Emotions weren’t like washing. There was no call to peg them out for all the world to view.

An Awfully Big Adventure, by Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge is an exceptionally funny writer, but she’s also a very cruel one. Being a character in a James M. Cain novel would be no bundle of laughs, but given the choice between that and being a character in a Bainbridge novel it’s no contest at all.

Bainbridge’s great trick is to place the extraordinary, the grotesque even, in an utterly prosaic setting. In The Bottle Factory Outing a works’ day out becomes a bitterly black comedy of desire and death. In Awfully the setting is a provincial repertory theatre company in Liverpool in 1950, but once again Bainbridge spins the situation out until it becomes both terrible and terribly funny.

Awfully Big Adventure

Stella Bradshaw is a local teenager. She lives with her uncle and his wife, who fill in as her parents and run a cheap boarding house for travelling salesmen and other flotsam. Her father is unknown; her mother apparently long dead. Stella’s both wilful and contrarian (‘I never doubt myself,’ she said. ‘Only other people.’) Uncle Vernon has the idea that she may be better suited for the stage than a more ordinary life, and so gets her an interview with the local theatre company.

We know it all goes wrong, because the prologue chapter opens with Stella arguing that she’s “not old enough to shoulder the blame. Not all of it. I’m not the only one at fault.” The man interrogating her is disgusted though we don’t know why. After she’s left he asks another character if they’ve got “through to the wife” and whether the “note … shed any illumination?”

At this point you don’t know what the story will be, but you know it won’t end well. Of course, you probably knew that the moment you saw Bainbridge’s name on the cover.

Bainbridge doesn’t waste a moment of her 200 or so pages, launching straight into a comedy of manners and the absurd. When Stella arrives at the theatre for her interview she’s shown into a crowded props room to meet handsome producer Meredith Potter and stage manager Bunny.

There was a curious smell in the room, a mixture of distemper, rabbit glue and damp clothing. Stella lounged against a cocktail cabinet whose glass frontage was engraved with the outline of a naked woman. I’m not going to be cowed, she thought. Not by nipples.

She starts reciting a prepared audition piece, but they aren’t interested and take her for tea and cake instead. It’s an  opportunity for keen social observation:

When Bunny removed his mackintosh the belt swung out and tipped over the milk jug on the table nearest to the hat stand. The pink cloth was so boldly starched the milk wobbled in a tight globule beside the sugar bowl. Bunny didn’t notice. The occupants of the table, three elderly ladies hung with damp fox furs, apologised.

I love that detail of the ladies apologising when Bunny was at fault; it’s incredibly English. Stella has to keep her coat on throughout the tea – she hadn’t expected to be going to a cafe and her clothes underneath are old and worn. She doesn’t eat because she’s afraid they’ll ask her to contribute to the bill. A lesser writer might just have said that Stella lacks both social experience and money, but Bainbridge is the master of showing instead of telling.

Stella becomes one of two juniors at the theatre, along with a nephew of a member of the governing board who “had recently left a military academy after firing a gun at someone he wasn’t supposed to.” He has money and education, but none of Stella’s native sharp wit so allowing Bainbridge to explore the interaction of class, ability and opportunity without overburdening the book.

The rest of the company is a mix of the mediocre and the provincially successful. It’s not the West End, but there’s local pride and they take their art seriously as well as their various rivalries and ambitions. Stella is soon one of them, taking her further than ever from the uncomprehending Uncle Vernon and her home where they have a bath once a week using the “family towel” and where propriety is what matters, not art.

Part of what works so well here is that none of these characters are villains. Some of them aren’t terribly likable, but none of them are really unpleasant. Uncle Vernon for example is staid and in his own way fairly naive, but he loves Stella and he cares for her enough to put her future first even though he knows as she grows closer to the theatre she’ll inevitably leave him behind. Many you could even say are good people (perhaps Uncle Vernon most of all).

Stella isn’t a bad person either. Whatever happens in the end she’s right to say that she shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. What Stella is though is a catalyst. With her dangerous mix of innocence and raw intelligence she’s a slightly plain stick of dynamite thrown among the company. She sees more than she should, but she doesn’t necessarily understand it. She’ll repeat things a wiser person would have left unsaid. She’s a slightly pugnacious agent of chaos who doesn’t mean any harm, but who causes plenty of it all the same.

Awfully is packed with comic moments. There’s lovely running jokes such as Uncle Vernon’s regular calls to local shopkeeper Harcourt to order soap and candles and suchlike in which he pours out his thoughts and asks Harcourt his opinion. Harcourt’s never met Stella, but thanks to Vernon’s calls he knows everything about her and Vernon duly reports back to his wife Harcourt’s comments and words of advice. Meanwhile, Stella has fallen desperately in love with Meredith, completely unaware that he’s gay and so totally misreading him.

When he spoke to her she could scarcely hear what he said for the thudding of her lovesick heart and the chattering of her teeth. Often he told her she ought to wear warmer clothing.

It’s affectionate and warm and it’s easy to get pulled into the challenges of the new production of Peter Pan and Stella’s burgeoning romance with a much older actor and the other romantic tensions within the troupe, but the prologue means that at the back of your mind there’s always a nagging sense of disquiet. The reader knows it will all end badly from the first page. The only question is how.

There are other seemingly discrepant notes, such as Stella’s habit of regularly calling her supposedly dead mother to tell of the day’s adventures while her mother just says “the usual things” in reply. Throughout there’s a dark undercurrent. I’ve only read two Bainbridge’s so far but they have in common a slight sense of something rotten lurking under the surface of the everyday.

Awfully would make a near perfect introduction to Bainbridge. Like Bottle it’s tightly plotted to the point of improbability, but here the balance between the comic and the horrible is perhaps better judged. Stella is a marvellous character, and the ultimate story revelations work well paying off in full the unease set up in the prologue. This is a good example of why Bainbridge has so many fans.

Other reviews

Oddly none I can see, but I’m sure I’ve missed some. Please let me know in the comments.

Holiday

I’m going to be offline for around three weeks, to mid-July. During that time I probably won’t be able to respond to comments, but will when I get back. In the meantime, there’s a link in the sidebar that if pressed directs you to a random post in the archive. If you feel like leaving comments on a random post from my past I’ll be delighted to receive them.

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Filed under Bainbridge, Beryl

the miraculous possibility of their conjunction

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust and translated by Kilmartin and Moncrieff

I’m not sure why Proust is so rarely described as a great comic writer. Perhaps it’s because readers focus instead on the beauty of his prose or his extraordinary psychological insight. It could be because contemporary literary culture undervalues comic fiction. I think though the real reason is that those people who read Proust know perfectly well how funny he is, but most people who discuss or refer to him don’t actually read him. See also: Joyce.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah kicks off with Marcel inadvertently seeing a gay hookup between M. de Charlus and a tailor named Jupien. M. de Charlus is of course one of the Guermantes; at the pinnacle of the social ladder (he frequently looks down on royalty). M. Jupien is a tradesman.

Normally two men of such disparate backgrounds would never become friends or have any kind of social contact. Homosexuality though is a bridge across such barriers. When any romance you might have is already forbidden, it doesn’t much matter if the target of your affections is the wrong class.

Proust uses this apparently trivial incident to springboard a near-40 page consideration of what he considers the miracle of gaydar (though obviously he doesn’t call it that); the misery of isolated gay men living with what they consider a shameful perversion (lacking a wider gay community to contextualise their emotions); and the vagaries of gay love and life in then-contemporary France.

If that sounds modern, it’s because Proust is quintessentially modern. That’s part of his genius. Another part though is that Proust takes these topics, shocking at the time and tragic with hindsight, and just plain has fun with them.

For the two angels who were posted at the gates of Sodom to learn whether its inhabitants (according to Genesis) had indeed done all the things the report of which had ascended to the Eternal Throne must have been, and of this one can only be glad, exceedingly ill chosen by the Lord, who ought to have entrusted the task only to a Sodomite. Such a one would never have been persuaded by such excuses as “A father of six, I’ve got two mistresses,” to lower his flaming sword benevolently and mitigate the punishment. He would have answered: “Yes, and your wife lives in a torment of jealousy. But even when you haven’t chosen these women from Gomorrah, you spend your nights with a watcher of flocks from Hebron.” And he would at once have made him retrace his steps to the city which the rain of fire and brimstone was to destroy. On the contrary, all the shameless Sodomites were allowed to escape, even if, on catching sight of a boy, they turned their heads like Lot’s wife, though without being on that account changed like her into pillars of salt.

For the rest of the book homosexuality remains a major theme. M. de Charlus is a key figure in this volume, and a brilliant comic creation with his mix of vanity, snobbery and lust (I particularly liked that M. de Charlus is widely known to be gay, but utterly convinced that he’s fooling everyone and completely incognito). Lesbianism also features heavily, but I’ll come back to that separately.

From gay sex and cross-class dating (hard to know which is more shocking), Proust goes on to nearly 130 pages describing a party thrown by the Guermantes. After all that, you’re still only a third of the way through the book.

Marcel turns up at Oriane’s uncertain as to whether or not he’s actually invited. As Oriane has burly footmen present to chuck out any gatecrashers he’s naturally a little anxious, but Marcel by now is an accomplished party-goer and something of a figure in society. He is a prized guest, much in demand.

The party itself is full of wonderful comic set-pieces. Here M. de Charlus is speaking with his excellency the Duke of Sidonia. Proust has revealed they share a common vice, but it’s not the one the reader expects:

M. de Charlus and M. de Sidonia had each of them immediately detected the other’s [vice], which was in both cases that of being monologuists in society, to the extent of not being able to stand any interruption. Having decided at once that, in the words of a famous sonnet, there was “no help,” they had made up their minds, not to remain silent, but each to go on talking without any regard to what the other might say. This had resulted in the sort of confused babble produced in Molière’s comedies by a number of people saying different things simultaneously. The Baron, with his deafening voice, was moreover certain of keeping the upper hand, of drowning the feeble voice of M. de Sidonia—without however discouraging him, for, whenever M. de Charlus paused for a moment to draw breath, the gap was filled by the murmuring of the Spanish grandee who had imperturbably continued his discourse.

Marcel passes on leaving them to their soliloquies, but having made it past the door guards soon finds himself facing another social challenge. Marcel has not been introduced to the prince, M. de Guermantes, who is hosting with Oriane. Marcel cannot of course introduce himself, but equally he must greet his host. How then can he arrange an introduction?

What follows is a series of stratagems and ruses to effect an introduction to a man Marcel has previously spoken with, but who by society’s rules he has not been introduced to. After several attempts he gets M. de Charlus to agree to introduce him, but then a chance comment offends the ever-prickly Charlus and Marcel is no closer. Then he tries Mme de Souvré, who knows both him and the prince:

Mme de Souvré had the art, if called upon to convey a request to some influential person, of appearing at once in the petitioner’s eyes to be recommending him, and in those of the influential person not to be recommending the petitioner, so that this ambiguous gesture gave her a credit balance of gratitude with the latter without putting her in debit with the former. Encouraged by this lady’s civilities to ask her to introduce me to M. de Guermantes, I found that she took advantage of a moment when our host was not looking in our direction, laid a motherly hand on my shoulder, and, smiling at the averted face of the Prince who could not see her, thrust me towards him with a would-be protective but deliberately ineffectual gesture which left me stranded almost where I had started. Such is the cowardice of society people.

The party is filled with other comic vignettes, including one man who is so fawning that he has “an excess of politeness which he maintained even when playing tennis, thus, by dint of asking leave of the eminent personages present before hitting the ball, invariably losing the game for his partner)”. There are, however, darker currents also.

At this point in the narrative, evidence is emerging that Dreyfus is in fact innocent and that senior army figures lied. Until now whether you were a Dreyfusard or an anti-Dreyfusard was more a matter of tribal allegiance than anything else; a short-hand for describing your broader politics. With evidence of innocence though, that starts to change.

Some anti-Dreyfusards faced with new facts start to question their beliefs, though mostly quietly so as not to be ostracised by their friends (there is a nice sequence where a husband and wife both form Dreyfusard views, but each keep it from the other). Some however see the weakening of their case as reason to argue it all the more strongly, such as M. de Guermantes “who evidently considered that to denounce Dreyfus as guilty of high treason, whatever opinion one might hold in one’s heart of hearts as to his guilt, constituted a sort of thank-offering for the manner in which one had been received in the Faubourg Saint-Germain”.

Worse yet, as the Dreyfus case begins to unravel the anti-semitism rife in French society becomes even more outspoken. Swann is among those who become known as Dreyfusards. His views are no longer particularly unusual, but while one cannot easily condemn a prince for Dreyfusard sympathies Swann is a Jew and one may always condemn the Jews:

“I have always been foolish enough to believe that a Jew can be a Frenchman, I mean an honourable Jew, a man of the world.”

“Don’t you see,” M. de Guermantes went on, “even from the point of view of his beloved Jews, since he is absolutely determined to stand by them, Swann has made a bloomer of incalculable significance. He has proved that they’re all secretly united and are somehow forced to give their support to anyone of their own race, even if they don’t know him personally. It’s a public menace. We’ve obviously been too easy-going, and the mistake Swann is making will create all the more stir since he was respected, not to say received, and was almost the only Jew that anyone knew. People will say: Ab uno disce omnes.”

There is of course a kind of parallel here; gays and Jews both being outsider groups having to assimilate into a dominant and intolerant culture. Ostensibly, society accepts Jews and condemns gays. Proust, however, has an unerring eye for hypocrisy and is only too aware that his society will accept gays provided they are discrete but will never regard Jews as truly French.

Following the party, Marcel goes on holiday (for several months) to Balbec. It’s his first visit since his grandmother’s death, and while to date he hasn’t really felt her loss somehow being back in that context brings it suddenly home. He can no longer knock on the wall between their rooms and expect her to come round to tend to him. He can knock all day, but she will never again answer.

Proust’s description of Marcel’s grandmother’s final decline and death was one of the highlights (if that’s the right word) of The Guermantes Way. Here Proust writes of grief with the same skill. Once it emerges it’s everywhere. Even when he feels moments of happiness, the fact of feeling happy itself triggers the grief anew as he feels guilty for not feeling sad.

Grief swallows Marcel, and through it he sees too how much his grandmother’s loss has devastated his mother. No emotion though, happy or sad, can entirely consume us indefinitely even if we would wish it to. Soon, Marcel is attending such society as Balbec presents and otherwise spending his days with Albertine, whom he may or may not love but certainly desires.

Proust contrasts the glitter of Paris society, explored in the Guermantes’ party, with the more provincial and bourgois Balbec scene. Here the Verdurin’s rule. They are a family of bourgeois who rent a highly desirable house from the Cambremer family. The Cambremer’s have title and position, but no money, and Proust has great fun with the sniping and condescension between the two.

Marcel is again in high demand (hardly surprising given his status in Paris) and soon becomes part of the Verdurin set. M. de Charlus also shows up, pursuing a romance, and himself becomes a highly prized Verdurin catch (they are however so far out of mainstream society that they ask M. de Charlus if he has ever met the famous M. de Guermantes, unaware that the two are brothers and unsure whether to believe him when told).

Marcel should then be happy. He is in his beloved Balbec; he has society and he has Albertine who being of a slightly lesser family than Marcel’s and not having much by way of money is as affectionate as he might wish. Marcel though has spent his entire life with women who catered to his whims, and as we saw in the first volume when his mother did not come immediately to tuck him in at night he takes poorly to his women (the possessive is intentional) having any kind of life beyond his needs.

In particular, Marcel becomes fixated on the thought that Albertine may be a lesbian. He finds this unbearable, less because it means she is unfaithful than because it makes her part of a world utterly beyond his control. Marcel is both jealous and unreasonable, putting her constantly to the test and never satisfied for long with the answers he gets.

I could have dispensed with seeing her every day; I was happy when I left her, and I knew that the calming effect of that happiness might last for several days. But at that moment I would hear Albertine as she left me say to her aunt or to a girlfriend “Tomorrow at eight-thirty, then. We mustn’t be late, the others will be ready at a quarter past.” The conversation of a woman one loves is like the ground above a dangerous subterranean stretch of water; one senses constantly beneath the words the presence, the penetrating chill of an invisible pool; one perceives here and there the treacherous seepage, but the water itself remains hidden.

To be fair, there is some evidence that Albertine may be gay, or at least bisexual. Partly this allows Proust to discuss gay women just as he has gay men, with Marcel obsessively seeking out information about women he has heard are lesbians so as to discover Albertine’s connections to them. Partly too this shows a less attractive side of Marcel, and his obsessive and controlling nature.

I could easily keep writing, but I’ve already written far too much. In a few weeks I’ll try to write a follow-up post on the role of the car and airplane in this volume and how these new technologies epitomise the arrival of modernity, but I’m already well over 2,000 words here and I’ve not managed to say as much as I’d have liked about the relationship between Marcel and Albertine, or the dynamics of the Verdurin set, or the comic descriptions of the hotel staff (including for me the only missed beat in the book – the hotel managers wearying malapropisms which aren’t nearly as hilarious as Proust seems to think they are), or a hundred other things…

At times I found The Guermantes Way heavy going; I had to push myself through parts of it and it tested my desire to read the whole sequence. Sodom and Gomorrah though, with its insight, its humour and its sheer richness, restored me. This was the first of my #TBR20. If I have another #TBR20 after this one, volume five will definitely be among that number.

Other reviews

Emma of Book Around the Corner has a page devoted to Proust, here. She wrote three separate pieces on this volume alone, and I recommend all of them. Her main piece is here, she wrote an article on the treatment of homosexuality in this volume here, and I found this piece on the comic nature of this volume (drawing comparisons with Molière) particularly fascinating. If you read only one of Emma’s read the Molière (then read the others, they’re worth it). Emma also helpfully links to this piece from Caravana de Recuerdos and this rather good one from Vapour Trails.

Finally, Allan Massie in The Telegraph, shows here that at least some of the more mainstream commentators do get that Proust is, among much else, a great comic writer.

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Filed under French Literature, In Search of Lost Time, Modernist Fiction, Proust, Marcel

ancient cans rusted thin as old leaves

Mona Lisa Overdrive, by William Gibson

Mona Lisa Overdrive is the third book in Gibson’s famous “Sprawl” trilogy, following up on the extraordinary Neuromancer and his somewhat less successful Count Zero.

The key problem with Count Zero is that it’s very much the middle book of a trilogy. The plot doesn’t stand on its own feet, leaving much of what’s going on to be explained or resolved in the next novel. It’s still a mostly rewarding read, but it’s not a standalone work and on its own doesn’t make a huge amount of sense.

Mona Lisa Overdrive provides the resolution that Count Zero lacked, and more than that it makes the whole trilogy greater than any of its individual parts. I still remember being blown away by it when I first read it, and reading it fresh now almost 30 years later I’m still impressed.

mona_lisa_overdrive

The story is set some years since the events of Count Zero, which itself was a few years on from Neuromancer. The book opens with Kumiko, daughter to a Yakuza boss, being sent to London for her own safety. Technology has advanced and she now has an AI in a pocket device, a combination of local guide, adviser and security software. She runs into Sally Shears, who readers recognise as being Molly from Neuromancer now under a new name but just as deadly as ever.

Back in the US a young prostitute named Mona with a marked resemblance to major star Angie Mitchell (from Count Zero) has attracted the attention of some very dangerous and very rich people. Her pimp thinks that this is his shot at making some serious money and plans to trade Mona for a seat at the big table. Mona doesn’t know much, but she knows better than that. When big fish take an interest in little fish, the little fish tend to get eaten.

Angie herself is in rehab. She and Bobby Newmark (Count Zero) are no longer together, and she’s isolated in a world of luxury and people more concerned with her bankability than her welfare. She finds the drug she’s recovering from hidden where she’d be sure to find it, raising a question as to who might want her not to get clean. Angie starts to get concerned that she might be more valuable as a malleable addict than as a free agent with a clear head.

Finally, Slick Henry is a brain-damaged sculptor living in a contemporary wasteland of disused factories and abandoned industrial waste named Dog Solitude. He gets paid by local hood Kid Afrika to look after a seemingly unconscious man on life-support who’s hooked up to some new type of cyberdrive. Slick could use the money and he owes Kid a favour, but nobody would hide in Dog Solitude without some very good reason.

That’s four fairly meaty plot-strands, and every one of them comes with a web of supporting characters, antagonists and chance encounters. It’s a densely packed book. Gibson has to progress every one of those stories, bring them ultimately together and make sense of the previous two books. He pulls it off in just over 300 pages. Neal Stephenson and David Mitchell could take a lesson here.

In Neuromancer and Count Zero Gibson focused largely on characters who were outsiders – professional criminals, small-time chancers and has-beens hoping for a comeback. What they had in common was that whether they knew it or not they were largely caught up in other people’s schemes. They were protagonists, but they weren’t the ones actually driving the story.

He largely continues with that approach here, though with some modifications. Angie is the first viewpoint character who’s already at the top, not trying to reach it (or get back to it). Kumiko is essentially a very rich schoolgirl, albeit one born into an organised crime family. Mona and Slick also depart a little from the Gibson mould to date, with neither of them having any significantly greater ambition than not to be drawn into the book’s plot.

Put simply, over the course of the trilogy you can see Gibson expanding his range. Where in Neuromancer everyone is essentially a player, by Count Zero we have everything from international stars to cheap hookers. It’s a much more varied character palette. I don’t want however to oversell this point. Gibson has a greater range of characters, but none of them are particularly deep or nuanced. There simply isn’t space. Gibson is a writer of impressions, not details.

One problem with writing a review over a month after reading the book is that while it’s easy to remember plot and character it’s much harder to remember subtler elements such as themes. To an extent though that perhaps also reflects the fact that Mona Lisa is less interested in exploring issues of dehumanisation and how the rich and poor may as well be different species than it is in bringing the trilogy to a satisfactory conclusion. Gibson is still writing about the intersection of money and the street, but that’s a continuation of an overarching theme rather than the introduction of anything new (and arguably a strand running through his broader body of work).

Mona Lisa then is a novel for the existing fan. That doesn’t make it bad – I happen to think it’s very good – but it assumes you’ve already bought into Gibson’s world. It’s a wrapping up, not an opening out.

Gibson remains a brilliant conjurer of the detritus of modern industrial society. The title of this piece comes from the middle of a descriptive passage and seemed to me a quintessentially Gibsonian line. Similarly, this quote for me couldn’t come from any other writer:

Slick spent the night on a piece of gnawed gray foam under a workbench on Factory’s ground floor, wrapped in a noisy sheet of bubble-packing that stank of free monomers.

It’s not a Gibson novel if nobody’s sleeping on foam. It’s a sentence however which is classically Gibsonian not just in having a foam bed, but more to the point in its evocation of a whole world from an imagistic handful of details. It’s easy to see what Gibson’s describing, but more than that you can also feel it, hear it and smell it. Gibson is able to pack a tremendous amount of sensory noise into a very small space.

That, perhaps, is why his futures convince even though the details are nonsense. It’s because they feel lived in, and because they feel messy and full of people making do the best they can to get by. Here newspapers are distributed by fax which leads to huge piles of discarded fax paper, which is used by the poor as free insulation or bedding. It’s in one sense an incredibly dated idea. Here in 2015 writing this I can’t recall when I last saw a fax. It feels real though, because it fits with the world we do know. I travel to work on a tube train filled with discarded free newspapers which get collected up by the homeless to line their sleeping bags. The details are different, but the imagined future is still surprisingly prescient because it was really a mirror of the present.

Interestingly, where the book dates most isn’t the bizarre ideas of how computers work or the omnipresent fax paper but the descriptions of London and the Portobello Road. I grew up within a short walk of Portobello, and it’s oddly nostalgic to see Kumiko visiting markets I remember from childhood that have long since been priced out of what is now one of the most expensive parts of London.

Gibson didn’t predict the gentrification of the Ladbroke Grove area, which is fair enough because he’s not in the prediction business. He wouldn’t have been surprised by it though, because if there’s one thing Gibson does understand it’s what it feels like to have your face pressed up against the glass with people who have everything just on the other side and never giving you a single thought.

She remembered Cleveland, ordinary kind of day before it was time to get working, sitting up in Lanette’s, looking at a magazine. Found this picture of Angie laughing in a restaurant with some other people, everybody pretty but beyond that it was like they had this glow, not really in the photograph but it was there anyway, something you could feel. Look, she said to Lanette, showing her the picture, they got this glow.

It’s called money, Lanette said.

The Sprawl trilogy remains one of my favourite trilogies in fiction. As a whole, it’s a landmark piece of SF and it’s no surprise to me at all that it remains readily in print. This was perhaps my third rereading over the years, and I can’t rule out there won’t be more. Gibson’s future remains relevant because we are part of it, because we always were part of it. SF futures are often a refracted present, but rarely so much so as here.

Other reviews

None I’m aware of from any of the blogs I regularly follow, but please feel free to link me to some in the comments if you know of any particularly interesting ones.

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Filed under Gibson, William, Science Fiction

I paid little attention to the insistent looks of men.

Troubling Love. by Elena Ferrante and translated by Ann Goldstein

This’ll be a short review, because unfortunately even after only a month or so I can already remember almost nothing about Troubling Love. Perhaps that’s the only review I need give it.

Ferrante though has been one of the big discoveries of the past year for a lot of readers. Joanna Walsh has championed her in the Guardian, and many blogs I follow have raved about her. I plan to give her another try, but I’d be very interested in hearing in the comments from anyone else who’s read this one or has thoughts on Ferrante more generally.

TroublingLove

The novel opens with the narrator, Delia, remembering the death of Amalia, her mother. Amalia had been coming to visit but had never arrived. Later her body washed ashore; she had committed suicide on Delia’s birthday.

Delia’s relationship with Amalia had been a tangled one, as is true for many people with their parents. I loved this description of Delia tidying after each of Amalia’s visits:

I went through the rooms rearranging according to my taste everything she had arranged according to hers. I put the saltshaker back on the shelf where I had kept it for years, I restored the detergent to the place that had always seemed to me convenient, I made a mess of the order she had brought to my drawers, I re-created chaos in the room where I worked.

Before she died, Amalia made a series of incoherent calls to Delia. She said she was being held by a man; she laughed; she rattled off a string of obscenities (something characters do a lot in this book). When she was found she was naked except for a new and expensive bra, quite at odds with her usual clothes.

Amalia’s death makes little sense to Delia, not so much the fact of it as the facts around it. Why did her mother get off the train early? Who was the man she referred to? What happened to her normal clothes and a suitcase she had with her when she set off? Why did she have the high-end lingerie?

More strangeness soon emerges. Delia learns that her mother had been seeing someone; her neighbour says she was happy. Years before Delia’s father had been obsessed with the idea of Amalia’s infidelity. He had stopped her from going out and from dressing up. Was she now making up for lost time?

An elegant old man appears at Amalia’s apartment. He had been at the funeral too, where he had reeled off a litany of obscenities (seriously, this happens a lot in the book, usually with variations of that phrase to describe it). He has the missing suitcase, and trades it with Delia in return for a bag of her mother’s old underwear.

The old man is named Caserta. It’s a name Delia recognises from Amalia’s past; it’s a name Uncle Filippo, the only survivor of Amalia’s generation, still curses.

The setup then is similar to that in a crime novel. We have a death; a mystery; strange characters; old secrets. If there was a crime though there’s no suggestion it was murder. The mystery here is Amalia’s life, not her death.

Troubling Love is an intensely physical novel. Delia’s period starts during the funeral. It’s heavy and unexpected. She has to buy emergency tampons and head to a filthy toilet in a local bar to put them in. As an aside, I can’t remember the last novel I’ve read where a character buys tampons. Strange that something so normal is normally so ignored.

The body, a woman’s body, is here an ambivalent space. Ferrante focuses on sweat and blood and food and sex with fascination and disgust suffusing the narrative equally. Bodies, women’s bodies, both compel and repel. She’s particularly good on how men occupy, colonise is perhaps a better word, women’s physical space. Here Delia is on a funicular:

Women suffocated between male bodies, panting because of that accidental closeness, irritating even if apparently guiltless. In the crush men used the women to play silent games with themselves. One stared ironically at a dark-haired girl to see if she would lower her gaze. One, with his eyes, caught a bit of lace between two buttons of a blouse, or harpooned a strap. Others passed the time looking out the window into cars for a glimpse of an uncovered leg, the play of muscles as a foot pushed brake or clutch, a hand absentmindedly scratching the inside of a thigh. A small thin man, crushed by those behind him, tried to make contact with my knees and nearly breathed in my hair.

One of the most uncomfortable scenes of the book is where Delia has sex. She has never got any particular pleasure from the act; she has never orgasmed. Instead she just sweats, more and more, turning the bed into a near-literal swamp.

The missing suitcase, once returned, is discovered to be filled with lingerie. It’s in Delia’s size, as was the expensive bra Amalia was wearing when she died. Underwear, the most intimate of garments, is key here. As the trade with Caserta demonstrates early on, underwear is currency. Amalia died wearing underwear bought for Delia. It’s another thread of the current of intimacy and disquieting physicality running through the novel.

Amalia was more comfortable with the male gaze. Her marriage ended in jealousy and abuse years before her death. Delia’s father couldn’t accept his wife’s independence or that other men might look at what in his view belonged to him. She was an attractive woman full of life and easy charisma and he could never forgive her for existing beyond him:

Oh yes: for that, for her charm he punished her with slaps and punches. He interpreted her gestures, her looks, as signs of dark dealings, of secret meetings, of allusive understandings meant to marginalize him.

This was Ferrante’s first novel, and perhaps that shows. There’s something quite attractive about the structure of a crime novel being used for a book which is largely about offences which never involve the police – men’s control of women and the shaming of female physicality and sexuality. There’s some great language (“Amalia had the unpredictability of a splinter, I couldn’t impose on her the prison of a single adjective.”). There’s plenty to like here.

There’s plenty too though to be less excited by. There’s repetition, particularly with that imagery of the litany or stream of obscenities which comes up several times. There’s the use of that oldest of plot conceits, the family drama buried in the secrets of the past. There’s a faint whiff at times of melodrama. There’s the fact above all that a month later I can barely remember it, and had to check my copy to remind myself what happened.

Troubling Love then for me is not a great book, nor even close to one. It’s a mostly well written book with some good and uncomfortable ideas, but built on a platform which is perhaps a little too traditional in terms of story and which at times felt like it was trying a little too hard to shock. I liked it, but I didn’t love it.

I do plan to read more Ferrante. There’s far too many great reviews of her to judge her on one book. I made a mistake though picking her first as my first, and there’s perhaps a reason this particular novel is one of her least talked about.

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of. I did however find this excellent piece from Iowa Review which is worth reading and which makes some great points about the limits of the translation. Edit: Tony, on twitter, pointed me to his (more positive) review here which is worth reading, particularly as he puts this book in the context of her other works.

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Filed under Ferrante, Elena, Italian Literature, Italy

Freddy reviewed his life and realized that altruism had been his major fault.

Miami Blues, by Charles Willeford

If you’re even slightly a crime fan, I can save you some time on this review. You’ll like this one. Go pick up a copy.

If however you’d like a little more detail, read on.

Miami2

That’s the Penguin Modern Classics cover, which I think is pretty good. Unfortunately it’s not the one I have, which is below. This one’s fine, but more generic and there’s nobody remotely like that woman in this book:

170px-MiamiBluesBook
In my review of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane I commented on his opening sentence and paragraph. Barry knows how to start a book, there’s no question to it, but Willeford’s no slouch in that department either. Here’s Willeford’s opener:

Frederick J. Frenger, Jr., a blithe psychopath from California, asked the flight attendant in first class for another glass of champagne and some writing materials. She brought him a cold half-bottle, uncorked it and left it with him, and returned a few moments later with some Pan Am writing paper and a white ball point pen. For the next hour, as he sipped champagne, Freddy practiced writing the signatures of Claude L. Bytell, Ramon Mendez, and Herman T. Gotlieb.

As soon as I read that I knew I was in good hands.

It’s the early ’80s. Freddy has headed to Miami to make a new life for himself. He’s new out of jail, armed with three wallets stolen back West before he got on the plane. Willeford uses Freddy’s examination of his loot to neatly establish his essential lack of empathy:

As he looked through the three wallets he found himself wondering about their owners. One wallet was eelskin, another was imitation ostrich, and the third was a plain cowhide billfold filled with color snapshots of very plain children. Why would any man want to carry around photographs of ugly children in his wallet? And why would anyone buy imitation ostrich, when you could get an authentic ostrich-skin wallet for only two or three hundred dollars more? Eelskin he could understand; it was soft and durable, and the longer you carried it in your hip pocket the softer it got.

Freddy has no concept of why a man might have a cheap wallet when expensive ones are easily available at knife or gunpoint. He certainly has no idea of why a man might have photos of children if the children don’t look good. Freddy, it’s fair to say, is not a people person.

On arriving at Miami airport Freddy gets accosted by a Hare Krishna guy trying to collect money for charity. The Krishna-guy pins a piece of candy to Freddy’s lapel. It’s a new suit, and Freddy doesn’t like having a hole made in it. He casually snaps the guy’s finger and leaves him lying on the carpet unconscious from pain. Nobody cares, the Krishna-guy was a pest anyway. Freddy isn’t the only person in Miami lacking empathy.

Soon Freddy’s shacked up with Susan Waggoner, a student originally of Okeechobee who found nothing in Miami but work as a mediocre hooker and English lit classes she doesn’t understand. Freddy’s dreaming of the big score and Susan wouldn’t say no to a slice of that, but Freddy just isn’t a big picture guy and he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.

Freddy’s actions leave a trail, and before long Miami detective Hoke Moseley is looking very hard at Freddy convinced there’s something badly wrong about him. In another neat scene Freddy claims to be at college with Susan, but Hoke notices that Freddy’s upper-body muscles are a lot more developed than his lower, indicating working out in a cell, and that when Freddy eats some pudding he puts his free arm around the bowl to stop anyone from trying to grab it.

Miami Blues hums along with a nicely black sense of humour and a fondness for running jokes. Hoke has dentures, and keeps having thugs take them from him leaving him literally toothless. He ends up in hospital for a while with a broken jaw, and everyone who visits brings him a box of gift fudge. When he gets out he grows a beard, too sore to shave, and everyone he meets criticises it saying it makes him look like some actor or other but a different one every time.

The jokes might sound a little cruel, seeing them off the page and set down in that paragraph above, but they’re not. It’s more that Hoke’s life isn’t neat and the people around him are mostly trying their best but get things wrong.

The plot depends on a massive early coincidence, one so huge that you just have to accept it and move on. It gets things moving, but as with the jokes it underlines that this is crime with a comic twist, more Columbo than Law and Order. Willeford’s here to entertain rather than to depress.

Miami Blues is of course filled with snappy dialogue. Here Hoke talks to his partner:

“Is the governor a Jesuit?” “That’s a Catholic, isn’t it?” “An educated Catholic, the way it was explained to me.”

Here, later, Hoke’s been assigned a new female partner. His old one comments:

Marie would have a fit if I had myself a female partner.” “I thought Marie was liberated.” “She is, but I’m not.”

The focus shifts between Freddy and Hoke, contrasting the two. Hoke is Freddy’s opposite, crumpled and beaten down but full of messy humanity. They spar, but where Freddy has the edge in strength and viciousness Hoke’s much, much smarter.

In many ways, on paper at least, Freddy has the better life. Freddy has money; Hoke’s broke, paying alimony and his daughter’s orthodontist bill. Freddy lives in Susan’s beautiful and clean apartment on an unfinished housing development, quiet and private; Hoke lives in a free room filled with unwashed socks and empty bottles in a cheap hotel where he acts as unpaid security, surrounded by pensioners and Cuban-exiles. Freddy spends his evenings with his girl, getting home cooked meals; Hoke spends his evenings helping dementia-afflicted neighbours back to their rooms.

Hoke though has friends, and people whose lives he makes a difference to. Freddy only has people he transacts with, and while it’s true he makes a difference to peoples lives, it’s not a difference they generally welcome. There’s no glamourising of the psychopath here. Freddy gets the immediate rewards, sure, and given the kind of man Freddy is there’s no way he’d ever envy Hoke’s life. Me though, I’d rather be Hoke any day of the week.

Other reviews

None I know of, but Guy Savage has reviewed a whole bunch of Charles Willeford novels here and is clearly something of a fan. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Guy’s reviews I probably wouldn’t have read this when I did, so thanks as ever to Guy.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Willeford, Charles

A place should never for too long go against its nature.

City of Bohane, by Kevin Barry

Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river. This is the Bohane river we’re talking about. A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin’ wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: city of Bohane.

City of Bohane is a swaggerer of a novel. It opens with that paragraph above, with one of the punchiest first lines I’ve read in a while, then we’re into prose with the rhythms of spoken word. That’s how you open a novel. No argument.

City-of-Bohane

City of Bohane is Barry’s first novel. It won him the 2013 International Impac Dublin Literary Award, and favourable reviews nearly across the board. Not bad for what on paper at least is a fairly straightforward and highly cinematic noir-sf novel. It’s a reminder of a truth that always bears repeating. It doesn’t matter what a book’s about, what genres you can box it into or influences you can point to. What matters is if it’s any good.

The year is 2053 and we’re in the (fictional) Irish city of Bohane, named after the Bohane river and sitting on the edge of the Big Nothing bog. Ostensibly anyway, but in a sense none of that is true. In some ways the novel could just as well have been set in 1950s’ Cork, but then Barry would have had less freedom to invent, to make the familiar strange and new.

City of Bohane is set in 2053 because Barry wants the novel to be of no particular time (people use typewriters, not computers, nothing’s digital). It’s set in the City of Bohane because Barry wants the novel to be of no particular place (apparently he based the geography on Porto, in Portugal). This isn’t then a novel of time or place in the usual way, but rather it’s a dream Ireland, a movie Ireland. Barry is avoiding the limits of fact so that he can create a contemporary myth.

As I write this, it’s been around six weeks since I read Bohane. Since then I’ve read some poetry, a Kate Wilhelm SF novel, a Charles Willeford crime novel, an Elena Ferrante, a William Gibson and a volume of Proust. Even after all that, as soon as I turn my mind to it the characters and style of Bohane come rushing back to me, still vivid, still alive.

Logan Hartnett leads the Hartnett Fancy, a criminal gang that run much of Bohane with the bought complicity of the local politicians and press. He’s a tall and slender man, known as “the Long Fella”, dapper and deadly.

There’s been peace in Bohane, or as much peace as it sees, for a good few years now. That’s about to end. There’s trouble with the Northside Rises, slum estates run by their own semi-feudal gangs. They’re eyeing Logan and his territory with growing ambition.

At the same time, word has it that the Gant has returned, Logan’s old rival from decades back. Logan ousted the Gant from the city, and took the Gant’s girlfriend as his wife. Now Logan’s own lieutenants, Wolfie and Fucker Burke, and the inimitable but much-imitated Jenni Ching, are starting to wonder if his heart’s in it any more and if not if there might soon be room at the top.

Think HBO. Think series like Deadwood or The Shield or Boardwalk Empire. Those are the influences here. It’s that classic set-up of the aging boss pressed on all sides and from below at the same time. Set up the box-set next to the DVD player, sit back and watch the peace explode.

If City of Bohane were just a highly cinematic novel of gang politics and violence in a fictionalised Ireland it might still be very good, but it probably wouldn’t be winning literary prizes. The reason it did is the language, which crackles.

Above De Valera Street the sun climbed and caught on each of the street’s high windows and each whited out and was blinded by the glare; each became a brilliant, unseeing eye. The light seemed to atomise the very air of the place. The air was rich, maritime, nutritious. It was as if you could reach up and grab a handful of the stuff. The evil-eyed gulls were antic on the air as they cawed and quarrelled and the street beneath them was thick with afternoon life.
Yes and here they came, all the big-armed women and all the low-sized butty fellas. Here came the sullen Polacks and the Back Trace crones. Here came the natty Africans and the big lunks of bog-spawn polis. Here came the pikey blow-ins and the washed-up Madagascars. Here came the women of the Rises down the 98 Steps to buy tabs and tights and mackerel – of such combinations was life in the flatblock circles sustained. Here came the Endeavour Avenue suits for a sconce at ruder life. The Smoketown tushies were between trick-cycles and had crossed the footbridge to take joe and cake in their gossiping covens. The Fancy-boy wannabes swanned about in their finery and tip-tapped a rhythm with their clicker’d heels. De Valera Street was where all converged, was where all trails tangled and knotted, and yes, here came Logan Hartnett in the afternoon swell. He was …
Gubernatorial.

That’s a long quote, but I included it because it captures the cinematic (the defining word of this review) feel of the book. Like a David Simon series there’s little explanation here, the reader has to work out the language and the slang from context as they go along. Where are the Back Traces? What exactly is Smoketown? Where is Endeavour Avenue in relation to all this? None of it is explained, but then none of it needs to be because as you settle into the rhythms of Bohane it all starts to come together and after a while the slang of Bohane, like the slang of Baltimore, feels natural.

Let’s take another example. Here a secular prayer by the unnamed narrator:

Oh give us a grim Tuesday of December, with the hardwind taking schleps at our heads, and the rain coming slantways off that hideous fucking ocean, and the grapes nearly frozen off us, and dirty ice caked up top of the puddles, and we are not happy, exactly, but satisfied in our despair.
It is as though we can say …
Now!
D’ye see, now, what it is we are dealing with?

No wonder Irvine Welsh liked it.

The book thrums with beautiful turns of phrase, though beautiful isn’t quite the right word, perhaps resonant would be better. Take a sentence like “A pair of goons were arranged in violent lethargy by its stairwell entrance.” I love that use of “violent lethargy”. It sounds contradictory, but it’s no mere linguistic trick because I can picture exactly what he means: A brooding intent, a casual inherent violence ready to be unleashed at the smallest provocation.

At times Barry almost takes it too far. I noted this sentence: “Emptied wine sacks filled every gutter and diamonds of broken glass – Bohane gemstones – sparkled on the sidewalks.” At the time I read it I was impressed by the imagery. Reading it cold now it looks overblown and dangerously close to bathos, but in context it worked.

In Berlin Alexanderplatz Alfred Döblin used then contemporary cinematic techniques to inform his fiction (particularly montage). Barry does something similar. That first quote above is essentially a wide-angle take. Barry also makes frequent use of freeze-frame close-ups, particularly when describing clothing:

Wolfie wore: A neatly cut Crombie of confederate grey above green tweed peg pants, straight-legged, a starched white shirt, collar open to show a harlequin-patterned cravat, and a pair of tan-coloured arsekickers on the hooves that’d been imported from far Zagreb (them boys knew how to make a boot, was the Fancy’s reckon; if the Long Fella wasn’t walkin’ Portuguese, he was walkin’ Croat).

That’s fairly typical. When characters have been off-screen for a while, or something dramatic is about to happen, the action pauses and the text focuses in, describes in detail their clothes, boots, jewellery. Barry builds his world through accessories. What the characters wear is as important as what they do.

As you’d expect there’s some tremendous set-pieces. A gangland execution by Logan Hartnett is almost difficult to watch (sorry, read). A pitched battle between rival gangs is described entirely through photos being developed after the fact by a local journalist. The plot builds and thickens and as you get used to the characters in play Barry introduces a few more, each sharply drawn, so that by the end there’s a full and memorable cast.

The one drawback with Barry’s intensely cinematic world is that visual dramas tend to use shorthand, and shorthand tends towards stereotypes. People here are largely as you’d expect them to be. The Northside Rises are inhabited by semi-feral sink-estate dwellers straight out of a Daily Mail headline. The police are lunk-headed farmboys from the Irish interior. That’s all fine and works pretty well, but I was a little troubled by the “sand-pikeys”, a caricature of a traveller community straight out of a Mad Max movie speaking in cod-Jamaican patois and steeped in superstition and violence.

Ireland has a long history of discrimination against traveller communities, and “pikey” for those who don’t know it is a seriously offensive (and arguably racist) word. To have it used here for a group who seem to follow the stereotype is questionable, a little like a US novel featuring a group of casually violent but not very bright African-Americans. It’s not that you can’t do it, Chester Himes’ excellent Harlem Noir series has characters exactly like that (but not only like that). It’s just that when you put those characters in your book you are tapping in to some very unpleasant history and, potentially, prejudice.

Even with that potential sour note, this is still one of the freshest books I’ve read this year. It takes elements of SF, noir, and contemporary US drama and mixes them together as Ridley Scott did with Blade Runner back in the ’80s to create something new yet strangely familiar. I’ll end with one final quote:

A demon vision was to be seen come nightfall. From atop the high dunes, led by Prince Tubby, came a line four-dozen strong of sand-pikeys, and they were armed for Feudin’.
Carried hatchets and iron bars and lengths of ancient fender and blackthorn sticks soaked in brine for the hardness and bricks and shkelps and rocks and hammers and screwdrivers and they carried these items with a lovely … insouciance.
Fucker Burke and Logan Hartnett kept to the rear of the line.
Fucker carried a forlorn and puzzled air.
Logan carried a length of rope.

Other reviews

Oddly I’ve not seen much in the blogosphere. If you know of any please let me know in the comments. Otherwise, there’s a great review at the Guardian here though, and a fairly critical review from novelist Keith Ridgway in the Irish Times here.

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Filed under Barry, Kevin, Irish Literature, Vernacular Literature

You’re old enough to know that the fact that your statement is true only makes it more offensive

Far Eastern Tales, by W. Somerset Maugham

When I was a kid, Maugham was often held out as the model of a great short story writer, almost the definition of one. Along with Saki he was as good as it got. My paternal grandfather, Jim, was a huge fan, as were many of his generation.

Literary reputations though are fragile things, and what seems timeless mastery can for no obvious reason just fall into obscurity. Maugham hasn’t suffered quite that fate, he’s still widely in print after all, but his star has definitely waned.

Perhaps in Maugham’s case it’s because the world he describes so well is no longer one contemporary readers recognise. He was primarily a writer of Britain between the wars, of the declining days of Empire and of a Britain yet to experience post-war Austerity and loss of influence.

Jim was born in 1920. He lived and worked in South Africa for a while, raised his family there, and while as a self-educated proudly working class Glaswegian he wasn’t anything like Maugham’s characters he’d certainly have recognised his world. Perhaps it’s as simple as that. Maugham was and is a great writer, but he’s a great writer of a world that’s no longer with us. He writes expertly of a country with few remaining inhabitants.

FarEasternMaugham

Far Eastern Tales is a collection of ten Maugham short stories, all of them set in the British far Eastern colonies. They vary in length and style, from shaggy-dog stories like Mabel to tales of isolation and murder like Footprints in the Jungle. Two of them, Mabel and the End of the Flight, are basically the same story once told as comedy and once as horror (both involve a man mysteriously and relentlessly pursued, in Mabel by a prospective wife and in The End of the Flight by a wronged Sumatran native intent on revenge).

Maugham’s Asia is a lonely place. The British are few and thinly stretched across a vast territory. Issues of race and class bar them from real friendships with the locals, making for intensely parochial ex-pat communities and pockets of men left alone too long in out-of-the-way stations deep in the jungle.

Their ambition was to be like everybody else. Their highest praise was to say that a man was a damned good sort.

As the quote suggests, these aren’t the best and the brightest as a rule. The servants of Empire tend to be bluff and unimaginative sorts. An excess of imagination isn’t an asset when you’re two days from your nearest neighbour, and an unquestioning assumption of your own entitlement and authority can carry a lot of weight when facing down locals with machetes and a grievance.

Nowhere is this made more explicit than in the rather marvellous fourth story, The Door of Opportunity. It features a particularly brilliant young administrator and his adoring wife. They are cultured, intelligent, a cut above what they see as the generality of Colonial mediocrity. He learns the local languages, they dream of championing indigenous arts and combining the best of the world they left with the best of the world they now find themselves in.

Maugham understands, as the couple in The Door of Opportunity do not, that colonialism is an exercise in economic exploitation backed by military might. The British aren’t in Asia to appreciate fine teak-work. They’re there to extract resources and money.

It was with The Door of Opportunity that this collection really started to shine for me. The first tale was much as I expected, featuring a club where people drank gin and played bridge, and an unfolding tale of murder in distant places. The second, Mabel, was easily the weakest, and the third featured a man dying from what he believed to be a native curse. So far it seemed, so as expected.

That third though, P.&O., turned out not to be quite what I thought it would be. Maugham it turns out is an expert at the mid-story swerve, where you discover that the story you thought you were reading isn’t the real story at all.

In P.&O. a middle-aged woman encounters a fellow passenger who slowly declines as the voyage continues, having been promised he’ll never live to see land. That’s fine, but what’s interesting isn’t the supposed curse but the lessons the woman takes from her encounter with another’s mortality.

P.&.O., like many of the stories here, is also a neat study in hypocrisy. Here the first-class passengers on an ocean-liner plan a Christmas party, but don’t wish to appear stand-offish by not inviting those in second-class:

The scheme was at last devised to invite the second-class passengers, but to go to the captain privily and point out to him the advisability of withholding his consent to their coming into the first-class saloon.

After The Door of Opportunity comes The Hidden Talent, a cautionary tale of why sometimes old acquaintances are best left in the past. By this point the collection is seriously on a roll. The Hidden Talent is heartbreaking, probably my favourite of the collection and it shows Maugham’s tremendous insight as a writer. Maugham gets people, and that of course is why he was so highly regarded.

From there we’re off to the races. Before the Party is a deliciously horrifying tale of the gap between public and private lives, brilliantly exposing the acceptance of ugly realities as long as they’re far away and decently covered up. It’s followed by Mr. Know-All, which would be spoiled if I said anything more about it at all but which shows again a nice grasp of complexity of character.

Then comes Neil MacAdam, another candidate for best in the bunch,  featuring a handsome new assistant to a remote museum who is too innocent to recognise the danger the curator’s wife’s interest in him represents. He finds himself in a situation any noir-writer would be proud of, and like any good noir the situation soon takes a deadly momentum of its own as the heat and isolation act as a pressure cooker to deadly effect.

The End of the Flight, which I mentioned above, is a dip in quality again. I admit that I don’t find stories in which natives have apparently supernatural powers terribly exciting, but the real issue is that the reliance on plot leaves less room for Maugham’s gift for motive.

The collection ends though on a high, with The Force of Circumstance in which a new wife  joins her husband on a distant Malay plantation and comes to learn the compromises he made in order to survive the long years before her arrival. Maugham understands hypocrisy, and why unpleasant as it may be it’s sometimes the best option available.

A classic Maugham theme here is the clash of expediency and idealism, romance even. More than one character sees Empire as advertised, as a civilising mission, as a chance to bring culture and order to places sorely in need of it. Maugham however is always aware of the gulf between appearance and reality, never forgetting that our presence is both uninvited and unwanted.

To thrive in Maugham’s Far East you have to be a hypocrite. To be otherwise is either to invite disaster or to embrace brutality. You have to be able to lie to yourself, at least a little, about the realities of what is ultimately an armed occupation. That perhaps was what most surprised me here. I knew Maugham as a writer of Empire, I had no idea however that he saw so clearly the contradictions inherent in it.

Maugham doesn’t condemn his characters or their world, he isn’t that facile and these aren’t polemics (and I have no idea as to his personal politics). Maugham describes, and he doesn’t look away as he does so. That’s probably why, out of fashion as he is, he’s still in print.

Other reviews

None I know of, but if I’ve missed some please let me know in the comments. If you are interested at all in Maugham though, Guy Savage has reviewed him extensively over at His Futile Preoccupations, here.

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Filed under Maugham, W Somerset, Short Stories

a feeling on the brow, in the eyes and on the lips

Remember, Body …, by CP Cavafy and translated by Avi Sharon

When I read recently Mathias Enard’s Zone, I made a note of some writers mentioned in the text that I wanted to follow up on. One was the Greek poet CP Cavafy, whom I’d never even heard of before (even the most famous poets tend to be pretty obscure if they’re not studied in schools, and Greek poets aren’t studied in UK schools).

It turned out that presently there are at least three competing major translations of Cavafy. I settled on the Keeley and Sherrard translation, the longest standing of the current crop, but it was a close run thing.

Then though Penguin had it’s rather wonderful Little Black Classics idea, and one of them was an excerpt from its own Cavafy translation by Avi Sharon. I’d already committed to the Keeley/Sherrard, but the prospect of a pocket Cavafy was too tempting to resist.

Cavafy Penguin

Cavafy is a poet of desire and regret. Most of the poems here are very short, a paragraph or two. They exist primarily in memory, a reverie of loves once known and lost. Cavafy was gay at a time when that was illegal, and his encounters are therefore both circumspect and fleeting.

The poems are written from the perspective of age, brimming with nostalgia for moments stolen from the world years before. For Cavafy, youth and beauty are linked. To be old is to be separated from that you most want to possess, leaving only the wistful recollection of pleasures past.

There’s a limit to how much I want to say about what is a very short collection (though a very good one). Some of Cavafy’s “greatest hits” are left out, most notably Ithaka which is his most famous work (a poem I find a bit trite, not true for most of his). Penguin though would obviously like you to treat this as a taster and to move on to the full collected works they publish, and that’s fair enough.

Sharon’s translations are smooth and evocative, reading as if poetry written in English. Whether they’re faithful I can’t say, I don’t speak Greek, but they work here. Put simply, this is a great little collection. It’s a marvellous introduction to Cavafy, and while I’d already bought a larger collection of his work if I hadn’t this would definitely have convinced me to do so.

All that said, there’s no better way to illustrate a poet than by quoting from their poetry. Here are two complete Cavafy poems from this collection, both of which were among those I particularly liked. I had planned to also quote his wonderful The Café Entrance, but WordPress breaks the lines which isn’t fair to the poem.

The Tobacconist’s Window

Near the brightly lit window

of a tobacconist’s shop, they stood amid a crowd of people.
By chance their gazes met
and hesitantly they half expressed
the illicit longing of their flesh.
Later, after several anxious steps along the pavement –
they smiled and gently nodded.

Then the closed carriage …
the sensuous mingling of their bodies;
the hands, the lips coming together.

One Night

The room was shabby and miserable,
tucked above a suspect tavern.
A window opened on to the alley,
narrow and unclean. From the tavern beneath
came the voices of workmen playing cards and carousing.

There, in that humble, commonplace bed,
I possessed the body of love; I possessed
those sensual, rose-red lips of intoxication –
red lips so intoxicating that even now,
as I write these lines, after so many years
all alone in this house, I am drunk with it again.

As a note by the way on different translations, that poem I mentioned above titled The Café Entrance is differently titled in the Keeley/Sherrard translation as At the Café Door, while in the highly regarded Daniel Mendelsohn translation it’s In the Entrance of the Café. Tricky stuff, translating poetry. To illustrate quite how tricky, here’s two other versions of One Night:

One Night – Keeley and Sherrard translation

The room was cheap and sordid,
hidden above the suspect taverna.
From the window you could see the alley,
dirty and narrow. From below
came the voices of workmen
playing cards, enjoying themselves.

And there on that ordinary, plain bed
I had love’s body, knew those intoxicating lips,
red and sensual,
red lips so intoxicating
that now as I write, after so many years,
in my lonely house, I’m drunk with passion again.

 

One Night – Daniel Mendelsohn translation

The room was threadbare and tawdry,
hidden above that suspect restaurant.
From the window you could see the alley,
which was filthy and narrow. From below
came the voices of some laborers
who were playing cards and having a carouse.

And there in that common, vulgar bed
I had the body of love, I had the lips,
sensuous and rose-colored, of drunkenness –
the rose of such a drunkenness, that even now
as I write, after so many years have passed!,
in my solitary house, I am drunk again.

The Mendelsohn works least well for me here. Having a carouse seems odd, like something from a Carry On film, and I dislike the use of the exclamation mark (though I understand it’s in the original). Threadbare and tawdry too has less impact for me than cheap and sordid or shabby and miserable.

Getting even more specific, Mendelsohn’s choice of the word restaurant is interesting. Taverna is a much more colloquial term, one that for me immediately evokes a certain kind of restaurant. Tavern to a degree does the same, but is less specifically Greek, it’s a halfway house between the Mendelsohn and Keeley/Sherrard versions.

Aguably, however, Taverna is redundant. It’s essentially a word for a small Greek restaurant, but it’s obvious this isn’t a grand establishment from the rest of the poem. Mendelsohn is perhaps being more precise by avoiding the more clichéd term (and there’s no confusion in his version as to what kind of place Cavafy is remembering). I think though that Mendelsohn pays a price for his precision with a certain loss of romance compared to the Keeley/Sherrard. Sometimes, cliché works.

Another point I noted is that the Sharon uses intoxication and intoxicating where the Keeley/Sherrard repeats intoxication and Mendelsohn repeats drunkenness. I think drunkenness loses a sense of liberating joy, but coupled with rose-colored it does bring to mind the famous wine-dark seas of Greek myth which is surely no accident. Sharon avoids repetition, but at a cost to rhythm.

It would be fascinating, though beyond my current appetite, to go line by line comparing each version of the poem. Greek doesn’t map directly to English, what language does? Every translator then makes choices, and every choice carries nuances, and in poetry nuance is everything. I doubt there’s a right or wrong here, just decisions as to fidelity, atmosphere, structure, meaning, and how to balance between them.

Ultimately, all three are very highly regarded translations. The Cavafy reader is spoiled for choice, which is why I spent a good couple of hours in Foyles deciding which version I wanted for myself. I’ve criticised the Mendelsohn here most, but I was actually very impressed by it and while ultimately I thought the Keeley/Sherrard better for me that wasn’t a quick or easy decision. Similarly, the Sharon’s worked well, read well, had power. It’s hard here to make a bad choice.

Other reviews

I don’t know of any on the blogosphere, but if you do please let me know in the comments and if you’ve reviewed it yourself please feel free to leave a link to your review below.

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Filed under Cavafy, CP, Poetry

The creature must take care not to forget that the man is a hunter.

The Blue Fox, by Sjón and translated by Victoria Cribb

Most literature, for me, works as well as an ebook as it does as a paperback. Sometimes better, particularly if the book’s on the bulky side.

Not all literature though, and particularly I increasingly find not poetry. Poetry depends not just on words but also on placement on the page, on the sea of white around the little islands of black text. Layout, in poetry, is critical.

The Blue Fox isn’t poetry, but it’s close. In a fascinating interview with The White Review Sjón talks about how the book was structured almost as if it were music:

Sjón — I think the fact that I can take the form of the string quartet and use it as the basis of a novel is another proof of how dynamic the novel is. I’m sure that a composer writing a string quartet can learn something from a movie or the structure of film. It was music that gave me the idea of constantly breaking up the narrative. THE BLUE FOX would be a completely different novel if it were chronological. In it, there are constant cliff-hangers and repeated refrains – I’m playing with the element of two melodies that come together but never fully, only in the end finding a solution. It was very interesting that the first people who commented on the book were composers. They said it was very clear to them that I was always playing with volume of information versus text, which is the same thing they do – volume of tones versus time. You can take a melody and stretch it over five minutes, or compress it down to three seconds. They were very much aware of how I was playing with text versus information.

Information versus text. Text versus information. The Blue Fox is a tone poem in book form, a 112 page crystallisation of music on a page. I’m getting ahead of myself though, because I still haven’t said what it’s actually about.

BlueFox

The Blue Fox consists of two different, but connected, narrative strands. In the first a hunter pursues a blue fox, a rare and valuable prey. Their contest, his for a valuable pelt, hers for her life, takes on a mythic air as Sjón fills each page with just a few lines of text letting space and silence surround the sparse words.

Here’s how it opens:

Blue foxes are so curiously like stones that it is a matter for wonder. When they lie beside them in winter there is no hope of telling them apart from the rocks themselves; indeed, they’re far trickier than white foxes, which always cast a shadow or look yellow against the snow.

A blue vixen lies tight against her stone, letting the snow drift over her on the windward side. She turns her rump to the weather, curls up and pokes her snout under her thigh, lowering her eyelids till there’s the merest hint of a pupil. And so she keeps an eye on the man who has not shifted since he took cover under an overhanging drift, here on the upper slopes of Asheimar, some eighteen hours ago. The snow has drifted and fallen over him until he resembles nothing so much as a hump of ruined wall.

The creature must take care not to forget that the man is a hunter.

Each section of the book comes with dates attached, the first being three days from 9 to 11 January 1883. It’s rooted therefore in the actual: an actual hunter; an actual fox; a particular place and day with particular weather. It couldn’t be more specific.

At the same time though, the sense is of a more timeless encounter. Man and fox both seem archetypal: at this point he is simply “the man”; she “the vixen”. They appear to have emerged from a folktale or saga.

His guts rumbled and the man discovered that he was hungry; he hadn’t tasted a bite since gorging himself on boiled fish before he set off, but that was more than twenty hours ago.

He had eaten a bit of ice since then, truth be told, but that was dull and insubstantial fare. He opened the bag:

Hand-thick slabs of lamb, rye cakes with sheep’s butter, sour as gall, topped with mutton sausage, a dried cod’s head, pickled blood-pudding, dried fish, curd porridge and a lump of brown sugar.

Yes, all this was in his mess-bag.

As you read there’s a sense of themes emerging not in the familiar literary sense, but in a musical one. Phrases recur, such as the title of this review, and that entire first quoted passage above is used twice, verbatim. It’s prose as melody, repeated refrains.

The second narrative strand features a biologist, Fridrik Fridjonsson, who has to bury a young woman named Abba that he took in some years before as his maid. Abba was destitute when he first met her, an outcast from the local community. Fridrik had only briefly returned to Iceland to settle some family affairs, but recognised that Abba had Down’s Syndrome and from compassion decided to stay and to protect her. The parish then was served by a Reverend Jakob:

This incompetent minister was so used to his parishioners’ boorishness – scuffles, belches, farts and heckling – that he affected not to hear when Abba chimed in with his altar service, which she did both loud and clear and never in tune. He was more worried that the precentor would drown in his neighbours’ spittle. This fellow, a farmer by the name of Gilli Sigurgillason from Barnahamrar, possessed a powerful voice and sang in fits and starts, gaping so wide at the high notes that you could see right down his gullet, and the congregation used to amuse themselves by lobbing wet plugs of tobacco into his mouth – many of them had become quite good shots.

Four years later Reverend Jakob died, greatly regretted by his flock; he was remembered as ugly and tedious, but good with children.

His successor was Reverend Baldur Skuggason, who introduced a new era in church manners to the Dale. Men sat quietly on the benches, holding their tongues while the parson preached the sermon, having learnt how he dealt with rowdies: he summoned them to meet him after the service, took them round the back of the church and beat the living daylights out of them. The women, meanwhile, turned holy from the first day and behaved as if they had never taken part in teasing ‘the reverend with the pupil’. They said it served the louts to whom they were married or betrothed right, they should have been thrashed long ago; for the new parson was a childless widower.

Reverend Skuggason swiftly banned Abba from the church, seeing no place there for what he termed “‘the ravings of an idiot'”. Although Abba “knew no greater happiness than to dress up in her Sunday best and attend church with other people”, Reverend Skuggason would not tolerate her and none of his flock cared enough to speak on her behalf.

Reverend Skuggason is the hunter, bringing the two strands together in one man. He denies Abba; he pursues the fox; he is a priest but he knows no pity.

The Blue Fox builds its mood slowly, and its few revelations come all the more powerfully for that. Sjón brings the harsh landscape and the harsh people it breeds both to freezing life. It’s notable that the only one of them to show any mercy is Fredrik, who left for Copenhagen and never meant to return.

Two narrative strands then, and two tonal strands too. The utter factuality of dates, lists of packed provisions, medical diagnoses; but simultaneously a changeling woman come in from the woods and befriended by a traveller, a huntsman and a fox of unsurpassed rarity, beauty, cruelty, hypocrisy, innocence, kindness.  History and fairy tale, intertwined and inseparable.

Other reviews

The Blue Fox has been generally pretty well received (though many reviews contain some fairly hefty spoilers so it’s worth being a bit careful which you read, you should particularly avoid the one in the Independent which in a fairly short piece still somehow manages to give away every story development in the book). Two reviews I was particularly impressed by are Scott Pack’s here at his Me and My Big Mouth blog, and Sarah Hesketh’s here for ReadySteadyBook.

I’d also recommend this interview with Sjón by Stu at his Winstonsdad’s blog. Sjón explains among other things that The Blue Fox is in part inspired by Schubert’s string quartets, and describes the music that inspired his other books.

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Filed under Icelandic Literature, Novellas, Sjón

She is so terribly afraid of me.

Margaret and I, by Kate Wilhelm

Joachim Boaz of the rather wonderful retro SF blog (with a strong focus on literary and slipstream SF among other things) Science Fiction and other Suspect Ruminations has been hosting a series of guest reviews of works by feminist SF author Kate Wilhelm. Joachim kindly invited me to take part, and my review of her highly original Margaret and I is here.

MargaretandI

Margaret and I is the story of a woman’s sexual and psychological self-realisation, but told from the perspective of her unconscious mind (the “I” of the title). Here’s a quote, to illustrate what I mean:

Margaret was too tired to think, too tired to care that the house was wrapped in dust covers from end to end. I had her pull the sheets from the furniture and toss them in a corner; if she had no curiosity about the house, I did. I got her started on unpacking the groceries and through her eyes I examined the kitchen; As she put things away I wondered about the house, about Josie, why she had left it like this; I wondered about Bennett, what he was doing, and what Margaret would do next I didn’t care a lot I am interested, but don’t really care, unless she begins to go the route of drugs. I keep her away from them, when I can.

And here’s a quote from Margaret’s husband, which neatly illustrates some of the novel’s other key themes:

My God, you’ve got everything a woman could ask for. Money, position, a faithful husband, security, freedom to come and go as you choose…. What more do you want?”

Thanks to Joachim for pointing me to an interesting book I probably wouldn’t otherwise have even heard about, let alone read. By the way, even if you don’t read SF there’s a lot of good stuff at Joachim’s blog if you have an interest in experimental fiction under his “avant-garde” tag (Anna Kavan’s Ice for example).

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Filed under Science Fiction, Wilhelm, Kate