Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata

Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata. Vintage Books, 2017. First published 2016

Switzerland remained neutral through both world wars of the 20C. Precariously, given that it bordered the countries engaged in invasive, destructive warfare, and was sought as a haven by refugees fleeing the Nazis’ murderous persecution of the Jewish people in particular from the 1930s on.

Rose Tremain The Gustav Sonata coverRose Tremain excels in making the ‘historical’ part of her fiction come to life – the formidable research behind the narrative is never intrusive. Her protagonist in The Gustav Sonata is introduced in the first part of the novel, set in the years shortly after WWII, as a small, sensitive boy being brought up in a sleepy Swiss town by the mother he adores, but who treats him with cold and bitter disdain. Her husband, a policeman, had lost his job in disgrace after falsifying documents to allow a handful of Jewish refugees to find asylum in his country, soon after Switzerland had closed its borders to them. The official line was that it was full and couldn’t handle any more (an all too familiar claim in many places today); more pragmatically, the Swiss authorities were terrified of provoking the Nazis into punitive tactics, even invasion.

Soon after being sacked, a crisis occurs in his marriage and he becomes estranged from his wife and dies – before his son was old enough to remember his father.

The novel is set in a sort of prose form of a musical sonata in three sections. Part one shows how Gustav aged five befriends Anton at kindergarten – he’s instinctively drawn to another vulnerable child. Anton’s Jewish father had moved to the provinces from his city bank after a breakdown caused by another family crisis.

Anton is a gifted pianist – but suffers from terrible stage fright, and this stops his becoming a concert performer.

Tremain traces the development of these two young boys through to late middle age as they struggle to overcome the trauma they have experienced and the deficiencies in their ability to form lasting relationships.

It’s a beautifully told story, with central characters ill equipped to deal with the times they live through, but Tremain confidently shows, without lapsing into sentimentality, the power of love to prevail over all setbacks.

I enjoyed it a lot.

 

 

Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle – and recent walks

Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle. Vintage Books, 2004. First published in the USA, 1948

Not many novels make me laugh, but this one did, many times. Its narrative form is a sequence of entries in increasingly expensive notebook diaries written by its precocious 17-year-old protagonist, Cassandra Mortmain. They are quirky, intimate and ‘consciously naïve’ (as she’s piqued to overhear herself described as by one of the potential suitors who come on the scene).

Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle coverThe plot is a sort of mash-up of romantic-Gothic-silly aspects of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp – all of which are name-checked. The Mortmains are penniless, barely subsisting in their crumbling castle. The sisters’ negligent blocked novelist father spends his time shut in his room reading trashy detective stories; their stepmother is a flaky, impractical bohemian/It Girl (the novel seems to be set in the thirties).

Cassandra is shrewd and decent enough to despair of her pretty older sister Rose’s over-obvious flirting with the eligible rich American boys who take over the big house (and also become her family’s landlords – though they never pay rent). As gold-digging Rose admits early on, she’d ‘marry the Devil himself if he had some money’. But Cassandra is young, romantic and coquettish enough to fall for one of the young men herself.

These contrived entanglements are perhaps strung out too long, but it’s worth sticking with the novel for its constant stream of the ingenuous Cassandra’s humorous observations arising from bizarre situations in and around their crumbling castle. Some of these scenes try too hard (as when Rose is mistaken for a bear), but usually they work. Here are some tasters:

[Cassandra at the start of the novel is pondering what she and sister Rose are to do for money] Surely there is enough intelligence among us to earn some, or marry some – Rose, that is; for I would approach matrimony as cheerfully as I would the tomb and I cannot feel that I should give satisfaction.  

[The sisters have met the wealthy young Americans, and Rose has caught the eye of one them; her mercenary hopes are raised, and they decide to pray in earnest, as they go to bed one night, that Rose will genuinely fall in love with him so that she won’t be a miserable rich wife. Cassandra finishes her prayers, but Rose carries on longer] ‘That’ll do, Rose,’ I told her at last. ‘It’s enough just to mention things, you know. Long prayers are like nagging.’


Some good news for once: Mrs TD and I had our Pfizer vaccinations yesterday – no ill effects or discomfort so far, and all was well organised at our local doctors’ surgery. It’s the first thing the British government has managed well since the pandemic started – though the success of the rollout of vaccines is largely down to the energy and dedication and professionalism of the NHS staff and the volunteers who’ve assisted with the practicalities.

Mrs TD has applied to be one of those volunteers. She was very excited this morning when her high-viz tabard arrived in the mail. She intends to wear it everywhere, even though she hasn’t yet been called to help with the vaccination programme.

I’ll close with some remarks about recent walks. One cold day last week, while Mrs TD had her Zoom yoga class, I went out alone. On a remote lane, high on a hill where the wind was bitter, a well-wrapped-up man passed me: ‘Fresh this morning,’ he said.

This lingered with me for some time. One of those expressions that’s so context-bound. It could have been said by a fishmonger or greengrocer, extolling the qualities of their wares to a potential customer.

Indignant peacockAnother day, another walk, the two of us this time. We passed the smallholding where the group (flock?) of peacocks live; I’ve posted about them several times since our lockdown exercise walks became routine. Mrs TD took this picture of one of the birds perched on the sill of one of the house’s upstairs windows. It was peering in, indignant but also a bit desperate.

I often pass these stones. They lie in a field by the footpath – sheep are grazing there at the moment. They look a little forlorn, like a small, derelict Stonehenge. The sun that day cast shadows that made the scene even more desolate than usual.

Stones

The destruction of the human soul: Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time

Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time. Vintage Books, 2017. First published 2016

Julian Barnes Noise of Time cover Can artists work without compromising themselves when living under a brutal dictator with a highly prescriptive set of strictures about what constitutes “acceptable” or proletarian art? That’s the dilemma faced by the protagonist of Julian Barnes’ fictional account of Dmitri Shostakovich under Stalin-era Soviet rule.

Barnes conveys particularly well the absurdity behind this autocratic ‘Power’: Stalin and his successors employ fanatical apparatchiks to enforce their doctrine, and any perceived deviation from it is dealt with savagely. During the opening section of the novel, Shostakovich stands outside his Leningrad apartment by the lift, waiting for its doors to open and emit the men from the ‘Big House’ who will take him away to the fate he knows has befallen so many of his friends (and countless strangers) – interrogation, the camps, or more likely a bullet to the back of the head.

His crime: to write an opera that Stalin considered bourgeois, cacophonous, and suspiciously like the odious capitalist western jazz.

He stands there night after night, hour after hour, to spare his wife the sight of his being hauled from his bed by these agents of terror.

Most of the novel consists of a highly plausible account of his inner conflict during his decades of fluctuating favour with Power. He sees himself as a coward when he kowtows to it. He signs his name to articles he hasn’t written, admissions of ‘crimes’ he knows he’s innocent of.

Even worse is the apparently softer regime under Stalin’s successors, when he finds himself having to make even more humiliating concessions and public shows of feigned allegiance to a system that’s still repressive and narrow-minded:

And when faced with criticism of his own work, his response was: look, I have a multiplicity of styles, just tell me which you would prefer me to use. He was proud of his facility – but that was not what was being asked of him. They didn’t want you to fake adherence to their banal taste and meaningless critical slogans – they wanted you to actually believe in them. They wanted your complicity, your compliance, your corruption.

The novel is well written, full of intriguing insights into this conflicted man’s anguish and dilemma. His genius is marred by certain human frailties and flaws – this is no hagiography.

I just didn’t find it as compelling as I thought I would. Maybe it’s just the lacklustre mood of these constrained times – it hinders my capacity to enter into these fictional worlds. Another time I’d have probably enjoyed this novel much more – but this exploration of ‘the destruction of the human soul’ is not what I need at present. And as another autocratic, narcissistic leader heads for the Florida golf courses, maybe life will take a turn for the better in this turbulent world.

Snowdrop

The first snowdrop of the year appeared in our garden last week

Meanwhile Mrs TD and I continue our daily walks. The other day as we turned from our street into the main road we were confronted by two power company vans and a group of workmen in high vis vests, standing around a large hole they’d just dug in the road, peering into its depths. Is there a problem? Mrs TD asked. “No, just a gas leak,” one of the workmen cheerily replied…

 

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: a hidden inheritance. Vintage books paperback, 2011. First published 2010

I posted recently on the secret Cornish garden of some neighbour friends and their handsome Siamese cats. One of these friends lent me a copy of this book. I finished it with some powerful mixed feelings.

Edmund de Waal expresses some conflicting feelings about the book himself just a few pages from the end; he tells an acquaintance that he’s writing a book about…and stumbles to a halt:

I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still a book about small Japanese things.

De Waal Hare Amber Eyes coverIt’s all of those things – uncategorizable. Ostensibly it is about the provenance of his collection of over 200 netsuke – the small ivory or wooden objects crafted by Japanese artists well over a century ago. Originally intended as ornamental but useful toggles to hang from cords attached to traditional dress, they became sought after objets d’art in late 19C Europe, during the Japonisme craze, when they first entered the collection of one of de Waal’s Ephrussi ancestors in Paris.

From there they migrated as a wedding present to another family member in Vienna. They subsequently travelled via Japan to England and were inherited by de Waal.

But this is not just a cute social history of Europe in 200 objects. It’s a profile of a wealthy, important Proustian family told not from the viewpoint of an academic historian, but by a person deeply connected emotionally and genetically to the subject – his own family.

His Jewish ancestors made their fortune originally in Odessa, importers and exporters of Russian grain. From there they expanded into banking, with branches in several major European capitals. But as a Jewish family based largely in Vienna, they were dangerously vulnerable to the vicious ‘final solution’ of the Nazis, culminating in the holocaust.

Another involuntary diaspora of the Ephrussi family ensued.

Hare netsuke

Hare netsuke from the collection, in the public domain via Wikimedia Images, attribution: Lostrobots / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

De Waal gives a highly personal, deeply moving account of this only too well-known tragic and shameful period of history. These are people he’s enabled us to get to know, with their love affairs and foibles, their poignant attempts to fit in to an Austrian society which only superficially accepts them, but ultimately despises them. They are outsiders, resented, and the Anschluss gives their bigoted, hypocritical Christian neighbours the opportunity to release all the pent-up animosity and envy that they’d harboured for decades.

I found the book a deeply moving and sometimes upsetting experience, but I admit to some misgivings in my response. It’s probably a kind of inverted snobbery to find the long descriptions of the sumptuous opulence of the Ephrussi palaces, packed with mismatched and priceless artworks, furniture and other stuff, and the fraternising with royalty, aristocracy and famous artists and writers, just a little too Downton Abbey at times.

This is not a noble response, I know, and this doesn’t diminish the horror I felt at the inevitable brutality of the persecutions, humiliations and terror the family underwent at the hands of the most despicable people Europe has known.

It’s gratifying to read about the last major Ephrussi that de Waal tells us about in detail: his much-loved great-uncle Iggy, living with increasing happiness with his Japanese companion, and finally restoring the netsuke to a home that appreciates them. As Edmund de Waal did himself when he inherited them.

He spends much of the last third of the book profiling his brilliant grandmother, Elisabeth. She was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Vienna, gained a doctorate and became a lawyer. In the twenties she married a Dutchman named Hendrik de Waal, and settled into domesticity in England in the thirties. She was a poet, corresponded with Rilke, and wrote five novels; one of these, a semi-autobiographical family history set in Vienna in the 1950s, and referred to frequently in The Hare, was published in 2013 as The Exiles Return, and is now available as a Persephone Books paperback.

 

An odd couple: John O’Hara and Donna Leon

John O’Hara, New York Stories (Vintage paperback, 2018). Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice (Arrow paperback, 2004; first published 1992)

Recently I’ve found it hard to concentrate on reading. This is strange, given that we now find ourselves with unusual amounts of unconstrained time on our hands. Maybe it’s because I’m so preoccupied with the anxieties and stress caused by the pandemic. People I know have been infected. Our daughter works in the NHS. Yesterday I went to the local hospital for an MRI scan, and it felt like entering a war zone: security guards at the entrances, no visitors, face masks compulsory, staff hidden behind PPE.

Before the limits on travel were introduced nearly a month ago I’d started reading John O’Hara’s New York Stories. I thought the short form would be less demanding in terms of concentration required. I was wrong.

Front covers of O'Hara, New York Stories, and Leon, Death at La FeniceThere are 32 stories in the collection, with publication dates ranging from the early 1930s to after O’Hara’s death in 1970 (he was born in 1905). They range widely in length, too, from what might now be called flash fiction – vignettes of just a couple of pages or so, which are often very well done – to a 58-page novella ‘We’re Friends Again’. They’re not arranged chronologically or thematically, but alphabetically by title. Steven Goldleaf in the Introduction believes this was to enable the stories to stand on their own merits – the consistency of which O’Hara was said to be very proud of.

I found them pretty uneven, and mostly unsavoury. There’s some good stuff here, but also a seediness that swerves into nastiness. Perhaps it’s the gritty competitiveness of metropolitan life that he explores, but the stories weren’t to my taste. They lack humour, too. Some are quite funny, but that’s another thing. Businessmen play cruel tricks on each other, or bicker viciously. Showbiz types scratch and grumble. Society ladies and guys who frequent swish clubs display a mix of snobbery and ennui, duplicity and venom. Married couples spar and dissimulate. There’s a lot of cheating – in the trickery and sexual senses.

Many have puzzling qualities, with some enigmatic endings. This elliptical approach to short fiction became a hallmark of The New Yorker magazine, where most of these stories first appeared (according to Goldleaf, again). I ended many of them with a ‘so what’ feeling.

I gave Mrs TD a copy of Donna Leon’s first Commissario Brunetti crime novel, Death at La Fenice, for her birthday. She enjoyed it, and recommended it to me. It was a good choice for a lockdown – in my restless mood I found it pleasantly diverting.

I chose it largely because we visited Venice – where all of this series of crime novels is set – around this time last year, and we loved it. Leon is very good at capturing the beauty and squalor of this city. The plot concerns the demise of a world-famous conductor at the eponymous Venetian opera house during a performance, and Brunetti’s quest to find out how and why he died.

As with most fiction of this genre, a group of prime suspects (and red herrings) is produced, and the clever Brunetti has to use all his skill to figure how the unpleasant German conductor came to die of poisoning. In this respect it’s a fairly undistinguished narrative. Much of the pleasure in reading it comes from the pungently evoked city setting I mentioned earlier (although there was sometimes just a bit too much map-reading detail of the ‘he turned left up the Zattere and crossed bridge so-and-so into campo X’ type), and the range of quirky, sympathetically drawn characters, some of whom provide warm humour. Most of the characters are convincingly flawed and human.

Brunetti’s family, for example, is vividly portrayed: his smart, resourceful teacher wife Paola and two teenage kids – a feisty girl and sulky, rebellious boy. There are some terrific scenes in which Brunetti visits an arthritic, suspicious old woman, now living in squalor, but a famous opera singer in her youth. Her back story is tragic, and crucial in Brunetti’s unravelling of the mystery. It brings out the horrors and shame of the Nazi era, and Italy’s subsequent history of corruption and graft beneath a veneer of sophistication and culture.

I also liked the way Leon depicts the ineptitude and vanity of the officers who work for Brunetti, and his preening, manipulative and ultimately useless boss. This is why he has to rely solely on his own intuitions and eye for detail to solve the crime. He’s not a deductive genius like Holmes, or puzzle-solver like Morse, or even a psychologist like Poirot (I hope I’ve got all that right: I’m not well versed in crime fiction). Instead he’s just an intelligent, observant and hard-working man with a good set of instincts and deep sympathy for suffering humanity.

There are over twenty titles in this sequence of Brunetti stories. I may well try another if my inability to focus on anything more demanding continues.

Sebastian Faulks, Paris Echo

Sebastian Faulks, Paris Echo. Vintage paperback,2019. First published in hardback by Hutchinson, 2018

A central theme in this novel is the way the past seeps, as through a ‘semi-permeable membrane’, into the present. The Paris of 2006, where the main action is set, is haunted by the past: in the canonised historical figures and places whose names are commemorated in the names of Métro stations, squares, streets and so on; and more poignantly in the ordinary people who walk those modern streets and squares in the footsteps, as it were, of their antecedents.

Faulks Paris Echo coverThis is most movingly apparent in the audio files accessed from an archive by one of the two central characters (their voices narrate the chapters in a kind of counterpoint). Hannah is an American scholar in her early thirties, researching the part played during the Occupation of WWII by Parisian women. We are given full versions of the transcripts of two of these women, one from the seedier side of the city familiar to the young Édith Piaf, struggling to maintain moral and physical integrity when faced by the sexual importuning of German soldiers with money to burn, and the other from a different world.

The choices they make and shocking, terrible dilemmas they face are sensitively handled by Faulks. One plot twist left me gasping.

I’m less impressed by his choice of the two voices I mentioned. One is of a nineteen-year-old Moroccan lad called Tariq, who’s smuggled himself illegally into the capital of the former colonial ruler of his homeland with the vague aim of finding out something about his half-French mother, who spent her earlier years there. This enables Faulks to indulge in some important, sometimes heavy-handed consideration of France’s often oppressive and brutal colonialist history, and of the plight of immigrants in the 21C city – marginalised and mostly scratching a living, as Tariq ends up doing, in sleazy dead-end jobs like fast-food joints. Two cities, two nations.

At least Tariq’s voice enables Faulks to inject some much needed humour into this dark, disturbing story of historically layered or textured narratives of oppression and hardship, both during the Nazi occupation, and in the modern incarnation of the city. His narcissism, sexual urgency and being constantly hungry are often hilariously apparent; his callow disingenuousness, lack of common sense but basic integrity and decency – with some lapses – also ring true.

Hannah is a less convincing narrator. She’s emotionally scarred and numbed by an ill-advised love affair some years earlier, and Faulks’s providing her with the possibility of romantic redemption is handled, to my mind, rather too conveniently and clunkily.

The author clearly knows Paris intimately, and he brings it sensually to life – especially that dark underbelly noted above that tourists and the fashionable rich rarely see. Tariq serves as a kind of Candide figure, blissfully ignorant of the significance of the names of his beloved metro stations. This causes me to re-examine received notions of such names as Monet or Stalingrad and what they could signify to someone not from a western European culture – and what they say about that culture.

I liked the magical-realist way in which Faulks has figures from the past seem to appear in the flesh in modern Paris. Some embody Tariq’s desperate wish to establish an identity for himself in the living archive of the city, and more pertinently to know and see his late mother in the city, providing him with a personal connection to this alien city which has so far in his young life been only obliquely experienced through its political-historical impact on his homeland.

Others fulfil Hannah’s more academic longing (partly a response also to her emotionally empty life) to animate the past more immediately than historiography allows. The electronic voices she listens to in the archive take on flesh and blood, in a way: this is how history could look, if we had eyes to see, Faulks seems to be saying. Mostly this works.

The puppeteer/beggar on the metro, Victor Hugo, is a more playful example of the ghostly presences that populate this novel as vividly as the supposedly living ones. An epigraph on the first page is a quotation from Hugo’s L’Homme Qui Rit (never heard of it), which gives the book its title. It translates as:

What is history? An echo of the past in the future. A shadow (or reflection) of the future on the past.

There’s a lively interview with Faulks by Sam Leith at the Spectator books podcast from September last year, where I learned that the dedication to ‘Hector’ is to his dog. Why not?!

 

 

Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze

Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze. Vintage paperback, 2010. First published 2009

I’d thought this was a novel about John Clare and his 90-mile walk home to Northamptonshire in 1841 from what was then known as a lunatic asylum in Epping Forest, on the fringes of London. The main characters in Adam Foulds’s novel, however, are Matthew Allen, the enlightened (for those times) proprietor of High Beach, and his sporadically precocious, often awkward 17-year-old daughter Hannah. The so-called peasant poet’s absconding and trek only feature in the closing pages, and he flits like a troubled phantom as just one (ok, the most prominent) of several distressed and deluded inmates of the asylum who feature throughout the narrative.

Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze coverHannah develops a crush on new neighbour the poet Alfred Tennyson, whose brother suffers from depression, ‘the English malady’ Allen calls it (I’d always thought that was another thing) and becomes another of Allen’s patients. Tennyson inclines that way a little himself after the death of his dear friend Hallam – he was starting to compose the poem about him that would help establish his reputation later. Poor callow Hannah is too inexperienced to recognise she can’t compete with Hallam.

Feeling outshone by her prettier friend Annabella,  Hannah suffers indignities and humiliation in her attempts to make the future poet laureate notice her. These sections are done with remarkable sensitivity, warmth and poignant humour, and demonstrate with insight the tortures and raptures of adolescent love at a time when the quest for a suitable marriage partner was what society deemed the sole and fitting preoccupation of such young women. As Annabella tells her with depressingly worldly shrewdness on hearing of the arrival of the eligible aristocratic brothers from Lincolnshire in their area, “We have to be thinking of these things.”

The insights into Allen’s psychological methods are fascinating. Here he explains his ‘therapy for the insane’ to Tennyson:

“Brightness of company, exercise, a familial atmosphere, an unbosoming of anxieties…”

“Unbosoming?”

“Yes, the disclosure of personal fears and unhappinesses. Often I find encouraging patients through a conversational, what shall we call it, memoir is terribly useful.”

The asylum and the experiences of the inmates are portrayed at times with wit and sympathy, but at others there are scenes that are chilling, often stomach-churning (depending on the severity of the patient’s condition). There are two main sites at the asylum: benign Fairmead House, for those well enough to receive the gentler therapy mentioned above, ‘full of gentle disorder, idiocy and convalescence’. Some aren’t even mad at all; they’ve been incarcerated, as so many were in the Victorian era, for reasons of family expediency.

But Leopard Hill Lodge for the more seriously ill, presided over by a brutal and sadistic warder called Stockdale, is described here from the viewpoint of Allen’s young son:

[The Lodge] was full of real madness, of agony, people lost to themselves. They were fierce and unpredictable. They smelled rank. They were obscene. They made sudden noises. Their suffering was bottomless. It was an abyss of contorted humanity, a circle of hell.

Here we see the strengths of Foulds’s prose. Not surprisingly for a writer who’d previously published mostly poetry, it’s highly poetic. There are striking images and lilting cadences. At its best this prose soars.

Unfortunately the ornateness can become cloying. Here’s an example of maybe both qualities simultaneously; Hannah is visiting her friend Annabella, who’s sitting in her garden under a tree:

The tree looked ardent, single-minded, standing there and declaring its flowers straight out of the wet, gnarled wood.

The description is partly to be understood as Hannah’s perspective, with maybe a touch of the sentimental-romantic friend’s, too, while the closing words are surely those of the poet-novelist. ‘Gnarled’ is such a good, twisty word. I’m not sure what ‘declaring its flowers’ is about, though.

The narrative structure is fragmentary, almost collage, which works quite well as a means of depicting the fractured, hallucinatory nature of the minds of the inmates (and the sensibilities of the supposedly sane, including Allen, with his crackpot schemes and tendency to bankrupt himself on them, and the earnest, hopeful Hannah, painfully self-conscious about her unfinished poise, blushes and, well, sweating unbecomingly and at the most embarrassing moments).

Clare’s delusions are particularly poignantly portrayed. At times believing he’s a prize-fighter, he also believes at others that he’s Lord Byron or even Shakespeare. There are some interesting scenes where he consorts with gypsies (he’d spent some of his earlier years with travelling folk, and felt a deep sympathy with their unbridled culture).

It’s an interesting novel, but that poetic style is sometimes intrusive, and so is the rather too evident thorough period research. The ways the plot’s various elements are resolved, however, are startlingly effective, and make some powerful statements about the hypocrisies and delusions of the supposedly sane Victorian ‘maze of life’.

 

Shipwrecked Lives: William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow

William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow (Vintage paperback, 2012; first published in two parts in the New Yorker in 1979, then in book form, 1980)

This novel has the same deceptively low-key style and tone as that recent word-of-mouth hit, Stoner. My first reaction was that this is as good, if not better – perhaps because it compresses so much intensity of feeling into just over 150 pages.

It’s a tale of elemental, doomed passion in rural Illinois in the 1920s. Two neighbouring tenant farmers are as close as brothers. Then one falls in love with the other’s wife, and an affair starts. When the betrayed husband finds out, he kills his former friend. The lives of both families had already started to unravel; after the murder, they implode.

That’s not a spoiler: the fatal gunshot rings out on the first page. Two pages later we find out who shot whom, and why. This is not a murder mystery; it’s about what drives a pair of men who love each other like a modern David and Jonathan to such extremities. Maxwell does this with penetrating insight and emotional integrity.

The structure is intriguing: the narrator, who was about ten when the murder happened, is a man looking back on these events fifty years later. He lived in the same small town as these farmers, and was a schoolmate of the murderer’s son. Both boys have seen the happiness of their young lives destroyed: the narrator, by the death of his mother in the 1918 flu epidemic, which also killed his brother, and caused his already emotionally distant father to become even colder towards him; Cletus Smith, the other boy, whose parents divorce as a result of the wife’s adultery. After the murder, worse follows.

They find consolation in each other, these boys. The narrator is a sensitive, unsporty bookworm, bullied at school, compounding his sadness at home. The two boys are drawn to play together, unconsciously forming another close bond of friendship like that of the two farmers, and at the end of each day’s mutually consoling company, say the farewells that give this book its title. A few years later, the narrator treats his friend badly, in a way that causes him to feel piercing guilt for the rest of his life.

William Maxwell, So Long, See You TomorrowIt’s an unusual genre – based on fact, with real place names and details that featured in Maxwell’s own life. The psychological development of the innocent narrator’s young self is what grips the attention, how he tries to make sense of what was so violently broken through no fault of his own (and the same applies for Cletus); strangely, the melodrama of the adultery, murder and suicide among the grown-ups forms the backdrop, the catalyst to the two boys’ descent into despair. A passing reference to a remark by Ortega y Gasset sums up this aspect of the novel: life is, the narrator recalls the philosopher remarking, ‘in itself and forever shipwreck’.

The lives of the women in this drama are also brilliantly and economically evoked. Even before the events that wreck all their lives, Clarence Smith, Cletus’ father, sees his wife as the woman who, ‘in the sight of God,’ owes him

love, honor and obedience. Other people, with nothing at stake, see that there is a look of sadness about her, as if she lives too much in the past or perhaps expects more of life than is reasonable.

There, obliquely and suggestively, is what explains the whole biblical-Shakespearean tragedy of this story, and its emotionally stifling rural social and cultural setting. She’s a prairie Emma Bovary.

It’s hard to find anything else brief enough to quote that might convey the Maxwell voice that makes of this material such an original and compelling narrative – it’s a slow-burning, low-voltage style with few literary embellishments or stand-out passages of ‘fine writing’. The effect is cumulative, unnoticed as you go along, like breathing.

There’s a section I’d marked in ch. 5 where there’s a description of a carriage drive in the countryside when the narrator was an even smaller boy; the landscape, says the narrator, is much the same once the town limits are passed:

Plowed fields or pasture, all the way to the horizon. There were trees for the cattle to stand under in the heat of the day, and the fields were separated from each other by Osage-orange hedgerows that were full of nesting birds.

The conversation in the front seat of the carriage was about what was growing on both sides of the road: corn, wheat, rye, oats, alfalfa. The women, blind to this green wealth, talked about sewing and ‘receipts’ – the word they used for recipes. I was of an age to appreciate anything that looked like something it wasn’t, and when we passed a cluster of mailboxes I would turn and look back. Long-legged wading birds is what they put me in mind of…

It’s the prose equivalent of a Japanese watercolour: much more is intimated at than is overtly represented. Metaphor, it’s implied, is for the immature mind.

A few pages later the narrator explains what he’s about. As he no longer knows where his boyhood friend Cletus is, the only possibility of ‘making some connection with him’ is through ‘trying to reconstruct the testimony he was never called upon to give.’

If any part of the following mixture of truth and fiction strikes the reader as unconvincing, he has my permission to disregard it. I would be content to stick to the facts if there were any.

I found it impossible to disregard what follows. The attempt to rediscover the doomed innocence of those boys (and adults) is reminiscent of Le Grand Meaulnes, with some of the elegiac quality (without the baroque style) of Proust.

There’s a heartbreaking account of Cletus’ loyal, loving dog and her sad fate – another vividly realised, unsentimentally portrayed aspect of this family drama. Some good cats, too, sitting in the cow barn in a row, waiting ‘with their mouths wide open for somebody to squirt milk down their throats.’