There is something nasty about me. Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies

Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies Faber & Faber (2006; 20051)

This is the best Paul Auster novel I’ve read in a while. He’s on his most engaging form when he tells a gripping story with characters drawn with sympathy and insight, and that’s what he does for the most part (more on that later) in The Brooklyn Follies.

As the title suggests, the setting is his usual multicultural home ground in New York City. He specialises in characters who are damaged in some way, or with a flawed perception of themselves and others, and having to solve problems they are ill-equipped to deal with on their own. The foregrounded voice of our narrator, a retired life insurance salesman called Nathan, provides plenty of evidence of these features. He admits he was a bad husband to his wife (serial affairs – but then she did the same – and little effort to sustain the marriage) and bad father to his daughter Rachel, now grown up and with marital problems of her own.

After commuting daily throughout his working life from the suburbs into his Manhattan office, he’s now divorced, recovering from cancer, and looking to start a new life in Brooklyn, where he’d lived and been happy as a child. He upsets Rachel, who’d suggested he needed a ‘project’ to set him back on course. He bluntly rejected that advice and makes nasty remarks in relating this conversation about the platitudes with which she expresses herself:

Yes, I suppose there is something nasty about me at times.

But he can also be charming and empathetic, and wins her round, eventually. There’s always a hint, though, that he manipulates people with an edge of cynicism. I suppose that was one of his strengths as a life insurance salesman.

The plot is too complicated to summarise here. It centres upon his dropout nephew Tom, also lost in his own way in the metropolis. He’d ended up as a sales clerk in a second-hand bookshop run by a man who turns out to have a dubious and criminal past. He involves Tom, and in turn Nathan, in a convoluted scam that twists and turns in unexpected and unsettling ways that keep the reader invested in the fates of the main characters.

The interest is deepened by the role played by Lucy, Nathan’s nine-year-old niece. She’s smart, and has a winningly literal way of interpreting of words and language, and also the way people around her behave. When she enters the lives of Tom and Nathan, she has the effect, with her fascinating combination of naivete and no-nonsense insight, of causing them to reassess their situations and make things better.

I could see her as a grown woman developing into someone like Flora Post in Cold Comfort Farm. She has a similar resolving impact on the chaotic lives of those she comes into contact with, but without the prissiness.

That similarity also brings out one of the stronger features of this very readable novel: despite the twisting, plot-driven narrative, there’s always a whiff of humour and playfulness in the telling of this story.

On the down side, there are some of the rather more annoying aspects of Paul Auster’s approach to storytelling: the characters tend at times to become caricatures or types. The individuality and humanity so successfully built up and portrayed for the bulk of the time are undermined by these moments.

These traits didn’t ultimately spoil my enjoyment, though, of this stimulating and skilfully crafted, highly entertaining novel. And isn’t that one of the main reasons we read fiction? To be entertained, stimulated, maybe challenged and unsettled a little?

The only two novels posted on here (I read most of Auster’s earlier fiction pre-blog) are:

Mr Vertigo  – link HERE

Invisible – link HERE

 

Lives transformed: Keyserling and Tyler

June reading, part one. Two short novels about people whose lives are transformed through encounters with people who cause them to reassess the way they’ve been drifting complacently through life until then.

Eduard von Keyserling, Waves Translated from the German by Gary Miller (Dedalus European Classics, 2019. 19111

I came across the fiction of Eduard von Keyserling a few years ago when I followed the excellent translation by Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List of an earlier work of Keyserling’s, Schwüle Tage or Sultry Days. Tony recommended Waves as a good place to continue exploring the work of this author. He was born in 1855 (he died in 1918) in a German-speaking duchy in present-day Latvia (a region then part of the Russian empire)

In the introduction to the book Miller makes the point that Keyserling forms a link between nineteenth century realism and twentieth century modernism in literature; his work is sometimes described as ‘literary impressionism’. Keyserling was a rather odd-looking, sickly aristocrat…whose books are largely about German aristocracy before the First World War; although limited in scope his depiction of these social elites [was] not uncritical.

(Adapted from Jonathan’s Intermittencies of the Mind blog 2019)

The intimate tranquillity of an aristocratic family’s holiday by the Baltic Sea is broken by the arrival of a controversial couple. Beautiful Doralice has left her stuffy, elderly husband, Count Köhne-Jasky; he was bending her into the shape he expected a dutiful, compliant countess to be, and this was stifling her. So she’s eloped with the bohemian artist who’d been (rather foolishly) commissioned by the count to paint his wife’s portrait. Shades of My Last Duchess.

Her impact on the extended family of Generalin von Palikow is seismic. There’s her two grown-up daughters: one has a philandering military husband and two impressionable teenage children; the other is joined by her (also military) fiancé – he too has a wandering eye. They all fall under the spell of Doralice, in various ways. Keyserling dramatizes the shockwaves she causes in their lives and relationships so that the fissures and faults in the aristocratic society of the time – this is set just before WWI – with subtlety and psychological insight. It’s notable that both military men will almost certainly be swallowed up in the horrors of the war that they don’t realise is about the break out and finish the job of destroying their crumbling aristocratic lives for ever.

The character of Doralice evolves from that of trophy wife (and second wife) into that of a proto-feminist. She comes to realise that her free-thinking new partner, the artist, instead of encouraging her to rejoice in her newly liberated self, is moulding her into his perception of a wife, just as her ex-husband tried to do. Frying pan to fire, perhaps.

The disabled neighbouring holidaymaker, Knospelius, is a witty, perceptive chorus to these goings-on. He sees more clearly than the participants in this drama what dangerous games they’re playing. He’s obviously an avatar of Keyserling himself – a sad, lonely figure, excluded from the main dance.

Thanks to Tony for the excellent recommendation.

Anne Tyler, Redhead by the Side of the Road, (Chatto and Windus, London, 2020)

I think this is the first novel by American author AT that I’ve read. I liked the film of her earlier novel, The Accidental Tourist. The central character there, as in Redhead, has a quirkly, whimsical air, darkened by melancholy and pain.

It’s opening is typical of the lucid, fluent style of the novel, and the engaging, button-holing narrative voice:

You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.

He’s a reclusive, obsessively tidy man; it’s no surprise that he makes a living as a fixer of people’s computer/IT problems – he calls himself the Tech Hermit. His buttoned-up character is evident in both his rigid housekeeping routines and his relationships – to the detriment of his love life. He always finds fault with the women he’s with; it’s as if he can’t reboot them when he sees them as having gone wrong, so he moves on.

His present girlfriend, Cass, lives in her own apartment. Micah likes his own space. His tranquillity is shattered when a young man shows up at his door and says he’s the son of one of his ex-girlfriends and needs a place to stay. This leads to a reunion with the boy’s mother. Revelations about how and why Micah broke up with her cause him to take stock of himself.

Like the aristocratic families holidaying by the Baltic, he comes to question what he really values and wants in life.

This novel is less substantial than Waves, which is really about a decaying way of life for a whole social class in central Europe at the time it’s set. This one is more a portrait of a single man and his propensity for emotional evasion. I suppose he also represents, in a less complex way than Keyserling’s characters, the ways modern society has atomised, and people have tended to become less adept at what is required to maintain emotionally healthy relationships. Maybe a less profound or amibitious novel than Keyserling’s, but both are well worth reading.

Oh, and that enigmatic title? Micah’s unwavering routine involves going for a run every morning. Because he doesn’t wear glasses or lenses when he runs, he doesn’t see too well, and regularly mistakes a fire hydrant near his home for the roadside redhead. Another of his misperceptions about women.

New York noir: Paul Auster, Invisible

Paul Auster, Invisible (Faber, 2009) I must have bought this hardback edition when it came out in the UK at a time when I was still enthusiastic about Auster’s fiction. Since then, I’ve had disappointing experiences with his work (so much so that I haven’t posted about them here – except for one, noted below). This, however, is one of his better efforts – despite some over-fussy tricksiness that has become rather a cliché in his narrative approach.

The first part, for example, is a first-person narrative in the voice of the protagonist, Adam Walker, a second-year undergrad at Columbia, NYC, and an aspiring poet. It’s 1967, and he meets at a party a fascinating but sinister Franco-German professor of politics called Rudolf Born (that’s another of PA’s not-so-subtle mannerisms: the suggestive names), and his lovely partner, Margot. This being Auster, Adam is angelically handsome (like his sister), Born is terrifyingly clever (and worryingly bigoted and a tad aggressive and sarcastic), while beautiful Margot is a bit of a cipher in the role of sort-of femme fatale.

Born makes Adam an unlikely offer of literary work. The young man, who has reservations about Born’s motives, is naïve and ambitious enough to accept. He has the inevitable and over-signposted affair with Margot (who’s ten years older than him, so even more of a young man’s fantasy figure), and then things go decidedly pear-shaped. Adam’s sense of morality is severely tested.

The second part, as our narrator intrusively points out, is in the second person – a device that doesn’t really work here. Adam has gone to Paris, and the plot with Born and Margot becomes even more noirish. The third part, set thirty years later, has a different (third-person) narrator. Here most of the loose ends of the unlikely plot are tied up. The final part is focused on one of the Parisian characters Adam had met, who has now also become entangled in Born’s schemes.

Invisible is almost a success. It’s quite an exciting (if highly implausible and over-crafted) plot, and there are some genuine, quite shocking surprises and revelations. This managed to hold my attention sufficiently not to give up. I found the foregrounded artifice off-putting. It all became a bit too ‘See how cleverly I deploy the post-modern tropes, while keeping a complex story on course?’

Interesting, then, and entertaining, but not great. And Adam Walker, as his name is perhaps meant to suggest, is just too pedestrian and plodding. Like the demonic Born and most of the women characters, he’s two-dimensional.

Invisible is nevertheless more rewarding than the only other Auster novel I’ve posted on here at TDays: Mr Vertigo.

 

Zurich, Salzburg and Vienna; Hustvedt, Cather, Bulgakov

This month’s reading has again been reduced by pressures of work, but also by travel. With Mrs TD I went to Vienna for a few days, stopping off en route (all by train – a great way to travel and see the snow-covered mountains close up) at Zurich and Salzburg for a few days each. Good to see memorials in these places to the artists who’d lived there: James Joyce in Zurich; in the same city The Cabaret Voltaire, where the founders of Dadaism used to meet, was empty and boarded up, unfortunately.

Salzburg was also where Stefan Zweig lived for some years; his villa sits high on a hill overlooking the city, and there’s a bronze bust of him nearby. I’ve posted here on two of his novels, both of which I enjoyed: The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity. Mozart is of course associated with Salzburg, his birthplace, and Vienna, where he lived and worked.

There we managed only a few of the many museums and galleries – Klimt and the other artists of the early 20C were our prime targets, but we also made a point of going to the Sigmund Freud museum. This is where he and his family lived, and where he developed his theories of psychoanalysis on the basis of the clients he saw and treated (is that the right word?) there.

Now for the month’s reading:

Siri Hustvedt, What I Loved Sceptre, 2016; 20031

I nearly abandoned this during the first third, but then it picked up and I finished it. I can’t say I really liked it, though. A New York art critic (whose wife is a literary critic) and an avant garde artist (whose wife is a poet – you see the basis of my resistance to this novel) become friends. There are too many high-octane discussions involving art theory, literary theory, philosophy, and long descriptions of the artist’s work, and these tend to clog the narrative. Even when the plot picks up as their respective sons grow up and problems arise, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm for the proceedings.

Willa Cather, My Ántonia VMC no.22, 1990; 19181

I got on with this one far better – at least, for its first third. Here we get the fascinating story of a young man’s journey west from Virginia to the vast empty plains of Nebraska, to live with his paternal grandparents after the death of his parents. On the journey he meets the Shimerda family, which includes Ántonia (the stress is on the first syllable). They’re from what Cather calls Bohemia, and only Ántonia speaks much English.

She and her family become the narrator Jim’s pioneer farming neighbours, and a firm friendship grows up between them. There are some great anecdotes along the way: Jim kills a huge snake, two Russian neighbours are said to have been involved in a gruesome sleigh journey beset by wolves…

The final two thirds dragged more. The central characters become adults and go their different ways. The lure of the town introduces tensions in the friendships of the various young women and men, and some of them struggle to maintain equilibrium. You’d expect the plot to involve a romance between the two central characters, but Cather avoids doing this. I’m not sure she pulls off what she does try to do with them. It’s a good read, though.

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Fatal Eggs Alma Classics, 2020; 19251. Translated by Roger Cockrell.

A satire on early Soviet Russian ineptitude and bureaucracy that taps into the sort of dystopian sci-fi of an author Bulgakov admired: HG Wells. The plot bears some resemblance to The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and The Food of the Gods (1904). As in these two novels, the plot involves demonstrating the disasters that can ensue when scientists play god and dabble with the ways of nature. In that respect it also owes a debt to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. For my various posts on this seminal gothic novel there’s a link HERE.

Professor Persikov is an eminent zoologist who accidentally discovers a light ray that stimulates and accelerates fertility in the creatures on which he’s experimenting. When agents of the state hear about the remarkable results, they want to exploit the possibilities of his discovery by using his techniques to increase productivity of animals bred for food. Being inept and bureaucratic, they make blunders, and all sorts of mayhem follows.

The satire is fairly heavy-handed, but the narrative rattles along at a pleasing pace, and there’s some wry dark humour (and some gruesome retribution from the animal world – as in Frankenstein).  The novella is just over a hundred pages long, so can be enjoyed easily in a couple of sittings.

I’ve posted on several of the titles in this Alma Classics set of Bulgakov’s fiction:

The Master and Margarita

 The White Guard

 A Young Doctor’s Notebook

Another satire on unethical scientists, A Dog’s Heart

 

 

Williams, Mantel, Bulgakov: buffalo, sad cases and chimeras

More recent reading.

John Williams, Butcher’s Crossing (Vintage, 2014; 19601) A very different, more brutal and elemental novel from the author of Stoner. Young Will Andrews travels west to Kansas, to the prairie buffalo-hunters’ town (aptly) named in the title, after three years at Harvard, to escape the urbane conformity of eastern civilisation in search of his ‘unalterable self’ in the wilderness. His Ahab-like quest also becomes a sort of Heart of Darkness trip: Miller, a seasoned, gritty hunter-trapper who knows this wild territory better than anyone, takes him and two other troubled men deep into the unmapped country in search of a legendary secret valley in the Colorado Rockies where, ten years earlier, he’d stumbled upon a huge herd of buffalo.

These animals had been hunted almost to extinction everywhere else. The railroad is rumoured to be coming to Butcher’s Crossing, and the old ways of life are doomed. What follows is a harrowing account of hardship and bloodshed. The group of hunters is pushed to the limits of endurance by the land and the elements. Will’s life, he realises, has been changed irrevocably. As in reading Moby-Dick, it’s apparent something allegorical is going on. I’m not quite sure what, but it’s perhaps something to do with our species pretensions, humanity’s obsession with cynical, destructive domination of the eco-system, and the thinness of our veneer of sophistication compared with the wild things we exterminate. We are, after all, poor, bare, forked animals ourselves.

It’s a beautifully written novel, but the hunting scenes are not for the squeamish.

Hilary Mantel, A Change of Climate (Penguin, 1995; 19941) The settings in placid, rural Norfolk and violent apartheid-era South Africa and Bechuanaland underpin this moving family drama. Ralph Eldred runs a charitable homeless refuge in London, and his family take social outcasts (‘sad cases’ or ‘good souls’) into their own home. But an oppressive paternal back story and a tragic event when he and his wife when first married were missionaries in Africa haunts him and, indirectly, his growing family back in East Anglia in 1980. Beneath the benign surface of this loving, caring ménage there is hopelessness, betrayal, passion and suffering. The novel is a bit short on events in the English-set sections, but it’s a gripping, sensitively constructed portrait of a damaged family who try to do good, to find fulfilment, perhaps love, but the dark secrets keep obtruding.

I’ve posted on two other Mantel novels here at the Days: Beyond Black and An Experiment in Love, both with modern settings (link HERE) – very different from her now more famous historical trilogy. Her range and artistry are impressive. She’ll be much missed.

Mikhail Bulgakov, A Dog’s Heart (Alma Classics) I’m slowly working my way through this bargain set from Alma books of the Ukrainian doctor and author (1891-1940). This novella was first published in 1925, but was confiscated by the Soviet government and banned for its anti-revolutionary satire (like most of his other writings). A cultured scientist-surgeon coaxes a stray street mutt, Sharik (= Fido) back to his home, an apartment larger than most of his fellow Muscovites’, using tasty sausage as the bait. His motives are not entirely charitable. What follows is a kind of spin on the Frankenstein story. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that he’s experimenting with human-animal chimera surgery. Poor, streetwise Sharik becomes a wisecracking, boorish man-monster. Although he displays some of the traits of a civilised person, his dog nature can’t be suppressed, and he behaves very badly. Local cats and the professor’s maid are particularly vulnerable. When he starts spouting anti-bourgeois clichés it’s easy to see why the regime banned this novella. (This was the turbulent period of the ‘new economic policy’, instigated by Lenin and continued in 1924 by Stalin to try to revive the failing post-revolution economy by relaxing laws forbidding private enterprise, and promoting a kind of diluted state-sanctioned capitalism. Maybe our recent and not lamented disaster of a Prime Minister, Liz Truss, was inspired by this book…)

My brief summary perhaps indicates that it’s not the most subtle of satires – but it still has some bite.

I posted on Bulgakov’s best-known novel, The Master and Margarita, HERE, and The White Guard HERE.

In another of these recent reading roundups I posted briefly on A Young Doctor’s Notebook (link HERE).

Boogie-toed prankster: Paul Auster, Mr Vertigo

Paul Auster, Mr Vertigo. Faber and Faber, 2006. First published 1994

I took this novel with me on a long journey recently. I nearly gave up after 30 pages, because the style and subject-matter were so implausible and grating. I had no other reading matter to hand, so persevered. Although the later parts of the novel showed sporadic signs of improvement, I was still left unimpressed by the end.

Paul Auster Mr Vertigo cover The central character is the whimsically named orphan Walter Rawley, just nine years old at the start of the narrative, and a wise-cracking street-smart hustler in St Louis in the 1920s. He’s taken under the wing of Master Yehudi, a theatrically flamboyant Brooklyn-Hungarian Jewish showman, and another unrealistic figure in a novel in which none of the characters bears any resemblance to a flesh-and-blood human.

Yehudi sees potential in this scruffy kid – he says he’ll teach him to fly. So the first third or so of the novel describes the gruelling ‘training’ process to which he subjects Walt. Not surprisingly, he does learn to levitate, and then to perform aerial acrobatics, developing his skills under his enigmatic master’s tutelage. Yehudi himself seems to possess preternatural powers, either satanic or shamanic (is that a word?)

Their plan is to take Walt’s act on the road. He’s to perform in country fairs in backwoods mid-America. Disaster strikes early on, and their plans change. As Walt becomes famous, playing ever larger venues, another catastrophe alters the direction of his life, and the plot veers off in even more implausible directions.

I’ve nothing against magic in fiction. Barbara Comyns employs levitation as a central feature in The Vet’s Daughter (link to my post HERE), but her idiosyncratic approach creates her own kind of surreal suburban gothic that works more successfully than Paul Auster’s novel because it has an air of almost childlike naivety that counterpoints the weirder stuff.

The tangy vernacular style Auster deploys in Walt’s dialogue is intended I think to endear him to the reader; he’s a sort of potty-mouthed Huck Finn, wiser than his years in one sense, but childlike and vulnerable in others. But this doesn’t convince me. He is often callous and cruel (although much of this behaviour, like his casual racism, is a product of his background and era). Unlike my response to Comyns’ heroine, I didn’t really care what happened to him, because he never truly became a fully rounded character.

Here’s a fairly typical random sample of Walt’s narrative voice (for we learn near the end that it is indeed supposed to be Walt himself who’s writing this book), just after he’d arrived at Yehudi’s remote country shack early in the novel:

I was a city boy who had grown up with jazz in his blood, a street kid with his eye on the main chance, and I loved the hurly-burly of crowds, the screech of trolley cars and the throb of neon, the stink of bootleg whiskey trickling in the gutters. I was a boogie-toed prankster, a midget scatman with a quick tongue and a hundred angles, and there I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, living under a sky that brought only weather – nearly all of it bad.

Walt is just too sassy and cynical to ring true. He’s only nine at this point, remember, yet he comes across like a Raymond Chandler PI. I concede that the convention is that this is the voice of Walt 68 years later, writing his own life story, so he’s projecting his mature sensibility into that of himself as a kid. Auster has always been fond of this kind of postmodern playfulness, but did it so much more interestingly in, say, the excellent New York Trilogy (1987).

I read most of his novels pre-blog, and have to say that the quality was decidedly patchy. He never again matched the quality of that trilogy. I enjoyed the first two films based on or scripted by him, however: ‘Smoke’ and ‘Blue in the Face’ (both 1995).

I daresay the Artful Dodger could be described as a cockney forerunner of Walt, but to my mind Dickens is far more skilful in conveying the faults, motivation, inner vulnerability and charm of his character than Auster is with Walt.

Another more successful literary depiction of magic and the supernatural is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. In my post about it I cited Robert McCrum’s description of it in his ‘Hundred Best Novels’ series of articles. He emphasised how it’s much more than a charming fantasy: it’s about a repressed, disregarded woman’s quest for personal freedom and for meaning in her life – without being beholden to any man, religion or social class or institution. (Link to my post HERE).

 

 

 

 

 

Edith Wharton, Madame de Treymes

Edith Wharton, Madame de Treymes. VMC 1984

 Madame de Treymes is in fact the third of three novellas or long short stories in this handsome VMC edition that I found in a second-hand bookshop recently. There’s a strong theme connecting all four stories: a difficult moral choice that a character makes that can – and does – change not only their own life, but those of others they’re connected with.

Wharton Mme de Treymes cover

The cover shows a detail of a typically lovely ‘Portrait’ by James Tissot

In The Touchstone (1900) a hard-up, not very bright young man needs to find cash quickly if he’s to be able to marry the woman he loves. The only asset he has will require him to sully the reputation of a famous woman novelist who once loved him. Can he sell his soul, by publishing this famous woman’s most intimate letters to him, in order to achieve his romantic dream? And if he does, how does he salve his conscience and explain his guilty caddishness to his new, now enriched, wife?

A similar dilemma faces the young woman protagonist of Sanctuary (1903). She’s unthinkingly content with the prospect of marriage to her wealthy fiancé – a man who’s inherited his family wealth after the untimely death of his profligate elder brother. She’s forced to start taking life seriously and to snap out of her trance of unreflecting complacency when he tells her how his brother besmirched the family honour and they covered it (and hushed it) up. Should she break off the engagement – her first instinct – or take on this morally compromised man and ensure that any child of theirs has her more ethically sound guidance? And if that child grows up in the morally flawed image of his father, how should she deal with him?

The title story, Madame de Treymes (1907) has a very Henry James ambience. A wealthy, somewhat innocent American, John Durham, is in Paris and wants to marry the woman he’s long been in love with since they were friends years ago back home, but he’d lost her when she married a (stereotypically decadent) French aristocrat. She’s now almost free again: her errant husband’s affairs became too obvious and she’s obtained a legal separation. It’s apparent that she regrets this degrading episode in her life, and reciprocates her former friend’s feelings.

But there’s a problem: her aristocratic in-laws are dead against divorce; it’s against their religion (they’re Catholic) and, more importantly, their centuries-old class traditions. If she wants to marry her American she’ll have to give up her eight-year-old son to his corrupt father. Their only hope is for Durham to solicit the aid of the only one of her husband’s relatives who’s ever shown sympathy and affection for her: the Mme de Treymes of the story’s title.

She’s very much in the mould of some of HJ’s more nefariously complicated, morally compromised European women aristocrats in abrasive contact with ingenuous Americans. She seems to offer friendship and a way out of the dilemma, but then changes tack and manipulatively poses an even more horrible dilemma for Durham.

Bunner Sisters (published 1916, written 1896) is different from the other three stories in that it deals with the straitened lives of two women who barely scratch out a living in a shabby part of New York, running a tiny shop that sells tawdry items they’ve made themselves. They live in a tiny room behind the shop. Life is passing them by.

Then a chance encounter brings a man into their lives. Ann Eliza, the older, more staid sister, bought a clock from him as a gift for her sister, and he seems as lonely as the two sisters. They establish a kind of friendship. Self-centred Evelina, the younger, more superficially attractive sister, seems to be the object of his growing affection. Things don’t turn out so neatly, though. This man isn’t all that he seems. Self-sacrifice doesn’t necessarily bring the rewards expected.

As in the other stories, heart-breaking moral dilemmas beset these two helpless, inexperienced women, clinging on to their meagre livelihood by their fingernails, desperate for love and hopelessly vulnerable.

There’s a certain formulaic structure to the stories, and some stock situations and characters (self-sacrifice; moral dilemmas), which perhaps my brief outlines above have indicated. Edith Wharton is always a deeply satisfying author, however, and even with less exalted fiction like this there are rich rewards for the reader.

Here’s an example, chosen at random, of the archly satirical narrative voice that’s so adept at skewering hypocrisy and pomposity. In The Touchstone we’re told about the woman novelist who’d loved the protagonist (Glennard), who went on to betray her by publishing her letters to him.

When they met she had just published her first novel, and Glennard, who afterward had an ambitious man’s impatience of distinguished women, was young enough to be dazzled by the semi-publicity it gave her. It was the kind of book that makes elderly ladies lower their voices and call each other “my dear” when they furtively discuss it…

I found the final story, about the two sisters, the most affecting and original, the most deeply felt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Invisible woman: Elizabeth Strout, Oh William!

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William! (Viking, 2021)

Not the most inspiring of titles. Its novelist narrator, who we met in My Name is Lucy Barton (links below to other posts on ES novels), tells us more about the events in that earlier novel. For example, that her hospital stay in New York was for a real – and serious – condition, and her estranged, damaged mother really did visit her. She might also have loved her equally damaged daughter, Lucy. Just couldn’t say or show it. Or act upon it.

Elizabeth Strout Oh William! cover There’s more of that kind of thing in Oh William! Here the slender plot has to do with Lucy’s ex-husband, the hapless William, who was (still is) a serial adulterer. Most of his actions cause Lucy to utter the exclamation in the (silly) title. Usually out of exasperation, sometimes pity (maybe even love).

She exclaims in similar ways about others, including herself. Life exasperates her. The cruel, deprived upbringing she told about in Lucy Barton is alluded to in order to account for her present diffidence, her sense of not belonging in the world, and lack of self worth – even as she nears William’s age, 70. She says several times she feels ‘invisible’. ‘What a strange thing life is.’

Strout is able to pull off these banal expressions as Lucy’s only available means of articulating her profound, turbulent emotions. The narrative is told from her viewpoint, and it’s colloquial and idiomatic like that all the time (she’s very fond – overfond – of ‘is what I mean’ after an attempt to explain something). But that’s not to say it lacks complexity or depth. She’s more George Herbert (without the spirituality) than John Donne.

After her various scrapes with William as he tries to find out the truth of his own troubled past in rural Maine, she feels close to him, even sad they divorced, but validated that they did. More to the point, she learns a bit more about herself and her dislocated sensibility. On almost the final page she repeats ‘Oh William!’, then goes on:

don’t I mean Oh Lucy! Too? Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves!

Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do.

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.

Other posts here at T Days on ES novels:

My Name is Lucy Barton HERE

 Amy & Isabelle HERE

Olive Kitteridge HERE

 

Occupied San Francisco, atom bombs and lost words

It’s been a while since my last post – busy with work. So this will be a catch-up on recent things.

First crocus

This was the first crocus to appear in a pot in our garden, taken on 28 Jan

 Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle. PMC, 2001; first published 1962. I bought this during the presidency of the last incumbent, now just a nightmare memory (or will he return?). It looked for a while like he was going to make this counterfactual story come true. The plot involves a post-WWII America in which the Nazi – Japanese axis powers won the war. The Japanese occupy the ‘Pacific States’ zone, the Germans hold the eastern zone, with a buffer zone in the mid-west.

I’ve read very little sci-fi/fantasy, but I suppose this falls more into the category of speculative fiction – like Len Deighton’s SS GB, or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America – both of which I found entertaining but not entirely satisfactory. As with most good sci-fi the genre lends itself to some fierce critical insights into the ‘real’ world of our time.

The title refers to a weirdly postmodern novel-within-the novel which tells an alternative counterfactual history of the war: this time the allies defeated the Nazis, but what followed isn’t in line with what ‘really’ happened. I rather liked this head-spinning reflexiveness. The author, rather like the Wizard of Oz, turns out to be much less than his grandiose ‘high castle’ solitude and anonymity would suggest.

I’d seen a couple of episodes of the TV series on Amazon, but gave up on it. It’s similar to but different from the novel, and much less interesting.

Daffodils and blossom

These daffodils and early blossom have appeared in a local park, taken two days ago

 Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows. Bloomsbury, 2009. Kamila Shamsie’s 2017 novel Home Fire was one of my favourite books of last year (brief post about it here). This one came even more highly recommended, but I found it slightly less impressive. It still packs a powerful emotional punch.

It begins in Nagasaki, 1945. A young Japanese woman survives the bomb, and the rest of the novel traces her subsequent life. She travels to India, then to Istanbul and post-partition Pakistan. Much of the central plot involves her teenage son’s reckless flirtation with some of the forces of violence in this turbulent part of the world. Oddly enough, given this dramatic subject matter, I found the central part of the novel flagged rather, though it picked up in the last part, and developed a tension almost as unbearable as that in Home Fires.

Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words cover Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words. I just returned this to the library, so don’t have publication details to hand. It’s similar in some ways to Eley Williams’ The Liar’s Dictionary (brief mention of this one at the same link as above). Both novels involve words that didn’t make it into a major dictionary.

In this one the central character is Esme. As a little girl she likes to hide and play under the table at which the eminent scholar-lexicographers edit the ‘slips’ – small pieces of paper on which the words and entries about them are written and then filed in the pigeon-holes ready for collation and publication in the Oxford English Dictionary. There are colourful depictions of the famous editor, James Murray, his family, and many of those involved in the making of the dictionary, and of the long struggle to get to the end of the project that took nearly fifty years to finish. In a way it never did. It was first mooted in 1857, work began a few years later, and the last fascicle was published in 1928. Supplements and updates have been appearing since. I use the online edition all the time, and have referred to it often in this blog.

The ‘lost words’ collected by Esme begin (significantly, given its meaning) with the slip for ‘bondmaid’, which she finds under the table, dropped by one of the editors. She hides it away in a secret trunk, and over the following years builds up a large collection of her own. This becomes a sort of feminist alternative to the venerable (and patriarchal) OED. Esme’s words are culled from her visits to the covered market in Oxford: the taboo words, slang and vernacular of the women who were denied a place at high table, even if they did eventually get admitted to the universities.

This feminist angle is the strongest part of the novel. It culminates in the grand dinner held in 1928 to celebrate its completion. Several women, including Esme and two of Murray’s daughters, had been key members of the editorial team; many of the public who contributed words and citations – including Esme’s beloved aunt Ditte – were also women. None of them were allowed to attend this august, all-male event. A few were allowed in the gallery to look down at the men eating and drinking.

Not surprisingly the novel includes forays into the suffragist movement, and shows Esme’s awakening to the cause of rights for women – and the working classes who were also excluded from the privileges of the male elite. There’s a rather tedious romantic sub-plot, and some tragedy.

The research intruded too much into the narrative for my taste. The issues, despite their worthiness, dominated the characterisation. I’d have been better off reading a non-fiction account. I’d recommend Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne (1998), about one of the more unusual contributors to the OED, and The Meaning of Everything (2003) by the same author.

Laurel berries

According to my plant identifier app these are Japanese laurel berries. Wonderful colours and texture.

As I write this we’re being battered here in Cornwall by storm Eunice. I had to take down my new bird feeder pole, fearing it would be torn up and become a flying spear. The birds are gathering, confused, in our magnolia tree and keep looking reproachfully and hungrily up at our windows.

I’ll place throughout this post a few pictures taken recently showing the first stirrings of spring in the area.

 

 

 

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer, Corsair paperback, 2016. First published in the USA, 2015

This is the harrowing story of the fall of Vietnam to the communist forces, and what followed. The ignominious evacuation of Saigon – a corrupt regime propped up by equally dodgy American military and covert forces fled in scenes realised dramatically here – was mirrored this summer in Kabul. Only those influential or rich enough to bribe their way onto the last planes to leave the airport made it – and not all of them survived.

Nguyen Sympathizer cover The narrative is in the form of a confession to his captors by a self-confessed ‘mole’, a communist spy embedded at the highest level of the Vietnamese military as it struggled to delay the inevitable collapse of the former colonial government. At the onset he emphasises his dual or split nature – an image that looms very significantly at the novel’s end.

He can sympathize with both sides of the conflict: his mother was Vietnamese, his father a French priest. He’s therefore seen with suspicion by the natives of the country he was born and brought up in, but equally by the Americans (he was educated in an American university and speaks perfect English) and Europeans.

The narrator’s final epiphany is breathtaking. The Sympathizer was a worthy winner of the Pulitzer in 2016. It was perhaps a little too long for my taste, and some of the scenes of violence, torture and rape are unpleasant, and I’m not sure they needed to be quite so graphically detailed. The novel packs a serious punch – but I can’t really say that ultimately I enjoyed it. Admired, perhaps.

On reflection I think it was partly the narrative voice that put me off, as well as the content, and excessive length (just short of 500 pp). There’s a whiff of the hard-bitten noir style of the Chandler school. This is in keeping with the covert nature of the mole’s life, his task to pose as something he’s not, which has the effect of creating for him an existential dilemma. Like a tough, embittered Chandler hero, he inhabits a nasty world in which nobody can be trusted or taken at face value, and he’s haunted by the victims of his duplicity.

The satiric section of the novel depicting the narrator’s role in the making of Coppola’s epic Vietnam film ‘Apocalypse Now’ was one of the best parts of the novel. He tries (and fails) to persuade the ‘auteur’ director to portray the Vietnamese characters as something more than ciphers – and pays a heavy price for his efforts.

I’ve started reading a Hardy novel – The Trumpet Major – in an attempt to break this run of unsuccessful reading experiences.