Yannis Tsirbas, Vic City Express

Yannis Tsirbas, Vic City Express. Baraka Books, Montréal. Published Sept. 2018. Translated from the Greek by Fred A. Reed. ARC

We don’t get many translations into English from contemporary Greek authors, so kudos to this Canadian imprint for bringing out this important little book. At just over 90 pp, it’s more of a long short story than a novella – another rarity in the publishing world.

Tsirbas Vic City coverBut it packs a punch way above its weight. What do you do if you’re trapped in your train seat opposite a bullying racist who insists on spewing out his bigoted views in a diatribe of hatred for foreigners, scrounging, dirty immigrants – anyone not ethnically Greek like him. Other passengers look the other way: no help there. The bigot ends with the usual: a final solution – poison them, as one would rats.

Our anonymous narrator does what most of us would initially do: keep pretty quiet and hope it’ll blow over. I’d like to think, though, that after a time, when the vitriolic monologue persists, and the fellow traveller (hah!) is challenged to comment, that we’d refute these vile slurs and maybe call the police: it’s a hate crime, after all.

Instead, the narrator placates him, or hides behind the banal messages on his phone. He even appears to give a half-hearted defence: we have scavengers of our own. Here’s his own internal justification that we’re made privy to; maybe it’s his ‘bourgeois courtesy’ that his wife upbraids him about;

I don’t want to have strong disagreements with strangers. Not with anybody, actually. What am I supposed to say to him? Talk about democracy and violence and culture?

Vic City is the area around the Victoria metro station in Athens, the man explains, once a proud working-class area for poor Greeks, now “infested” as this ultra-nationalist would put it, with East Europeans and migrants from other troubled parts of the world. It’s a dilemma much of Europe and America now faces: how to welcome and integrate the displaced refugees, fleeing crime, war and poverty, and to counter the rising tide of xenophobia and hostility towards them from people like this train guy.

Tsirbas doesn’t try to provide answers; like all good artists, he simply poses the right questions. They’re disturbing questions. When ordinary decent people don’t speak up, we’re in trouble. And he does so in a structurally and stylistically intriguing way. The story is really a collection of linked short stories, some of them linguistically garbled, perhaps to reflect the distress of the narrators. We get brief narratives of some of the people the racist despises, like the young man fainting from hunger, not having eaten for three days, or the mother too poor to pay for the treatment her premature baby needs.

Most disturbing is Meleti, the violent young racist who randomly attacks non-Greeks. He’s so appalling he even upsets the police, who normally turn a blind eye to racially motivated assaults – but only because he sports a tattoo intended to belittle them. Maybe this is the guy on the train.

Tsirbas shows us an aspect of the economic, political and cultural crisis that is pretty much  endemic. Normally we see it reported in the news media; this Greek novelist confronts it in an original and audaciously challenging way. There will be many more of these extreme Vic City types if we all continue to behave like this near-silent, intimidated narrator – a normal, seemingly decent chap, who in the end just walks away.

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. (Hannah Arendt,The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951)

Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Fourth Estate, London, 2015

Smart GC Station cover

It’s a handsome paperback edition with French flaps – always a nice touch

The title is of course an allusion to the lament of the Jewish people in exile in the first line of Psalm 137. In this prose poem novella – it’s only 134 pages, with plenty of white spaces – Canadian Elizabeth Smart (1913-86) creates something close to a collage of delirious references to amour fou from the Bible, especially the Song of Songs, myths and legends from ancient Greek and Latin sources (the narrator likens herself to no end of romantic heroines, from Cleopatra to Helen of Troy, Leda to Venus). Also in the mix are recurring references to the 15C English lyric also inspired by the Song of Songs, and known for its Latin refrain:

Quia amore langueo. The narrator glosses this:

I am dying for love. This is the language of love.

(See Clerk of Oxford blog for the text and modern version.)

Blake’s ‘Several Questions Answered’ pops up:

What is it men in women do require?

The lineaments of Gratified Desire.

What is it women do in men require?

The lineaments of Gratified Desire

and Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ teasingly ironic lyric from Death’s Jest Book, ‘If thou wilt ease thine heart/Of love and all its smart,/Then sleep, dear, sleep’ – with artful inclusion of her own name in this quotation. These are the fragments she shores up to try to articulate and contextualise her passion – and they show she knows it’s an amour fou. She can’t stop it. She knows it’s borderline blasphemy to treat it as sacred – hence all those erotic biblical citations.

A few pages later, as the lover seems to have left her to return to his wife, the narrator spins into a near-suicidal downward spiral of inconsolable longing and depression:

I am lonely. I cannot be a female saint. I want the one I want. He is the one I picked out from the world. I picked him out in cold deliberation. But the passion was not cold. It kindled me. It kindled the world. Love, love, give my heart ease, put your arms round me, give my heart ease. Feel the little bastard.

The hopelessness of her longing – for the lover, and for ‘ease’ – is savagely embodied in that cold reference in the final four words to her unborn child: she’s pregnant by the lover, and is doomed to give birth alone. (Smart went on to bear three more of Barker’s children; he also fathered eleven more with three different women. Makes me wonder whether he merited her fierce love, or appreciated its ferocity.)

My first reading of the novella was a mixed experience. There were passages of exquisitely beautiful lyricism as the narrator sings her paean to her passionate love for the unnamed man she devotes her life to, and attempts to make rational sense of this erotic, destructive madness. From as early as p. 5, when the affair hasn’t started but he’s joined her, she’s aware of the destructive nature of this intoxicating love:

I know these days are offering me only murder for my future.

Three pages later:

But he never passes anywhere near me without every drop of my blood springing to attention. My mind may reason that the tenseness only registers neutrality, but my heart knows no true neutrality was ever so full of passion.

He’s a shadowy figure in the narrative, and appears in the opening pages, ominously, accompanied by his wife.

It’s well known that Grand Central was based on Smart’s pursuit of the English poet George Barker – she fell in love with him through reading some of his poetry in a bookshop in England in 1937. Three years later, after a patient, amorous campaign, aided by Lawrence Durrell, and a lengthy correspondence with the object of her desire, she paid for Barker and his wife to leave Japan, where he was unhappily teaching, and fly to California. They set up a bizarre ménage à trois.

As in real life, the novella depicts the woman following her lover from Monterey to Europe and war-scarred England. There’s a painful interlude alone in Canada, where her parents are scathingly judgemental of what they perceive as her crazy infatuation.

On second reading I began to find my way into this wildly idiosyncratic narrative. Interspersed with the dizzy, intoxicated outpourings of erotic passion (‘set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm, for love is strong as death’ – from the Song of Songs, appears more than once, plus the next line, ‘Jealousy is fierce as the grave’) are brutally contrasting passages of banal incomprehension and cynical dismissal from everyone else she meets, who either disapprove of her dangerous love, or see it as sinful or criminal.

In Part 4, for example, appears the most hilarious and oddly moving of these jarring dichotomies of register. She and the lover had been arrested at the border of Arizona on charges of moral turpitude. Extra-marital sex was (and still is, apparently) a crime. The crude, cruel questions from the leering cops are intercut with soaring verses from that same Song. Not only is this section very comical, bordering on farce, it movingly portrays the woman’s resolution to preserve inside herself her treasured holy passion, even when threatened and bullied by the agents of the secular unromantic state. From her jail cell she fumes:

The eyes of the jealous world peer through the peephole in the door, in the eyes of the keeper. But still the only torture is [the lover’s] absence. (p.45)

Taunted and berated for her illicit love by her interrogators, she returns to her justifying refrain: What do you live for then?

I don’t go for that sort of thing, the officer said, I’m a family man, I belong to the Rotary Club…What a cad [the police inspector] said, and the girl’s a religious maniac.

This is Holden Caulfield’s pompously indignant ‘phoney’ territory – and very funny, because part of her knows it is – but she prefers her crazy love to their mediocrity. And as she says, they’re hypocrites:

But are all Americans virgin and faithful ever after?…The thin-lipped [inspector] was livid with hate of our lineaments of gratified desire [that’s a Blake bombshell lobbed against the philistines again]

Or there’s her landlord, Mr Wurtle, quizzing her on the possibility of the existence of love, her love in particular:

I cannot hear beneath his subtle words the beginning of the world’s antagonism: the hatred of the mediocre for all miracles.

Near the end, the woman now alone and desolate, the novella’s title finally appears, followed by this:

I will not be placated by the mechanical motions of existence, nor find consolation in the solicitude of waiters who notice my devastated face. (p.119)

Even in the extremities of despair she refuses to betray her love. Unlike ‘everyone’, she will not acquiesce or compromise.

Smart portrait back flap

Smart the ‘good-looking blonde’, as the narrator is leeringly called at one point: photo on the back flap

One of my problems on that first reading was a failure to tune in to the subtleties and ironies I’ve just mentioned, and a not very generous inclination to find the woman’s outpourings a little, well, morbid and hysterical – like that whiny ‘They don’t know about us’ pop song – or is it more like the Stranglers’ “La Folie”? Now I notice she’s aware of the potential ridiculousness of her obsession: this is from p. 126, as she continues to voice her attempts not to succumb to despair at being abandoned:

No morbid adolescent ever clutched toward melodramatic conclusion so wildly…Oh yes, it is hysteria that whips me with his name, that drives me with the insane loneliness of the first split amoeba, to shriek beneath his window.

See what I mean? And yet that same quotation shows what still causes me to doubt that this is the masterpiece it’s touted as in the puff quotes on the jacket. The sentences linger just a little too long, engendering more sentences that veer off into surreal imagery that’s often reminiscent of the weaker, more self-indulgent, obscure parts of Dylan lyrics (compare this on p. 28: ‘The parchment philosopher has no traffic with the night, and no conception of the price of love. With smoky circles of thought he tries to combat the fog and with anagrams to defeat anatomy’), or the amphetamine-flow of the Beats. Sometimes she sounds like Sylvia Plath on a bad day, or Whitman on a good one.

Then a few paragraphs later she refers to her inner cradle – I think she means her capacity for consoling herself and her unborn child? – like this:

It buffets me off the road of planned elegance. Girls in love, remember to keep your heads, keep calm, plan your campaign, yours sincerely, Dorothy Dix. Girls in love, be harlots, it hurts less.

(Had to Google D. Dix: seems she was a famous agony aunt.) That first sentence is terrific, wittily self-aware, brilliantly showing the indomitable spirit that’s never quite extinguished among the vicissitudes of the dingy cafés she frequents, as well as her habit of solipsistic wallowing. Maybe it’s just impossible not to sound like a hysterical adolescent when expressing transcendent love for a bastard. Angela Carter certainly disapproved, preferring in this situation to cut his balls off, not weep.

When I started drafting this piece I thought it was going to be a demolition job. It’s turned into something much more appreciative. I still think the book is flawed, but it’s an extraordinary piece of prose, and I’d be interested to hear what others who’ve read it thought of it.

Apologies: I had no idea this post would turn out so long. Maybe the book is better than I think.

 

 

 

 

VS Pritchett: The Complete Essays

V.S. Pritchett, The Complete Essays, Chatto and Windus, London was published in 1991 when the English author was 91 (he died in 1997), and is now out of print.

It was brought to my attention by an appreciation of it last month in The Paris Review by Morten Høi Jensen, to whom it had been recommended by James Wood. Jensen expresses well the strength of this collection:

In a single paragraph, without analyzing or interpreting or even commenting on the novels, Pritchett had somehow managed to capture their essence. And he did it not with the skeptical distance of a scholar but with the messy proximity of the fellow practitioner.

Pritchett Essays coverIt has 1300 pages and is, as he suggests, ‘heavy as a cast iron skillet’. The 203 essays, originally mostly book reviews, cover hundreds of writers from Europe, Asia and the Americas– an idiosyncratic, eclectic but loving and perceptive history of western literature. They were highly esteemed by the likes of Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Hardwick, Anthony Burgess and Susan Sontag.

Pritchett discusses earlier writers such as Cervantes, Sterne, Smollett (who I’ve still to read) and Fielding; a large body from 19 and 20C – most of the canonical English novelists, and the less canonical like Gissing, the Grossmiths, Samuel Butler and Jerome K. Jerome; then Conrad, Woolf and co. to Orwell and Rushdie; as Jensen says, VSP was ‘generously receptive to younger talent’.

He assesses Americans from Benjamin Franklin, Whitman and Crane to Updike. Poe and Twain are delineated with characteristically controversial broad but telling strokes within the distinctive Puritan tradition of their country.

There’s an affectionate essay on the ‘sayings’ of his close friend, the hispanophile Gerald Brenan. It ends with typical acuity:

Be careful: if he is drawing his portrait he may be drawing yours.

Pritchett admires Brenan’s dislike of ‘critics of poetry who insist on “explicating”’. Maybe because he’s the same; Jensen quotes his biographer describing Pritchett’s quality of ‘undoctrinaire discrimination’ – that fine and sadly now underused term so dear to the great Leavisite tradition of critics (well, maybe not the ‘undoctrinaire’ part) -and the ‘sympathetic and respectful curiosity’ with which he approached characters in literature and in life.

He has the ability to get to the essence of a writer’s nature and work and portray it with elegance, wit and intelligence. I’m not sure I always agree with some of his larger generalisations, but I enjoy the stimulating, cheerful conviction with which he makes them and the polished, convivial style in which he expresses them.

Mostly he deals with prose fiction (and some non-fiction and figures from other artistic disciplines, like Cruikshank and Ruskin). Here’s a typically pleasing and pithy conclusion to the essay on the historian of the fall of the Roman empire:

Gibbon has a taste for the truth that is melancholy, for seeing life as a series of epitaphs.

This isn’t just thrown in as a witty epigram: it’s a logical conclusion arising from the intricate argument that preceded it.

The piece on the eccentric Thomas Day – its title ‘The Crank’ is apt – is brilliant. Day was the shabby enlightenment rationalist – ‘the modest and entrancing crank of the century’ – who was so convinced of the ‘sufficiency’ of men and the ‘insufficiency of women’ as Pritchett puts it, that he set about to ‘construct his own wife from blue prints in advance’. I’ve written here before about this deluded disciple of Rousseau and his notorious experiment to mould a suitable wife for himself from a child plucked from an orphanage, but this essay says to much more and so much better than I was able to in my post on the ‘Lives of the Obscure’ in Virginia Woolf’s first volume of The Common Reader.

There’s a particularly strong representation of major (and lesser) French writers — he almost convinces me to give Anatole France another try.

I’ve borrowed this massive book from the library, and must return it soon. I’ll have to buy a copy to read on, one I can annotate. I’ve only had time to read a few of the essays that appealed most, so I’d commend this review by Jensen to get a fuller picture of Pritchett’s tastes and achievements in these essays and in his short stories – which I intend to read now I’ve sampled this collection.

I found I had to dip in and read in small bursts, slowly. Every sentence and paragraph is so carefully constructed, the arguments and perceptions so cadenced and measured in expression, that every essay needs careful appraisal and rereading. They are to be sipped and savoured, not gulped.

Jensen sums up what I’ve noticed in the essays I’ve read so far:

they sparkle with impression, metaphor, and aphorism.

He goes on to suggest that maybe Pritchett has made less critical impact than Virginia Woolf, another who excelled in fiction and critical essay-writing, because he lacked her ‘fierceness’, her ‘polemical strain’. He was disdainful of what might be called the approach of the professional (ie academic) critics. I suppose he’s what’s usually dismissively categorised as a passionate amateur and aesthete. Nothing wrong with that.

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Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls: not a love story

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls. Hamish Hamilton 2018

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles…How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of these things; we called him the ‘butcher’.

The title of Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls, alludes to the psychological horrors of a different kind in The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps, but mostly to the lack of agency or voice of the women and girls in the novel. These opening words of the novel prepare us for the other story not related by Homer in The Iliad – Euripides gets closer in The Trojan Women: the terrible fate of the defeated side in the Trojan War – especially the women and girls.

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls: front coverBarker imagines for us in painful detail the ordeal endured as a captive by Briseis, wife of King Mynes, after the sacking by Achilles and his fearsome Myrmidons and other Greek warriors, of her city, Lyrnessus (near Troy). It’s a fate shared by all the captured women.

The Silence of the Girls was a painful experience to read because of its brutal depiction of the violence perpetrated by these blood-crazed fighters, and more particularly because of the calculated, brutal subjection, humiliation and dehumanising cruelty perpetrated by them on the captive women.

As in The Iliad, the story relates how Achilles, already notorious for his volatile temper, acquires the epithet ‘rage-filled’. King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, with a reputation for avoiding the dangers of the battlefield, relinquishes his own trophy sex slave when a plague that decimates the Greek camp is attributed to divine assistance on her behalf, at the behest of her priestly father. To replace her, he decides he’ll take Achilles’ prize, Briseis, as the next most beautiful and prestigious (being royal) trophy.

Achilles, insulted and furious at his king’s selfishness and weakness, takes to his tent and sulks, refusing to fight any more. This swings the balance of the war in the Trojans’ favour, so talismanic, murderously efficient and furious is he when fighting at the head of the Greek army. His close friend Patroclus (there are suggestions that the two warriors are lovers) gets him to agree to let him wear Achilles’ distinctive armour and helmet so that the Trojans will believe he’s returned to the battle. He rallies the Greek forces when he enters the fray in this disguise, the Trojans duly lose heart, but Patroclus is killed by the Trojan hero, Hector.

Now Achilles’ rage is unprecedented, augmented by guilt and grief. Supplied with magnificent new armour by his sea-goddess mother, he resumes leadership of the Greeks, and the Trojans are routed. The city is ruthlessly sacked, the citizens slaughtered. As usual, the Greeks murder everyone not to be taken as slaves. Even pregnant women are stabbed through the abdomen, in case the child being carried should turn out to be a boy and become an enemy fighter when grown up.

The highest-born and prettiest girls and women become a new set of sex slaves, subjected to the usual humiliations, treated as chattels – as Briseis is. ‘Don’t think about your previous life,’ Greek Nestor had advised her when she was first enslave. ‘Forget! This is your life now.’ But she refuses to forget: she is determined not to lose her identity, and resolves to remember, retain her voice. Even though this makes the daily indignities and cruelty more difficult to bear, at least then she won’t lose her sense of self. And she’s only nineteen…

The indignities begin when she’s paraded with the other women captives in front of the victorious Greeks after the fall of her city, and they’re inspected as potential prizes by the leaders. Briseis feels like ‘a cow, tethered and waiting to be sacrificed.’ She tries to picture her past life, her eyes closed, but she hears a roar and threatening jokes from the drunken soldiery. Achilles grips her chin and tilts her head to examine her looks. When he walks away she opens her eyes:

”Cheers, lads,” he said. “She’ll do.” And everyone, every single man in that vast arena, laughed.

A chilling echo of the heartbreaking, equally dismissed testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. Barker’s jauntily demotic “laddish” style (that also runs through much of the narrative) makes the horror all the more despicable. It’s simply normal for the men to speak and act like this.

For much of the rest of the novel we are privy to every personal indignity and sexual assault she has to endure, first under Achilles. His brusque couplings are compared at first with a soldier’s crude eagerness to try on new armour, – only this novelty is the living woman, who’s made to feel no more than a coveted commodity. His nightly sexual acts soon turn to something more personal and frenzied when she comes to bed smelling of the salt sea in which she likes to bathe and symbolically cleanse herself each evening. But Barker won’t let us find solace in this: she thus reminds him of the scent of his Nereid mother, and his passion is portrayed as disturbingly Oedipal and hence even more humiliating and degrading for Briseis. But he barely speaks to her once he’s sated; she doesn’t exist for him as a sentient human being. It’s this kind of constant misogyny in the narrative that makes it so hard to keep reading.

Briseis’ other daily ordeal involves being forced to wait on Achilles and his entourage (one of whom wears her murdered father’s tunic as a trophy that’s particularly gruesome for her to have to witness), smiling and enduring their leers and lascivious advances as she pours their wine – though none would dare go further with their general’s ‘prize of honour’. She realises she’s not being treated ‘as a thing. A slave is a thing.’

Her dread is that he’ll tire of her and she’ll be handed over to the common soldiery, without even a roof over her head – a common fate for sex slaves like her.

I struggled to the end of this harrowing, fierce novel, but can’t say I enjoyed it. The bestial cruelty meted out by the men on these reified, terrified women was almost unbearable. The vicious battle scenes were almost as hard to take – more difficult in many ways than the senseless slaughter and psychological trauma Barker depicted in her 1990s WWI Regeneration trilogy, which I read when it first came out.

I suppose I persisted to the end because of the power and contemporary resonance of her central message about gender inequalities and social injustice arising from them, and the importance of Briseis articulating her story in her own voice, against all odds. As in the earlier trilogy, soldiers are portrayed as showing their moral defects more plainly in the hurly-burly of war. It’s generally other men who tell their stories and elide their worst defects.

On the final page, when she considers what the unborn people of the future will ‘make of us’ – the silent girls – she’s certain of only one thing:

…they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told of the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.

His story. His, not mine. It ends at the grave.

 

The Trojan War imagined by Homer (or whoever produced the epic Iliad) is here reimagined, retold by one of the voices silenced by history men, and the traditional narrative takes on a decidedly different, gynocentric nature. Less soft. Not a love story.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Angela Thirkell: High Rising

Angela Thirkell, High Rising. VMC 2013; first published 1933

Thirkell H Rising cover

The VMC cover demonstrates the retro charm of this frothy confection of a novel

Angela Thirkell was quite someone: a granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones and goddaughter of JM Barrie, her father was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and she was related to Kipling and British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Like her enterprising protagonist Laura in her second novel High Rising, she took to writing potboiler-middlebrow ‘rather good bad books’ about which she has ‘no illusions’ as to their literary merit, to make a living when left alone in the world:

She had considered the question carefully, and decided that, next to racing and murder, and sport, the great reading public of England (female section) likes to read about clothes.

There’s a character in this novel who reluctantly shows Laura’s publisher her novel; Laura is relieved to find she’s one of those ‘rotten’ writers who knew they couldn’t write’ – a typically self-deprecating reference that surely applies to Thirkell herself.

So Laura churns out, as often as Thirkell did, frothy romances set in the world of fashion, ‘opium’ as a friend and fan of Laura’s describes the experience of reading them. Laura is slightly embarrassed to add to the pile of what would now be derisively known as chick-lit, but happy to cash the royalties cheques. She’s level-headed, a realist who’s learned to exploit her own limited talent and the even more limited tastes of her target market. (Elizabeth Taylor does a much more witty, interesting and sophisticated job on this in Angel.)

Unlike Laura, whose husband had died (though she says he was an expensive nuisance when alive), Thirkell left her second husband; her first she divorced on the grounds of adultery. Men tend refreshingly to be portrayed as the weaker sex in this novel, and it’s the spirited, sensible women like Laura who win through – ‘excellent’ women, to borrow Barbara Pym’s phrase – a writer to whom Thirkell is often compared, but who is a far sharper, more accomplished artist.

I won’t summarise the rather predictable but amusing plot – links to other bloggers’ posts at the end supply outlines. I’ll just single out the few points that amused me in this undemanding, often saccharine entertainment. It’s ideal for a rainy day or sickbed – a guilty escapist pleasure that was a bit too much for Karen of BookerTalk, who likened it to an indigestible ‘meringue’. She craved something edgier and saltier. I know what she means, but I (mostly) enjoyed this novel. I didn’t care for the casual anti-Semitism; it’s not sufficient to put it down to the opinions of the period. Look what was going on in Germany in 1933.

Thirkell set these comedies in Trollope’s Barsetshire – a feature that appealed to me, as my recent Barsetshire posts indicate. She’s not in his league, of course, but wouldn’t claim to be.

Laura’s young son Tony divides critical opinion: to some he’s a charming, precocious chatterbox; I’m with those who found him irritating, with his obsession with trains and the patrician manners his private school encourages. But he reminded me of my grandson when he was that age. Now he’s scared of trains. Existential pre-teen angst has replaced innocent pleasure. Tony will probably become Transport Minister in a Tory government and close unprofitable country lines like the one passing through High Rising.

I preferred Laura’s cheerful maternal doting on him mixed with prevalent hatred. On several occasions she could happily kill him, our narrator tells us. She contemplates writing a book: ‘Why I Hate My Children’. Reminds me of the recent bestseller ‘Why Mummy Drinks’.

There’s a weird section in Ch. 9 just like passages in Cold Comfort Farm (published the year before, in 1932): Laura sees a handsome, swarthy rider in Hyde Park:

Rather DH Lawrence-ish, thought Laura vaguely. The sort of person who would turn into a half-caste Indian, full of black, primal secret something-or-other, and subjugate his mate.

Her reverie is ended when this hunky vision speaks in an accent so ‘healthily Cockney that the lure of the he-man vanished.’ The pastiche is almost as good as Stella Gibbons’.

There’s a well done car crash (no one is hurt) when Laura’s publisher gets drunk at a New Year party (as publishers do) and drives her home. The aftermath is a good example of Thirkell making an entertaining meal of unlikely material. The car ends on its roof, with Adrian jammed under the steering wheel, and Laura on top of him. She’s livid.

‘[The door]’s stuck, of course,’ she said coldly. ‘Do we spend the night here? It may be respectable, in view of the limited opportunities, but it’s not my idea of comfort.

Adrian manages to get out:

‘Come on, Laura,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you a hand.’

‘How can I get out of a small window above my head, you soft gobbin,’ said Laura angrily. ‘I’ll never take you to a party again.’

The dressing-down she gives him when they get to her house is classic.

Farcical-theatrical set pieces like this just about redeem a lively but uneven, limited comic novel. They could easily feature in those screwball-women films of the period starring actors like Claudette Colbert.

See Jacqui’s post

Ali’s at HeavenAli

Jane’s blogging as FleurInHerWorld (now Beyond Eden Rock)

Karen’s at Booker Talk

Three books

Walking to and from the shop today (to buy soft food for Mrs TD, who has toothache and is feeling wretched; her dentist recommends root canal work – poor thing) I listened on my phone to the BBC Radio 4 podcast of their weekly book programme, ‘A Good Read’. It’s one of several literary podcasts I subscribe to (I did a piece on this and related topics a while back HERE).

This was last week’s show (link HERE). Guests were the journalist Grace Dent and comedy writer Sian Harries. All three books they chose (presenter Harriet Gilbert gets to speak about her choice each week – she has good taste) gave rise to some interesting discussion:

Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart (2015)

Max Porter: Grief is the Thing With Feathers (2015)

Barbara Pym: Excellent Women (1952)

My Virago Modern Classics copy

My Virago Modern Classics copy

I posted on the fabulous Pym’s book a couple of years ago – she’s sharp and funny. In discussing the book Dent, Harries and Harriet Gilbert speculate whether men would like this sort of novel; I can answer that – she’s one of my favourite authors. My posts the seven novels of hers that I’ve read so far can be found HERE.

I hadn’t heard of (or, more accurately, realised I’d heard of) Lissa Evans or Crooked Heart, her fourth novel for adults (she’s also written children’s books). From the account given of it in the podcast it’s definitely going on the To Read list.

According to Wikipedia she qualified as a doctor in 1983, then had a career in stand-up comedy, was a TV and radio producer and director (including the excellent Father Ted). Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half (published 2009) were longlisted for literary prizes. The latter was filmed as Their Finest a year or two ago, and I found it ok as entertainment; maybe the novel is more substantial.

Just looked her up on Amazon and see that her novel Old Baggage, that came out in the UK this summer, is one I’ve seen in the bookshops and passed over.

I’d resisted the Max Porter partly because of the hype about it when it was published, and also because of its subject: grief and bereavement. It just didn’t appeal. Now that I’ve listened to this thoughtful trio of readers discussing it, and having read this review by Kirsty Gunn in the Guardian when it was published, I think I’ll add this title to the list, too.

I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who’s read either the Evans or the Porter novels: are they as good as this podcast suggested? As for the Pym: well, I recommend her work wholeheartedly: beneath the slight exterior (timid or anxious spinsters, vicars and jumble sales, caddish chaps, etc.) her novels are pulsing with intelligence and wit.

I’d started working on a post about Angela Thirkell, but that will have to be completed another day.

Lost at sea: Charles Quimper, In Every Wave

Charles Quimper, In Every Wave. QC Fiction, available from 1 November 2018. First published 2017 as Marée montante

In a recent interview in the online magazine Québec Reads Charles Quimper was asked:

What, if anything, would you say defines Quebec literature?

 

An inwardness of character, I think, and a complexity in the emotions they experience. There’s a toughness, a harshness of tone that’s difficult to capture or define in just a few words.

This sums up the first-person narrative – monologue – and the narrator’s tangled, indefinable sensations and emotions in Quimper’s first novel, In Every Wave.

Quimper Every Wave coverIt belongs to that sub-genre of fiction which deals with a parent’s anguish and torment at the loss of a child. Ian McEwan is the only example that comes to mind (toddler goes missing in supermarket), but I’m sure there are more I’ve forgotten about.

In the same interview the author says that it’s a novel’s ‘opening lines that grab my attention. They have to land, leave their mark. I enjoy discovering images that are still new to me, scenes made up of words that leave me in a swirl of ideas.’ Here’s the opening paragraph of his novel:

It was June when I set sail on my boat’s maiden voyage. I carried the bare essentials. A few pounds of supplies, your little pink box, a battleships game, and the endless echo of our days together.

I’m not sure ‘harshness of tone’ is what he does here, though there’s a brittle matter-of-factness masking the pain underneath. The two short, simple sentences are deceptive, their apparent confidence waylaid by the heartbreaking list of stores that’s given in that long, swirling third sentence – all addressed to the lost child. After the mundane, trivial objects, with their connotations of seafaring and childhood, we get that tortured abstract noun phrase signifying emptiness, loss, bereavement.

What follows is a poetic evocation of the father’s descent into personal hell as he tries to come to terms with the death of his little girl. The narrative is slippery and unreliable: we’re given three different accounts of how she died. It’s as if the detail is immaterial; it’s only the grim fact that she’s dead that counts. The rest is narrative.

As he builds his ship of death, then sails it on an increasingly fantastic voyage reminiscent of legendary travellers like St Brendan and Mandeville, one is invited to share all that’s happening in his head, as in Golding’s Pincher Martin. He’s in such inner turmoil he’s incapable of distinguishing the material world, which increasingly lacks definition for him, from the infernal zone he’s trapped or adrift in with memories of his equally lost, unanchored little girl.

It’s impossible to read this novella – it’s less than eighty pages long – without partaking in that parental torment. Quimper takes us to places most of us hope never to go in real life, creating a work of art out of imagined catastrophe.

The translation by Guil Lefebvre is seamless and fluent: it can’t have been easy to render this heightened language from the French, yet he’s produced a version that reads idiomatically and smoothly – the sign of a good translation is that the reader is never conscious of reading something translated.

QC Fiction continue to produce an impressively varied and consistently interesting sequence of prose fiction titles.

There are fuller accounts at the following blogs:

Stu at Winstonsdad

Tony at Tony’s Reading List

ARC courtesy of QC Fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rail trip, pt 2: Grindelwald and the Swiss Alps

First cablecar trip

View from above the First cable-car station, high above Grindelwald

After London and Colmar (see previous post) Grindelwald in Switzerland was our base for another week. It’s a beautiful village clustered under the Eiger and other peaks in the Alps, served since 1890 by BOB, which we eventually discovered was nothing to do with an English builder, but the Bernese Oberland Bahn: the local railway.

When we were travelling across Europe by train Mrs TD and I struck up a friendship with a charming couple, H and M, who’d run a school for years. M has a wicked sense of humour (offset by a baffling love of golf) and enjoyed setting challenges for us. His first: what’s the meaning of the name Grindelwald? (Nothing to do with JKR and the annoying Potter person). I knew that ‘wald’ was forest or wood, so ‘Grindel’ must be a version of Grendel, the monster dispatched by Beowulf in the Old English epic poem – so ‘monster-wood’. No, said M. Nothing to do with monsters. It’s from old German-Celtic for ‘a piece of wood serving as a barrier’ – so it’s the valley blocked off from the rest of the world. Suggests the source of Grindelwald’s other-worldly tranquillity (despite the tourists).

We taught M and H to check the number of steps they’d taken each day on their phones – another challenge: who could do the most steps each day? It all became very competitive. On one occasion I noticed M doing a little circular jig on Grindelwald station platform as we waited for a train, just to increase his step count. Shameless.

Bachalpsee

Bachalpsee

Our first trip took us up via a scarily vertiginous cable-car to First ridge, where we hiked up to the lake of Bachalpsee. Resting by the lake we were stirred by the haunting melody of an alpenhorn. It took a few minutes to locate the source of the music; eventually we spotted a man with his alpenhorn, standing on a peak hundreds of metres above us, playing. The sound resonated round the natural mountain amphitheatre – magical.

Eiger North face

Below the N face of the Eiger.

Most of the people on holiday around Grindelwald were from S. Korea, Japan or China. I know this because another of M’s challenges was to interview as many of these tourists as we could to determine where they were from.

Eiger trail

Looking back down the Eiger trail towards Alpiglen

Backfired on one occasion; I asked a couple who looked Chinese (and were talking in what I took to be Mandarin) where they were from. ‘Actually, London,’ they said.

Another day we took the local train to Alpiglen and walked as far as we could up the trail that’s at the foot of the infamous north face of the Eiger. When the going became vertical we chickened out and retraced our steps, but not before Mrs TD had to resort to humming and singing as we walked through a meadow full of tranquil, handsome cows of a curious shade of grey-violet, with long white eyelashes; she’s very scared of cows. They all wore huge cowbells that could be heard for miles. I suppose that’s the point.

We had coffee one morning on a terrace by Brienzersee, waiting for the little steam rack train to take us up to Rothorn mountain. By the entrance to the hotel was a statue of Goethe, and a plaque saying he’d stayed there.

Alpine cow

Ferocious Alpine cow

I was slightly disappointed to see little local wildlife on the trip. Marmots and ibex were seen by some in our group, but all I managed was the ridiculously tame alpine choughs, which scrounged food at Jungfrau and most other popular tourist spots, like importunate sable Cornish seagulls.

I did see an albino deer with splendid antlers near Interlaken, but it was made of wood.

We often saw signs for a St Petronella route in the mountains. She was an early Roman virgin martyr, said to have been so beautiful her father (possibly St Peter) locked her in a tower to keep her safe from potential suitors. A pagan king wanted to marry her (how did they meet? Did he break in?) so she starved herself to death. It’s more likely she met a traditional martyr’s death.

Jungfrau view from top

View from Jungfraujoch

So why the trails and chapels in the Alps? Because she’s the patron of mountain travellers. I haven’t been able to establish why. Maybe the ‘rock’ element of her name.

We’d never travelled as part of an organised group of 40, with a tour guide to shepherd us. We’d always gone independently. We were a little apprehensive when we first met our fellow travellers at St Pancras. But all went well, and we had a great time, meeting some lovely people.

Jungfrau: Alpine chough

An alpine chough scrounging for titbits from the Jungfrau tourists.

One chap of 86 was perhaps the most intrepid among us. He took a sort of go-kart down from the First summit, and later a zipwire over a precipice. He’d regularly hike off on his own for hours, fitter and braver than us all. Hope I have even half of his energy if I reach his age.

Eliot has a character in his 1922 poem The Waste Land called Marie, probably the Bavarian countess Larisch; recalling a sled trip, presumably in the Alps south of Munich, with her cousin the arch-duke, she’s at first frightened but he tells her to ‘hold on tight’ and ‘down we went’. She exclaims: ‘In the mountains, there you feel free.’ I’d always taken this as an indication of what Eliot took to be her vitality (after the boring social coffees and smalltalk in Munich’s Hofgarten) but also perhaps her

Jungfrau glacier, looking up at the Sphinx observatory

Jungfrau glacier, looking up at the Sphinx observatory

superficial gushing and aristocratic sentimentality – or even a sexual frisson as she and her cousin embraced on their exhilarating descent. Whatever Eliot meant, a rousing sense of awe and freedom is something we all experienced in the Swiss Alps.

Lake Brienz

Brienzersee seen from the top of Rothorn range. The water is turquoise because of the ‘rock flour’ sediments washed down by glacial rivers

Rail trip, pt 1: BL, St Pancras, Colmar

I’ve just returned with Mrs TD from a wonderful holiday by rail to Switzerland via London and Colmar. As I prepared a narrative with pictures I realised it would need more than one post.

After travelling from Cornwall by train to London we checked into our hotel in that literary hotbed, Bloomsbury (home of the Virginia Woolf burger), then walked to the British Library. I’d worked often in the old home of the BL in the British Museum, usually in the manuscripts reading room or the old, domed Reading Room, now an exhibition area and café. This was the first time I’d entered the new place.

Newton after Blake by Paolozzi

Newton after Blake by Paolozzi in the square in front of the BL

The outside of the building is rather forbidding and prison-like, with a huge number of red bricks and very few windows. Inside is airy and bright. We looked in the Treasures room and marvelled at some beautiful manuscripts and books. Must go back and have a proper look. There are some interesting touches and humorous details, like the bench in the shape of a book, chained to a huge cannonball to stop it being stolen – a witty take on medieval chained libraries, like the one at Hereford.

BL chained bench

We had to move on to St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, where we were to meet old friends for a drink prior to a meal at the new Ottolenghi restaurant near Oxford St (delicious).

I remember this imposing Victorian Gothic cathedral to the train from my student days when I often passed through the station on trips to London from Luton, where I lived for a few. Like the BL, it’s a brick structure, but of contrasting colours. It was designed by Gilbert Scott and opened as a hotel and rail terminus in 1873. It was refurbished, restored and reopened as a sumptuous hotel in 2011, having narrowly escaped demolition.

St Pancras Renaissance bar

The bar where we had our g & t, in the splendid old booking hall of the station

Who was St Pancras? A Roman Christian convert, martyred at the age of 14 during the Diocletian persecutions around 304. He’s known as one of the ‘ice saints’, a trio whose feast days fall between May 11-13, dates which in northern Europe are traditionally believed to bring the last frosts of spring.

St Pancras old church, further along Euston Road, is one of the oldest Christian sites in England.

Often confused with St Pancreas.

Next morning via Eurostar to Colmar, and old town in Alsace, France. We stayed with our group in the hotel opposite the station, another fine example of the late 19C fashion for grand statements of steam power.

Colmar station at night

Colmar station at night

Colmar station in daylight

Colmar station in daylight

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’d never been to this part of Alsace. It was part of Germany from 1871 after the Franco-Prussian war, then returned to France after WWI in 1919. The old town is lovely, full of wooden-framed and gabled houses, very Germanic. The central area around the canal is known justifiably as Little Venice. Breakfast on the terrace outside the old covered market, where farmers would land their produce for sale, boated in from the country farms. Nowadays electric-powered punts ply tourists along the tranquil canal. The bridges are so low they all have to duck their heads when passing under them.

Colmar timbered houses

Colmar timbered houses

At lunchtime we boarded another train and headed for Grindelwald, Switzerland, via Basel and Interlaken.

I took with me to read a novel by Patricia Highsmith (I posted on her novel Carol last year HERE ) and a collection of prose pieces by Swiss author Robert Walser, both of whom have featured here at TDays. Our days were so full, however, I didn’t get much time for reading, and only finished the Highsmith earlier today, back in Cornwall. More on that another time, too.

Here’s a taster of what we were about to experience in the breathtakingly beautiful Swiss Alps. More on this part of the trip next time…

Hotel view: the Eiger

This was the view from one of two terraces to our hotel room: the Eiger

View from the hotel room's other terrace

And this is the view from the terrace at the side of our room: another mountain – I think the Wetterhorn