“How is it you keep ending up in the middle of everything?”

The End of Everything, by Megan Abbott

I last read Megan Abbott back in 2008. Die a Little was a solid slice of 50′s-style noir and an exploration of the darkness lurking under the suburban dream.

It wasn’t original, when isn’t there darkness lurking under the suburban dream? Originality though is overrated. Die a Little was good, and that’s much more important.

The End of Everything is set during an indeterminate 1980s summer. We’re back in the suburbs, and 13 year old Lizzie is about to find her world turned inside out when her best friend Evie goes missing. What follows is a claustrophobic heat-haze of adolescent anxiety and desire as Lizzie inserts herself ever-more into Evie’s home and into the police investigation into her disappearance.

Abbott

Like most adolescents Lizzie doesn’t get on that well with her (single-parent) mother. She’d rather live next door, she’d rather be Evie’s sister and live with Evie’s glamorous older sister Dusty, and with Evie’s father, Mr Verver, who is fun and cool and who Lizzie has a bit of a crush on.

Mr Verver isn’t like the other adults, he’s not boring. He’s mischievous, full of laughter, he plays boardgames with the kids and cheats openly and outrageously, he teases Dusty about her boyfriends and their shy hopes to get further with her than she’ll let them. He’s the nicest man Lizzie knows. She’d give anything to be in Evie’s place, to live with Dusty and Mr Verver.

All I could think was how wondrous it was—oh, the two of them. Everyone wanted to fall under their enchantment, her gaze hard and appraising, his so soft, so welcoming.

That was how it was in that house, and there was so much fun to be had. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I remember thinking—was it just five days ago?—to talk about boys with Mr. Verver? To play Uno with Evie for hours and watch Dusty try on her pastel dresses and listen to music with Mr. Verver until dawn?

With Evie gone though the laughter’s gone too. Mrs Verver is upstairs sedated, rarely seen. Mr Verver spends his days desperately hoping for some word from the police, some clue to what happened. There’s an Evie shaped hole in his house, a hole Lizzie could perhaps fit into. Evie and Lizzie were so close after all that they were almost the same person, or at least looked they were.

We shared everything, our tennis socks and stub erasers, our hair elastics and winter tights. We were that close. Sometimes we blinked in time.

Back in second, third grade, all the parents always saying, Do the dance, do the dance. The first time was at the tap recital. “Me and My Shadow,” in our matching silver leotards and shiny top hats, our hair the same muddy color, the baby curls sprayed to shellac by Madame Connie, our teacher. Then everyone made us do it again and again, at birthday parties, on Easter. A hundred times in the Verver basement, my living room, at school, step-shuffle-back-step, step-shuffle-back-step. Over and over, cheeks painted red. Until I grew two inches and Evie’s hair went dark and finally we never did that dance again.

But I bet I still could do it. I bet I could do it right now. These things, though, they end.

At 13 you’re still a child, but perhaps no longer entirely so. Lizzie and Evie used to have no secrets, but adolescence changes you, it gives you things to be secret about. It lets you see things you used not to, and gives you new things to want.

“He was rubbing on you like it was Boy Scout camp,” Evie said later. “Like if he rubbed hard enough he could start that fire, get that merit badge.”

Arguably that’s not actually an apposite quote for this bit of the blog, but I found it too funny not to include.

Lizzie remembers a car following her and Evie the last time they were together, and when she tells the police it’s the first real clue they’ve had. Lizzie’s briefly at the investigation’s heart, and soon after she’s searching her memory for any other clues she might have forgotten that she can throw out and in doing so make herself all the more important, all the more the thin chain of hope linking Mr Verver to the possibility of Evie being found. She’s at Mr Verver’s all the time now, comforting him, chasing memories, so often present that Dusty starts to resent her.

As so often, what’s interesting here isn’t the crime, what happened to Evie and whether she’s alive or not. What’s interesting is Lizzie – her desire to take Evie’s place, her own investigation of Evie’s absence which owes more to her need to come up with new clues that she can take to Mr Verver and the police than it does to a desire to find Evie.

Lizzie then is a young Nancy Drew, but though her point of view narration is full of talk of love, purity and the desire to help her motives aren’t justice or truth. Sex is never described directly in this novel, but it runs through it, seeps through the pages. It’s a book suffused with sex, but inchoate and indirect. Of course it is. Lizzie is only 13 and this is still just the 1980s. She doesn’t know enough to describe it any better.

Child narrative voices are notoriously difficult to get right. Lizzie’s worked for me, her frustration with the adult world and her simultaneous pull back to the certainties of childhood and forward to boys and freedom and biology, but I have seen other reviewers query if at times she’s perhaps too adult and knowing.

“Why was Mrs. Verver throwing up?” I’d asked my mother, who’d sighed and said, gravely, “I don’t think you understand what’s happening.”

And that’s when I stopped listening, shut my ears from the gloom and murk of her. It’s almost like she savors the terribleness—everyone does. Like it does things for them, makes everything seem more exciting, more momentous, more real.

Then again, I found Adrian Mole utterly unpersuasive when I read him around age 14. Perhaps it’s a question of our own experience, I was more a Lizzie than an Adrian which may be why one rings true for me and the other not (or perhaps Adrian Mole is an adolescent boy as depicted by someone who never was one, whereas Megan Abbott was once an adolescent girl).

The prose here is often beautiful in a slightly breathless endless-summer way (quite different in style to Die a Little, Abbott is good at reflecting character through description). I remember the book through a golden haze, not precisely, but impressionistically (in fact, I had to remind myself of some of the details in order to write this).

In the end though prose alone can’t carry a crime novel. Character is key. End stands or falls with the depiction of Lizzie, whether you believe in her. Abbott is the author of the unusual viewpoint character, crime seen not by a hardboiled detective but by a housewife or a teenage girl. That’s what makes Abbott an interesting read.

Looking back, I’m surprised it took me so long to return to Abbott. She’s not a literary writer, but she’s not trying to be. She’s an extremely good crime writer and a refreshing one. If I had to make a comparison it would be to Joe R. Lansdale, not because they write anything like each other (they don’t), but because they write within genre but in new ways. I could live a long time without meeting another maverick detective who has a troubled home life and doesn’t go by the book, but I’ve always got space for a Lizzie.

For those who may be interested and based in the UK The End of Everything is 99p on UK Kindle as at the time of writing.

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Filed under Abbott, Megan, Crime Fiction

‘You fool,’ he thundered. ‘I’d rather see you dead than monkeying with Black Magic.’

The Devil Rides out, by Denis Wheatley

After Don Quixote I wanted a bit of readable nonsense. Something light and easy to dip into that wouldn’t require meta-anaylsis and constant attention, much as I enjoyed all that with Quixote.

Dennis Wheatley is one of those authors who were once household names and are now barely remembered. He wrote a mixture of spy/action thrillers and books about strange Satanic cults threatening the UK. Often he used the same characters in both. He’s perhaps best remembered now for the classic Hammer House of Horror movie that was made based on this novel.

As a teenager one of my relatives was a Wheatley fan, and I read quite a few of them. He seemed sinister and worldly, not least because of the famous Author’s Note in this particular book. There he talks about the pains he’s taken to ensure the accuracy of the magical practices he describes, and then goes on to say:

All the characters and the situations in this book are entirely imaginary, but, in the inquiry necessary to writing of it, I found ample evidence that Black Magic is still practised in London, and other cities, at the present day.

Should any of my readers incline to a serious study of the subject, and thus come into contact with a man or woman of Power, I feel that it is only right to urge them, most strongly, to refrain from being drawn into the practise of the Secret Art in any way. My own observations have led me to an absolute conviction that to do so would bring them into dangers of a very real and concrete nature.

Now that’s an author’s foreword! Did he believe any of it? Who knows? But if we assume as I think we should that anything written by an author between the pages of their book is part of the book, what’s happening here is Wheatley hooking his readers before they even get to the first page proper of his story. He was a bestselling writer for a reason.

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What follows is a highly entertaining mix of the sinister and the prosaic, all written in that rather portentous style used in the foreword with its capitalisations and emphasis on how evil lurks under the surface of the everyday.

Simon Aron, a “frail, narrow-shouldered Englishman” misses a reunion with his old friends American adventurer Rex Van Ryn and “elderly French exile” Duke de Richleau. Rex and the Duke have had adventures together before (in previous books) fighting the Russians, but now they’re worried that something may be wrong much closer to home.

They drive to Simon’s house, where they discover him hosting a curious party with a strangely international guest list. When they arrive they’re taken by most of the other guests as having been invited, but that puzzles some for with Rex and Duke there are now fifteen people present, two surplus to requirements…

All this is beyond Rex, but not the Duke and he soon realises that what menaces Simon is far worse than communism, it’s Satanism (though in other books Wheatley, deeply right wing, directly linked the two). Wasting no time they knock out Simon and flee with him, but not before they encounter a beautiful young woman named Lilith who catches Rex’s eye and a “fleshy, moon-faced man” with “unsmiling eyes” named Mocata who appears to be leader of this curious band.

What’s wonderful in all this is the incredible snobbery which pervades the book. This next quote comes just after all I’ve just described and more – Rex has found himself near in love-at-first-sight with Lilith, has discovered that one of his oldest friends is trafficking in some bizarre black magic cult and has just fought a mute manservant and eluded vicious satanists. He’s now back at the Duke’s with Simon:

As Rex laid Simon upon the wide sofa he glanced round him with an interest unappeased by a hundred visits, at the walls lined shoulder high with beautifully bound books, and at the lovely old colour prints, interspersed with priceless historical documents and maps, which hung above them.

I’m as much a sucker for a well-bound book as the next man, but in those circumstances I have to admit it wouldn’t be the first thing I’d be thinking about. The whole book’s like that. Later when Rex and the Duke slip back into Simon’s now empty home to look for clues they take the time to note his preferred brands of champagne and foie gras before finding themselves attacked by a malevolent spirit lying in wait for them.

Writing that I realised I’d seen that odd combination of danger and high-end living once before, in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. Perhaps it’s a genre thing. The adventure genre is fairly vicarious by nature, and Wheatley wrote more Bond-esque fiction (much of it starring the Duke) than he did black magic tales.

I’m probably making it sound terrible. The thing is though, it isn’t. It’s oddly effective. Wheatley litters the text with asides from the Duke on his knowledge of black magic and it all sounds so matter of fact that it becomes strangely credible. The Duke knows there won’t be a dog at the house, because ‘Dogs are simple, friendly creatures but highly psychic. The vibrations in a place where Black Magic was practised would cause any dog to bolt for a certainty.’

What follows is a duel between good and evil. On one side is the Duke and Rex, fighting with white magic, prayer, fast cars, a good right hook. On the other is Mocata with his curious powers of mind control, telepathy and summoning baleful spirits. Simon is the prize. If he can be made to sign his name in the Devil’s book on May Day Eve his soul will be lost forever, and he lacks the strength to resist Mocata’s influence on his own.

I won’t spoil the plot, though if you’ve seen the movie you already know it. I will say though that it contains at least two great set piece passages, one where the Duke and Rex interrupt a grand sabbat at which Satanists from across the UK and beyond are gathered, and another where they find themselves besieged by spirits in a lengthy night during which Mocata exercises the full force of his power against them. It’s a fun read that does precisely what it promises to – Wheatley was never a great writer but he was a very reliable one.

Part of Wheatley’s appeal back in the 1970s when this stuff was huge was that he had supposedly researched all this in minuscule detail. Wheatley created an image of himself as a man who knew much about dark things most were unaware of, and perhaps he did. There are after all plenty who do believe in black magic and all that, and it’s entirely possible Wheatley did research them.

It’s that sense of veracity which makes this work. The characters aren’t exactly subtle, the plot hardly complex. Wheatley’s prose is often stilted in tone and there’s an awful lot of exposition. For all that, Mocata and his cult seem convincing. There seems to be some form of underlying logic to their powers, a sense of a greater cosmology underpinning it all. Wheatley’s vision of evil forces lurking just under the surface of (then) contemporary British life seems all too persuasive.

In the end it’s the detail, the exposition I just cited as a potential fault, that pulls it all together. Take the following rather dry passage where the Duke erects some magical defences:

Then, taking five long white tapering candles, such as are offered by devotees to the Saints in Catholic Churches, he lit them from an old-fashioned tinder-box and set them upright, one at each apex of the five-pointed star. In their rear he placed the five brand new horseshoes which Richard had secured from the village with their horns pointing outward, and beyond each vase of holy water he set a dried mandrake, four females and one male, the male being in the valley to the north.

There’s no real drama to any of that. It’s a mix of dry explanation and Wheatley making sure that his research is visible on the page. I’m back to that sense of veracity again though. He renders the extraordinary, ordinary and in doing so makes it very easy to imagine. In that sense he’s very cinematic.

All this ordinariness makes it all the more chilling when something truly macabre does occur,  such as when someone observes of Mocata that “‘He is walking in the sunshine–but he has no shadow!’”. Most of the book is conversation, preparation, more conversation. Then there’s an action sequence, or a shadowless man on a sunny day.

Is The Devil Rides Out a good book, whatever that means? Ultimately, yes, because you have to take books on their own terms. This isn’t literary fiction. It’s not intended to be beautiful or to challenge. It’s an entertainment, a piece of thrilling nonsense designed to while away a dull afternoon or train ride. It does that very well.

It’s dated, both in terms of style and certainly in terms of attitudes, but so’s Ian Fleming and that doesn’t stop people reading him. In his heyday Wheatley’s main output was his pure spy stories, but his black magic tales are the interesting ones because nobody else wrote this stuff quite like he did. As if it were all real. He’s now being rereleased on Kindle, which is how I came across this title, and I think he deserves a place in the British horror canon.

The ultimate test of any author is whether, having read them, you plan to read more by them. I’ve already bought Wheatley’s To the Devil a Daughter. I don’t expect it to be well written, I don’t expect it to be remotely credible, but I do expect it to seem credible just for the time I’m reading it – that’s Wheatley’s secret.

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Filed under Horror Fiction, Wheatley, Denis

Looking back on 2013

The fact I’m writing my best of 2013 post in late March 2014 shows how much I’ve struggled to find free time lately. That’s had an impact on my reading of course, with the result that 2013 was very much a mixed bag of a reading year for me.

On the one hand I read something in the order of about 32 or so books over the entire year, which seems distinctly on the not very many side (though looking back on my 2012 roundup I seem to have said much the same thing then, so perhaps that’s my new normal). On the other hand, I discovered Winterson, read some Joyce and Hamsun, and got to grips with Don Quixote so what the year lacked in quantity it at least made up for in quality.

Before I begin, it’s pretty much a given that blog posts should have at least one image to break up the text and to look pretty on iPads and similar devices. I didn’t have anything relevant, so here’s a Tamara de Lempicka picture of someone looking wistful.

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Right, without further ado, here’s my quite-a-long-time-after-the-end of year roundup of the best books I read in 2013, set out according to category of book. Please note that each category has been determined using the latest scientific and artistic principles, and not as might seem according to my own arbitrary whims.

Best German modernist novel: Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin. 2013 was a year where modernist classics featured heavily in my reading. Berlin Alexanderplatz is a book more discussed than read, which is true for most modernist works, but the difference here is that it isn’t even discussed that much. It should be. It’s a blisteringly good book with definite Dos Passos-esque resonance (another writer who doesn’t get the press he should) and an absolutely incredible portrait of an age.

I won’t lie, Alexanderplatz is a challenging read. That’s partly for the sheer unpleasantness of some of the scenes (particularly the slaughterhouse section) and partly because Döblin uses cinematic montage techniques (very modern back then) to bring it all to life. Well worth the effort though.

I tend to dislike state of a nation novels. If you’re going to do one though this is how you go about it. Döblin captures the sheer messy vitality of Berlin, the potential and the waste and the progress in all spheres save the human. It’s an extraordinary book, and in most years would have been a top contender for book of the year.

I was going to have a best novel set in Berlin category, but that would also be Berlin Alexanderplatz. If I had a best novel set in Berlin that isn’t Berlin Alexanderplatz then it would of course be Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, but good as that was it’s been too good a year in the end for it to get its own category so it makes it into the runner-up list rather than the finalists. On to the next category!

Best novel by an author with deeply disturbing political sympathies: Hunger, by Knut Hamsun. This is again an extremely challenging read, but here more for the relentless refusal by Hamsun to make his nameless protagonist remotely sympathetic. Hamsun gives no easy analysis to the reader, his protagonist slowly starves on the streets of 19th Century Oslo (then called Kristiana) but as becomes evident he doesn’t really need to, it’s his own pride and inability to compromise that takes him to such extremes.

This is an intensely psychological novel examining in unsparing forensic detail a single man’s consciousness at the level of every fleeting thought and emotion. In my review I described it as ” the collapse of 19th Century narrative fiction”. It’s also a superlative translation of a book that’s seen a fair few different translations.

That takes me onto the next hotly competed category:

Best novel that inspired a seriously odd computer game: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. it’s getting fashionable at the moment not to like this one, perhaps because of its perma-presence on the US canon, perhaps because of the movie, perhaps because when everyone says something is a masterpiece there’s a natural contrarian desire to say “oh no it isn’t”. Well, I’d love to be contrarian, but unfortunately it is a masterpiece. Happily it’s not a daunting masterpiece, it’s not some experimentalist behemoth with shifting narratives and playful structures and whatnot. It’s just superbly well written.

Gatsby is also, like quite a few of the older books on my list this year, a novel that remains utterly current. When Alexanderplatz was written, or Hunger, or Gatsby, we didn’t of course have mobile phones, the internet, social media or any of the other tools by which our lives have been transformed.  I’m not one of those who say that none of these things have really changed anything because they plainly have, but people remain the same and part of the power of great literature is to speak to who we are across cultures and centuries even if the details of our lives have altered beyond recognition.

While I’m on the early greats, here’s an even earlier one:

Best unsurprisingly good novel: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Perhaps the most commonly paraphrased opening sentence in the English language, and easily one of the best known stories of classic literature. Like Gatsby though it really is very good. The surprise of it is that it’s a much harder-headed novel than you might expect. Austen isn’t afraid to look directly at the centrality of money and power and on their impact on people’s, particularly women’s, lives. I wouldn’t call it gritty, as that would give the wrong impression, but it’s certainly not soft-focused.

Going back to the modernists we have:

Best short story collection about paralysis: Dubliners,  by James Joyce. Again it’s all about the writing, which is the common thread of this year’s best-of’s and probably of most years’. Dubliners is by and large a much easier read than you might think, although speaking English as a native language, having some sense of Catholic tradition and possibly some links to Ireland will all certainly help. Joyce marries the social to the psychological, and does a bloody good job of it.

Best poetry collection largely on the strength of one poem in the collection even though some of the others are pretty good: Prufrock and other Observations, by T.S. Eliot. What can I say? Prufrock is my favourite poem. I couldn’t read this during the year and not have it in my end of year list. It has an air of melancholy and regret  and some of the saddest lines ever written in English. Utterly beautiful.

Right, next category, drumroll please:

Best novel I never expected to like: Oranges are not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. I’ve long had something of a prejudice against Jeanette Winterson’s novels, not sure why. It’s a fortunate prejudice though because it means that now I’ve finally discovered her work I have a new author I can be genuinely excited about. I love Winterson’s work, what I’ve read of it so far, and she’s already become one of my go-to authors for when I need a reading lift.

Oranges is perhaps her best known, not least because of the very good TV adaptation. The book though is stranger and warmer than the adaptation, and perhaps more importantly is shot through with love not least for the Winterson character’s mother who it would be easy to paint as the villain of the piece. It’s beautifully written and has a fine observational wit and I absolutely loved it. Which takes me next to:

Best novel inspired by one of my favourite cities on Earth: The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson. Yup, this is the first time I’ve had the same author twice in my end of year list. I said I liked her. Winterson captures a truth of Venice (there’s more than one), explores the nature of history and story and mixes fable and romance in a way that overall I thought was a huge success. Does it all make sense? Actually, yes it always does, just not literally so. Winterson’s telling you stories, trust her.

Best novel I considered just handing to people and urging them to read it: Ask the Dust, by John Fante. If I believed in World Book Night, which I don’t, and if I could choose a book to be given out as part of it, which I can’t, this would be a strong candidate for the book I’d choose. Clean, graceful prose. Emma caught the links between this and Hunger which I’d missed, and wrote a damn good review of it which is linked to from mine. Incredible evocation too of Los Angeles.

Right, we’re into the home straight (I googled that, I always thought it was the home strait, no idea what it means). Here’s my final three categories before my book of the year.

Best novel about a terrible relationship that should never have happened: My Face for the World to See, by Alfred Hayes. This is just a little stunner of a novel. Well written, carefully observed and shockingly overlooked until the always excellent NYRB Classics brought it back to us. It’s a wonderfully disillusioned novel and is a particularly good choice if you need something short and punchy after a longer, flabbier read. Hayes doesn’t waste a word.

Best novel to shock your early twentieth Century bourgois Swedish friends with: Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg. This one is here for the character of Doctor Glas himself, whose head we inhabit for the duration of the novel as he grapples with moral dilemmas while ignoring the sexual undercurrent of his own thoughts. It’s most Freudian. You wouldn’t think an early twentieth century novel about medical ethics would be such a gripping read, and yet it is. Definite thanks to Caroline for bringing this one to my attention, since I’m pretty sure that otherwise I’d never have read it.

Best much, much darker than you expect novel: The Bottle Factory Outing, by Beryl Bainbridge. This is an odd one. It starts out like a light naturalistic comedy, and then progressively turns into blackly surreal farce. It’s a cruel book, which should sound like a strike against it but Bainbridge’s acid wit makes the whole thing a delight not despite that but because of it. One to give those people who think books are somehow improving, they really aren’t.

That takes me to my final category, the best book I read in 2013. In fact, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in any year, up there with Madame Bovary and I have no higher praise than that.

Best novel: Don Quixote, volume two, by Miguel de Cervantes. In 2013 I read Joyce, Fitzgerald, Winterson, Austen, and all the others listed above each of them an exciting and important writer. Despite that roll-call of excellence I knew from the moment I sat down to write this post what the best book of the year would be. If I’d just read volume one it would have featured somewhere above (under the category, Best novel about brutalising a deluded old man) but it wouldn’t have been my book of the year.

The second volume of Don Quixote though is the masterpiece by which other masterpieces can be judged. It’s an extraordinary achievement, and one of the most modern novels I’ve ever read (a theme of this year’s reading as I discussed above). It’s funny, intelligent, tragic, and structurally incredibly clever without getting lost in its own cleverness. I know it’s daunting. I was daunted too. Counting both volumes together it’s a big part of why I didn’t read more books this year. It was worth it.

Ok, so that’s it. My best of 2013. I’m a little disappointed to have had to cut Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, but in a list which features Austen, Cervantes, Döblin, Eliot, Fitzgerald and Joyce I’d hope she’d forgive me.

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By my faith, Señor Master, other people’s troubles don’t matter very much

Don Quixote, volume two, by Miguel De Cervantes and translated by Edith Grossman

If you’ve not read Don Quixote, there’s a few things you probably don’t know about it. The first is that although everyone talks about it as if it were one novel, it’s not. It’s two novels, written ten years apart. We put them together as one title now, but that’s not how they were originally published. Trying to read them in one go makes for a much tougher read than is actually necessary.

The second thing you probably don’t know is that every famous incident from Don Quixote, everything people who’ve not read the books have heard of, is from the first book. The irony of that is that while it’s the first volume that made Cervantes famous, the second is actually the more interesting and enjoyable.

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The events of the second volume take place a while after the first. During the break between adventures the first volume has been published and become a bestseller. In fact, it’s already had a sequel written, but it’s a copycat work written by another author – a crude pastiche that pretends to tell the story of what happened next but that’s not a patch on the original and that makes caricatures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (all of this really happened by the way, the characters therefore come to comment on their own fictional portrayal).

Don Quixote has been avoiding chivalric fiction so he doesn’t know that he’s now a celebrity until Bachelor Sansón Carrasco, a gentleman of Don Quixote’s village and of known good character (“people like him can’t lie except if they feel like it or it’s very convenient”), breaks the news. Naturally, Don Quixote is curious to hear how his story has been received:

“but tell me, Señor Bachelor: which deeds of mine are praised the most in this history?”

“In that regard,” responded the bachelor, “there are different opinions, just as there are different tastes: some prefer the adventure of the windmills, which your grace thought were Briareuses and giants; others, that of the waterwheel; one man favors the description of the two armies that turned out to be two flocks of sheeps; the other praises the adventure of the body that was being carried to Segovia for burial; one says that the adventure of the galley slaves is superior to all the rest; another, that none equals that of the two gigantic Benedictines and the dispute with the valiant Basque.”

“It seems to me,” said Don Quixote, “there is no human history in the world that does not have its ups and downs, especially those that deal with chivalry; they cannot be filled with nothing but successful exploits.”

“Even so,” responded the bachelor, “some people who have read the history say they would have been pleased if its authors had forgotten about some of the infinite beatings given to Señor Don Quixote in various encounters.”

Quite. To quote myself from my review of the first volume of “this great and accurate history” – it’s hard to avoid the realisation that much of the book consists of an old man with dementia being repeatedly humiliated and beaten.

Carrasco continues to explain the criticisms volume one received:

“One of the objections people make to the history,” said the bachelor, “is that its author put into it a novel called The Man Who Was Recklessly Curious, not because it is a bad novel or badly told, but because it is out of place and has nothing to do with the history of his grace Señor Don Quixote.”

Again, quite. This was also one of the issues I mentioned having in my review of volume one. There were actually two interpolated novels, and Carrasco is right that they weren’t badly told, it’s just that neither remotely fit the rest of the book.

It turns out that there isn’t a single criticism I had of the first book that some contemporary of Cervantes didn’t also have, and Carrasco covers pretty much every one of them. It may not sound it, but it’s incredibly funny. Volume one wasn’t a quick read and while I loved it overall there were definitely parts that I had to push my way through. There is something quite joyous in starting volume two and seeing Carrasco and Don Quixote candidly discussing those failings. Carrasco even covers the various plot holes:

some have found fault and failure in the author’s memory, because he forgets to tell who the thief was who stole Sancho’s donkey, for it is never stated and can only be inferred from the writing that it was stolen, and soon after that we see Sancho riding on that same donkey and don’t know how it reappears. They also say that he forgot to put in what Sancho did with the hundred escudos he found in the traveling case in the Sierra Morena, for it is never mentioned again, and there are many who wish to know what he did with them, or how he spent them, for that is one of the substantive points of error in the work.”

It’s incredibly audacious, and utterly modern. That’s perhaps an odd thing to say of a book written in the early 17th Century, but it’s one of the most striking things about it.

Soon after their conversations with Carrasco, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza fall back into their old madness and folly and decide to go back on the road. The difference this time though is that pretty much everyone they meet knows who they are from reading volume one. Where once they deceived themselves, now they find themselves deceived by others as strangers play to Quixote’s madness hoping to see him act as he did in the book they read.

Whether the result is funny or tragic depends in part on the individual reader. In a way it’s both, and I’ll return to that below.

People prey upon Quixote’s madness for their own amusement, inventing elaborate schemes in the hope of leading him to greater follies. For much of the book he falls in with a duke and duchess who put him to a variety of sadistic trials, testing his chivalry for the diversion of their court.

At the same time Quixote and Sancho are more knowing here. At one point Sancho deliberately deceives Quixote, relying on Quixote’s madness to avoid the consequences of Sancho’s own misdeeds. Another time, Quixote goes alone into a cave and comes out telling of strange adventures he had within, which is fine and in line with his normal behaviour except that some of his later comments suggest he knows perfectly well that he simply made those particular exploits up.

What we’re seeing then is a loss of innocence. In the original Quixote is purely mad, Sancho purely a fool. Here Quixote is still mad and Sancho still a fool, but through Carrasco and Cervantes they have a greater sense of what they are. They are becoming disenchanted.

That’s what makes it hard to say whether this book is comedy or tragedy (of course the truth is it’s both at the same time). In some ways it’s crueler than the first book, because where previously they were beaten or humiliated by reason of their own misunderstandings here people see their innocence and take advantage of it. In a sense they meet Cervantes’ readership, laughing at them.

What makes it perhaps worse is that while Quixote’s chivalry is a romantic nonsense that doesn’t change the truth of his goodness. Time and again it’s commented how wise and intelligent he is when speaking to matters outside of his madness. His madness though drives him into the world to help others, to defend the weak and help the helpless. It’s a divine madness.

Sancho Panza seems avaricious, lazy and vulgar, but that isn’t of course what defines him. Rather it’s his wonderful loyalty. When eventually he is given a governorship as he was long promised (the result of another of the duke and duchess’ pranks) he turns out to be rather good at it because when put to the test his desire to do what right is greater than his desire to line his own pockets. He passes sensible laws and makes careful judgments. He is a good man. His folly lies in his faithfulness to Don Quixote even though he knows perfectly well that Quixote is mad, but it’s a folly that brings out his better self.

Quixote’s madness then is elevating. It makes Quixote risk himself for others, it makes Sancho Panza deny himself for others. It is a beautiful dream that is better than the savage Spain that is the reality around them. The comedy is how their dream is so ill-fitted to the world they live in, and the tragedy is that too.

I’m starting to make it sound gloomy, and perhaps it is but the act of reading it isn’t gloomy at all. It’s packed with sharp little one-liners and asides, much of the best dialogue of course going to Sancho Panza (“Señor, the devil has made off with my donkey.”). There’s a wonderful comic double-act between him and Quixote, with Sancho peppering his speech with quotes and sayings in such profusion that his meaning gets quite lost (although as he astutely observes sometimes his meaning remains quite clear and Quixote is simply indulging in snobbery, refusing to understand because he finds Sancho’s manner vulgar).

Sancho’s dialogue and insights are much more sophisticated here than in the first volume. So much so in fact that the translator within the fiction (the conceit is that Cervantes has had the work translated into Spanish) comments that he considers some passages apocryphal on the basis that they show more intelligence in Sancho than he possesses. We’re back to that ultra-modernity there of course, a text that comments on itself and that casts doubt on its own authority – therefore underlining its own artificiality. It’s much clearer to me having read this volume why Josipovici called it the first modernist novel.

For all his greater intelligence though, Sancho couldn’t get to the point if his life depended on it. At the court of the mischievous duke and duchess he tells a nicely observed story about the realities of power. It needs about two paragraphs. At this point he’s already half a page into it:

“Well, then, Señores,” Sancho continued, “I say that this nobleman, and I know him like I know my own hands because it’s only the distance of a crossbow shot from my house to his, gave an invitation to a farmer who was poor but honorable.” “Go on, brother,” the cleric said at this point. “You’re on the way to not finishing your story until you’re in the next world.”

“I’ll stop when I’m less than halfway there, God willing,” responded Sancho. “And so, I say that when this farmer came to the house of this nobleman, and may his soul rest in peace because he’s dead now, and he died the death of an angel from what people tell me, since I wasn’t present at the time because I had gone to Tembleque to work in the harvest—”

“On your life, my son, return quickly from Tembleque, and without burying the nobleman, and unless you want more funerals, finish your story.”

“Well, the fact of the matter is,” replied Sancho, “that when the two of them were ready to sit down at the table, and it seems to me I can see both of them now as clear as ever …”

I quote that because it’s easy when discussing this to make it sound terribly serious, whereas much of it in fact is closer to a Morecambe and Wise sketch set in early 17th century Spain. The point perhaps is that it’s just not possible to do justice to a book like this.  Theses have been written on it. It’s been the subject of literally centuries of scholarship. I could write 10,000 words and barely have scratched its surface and along the way I’d have lost the sheer fun of it.

This is a novel packed with perceptive insights into psychology and society, personal power and political, the nature of fiction and how we engage with reality. It has in Don Quixote and Sancho Panza two of the funniest and yet saddest characters ever to inhabit literature. Along with the duke and duchess we read about the two of them and their adventures, and we laugh at them, but the true joke is on us because they inhabit marvellous dreams while we only live in a crass reality of our own making and our adventures are lived through them.

Cervantes isn’t a romantic, and he’s not one to offer pat interpretations. Any conclusion I could try for would be defeated by some quote, some passage from the book which refuted it. I won’t therefore try for any kind of final judgement on the book. It’s too good for that, too magnificent. Instead I’ll end by urging you if you’re still reading this to read Don Quixote, ideally in this marvellous Edith Grossman translation. Literature literally does not get better than this.

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Filed under Cervantes, Miguel de, Spanish Literature

the town below looking as hell might with a good electrician

My Face for the World to See, by Alfred Hayes

In a way murder makes things easy. When someone’s been killed, is going to be killed, it creates instant tension. It’s why TV dramas are so full of bodies – tune in after the break to see if the killer can be caught before he strikes again!

What’s trickier is creating that same sort of tension from the everyday. Soaps and potboiler  novels both do it by filling their characters’ lives with furious incident. A woman learns that her husband is sleeping with her sister, while at the same time her daughter has developed a drug habit and her mother dementia.

Alfred Hayes on the other hand, Alfred Hayes shows the quiet desperation of a life that isn’t quite what you wanted it to be. In the foreword to the NYRB edition of My Face for the World to See film critic David Thomson says that “Hayes is the dry poet of the things we think about while lying in bed, when sleep refuses to carry us off.” It’s an astute observation. My Face is a sort of love story, or a chronicle of a relationship at any event, but it’s one of those relationships you later regret and that really, you never should have started.

productimage-picture-my-face-for-the-world-to-see-367

Here’s the opening paragraph:

IT WAS a party that had lasted too long; and tired of the voices, a little too animated, and the liquor, a little too available, and thinking it would be nice to be alone, thinking I’d escape, for a brief interval, those smiles which pinned you against the piano or those questions which trapped you wriggling in a chair, I went out to look at the ocean. There it was, exactly as advertised, a dark and heavy swell, and far out the lights of some delayed ship moving slowly south.

The ocean’s there all right, “exactly as advertised”, but there’s something else too – a girl walking into it wearing a yachting cap and carrying a cocktail glass. He thinks she’s drunk, perhaps cutting a pose for people exactly like him who’re looking on from the house. Then he realises it’s not that at all. She’s committing suicide.

He saves her, and they begin an affair. Hayes doesn’t give either of their names, lending them a sort of anonymity and ubiquity both. The man’s a scriptwriter with a wife back in New York and a stale marriage. He’s a Hollywood insider but he takes no joy in it, describing himself to her at one point as “writhing” not writing. “I was a member, I said, now, of the Screen Writhers Guild.” He spends his evenings at parties filled with “people who were not entirely strangers and not exactly friends”.

She’s no happier, no more fulfilled. She came to Hollywood dreaming of becoming a star, her face on billboards for the world to see. It didn’t work out that way.

Hayes’ Hollywood is a town filled with surface people. Put like that it doesn’t sound too insightful (who ever portrays it as a town filled with great thinkers and warm human beings?), but it’s how he captures it that makes this such a powerful novel. My Face is only around 130 pages long, but it’s so tightly and effectively written that it covers more in that space than many writers do in five times that length.

In a way My Face has an almost noir sensibility. That’s not because there’s any great criminality in the book, but rather it’s that combination of consuming desire with an utter absence of hope.

At this very moment, the town was full of people lying in bed thinking with an intense, an inexhaustible, an almost raging passion of becoming famous if they weren’t already famous, and even more famous if they were; or of becoming wealthy if they weren’t already wealthy, or wealthier if they were; or powerful if they weren’t powerful now, and more powerful if they already were.

What’s the alternative though, to all that frustrated longing?

There seemed to be nothing but marriage, when you thought of it, and when you thought of it, my God, was that all there was? That, and raising a family. That, and earning a living. That, and calling the undertaker.

The protagonist is having an affair because his wife’s away and it passes the time, and perhaps too because that’s the part society has written for him. The woman’s motive isn’t any better. She knows he’s married. She knows it won’t last. There’s a sense that she’s with him because he’s there, because it takes less resistance to be with him than not to be with him.

I just talked about motives, but I’m guessing them. His are easier to guess because the novel’s written from his perspective. Her’s are harder, because he never fully sees her. She’s surfaces, like the whole town, generically pretty and with little to distinguish her in his eyes from a hundred other would-be-stars except this one he knows, this one he saved from drowning. If the novel were written from her perspective I suspect in some ways it might be very different, but then perhaps not because it’s far from clear she sees him any more deeply than he does her.

I’ll end with one final quote. I had more quotes from this novel than I could possibly use in this review, and it was genuinely hard choosing which ones to leave out as Hayes has so many telling asides and observations. This one though I just had to keep, because it’s beautiful and terribly sad, the entire novel therefore in microcosm:

There was a noisy rush of water from the bathroom, and she appeared, ready for the evening, a smile she had chosen, I thought, from a small collection of smiles she kept for occasions like this, fixed upon her face.

This is a brilliant, brilliant book. It’s another great find by NYRB, one of the best publishers out there. It’s an absolute gem. There’s a school of thought that says that reviews shouldn’t express opinion, that they should avoid the thumbs up/thumbs down simplicities. It’s not a school I subscribe to. Thumbs up.

If you’re interested in reading more about this book, I first learned of it fromGuy Savage’s review, here (though if you read my blog the odds are you read his too, and if you don’t you should). As so often I owe Guy for a wonderful find. While writing this up I noticed that Guy had picked almost exactly the same quotes as I had. I try to avoid reading other people’s reviews at the time I’m writing my own, but when I’ve finished mine it’s always a comfort to see that someone else made similar choices. It suggests that if I have missed the point of a book, I have at least missed it in company.

There’s also an excellent review by Nick Lezard at the Guardian, here. Nick’s reviews are always good, particularly given he writes for a newspaper book section. Professional reviewers should of course leave bloggers in the dust in terms of analysis and insight, but sadly they very rarely do. Nick’s one of the exceptions (James Wood is another). 

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Filed under California, US Literature

Fundamentally, this is political.

Fatale, by Jean-Patrick Manchette and translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Fatale is under 100 pages long, and that’s including a Jean Echenoz afterword. By page two the protagonist has coolly murdered a man without hesitation or warning. Soon after she’s on a train out of town, she’s dyed her hair blonde and she’s carrying a briefcase full of money. That’s the thing with Manchette, he doesn’t mess around.

Fatale

Love that cover.

Here she is, still on the train. She’s ordered food:

Next she lifted the cover of the hot plate, revealing a choucroute. The young woman proceeded to stuff herself with pickled cabbage, sausage and salt pork. She chewed with great chomps, fast and noisily. Juices dripped from the edge of her mouth. Sometimes a strand of sauerkraut would slip from her fork or from her mouth and fall on the floor or attach itself to her lower lip or her chin. The young woman’s teeth were visible as she chewed because her lips were drawn back. She drank champagne. She finished the first bottle in short order. As she was opening the second, the pricked the fleshy part of a thumb with the wire fastening, and a tiny pearl of scarlet blood appeared. She guffawed, for she was already drunk, and sucked on her thumb and swallowed the blood.

Next she’s rubbing banknotes on her naked body while sniffing choucroute and champagne. She’s an animal, unrestrained. Come morning though, as the train pulls into the small town of Bléville, “she had retrieved all of her customary self-assurance”.

In Bléville she claims to be a young widow, interested in buying a large property. She’s pretty and she has money. In no time at all she’s part of Bléville society such as it is. All the worse for Bléville.

Manchette’s work is always political. Aimée, as the woman now calls herself, is a predator disguising herself among the capitalist classes as one of their own. Is she really disguised though, or is she simply an example of their philosophy taken to an extreme? Aimée is buttoned-down, controlled and manipulative. When she’s not working though she’s an animal, her frenzy of unrestrained consumption punctuating her dispassionate search for more to consume.

Bléville is a tediously typical small French town with little to particularly recommend it. The town’s bourgois-elite guard their privileges closely, smugly comfortable and resentful of those just below them on the social ladder (who else do they have to fear after all other than those who could most readily take their place?).

The town’s rich take Aimée as one of their own. She blends in, attending their parties. In her spare time though she practices martial arts and prepares herself. She’s all business.

Lying in her hot bath, she opened the crime novel she had bought. She read ten pages. It took her six or seven minutes. She put the book down, masturbated, washed, and got out of the water. For a moment, in the bathroom mirror, she looked at her slim, seductive body. She dressed carefully; she aimed to please.

Aimée isn’t the only outsider. Baron Jules is a local, but outside the town’s rigid social heirarchy. He’s privileged by birth, but has no money. He detests the town’s old guard and he knows their secrets. He’s perfect for Aimée, who aims to bring chaos and to profit from the creative destruction that ensues. Baron Jules has never known how to strike back against the class he both belongs to and loathes. Aimée though, the perfect capitalist, can find profitable use for a man who spends his day trying to live outside of capitalism.

It’s not long before Aimée’s at the centre of the town’s tensions. As she observes to herself, it’s always the same (she’s done this before). “Sex always comes up first. Then money questions. And then, last, come the old crimes.”

Bléville has its old crimes, like everywhere else. One of those old crimes involves the local canned goods factory and a poisoning incident that led to the deaths of a “baby, two or three old people, along with thirty or so cows”. The incident was a major local scandal:

Many solid citizens pretended to be appalled; quite a few, out of stupidity, really were appalled.

Business, however, continued.

This is a blackly funny book. Aimée regularly passes a sign that exhorts the locals to “KEEP YOUR TOWN CLEAN!” It’s a case of be careful what you wish for, because Aimée’s passion for profit is going to wash right through and carry the town’s corruption with her. She is the logic of bourgois greed made hungry flesh.

This being Manchette it’s no spoiler to say that the final section of the book turns into a tightly-written bloodbath. Then again, how could it not? The locals can’t compromise with Aimée any more than an ailing company can compromise with a vulture fund that’s just bought up a majority holding of its stock. Aimée is liberating moribund assets so that they can be more productively deployed elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean the people currently holding those assets like it any.

I haven’t (couldn’t) read the French original, so I can’t of course say how faithful this translation is. It reads smoothly though and the sheer punch of the novel suggests that not too much has been lost crossing over into English. Certainly if I saw Nicholson-Smith’s name on the front of another book I’d count it as a positive. The NYRB edition also comes with an excellent afterword by Jean Echenoz, as I mentioned above. It sheds light on the text (not least that Bléville could be roughly translated as “Doughville”, making the town’s name a shout-out to Hammett), and is a very welcome addition. It’s also welcome to have it after the book, as opposed to Penguin who have a tendency to put essays up front even though they naturally tend to contain massive spoilers.

Guy Savage has reviewed Fatale, here, and has as ever some great insights – particularly on the politics. He’s also got a great quote regarding the town’s newspapers that I wish I’d thought to write down myself. I also found online a very interesting review from a blog I wasn’t previously familiar with, here, which is also good on the politics and on some of the background around the novel and Manchette himself.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Manchette, Jean-Patrick, Noir

Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing, but stealing his car, that’s larceny.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

Frank Chambers is a drifter with itchy feet who needs a meal. Nick Papadakis, “the Greek”, runs a roadside diner and needs a handyman. Nick’s wife, Cora, is a lot younger than he is and is starting to regret a marriage she made for security rather than love.

the_postman_always_rings_twice

That’s not the cover I have, but it captures the book well so I thought I’d use it.

At first, Frank’s got no plans to stick around. He just wants to grift some lunch and get on his way.

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

Half an hour later Frank has a job, Nick has someone to help round the diner and Cora has a lot more reason to start questioning her marriage.

This is classic noir territory. A man, a woman, somebody in their way. On their own Frank and Cora aren’t saints, but neither is malicious. Frank’s a petty crook and womaniser, but nothing worse than that. Cora is smouldering frustration in a dress, but she’s resigned to the life she chose. The Greek? He’s a nice guy, none too bright, who loves his wife and has small dreams for his diner.

I didn’t realise until I came to write this post that almost every quote I picked was describing Cora. The novel is written from Frank’s viewpoint, and it captures beautifully Cora’s dangerous allure for him. There’s some lovely phrasing here, such as “When she spoke, it was in a whisper that sounded like a snake licking its tongue in and out.” Cora is Eve and serpent both. Frank doesn’t have a chance, but then nor does Cora, and certainly not the Greek. Nobody does.

Nobody sets out here to do anybody any harm. It’s just the situation. Frank and Cora have a connection, they have chemistry. In a very noir sense they’re just unlucky. Frank would rather just walk, but how do you walk from this:

She got up to get the potatoes. Her dress fell open for a second, so I could see her leg. When she gave me the potatoes, I couldn’t eat.

Soon Frank’s convincing Cora to leave Nick, but that would mean being poor and she’s not up for that. The diner isn’t much, but it makes money and run well it could make more. The only thing in their way is the Greek …

I’m not going to spoil the plot for those who’ve not seen the 1946 movie (Lana Turner on top form). All I’ll say is that Frank and Cora know that people will get suspicious if the Greek dies and they’ll likely get investigated for it, so they come up with a plan for the perfect murder. Do Frank and Cora though sound to you like the kind of people who can do anything perfectly?

I hadn’t seen the movie, so the story was new to me. It’s obvious from the opening that Frank and Cora are going to end up trying to kill Nick, but where that leads and how it comes to poison them I hadn’t anticipated at all. This is as much a psychological novel as a noir one. Are Frank and Cora in love, or just in lust? Nick loves Cora and counts Frank as a friend, so how do Frank and Cora trust each other given that they each know the other is perfectly capable of killing someone who wanted nothing but good for them?

Postman is tightly written coming in at around 114 pages in my version. It doesn’t need more because Cain packs depth into the detail. Nick is referred to through most of the book as “the Greek”, but of course this is Frank’s viewpoint and Nick stands in Frank’s way. Is it any wonder he prefers to objectify him? To give him a noun instead of a name?

Similarly, it’s easy to see Cora as a femme fatale, and of course she is but that’s a question of perspective too. If Cora were narrating Frank would be an homme fatale, an attractive stranger who won’t let her push him away and gets her thinking things she might otherwise never have thought. If Frank just left and never came back Cora would be unhappy, but she wouldn’t be dangerous.

That’s perhaps the most noir thing about Postman. This is a black hole of a novel where weak people do terrible things because none of them have the strength to resist their situation. This is a novel of an ugly crime carried out by small people. It’s brilliant, and if you have any interest in the noir genre at all you owe it to yourself to read it.

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Filed under Cain, James M., California, Crime Fiction, Noir