Norway and Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius

Oslo opera house

Oslo opera house with the almost finished new Edvard Munch museum to its right

This is my first post since returning from a break in Norway. Three days in Oslo, a lovely city, with floating saunas in the harbour opposite the dramatic sloping roof of the Opera House – designed to look like a glacier. You can walk to the top and get a great view from the top.

Long train trip to Bergen, which at first we found a letdown after Oslo, but it grew on us. Then the Hurtigruten ferry (the name means ‘rapid route’) up the coast, over the northernmost tip of the country and back down yet another fjord into Kirkenes (‘church on a promontory’) just a few kilometres from the Russian and Finnish borders to the south and east. It was one of the most bombed cities in WWII, and has suffered greatly over the years from invasions and occupations by hostile forces.

Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius coverI read the two books I took with me. First was Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius. Picador paperback, 2015, 339pp. 19651. This was the first in a bundle I bought for a ridiculously low price from the Book People, a budget UK online bookseller. Jacqui Wine recommended this at her blog as the best one to start with.

I enjoyed the crisp, intelligent writing style, and the observations of characters were astute. In this respect EJH reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor: both writers are good at depicting lonely, unfulfilled, thwarted women. Esme is particularly well drawn: at 58 she’s spent the past twenty years as a widow, her eponymous husband Julius having sacrificed his life by sailing single-handed to assist at the Dunkirk evacuation, with no previous maritime experience. It’s an act of suicide, for he’d discovered Esme was having an affair.

Esme’s lover Felix is fourteen years her junior, the love of her life, and she’d hoped when her husband died that they’d at last be able to be together. She’s disappointed. Now, twenty years on, he’s invited himself to a weekend at her country house in Sussex. Her two daughters are there, both also unhappy in love.

The narrative is structured with poise and skill: the three parts deal with the three days of the weekend, with frequent glimpses into the past lives of the main characters that gradually explain how they’ve become the people they are. Five of the chapters in each part take the restricted viewpoint in turn of each of these main characters, with the sixth being a culminating set group piece, usually ending in disaster or farce. Events become complicated, enlightening or humiliating for all of these five characters, as revelations are made that transform their views of themselves and each other. There’s some dark humour to leaven the rather melodramatic plot, and a particularly poignant section in which, in flashback, the fate of Julius is recounted.

It’s a novel of set pieces, such as country house meals and rural walks. Descriptions of interiors and the outdoors are delicately done, integral to the unfolding of character and relationships. The housekeeper’s cat is a fine feline portrait.

Like Jacqui, however (link to her post here) I had grave reservations about some of the sexual relations. Howard is astute about the dawning sexual liberation of the early sixties, with some frank and touching insights into its consequences. It wasn’t the outspokenness that disturbed me; it was her portrayal of abusive and controlling treatment of women by some of the male characters without any apparent sense that this was reprehensible. Unfortunately this ruined for me what had otherwise been an entertaining and well written novel.

The men are weakly done, too. Esme’s anxious and vulnerable younger daughter Emma has brought home an uncouth, working-class boor called Dan Brick (apt name) who we are intended to believe is a poet. She works at the family publishing firm, and he’s supposed to be a literary genius. Yet he shows no sensitivity to or interest in language, culture or people. He’s an inverted snob, scorning the privileged lives of these wealthy people from a world so different from his. He’s a character who doesn’t ring true at all, and this seriously weakens the novel. I found it impossible to believe that a young woman like Emma would be attracted to such a brute.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by Esme’s former lover, Felix, either. Like some of the other characters he attempts to reconcile conflicting moral impulses (Dan wouldn’t even begin to understand such a concept), but ultimately he too behaves like a cad.

I was left at the end thinking that Howard wanted in some way to punish these lonely, desperate women. She shares some of the acerbic wit of Elizabeth Taylor’s narrators, but little of their generosity.

There’s another review of After Julius by Caroline here

I enjoyed the second book much more: Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know will be the subject of another post. There may be more on Norway, too.

 

Patricia Highsmith, Carol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Husband as new daddy: Patrick McGrath, Constance

‘I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy’.

This is Constance Schuyler (Dutch for ‘scholar’), now Klein (German for ‘small’ – an ominously symbolic start), on the first page of Patrick McGrath’s 2013 novel Constance. At no point is there any doubt that this is going to be a Freud-heavy account of a turbulent marriage of mismatched, needy people.

Both central characters, who take turns to narrate the story in their first-person voices, bring more baggage to the relationship than Antler. Constance (the ‘klein’ one, and not very constant in most respects) is haunted by the mysterious death of her beloved mother when she was a child, and the troubled (she sees it as cruel) upbringing by her controlling, unloving father – about as close to Big Daddy as a New England doctor can get.

So what should a young woman just turned 20 with ‘inner fragility’ and sense of self esteem do? Why, marry a man 20 years older who’s just like daddy, Sidney Klein (he’s the scholar; the reversal of the expected names serves no purpose, and if anything is just an ill-judged trick). This English expat literature professor is controlling, constrained. His patronising view of Constance from the outset is as ‘a work in progress’ which he’s confident he can complete, she’s ‘unformed and indistinct’, like his tedious academic study of the Romantics. It’s hardly surprising he’s blocked: he appears to be trying to analyse their poetry with the literary approach of a vivisectionist. It’s the only one he knows.

This novel is pretty good for about half its length. There are some well narrated set pieces, like the party at which Constance’s younger sister Iris meets Sidney for the first time, revealing herself to be wild, sexy and uninhibited – qualities Constance may well possess, but which she’s learned to suppress (along with most of her other impulses and memories). Descriptions of a decaying, dangerous New York City in 1963 are often vivid, especially the recurring scenes in Penn Station as it’s demolished and rebuilt, but soon become a tiresome metaphor for something, I’m not quite sure what: Constance’s marriage, maybe, or her psyche.

The alternating narrative voices overlap and repeat scenes with differently skewed perspectives. This technique is interesting at first, but then becomes another slightly irritating aspect of this ultimately disappointing novel.

Characters (and ghosts) come and go, but they fail to cohere with the events and lurid developments in the narrative. It all ended too pat for me, and too much resembled an early, minor Hitchcock film. The plot twists are melodramatic or soapy, the characterisation too contrived and clunky – though the Casaubon-like Sidney is oddly endearing (he drives a big Jag, like Inspector Morse, but with none of that detective’s gloomy charisma). The Schuylers’ ‘gothic horror house’ (yes, that’s what it’s described as at one point; there’s too much of that kind of narrative heavy-handedness) and Klein’s equally gloomy book-filled Manhattan apartment are too stagey, and the dialogue is largely stilted.

McGrath, ConstanceA pity – the only other McGrath novel I’ve read so far was Asylum (I wrote about it here last August), a much more satisfying gothic psychological thriller.

The edition I read was the Bloomsbury paperback. Not keen on that cover.