Only women grow up: Kay Boyle, My Next Bride

Kay Boyle, My Next Bride. Virago Modern Classics, 1986. First published in America, 1934

If ever I see the faces of Brancusi, or Duchamp, or Gertrude Stein, I shall look the other way because of the history of courage they made for you. “If you can’t live hard, die holy like a piece of cheese, Victoria.”

Kay Boyle My Next Bride cover

The cover of this handsome VMC paperback shows ‘Mrs Douglas Illingworth’ by Meredith Frampton

This cryptic thought and strange aphorism appears in parentheses early in Kay Boyle’s künstlerroman My Next Bride. It thus contrasts bracingly with the Modernist narrative account of the early scene in which nineteen-year-old, virginal Victoria John unpacks her few treasures in a decrepit, crumbling boarding house at which she’s just arrived in Neuilly, Paris.

It’s the early thirties, and Paris is the city of that Lost Generation of American expats like Victoria (and Kay Boyle). She’s an aspiring artist (who favours, significantly, portraits from the lives of the saints) whose much-loved woman friend, an older Australian vaudeville singer called Lacey, with whom she’d hoboed across the States and Canada, had recently committed suicide. Lacey had challenged and inspired her, ‘a stricken thin madonna’ who’d said to the ingénue Victoria, in addition to the startling words quoted above, that ‘life was an obligation in arrogance, talk an experiment in insult.’

What I’ve quoted so far indicates that Boyle’s narrative voice is typical of its period and her coterie: experimental, unconventional, fragmented and poetic. Perspectives shift abruptly, mid-paragraph, even mid-sentence: the Modernist verbal equivalent of the artistic developments favoured by the avant-garde of Montparnasse in which she moved. Dos Passos, Pound and Hemingway had been there – some of the few names Boyle doesn’t let drop. Archibald MacLeish is name-checked, DH Lawrence, Picasso. No wonder Victoria gravitated there to develop as an artist, to find herself as an artist and person.

It’s a thinly veiled autobiographical novel. Victoria, like Boyle, joins a commune run by a shady American proto-hippy named Sorrel. He’s clearly based on Isadora Duncan’s brother Raymond. A charlatan scoundrel, who preys upon lost souls like Victoria and lures them into his squalid community to exploit. She’s put to work as a salesgirl in his shop in fashionable central Paris; the stock is the hand-crafted tat churned out by his doting disciples. He meanwhile swans around in classical Greek robes and sandals, striking poses and extolling the virtues of the simple life, dance, art, vegetarianism, and free love. Entering this group, where washing up is rarely done and the food is vile, is like ‘taking the veil’, another member breathlessly tells Victoria, unaware of the hypocrisy of her despicable phoney guru, who pockets a wealthy American patroness’s cash at the end and takes off for the Riviera with his mistress. “They don’t know what they want,” he confides to wide-eyed Victoria at one point, gleefully.

Victoria is attracted to the charismatic Anthony Lister, who seems to be based on a combination of Harry Crosby, the wealthy, sexually promiscuous playboy who with his wife Caresse was part of the bohemian expat artistic scene in Paris, and Laurence Vail, modernist sculptor and writer who was became Boyle’s second husband in 1932. He’d previously been married to Peggy Guggenheim, the heiress, who appears in the novel as Fontana (also resembling Caresse C.), destined to become Victoria’s most true friend – if not her next bride.

He quickly singles out Victoria as his next bride, chatting her up with the most bizarre line in garbled stream-of-consciousness monologues, that read like an Imagist poet on opium (pretty much like Crosby, then). Here’s a sample from their first meeting:

“It’s the first time I’ve walked up this side of the street. I always take the other. I believe in embassies, and always in the emissary of the soul. The patterns on these walls take the sight right out of the eye like an operation. My name’s Anthony,” he said, his eyes escaping. “I believe in bone.”

Right. Not sure what escaping eyes look like, but this is impressive hokum.

After numerous late-night debauches with him Victoria comes to see his darker, troubled side. When she’d told him of the problematic issue of the poor (herself included), he replied:

Rich or poor, every one was stabbing every one else with hate, stabbing in envy and in terror. “It isn’t a great deal to ask, only that every one put down their weapons…I ask that people give up their brides. The whole universe on a honeymoon of horror, wedded to their daggers, stabbing their way from one betrayal to the next…”

Poor Anthony. He knows there’s more to life than partying, being ‘the eternal bridegroom’, despite his best efforts to prove otherwise.

Some of the best scenes in this uneven novel (brilliant at its best, which is most of the time; dire in places) involve the two starving, genteel Russian sisters living in the grim Neuilly boarding house. Aristocrats from before the Revolution, they’re reduced to applying to an agency for domestic staff where, in a scene of comic genius, they’re mistaken as employers in search of maids, when in fact they’re looking for work themselves, but can’t quite articulate this evidence of how low they’ve sunk.

Fontana’s dog is excellent, too:

The Russian dog came after them into the car and slouched down beside them, incredibly bored, incredibly clean, with his hair curled smooth as a caracal and his loose, tapering limbs bent under his pointed breast.

In later life Boyle became a fervent social activist, fingered by the McCarthyists for her left-wing tendencies. In this novel there are signs of this tendency, as in a stirring speech towards the end from Victoria to privileged but angst-ridden Anthony. She’s begun to grow up, to see through fakes like Sorrel, and to discern the self-indulgence of Anthony’s atrophied poeticisms:

Only women grow up, Victoria was thinking; men go on remembering the time when their families stood on guard about them, or the books on the table, or the silver, and there was no need for explanation. Haven’t you learned that once cut out of the family’s life you are a single thing given to yourself and other people, carved out separate to stand alone or not to stand at all?

Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado is a weaker, more frivolous version of My Next Bride‘s more ambitious, satisfying account of a young American woman’s painful growth into selfhood and discovery of love’s unexpected springs.

 

‘I see people cashing in.’ Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Joseph Heller (1923-99), Catch-22. Everyman’s Library, 1995 (19611)

 I finally decided it was time to read this famous novel after watching the first few episodes of the new TV dramatization, produced by George Clooney (who plays the gloriously named  Col. Scheisskopf – all the names are exorbitant in this novel – ludicrously obsessed with pointless, mechanistic parades). The filmed version does a pretty good job, but although it includes some of the darker elements of the novel, still unsurprisingly sanitises the narrative.

Captain Yossarian is the Everyman figure caught in the middle of the absurdity and horror in WWII of flying missions for a US Army airforce unit based at a fictitious island called Pianosa off the mainland of Italy. The Germans are in retreat so the war is in its final stages. And Yossarian has had – and seen – enough.

The novel opens with him feigning an unspecified disease in his liver. The doctors, like all the military personnel in this crazy army, are so incompetent they’re ‘puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this being just short of jaundice all the time confused them.’

That’s typical of the demotic, looping style of the satiric, wittily sardonic narrative voice. It shares some of the characteristics in tone and style of the amphetamine rush and surreal, jazzy angst and hedonism of Beat writers: novelists like Kerouac (On the Road was published in 1955, two years after Heller started drafting this novel).

Heller Catch-22 coverIn structure too Catch-22 shows its allegiance to the nascent anarchic, counter-cultural post-war reactions of the younger generation to the institutionalised, corporate capitalism and cynical opportunism (political and commercial) that had started to thrive during the war – always a good theatre for entrepreneurs – and had prospered further during the cold war. Each of the 42 chapters focuses on a single character or set of related events. These stand alone almost like short stories, but are connected thematically, and the episodes often recur in later chapters (like the  terrible death of Yossarian’s colleague Snowden, slowly revealed across the 500 pages), repeating, rearranging and accreting details (déja vu is a leitmotif; arbitrarily redacting the enlisted men’s letters home another – it’s a network of redactions and rewritings), as the narrative does at the level of the sentence, shown in that quotation above.

In this respect the novel’s development is similar to the iterative narratives of a patient undergoing therapy, talking to the analyst who gradually encourages them to remove the defensive veils that shield them from the traumas their psyche is attempting to defend itself from, by revisiting and re-narrating the events that triggered the trauma (as Salinger shows with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, published soon after the war). Yossarian doesn’t explicitly undergo such therapy in the novel, but his frequent exchanges with anyone who’ll listen to his frenzied attempts to stop getting killed in action fulfil a similar function.

At first it’s Doc Daneeka, but he’s so disaffected at having been drafted into the military just as his civilian practice began to become financially successful (we later learn this was largely because of his dodgy dealings with drugs – he too is corrupt and amoral, like all the military in Heller’s satiric portrait) that his unsympathetic, selfish response to complaints and requests like Yossarian’s or any of his other terrified comrades is: ‘“He thinks he’s got troubles? What about me?”’ He doesn’t want to make sacrifices, he snarls; ‘”I want to make dough”’.

Later it’s the ineffective timid chaplain (who’s lost his faith), incapable of standing up to the intimidating senior officers he’d have to confront if he were to carry out Yossarian’s anguished appeal for his intercession – to have him grounded, sent home, taken out of the hellish bombing raids he has to fly.

Yossarian’s terror is exacerbated by the camp’s senior officer, Col. Cathcart, interested only in getting his name into the popular press, and thwarting officer rivals in their attempts to gain promotion ahead of him. His petty obsessions result in his regularly, callously increasing the number of missions his men have to fly. Each time Yossarian reaches or nears the magical limit – which means going home to safety – Cathcart bumps up the total, deepening Yossarian’s despair and frustration.

Yossarian readily admits he’s a coward. He’s seen too much death and mutilation suffered in a war directed by incompetent madmen like Cathcart. Nowadays we’d probably consider him to be suffering from PTSD. Yossarian’s rejection of traditional military and patriotic values, of heroism and sacrifice for one’s country and fellow servicemen, is the central feature of Heller’s satire. For all morality and human decency, values and virtues, have been inverted, perverted, replaced by inhumane, cynical self-serving amibition, and greed. Everyone in the military, he insists with sound logic, is crazy, but you’d have to be crazier to fly missions – hence the infamous ‘catch’ that thwarts him: he must be sane to know that.

Language has become as unstable as sanity; semantics are unclear. Linguistic play, puns, paradox and literary allusion and intertextuality abound: Dostoevsky is namechecked explicitly several times; Kafka’s voice is implicitly omnipresent – for example, when the chaplain is interrogated with ‘immoral logic’ by sinister agents who accuse him of crimes of which they are as yet unaware – as he is.

The absurd black humour serves to heighten the dark moral message. When Capt. Aardvark, the navigator on one mission, is asked by the pilot if the bombs had hit the target, he asks, ‘”What target?”’ Yossarian, the bombardier, asked in exasperation the same question, responds, ‘”What bombs?” His ‘only concern had been the flak.’

It’s one of the most searing indictments of the absurdity of war that I’ve ever encountered. It’s not just the physical and emotional torture endured by the combatants and civilians affected, which tends to be at the heart of canonical anti-war literature from Remarque and Barbusse to Wilfred Owen, Hemingway and…well, Helen Zenna Smith. Heller’s most acrid satire takes what Smith started to do in Not So Quiet…and increases it to monstrous, Rabelaisian proportions.

Heller takes this anti-war anger and disillusionment to a different, ferocious level. The most shocking element in his carnival of dark grotesquerie is the cynical entrepreneurship of mess sergeant, Minderbinder. He has assembled a corrupt ‘syndicate’ that harnesses the graft, villainy and amorality of the Mafia with the corporate ruthlessness of big business. His dodgy import-export scams exploit the greed of officers like Cathcart, only too happy to profit from his use of military aircraft to move his wares around the world (with making money his only cynical concern; I’m reminded of the banking crisis in 2008, and what caused it). His lust for profit takes precedence over every decent consideration. When it seems he couldn’t become more fiendishly capitalistic, he starts dealing with the Germans, aiding their war effort against the Americans for cash, culminating in the horrific bombing and strafing of his own airbase – with huge loss of life of his comrades (a detail redacted in the TV version).

This vision of a hellishly corrupt and depraved corporate-military complex is mitigated in the dramatization. There’s less, too, of the dated sexism and misogyny that mars some of the novel; the scenes in the Rome brothel, although contributing to the theme of cynical commercialism and profiteering from war, display some disconcerting attitudes to women.

But the Rome scenes also produce one of the most chilling and disturbing sequences in the novel, near the end when Yossarian seeks out the sex worker who his friend Nately naively believed he would marry. He needs to tell her Nately has been killed in action. His descent through the noxious alleys of the city’s lower depths is like the harrowing of Hell, or Dante’s progress through those tormented circles of doom accompanied by Vergil. Raskolnikov gets one of his mentions in this section. He witnesses depraved acts of cruelty, sees the poverty, suffering and despair of the innocent while the ‘ingenious and unscrupulous handful’ of corrupt sinners thrive. The narrative takes on Yossarian’s voice:

What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? [and so on for a dozen more lines]…Yossarian walked in lonely torture, feeling estranged…[next page] The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves.

This catalogue of depravity reveals Heller’s purpose beneath the black comedy: Yossarian’s sense yet again here of déja vu – of ‘sinister coincidence’ – underlines the scorching message of social criticism in the novel. The act of rape and murder that follows, and the injustice with which it’s met, indicate its shift into a nightmare world of perversion and craziness that outKafkas Kafka.

As ever I’ve gone on for far too long, but it’s difficult to be brief in assessing this complex, extraordinary novel (despite its flaws). Near the end, as Yossarian’s disgust with military corruption and incompetence reaches its climax, and we hear the final version of the death of Snowden – a terrible unfolding that explains much of his desperate condition – he has an exchange with a sympathetic but deluded officer. He tries to explain why ‘ideals’ are no longer valid:

‘You must try not to think of them,’ Major Danby advised affirmatively. ‘And you must never let them change your values. Ideals are good, but people are sometimes not so good. You must try to look up at the big picture.’

Yossarian rejected the advice with a skeptical shake of his head. ‘When I look up, I see people cashing in. I don’t see heaven or saints or angels. I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy.’

 

 

 

 

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.