#TBR20 and how I buy books

I’m off on holiday soon, returning the week of 7 September. Before I go I thought I’d post a quick update on how I’m getting along with #tbr20.

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In one word the answer would be slowly, given I’m currently only on book seven of my 20. To be fair I did interrupt the 20 for one reread (The Maltese Falcon) and one exception purchased for my last holiday (Gods without Men), making nine books total since I started. Still, it’s been an active summer and so a slow reading summer.

That’s fine, and I’ve no particular problem with how quickly I’m getting through the pile. It has though made me pay attention as to how books come into my life and how my TBR pile keeps growing even though I’ve been trying for some time now to reduce how much I buy.

I have a general no review copies policy, but I occasionally break that. I’ve broken it twice during my #tbr20, once for In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomás González and once for Lee Rourke’s Vulgar Things.

On the purchases front, I’ve not been entirely virtuous either. I bought a hardcopy of Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities in response to an appeal on behalf of its publisher who were in a financial squeeze and needed to shift some units to make the end of the month. I don’t regret that – I was going to buy it anyway so all that changed was the timing.

How I interact with my kindle is more problematic, particularly Amazon’s constant offers. I’m generally fine avoiding overbuying hardcopy books – I have to go to a shop, pick up the book I’m considering, decide to buy it and then to carry it home. It’s all very there, very physical. You can’t be unaware that you’re doing it and once you have the evidence is now in your home taking up space.

Peter Watt’s Echopraxia, sequel to his groundbreaking SF novel Blindsight, has long been on my radar as a book to pick up. When Amazon dropped the price in a daily deal to 99p it seemed a no-brainer, and so without engaging my brain I bought it. I’ve no plans to read it soon but there it is on my virtual bookshelf.

Similarly, I’ve long planned to have a go at Elena Ferrante’s Naples tetratology. Amazon dropped My Brilliant Friend to 99p as part of a monthly deal and I grabbed it. I was going to buy it eventually and at that price it was practically free. Again though, I’ve no plans on reading it soon and yet I have it.

So, that’s how the books come in. I notice myself buying physical books and give real thought as to whether I should or not. What #TBR20 has taught me is that I don’t apply the same logic to virtual books. I thought I did, but I don’t. Instead I wishlist a book and Amazon runs constant sales and so when something I’m interested in (or potentially interested in) gets reduced I pick it up.

Every individual purchase made on this basis makes sense. Every 99p book, or £1.99 book or whatever, is a noticeable saving on the price I’d otherwise have paid. I don’t buy anything I wouldn’t at least otherwise have considered buying. I can only read so fast though, and those sensible purchase decisions add up over time to hundreds of unread books. They’re intangible, digital, so you don’t see them piling up as you would physical books, but they’re there all the same.

When I noticed this I stopped looking at Amazon sales. Savings make sense, but not as much sense as not accumulating vast numbers of books I may never read. It turns out book buying is like many other things – it’s not the conscious choices that catch you out, it’s the choices you didn’t realise you were making.

On a last note, #tbr20 itself is a bit risky. I thought the other day about what I’d put on a new #tbr20 after this one and ten of the books were ones I would have to buy. From reading other blogs I’m increasingly wondering if #tbr20 is the literary equivalent of a crash diet, with the same consequence that once you stop you put back on more than you lost.

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Polite, intelligent: guys like that are my meat.

The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson

This is about as black as noir gets. 240-odd pages inside the head of a brutal and manipulative psychopath. Couple that with a scathing critique of small-town American life and it’s a definite and deserved classic, if a rather depressing one.

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Published in 1952 and set about the same time, The Killer Inside me is the first person narrative of Lou Ford, a Texan deputy sheriff living in the comically misnamed small town of Central City. Lou’s well liked locally and known to all as an upstanding and dependable man, if a little slow and prone to cliché.

From inside though Lou is a very different beast. He’s coldly watchful, observing the world around him analytically but without empathy. He enjoys hurting people but he’s too smart to show it so instead he likes to play with them, like a cat with a mouse it can’t be bothered to eat. In public at least he maintains a plausible cover of virtue at all times:

“Well, I tell you,” I drawled. “I tell you the way I look at it, a man doesn’t get any more out of life than what he puts into it.”

“Umm,” he said, fidgeting. “I guess you’re right, Lou.”

“I was thinking the other day, Max; and all of a sudden I had the doggondest thought. It came to me out of a clear sky–the boy is the father to the man. Just like that. The boy is the father to the man.”

The smile on his face was getting strained. I could hear his shoes creak as he squirmed. If there’s anything worse than a bore, it’s a corny bore. But how can you brush off a nice friendly fellow who’d give you his shirt if you asked for it?

Central City is a Christian town where people work hard and look out for each other, but without prying into one another’s business. Respectability is important here and if you lose your reputation you’re never getting it back again.

Underneath the unruffled surface the town is riddled with hypocrisy. Lou has his girlfriend over regularly to stay the night. Everyone knows they’re sleeping together, but it’s assumed they’ll get married which will make it retrospectively ok, and in the meantime to speak of it would be to ruin her reputation and that wouldn’t be a gentlemanly thing to do.

Similarly, nobody talks of the fact that Chester Conway, local big man around town, might have had Lou’s brother murdered. Lou’s brother had spent time in prison for assaulting a little girl so nobody mourned him too much anyway, certainly not enough to take on the richest man in the area.

Things have been stable for years, but then Lou’s asked to see off a hooker named Joyce who’s set up on the outskirts of town. He ends up sleeping with her instead, able once out of public sight to finally indulge his taste for sadism with a woman who turns out herself to have a taste for masochism.

The trouble Lou now has is that once he’s finally able to let his inner desires off the leash he can’t contain them. He decides he needs to kill Joyce if he’s to keep his own appetites in check but to get away with it he needs someone to blame for her murder, and he needs her apparent murderer to be dead too so nobody can question them too closely, and if that story doesn’t stack up he needs a third body to take the blame for the first two…

It was funny the way these people kept asking for it. Just latching onto you, no matter how you tried to brush them off, and almost telling you how they wanted it done. Why’d they all have to come to me to get killed? Why couldn’t they kill themselves?

Early on in the narrative Lou seems like the kind of genius-psychopath so beloved of modern film and tv. Quite quickly though Lou’s account of himself starts to be undermined. He’s convinced that he’s cleverer than anybody around him and that nobody can see through his cover, but several characters ask him why he pretends to act so hokey or what he gets out of pretending to be stupider than he is. He’s clearly right in thinking himself intelligent, but it’s not so obvious he’s right in thinking that means that everyone else is an idiot.

It’s also not clear that Lou is always as careful as he thinks he is. Early on in the novel a bum asks him for a handout, figuring he’s an easy touch. Since nobody’s around Lou stubs out a cigar on the man’s hand, taking pleasure in casual cruelty. Nobody would believe a bum’s word against Lou’s, but it raises a question about how often Lou steps out of character and indulges his true nature, and if he’s right that nobody ever notices. Central City is after all a town where people keep what they know about their neighbours to themselves.

Lou’s mind is not a nice place to spend time in and Thompson doesn’t shy away from describing Lou’s crimes in ugly detail. Lou kills men when he has to, but he kills women from compulsion and while he might use a gun for a man for a woman he likes to use his fists and his boots.

As the story continues it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that while Lou has a rationale for each of his crimes it’s just that – a rationale. The reality is that he’s a sadistic killer who enjoys hurting women and having power over men and who increasingly can’t keep his impulses under control. Lou reckons himself a careful predator, but he’s more akin to a rabid dog.

Thompson’s first great achievement here is to make Lou’s mind convincing while still keeping him horrific. Perhaps more than that however is how he shows that Lou’s malevolence has gone unnoticed not so much because of Lou’s own cunning but because of his town’s desire not to probe too deeply into matters that might not bear too much public inspection.

Things run smoothly in Central City if respectable people stay respectable, if those on the outside stay on the outside, and if everyone plays along as if the surface of things were the reality of them. Lou undermines that, not just by being a killer, but ironically by not being as good at hiding his inner rottenness as everyone else is.

Other reviews

Guy Savage, naturally, has reviewed this along with many other Thompsons at His Futile Preoccupations. His review is here. Also worth reading is this review by Emma at bookaroundthecorner here. If you know of other blogosphere reviews, please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Noir, Thompson, Jim

Sometimes what I wouldn’t give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m. telling lies to one another, far from God.

Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson

It’s strange that a book can be simultaneously beautiful yet profoundly untrue. So much for Keats.

Jesus’ Son is a series of eleven loosely connected short stories all featuring (probably) the same unnamed narrator. He’s a junkie, or a recovering junkie, or a relapsing junkie, depending on the story. He lives as best he can, drifting through casual jobs and even more casual friendships. He’d be a loser, except he’s not particularly trying to win anything.

The prose is, quite simply, beautiful. It’s elegant, unexpected, at times surprisingly funny. It’s graceful, which isn’t a word I use often when describing a book. Jesus’ Son is superbly well written. In fact, and I’ll return to this, that’s precisely my problem with it. It’s so well written I think it loses the truth of what it describes. It’s too beautiful.

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The first story, Car Crash While Hitchhiking, sets the mood. The narrator is describing an accident he was in, the events leading up to it, the people he hitchhiked with before getting in the car that crashed and the varied booze and drugs and stories they shared with him. It’s disordered, but then if you were drunk and high and involved in a fatal collision so would you be.

The tone is matter of fact. The narrator believes he knew it was going to happen anyway, a post-accident assertion of foreknowledge which you could read literally if you wanted but which seems much more a symptom of the narrator’s fatalism. To him it was as unavoidable as gravity. That’s what his life is – things happening, one after another, without much by way of causal links.

He ends up in hospital, still hallucinating. It’s not the first time reality’s hold has been a little shaky. It certainly won’t be the last:

Some years later, one time when I was admitted to the Detox at Seattle General Hospital, I took the same tack.

“Are you hearing unusual sounds or voices?” the doctor asked.

“Help us, oh God, it hurts,” the boxes of cotton screamed.

“Not exactly,” I said.

That quote comes shortly after a passage where the narrator wanders dazedly through the crash scene holding a baby that like him was left seemingly miraculously unhurt while others were so injured it’s hard to tell who’s dead and who’s alive. None of it surprises him, nothing is given greater weight than anything else.

The individual stories blur together, making it hard now to pick out what happened in one and what in another. That reflects the narrator’s own experience. In one titled Two Men he tells an anecdote of how he and some friends find a guy sleeping in their car and spend the evening trying to get rid of him, driving him around in the hope they can drop him off somewhere.

It’s a slightly random shaggy-dog story (they’re all slightly random shaggy-dog stories), but what’s noticeable is that it only features one man, the guy sleeping in the car. The narrator completely forgets whoever the second man was, and it’s not until I got to the end of the story I realised I had as well. Then again, who cares about a second man when you have dialogue like this?

“Are you still at all worried about Alsatia?”

“I was kissing her.”

“There’s no law against that,” Richard said.

“It’s not her lawyer I’m worried about.”

What makes Jesus’ Son brilliant though isn’t its occasional comic dialogue, great as that is. It’s that a little over 70 pages later a story titled The Other Man opens:

But I never finished telling you about the two men. I never even started describing the second one, whom I met more or less in the middle of Puget Sound, travelling from Bremerton, Washington, to Seattle.

The narrator may not be in control of his life but Johnson is absolutely on top of his material. This is writing as fine carpentry: perfectly joined, no glue required.

In another story, the narrator is working in a hospital emergency room (he spends a lot of time around hospitals, perhaps because that’s where the drugs tend to be). In what by this point seems a classically Johnsonian incident (and it’s a testament to this book that by page 73 it has classic incidents) a man is admitted to hospital with a knife buried deep into his face penetrating the brain:

[The doctor] peeked into the trauma room and saw the situation: the clerk—that is, me—standing next to the orderly, Georgie, both of us on drugs, looking down at a patient with a knife sticking up out of his face. “What seems to be the trouble?” he said.

Later…

Everybody had a different idea about exactly how to approach the problem of removing the knife from Terrence Weber’s brain. But when Georgie came in from prepping the patient—from shaving the patient’s eyebrow and disinfecting the area around the wound, and so on—he seemed to be holding the hunting knife in his left hand. The talk just dropped off a cliff. “Where,” the doctor asked finally, “did you get that?”

It’s funny stuff, and with most authors it would be the end of the story, but the narrator has no sense of narrative and meanders on for another 12 pages dealing in the same detail with the time he and Georgie went for a drive and accidentally ran over a rabbit. It shouldn’t work, at the level of the individual story it doesn’t always work, but here the whole is much greater than the parts.

Almost every quote I’ve picked above is comic, which is a little misleading as this isn’t a comic novel. In a later story the narrator takes work as an orderly in a facility for people with profound disabilities. He takes a certain comfort from being there for people even worse off than himself, and sees in them an unvarnished reality that everyone else is hiding from. He sees society tucking the disfigured out of sight, hiding human reminders of frailty and mortality. People like him and his friends, they’re invisible too. They’re lost at the margins, inconvenient and irrelevant, living parallel lives with the wider world.

All of which takes me back to the beginning of this piece, and why I think this book though beautiful is untrue. I’ve mentioned before here that my mother and stepfather were part of the counterculture, and that for them as for many others for a while it went quite badly wrong. I spent much of my teenage years surrounded by adults who were junkies, drunks, damaged people.

I recognise the absurdity of the scenes here and I recognise the characters. I don’t though recognise the beauty. Galley Beggar Press have published some shorts by Tony O’Neill which also tell tales of people living on the margins. O’Neill’s world is one I recognise. It’s squalid and ugly and it’s true.

The trouble with wrapping this world in this prose is that it makes it a thing of grace, but it’s not. The reality of a junkie narrator is some guy off his head in a fetid room talking bollocks that makes sense only to him.  There’s nothing elegant about it, and nothing particularly comic. At the extremes it’s desperately, horribly sad. O’Neill captures that. Johnson elides it.

Still, he elides it well and with language so neatly turned that I’ve every intention of reading more by him. Here’s one final quote, showing quite how well Johnson can control tone even within a single sentence.

I was after a seventeen-year-old belly dancer who was always in the company of a boy who claimed to be her brother, but he wasn’t her brother, he was just somebody who was in love with her, and she let him hang around because life can be that way.

Can’t it just? That sentence? That sentence is true.

Other reviews

John Self of Asylum first put this on my radar. His review is here. Trevor of themookseandthegripes also reviewed it here. Finally, here‘s a review by a blog new to me that I also thought interesting. If you know of more, as ever please tell me in the comments.

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Filed under Johnson, Denis, Novellas

Everything seemed to be linked to everything else

Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru

As a teenager I had a copy of the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. I read it over and over. I loved the Norse gods particularly; tales of Thor sleeping in a strange five chambered hall and waking only to learn he had spent the night in a giant’s glove, of Loki’s envy for Baldur and how it led to the death of the most beautiful of the gods.

In myth the ordinary and extraordinary mix without comment. Gregory of Tours starts his History of the Franks at the beginning, with Adam and Eve and the fall of man, and proceeds from there to then-current events mixing the miraculous and the prosaic without distinction.

Today myths are often read crudely literally – as no more than pre-scientific attempts to explain the world in the absence of better analytic tools. There’s an element of that of course, but myths are profoundly comfortable with ambiguity. A thing can be true without ever having happened; the myth of Icarus still speaks to us even though it never looked likely, not even to the Greeks, that we’d one day find his remains.

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Gods without Men is a work of contemporary US mythology; an exploration of true things that mostly never happened. It opens in the myth-time when animals were men, with Coyote driving out into the desert to cook up some meth. It’s a discomfiting opening, one that left me unsure quite what I was reading, so it was almost with relief that I reached the second chapter set in 1947 with an aircraft engineer named Schmidt setting off into the Mojave desert to live as a recluse and concentrate on his life’s work, contacting the benevolent aliens he believes will come down in their saucers and set the world to rights.

From there Gods travels back and forwards in time: to 2008 when Sikh-American Jaz and his Jewish-American wife Lisa travel out to the desert on a desperately needed family holiday, their marriage strained by the arrival of their severely autistic child; to 1778 and details of a (real life) Franciscan missionary and his attempts to convert the indigenous peoples of the area; back to 2008 where an English rock-star is staying at the same motel as Jaz and Lisa while he hides out from his band’s disastrous attempt to make their great-American-album; then 1958 and a teenager tempted by the contactee-cult commune that’s springing up not far from her dreary home town.

It sounds chaotic, but if you trust Kunzru (and you should) it starts to come together. The common character is the desert itself and a rock formation named the Pinnacles that looks like three fingers reaching into the air – a shape so distinctive that it seems almost meaningful.

Slowly, the different periods start to fit together. Schmidt in 1947 makes his camp near the Pinnacles and attracts followers, who become the UFO-contactee cult of the 1950s and in later chapters from ’69 through ’71 take a darker turn down the hippy trail. In 1920 an ethnologist studies a dwindling tribe of native Americans living near the Pinnacles, desperate to preserve their culture from being entirely lost but unable to see it clearly through his own prejudices and assumptions. His story leads to disaster, but connects through to the contactees and ultimately to Jaz and Lisa and their own disastrous trip into the desert on their misconceived family break.

Everything in this novel seems to be linked to everything else, but that doesn’t mean any of it is meaningful. We’re dealing here with “the fiction of the essential comprehensibility of the world.”

The core narrative, or perhaps simply the strongest, follows Jaz and Lisa. Jaz is a mathematician working in Wall Street for a computer trading desk. His boss, Bachman, has created a new program that analyses endless oceans of data and finds seemingly unconnected correlations enabling arbitrage trades at near the speed of light (all that really exists by the way). Jaz however has grown concerned that the program may be too sophisticated, and that as it trades it no longer merely analyses the world but may in fact be changing it.

For Bachman though, the program is about much more than just making money. It’s a method for mapping the world. He believes that the correlations it finds are meaningful, not mere inevitable coincidences arising out of a vast dataset:

‘We’re hunting for jokes.’ Bachman spoke slowly, as if to a child. ‘Parapraxes. Cosmic slips of the tongue. They’re the key to the locked door. They’ll help us discover it.’ ‘Discover what?’ ‘The face of God. What else would we be looking for?’

Communication and comprehension are key themes here. Jaz and Lisa can’t communicate with their child or understand him, and the strain of coping with a kid who never smiles and seems to hate being hugged has led to them being almost as inaccessible to each other as their son is to each of them.

Schmidt and the contactees who follow him are trying to commune with higher intelligences that they believe will save the Earth; Bachman thinks he can find meaning through an algorithm; the rock star takes peyote in the desert trying to get in touch with the inspiration that’s eluding him. Each character is faced with something vast and unknowable, and each tries to make sense of a world that doesn’t so much resist their attempts as simply not notice them. The title is a reference to a Balzac quote, that the desert is god without men, and here the desert is full of human attempts to impose meaning and empty of any of its own.

In 1920 a witness sees a Native American with a white boy out in the desert, leading to a manhunt and savage interracial violence. In 2008 a child goes missing, triggering a national media and internet frenzy, but months later is discovered near a fake-Iraqi troop-training village in the Mojave desert (another true thing), but with no clue as to how it could possibly get there. Are these events linked? Another child goes missing in the fifties, a contactee’s daughter, who turns up years later unharmed and claiming to channel alien intelligences.

Did the child in 2008 travel in time? Was it hidden in the land of the dead only to return to the land of the living as mysteriously as it vanished? Was the child in the fifties taken by aliens to be made an interstellar messiah? Or alternatively, did the child in 2008 get kidnapped by a childless couple living in the desert and released once they realised it wasn’t “normal”? Did the girl in the 1950s just die in a fire, replaced years later by an imposter “discovered” by the cult’s leader so as to help him control his followers? The novel doesn’t tell us. Things happen and we all try to make sense of what facts there are as seems best to us.

This is my second Kunzru, after his My Revolutions (which I loved). It’s almost 500 pages and needs to be given how much is packed in here, but it’s a light and intriguing read which managed the interesting trick of being philosophically dense and yet something of a page-turner.

The characters vary in depth. Some, the English rock star or Schmidt are lightly drawn since they exist more as catalysts or people caught in the narrative than as central figures. Others, like Lisa and Joanie (a local teenager who joins the contactee cult) have much more depth and are convincingly and messily real.

Jaz however stands out as perhaps the best creation in the book. He’s in many ways a classic second-generation immigrant caught between the culture he grew up in and his parent’s culture transplanted from a place he’s barely seen and that has no resonance for him. When his parents realise Jaz is bright enough to have a shot at MIT they align the entire family around his potential future (“His mother and sisters moved around like ground technicians on an immigrant moon-shot.”). When he gets there he cuts his hair in contravention of Sikh-tradition and marries a white girl, his family struggling to comprehend his choices or even to talk to him about them.

Jaz becomes an immigrant of sorts himself as he leaves behind his past as a geeky outsider-kid and relocates to Brooklyn, takes a job in Wall Street, shops in Whole Foods. Jaz is living the American dream, or was until the world deposited a deeply damaged child on his lap instead of the perfect family he expected.

Above all though, Gods is a novel of place. I read this as a break from my #TBR20 while on a driving holiday in the US, and you can tell Kunzru put in time on those roads, seeing for himself the desolate parts of America where the scale of the landscape and the sheer breadth of the sky almost stuns you, and where you find towns nobody would ever detour to see:

Soon the only signs of life were rows of giant white wind turbines and billboards advertising casino resorts. An outlet mall rose up at the roadside like a mirage. Then nothing. Miles of rock and scrubby bushes.

And:

Cars sped along the highway, pulled in and out of the parking lot, disgorging more meaningless forms. Later she found herself driving through town, past plate-glass storefronts. Computer supplies. Weight Loss Club. She turned on to a side street, then another. Cracked concrete and chainlink fences. A collection of self-storage units fronted by desiccated palms. A community whose landmarks were laundromats and 7-Elevens, trailer parks for the unlucky and for the slightly luckier, subdivisions of low, mean-looking ranches, bunkers with double garages and dead brown lawns strewn with children’s toys.

I’ve already written more than I really wanted to for this review, and that’s even with my skipping entire characters and situations which lead to other perspectives on the text (one review I saw thought the entire book an allegory about the Iraq war, which I think is a misreading but there’s a lot here on that topic that I’ve not even touched on). The more I write however, the more connections I see. Now it strikes me that Jaz’s inability to understand his wife or his son has parallels with his own family’s inability to understand him. Maybe that’s intentional, or maybe this is just a large book and it contains echoes that seem meaningful but are just patterns in the noise.

I’ll end then by returning to the beginning: Coyote driving into the desert. Later, one of the hippy-contactees is named Coyote and still lives in the area decades later in the 2000s when he may or may not be involved with the missing child. Coyotes crop up at other points too, the trickster-spirit appearing in many guises through the book. Or possibly not, coyotes are native to the area and one person’s divine apparition is another’s coincidence.

Other reviews

Many online, naturally, but not in the blogosphere that I know of. There are though two interesting interviews with Kunzru at The Paris Review here and at the New Yorker here.

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Filed under Kunzru, Hari

‘You have always, I must say, a smooth explanation ready.’

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

What is there to say about this one? This is as classic as classic gets, and I say that as someone who’s reviewed Don Quixote here. This is one of the ur-texts of hardboiled fiction, source for one of the greatest film noir movies of all time. It’s also bloody good.

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I’ve read The Maltese Falcon before, so while it wasn’t on my #TBR20 list I thought I could allow a read of it while I was in San Francisco last month. How can you not read Dashiell Hammett when in San Francisco? It’s half the reason I wanted to go there in the first place.

Here’s how the book opens:

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

Right away Hammett has put Sam Spade front and centre, while at the same time making him slightly questionable. He sounds lupine; he’s “pleasantly like a blond satan” which makes him sound charming but not particularly reassuring.

Moments later Sam’s secretary is showing in a woman named Wonderley, “a knockout”, a femme as fatale as any that ever lived on the page:

She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.

What follows is a dizzying tale of murder, betrayal, and above all greed. Miss Wonderley tells Sam that her sister has fallen into bad company with a man named Floyd Thursby. Now the sister has disappeared, and Miss Wonderley fears Thursby might harm her, even kill her. She wants Thursby watched and her sister brought safely home.

By the start of chapter two Sam’s partner, Miles Archer, has been murdered and the case has become personal. Sam didn’t like Miles any and he was sleeping with Miles’ wife, but even so a man can’t let someone shoot his partner and do nothing about it, particularly when the police start poking around looking for someone to blame. Whatever’s going on, it’s much more than a runaway sister.

‘That – that story I told you yesterday was all – a story,’ she stammered, and looked up at him now with miserable frightened eyes. ‘Oh, that,’ Spade said lightly. ‘We didn’t exactly believe your story.’ ‘Then—?’ Perplexity was added to the misery and fright in her eyes. ‘We believed your two hundred dollars.’ ‘You mean—?’ She seemed to not know what he meant. ‘I mean that you paid us more than if you’d been telling the truth,’ he explained blandly, ‘and enough more to make it all right.’

The Maltese Falcon has some of the finest characters in any crime novel I’ve read. Miss Wonderley is really Brigid O’Shaugnessy, and by her own account in the past she’s been “bad – worse than you could know – but I’m not all bad”. She’s in serious trouble, the worst kind, and she’s dependent on Sam Spade to help her out of it but what exactly it is is far from clear. For a damsel in distress she’s surprisingly hard to get a straight answer from, but then being a knockout is all the explanation she’s ever needed in life.

Sam gets visited in his office by Joel Cairo, a small-boned Levantine dressed in rich clothes and armed with heavily scented handkerchiefs and a small-calibre pistol. Joel’s looking for an ornament, “the black figure of a bird”, and he’s not the only one because the fat man is out there too and he has a vicious street thug bearing twin .45s watching Sam wherever he goes.

The fat man, actually named Gutman, is another memorable character. He’s loquacious, jocular, well mannered and well groomed. He’s appetite in a bulging suit, polite but determined. The thug, a gunsel named Wilmer, is a bitter little killer full of anger and resentment at the world. The two of them make a dangerous combination.

I should at this point make a small aside and note that this is not a particularly gay-friendly novel. Cairo is an effeminate gay and portrayed as ugly and unwholesome in part because of that. Wilmer is a gunsel, a term that today because of this book and the film means a gun-thug but that originally meant a catamite – Hammett used the term so that he could get the gay subtext into the book without being too explicit and it worked so well that when I first read it and saw the film I had no idea of the implications.

Above all of them though there’s the character that’s by far the greatest in the book – Sam Spade himself. Spade changes his mood and his manner to the occasion: dumb when he wants to be underestimated; angry when he wants to intimidate; charming when he wants to persuade; sharp-tongued when he wants to put someone back in their place. He’s quick-witted and poker-faced, and the real crime is that Hammett never wrote another novel featuring him. He is, quite simply, one of the greatest fictional detectives ever written.

The chances are almost everyone reading this knows the plot, the secret of the “black bird” and what’s really going on with O’Shaugnessy, Cairo and Gutman. It’s possible though that some of you may not, and just in case of that I won’t say anything more about what happens. I will say though that while Chandler remains my first and greatest hardboiled love, Hammett knew how to write a plot and the plot here is one worthy of the characters.

This is probably as close to a love-letter as I’ll write in a review, until at least I reread The Big Sleep at which point I’ll likely gush to a level that makes this look restrained. Still, it’s The Maltese Falcon, and to quote Spade from the film in a line he never says in the book, it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of”.

I’ll finish up with a quick comment on the film, which I rewatched while out in San Francisco. It’s amazingly close to the book, with large chunks of dialogue taken straight from one to the other. It’s as well directed as you’d hope from John Huston at the top of his game, but above all it is incredibly well cast.

Bogart of course makes a definitive Sam Spade. He looks nothing like the book’s description of the character, but that simply doesn’t matter as he completely inhabits the part and in doing so pretty much defines the iconography of the cinematic private detective. Mary Astor matches him in a career-defining role as Brigid O’Shaugnessy – a woman who is varyingly vulnerable, bold, affectionate, manipulative, seductive, dangerous, terrified and more.

Sydney Greenstreet seems to have stepped out of the book as Gutman; Peter Lorre is a marvellously questionable Cairo (though I’ve never seen Lorre disappoint); and perhaps most impressive of all is character actor Elisha Cook, Jr who captures Wilmer in all his petty viciousness so well that at times I almost sympathised with him. The supporting actors are equally well chosen, the whole film crackles with talent and is just an exceptional joy to watch.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Dashiell, Hammett, Hardboiled

Nothing moved across the moor except the rain, which appeared as suddenly and soundlessly as a face pressed against a window.

Diving Belles, by Lucy Wood

I took a bit of convincing to read this one. It’s a series of short stories that take Cornish folklore and place it into a contemporary setting: a woman transforming into a standing stone; a wife whose husband was kidnapped by mermaids; giants and ghosts and spirits. It all sounded a bit urban fantasy to me – a genre I’ve never taken to.

Diving Belles though is a superb short story collection; genuinely original and exciting. It’s warm and well written and firmly rooted in a very physical sense of place. Wood has subsequently written a novel, Weathering, and I’ll absolutely be picking it up once I’ve finished my #TBR20.

Diving Belles

The title story here gives a good sense of how the collection works. Iris’s sailor husband was lost decades ago, enchanted away by mermaids. Now a woman in her village has set up a business that can reunite wives for a while with their stolen husbands, perhaps even bringing them back to land. It involves lowering the wife down to sea in a diving bell, and a friend has bought Iris a voucher entitling her to three attempts.

It sounds twee, or it did to me anyway, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s a wonderful mix of the pragmatic and the mythic. Mermaids and gift vouchers. Of course it’s also all terribly metaphorical: when Iris sees her husband he’s not aged a day while she’s now an old woman, just as all those we lose remain forever young in our memories because they can no longer age.

What sells it all is the prose:

Closer to the seabed, the water seemed to clear. Then, suddenly, there was the shipwreck, looming upwards like an unlit bonfire, all splints and beams and slumped funnels. The rusting mainframe arched and jutted. Collapsed sheets of iron were strewn across the sand. The diving bell moved between girders and cables before stopping just above the engine. The Queen Mary’s sign, corroded and nibbled, gazed up at Iris. Empty cupboards were scattered to her left. The cargo ship had been transporting train carriages and they were lying all over the seabed, marooned and broken, like bodies that had been weighed down with stones and buried at sea. Orange rust bloomed all over them. Green and purple seaweed drifted out through the windows. Red man’s fingers and dead man’s fingers pushed up from the wheel arches.

Diving Belles is a strong opener to the collection, and it’s immediately followed by Countless Stones which is just as solid. Here Rita has woken up to find that she’s transforming into a standing stone, as has happened to her before and as happens to others from time to time in her part of the country.

Rita knows she has a few hours before the transformation is complete, but she doesn’t know how long she’ll stay transformed for. She therefore prepares to make arrangements: to contact work to let them know she’ll be absent; to empty the fridge of perishables; to make sure she hasn’t left any washing up on the side. As she does so the particularities of transformation are closely described: the feeling of her toe joints hardening; a craving for salt; visions of the other stones she’ll stand among:

Rita filled up the kettle and put it on. There was a cold breeze from nowhere and suddenly she was up on the cliffs with the other standing stones, watching a buzzard rising and circling on its huge spread of wings. Then she was back in front of the kettle again and it had boiled.

Unfortunately, before she can make much by way of preparation Rita gets a call from her ex who needs her help driving him to a house he’s viewing. She dutifully heads out to take care of him even though she knows the weather is worsening and the detour will mean she’ll have to leave some of her own tasks undone.

Again, the metaphor isn’t particularly subtle. Rita is fixed in place, literally unable to move either from her place by the cliffs post-transformation or her relationship with her ex. The story works though because while on the symbolic level it’s pretty straightforward the prose makes it convincingly real. Rita’s particular problem may be magical in nature, but there’s nothing supernatural about a woman who puts someone else’s needs ahead of her own even when her own are more pressing.

Each of the stories combines elements of the prosaic and the fantastic, commingling them so that the extraordinary becomes more a highlighting of the ordinary than something separate to it:

  • an adolescent boy feels awkward about his body, as I once did myself, but here it’s because his father was a giant and he’s still short (he looks up his concerns on the NHS website);
  • a woman unable to let go of her past finds the ghost of a wrecker (the Cornish equivalent of this) in her spare bedroom rifling through her unopened moving boxes, assessing them for salvage value;
  • a woman tries on an eye-cream in her mother’s bathroom, and through its magic realises that her mother isn’t the lonely old lady she thought she was but has a faerie lover and a whole life she was unaware of, separate to her relationship with her daughter.

Not every story is as memorable as those, but most are and I could easily keep picking examples (the old folk’s home for retired witches springs to mind, a more melancholy tale than it at first appears). Another standout that I can’t resist mentioning is Notes from the House Spirits, where nature spirits inhabiting a house consider its various occupants over the years, the humans they don’t understand and can’t really tell apart. It’s a melancholic tale with the reader able to fill in the gaps the spirits can’t, and with the occasional wry stab of humour:

When she can’t find her watch, we find it for her, and put it in the pocket of her coat, but then she shouts that she has already looked in the pocket of her coat. We were only trying to help. It is not our job to find things.

Diving Belles is like little else I’ve read this year, or indeed any year. It stands an excellent chance of being on my end-of-year roundup list, and I can easily imagine returning in future to read it again. For me, this is a future classic, and one we’re lucky enough to get to read while it’s fresh.

Other reviews

David Hebblethwaite first put me on to this one, his blog post about it is here and links to a review he did for Strange Horizons here. Gemma of The Perfectionist Pen also wrote an excellent review of it here.

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Filed under Fantasy Fiction, Short Stories, Wood, Lucy

Life equals structure plus activity.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

This is perhaps the best written unmemorable book I’ve ever read. I could be wrong in that of course. The trouble about unmemorable books is it’s hard to rank them in memory.

I read Dept. shortly before going on a three-week holiday in the US. It’s a novella, under 200 pages but with lots of space and it’s a very quick read. It came very highly recommended and as I read it I was blown away. I thought it a shoo-in for my 2015 end of year wrap-up.

Dept. of Speculation

Now, some five or six weeks later, I look at the passages I noted and I recognise them but they’re islands of prose. There’s a popular type of image to use when depicting Canary Wharf, London’s second financial centre; corporate glass and steel towers rising out of clouds, isolated and aloof. Here’s an example:

CWclouds

Writing this today, that’s how Dept. is for me. I have the quotes I’ll include in this piece, but otherwise it’s completely lost.

The narrator is a creative-writing teacher in Brooklyn (I know, bear with me here for a moment). Her partner (husband? I don’t remember) records street and nighttime sounds which he uses to make abstract electronic music. These are all real things of course. I read novels by Brooklyn authors (this is one). I listen to quite a lot of field-recording electronic music. Still, it’s fair to say we’re in a bubble here.

Another night. My old apartment in Brooklyn. It was late, but of course, I couldn’t sleep. Above me, speed freaks merrily disassembling something. Leaves against the window. I felt a sudden chill and pulled the blanket over my head. That’s the way they bring horses out of a fire, I remembered. If they can’t see, they won’t panic. I tried to figure out if I felt calmer with a blanket over my head. No I did not was the answer.

The narrator and her partner met, they fell in love, they had a kid, they have relationship problems. That’s pretty much the story, such as it is, and what more do you need? For most of us our dramas are domestic, and better that than to live through wars and famines.

Dept. is written in fragments of thought. Each paragraph is a reflection, a moment, a passing mental connection. That’s its chief strength, because much of it feels true to how we think, or how I think anyway. It isn’t chronological but rather goes back and forth flitting from thought to memory to thought. It’s like Buddhist meditation where you allow your mind to wander as it wishes and observe it as it does so, but somehow remain separate from it.

Antelopes have 10× vision, you said. It was the beginning or close to it. That means that on a clear night they can see the rings of Saturn. It was still months before we’d tell each other all our stories. And even then some seemed too small to bother with. So why do they come back to me now? Now, when I’m so weary of all of it.

As an aside, I tried Buddhist meditation once. I am it turns out not yet ready to be enlightened. My mind chatters loudly. So it goes.

When it works, which is almost all the time, it works superbly well. I was absolutely captured by Offill’s voice. The paragraph-thoughts are neat and clearly very carefully crafted but that’s fine, the narrator is after all a Brooklyn novelist and anyway novels are by their nature inherently artificial. Offill has a meticulous eye and an understated sense of humour and I found this an effortlessly easy read – a standing contradiction to the false dichotomy between readability and literary quality.

Themes emerge (or I assume they do based on the paragraphs I noted at the time), most notably the challenge of “the unsatisfactory nature of ordinary experience”. The narrator and her partner are both artists, but art demands dedication and life demands compromise. In the early days:

I learned you were fearless about the weather. You wanted to walk around the city, come rain come snow come sleet, recording things. I bought a warmer coat with many ingenious pockets. You put your hands in all of them.

That can’t last though. Now the narrator spends her days looking after her child, trying her best to make something interesting of her day to tell her partner when he comes home. Their lives aren’t in each other’s pockets anymore, and she hasn’t turned out to be the selfish “art-monster” caring about nothing but her craft that she once dreamed of being. It’s not so much that she resents the life she has (she loves her child and her partner, even with their current problems), but rather that the gradual brutality of adapting to the ordinary wearies her.

Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits.

It’s not quite what I’d call universal, but it’s not rare either. Almost anyone who spent university talking philosophy and art and drinking in late night bars will recognise the shock of finding yourself having to get to work on a Wednesday morning. How did all that come to this? Why does all that always seem to come to this? There are good answers, but not always satisfying ones.

I mentioned Offill’s sense of humour. Part of it manifests in gently mocking her own craft:

Advice for wives circa 1896: The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject. Besides the false views of human nature it will impart … it produces an indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities.

Or:

My friend who teaches writing sometimes flips out when she is grading stories and types the same thing over and over again. WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE? WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE?

This is not of course a novel where most of the time you have the faintest idea where you are in time and space. It’s also that theme again, art and mundanity. Teaching writing, which is teaching art, reduced to marking piles of repetitive scripts. You might as well work in an office, at least you’d get the evenings off.

Oddly, the only passage that didn’t work for me at all was the one that justified the title. At one point the narrator observes:

They used to send each other letters. The return address was always the same: Dept. of Speculation.

Even for Brooklyn artists I just didn’t buy that. Of course, for all I know that’s a detail Offill took from her own life or from some friend’s anecdote. It could be completely real. It doesn’t matter though because it’s not convincing. Dept. is a deeply artificial novel both in terms of style and structure (“It’s important to note the POV switch here”) flipping between first and third person as the narrator feels closer to or more distant from her partner. It’s delicate and intricate and beautifully worked. At that moment though the soap-bubble just popped for me and for the first time I didn’t believe it. It was an oddly false note and at the time I thought would be my only criticism.

Now though, now my criticism is that Dept. is a snowflake of a novel that glitters beautifully but vanishes away to nothing. I don’t know that’s necessarily a bad thing. Not every novel has to mark your life, but it is a troubling thing. As I write this I can call passages and scenes and even the shape of the text from say Cassandra at the Wedding effortlessly to mind but here I had to quote every passage I noted because otherwise I had nothing to hold on to.

Other reviews

John Self of TheAsylum reviewed this for the Guardian, here, and there are some comments about it on his blog also here. He didn’t have any issues remembering it, but then he read it twice before reviewing it which may have helped. An unscientific poll on twitter suggests I’m not alone in having loved it but then having forgotten it. John also interviewed Jenny Offill on his blog, here, and it’s an illuminating interview in terms of influences and structural choices.

Trevor of themookseandthegripes also reviewed this, here. It’s been quite widely reviewed so as ever please feel free to let me know of reviews I’ve missed in the comments.

Format

Finally, I read this on kindle. You shouldn’t. Formatting and layout matters here and Offill even gave thought to the typeface (which is lost on Kindle). If you are going to read this, and despite what is at times a moderately negative review I do still recommend it, read it in hardcopy.

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Filed under Offill, Jenny

Oh say can you see…

America in tweets

I recently returned from my three-week road trip across the US. One day last week I summarised my thoughts on the trip in tweet form. For those who don’t follow me on twitter or didn’t see the tweets, I thought I’d set them out here as my review of the US.

San Diego, really nice: Tucson, definitely worth a visit, great scenery; Phoenix, a 16 lane highway? Really? 16?

LA, we didn’t leave the freeway; SF, lovely and great shopping in Hayes Valley but the worst disregard for the homeless I’ve ever seen.

Coastal Highway, very pretty; redwoods, very big; Seattle, really really nice. Seriously, why doesn’t this get more attention? Great place.

Grand Canyon stunning, especially at dawn as colours soak in; Montana, there’s a lot of Montana. It’s the Hotel California state. Endless.

Jackson, most patriotic; Wyoming, rugged landscape; Yellowstone amazing; Glacier really pretty, exceptional too. US has great national parks

Vegas, didn’t need the extra day. Restaurants shut surprisingly early. Chicago, best food on the trip, attractive city, good for walking in.

Chicago also had the only bookshop I saw on the trip. I wasn’t looking for them, but most places you don’t need to seek them out.

In all seriousness I saw more open carry handguns (is Walmart so dangerous?) than bookshops.

Grand Canyon, Glacier, Yellowstone, Seattle and Chicago among highlights. Haven’t listed everything of course.

Food mostly awful to mediocre, and insanely huge portions. Took to skipping meals.!Amazed anyone isn’t fat.

Ate in a McDonalds that only played Christian Rock; ate chicken fried steak with biscuits and gravy; ate many, many hamburgers.

Saw only one classic diner, and that was intentionally retro. Casinos seemingly everywhere. Fireworks on sale at every national park border.

Vegas, everybody having fun except the people at the tables. They look like they’re losing money. Slot people look dead.

Gathering around a craps table not nearly as fun as it looks in the movies. Mostly as in movies people are winning, in Vegas they’re losing.

It was a great trip, and Seattle and Chicago in particular really are worth a visit (it’s hopefully obvious that the national parks merit a visit). Still, while a long holiday is good, it’s also good to be back. Of course, being back does mean I have hundreds of emails, missed blog posts, articles and whatever to catch up on…

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Filed under Personal posts

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