it is to be friends with somebody, “no matter how much you like them.” Is it ever really possible to know another person really well? (the narrator ponders near the end).

In ration-hit, austere postwar France Americans are seen as annoyingly rich.

Maxwell writes polished sentences – sometimes overpolished (why ‘it had commenced to sprinkle’, rather than ‘it had started to rain/drizzle’?) But here are some good aphorisms:

The poppy-infested fields through which they were now passing were by Renoir, and the distant blue hills by Cézanne. That the landscape of France had produced its painters seemed less likely than that the painters were somehow responsible for the landscape.

Hang on, though; is that as good as it seems at first sight? Or is it just superficially clever, ostentatious?

There’s a strange, not entirely congruent postmodern, reflexive element throughout (spectral narratorial questions, answered just as mysteriously), as here at p. 63, on the Rhodes as tourists; why go to Europe, asks this inquisitor, in italics:

it’s too soon after the war. Traveling will be much pleasanter and easier five years from now. The soldiers have not all gone home yet. People are poor and discouraged. Europe isn’t ready for tourists. Couldn’t they wait?

No, they couldn’t…they are unworldly, and inexperienced.

This feature is more pronounced in the ‘Explanations’ section at the end where that intrusive, teasing narrator enters into dialogue with an imagined reader who’s keen to fill the gaps in the narrative, which the narrator coyly sidesteps, or fills in as if completing a questionnaire. Very odd.

There’s a nasty racist exchange with an unreconstructed Frenchman about white America’s treatment of its African-Americans, topped with spectacular casualness by Barbara Rhodes (pp. 201-02).

So Long, See You Tomorrow is a much more successful Maxwell novel (1979-80).

Austen N Abbey cover

I dipped in to my old OWC edition from time to time to check the details

Jane Austen (1775-1817), Northanger AbbeyAfter eye surgery I wasn’t able to read much, so I listened to this as a LibriVox audio book. I hadn’t read it in years. It’s as delightful as I remembered.

There’s the usual Austen wit (and terrific, character-revealing dialogue) and crystalline perception. Yet this was first written probably as early as 1798-99; it wasn’t published until 1818 (along with Persuasion), after Jane Austen’s death.

Here’s Catherine Morland growing up into adolescence and womanhood after a rollicking tomboy childhood: her eyes ‘gained more animation, and her figure more consequence’:

To look almost pretty, is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life, than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.

Now that is how to do aphoristic prose while establishing character and narrative poise. The author also directly or indirectly refers, in metafictional touches that make Maxwell’s look rather awkward and mannered, to her task of presenting her heroine in a novel of sensibility, with the constraints of contemporary novelistic convention subtly subverted. Thus when the boorish Mr Thorpe claims never to read novels (Catherine had just asked him if he’d read her favourite, the hugely popular but ‘horrid’ Gothic Mystery of Udolpho), sniffing that they’re ‘so full of nonsense and stuff’, the reader is alerted to his duplicity (he’s too stupid to read anything), pomposity, shallow nature and lack of empathy with our enthusiastic ingénue heroine. Her innocence and unworldliness is quietly conveyed in such passages, along with her charm and lack of coquetry – she’s far more suitable heroine material, our narrator shows, than the superficially more glamorous but essentially monstrous Isabella (more on her coming up).

The first half of the novel gives a deceptively muted satirical critique of the society that gathers at the fashionable spa town of Bath (including the gloriously flirtatious, devious and selfishly catty ‘friend’ Isabella, who Catherine has to learn loves only herself despite her protestations of affection for her new bff – as I believe young people say).

Girls like Catherine, attending her first ball, are desperate to be danced and flirted with, vulnerable to odious frauds like Isabella, but clearly destined to find happiness with the upstanding chap she dotes on.

The Gothic satire section at his medieval abbey was less interesting than I recalled, and rather laboured.

Reading Jane Austen is an experience that’s perfect for a convalescent. Pity the range of readers on my free LibriVox version was so uneven.

 

Conrad, Krasznahorkai, Joso

My eye seems no worse after the recent laser surgery , so I’m able to post some brief updates again.

Conrad Heart of Darkness coverJoseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. Norton Critical Edition, ed. Robert Kimbaugh. 3rd edition, 1988. First published 1899. Each time I reread this novella I’m more puzzled by it. It’s been interpreted in such varying, often conflicting ways, as the essays at the end of the Norton edition show. From Achebe’s scorching criticism of Conrad’s possibly unconscious racism and endorsement of white European supremacy, to the Marxist, Freudian, symbolic and other approaches, it defies a single, unitary approach. As the introduction by CB Cox to my old Dent’s Collected edition has it, ‘there is no key which will unlock the secret meaning’ [of HofD].

The narrative-within-a-narrative by Marlow famously describes his storytelling method – he eschews the ‘direct simplicity’ of the usual ‘yarns of seamen’:

…to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze…

Is Kurtz a monster and a devil, a madman who believes himself a deity who has succumbed to ‘the fascination of the abomination’?  Or the ‘universal genius’ that his acolytes worship (like the bizarre Russian ‘harlequin’ – therein lies perhaps another line of political interpretation)? Kurtz’s notorious postscript to his report to the sinister “International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs” highlights the generally held view that there is a distressing element of racism in the story: ‘Exterminate all the brutes’ is pretty unequivocal. Or is Kurtz, as some claim, referring there to the brutal European ‘pilgrim’ colonisers, greedily extracting the ivory and other precious treasures the ‘dark continent’ provides them? The imagery of darkness, fog, haze, etc., constantly elides and obscures the narrator’s perspective, and the reader’s.

It was after reading this disturbing novella that I turned to the Multatuli, mentioned in my previous post, for its very different, very clear attack on colonial exploitation by the rapacious Europeans.

Krasznahorkai Satantango coverLászló Krasznahorkai, Sátántangó. Tuskar Rock, 2012. Translated (brilliantly) by George Szirtes. First published in Hungarian 1985. Another slippery, elusive narrative. The epigraph from Kafka sets the tone of this surreal, nightmarish fable-fantasy. It also has the dark, sardonic (gallows) humour of Beckett – and a couple of enigmatic, sinister-clown central characters who wouldn’t seem out of place in Waiting for Godot.

In ‘mercilessly long autumn rains’, lashed by winds, a desolate rural community that resembles the corporate, pointless bleakness of a communist-era Hungary collective farm languishes and rots, neglected, despairing. The ‘stinking yellow sea of mud’ deepens, the roads turn to rivers. The scheming, avaricious inhabitants gather in the dingy bar. There they drown their sorrows and sins, flirt and bicker. Until that strange pair arrives: Irimiás and Petrina, thought to have died but now restored to life: resurrection men. The villagers’ hopes rise: they will provide salvation from their ‘years of “wretched misery”, break the damp silence’. They will lead them in an escape to a better, more fulfilling life. Except, unsurprisingly in this topsy-turvy world, nothing works out as expected. Maybe this returning pair are treacherous spies, tricksters or devilish emissaries. Definitely not the Messiah.

Written in long, loping sentences, each chapter is one unbroken paragraph. Part One is numbered I-VI, Part Two, VI-I. The effect is mesmerising, constantly surprising, subverting the superficial familiarity of the drab scene. That mirror structure, like tango moves, provides a hypnotic, dance-like feel.

Is the novel an allegory about storytelling, fabulising ‘reality’? The drunken village doctor spies on his neighbours, making notes that become this narrative. And it’s a dystopian account of an absurd world that outdoes reality in its weirdness, temporal fluidity and defiance of rational thought, with the illusion of ‘Resurrection’ and perhaps redemption as tantalisingly elusive as a phantom tango dance partner.

It’s a fascinating, absorbing work. It was filmed in 1994 by Béla Tarr (seven hours long and, appropriately, in black and white).

Joso From 7 to Sea coverJayne Joso, From Seven to the Sea. Seren Books (an imprint of Poetry Wales Press), 2019. Some while ago I posted on this writer’s Soothing Music for Stray Cats. This one is very different, and better.

On her seventh birthday Esther is taken by her not particularly attentive mother to live in a seaside town (somewhere in Wales, it seems) with her new father – a grumpy control freak who clearly hates kids. The classic ogre stepfather. The imaginative child can’t settle in her new school, where it’s debatable who’s nastier: the pupils or the teacher. Sensibly she takes to skipping classes to visit her new friend Pete, a kind, grizzled old seadog she encounters in the harbour. She loves going out to sea with him in his boat. He’s the father she craves.

Various mishaps (some dogs have a hard time) darken spirited little Esther’s world, but it’s a touching fairytale where it’s evident that things will work out ok for her. The sea will always be there to cradle her.

 

 

 

 

Henrik Pontoppidan, Lucky Per

Henrik Pontoppidan, Lucky Per. Everyman’s Library, 2019, translated from the Danish of a revised edition of 1918 by Naomi Lebowitz. First published 1898-1904

A bildungsroman normally traces the development and growth of a young person into maturity. They learn from the abrasive contacts they experience in the course of the narrative and find some kind of fulfilment and completeness. Lucky Per is sort of the opposite. I don’t know what you’d call it – a kind of anti-heroic renunciation of conventional worldly and emotional success – which Per initially craves in conventional ‘[fairytale] hero hoping to make good’ manner (he’s likened to Aladdin, among others) – in favour of acceptance of spiritual quietude and the ascetic resignation of a secular anchorite. An unlearning curve.

Peter Andreas Sidenius (nicknamed Per) is the son of a puritanical, undemonstrative pastor father in rural Jutland (like Pontoppidan). It’s a dour land, and the father’s upbringing is stern and critical. Nowadays I suppose we’d call him a religious fanatic, a fundamentalist. He’s lacking in the loving kindness and charity aspects of the religion he’s distorted into something terrible and austere. Spirited and rebellious, Per leaves as soon as he can, at the age of sixteen, to indulge his ambitious engineering schemes and find fame and fortune.

Interestingly his autodidact’s crackpot plans to harness nature’s wind and wave power through the use of turbines have become reality. In this richly symbolic novel they represent Per’s misguided, doomed attempt to harness his own powerful nature and direct it in ways that would force him to compromise himself with the bureaucratic, materialistic custodians of worldly power and finance who he despises as much as he does his father’s loveless religion or the artists he dismisses as ‘aesthetes’.

His burning desire for fame slowly turns to a realisation that his idea of success is really a revolt against his upbringing: he has to learn what it is he’s truly striving for. Fame, he discovers, is a delusion, and the famous luck he’s noted for favours the fool.

In Copengagen he pursues a wealthy and powerful Jewish financier to back his grandiose schemes, and becomes engaged to the man’s beautiful, troubled daughter whose resistance he systematically breaks down. This is another in a sequence of surrogate families. He longs for the mutual connection he never experienced as a child. He falls in love several times, pursuing his quarry relentlessly, then tiring of her.

He’s not cut out for romance or marriage, though he tries both, and finds them uncongenial, against his nature. His reverse arc towards solitude gradually becomes irresistible.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche dominate his thinking during his extended existential-philosophical crisis and ultimate rejection of Christianity (demonstrated in the Alps when he shoots his gun to destroy a crucifix: it’s ‘the courage to kill off idols’ that lesser mortals lack: ‘I shoot in the new century! he exults, with a disturbing hint of the brutal totalitarianism of that century).

He yearns to belong and to love/be loved, yet lacks the wherewithal to participate in such relations. There’s a void inside him, and he struggles to reconcile this with his worldly aspirations. As the novel progresses he confronts his true self: like the troll legends of his childhood, he longs for the life above ground with humans, but is incapable of surviving outside the dark cave. Exile is alluring. At a desperate moment he sees in a flash –

the foundation of existence: it was that cold and silent, ever indifferent, pervasive wilderness of ice he had seen on his first journey through the Alps.

It’s an audacious, philosophical novel that abides by many of the conventions of 19C fiction, but has its own unique plan: ‘lucky’, as the title in Danish suggests, means both fortunate and happy; Per comes to realise that there are different orders of fulfilment in a paradoxical world that’s full of reversals, and that finding out who he is involves painful abjurations of what he once thought he wanted. Like the character in the fairytale ‘Hans in Luck’ on which this plot is loosely based (as the translator points out in her Afterword), he grows into authentic selfhood by trading down, divesting himself of the trappings he once thought he craved and learning to value and live by his own kind of ‘natural theology’.

There are some unfortunate casual anti-Semitic elements in the narrative consistent with the bigoted views of the time. Per is more broadminded and tolerant than most of his acquaintance, but still harbours an innate dislike of this ‘foreign race’. But he also envies the Jewish Salomon family he nearly joins through marriage for their strong sense of selfhood and identity.

His fiancée Jakobe Salomon is a brilliantly realised, complex and passionate character, far more likeable than moody Per. She’s engaged in a parallel course of self-discovery to Per’s – though her destination is very different from his. One of the outstanding scenes in the novel is a flashback to a Berlin railway station, where she saw hundreds of ‘fantastic, ragged forms’, all ‘sallow and emaciated’, scarred and terrified: these are the Russian Jews she’d heard about, fleeing from the pogroms, on their way to haven in an America which would no doubt reconsider accepting them as refugees. She’s even more horrified by the callous, inhuman behaviour of the jeering onlookers. The ‘gutters were running with blood’ chillingly anticipates the rise of the Nazis that Pontoppidan lived to witness.

There are many other aspects of this rich, dense novel (it’s nearly 600 pages, packed with ideas, debates and philosophical-existential wranglings – so much more could be said about it). Tom at Wuthering Expectations has posted some thoughtful and stimulating pieces about all this here.

As a novel of ideas and a cocky young man’s struggle to make sense of existence in a godless world of self interest, ruthlessness and duplicity, it’s extraordinary. A ‘forgotten masterpiece’, as the Introduction by Garth Risk Hallberg calls it.

There’s a rather plodding but fairly faithful (apart from a softened ending) film version directed by Bille August in 2018 available on Netflix. It even riffs on the phrase ‘fear and trembling’. Unfortunately it calls Per ‘Pete’ throughout.

Update, 30.05.19. Thanks to Meredith at Dolce Belleza for reminding me that it was Dorian at the Eiger Mönch and Jungfrau blog who initiated the collective reading of this novel by the 1917 Nobel prizewinner for literature. Use #LuckyPer2019 on social media if you join in the conversation.

 

 

Wharton, Multatuli, Aridjis: Update 2

After succumbing to the mystery infection a few weeks ago, I’ve now had a problem with a torn retina, so have not been able to write or read much all week. So thanks to LibriVox I’m listening to an audio version of Northanger Abbey, which is huge fun – just what I needed. Meanwhile, here’s another update on recent reading while recuperating before the eye problem:

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), A Son at the Front (1923). Library of America eBook Classic (downloaded free from their website some while ago). This is very different from the New York society novels I’ve posted about previously: The House of Mirth (1905); The Age of Innocence (1920); The Children (1928); and the two companion pieces not set in high society New York, both about thwarted, painful love: bleak, wintry Ethan Frome (1911), and the ‘hot Ethan’, Summer (1917). A Son at the Front is clearly born out of the author’s selfless work during WWI supporting refugees and others in need. The grateful nation of France made her Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Her experiences on the home front and travelling to the front lines clearly influence the narrative. What’s so unusual about it is the singularly unsympathetic nature of its protagonist, the vitriolic Paris-based American artist John Campton. He and his wife Julia had divorced years before the novel opens, days before the outbreak of war. Julia had married a wealthy financier, and Campton is disgruntled and jealous that his poverty until recent times when he’d finally become successful has prevented him from spoiling the lad as the stepfather’s millions had enabled him to. His and Julia’s beloved son, having been born, by accident, in France, is called up for military service. His sense of duty impels him to participate.

Most of the novel relates Campton’s increasingly desperate efforts to use his influence as a successful society portraitist to extricate his son from the front. He has to compromise his artistic and personal ethics to further his career in a corrupt wartime world behind the lines, and in order to further his campaign to protect his son. This adds to his rancour, and makes him more spiteful and selfish than usual. Most interesting is the way his spiky relationship with Julia softens, as they find common cause. This is complicated by his irrational detestation of her self-effacing husband, sensitive to Campton’s jealousy (he has much more clout with top politicians and military) and capacity to save his stepson.

This is not yet another grim war novel, then; it relates with stark frankness Campton’s slow discovery of a warmer, more human and sympathetic version of himself that the personal catastrophes he experiences bring about. The home front is shown to be less than completely noble, and the ineptitude and corruption of those who wield political, financial and military power is revealed in ways not usually found in other ‘war novels’.

Multatuli, Max Havelaar, or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company. NYRB Classics, 2019. First published in Dutch 1860. Translated by Ina Rilke and David McKay. Introduction by Pramoedya Ananta Toer provides useful context. The author’s real name was Eduard Douwes Dekker, a former colonial officer in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia); his pseudonym is Latin for ‘I have suffered much’ – appropriate for this narrative of the exploitation of the native Indonesians at the corrupt, exploitative hands of the European colonisers. But it’s not just a bromide against imperialist oppression; the outrage and moral indignation is wrapped up in an extraordinary Tristram Shandy kind of satire. The first and liveliest part of the novel is narrated by a sanctimonious, avaricious, stupid prig called Batavus Drystubble, whose chief aims in life are to further his career in an Amsterdam coffee house, and to pose as a pious, efficient functionary. His account reveals him to be a pompous hypocrite and fool. He comes into possession of the manuscript which forms the bulk of the novel, relating how Havelaar’s experiences as a colonial official in mid-19C Indonesia cause him to write an exposé of the criminal abuses, corruption and greed of the colonisers, who treat the locals appallingly: they endure slavery, extortion, cruel punishments and even death to maintain the lucrative trade in coffee, indigo, pepper and other luxuries coveted by their duplicitous overlords.

Multatuli Havelaar coverIt’s an extraordinary novel, combining hilarious satire with incisive criticism of the injustices exposed. Like Sterne, the author employs a wide range of digressions and narrative modes, from lists and letters to redacted versions of the ‘found MS’, with disclaimers from the appalled Drystubble at what he considers to be its ‘fake news’ content. Ch. 19 is a heartbreaking account of one representative young man’s sufferings under the brutal Dutch regime, which corrupts the indigenous leaders and makes them complicit in the colonists’ systematic exploitation of their people. There’s an enormous, pseudo-serious apparatus of footnotes provided by the author at the end, where his genuine anger reveals itself unmitigated by the satiric pose in the body of the novel.

There are some passages which labour the moral point at excessive length, and some of the digressions weaken the flow – but it’s at times a gut-wrenching critique of inhumanity in the pursuit of wealth.

Aridjis Sea Monsters coverChloe Aridjis, Sea Monsters. Chatto and Windus, 2019. I was disappointed by this novel, which is inferior to its two predessors by this interesting and usually reliable author. It’s a whimsical account of a 17-year-old’s flight from her privileged Mexico City life with loving parents to indulge a passion for a fickle Goth boyfriend whose sullen charisma she mistakes for the real thing. There’s some lovely imagery and prose that’s more sustained in the earlier novels, and an interesting interlude early on in the flat where William Burroughs conducted his ill-fated William Tell experiment.

In radio and podcast interviews Aridjis has said the plot is based on events in her own life, which probably explains why it reads like a self-indulgent adolescent’s fantasy. I felt for the poor parents as she languished moodily on a gorgeous tropical beach, lusting after new, more glamorously seedy male idols (boyfriend has lost interest in her, not surprisingly) without a thought for the pain she was inflicting back home.

Links to previous Aridjis posts – Asunder and Book of Clouds.

B.Moore, HH Richardson, E. Bowen, G. Gazdanov. Update pt 1

After an illness (still persisting) and short break visiting family near Barcelona, there’s been something of a hiatus on TD. Here’s a quick update (part 1) on reading since last time:

Brian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn coverBrian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn, Harper Perennial, 2007; first published 1955. This was Moore’s first novel published under his own name. Set in his birthplace, Belfast, it deals with what were to become some of his key topics: (loss of) RC faith, sex, solitude and the difficulties of connecting. It tells the sad story of a 40-ish spinster’s decline into serious problems as she struggles to deal with her isolation and inability to forge relationships. She’s lost and desperate. Moore shows impressive ability to inhabit the  troubled consciousness of this lonely woman. I was inspired to read the novel by JacquiWine’s post last year; she has an excellent, detailed post about it here

HH Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom coverHenry Handel Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom. VMC 1981; first published 1910. Born in Australia under the name Ethel Florence Lindesey Richardson, the author moved to Europe as a young woman and studied music in Leipzig. This semi-autobiographical novel relates the development of spirited, mercurial Laura Tweedle Rambotham from her move to boarding school in Melbourne at the age of twelve to her final days there aged sixteen. Unlike the other girls she comes from a poor background. Richardson subverts the usual girls’ school kind of narrative – this is no Chalet School. The teachers are bored, incompetent or vindictive, or all three. The other girls are much the same. Too impetuous to curb her spontaneity, Laura tries desperately to conform and be liked; she fails. She even stoops to aping the peevish snobbery and factional squabbling and bullying of her privileged peers, but acceptance and friendship elude her. As her sexuality awakens, she develops a passion for an attractive older girl – but as usual her judgement is faulty and she is destined for painful experiences. It’s a fascinating, lively account, partly marred by too much detail about Laura’s attempt to find some kind of solace in religious faith.

E. Bowen, Friends and Relations coverElizabeth Bowen, Friends and Relations. Penguin Modern Classics, 1984; first published 1931. I disliked this. Maybe it was the illness I was in the throes of. The basic premise is promising: two sisters marry, but one is in love with her sister’s husband. I simply had no interest in what would happen to these otiose, bloodless upper-class characters – they live in huge houses and have little to do but lust after each other. Elfrida is interestingly done: non-conformist, passionate. The prose is over-ornate, mannered and look-at-me ‘fine writing’. Disappointing; I’d read other Bowen novels long ago and enjoyed them.

 

Gazdanov Spectre A Wolf coverGaito Gazdanov, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. Translated by Bryan Karetnyk. Pushkin Press, 2013. First published in Russian 1947-48. Another novel with semi-autobiographical tendencies. A sixteen year old lad fighting for the White Russians in the civil war following the Bolshevik Revolution thinks he’s murdered a man. Later he reads a story which seems to tell that story. Further coincidences and fusions of what he considers his reality and some other order of experience take place. It’s an intriguing blend of war narrative, bildungsroman, down and out in Paris account with murders, lowlifes and gangsters (there’s even a reference to ‘apaches’ in the slang French sense), blended with a Proustian memory theme and existential duplications. Reminded me (in a good way) of Blaise Cendrars’ Dan Yack novels – not just the content I just summarised, but the mix of gritty urban noir with surreal narrative shifts.