Highsmith and lambs

Patricia Highsmith, The Glass Cell. Virago Modern Classics, 2014. First published in the USA, 1963

Patricia Highsmith Glass Cell coverThis wasn’t the most soothing choice of reading during Britain’s third lockdown, when Covid cases are soaring, hospitals are full and their staff almost overwhelmed, and the days are short and mostly wet and grey. So I shall give just a few thoughts about this typically disturbing novel by Patricia Highsmith, and append some more uplifting stuff from recent walks.

The first third of the novel tells of the brutal treatment in a grim prison in the south of the USA of a man singularly ill-equipped to deal with its regime. Phil Carter is an educated, affluent engineer/designer who’s been convicted of commercial fraud. He failed to read certain documents his crooked bosses gave him to sign, and these provided incriminating evidence at his trial.

As usual with Highsmith, the reader is never on firm ground. The story is told largely from Carter’s point of view. Was he really so carefree in business matters, naïve or gullible, too trusting? Were these bosses, who continue to converge on his life after his six-year sentence has been completed, as dodgy as we’re led to believe? Given how Carter develops (or unravels) in the second part of the novel, it’s difficult to believe he’s entirely innocent – about anything.

It’s a novel about the toxic nature of jealousy. Like Othello, Carter is worked on by one of these ex-bosses, keen to give him the ‘ocular proof’ that his beautiful wife Hazel, who has visited him regularly in jail, has been having an affair the whole time – and that it’s still going on when he’s released and they start a new life in New York. The consequences are explosive, and left me when I’d finished the novel with something resembling an acrid taste.

The world that Highsmith conjures up in those novels of hers that I’ve read (link HERE to previous posts about them) is twisted, and the characters who inhabit it are damaged by its tortuousness. Often they inflict some more on others. I find this is not the best of times to be reading her.

Hibernating snailsHere then are some reflections and images from recent rural walks.

First, a cluster of what I presume are hibernating snails. They were tightly packed inside a drainpipe embedded in a garden wall – it must have been blocked, otherwise they’d surely have been washed away after all the rain we’ve had here in Cornwall in recent weeks. (None of the snow, so far, that’s swept across the north and south-east of Britain over the weekend.)

The steps are outside a house near Kenwyn Church. As they don’t lead anywhere, I assume Stone stepsthey once functioned as a means of stowing things more easily into a cart or truck, or to make mounting a horse less arduous. I like the patterns made by lichens and mosses (not sure what the difference is).

 

 

We have had a few rare days of sunshine. At this time of year, clear skies mean very cold air. This fine butterfly –  a red admiral, I think – took advantage of the warming rays on an olive tree that sits in a pot in the sheltered south-facing front of our house.

Butterfly

Most days have been grey and damp. Mrs TD and I had our spirits lifted on a walk last week at the sight of a field of ewes with their skipping, frisking lambs . The farmer was just leaving through the gate, so we were able to ask her about them. She said the lambs were just three days old. When we passed that way again a few days later I was able to snap this delightful scene: the lamb enthusiastically feeding from its placid mother, its tail wagging like a spaniel’s.

 

Ewe and lambThe sky was grey, but this sight brightened our day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Austin Wright, Tony & Susan

Austin Wright, Tony & Susan. Atlantic Books, 2011. First published in USA 1993.

Austin Wright, who died in 2003, was for many years an English professor at the University of Cincinnatti. There he had the reputation for minute critical analysis of literary texts. I’m afraid this shows in his first novel, Tony & Susan, not entirely in a good way.

It’s technically superb: a taut thriller is embedded in another novel that struggles to emerge from its shadow.

 Austin Wright, Tony & Susan coverSusan is sent the MS of his first novel by her ex-husband, Edward with a request that she provide a critique: something is lacking in it, he says in his letter. They’d divorced after the wreck of their marriage, precipitated by his abandoning a budding law career to indulge his desire to become a writer. Susan wasn’t pleased: she thought he took for granted her complicity in this (to her mind) deluded dream, supporting his fantasy with her salary as a college English teacher.

You see what’s coming: Susan, a self-confessed severe literary critic, especially of Edward’s apprentice work when they were married, reads the novel that forms the basis of this novel. It’s a metafictional, self-reflexive premise that I never fully bought.

The novel-within-a-novel is called Nocturnal Animals – which is the title of Tom Ford’s 2016 film version (I haven’t seen it: I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has). Mild-mannered maths professor Tony, his wife Laura and teenage daughter Helen are driving to Maine. They get involved in a dangerous game of chicken on the highway that culminates in a minor accident. The occupants of both vehicles get out, and it all goes horribly wrong from that point.

The three men from the other vehicle turn out to be nasty individuals, and they force Tony and family into a terrifying ordeal. Tony is forced to question his adequacy and agency. The plot manipulates him into increasingly destabilising positions.

All of this is narrated with alternating sections in which we get Susan’s back story and her reactions to Edward’s novel as it develops. Here’s where I started to lose engagement: as a teacher of literature she evaluates Edward’s narrative that I’d just read, and her analysis occluded my own. I felt placed in a position of uncertainty in my own judgement. This is probably what the author intended, but if that’s the case, I didn’t care for it.

Susan also inevitably looks for a personal message in this rather gruesome story. Is her ex suggesting that she is represented by one of the characters in his novel? If so, which one: the academic, unheroic Tony, who feels guilty and ashamed that he can’t act more decisively to protect himself and his family? Or, even worse, the leader of the men who threaten them? Or the detective who tries to help Tony find the thugs, eventually by resorting to dangerously unorthodox methods that expose Tony to even more menacing dilemmas and confrontations?

Similar questions arise about Edward: is he represented in some way by one of the characters? If so, what might be his cryptic message to Susan?

Wright manipulates Susan’s response, and my own. I was assessing her assessment of Nocturnal Animals and attempts to interpret it in terms of her two experiences of married life – after divorcing Tony, she’d married Arnold, a philandering doctor and had three children – and Edward’s: he’d remarried too. Is his novel really an allegory of their two lives: is he suggesting that they made a mistake by divorcing, or is he just taunting her for leaving him?

As a postmodern puzzle dressed up in a noirish tale of violence and menace it’s entertaining in patches, but ultimately rather cold and…I don’t know, kind of pointless.

Nunez, daffodils, holy wells again

Sigrid Nunez, Salvation City. Virago paperback, 2020. First published 2010

I thought Sigrid Nunez’ 2018 novel The Friend (link to my post HERE) was an intelligent, well-written and highly engaging read. I was disappointed by Salvation City.

Nunez, Salvation City coverMaybe it’s because it’s set in an imagined near-future flu pandemic in which many die – including some of the central characters in the narrative. Given our current dire situation here in the UK, where we’ve just entered our third lockdown in response to a scary surge in Covid cases, it wasn’t perhaps the best choice to cheer me up.

I don’t think that fully accounts for my dissatisfaction with the novel. The long central section has the 13-year-old protagonist, a sensitive lad named Cole, being more or less indoctrinated by a group of well-meaning religious zealots who live in the city of the novel’s title. They are convinced that the pandemic is God’s way of initiating the rapture, and only the chosen (ie those same fundamentalists) will achieve ‘salvation’.

I very nearly gave up on the novel after too many pages of their fanatical self-righteousness. Towards the end Cole shows signs of asserting himself and going his own way, but by then I’d almost ceased caring.

I’m afraid I can’t recommend this one – but do try The Friend. Don’t worry about the dog in it.

DaffodilsInstead here’s an image from yesterday’s local walk. In the grounds of Epiphany House (I recently wrote during first lockdown in April about this former convent and school, now a retreat and conference centre – though not much retreating or conferring is happening there at the moment – HERE). These are the first daffodils I’ve seen this winter. They lifted our spirits. Spring is on the way

It’s weird to be walking our local lanes and paths in a January lockdown, almost a year since we started doing this pretty much every day as our only permitted exercise during the first pandemic restrictions. We’ve seen spring flowers come and go, summer hedgerows burst into life, autumn and now midwinter. Soon the cycle will be back where we started. I guess the message is that life goes on (despite the efforts of our hapless leaders, who seem always to be tardily reactive, rather than proactive and firmly decisive).

Holywell Finally a picture taken the previous day at a north Cornwall beach we haven’t been to in ages: Holywell Bay. There are two holy wells in the area: one, a sea cave in the cliffs over the beach (the tide was too high for us to enter it), the other in what’s now a holiday park in the nearby village of Cubert. Their holy, healing qualities are said to derive from association with the northern English St Cuthbert, or a Welsh St Cubert.

The figure just visible in my picture top left is my brother-in-law, peering into the abyss. No, he was investigating a curious concrete structure in the clifftop – possibly some sort of bunker: this area adjoins Penhale, a stretch of sand dunes on which there’s a military establishment which the public can’t access. This is where Cornwall’s patron saint, Piran, is said to have landed on his miraculous stone from Ireland. I wrote about him and his oratory in the dunes HERE back in 2016.

You can read more about the wells and this area HERE. Link to my two posts on Bede’s Life of Cuthbert HERE.

 

Happy New Year to you all. As we’re all saying at the moment, surely this will be an improvement on last year.

 

 

William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows

William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows. Vintage Classics, London, 2008. First published 1937

Bunny (nickname of Peter) is a timid boy aged eight, who cries easily, is bullied by the local lads, and is wary of his bossy big brother, Robert, who’s thirteen. He’s sent on an errand to the local shop:

Mrs Lolly was middle-aged and sagging, like her porch. She kept a yellow pencil in the knot at the back of her hair…[She] added up figures on a paper bag. When she stopped and looked at him blindly, Bunny saw that her eyes were full of arithmetic.

William Maxwell, cover of They Came Like SwallowsMaxwell’s short novel is all written as well as that. This first section is narrated from Bunny’s point of view, reflecting his devotion to his mother, love-hate relationship with Robert (an age gap of five years is a lot at that age), and his father’s severe aloofness.

It’s set in Illinois in 1918, and the post-war Spanish flu is spreading. Bunny falls seriously ill with it. As the novel progresses, with a second section narrated from his big brother’s viewpoint, and a final section focusing on the father, others fall sick, and the serenity of the family is shattered.

It’s a beautifully observed, deeply moving account of the dynamics of this small family. The other significant member is the beautiful aunt Irene, bohemian and exotic, adored by Bunny. Her marriage is on the rocks, and she’s torn between letting her feckless husband have another chance, and doing the sensible thing.

This is the third Maxwell novel I’ve read; two of them brilliantly portray the inner lives of boys – this one and So Long, See You Tomorrow – link to my post HERE. The other, The Château (link HERE) was less compelling: I found it a little over-written. Maxwell is at his best when he keeps the prose low-key, as he does in Swallows, while developing scenes with some unbearably powerful emotion in play.

The title is from Yeats’s poem ‘Coole Park, 1929’, a stanza of which serves as the novel’s epigraph. One line describes ‘a woman’s powerful character’ – Bunny and Robert’s mother, the keystone of this fraught family, would fit that description.

 

Being a mother: Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle

Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle. Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2016. First published in the USA, 1998

Elizabeth Strout’s first novel, Amy & Isabelle, anticipates relationships and themes she was to revisit in the two later novels of hers that I’ve posted on here (links at the end). She presents parent – child relations in particular as sclerotic.

Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle coverShirley Falls is a dull town, dominated by the mill on the filthy river. Isabelle is PA to one of its office managers – a dull, bald and overweitht married man with whom she’s secretly half in love, and who hardly notices her.

Isabelle is a snob. Although she never graduated from college, she’s created an image of herself as a cultivated, sophisticated woman who’s superior to the other women in the office. She disdains their petty bickering and factions and discourages intimacy. She’s like Strout’s later protagonists, Olive and Lucy: lonely, distressed and unhappy, longing for love and too acerbic and aloof to invite it.

Mother-daughter relationships and their tribulations feature centrally in Strout’s fiction. Part of Isabelle’s false persona results from a deeply shameful secret that she only reveals late in the novel. By then it’s too late to repair the damage she’s caused to her teenage daughter Amy’s view of her.

I’ve known mothers and daughters like this (and fathers and sons). They long for the other to love them, yet behave so hurtfully they become bitter and estranged.

It’s a more sprawling, less tightly structured novel than Olive or Lucy, but it has much of their pungency and raw emotion. Women can be supportive and loving towards each other, but it’s often adversity (usually caused by their menfolks’ unreliability and errancy) that brings out the best in them.

Isabelle had been emotionally scarred by events in her youth, and the ensuing emotional rigidity, shame and guilt led her to recreate herself in a way that prevents others, including Amy, from establishing intimacy and trust with her.

This changes a little towards the end and Isabelle finds that confronting and telling the truth can be therapeutic. But for Amy it’s maybe too late for that.

Strout’s prose shows signs of the precision and incisiveness that developed so well in the later novels. Here’s a random example. The crisis that has damaged Amy’s relationship with her mother has happened, and its fragility has not stood up to the stress:

[Isabelle is watching through her window as Amy approaches the house] The sight of her pained Isabelle. It pained her terribly to see her, but why?

Because she looked unhappy, her shoulders slumped like that, her neck thrust forward, walking slowly, just about dragging her feet. This was Isabelle’s daughter; this was Isabelle’s fault. She hadn’t done it right, being a mother, and this youthful desolation walking up the driveway was exactly proof of that.

The free indirect style gives us insight into the turmoil and guilt in Isabelle’s mind. She has a flash of perception, realising she has turned her daughter into a version of her own unhappy, unfulfilled self. But then the paragraph shifts gear:

But then Amy straightened up, glancing toward the house with a wary squint, and she seemed transformed to Isabelle, suddenly a presence to be reckoned with. Her limbs were long and even, her breasts beneath her T-shirt seemed round and right, neither large or small, only part of some pleasing symmetry; her face looked intelligent and shrewd. Isabelle, sitting motionless in her chair, felt intimidated.

This is so well done. The narrative subtly reveals that Isabelle has misread the signs – Amy’s ‘wary squint’ sets off this new line of thought and tone.

It introduces the duplicity of Isabelle’s sadness and sense of failure; when Amy ‘straightens up’ – the image is also carefully chosen – Isabelle has a painful epiphany. Amy has transcended the neediness her mother has instilled in her. She has the confidence – sexual and personal – that Isabelle had suppressed. And she envies it – envies her daughter’s intelligence and shrewdness, her confident independence. No wonder she feels ‘intimidated’.

Isabelle isn’t a monster. Parents are supposed to want their children to outgrow their need for them – to rejoice when they fledge and leave the nest. But Strout has the honesty to show that they also harbour a selfish desire for their offspring to keep on needing them. Their independence makes the mother redundant, and reinforces her sense of her own shortcomings – her futility. The lessons and painful growth take place on both sides; the difference is that Amy will continue to grow.

This might sound a bit gloomy – Strout is too astute to leave it there. She gives signs that Isabelle is also learning about herself, and is maybe capable of an honesty with herself that she’d hitherto smothered – and it was this dishonesty that had kept her from living fully.

It takes a writer of great maturity and sensitivity to succeed in conveying all this without coming across as preaching or apportioning blame.

My previous Elizabeth Strout posts: Olive Kitteridge HERE

My Name is Lucy Barton HERE

 

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend. Virago paperback, 2019. First published in the US 2018

This is a lovely novel.

I read it in a single day while recuperating from a medical procedure, so didn’t feel up to a demanding read. This is an easy read, but it’s not facile or trite: in fact it’s very profound, and very moving.

Sigrid Nunez The Friend coverThe unnamed narrator closely resembles the author: she’s a writer, university teacher of English and creative writing, and resident of New York City. When a former lover and lifelong friend unexpectedly commits suicide, she inherits his harlequin great Dane. Reluctantly, for she’s a cat person, and dogs aren’t allowed in her apartment building.

The central thread of the narrative is about the grief she and the gentle giant of a dog share for their lost friend. At first the dog is bereft and distant, barely tolerating her. Gradually they find themselves consoling and supporting each other – she’d say they fall in love.

That might not sound too compelling a summary, but believe me, there’s so much more in this novel. The narrator refracts her thoughts and experience through the lens of literature: Virginia Woolf and many other writers on writing, promiscuity (her late friend was a thrice-married womaniser, but charismatic and brilliant, so gets away with most of his dubious philandering), being a flâneur, and life itself. And all of those simultaneously.

Writing, for example, involves ‘self-doubt, shame, self-loathing’, and leads to embarrassment for the author. An epigraph quotes Natalia Ginzburg: ‘You cannot hope to console yourself for your grief by writing.’ This novel perhaps disproves that notion.

She often reflects on JR Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip (on which I posted HERE). She adopts an intimate, conversational voice with the reader, aware early on that we’ll be worrying that ‘something bad happens to the dog’. Of course it does: Danes don’t live long. But she spares us the worst, and ends on an idyllic note, spending a happy time at a Long Island beach house with the elderly, ailing dog.

It’s an unusual form of autofiction. She often reflects, metafictionally, on the nature of her narrative, and of ‘fiction as autobiography, autobiography as fiction.’ And she’s not averse to poking fun at this kind of solipsism. A late chapter shifts dimensions and posits an alternative narrative, closer perhaps to ‘reality’, and upsets the living character on whom she’s based the dead friend and dog owner. He thinks she’s been presumptuous in purloining his story and disguising it slightly as fiction.

Maybe he had it coming.

‘It is curious,’ she suggests on this topic, ‘how the act of writing  leads to confession. Not that it doesn’t also lead to lying your head off.’

I like that demotic element in her style. She can talk like this while citing authors like Proust, Christa Wolf or Rilke. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace features quite largely. She’s skilful and intelligent enough to make it all cohere and entertain.

This literary allusion never became intrusive or ostentatious. She’s a literature professor, after all. Another American woman writer her fragmentary narrative approach reminds me of is Renata Adler – one of the most interesting I’ve read in recent years (my post on Speedboat is HERE.)

 

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt

Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt. Tinder Press, 2020. First published in the USA 2019

NemesiaBefore I write about this novel, I’d just like to mention some flowers that are blooming happily in our front garden. They have pretty little pink and white petals, but it’s their scent that’s most notable. It’s a cross between vanilla and coconut. The fragrance wafts over us when we sit outside: like being next to an ice-cream factory.

My sister-in-law passed American Dirt on to Mrs TD, who recommended it to me when she’d finished it. I found it almost painful to read, as the subject is so harrowing, but it’s compelling.

It begins with a massacre in Acapulco, Mexico – sixteen members of the Pérez family who’d gathered for a birthday party are murdered by cartel gangsters. It’s a reprisal for the newspaper articles about the enigmatic cartel jefe written by Lydia Pérez’s journalist husband. He’s one of the few who hasn’t been bribed or threatened into complicity with the cartel’s vicious hold on the city.

Cummins American Dirt coverLydia and her eight-year-old son are the only survivors. She knows the killers will come after them, so she has to take off. She and young Luca join the hordes of migrantes heading north from all parts of central America for the USA and comparative safety. They are fleeing from the murderous cartels and poverty.

The novel traces Lydia and Luca’s perilous journey across Mexico: much of the time they walk, but they also have to learn how to leap aboard the Bestia – the freight train that heads north.

Along the way they witness some terrible things. They also encounter the kindness of strangers, and the bonds of love that survive even during the most hellish of experiences. If it weren’t for these humane moments the novel would be unbearable.

I heard the author interviewed on a radio book programme recently. She was asked about the criticism that had been levelled against her for a kind of cultural appropriation; she’s not of Mexican heritage. In a note at the end of the novel she explains why she felt it incumbent on her to research this migrant crisis and write about it.

In 2017, when she was finishing the novel, a migrant died on the US-Mexican border every twenty-one hours. Many more simply disappear. There were forty thousand people reported missing across Mexico at the time of writing, and mass graves are regularly found. ‘Mexico was the deadliest country in the world to be a journalist’. No wonder so many ordinary people like Lydia and her little boy risk their lives to get away from such an awful situation.

Of course I’d heard news stories about the migrants, and felt sympathy for them. Then came the punitive, vindictive policies of the current US president and his crazed obsession with his infamous Wall.

One of the most moving moments in the narrative comes when Lydia recalls listening to those same reports on the radio as she cooked the family’s evening meal. As we all do, she pauses and thinks how terrible it is that human beings have to endure such hardship and suffering; Lydia then realises she’s out of garlic, and her sympathy is forgotten as she wonders how to cope with this minor domestic crisis.

As we fret about Covid, it’s sobering to read this searing story about the cruelty humans are capable of displaying, and heartening to be reminded that even in the worst possible environments, we’re also capable of generosity and loving kindness.

Every one of those migrants has a heartbreaking story like Lydia’s. They’re not the rapists, murderers and drug dealers that they’re depicted as by this heartless president. I think Jeanine Cummins has done us all a service in telling this story.

Surface and substance: Edith Wharton, The Reef

Edith Wharton, The Reef. Everyman’s Library, hardback, 1996. First published 1912

Anna Summers is a product of the convention-bound world of Old New York:

In the well-regulated, well-fed Summers world the unusual was regarded as either immoral or ill-bred, and people with emotions were not visited.

She’s aware of feelings and romantic aspirations deep inside her somewhere, but as a young woman under the influence of her parents and their prim social set, such stirrings would be considered improper. She has learned to regard ‘the substance of life’ as:

A mere canvas for the embroideries of poet and painter, and its little swept and fenced and tended surface as its actual substance. It was in the visioned region of action and emotion that her fullest hours were spent; but it hardly occurred to her that they might be translated into experience, or connected with anything likely to happen to a young lady living in West Fifty-fifth Street.

 Only love, she believes, could release her from ‘this spell of unreality,’ and construct ‘the magic bridge between West Fifty-fifth Street and life. George Darrow seems the ideal candidate: she feels an impulse of passion for him – but she’s incapable of indulging it, or to abandon the social poise and self-effacing tact so prized in her world. Darrow wants to kiss her, but she wants to talk to him about books and art. He turns to shallower, more compliant young women for dalliance, leaving Anna to berate herself for being so ‘cold’, such a ‘prude’. Being considered by envious mothers of such unbridled young women in her social set as a ‘model of lady-like repression’ is little consolation.

It’s difficult to say much about the subsequent plot without spoilers. On the rebound from Darrow, Anna marries another American, a dull, conventional bore called Leath. He takes her to live in a dismal French chateau that’s a ‘symbol of narrowness and monotony’. His widowed mother lives there with them, a representative of ‘the forces of order and tradition.’ Anna has chosen badly if she expected a fulfilled life. One set of desiccated conventions is replaced by another, older one.

Her trapped existence worsens: she’s desperately lonely and emotionally trammelled, even after the birth of her daughter. When her husband dies, Darrow re-enters her life after a twelve-year gap, and their romance seems set to resume – except this time she’s steeling herself to act more spontaneously, kindle her repressed sexuality, and not drive him away again with her unresponsiveness. Then all kinds of complications set in.

The title of the novel reveals that their love will not sail smoothly. The opening words indicate another kind of reef: ‘Unexpected obstacle.’ Anna has sent him a telegram just as he sets off by train from London to visit her in France. He’s frustrated and angry at yet another apparent snub from her. When a pretty young ingénue crosses his path, history repeats itself, and he turns (with rather cynical and calculated selfishness) to this natural, vibrant spirit, who acts with all the spontaneity, sensuality and joy of living that Anna so palpably fails to access or unleash in herself.

What follows is a slow-burning modern tragedy. Can love flourish when it hits the reef of distrust and infidelity? The more Darrow ducks and dives to avoid wrecking the fragile, sinking relationship with Anna, the more his lies and evasions smash her faith in him – and in love.

The Reef was much admired by Wharton’s friend Henry James, and it’s been described as her most Jamesian novel. It is, in the sense that there’s almost no surface ‘action’; the narrative consists largely of dialogue which the reader has to fathom delicately. Hardly anyone speaks their mind. True feeling is largely unspoken. All is (as Darrow himself puts it at one point), nuance. What lies beneath this apparently calm, sophisticated surface turns out to be the reef.

The first part of the novel is focalised on Darrow, and it’s his urbane world view that positions Anna as difficult and repressed. Then Anna’s consciousness takes centre stage (the novel has been filmed, though I haven’t seen it; it would lend itself, I’d have thought, to dramatization). I found myself sympathising increasingly with her as she struggled to overcome her inhibitions, to go with her instincts instead of her will for once, and to forgive Darrow his ‘moment of folly’, a ‘flash of madness’ with the young woman he’d met on his thwarted trip to visit Anna at the start of the novel.

She recoils from his glib self-justifications when he finally confesses. His masculine excuses are ‘a vision of debasing familiarity: it seemed to her that her thoughts would never again be pure.’

She wondered at his composure, his competence, at his knowing so exactly what to say. No doubt men often had to make such explanations: they had the formulas by heart… A leaden lassitude descended on her. She passed from flame and torment into a colourless cold world where everything surrounding her seemed equally indifferent and remote. For a moment she simply ceased to feel.

 Poor Anna. Just as she’d let go and started to allow herself to feel, he accuses her of being ‘too hard’ and ‘too fine’. The imminent wreck of their romance is all her fault, then. But the novel doesn’t end there.

I’ve just started reading Rosamond Lehmann’s 1953 novel The Echoing Grove; it looks set to chart similar reefs in the seas of sexual relations.

I’ve posted about nine other works of fiction by Edith Wharton: link HERE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crawdads, house martins and a Bentley

Another book recommendation from Mrs TD was Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens (Corsair paperback, 2019; first published in the US in 2018). I was sceptical when I started reading, thinking it was turning into a fictional misery-memoir/romantic murder mystery (not a particularly digestible mixture). Mrs TD said to persevere.

I did, and found myself enjoying it. The murder mystery is quite tightly plotted, and there’s a colourful depiction of Kya, the young protagonist whose abusive father drives all her siblings and even her loving mother away from their squalid shack in the middle of a North Carolina coastal swamp. When the father abandons her too, when she’s only about ten years old, she learns to fend for herself and develops a fierce independence, tempered by a fear of being taken in by the authorities. Their success in getting her briefly into a school teaches her only that she was right to be wary of ‘civilisation’.

The romantic part of the novel is a bit contrived, I thought. Kya is a sort of Little Mermaid figure, out of her element in the world of ordinary people, as they are in her world. They call her disparagingly ‘The Marsh Girl’, and spread rumours that she’s feral and dirty.

But she still falls in love with one of the young men from the nearby town, and he with her. As with the mermaid, their story is fraught with danger and difficulties. The complication involves another relationship that veers badly out of control for her.

The strongest aspect of the novel is the vivid realisation of the natural world Kya is so at ease in. Owens has previously published non-fiction in her role as a wildlife scientist in Africa – this is her first novel. Her naturalist’s expertise is well deployed without becoming too intrusive. She’s able to make the reader see and hear the birds, insects and other animal and vegetable life in the teeming, lush swamp.

Kya also reminds me of Mowgli, more at home among the wildlife than with humans. The gulls are her closest friends. The herons watch her with curiosity and fearlessness. The swamp creatures copulate with and eat each other with heedless abandon. Some of this (a little crudely) points up what’s going on in the human story.

I suppose it was an ideal escapist read for these trying times. I’m still struggling to engage with more demanding reading; this novel provided an insight into a completely different and unknown world.

The language often had me turning to Google: local terms like ‘hush puppies’ (not the uncool shoes), ‘po’boys’ and ‘crawdads’. These are crayfish, and the expression in the title about where they sing is a local saying for something like ‘over the rainbow’ or ‘back of beyond’, because of course crayfish don’t sing. I don’t think they do.

View from the country towards the cityJust to finish here’s a picture from my walk early this morning. The recent sunny weather has been replaced by grey and cloudy skies mostly for several days here in Cornwall. This is the view towards the city from a field a half mile or so from my house. You might just be able to see through the haze the spire of the cathedral, piercing the horizon in the middle of the picture. The Carvedras viaduct that I wrote about here recently is also just about visible towards the right.

Yesterday we made a rare trip to the supermarket to buy provisions for ourselves and an isolated neighbour. Only one person per household allowed in at a time, so I prowled the carpark while Mrs TD did the food shopping (we take it in turns). The timing was good: I saw the first house martins of the spring, two of them slicing the sky over the rooftops in scimitar swoops.

Also spotted in the carpark: a middle-aged man in rock-star shades parked an enormous blue Bentley. A few minutes later the young security guard who’d been supervising the socially-distanced queue walked up to the car, opened its doors with the keyfob remote, and started taking pictures with his phone camera. He told me he’d praised the car to the owner as he entered the store, and the guy handed over the keys and told him to go take a closer look. “Really?” the young man asked. “Sure,” said the man. “It’s only a car.”

This young man was so excited he FaceTimed a friend and filmed himself in front of the car, and sitting in its opulent leather seats. “It’s like driving your lounge,” he beamed at me. He couldn’t believe the owner could be so offhand about handing him the keys to this expensive car the size of a battleship. It made his day – and (with the house martins even more so) mine.

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.