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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Filed under Personal posts

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.

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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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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

Political meetings were well attended; they were cheaper than going to the movies or getting drunk.

Mr Norris Changes Trains, by Christopher Isherwood

Mr Norris Changes Trains was published in 1935. It’s a funny and well observed novel of a Berlin lost in decadence and violence, before the horror that was soon to come.

Norris

William Bradshaw is a young man living in Berlin (any resemblance to Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood is I understand entirely intentional). On the train into the city he finds himself in the same carriage as a Mr Norris. They strike up a conversation, with Bradshaw innocently wondering why Mr Norris seems quite so concerned at the prospect of border checks. It’s the first sign that whatever it is that Mr Norris does for a living, it’s not entirely legitimate.

Here’s Mr Norris:

He had a large blunt fleshy nose and a chin which seemed to have slipped sideways. It was like a broken concertina. When he spoke, it jerked crooked in the most curious fashion and a deep cleft dimple like a wound surprisingly appeared in the side of it. Above his ripe red cheeks, his forehead was sculpturally white, like marble. A queerly cut fringe of dark grey hair lay across it, thick, and heavy. After a moment’s hesitation, I realized, with extreme interest, that he was wearing a wig.

Mr Norris is an absurd figure, but oddly likable and one of the many charms of this book is that I found myself liking him even though there’s really very little reason why I should. Norris is a petty schemer, a political opportunist, self-pitying and grandiose in turns and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. Still, he has a certain absurd charm, and Isherwood’s great talent here is to let Norris’s character shine through the page.

By the time we had reached Bentheim, Mr Norris had delivered a lecture on the disadvantages of most of the chief European cities. I was astonished to find how much he had travelled. He had suffered from rheumatics in Stockholm and draughts in Kaunas; in Riga he had been bored, in Warsaw treated with extreme discourtesy, in Belgrade he had been unable to obtain his favourite brand of toothpaste. In Rome he had been annoyed by insects, in Madrid by beggars, in Marseilles by taxi-horns. In Bucharest he had an exceedingly unpleasant experience with a water-closet. Constantinople he had found expensive and lacking in taste. The only two cities of which he greatly approved were Paris and Athens. Athens particularly. Athens was his spiritual home.

Norris is fond of privately-published books featuring schoolgirls and spanking. His secretary is a menacing figure who seems to hold more power over his employer than vice versa. Norris has an extraordinary array of contacts from Communist organisers to influential aristocrats, but very rarely any money. He’s generous with what he has though, when he has it, and there’s no real meanness to him.

Literature and history both are full of men like Mr Norris. People who are rogues, but not monsters. They may do harm, but not from malice. In another time and place a Mr Norris could look much more blameworthy than he does here – if he were to appear today for example making money from insider trading and dodgy investment schemes I doubt he’d seem so comic. In 1930s Berlin though well, there are much worse sins than greed and vanity.

In 1966 Isherwood looked back on Mr Norris Changes Trains and condemned it as “a heartless fairy-story about a real city in which human beings were suffering the miseries of political violence and near-starvation.” I think that’s too harsh. Yes, Bradshaw is depicted as something of an innocent abroad in a city of grotesques, but the book has for me more compassion than Isherwood later came to see in it. The characters are mostly thugs, dominatrices and wheeler-dealers but I could easily imagine each having their own novel following them as this one follows Mr Norris. If Isherwood had written those novels, I’d read them.

As the novel continues the situation in Berlin worsens. Behaviour that was already risky becomes downright dangerous. It’s no place for a gentle crook like Mr Norris with his schemes and fantasies.

Berlin was in a state of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs, or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines. In the middle of a crowded street a young man would be attacked, stripped, thrashed, and left bleeding on the pavement; in fifteen seconds it was all over and the assailants had disappeared.

The newspapers were full of deathbed photographs of rival martyrs, Nazi, Reichsbanner, and Communist.

This is a world where the Nazis are the authorities. What do Mr Norris’s peccadilloes count for against that?

Far from being heartless, for me this was a warm and affectionate book. It’s barbed, but Mr Norris would understand that friendship can be genuine without having to be blind to the friend’s faults, as long as everyone behaves with discretion …

Isherwood’s prose-style is clean and lucid. He’s a good writer in a very classic sense – credible characters, evocative descriptions, wit and intelligence showing but never showy. This is writing which repays attention, but never requires it and because of that it makes a surprisingly relaxing read.

Four years later Isherwood published Goodbye to Berlin (the book the film Cabaret is based on). It’s often published in a single volume alongside Mr Norris Changes Trains, and is closely linked to it. I’ve already bought Goodbye and look forward to it, and hopefully to more Isherwood after that.

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Filed under Berlin, Isherwood, Christopher

Kerrigan is a man of quotes. They substitute nicely for thought.

Kerrigan in Copenhagen, by Thomas E. Kennedy

[I'm posting this review before Mr. Norris Changes Trains because I left the Isherwood at work and won't have access to it for another week or so.]

I’ve said before that whether or not a book has a single sympathetic character is irrelevant to how good the book is. Some books need characters the reader will like, perhaps empathise with. I don’t deny that. A crime series without an interesting central detective is a dry thing. Generally though the idea that a book is flawed merely because it lacks characters the reader might want to be friends with is ludicrous.

All of which is fine, but the truth remains that I abandoned Kerrigan in Copenhagen because I couldn’t stand to share even one more page with its suffocatingly smug protagonist.

Kerrigan

A couple of years back I worked on a deal which involved a fair bit of travel to Copenhagen. I grew to like the city, and returned there on holiday with my wife. We’ve been out a few times now, enough that I feel like I know the place and perhaps have a degree of connection to it. This year we chose it for our wedding anniversary, and what better book to read for a wedding anniversary in Copenhagen than a romance set in that very city?

The short answer is almost any book, since I abandoned this one on page 106 (of 234). I moved on to a James M. Cain and didn’t look back. My only regret is not bailing sooner. So it goes.

Kerrigan is a US academic. He is in Denmark ostensibly to write a guide to Copenhagen’s bars with the help of his (predictably) beautiful research assistant and her “jade-green eyes”. Kerrigan’s recently divorced. His wife, a much younger woman, left him – falsely alleging that Kerrigan mistreated her so as to ensure she has sole custody of their child.

What all this means is that Kerrigan is a man on the rebound. His life has fallen apart, and his project, his work in Copenhagen, is essentially one long pub crawl. There are over 1,500 bars and cafes in the city with new ones opening and old ones closing all the time. If you really wanted to write a guide to them all you could spend the rest of your life doing so. If you’re going to drown your sorrows, you might as well do it in style.

So far so good, and reading that description above I can see why I wanted to read this. Even more so then when I add that Kerrigan’s guide is as much to the literary connections of Copenhagen’s bars as it is to the quality of their beer. He keeps an unfinished copy of Finnegan’s Wake in his pocket and uses each visit as an excuse to regale his assistant with details of the city’s cultural history. A key point here is that you can actually use this novel as a sort of guidebook – it’s quite possible to follow Kerrigan’s path and visit the bars he does.

The problem though is the character of Kerrigan himself. He’s never short of a quote or factoid regarding the history of a person or place. He’s always ready with a relevant anecdote. Too ready. He won’t shut up. I found him exhausting and tedious, Kennedy showing his research all too plainly on Kerrigan’s sleeve.

Here’s an example of Kerrigan’s inner monologue:

Kerrigan lights a cigarillo, thinking of Lotte the eighty-six-year-old executive secretary, wondering if she has ever read Ewald or Wessel both of whom were born in the 1740s and died in the 1780s, who lived in the time of Struensee, middle-aged lover of the teenage Queen Caroline Mathilde, and who were Sturm and Drang contemporaries of Goethe, whose skull was found to contain a small quantity of gray dust by East German bureaucrats one sark November night in 1970.

He considers the overview of history he labors to gather in his own skull and its fate. Gray dust that no one will even bother to peak through his eye sockets at. But just to see history once, almost clearly, before then. A complete history and juxtaposition of everything – or even just a history of the place where he is living – to clothe himself in it would be very fine raiment indeed.

It continues in that vein for quite some time, Kerrigan’s goal of course being to clothe himself in wider history so as to cover the nakedity of his own immediate past. His conversations aren’t that different. Largely they consist of him showing off his considerable knowledge to his assistant while she queries why he needs her when he already knows so much. Naturally there’s a spark of romance between them.

Not just with her though. Kerrigan’s an attractive man, with his “Montblanc pen, pleasingly weighted in his hand” and his designer Italian jeans which he rather fancies himself in:

He stands to fetch another beer. Blurrily he sees a woman with a coarse nose sitting by herself nursing a small glass of beer at the next table from his own.

“Hello,” says Kerrigan.

“Hello, then,” she says in British. “I like your Italian jeans. Can see the label. Not that I was looking at your bottom or anything.” Her accent makes him think of Basil Fawlty’s wife in Fawlty Towers: I kno-ow, I kno-ow.

Kerrigan asks her, :Why are women so beautiful?” and she says , “Aren’t you the sweet talker?”

I am deeply suspicious of novels where middle-aged writers are found attractive by a range of women for no reason particularly evident within the text. It always smacks of wish fulfilment. Kerrigan’s pretty proud of how he looks which is fine but I didn’t buy anyone in Copenhagen actually agreeing. He’s a middle-aged American wearing the classic American-academic-abroad uniform of jeans and sports jacket. As for “I like your Italian jeans”, does anyone actually talk like that?

The descriptions of Copenhagen and its bars are pretty good. Otherwise though I found Kerrigan unconvincing and worse uninteresting, and I profoundly didn’t care whether he got into his assistant’s bed or not. I felt like a pedantic drunk had sat at my table in a bar, blocking my easy exit, and was lecturing me at numbing length about Hans Christian Andersen and Kierkegaard and jazz and several other topics that I might well have found interesting if I wasn’t constantly being beaten over the head with it.

Kerrigan in Copenhagen has generally received good reviews. Here‘s one from the Guardian and here‘s Guy’s from His Futile Preoccupations. Guy had some reservations, but overall liked it much more than I did (not hard, I admit). Guy’s reviews are always worth reading so I do recommend you take a look at his for a second opinion.

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Filed under Copenhagen, US Literature

Los Angeles, give me some of you!

Ask the Dust, by John Fante

I was a young man, starving and drinking and trying to be a writer. I did most of my reading at the downtown L.A. Public Library, and nothing that I read related to me or to the streets or to the people about me. It seemed as if everybody was playing word-tricks, that those who said almost nothing at all were considered excellent writers. Their writing was an admixture of subtlety, craft and form, and it was read and it was taught and it was ingested and it was passed on. It was a comfortable contrivance, a very slick and careful Word-Culture.

That’s Charles Bukowski. This is the book he discovered in that library, the one that excited him as nothing else had managed. He was right to be excited.

Ask the Dust

Ask the Dust is the third in John Fante’s Bandini quartet; the second though to be published. I read the first, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, back in 2009. In my review at the time I talked about Wait’s emotional intensity and called it a triumph,  and I was particularly impressed with its depiction of the fetid inner experience of adolescence (something the Adrian Mole books got terribly, terribly wrong and that my current read, Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything, also captures well).

As a rule I’m not a fan of coming-of-age stories. It’s one reason I don’t read any YA fiction. I’m even less of a fan though of stories about the difficulty of being a writer. Yes, being a writer is hard. So is being a checkout assistant at Tesco.

If there’s any rule I do believe about fiction though it’s that with enough talent the topic doesn’t really matter. Danilo Kiš wrote a superb book about being a young writer – so well written that I didn’t just forgive the hackneyed subject matter, I embraced it. John Fante does the same thing with Ask the Dust.

Arturo Bandini is living dirt poor in Los Angeles. He survives by eating oranges, so cheap he buys them by the sackful and eats almost nothing else. He knows he’s a great writer – he’s had a short story published and he keeps a suitcase full of copies of the magazine it was published in so that he can hand them out when needed.

Fante captures the sheer exhilaration of youth – your whole future before you, laid out and glittering. Arturo veers between grandiose hope and utter despair, wracked by hunger and unfulfilled lust. His head is filled with fantasies of his name on the library shelves next to Dreiser and Mencken, of his future fame and the respect it will bring:

Bandini (being interviewed prior to departure for Sweden): “My advice to all young writers is quite simple. I would caution them never to evade a new experience. I would urge them to live life in the raw, to grapple with it bravely, to attack it with naked fists.” Reporter: “Mr. Bandini, how did you come to write this book which won you the Nobel Award?” Bandini: “The book is based on a true experience which happened to me one night in Los Angeles. Every word of that book is true. I lived that book, I experienced it.”

Right now though, right now he’s a nobody and copies of his story gather dust on the desks and tables of the people he gives them to, unasked for and unwanted. He has his face pressed against the glass of the window of the world, hungry and intent.

I was passing the doorman of the Biltmore, and I hated him at once, with his yellow braids and six feet of height and all that dignity, and now a black automobile drove to the curb, and a man got out. He looked rich; and then a woman got out, and she was beautiful, her fur was silver fox, and she was a song across the sidewalk and inside the swinging doors, and I thought oh boy for a little of that, just a day and a night of that, and she was a dream as I walked along, her perfume still in the wet morning air.

Later:

Yes, it’s true: but I have seen houses in Bel-Air with cool lawns and green swimming pools. I have wanted women whose very shoes are worth all I have ever possessed. I have seen golf clubs on Sixth Street in the Spalding window that make me hungry just to grip them. I have grieved for a necktie like a holy man for indulgences. I have admired hats in Robinson’s the way critics gasp at Michelangelo.

Isn’t that beautiful? In his foreword Bukowski talks about how with Fante each line has its own energy, each page a feeling of something carved into it. That’s what I see in that prose too. Sentence after sentence laid down like careful brickwork, or like a drystone wall where a single badly placed piece could bring down the whole. I read this book and I almost feel love for it.

Arturo finds himself attracted to a Mexican-American waitress. He’s drawn to her, but she brings out his own self-loathing and his shame at being Italian-American. He thinks of her as not really American, not like he is, drowning his doubts about his own status by showing his disdain for hers.

She’s more experienced than he is and more confident, all of which makes it vital that he shows his own superiority. He courts her with copies of his story, with poetry plagiarised from another  writer. He’s crushed when she laughs about it with her workmates. Desire and incomprehension wash between them.

Meanwhile, back at his apartments, his neighbour borrows money from him and then grills steaks the smell of which makes Arturo drool but which the neighbour won’t share. It’s life in other words – messy, selfish, strange and compromised.

It’s perhaps not a surprise that Bukowski loved Fante. Both of them write about ordinary things with extraordinary passion. Both of them write without blinking, showing the glory and ugliness in what they see. There’s an interesting chain of influence here. Ask the Dust is hugely influenced by Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (not that I noticed until Emma of bookaroundthecorner pointed it out to me, it is pretty obvious though once you think about it). Fante in turn influences Bukowski. Hunger. Ask the Dust. Post Office. It’s a triptych of excellence.

I’m going to wrap up by bringing out one last focus of the book, and that’s LA itself. I can’t actually improve on what Emma wrote about this part of the novel on her own blog, here, so I urge you to read her review if you haven’t already. Fante’s California is a physical place. I could smell it; feel its heat, the dampness of its fog and the grit of the sand blown in off the desert.

Kevin of kevinfromcanada first introduced me to John Fante, with his overview post of the Bandini quartet here. I owe Kevin thanks for quite a few literary introductions over the years, as do most readers of his blog. That’s part of course of what these blogs are for. Mostly they’re a conversation that bloggers and commenters have with each other, a leisurely discussion of what works for us, what doesn’t. They’re also though sometimes a chance to say hey, here it is, this is the good stuff. This is what you were looking for. Fante is the good stuff.

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Filed under California, Fante, John, US Literature

You had such a vision of the street / As the street hardly understands;

Prufrock and Other Observations by T.S. Eliot

It’s often thought that modernism is difficult, inaccessible, not the sort of thing most readers will enjoy. When the BBC carried out a survey to discover Britain’s favourite poet though the winner was T.S. Eliot, high priest of Modernism with a capital M.

It’s not a surprise of course that the winner was a poet taught in schools, few people read poetry after school (poetry often seems more written than read). I find it a cheering result, at least partly because Eliot isn’t the easiest poet to read (though he’s not nearly as hard as his reputation might suggest). It’s certainly a much better result than the BBC’s 2003 best novel survey which came up with a top 100 list that was staggering for its obviousness and mediocrity.

I didn’t vote in the poll, but if I had I’d have voted Eliot too. The reason I’d have voted Eliot isn’t The Wasteland, masterpiece as that is, but because he wrote what is probably my favourite poem – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Prufrock_And_Other_Observations

Prufrock and Other Observations was first published by The Egoist in 1917. Nowadays there’s a lovely little Faber and Faber imprint – pocket sized and printed on good quality paper and generally a pleasure to hold (as the Faber poetry volumes tend to be).

Prufrock and Other Observations contains twelve poems of varying lengths and styles. Of these the big beast is clearly The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but there are other stand-outs such as Portrait of a Lady; Preludes (“And then the lighting of the lamps”); Rhapsody on a Windy Night; Morning at the Window; Aunt Helen; Hysteria; La Figla che Piange; as well as arguably lesser efforts such as The Boston Evening Transcript; Cousin Nancy; and Mr. Apollinax. I suspect Conversation Gallante is also a lesser effort, but one I liked and I’ll talk a bit more about below.

There isn’t a single poem in this collection that hasn’t been the subject of exhaustive academic analysis, none of which I have read. There isn’t a poem here which hasn’t been comprehensively picked clean of references, inspirations, influences and subtexts. I don’t do this for a living though, nor do I have exams to sit, which means that I have the luxury of just reading the poems for themselves, taking from them those parts that speak to me.

Here, after an introductory quote from Dante in the Italian, are the opening lines of Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                               10
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

This is profoundly alienated language – “muttering retreats”, “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels”, “Streets that follow like a tedious argument”. There’s a sense of a grubby, tawdry reality. This is an internal monologue weighed down by the futility of its own debate (I’m aware there are other argued interpretations).

What follows is a man arguing with himself as to whether or not to confess his love for a woman. He plays through the whole encounter in his mind – the journey to her, climbing up her stairs, and then the impassable barrier of indifferent decorum.

Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

The poem is rich with images taken from religion and myth – opening with Dante, referencing Hamlet, John the Baptist, Lazarus, mermaids. Against all that though is the suffocating mundanity of a room with tea and polite conversation and the sheer impossibility of breaking through to something that actually has meaning, something profound (Mr. Apollinax brings out these contrasts much more clearly, but for me to lesser effect).

The poem is suffused with desire:

Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)

but there is no certainty that the desire is in any way returned. Polite Edwardian England has no place in it for passion. Prufrock, middle-aged and painfully conscious of his own absurdity, has no power to shake the age and transform it.

Eliot then shows the gap between the dream and the suffocating reality, leading to some of the most painful lines I have ever read:

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

That gap, that pause for reflection between stanzas, makes the line “I do not think that they will sing to me” hit like a hammerblow. It underlines the full tragedy of Prufrock’s (far from unique) situation. It is a poem which speaks of disenchantment, not just in the obvious sense but in that referred to by Josipovici in his What Ever Happened to Modernism? Prufrock is modern, as is the world, and our old dreams are dead and all we have in their place is form emptied of substance.

Preludes and Rhapsody on a Windy Night also explore the disillusionment brought by mucky prosaicism and the sheer pain of existence among indifference, as does Morning at the Window (repeated below in full):

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.

The brown waves of fog toss up to me
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts
An aimless smile that hovers in the air
And vanishes along the level of the roofs

Again there’s that impressionistic conjuring of the city and the urban environment, there’s that feeling of terrible isolation and there’s that wonderful and surprising juxtaposition of images – “the damp souls of housemaids”. Above all though, for me, there is disenchantment and alienation. If this were religious poetry I would talk here as I would have with Prufrock of how the sacred remains barely visible but forever out of grasp in a fallen world, but it’s not religious poetry and the world isn’t fallen because the truth is worse than that. If the world were fallen we could climb back up, be restored to grace, but grace was only ever a dream and human voices have woken us.

The last poem I’ll single out to discuss is much lighter in tone, and it’s Conversation Gallante. Here it is, also in full:

I observe: ‘Our sentimental friend the moon!
Or possibly (fantastic, I confess)
It may be Prester John’s balloon
Or an old battered lantern hung aloft
To light poor travellers to their distress.’
She then: ‘How you digress!’

And I then: ‘Someone frames upon the keys
That exquisite nocturne, with which we explain
The night and moonshine; music which we seize
To body forth our own vacuity.’

She then: ‘Does this refer to me?’
‘Oh no, it is I who am inane.’

‘You, madam, are the eternal humorist
The eternal enemy of the absolute,
Giving our vagrant moods the slightest twist!
With your air indifferent and imperious
At a stroke our mad poetics to confute — ‘
And- Are we then so serious?’

This is Eliot in much more playful form. It’s not a great poem as say Prufrock is, but it does capture nicely a certain kind of flirtatious conversation, of the woman constantly slightly ahead of the narrator. The majority of the speech is the man’s, apparently driving the conversation, but at each turn the woman outwits him and he finds his flurry of words effortlessly parried with a single line.

There is of course again here an example of the fantastic being defeated by the mundane, but for me at least without the despondency carried by the other poems. I’ve been in that situation, trying hard to impress someone who knows that’s what I’m doing and who doesn’t plan to make it easy for me, and there is an inherent comedy to it which Eliot is well aware of.

The poem illustrates one final point, which is that throughout this collection (and perhaps in Eliot’s poetry more broadly) it’s men who are sensitive and experience deep emotions for which they have no outlet. Women by contrast are sometimes attractive, but rarely reflective. Eliot is brilliant and his poetry is I think as good as art gets, but he writes firmly from a male viewpoint. Even with that though Eliot’s perception is so acute, his observations so universal, that I would have thought as many women as men would recognise themselves in his work.

In a way Eliot’s gender representations reminded me of a conversation I had years ago, where I described to a woman how as a teenager I’d sometimes been awed by girls I thought too cool to approach – utterly diminished by their impenetrably aloof beauty and unable to even speak to them. I’d naively thought it a uniquely male experience, but of course it isn’t. Her comment was that she’d had the same thing with some boys, and why wouldn’t she? Disillusion, desire, the need for something beyond the everyday, if these aren’t fundamental human experiences then what is?

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Filed under Eliot, T.S., Modernist Fiction, Poetry

Dog ate a dead crab

All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to properly update the blog – too busy at work. That also means I’m reading terrifically slowly, inching my way through Edith Grossman’s Don Quixote translation a few pages a day. Thankfully, since I’m crawling through Don Quixote at the speed of a mobility-impaired snail, it is at least a very good translation and an absolute pleasure to read.

Anyway, enough about Don Quixote for now, because this entry is about another very good book (seamless segue there, absolutely seamless) – Evie Wyld’s second novel titled All the Birds, Singing. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him from taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed.

I love that opening. Immediately I’m uneasy – another sheep, so not the first; mangled and bled out, so probably not an accidental death; there’s a total lack of sentiment both in the reaction to the body and in the fact that the narrator’s dog is named simply Dog. That’s a lot of information packed into one paragraph.

On top of that there’s some lovely description there. The innards not yet crusting, it’s unpleasant but arresting and easy to picture. The vapours rising as if from a steamed pudding, which as well as being evocative and disquieting (mixing imagery of food and death) tells the reader that it’s probably cold. I love too the crows, “shining, strutting and rasping”, flying away but not too far, singing their raucous song.

All the Birds

The “I” in that quote is Jake Whyte, an Australian woman now living on a remote Island in the UK. She farms sheep, but something is killing them. Perhaps a wild beast, perhaps local teenagers, perhaps someone or something else. She has scars on her back, unexplained, and she doesn’t mix much with the other farmers. She lives alone, with Dog, but she fears she’s being watched.

Jake isn’t really an unreliable narrator – there’s nothing to suggest she lies to herself or has many illusions. She isn’t though wholly reliable either. Something very ugly has driven her to her present seclusion, and while it’s certain she feels under threat, besieged, it’s not at all clear that she’s actually in any danger. The local police think she spends too much time alone for her own good, and there’s a definite suspicion that the shadows she jumps at are ones she brought with her. Still, something’s killing the sheep…

Chapter two ducks backwards in time, to when Jake was still in Australia working on a sheep farm in the outback. She went there fleeing something, but one of her workmates has found out her past. He tries to use whatever he’s learned to blackmail her for sex. She breaks his jaw with a punch and soon she’s fleeing again. Whatever’s driving Jake, it’s serious.

As a quick aside, it’s nice to have a female protagonist whose reaction to being menaced in that way is to deck the guy threatening her. Part of Jake’s problem though is that she’s much better at responding to physical challenges than she is to emotional ones.

The novel continues in alternating chapters. The ones in the UK go forward in time in the usual way, each chronologically not long after the last. The Australian chapters though go backwards in time, each showing a key moment in Jake’s history.

The first Australian chapter then is the last in a sense, showing how she came to leave the outback sheep station. The next Australian chapter is earlier, showing how Jake became a sheep shearer but fell out with the man who’d later try to blackmail her. The next shows her arriving at the station – I won’t say where she was before that or what drove her to end up somewhere so remote.

What all this means is that Jake is a woman in hiding. She hid in the Australian outback, but her past found her there. Now she’s hiding on an island where nobody could ever find her, unless of course somehow they have.

With all this I’m making it sound like a crime novel or a thriller. It’s not at all though. It’s as readable as a crime novel, but it’s very much literary fiction. There’s a lot of very careful construction here. References made in the UK sections are explained as the Australian sections slowly excavate Jake’s past. Jake’s situation, past and present, slowly unfolds as Wyld carefully walks that very fine line between maintaining suspense and manipulating the reader.

The risk with this kind of novel is a sense of artificiality. Obviously all novels are artificial, but many (most) novels don’t want to make their artifice too obvious. Here we have two narrative streams one going forward, one back, each shedding light upon the other as well as plenty of symbolism and careful narrative device. It’s an origami novel, and that raises a question about whether it’s too neat, too evidently constructed.

The answer to that question is no, Wyld pulls it off. The reason she does so is the depth and precision of her description. I believed her outback, I believed her island, I believed more to the point in Jake. There’s a beautifully clean matter-of-factness to her prose which shows the essence of what she’s describing while avoiding seeming overwritten. It’s that which saves the book, and more than saves it, makes it good.

This is a book full of terrible things. The slaughtered sheep; Jake’s terrible past; the indifferent violence of the natural world and the casual cruelty of the human; a powerful and horrible scene in Australia where Jake hits a kangaroo with her truck causing it so much suffering she ends up having to kill it with a crowbar to spare it further pain. Jake’s seclusion brings her natural environment to the foreground – isolated from humanity she lives a near-animist existence in which the life around her seems filled with intent and Jake is but one wounded animal among others.

For all that horror and pain though it’s not a bleak book. The descriptions of the natural world are beautiful, and the arrival of an alcoholic drifter who comes to Jake’s farm starts to draw her back from the world she’s constructed for herself – the claustrophobic isolation of her own history.

For a novel like this it always comes down to the writing. Get that right and the rest should follow (get that wrong and it’s painful). Wyld gets it right. This is an oddly difficult novel to quote from, in large part because of its subtlety of structure, much of the effect is lost if taken away from context. It’s full of small yet telling observations. One I couldn’t resist including here comes from when Jake first sees Greg, a sheep shearer that the reader knows later became her lover, shearing a sheep: Greg’s sheep are sleek and clean with no grazes, like they’ve been buttered …” 

I haven’t bought Evie Wyld’s second novel yet, but I shall before the year’s out and it’ll be high on my to read pile. In a way that’s the ultimate test for any author, does one wish to read more by them? I want to read more by Evie Wyld.

Two reviews which I found helpful when I was deciding whether to read this or not were that of David Hebblethwaite at his blog, here, and Simon Savidge’s blog Savidgereads which I don’t link too nearly as often as I should. His review is here. Finally, in the interests of full disclosure I should say that I got my copy directly from Evie Wyld – she had a couple spare and gave them away on twitter to whoever asked first and I happen to follow her account and got lucky.

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Filed under Crows, English Literature, Wyld, Evie