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.

 

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.

Becoming insane: Patricia Highsmith, Little Tales of Misogyny

Patricia Highsmith, Little Tales of Misogyny. Virago Modern Classics, 2015.

There are 17 very short stories printed in a large font in this slim volume of just 135 pages, so they’re probably best described as flash fiction.

They were first published in German in Switzerland in 1975 with a title that translates as “Little Tales for Misogynists”, as Nicholas Lezard points out in his Guardian article about them. Rather than serving to teach misogynists a lesson, he suggests, ‘it’s something you might give a misogynist on his birthday’. Yes, “his”.

They do provide venomous but curiously affectless little accounts of some pretty horrible women. Their titles indicate that Highsmith takes mischievous aim at some stereotypical female figures in the patriarchy: The Coquette, The Female Novelist, The Dancer, The Invalid, The Middle-Class Housewife, and so on. Most of them behave despicably, and most come to a seemingly deserved or inevitable sticky end.

Highsmith Misogyny coverThe sheer nastiness of the protagonists and the calmly detached tone of the narrative voice that depicts their atrocities before despatching them make for some uncomfortable reading. What was Highsmith playing at? Ok, she’s famous for the twisted, psychopathic behaviour of some of her best-known characters in her full-length fiction, such as Ripley. Here she seems to be up to something different from those novels that induced Graham Greene to describe her as ‘the poet of apprehension’.

The stories read like fairy-tales or parables, with more in common with Kafka’s than Aesop’s, or Angela Carter’s with the feminism and metaphysics redacted. In the first story, for example, a young man ‘asked a father for his daughter’s hand, and received it in a box – her left hand.’ It’s the insouciant irrelevance of that last phrase that causes such a tingle down the spine.

The young man not surprisingly goes mad, or ‘became insane’ as the narrator blithely puts it. The young woman visits him in the asylum ‘like a dutiful wife’. By now, it’s apparent that every time there’s one of those deceptively anodyne statements in the story, it’s going to be followed by something vicious – and it is here:

And like most wives, she had nothing to say. But she smiled prettily. His job provided a small pension now, which she was getting. Her stump was concealed in a muff.

The women in these stories behave like monstrous caricatures of the casually misogynistic male views and attitudes prevalent in the popular culture of the fifties and sixties – the ultra Don Drapers. Their men drool or despair and often, like the young man with the girl’s hand, ‘become insane’.

One way of reading the stories is to see that the women are in fact simply conforming to that male stereotype that’s been constructed for them. In Oona, the Jolly Cavewoman, for example, she’s described like a Playboy bunny:

She was round, round-bellied, round-shouldered, round-hipped, and always smiling, always jolly. That was why men liked her.

Really? What did men like about her – the curves, or the jolly smiles? Either way they’re shallow and stupid. Oona drives them crazy – literally. So whose fault is that?

Some of the women characters, however, are plain malicious. The Coquette, for example, lost her virginity when she was just ten years old. She ‘told her mother that she was raped.’ She had thus ‘sent a thirty-year-old man to prison.’ Yet she’d effectively seduced him, delighting in presenting herself as sexually provocative and alluring, and she takes pleasure in ruining his life – and his wife and daughter’s. When she pits two suitors who bore her against each other, they collude and kill her ‘with various blows about the head.’ There’s that weird tone again: it’s the detachment of a police report stripped bare of any moral stance.

The world, then, is a mean and nasty place, according to these stories. Men objectify women, who are restricted to roles as submissive, decorative housewives or sex objects. If  women strive for agency or fulfilment, like The Female Novelist, The Artist or The Dancer, they are either deluded or just randomly murdered. Feminists are as morally anaesthetised and unhinged as the Middle-Class Housewife; when they meet, there’s mayhem and death.

Are these just pitch-black comedies? There’s humour there for sure, as I hope the extracts I’ve given indicate – but it’s dark as night. Take the title alone of The Fully-Licensed Whore, or, The Wife. Shades there perhaps of Sue Bridewell’s objection to marriage in Jude the Obscure as being ‘licensed to be loved on the premises.’

Or there’s The Breeder: a woman who gives birth to 17 children in fewer years. Her husband’s friends make the expression ‘she gets pregnant every time he looks at her’ horribly literal. He has little option but to become insane. When the wife visits him in yet another asylum he suggests she stand on her head to reverse the process that seemed to instigate her fecundity. The story ends with another typically barbed banality in response to that:

“He’s mad,” Elaine said hopelessly to the intern, and calmly turned away.

It’s that blandly calm detachment and acceptance of the horrific that’s so chilling, conveyed by those two perfectly selected adverbs. Warped humour that’s not exactly funny, but insidious: it’s assumed that Elaine is quite right to have no hope.

On first reading I felt pleased that I didn’t inhabit this bizarre and unsettling distortion or moral inversion of the real world. Looking again at these narratives I’m inclined to think that maybe it’s not such a distortion. Like parables and some fairy-tales, ‘the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.’ In striving to rid ourselves of our daily cares we simply exacerbate them, just as attempts to interpret these tales become parables themselves.

‘Misogynists’ is probably a misnomer, then. They’re really subversive Little Tales of Misanthropy to cheer us all up.

I’ve posted on these other Highsmith titles:

Carol

Edith’s Diary

A Suspension of Mercy

 

Ernest Hemingway, Across the River and into the Trees

Ernest Hemingway, Across the River and into the Trees. Penguin, 1966; first published 1950

Hemingway scholar Mark Cirino published a sporadically helpful ‘Glossary and Commentary’ to this novel (Kent State University, 2016); in his Introduction he provides a useful summary (I edit slightly):

[The novel] is the story of Richard Cantwell, a dying fifty-year-old American colonel stationed in Trieste, who spends his weekend leave in Venice in order to hunt ducks; enjoy the city that he loves; spend time with his war buddies; and wine, dine and romance an eighteen-year-old contessa named Renata, the love of his life. Cantwell is a veteran of the Italian front in World War I, having defended the Veneto in 1918, and also World War II, having fought with the 4th Infantry Division in Normandy, the rat race through France, the Hürtgen Forest, and the Battle of the Bulge. Much to his bitterness, Cantwell has been scapegoated and “stars had been removed”; he was demoted from brigadier general to colonel for following “other people’s orders” and obeying the feckless, unrealistic expectations of the masters of war, the office-bound, ‘no-fight’ generals that killed many good Americans. Cantwell takes enormous pride in his generalship, and despite the four or five years that have passed since his demotion, he is haunted by those mistakes and those events, even though the novel does not explicitly dramatize those past moments.

Hemingway ARIT cover

My battered old paperback is ex-library stock, with badly faded cover. That’s a dead duck on the left.

Instead what we get for a sizeable chunk of the narrative is Cantwell’s meandering wartime reminiscences to his youthful lover as they lie in bed in his opulent hotel, the Gritti Palace – which still exists. The novel is riddled with allusions to and quotations from the Western Canon, from Dante to Eliot. It’s difficult not to find Hemingway’s intertextual tendencies, and the locations in which he places his action, a little like showing off.

The grizzled colonel also happens to be an expert on Renaissance Italian artists and Venetian history and architecture. He notices the palazzo once occupied by Byron (‘well loved in this town’, he muses; ‘You have to be a tough boy in this town to be loved’. He clearly places himself in this category. ‘They never cared anything for Robert Browning, nor Mrs Robert Browning, nor for their dog’. Best joke in the book – though there aren’t many).

The novel is in part an unconvincing reworking of the Purgatorio (and Death in Venice). For Renata (catalyst for his being ‘re-born’?), lying in bed with the cranky colonel, encourages him to ‘purge [his] bitterness’ – those haunting memories, that disabling guilt. She’s his lover and his confessor, ‘not an inquisitor’, his analyst and daughter – there’s a running “joke” (difficult to find amusing) that he’s her father; he’s old enough almost to be her grandfather. His dismissal of Othello as ‘garrulous’ is a bit rich, given his own loquacity. He never stops talking. “Do I bore you?” he repeatedly asks Renata as his war ‘confession’ starts to resemble in its prolixity the battle sections of War and Peace. Except his account is much fuller of self-pity.

When he’s not talking to Renata or his chums in the hotel bar – and being bitchy about a figure resembling Sinclair Lewis, or ex-wives and girlfriends who bear a striking resemblance to Hemingway’s own – Cantwell is boozing with fawning cronies in Harry’s Bar. We seem to be expected to be impressed by his sexual successes, his fluency in most of the major European languages, and the narrative is often bizarre in register to reflect its being a rendition of the Italian idiom he speaks. Our narrator takes for granted that readers will believe that this expat American bar is enviably chic and an indication of Cantwell’s classy assimilation into the Venetian social scene.

There’s a bizarrely bad sex scene in a gondola (and some off-colour male gaze description of Cantwell’s beautiful teenage lover), and more duck-shooting narrative than anyone could desire. Cantwell heroically sees off potential street muggers or assailants – twice. He, like Byron, is such a tough boy. Certainly heterosexual. Despite that odd gondola sex. And the bevy of male admirers he surrounds himself with. I often find with Hemingway – and of course others have, too – that he protests just a little too much how macho he is (for his narrators are usually flimsily disguised avatars of himself).

Apparently this novel was mauled by most of the critics when it came out. It had been much anticipated: ten years since For Whom the Bell Tolls was a success, his previous novel. It was to be his last. Despite Cirino’s spirited defence, it’s a flawed and excessively mannered exercise in egotism. True, there are some of Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’ stylistic successes, but for the most part I found it pretty unpleasant.

The love-talk and sex-talk between Cantwell and Renata reads uncomfortably like the fantasies of an ageing roué – though it seems Hemingway did have an affair of sorts with a young contessa in Venice after the war, so maybe I’m being unfair about his hero’s Casanova complex.

But the character of Cantwell fails to engage as he seems intended to: instead of a broken-hearted, dying romantic hero, he comes across as a swaggering, disgruntled windbag, wallowing in his own sense of superiority in a world that’s too corrupt to value his valiant independence and integrity.

I’ve posted on Hemingway’s story ‘Cat in the Rain’, and some longer works by or featuring him, here

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elaine Dundy, The Old Man and Me

Last summer I posted on Elaine Dundy’s 1958 novelistic debut, The Dud Avocado – I found it frothy but funny, with a silly plot but some great jokes, and an engaging ingénue of a first-person narrator.

Elaine Dundy, The Old Man and Me cover

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition, a reissue that first appeared in 2005.

 The Old Man and Me fell flat in comparison. Mostly, for me, because it’s too close in form and content to Avocado: an frivolous, immature and free-spirited young expat woman (London this time, not Paris), not long out of college, crashes through a series of disastrous escapades involving louche, selfish men, catty, bored women, with a fair smattering of marijuana, booze, sex and jazz.

The plot is just as silly and trivial, based on assumed identity, mutual passion weirdly mixed with murderous vengefulness. The narrator-protagonist is implausibly (and, it turns out, falsely) named Honey Flood. Like Sally Jay, Honey’s name suits her gushing, demotic narrative flow.

Elaine Dundy’s introduction, written some forty years after the novel’s first publication, sets out her intentions. She wanted to provide an anti-heroine counterpart to the Angry Young Men so fashionable in late fifties English literature. Their bile was directed at ‘everything phony, pompous, priggish, prudish and pretentious’ (she must have run out of synonyms beginning with P). She wanted her female equivalent to be as exhilaratingly angry – a tricky task at the time when women were ‘depicted as passive and put upon’.

She realised ‘Bad Girls are more interesting’, so she made Honey hate everything about the English: ‘Soho, Mayfair, the West End and country houses.’ She’s opinionated, operates ‘on a short fuse’, and has a dastardly plan – ‘to kill the Englishman [the Old Man of the title is overweight, ugly and in his fifties] because he has the money.’

This is the England of 1962, before the invention of the Beatles and sex, as Larkin famously lamented — pre-Swinging London. The scars of WW2 are still apparent – physically and psychologically. Honey of course has no interest in this.

To her credit, Elaine Dundy has Honey’s English target, the Old Man named C.D. McKee, as vitriolic and intolerant about America as she is about England. But these jokes wear thin after a while.

There are just too many scenes in seedy clubs or jazz dens full of socialites and bores all lined up tamely for our Anglophobic narrator to tear to pieces. Trouble is, she’s no better herself. She somehow lacks the charm of Sally Jay – or maybe I was just immune second time round to this kind of humour.

There are some fine set pieces and sentences, which just about make the book worth persevering with. By Chapter 2 I was seriously considering giving up on it, then was jolted back into life by this lovely dash of nastiness about the pseudo-posh, ultra-pretentious London restaurant, the Truite Bleu.

The chapter opens with Honey’s unimpressed take on the ‘battered neon trout sign’ hanging outside, impressing her only with its sense of ‘frank senility’. Inside all is shabby and squalid. The staff are brilliantly evoked, like rude, elderly trout themselves – ‘you had to admire that kind of professional slackness,’ Honey sourly observes as the coat-check guy drops her coat with disdainful carelessness on the floor.

The description of the interior is priceless: it’s hideous, stuffy and smelly.Then there are the waiters. They

looked as if they’d staggered out of an old dark hole. They creaked and wobbled and limped and trembled under their loads, their turkey-gobbler necks rising pink from their stiff wing collars.

Their rudeness and incompetence goes unnoticed by the English diners, who look (to Honey) unaccountably contented:

Their genuinely old-fashioned bad service that was being meted out impartially was instantly recognizable as the real thing: a subtle sophisticated Old World incompetence we Americans can never hope to emulate, the best our rustic efforts can produce being a superficial smart-alec surliness not to be spoken of in the same breath as this lofty disdain which was both thoughtful and thorough…These waiters were hand-picked for pleurisy, deafness, and a variety of speech defects. They were flushed of skin, gnarled of hand. The dishes that jumped on to the floor from their palsied hands were never referred to again, as it were, but just lay there for the rest of the evening to be ground under foot by passers-by.

There’s a great line at the equally dire country house Honey is invited to with her would-be seducee, the Old Man. He tells her of a woman he needs to avoid there: she’s a notorious gold-digger, who married a wealthy Italian nobleman who ‘treated her vilely’, ran through his money and ‘had the appalling taste to die practically penniless.’ He goes on:

“Anyone can buy nobility”, she said to me soon after, “but who can buy money?”

And that’s about it. The two stand-out funny bits.

There’s a fuller account of plot and a less jaundiced reading of the novel at HeavenAli’s blog from Dec. 2018; she found it ‘wickedly funny’. Like Ali, I found my copy of the VMC paperback in a charity shop. It looked unread.

 

 

Combinational delight: Nabokov, Pale Fire

I’ve tried to write this post several times. How to even begin to discuss a text as dense and as teasing, as multifaceted and astonishing, as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, first published in the US in 1962.

Scholars have been poring over this chess puzzle of a text since it was published; I’ll put some links at the end for those who’d like a more profound and challenging account. Much of what’s been published, and I’ve just scratched the surface of a daunting amount of scholarly interpretation and comment, involves exactly who on earth is the ‘only begetter’ of this…novel.

I hesitate to use that word because Pale Fire refuses to conform to most definitions of novel, from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary: ‘A small tale, generally of love’ – when the novel was still closer to what tended to be called later Romance – to the OED online:

..A long fictional prose narrative, usually filling one or more volumes and typically representing character and action with some degree of realism and complexity; a book containing such a narrative….

After a Foreword by an American university scholar called Charles Kinbote, in which he explains that his neighbour and alleged ‘very dear friend’, the poet John Shade, was killed on July 21, 1959, just one line short of completing his magnum opus, a 999-line poem in rhyming couplets (he calls them ‘heroic’, but they are too ‘open’ in structure to fit this term, beloved of the Augustans; and Shade shows a heavy debt to Pope in the poem, as Kinbote does in his commentary). It was completed, Kinbote claims, in the last 20 days of Shade’s life.

Already my problem in trying to give an idea of this Russian doll of a novel appears: how to describe it coherently, when it defies coherence itself.

Nabokov Pale Fire cover

My Penguin paperback edition

The poem itself follows the Foreword. Its four cantos consist mostly of autobiographical details about Shade, his wife Sybil, and their daughter Hazel, who apparently killed herself at a young age, after experiencing ‘psychokinetic manifestations’ and some kind of mental collapse. There follows a long section in which he questions the notions of existence and ‘le grand néant’.

The largest portion of the text consists of Kinbote’s supposed ‘commentary’ on the poem. He’s stolen the MS (record cards, like the ones Nabokov himself composed on) of the poem and hidden himself away in an obscure American hotel to edit it. It rapidly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary scholarly exegesis or approach – despite his disingenuous claim that these notes ‘will certainly satisfy the most voracious reader’.

Kinbote reveals himself to be increasingly deranged and pompous. If there is a narrative, it’s in this slow self-revelation: he deludes himself that Shade had become an intimate friend, and that he, Kinbote, had told him in the months before he died that he was actually the exiled King Charles the Beloved of his native northern country, Zembla – he’d been arrested by the Shadows, who resemble the secret police of the Soviet regime that Zembla closely resembles. Kinbote insists, however, that its resemblance to any such place is illusory; it’s very name, he explains unconvincingly, means ‘semblance’ (his claim that his name is Zemblan for ‘regicide’ is equally duplicitous). He and his country are shape-shifters. He even uses the word ‘versipel’, which can mean ‘werewolf’ – a creature of dual nature. The commentary lingers on such wordplay, puns, and relishes its own obscure vocabulary and elegantly sinuous but ostentatious prose style.

Kinbote boasts that Shade was intrigued by his stories of his royal exploits in Zembla, and isn’t daunted by the complete absence of any reference to Zemblan material in the poem; instead he sets about a ludicrous, often hilariously outlandish hermeneutically distorted set of pseudo-scholarly notes in which he interprets extracts from the poem as a coded version of his own Zemblan story.

Either that or he just digresses into long rambling reminiscences, full of non sequiturs and dead ends, of his own putative life as King, including his bizarre escape from captivity and arrival in the US. Or riffs on waxwings, cicadas and butterflies, in the register of TS Eliot (sometimes echoing Conan Doyle), Pope, Shakespeare (the poem and novel’s title may come from Timon of Athens, but Kinbote dodges accuracy by claiming not to have any books with him to verify his literary claims). He’s almost pathologically hostile to his fellow scholars, who find him ‘disagreeable’ and ‘insane’ (with reason!), and who he denounces as frauds and fools who envy his intimacy with the great poet and his superior intellect; only he perceives the truth.

To try to give any fuller a picture would require a post almost as long as the novel.

The poem famously begins with one of nature’s ‘pranks’:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the window pane…

The bird had died by flying into a reflection of the world in the poet’s window-glass. The text is full of such ludic language (‘shadow’/Shade; ‘pane’/pain; strictly speaking the bird has ‘slain’ itself unwittingly – the suicide theme is established obliquely at the outset), doublings, deceptions, mirrors and false notions – like Kinbote’s deluded gloss on the poem.

Instead of being Boswell to Shade’s Johnson (the Epigraph is taken from Boswell’s Life of the great man; but who is supposed to have inserted the Epigraph?!), Kinbote reveals himself to be a slightly modified, super-vain version of a Shandean (ie interpreter of Sterne’s vast comic shaggy-dog story), calling himself a ‘Shadean’.

All the reader can do is try to make sense of things, knowing that with Kinbote as guide, claiming as he obfuscates that he’s ‘clearing things up’ authoritatively, we’re unlikely to succeed. That’s where I went wrong at first; once I’d relaxed into glorious failure, the novel took off and took me where it liked.

It was exhilarating and not a little scary. It’s about authors’ lack of…authority. A postmodern labyrinth of paratexts or hypertextual cross-references and metafictional asides, word games, parody, and looping paradoxes, offering impossible solutions to imaginary questions, prolix and dazzlingly allusive. Even the foreword advises how to read the text (preferably using two juxtaposed copies) – in a non-linear, reflexive manner similar to the way today we read e-texts full of hyperlinks. As Shade concludes, near the end of the poem, he understands his existence, or part of it,

…through my art,

In terms of combinational delight.

And as Kinbote teasingly boasts at one point in his faux commentary: ‘for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.’

It’s cerebral and very funny.

As I was about to start this post I came across this by Anthony at his brilliant blog, Times Flow Stemmed: thesis 20 (of 33) published today to mark his blog’s tenth anniversary:

20: Difficulty in fiction is normally pleasurable

Very apt for a reader of Pale Fire. See Frank Kermode on St Mark’s gospel in The Genesis of Secrecy, and Jesus’ disturbingly opaque explanation of why he spoke in parables.

Here are those links to some of the academic studies of the novel:

Brian Boyd on his theory that Kinbote is really another scholar named in passing in the novel, Botkin:

Zembla website has many more such links.

 

 

Patricia Highsmith, A Suspension of Mercy

Patricia Highsmith, A Suspension of Mercy. VMC. First published 1965

I’m not usually keen on suspense thrillers, as I find they generally lack suspense and don’t thrill. A Suspension of Mercy did little to change my mind. I found it contrived and far-fetched.

The central character Sydney is an American thriller writer who fantasises about murdering his posh English wife Alicia, and gets a kick out of giving his neighbours and friends the impression that he’s indulged that fantasy, offering an implausible-sounding (but true) explanation that they’re having a trial separation – it’s difficult to see why Alicia put up with his abusive, selfish behaviour for as long as a year.

Highsmith Suspension coverIt’s set in rural Suffolk, and mirrors many key aspects of Highsmith’s own life at the time. But even the post-modern metafictional aspects failed to engage me: they too seemed self-indulgent. It seemed to me that PH was having far more fun writing this novel than I was in reading it. Like she’d set herself a challenge to write a murder mystery without a murder – an exercise in plotting. Her characters as a consequence have all the vitality of chess pieces.

Sydney’s slightly deranged flirting with danger in posing as a wife-killer, even though he was innocent, is portrayed with chilling detachment, and this is perhaps the most skilled part of the plotting and characterisation: the doubling and subversion of reliable narrative voice that are among PH’s trademarks work pretty well here.

What’s less successful is the highly unlikely actions of the married pair as their situation spirals out of control. People do die, one more or less of natural causes, though Sydney is again under suspicion, one who is murdered; but neither of the married pair behaves in a convincing manner. They behave in order to keep the plot ticking over, and cease to convince as well-rounded characters.

The secondary characters are also bloodless and serve to move the plot along or keep it tangled, little else – though I quite liked the treacherous turn Sydney’s writing partner Alex takes. People can be horrible like that.

This novel was disappointing. I thought the two others by PH that I’ve read and posted on – Carol and Edith’s Diary – were well written, tautly plotted and psychologically interesting and highly original. A Suspension of Mercy is inferior to them in every respect.

 

 

 

 

Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women

Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women. Picador paperback 2016. First published 2015.

Lucia Berlin had an eventful life. Born in Alaska in 1936, she travelled extensively in the USA in her youth because of her mining engineer father’s work; eventually they moved to Chile. She married three times and had four sons, continuing her peripatetic existence, living mostly in the American southwest, California and in Mexico, with spells in New York City, working at menial jobs (many stories like the title one give rueful insight into how a spirited, intelligent woman survived the hardship) to support her family and her drinking. An alcoholic until the early 90s, she then began a new career in teaching creative writing. She died in 2004; her literary reputation only took off with the first publication of this collection.

This motley life is reflected in this collection, which in some ways reads as an embellished auto-fiction. Her female protagonists are usually called some variant of Lucia, or Carlotta, and their experiences mirror Berlin’s own. But she makes something richly strange out of them.

Lucia Berlin, cover of my edition of A Manual for Cleaning WomenHer subject matter is often bleak, and in that respect resembles the addiction stories of Denis Johnson. Like him she doesn’t idealise or condemn her drunks (herself included) or addicts (often the men she loved and was treated badly by). She presents the events of life – ‘fraught with peril’ as she ironically recalls her mother’s favourite phrase.

Oh yes, her mother. Her stories depict a childhood in which her mother, also alcoholic, treated Lucia coldly, even contemptuously, and her grandfather abused her and others in the household. Many of the stories tell how she and her younger sister Sally became close in later life, when their mother had died and Sally was dying of cancer. They argued and fought a lot at this time – friction that proved to them, with characteristic humour, that they must have become ‘real sisters’.

It’s that humanity and lack of bitterness that lifts these stories out of the misery memoir category. They celebrate life in all its harshness: she finds beauty in ugly places (but doesn’t disguise the surface ugliness). And she’s very funny and witty, usually in the most unexpected places and ways.

It’s never easy to convey the experience of reading a short story collection (there are 43 in this volume, some are brilliant flash fiction, just a few paragraphs long, most of them published in small magazines from the 60s onwards; some thirty more have just been published), and this one is so varied in tone and range that all I feel I can do is to give some more or less randomly chosen passages in the hope that some of the uniqueness of this gifted writer comes across.

The voice full of oblique humour is one of the first qualities  I’d commend to you. She has that capacity to buttonhole you and keep you attentive as if she were sitting beside you, chatting, reminiscing, probably smoking, a glass of Jim Beam in her hand: ‘Wait. Let me explain…’ begins one early story. Here’s the beginning of another:

Got into Albuquerque from Baton Rouge. It was about two in the morning. Whipping wind. That’s what the wind does in Albuquerque. I hung out at the Greyhound station until a cabdriver showed up who had so many prison tattoos I figured I could score and he’d tell me where to stay.

Economy of style is an overused phrase for writers’ technique, but look how much she packs into those few lines. The omission of a subject in the opening sentence, of a finite verb in the third, the brevity and clipped syntax, as if she’s thinking faster than she can write. Those resonant place names. But these are clearly crafted sentences with cadences and sonorities all her own – it’s such a distinctive voice, right down to that rueful reference to being pleased her cabdriver is an ex-con because he’ll know where to score drugs and flop out afterwards.

In the next paragraph this colloquial voice continues:

All this happened many years ago or I couldn’t even be talking about it.

And then she ends up in a grim desert detox unit.

Humour: this is her account of one of her clients in the title story – she breaks her own rule and cleans the house of friends:

I don’t make much money with them because I don’t charge by the hour, no carfare. No lunch for sure. I really work hard. But I sit around a lot, stay very late. I smoke and read The New York Times, porno books, How to Build a Patio Roof.

Such random lists, contradictions and non sequiturs abound, delightfully. Grimness and suffering are always lightened by these bizarre detail which seem to say, That happened, but then so did this.

This is from ‘Teenage Punk’: recently divorced, she’s living in a New Mexico house with ‘leaky roof’ and ‘burned-out pump’, but, with typical delight in the natural world, takes her kids and their eponymous drifter friend to watch the arrival of beautiful cranes that come to feed nearby:

We crossed the log above the slow dark irrigation ditch, over to the clear ditch where we lay on our stomachs, silent as guerrillas. I know, I romanticize everything.

The following description of the birds is radiant and graceful.

Endings of her stories are as vivid as the openings. One of her detox stories, ‘Step’, closes with an account of a boxing match the inmates are watching on TV. The defeated fighter sinks, one knee to the canvas:

Briefly, like a Catholic leaving a pew. The slightest deference that meant the fight was over; he had lost. Carlotta whispered,

“God, please help me.”

 

I could quote like this from pretty much every story, but will end with ‘A Love Affair’, which is about her job as a doctor’s assistant. One of her tasks was to assist with gynaecological examinations and tests conducted by the doctor. She was to get the patient in the right (highly undignified) position in the stirrups and then was ‘supposed to get the women to relax’. She was surely good at this: ‘That was easy, the chatting part.’

The doctor would arrive, a ‘painfully shy man with a serious tremor of his hands that occasionally manifested itself.’ He’d switch on his headlamp, take his swab (which he waved with cheerful incongruity from the narrator ‘like a baton’):

At last his head emerged with the stick, now a dizzy metronome aimed at my waiting slide. I still drank in those days, so my hand, holding the slide, shook visibly as it tried to meet his. But in a nervous up-and-down tremble. His was back and forth. Slap, at last.

Surely a male writer couldn’t make such a scene so hilarious and yet sympathetic to the women involved: their world is so absurdly skewed against them. That’s Lucia Berlin – those last three words.

 

 

 

Patricia Highsmith, Edith’s Diary

Patricia Highsmith: Edith’s Diary. VMC 2015. First published 1977

Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thrillers probe the twisted minds and lives of people who adopt an oblique approach to what most would call reality. (Carol, which I posted about last summer, is different.) In Edith’s Diary we are back in the world of disquieting mental states in a deceptively tranquil domestic setting in the nineteen sixties and seventies.

Highsmith Edith's Diary coverBrett and Edith move from the city to a sleepy Pennsylvania suburb to enable their son Cliffie to grow up in a healthier environment. Big mistake. It’s not the city that’s unhealthy. Aged eight he tries to smother the family cat. At ten he jumps off a local bridge into the river below – twice – and is fortunate to be rescued.

Sullen, contemptuous and uncommunicative, he clearly has mental health problems way beyond the usual adolescent truculence. As the novel develops Cliffie emerges as something of a psychopath, cruel and unsympathetic to those around him, and with murderous tendencies. As a boy he watches the collapse of his parents’ marriage with detached curiosity verging on pleasure: if he’s ‘not normal’, what are they?

But it’s Edith who’s at the heart of this novel. When Brett leaves her for a younger model, her own difficulties with reality worsen. The occasional entries in her eponymous diary become increasingly out of touch with the heartbreaking and often dangerous realities of her disintegrating life – and mind. One of her earliest entries sets the tone for the rest:

‘Isn’t it safer, even wiser, to believe that life has no meaning at all?’

She’d felt better after getting that down on paper. Such an attitude wasn’t phony armor, she thought, it was a fact that life had no meaning. One simply went on and on, worked on, and did one’s best.

 

Edith’s existential passivity and nullity is at odds with her apparently committed views on politics and social mores. Contemplating her husband’s unmarried elderly hypochondriac uncle, who she ends up caring for alone when Brett abandons her, she angrily wonders why he’d never married:

Edith couldn’t imagine a man thirty-five or so not getting married, if he could afford to, because it was so convenient to have a wife, he wouldn’t be here now, for instance.

Highsmith astutely handles Edith’s incongruous mixed-up thoughts in order to expose the hypocrisies and inequalities in a complacent patriarchal society which Edith lacks the strength or clarity of mind to confront head-on. It’s apparent that the newspaper she co-edits is received with either indifference or contempt in her community, and it becomes as trivial and banal in its editorials as its target audience.

Edith in her diary fabricates an alternative existence in which Cliffie goes to Princeton (he’d flunked all his exams or cheated and been exposed), and becomes a global executive in an elite engineering firm.

As the indolent young man in the nightmare real world becomes a violent alcoholic parasite, ever more antisocial and unhinged, she cranks up the perfection of this imagined world of her diary: she marries him to a trophy Wasp, gives him two adorable children and they all dote on her.

These fantasies serve to heighten the sense of foreboding and horror of what’s really going on under her roof: ‘it was pleasant and reassuring to imagine’, the narrator confides at one point as Edith invents a happy wedding for misfit loner Cliffie.

As the gap between ugly reality and her own delusions widens, Edith becomes as deranged as her obese, monstrous son. Brett had been a leftist journalist, while Edith produced a local free paper in which she could write fervently liberal anti-Vietnam War polemics – but her mental collapse is accompanied by an alarming swing to authoritarian conservatism which alienates her few friends. She loses her job as a result of her increasingly erratic behaviour.

This is an unsettling, meticulously constructed exposure of a dysfunctional family – all of whom are damaged, deluded and self-deceiving in their various ways. They could be seen as a metaphor for the disintegration of fragile liberal American values at the time. I wonder what Highsmith would have made of the present post-truth world.

It’s not possible to say it’s an enjoyable novel, given its uncomfortably disturbing subject matter, explored with unflinching forensic attention by Highsmith. But it’s gripping in a car-crash sort of way.

 

 

 

Ruthlessness. Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton. Penguin paperback, 2016. First published in the USA 2016.

Is the visit of her mother at the hospital overlooking the Chrysler building in NYC, a woman from whom she’d been estranged for so many years, who beat and traumatised her as a child, partly to mitigate (in Lucy’s eyes) the more brutal and disturbed behaviour of her war-damaged husband, Lucy’s father? Is her visit a real event, or does Lucy imagine or hallucinate it? She’s in hospital for a serious somatic condition (or is it?) that requires nine weeks of treatment, but we never learn exactly what it is that ails her. Is her illness in her head? Is she really ill, or even in hospital? All this happened back in the seventies.

After all, the warping events that bent her out of shape as a child make me feel that the unexpected appearance of her mother after such a long separation, and who colluded in her fierce, abusive upbringing, is more of a deus (dea?) ex machina than a realistic event.

This is a mother who did nothing to prevent her PTSD-suffering husband from cruel treatment of his children, such as shutting up Lucy, when she was a little girl, in the cab of his truck when they were both out at work all day. On one occasion a snake entered the cab and so freaked her out she can’t even bear to hear the word ‘snake’ as an adult. He publicly humiliated her little brother when he innocently dressed like a girl; now he seems even more traumatised than Lucy.

Strout Lucy B coverI found the first half of this novel deeply affecting. Then it began to pall a little after such a dazzling start. The fragmentary structure – each chapter is very short, sometimes just a paragraph, and written in lucid, simple prose – perfectly conveys the mosaic of mostly bitter memories the narrator Lucy pieces together as her drug-dumbed mind tries to cope with this unprecedented solicitude from a mother she loves dearly, but who showed little in return when she was little, and is still incapable of saying now that she loves her daughter.

The mother is a damaged Madonna, a vampire nurse, who seems to need contrition and her daughter’s nurture as Lucy needs a gesture or expression of love and kindness from her – which is not forthcoming.

The kids when growing up were so poor they felt deeply the insults and mockery of their peers at school, who sneered at their ragged clothes and unkempt, filthy appearance, their uncouth manners.

If her mother’s sequence of stories is to be believed, nearly all of Lucy’s former female acquaintances married badly and are now divorced or worse. Has she embroidered the truth in order to deflect Lucy’s attention from her own neglect, or to exculpate herself?

This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.

Lucy still meets people who try to denigrate her, as they did when she was a child when she was dirt poor, living in her uncle’s garage:

It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people…Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

The deceptive simplicity of style here and through the novel, the colloquial, unadorned register, are used to express some profound and gnomic insights into the human condition – and in particular into the tribulations and recriminations of the mother-daughter relation.

Lucy found refuge in reading, she tells us, and then in writing. She meets a writer whose work she’d admired, and feels inspired to overcome her lack of self-confidence and do her own writing. These character-assassination stories her mother tells her, Lucy’s own experience in the hospital: all this becomes the novel we’re reading. She shares what’s become her artistic mantra:

I like writers who try to tell you something truthful.

Telling the truth: that’s what she’s trying to do here. In a work of fiction.

That’s partly where I start to part company with this novel: it’s too self-referential, like a creative writing exercise. ‘I had to become ruthless to be a writer,’ she says a friend told her. Even that inspirational writer who set her off on the road to becoming one herself had her struggles:

I think I know how she spoke of the fact that we all have only one story, and I think I don’t know what her story was or is. I like the books she wrote. But I can’t stop the sense that she stays away from something.

Staying away from something, thinking she knows or doesn’t know something: such simple language, such complex concepts – like the need for ruthlessness in a writer. So she’s got herself out of her first, unsuccessful marriage to

hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go! This is the ruthlessness, I think./My mother told me in hospital that day that I was not like my brother and sister: “Look at your life right now. You just went ahead and …did it.” Perhaps she meant that I was already ruthless. Perhaps she meant that, but I don’t know what my mother meant.

Refreshing to find a narrative voice that doesn’t profess to know everything. Maybe she isn’t yet ruthless. There’s pity for this cruel mother, for one.

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge, about which I wrote last December, I found a more fully realised and satisfying novel.