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.

10 thoughts on “An odd couple: John O’Hara and Donna Leon

  1. It *can* be hard to concentrate at the moment – I found the first week or so at home very difficult but I have settled into a kind of routine and am finding reading an escape. Although I’m still being selective… I don’t think O’Hara would be for me, though crime fiction is a wonderful distraction. Golden age for me, but it takes me away from reality and things are all sorted at the end which is a nice feeling. Hope the Leons turn out to be an enjoyable escape for you!

  2. Thank you for this, Simon. Will return to read BOTH of your essays after the work day here in the U.S. ends. I hope you are feeling well and your procedure went OK, and send my prayers and best wishes for all of you, ESPECIALLY your daughter on the frontlines of this war with an implacable natural enemy.

    This is a fascinating topic, the restlessness so many of us are feeling. I vaguely remember reading something about the type of light, escapist novels that those in wartime Britain would read. It is not surprising, I think the ambient stress exhausts us, just sitting doing nothing. Not to mention, something I try not to even think of, 12 million of us are unemployed in the U.S. and losing our job means losing our healthy insurance and imperils access, for many, to any kind of healthcare, with Trump doing everything he can to sabotage Obamacare care because…. Obama.

    Finally, I plan hopefully to tweet on it later, but there is a wonderful passage in the incandescently perfect novel “The End of the Affair,” in which the narrator (a stand infor Greene?) muses on the fact that in the midst of bombs and wartime, he continued to write a novel. The whys and wherefores are fascinating. I can never read book too many times, for me, it is technically perfect. I love other, more sloppy work as well but nothing has been as much help to me studying the novel as an “art form” than “EOTA.” CHEERS AND BEST TO YOU ALL!

    • Maureen: I seem to recall hearing about that rise in wartime escapist reading. We have similar problems here with unemployment and shut-down businesses. Thank goodness for the NHS. I remember enjoying EOTA when I read it years ago. I think it was filmed not so long ago.Good luck to you, too, and stay safe

  3. It’s an unnerving time, for sure. Two people I knew – one very well, the other less so — have died in the last couple of weeks. It’s really amplified the severity of the situation we find ourselves in…

    That’s a pity about the O’Hara. Before I read your piece, I had an image of his stories being fairly similar to those of Richard Yates, but now I’m not so sure. The cruelty sounds somewhat hard to take. I’ve only read his Appointment in Samarra, which I thought very effective, if a little bitter in tone.

    • ‘Bitter’ is an apt description of the tone in some of the stories. They’re well crafted, but I found them unsavoury. And yes, this is a deeply unsettling time. Who knows what our world will be like afterwards…

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