Who was it who invented coffee? He must be a cousin of the genius who invented the bed. Nobel Prizes for both of them. For them, and for the person who invented Nutella.

Game for Five, by Marco Malvaldi and translated by Howard Curtis

Game for Five was the last book I read in 2015. I read it in the run up to New Year while feeling slightly under the weather from a cold and from the usual Christmas excess. I wanted to lie quietly in a room digesting and recovering, and knew I wasn’t up to anything too serious or dark.

One of the advantages of following book blogs is that you’re never short of recommendations for any kind of book you might wish (it’s also one of the disadvantages). Need a book for a post-Christmas slump? Not a problem.


The classic Italian neighbourhood bar isn’t somewhere you go just to get drunk. Instead it’s a mix of social hub and of breathing space between work and home. A good Italian bar is civilisation with an espresso machine.

Massimo is the owner and barman of Bar Lume, a neighbourhood bar in a seaside town near Pisa. His regulars include a group of four old men, one of them his grandfather Ampelio, who like to while away their day sitting outside chatting and playing cards. When he’s quiet he joins them and if he’s called away they cover for him. The Italian for to chat by the way is chiacchierare, isn’t that great? So onomatopoeic.

The tourist trade keeps the bar busy, but mostly at predictable times of day leaving Massimo with a lot of free time and an easy life. That all changes when a late night drunk stumbles across the corpse of a murdered girl, and the first place he goes to for help is Massimo’s bar. Massimo ends up second on the scene and first to call the police, and to his dismay it’s local cop Inspector Fusco who heads up the investigation.

Fusco isn’t exactly Inspector Morse, and he quickly latches on a local boy who hasn’t got an alibi but who hasn’t much to link him with the crime either. Reluctantly Massimo realises that if the truth’s to come out he has to lend a hand and do a little digging of his own. Massimo doesn’t have the limited resources of the town police department, but he does have something much better – he has his elderly regulars and through them the entire town’s rumour mill:

How the hell is it that people always know what’s going on? Massimo thought. What do they have in their homes, satellite receivers? “Listen, we’ll tell you what O.K. told us . . . ” “That seems only fair, and I’ll tell you what Fusco told me.” Four timeworn necks craned towards the counter. “I don’t believe it!” Ampelio said. “Has he found something?” “But keep it to yourselves as long as possible, please.” Believe us, the four faces said, while Massimo’s face made an effort to keep as deadpan as possible. The important thing, when you gossip, is to maintain a formal structure. The person spreading the gossip has to demand the maximum secrecy, and the listeners have to grant it. Obviously, they’ll broadcast the news as widely as they can later. It’s just a matter of time. If someone says, “Keep it to yourselves as long as possible,” he doesn’t mean “Tell it to the fewest possible people,” but “Resist for at least a little while before coming out with it, that way it’ll be harder to trace it back to me.”

Massimo’s a genial and basically good-natured sort. People like him and they’re happy to talk to him. Soon even Inspector Fusco realises that Massimo might actually be useful and that there are doors that open easily for a barman that remain firmly closed to the police.

What follows is a fairly classic amateur detective novel. I worked out whodunnit a little bit before the reveal, but it’s not one of those books where the point is to treat it like a crossword puzzle and see if you can beat the mystery. Instead it’s an utterly charming slice of small town Italian life, with a murder thrown in to give everyone something to do.

The real joy here is the interaction between the characters. Massimo’s grandfather, Ampelio, is on a restricted diet due to health issues and so is constantly sneaking in illicit ice-creams and lying about how many he’s already had. In between, he manages to give Massimo an affectionate hard time:

“Nice to see you, son,” Ampelio greeted him. “We’ve been waiting for you for two hours. I guess you were scared they’d take away your pillow and you were hugging it for safekeeping.”

Massimo and his regulars are all hugely entertaining to spend time with. The rest of the cast are generally fun and well (if lightly) drawn, and even the omniscient narratorial voice gets in a fair few knowing asides:

“The man’s a lecher. They say he once got a sixteen-year-old girl pregnant and made her have an abortion. I was told that by Zaira, whose grandson works at the Imperiale.” (Another basic rule, when sticking your nose into the business of people you’ve never seen or known, is to back up your statements with specific references to people or, better still, the relatives of people whose knowledge of the subject is guaranteed by some connection or other with the person in question. This makes even the most utter bullshit sound reassuringly logical.)

There’s also a wonderful running gag where Massimo refuses to serve drinks he doesn’t approve of. Massimo has strong views on what drinks are appropriate to any given time of day or temperature; asking for a cappuccino after breakfast is more likely to result in a lecture than a coffee.

It’s fair to say that Malvaldi is stronger on his male characters than his female. Massimo is slightly old school, having chosen his barmaid as much for her breasts as her brain (though she is pretty competent). I got the sense that perhaps Malvaldi himself wasn’t greatly different, since the narrator at one point comments on women who look gorgeous but ruin everything when they open their mouths to reveal crass local accents (“Don’t speak, girls, just let yourselves be looked at.”) At the same time, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know what he meant, so perhaps I’m just being a little Guardian-readery there.

Otherwise, this is a warm and likable novel. It’s a book to sink into after a crappy day with a generous glass of wine close to hand. It was perfect for what I wanted when I turned to it, and that’s no small thing.

As the cover suggests, this is the first of a series. The real test for me always when someone reviews a series’ novel is whether they plan to read another. Well, these aren’t all translated yet, but I absolutely intend to pick up the sequel, and I look forward to meeting Massimo and his regulars again. Mine’s a Negroni.

Other reviews

I heard about this from JacquiWine Journal’s review, here. Jacqui did her characteristically great job of describing the book. In fact, on this occasion I made the mistake of rereading her review before starting mine and found myself without actually that much to say since she rather seemed to have covered it all.


Some readers may notice that this wasn’t actually my next scheduled review. Basically I’ve just got too much of a review backlog currently and I’m reading books faster than I’m writing about them. Later in the year there should be slower periods while I’m reading big books like the next Proust, so my plan is to skip a couple of reviews now and hopefully come back to them later.

The books I’m skipping for the moment are Hawthorn and Child, which is excellent, and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing which is fascinating though I’m slightly less enamoured of it than many others are. Both absolutely merit a review, but both are already very widely reviewed so it’s not like people are struggling to get views on them.


Filed under Crime Fiction, Italian Literature, Malvaldi, Marco

Reflections on a reading year

My 2015 end of year write-up is divided into two parts. The first is some reflections on my reading habits and how they’re affected by time pressures, which you can skip if you just want to get to the list itself.

I don’t have an apposite image for this post as it’s not a review of a single book. I thought therefore I’d include the poster for what was probably my favourite film of those I saw in 2015:


Reading reflections

When I wrote up my 2014 end of year review I found myself complaining once again of having read fewer books than I’d hoped. It struck me afterwards that while it had seemed to me 2014 had been particularly bad, in fact dissatisfaction with how much I’d managed to read was an annual refrain. A key goal for me in 2015 was fixing that.

One of the advantages of having a blog is it gives you moderately hard numbers on what you’ve read during its life. Only moderately, as while I blog pretty much every novel I read I only tend to write-up shorter works if I think there’s something interesting to say about them (I just don’t have time to write-up every short story I read much as I might like to). In addition, there’s been a couple of times I’ve had too big a review backlog and have had to skip a couple of reviews (though I keep note of them in case I get a chance at a later date). Still, overall, counting my posts gives me a pretty good sense of how much I’m reading.

Back in 2009 I read around 56 books. Skip forward to 2012 and I’ve slipped down to somewhere between 30 and 40 books. By 2013 I’ve only read 32 books and in 2014 again it’s 32 books. Admittedly some of them were chunksters, but even so that’s not great.

I carried out that analysis around the beginning of 2015, and it shook me up a little. I’m busy, but not more so than in 2009. The issue isn’t free time. The issue is prioritisation. What changed between 2009 and 2014 wasn’t how much time I had to read, but how much time I used on other stuff.

The decline in my reading dates roughly to when I got an iPad and started watching tv shows on my commute home. It aligns too with my getting into the habit, when tired of an evening, to watch an episode of a show I’m following rather than to read a little. Basically, it ties to my taking time away from reading and putting it instead towards tv. It’s pretty much that simple.

There’s nothing wrong with tv. It’s a valid artistic medium, and if (as I do) you actively choose what you watch then I don’t see it as necessarily more passive than any other art form one might enjoy. Still, since I found myself each year disgruntled at not having read more that did raise questions about whether I was using my time well.

The result was that in 2015 I tried to make a more conscious effort to make time for reading. That meant cutting back a bit on other interests, but the truth is if you’ve got a full-time job you just don’t have time for all the things you might enjoy. I don’t play computer games much any more – I didn’t have time for that and films and tv shows and reading and other interests all of which come after family time and have to come after work. Something had to give, and that’s ok.

At the end of 2015 I’d read around 50 books. That number could still be better, but it’s a hell of an improvement over 32. I’d made a choice over the past few years to watch more tv instead of reading without realising what I’d done. Once I noticed, I made a conscious choice to the contrary and the result is I’m a lot happier writing up this year’s list than in the past couple of years writing up the preceding lists.

2015- prize categories and winners

This year the books are in roughly chronological order based on when I read them, save for my favourite book of 2015 which I’ve put right at the end (which I guess tells you that I didn’t read it in December).

Best overlooked impressionistic Modernist classic that hardly anyone seems to actually read: Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf. Arguably Mrs Dalloway is the better novel, but Jacob’s Room was my first Woolf and I loved it. Woolf seems to me a writer more referenced than read, overshadowed by the endless praise for Beckett and Joyce. Her prose though is exquisite, and yet her novels are still effortlessly readable and not precious at all. Woolf is one of my great discoveries of 2015.

Best wryly intelligent hyper-contemporary novel written in the second person: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid. Being honest this almost got cut, as with more books read this past year the competition is fiercer. When I looked back at the year though it still stood out as fresh, original and ambitious. Hamid doesn’t get the critical attention I feel he deserves and while I doubt one end of year blog post will do much to change that he still deserves a place on the list.

Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men was also a candidate on the hyper-contemporary front (if not on the second person front, but that’s pretty much Hamid’s thing). It’s a fascinating and enjoyable novel and on another day it could easily have squeezed out the Hamid.

Interestingly, both Hamid and Kunzru seem to me to be writing with an almost SFnal sensibility, which may in part be why both seem so good at capturing that sense of the contemporary that I think most novelists miss (usually in fairness as they’re not aiming for it). Both are fairly close to me in age, Hamid has a background in corporate law and Kunzru like me is a Londoner born and bred so perhaps it’s not surprising I find resonances in both their work. They’re both writing about worlds I recognise.

Best 500+ page novel structured around a train journey: Zone, by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell). This was a candidate for my best novel of the year, but ultimately only came third in that category. It stands out however for its depth, its structural cleverness (without being off-putting), its rhythm and momentum and for its sheer bloody size. I’m looking forward to my next Enard, and I’m looking forward to it being shorter too.

Best absolutely delicious sun-washed novel somewhat reminiscent of a nouvelle vague movie: Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan (translated by Irene Ash, though apparently the Heather Lloyd translation is better). I just loved this. The image of Cécile eating an orange while drinking a scaldingly hot cup of coffee remains with me. A gorgeous novel.

Best Californian first person narrative: Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker. Dorothy Baker takes that old standby, the well-off family in crisis, and manages to do something interesting with it. There’s a lovely use of twins and parallels; subtle structural complexities that don’t need to be noticed to be effective; and a narrative drive which made me at least want to know how it would all turn out (impressive given the novel hasn’t much of a plot).

Best novel restoring my faith in ProustSodom and Gomorrah, by Marcel Proust (Kilmartin and Moncrieff translation). I struggled a bit with The Guermantes Way, so it was an utter relief to find Sodom and Gomorrah such a wonderful read. It’s funny, yet as perceptive as ever. Only Proust can cover grief, sexual obsession, forbidden desire and garden party comedy all in the same book (though it helps he has so many pages in which to cover it all of course …) Looking back on my year, this was literally the only book I read in April 2015. It took me over a month to finish, but it was more than worth it.

Best short story collection featuring Cornish folkloreDiving Belles, by Lucy Wood. This is just a marvellously inventive short story collection, rooted in place and yet unconstrained by the puritan realism of so much literary fiction. It was one of the first books to come to mind when I started thinking what would be on this list, and while it wasn’t in the top three for the year it is so refreshing and so enjoyable that I couldn’t ignore it. Look for Karen Lord to occupy this spot next year, save that her book’s not a short story collection and isn’t set in Cornwall.

Best novel in which basically nothing happens and where everyone is really rather nice: A Glass of Blessings, by Barbara Pym. Nice is such a damning word. When I was a teenager and later when dating the worst word you could ever hear applied to you from a woman was nice. Nobody wanted to be nice. Nice means safe, unexceptionable, unexciting. Nice is your ticket to indifference at worst, tepid friendship at best.

Blessings though is a nice novel, and it’s a nice novel filled with largely nice people. The challenges its characters face aren’t terribly serious and nothing too bad is likely to happen to any of them. Despite that it’s a wonderful read and a comic delight (it’s the kind of novel that asks for phrases like comic delight, I’m not sure why, tradition I guess). It’s charming, and charm isn’t something there’s so much of that it should be lightly disregarded.

Best reinvention of narrative: Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector (translated by Ben Moser). This did make it into my top three for the year, edging out Zone to take the number two spot. No small achievement given it’s literally less than a fifth the length of Zone. For all that size disparity Hour is ingenious, challenging, masterful in its command of language and generally is just exceptional. A truly amazing novel.

Best novel set in early 20th Century ViennaMaster of the Day of Judgment, Leo Perutz. Oddly enough, if I ran this category exactly as worded over the whole history of this blog it would probably be one of the most contested. An incredible place and time for quality literature. I found this wonderfully clever and even audacious. For much of it I wasn’t even quite sure what genre I was in: crime or horror (or both?) Pushkin have turned me into a Perutz fan, and I’m seriously looking forward to their next by him.

Best novel about being a woman in 1920s Paris with your looks fading and no certain incomeAfter Leaving Mr Mackenzie, by Jean Rhys. Rhys pretty much always wins this category to be fair. There’s a cold clarity to Rhys’ prose and an honesty to her gaze which makes Rhys just a marvel: you feel the impact but it’s hard to say quite how she achieves it. She’s easily one of my favourite authors.

And finally, drumroll please.

Best novel of 2015The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. This was actually the first novel I read in 2015, and here after the year’s ended it remains the best. It’s just extraordinary. A densely murky yet brilliantly written unreliable narrative where everything is “all a darkness”. This is a novel which not only could bear rereading, but which demands it (not that I have yet). Superb.

What else? I’ve not included Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon as it was a reread, but it was a bloody good reread. Otherwise, I’ve cheated a bit above by including links to the Kunzru but I was struggling between that and the Hamid. Even with that little bit of fudging I’ve omitted books which could easily in another year have made the list (Open City leaps to mind, which is genuinely excellent and might well have appeared above if I’d written this on a different day; similarly William Golding’s The Inheritors with its dazzling evocation of the internal experience of Neanderthal man).

In all truth Open City and The Inheritors probably have better cause to be on the list above than say the Hamid or the Wood. Both the Cole and the Golding are superbly well written: the Cole daringly undermines itself and risks entirely losing the reader’s sympathy; the Golding takes huge risks in terms of language and subject. In the end, however, it’s my list and an emotional response is as valid as any other. Perhaps it’s the best response.

Right, now that this is written I’m finally free to see what others put in their end of year lists. Hopefully at least a few books I overlooked, some of which will may end up on my 2016 list as I catch up. Thanks as ever to everyone who bothers to read the blog, and thanks too to all those who maintain their own blogs and keep my to be read pile ever longer than my managed to read pile.


Filed under Personal posts

The lights of the cafés were hard and cold, like ice.

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys is one of the great writers of the 20th Century. She wrote four novels which are in some senses the same novel, but she’s hardly the only author to keep returning to the same territory. Like Patrick Hamilton she doesn’t flinch from the indifferent cruelty of the comfortable to the marginal.


That’s a pretty much perfect cover image for this book. Here’s the opening two paragraphs to give a sense of the sharpness of her style:

After she had parted from Mr Mackenzie, Julia Martin went to live in a cheap hotel on the Quai des Grands Augustins. It looked a lowdown sort of place and the staircase smelt of the landlady’s cats, but the rooms were cleaner than you would have expected. There were three cats – white Angoras – and they seemed usually to be sleeping in the hotel bureau.

The landlady was a thin, fair woman with red eyelids. She had a low, whispering voice and a hesitating manner, so that you thought: ‘She can’t possibly be a French-woman.’ Not that you lost yourself in conjectures as to what she was because you didn’t care a damn anyway.

Julia Martin is a 30-something woman living in late 1920s Paris. She’s survived on her looks and her lovers, but as the first fades the second are harder to come by. She has neither job nor savings and no cushion of family money to fall back on. She’s barely holding on, coming home each night with a bottle of wine for company and waking up to reflect that striped wallpapers “made her head ache worse when she awoke after she had been drinking.”

Julia was recently dumped by Mr Mackenzie of the title (she didn’t leave him, the title is ironic). Since then she’s been living off a weekly stipend he’s sent her both to assuage his guilt and in return for her not bothering him further. Now he feels he’s paid enough, so he’s stopping the cheques. For him it’s tidying his affairs; for her it’s a desolation.

At least for now Julia’s still an attractive woman, though she’s worried about her weight and signs of fatigue are showing. Charm is a dwindling currency as she well knows. Every day, desperate as things are, she still does her make up.She fears not doing so would be the first step to becoming the woman who lives on the floor above; a feared future:

The woman had a humble, cringing manner.Of course, she had discovered that, having neither money nor virtue, she had better be humble if she knew what was good for her. But her eyes were malevolent – the horribly malevolent eyes of an old, forsaken woman. She was a shadow, kept alive by a flame of hatred for somebody who had long ago forgotten all about her.

With Paris too full of memories and too short on prospects, Julia is forced to return home to London to stay with her sister. Julia’s family are “members of the vast crowd that bears on its back the label, ‘No money’ from the cradle to the grave”. They’re respectable people. They don’t understand Julia’s need to escape a life they’ve all accepted, and they don’t sympathise now she’s forced to return.

Rhys excels at capturing small humiliations and the fantasies that sustain us. Julia approaches an old lover for money, consoling herself that he’s rich and that their affair though it ended years ago ended well and surely he’ll remember her kindly. To him she’s a curio from the past, like someone you lost touch with years before who pops up on Facebook asking to be friends even though you long since stopped having anything in common.

For most of the novel Rhys focuses on Julia’s thoughts and feelings, but in her encounters with others the viewpoint slips across so that we see their perspective.  It’s impossible not to sympathise with Julia, but equally what does she expect? She’s moody and volatile, far from easy to live with; for the men she’s a passing affair that nobody, including her, ever expected to last.

Rhys doesn’t look away from the uncomfortable. It would be easy to make Julia a nicer person and the men heartless, but it’s not that simple. Julia rebelled against her class and expectations. She fled to men and Paris and a life her family would never approve of. Rebellion however is expensive, and this is a world and a time without a safety net. Julia’s problem isn’t her age or her weight or the very real constraints of her gender. Julia’s problem is money. If she had money the rest could be managed. As M. Folantin found in Huysmans’ With the Flow, when you’re broke your wallet determines your options.

The great sin here is hypocrisy. Julia is condemned even by those who once slept with her, yet who doesn’t want to find a little life before they die? Her real crimes are to lack the advantages of her lovers – their gender and their money – and to lack the acceptance of her family that all you’ll ever have is what the status quo allows you. Her men and her family both judge her, but like all hypocrites they don’t weigh themselves in the same balance.

The contents page tells you she returns to Paris but even if it hadn’t no reader would be surprised when she does. Julia left London for good reasons and she can’t fit back in to the world she quite purposefully left behind. Paris of course was a failure too, though of a different sort, and part of Rhys’ talent is to sail a fine course between hope and despair. Julia is demoralised, rejected and pushed aside but she never quite gives up.

She knew herself ready to struggle and twist and turn, to be unscrupulous and cunning as are all weak creatures fighting for their lives against the strong.

The specifics of Julia Martin’s world are gone. Women today have more options and more opportunities to realise themselves other than through men allowing them to. Even so, the book still rings true. A spot of prolonged unemployment; a divorce after years raising children; a bout of depression; many of us are only a stroke of bad luck away from everything falling apart. If you’re young you can probably bounce back. Even 85 years after this was published though if you’re older you’d still best have money or the world can be a very cold place indeed.

Other reviews

I’ve reviewed Rhys’ Quartet here, a Penguin Modern Classics pocket edition of four of her short stories here, and probably her best novel Good Morning, Midnight here. Otherwise, Dovegreyreader reviewed this one here, and there’s an excellent piece in the Guardian about it here (which lays out pretty much the whole plot, but honestly knowing it doesn’t make much difference).

Edit: Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal also wrote a particularly good review, here.


Filed under Modernist Fiction, Paris, Rhys, Jean

I decided, as so often before, never to visit a place of this sort again.

Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood

Back towards the end of 2013 I read Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, a book Isherwood himself later harshly criticised but which I loved. It almost made my 2013 end of year list, just squeezed out by Berlin Alexanderplatz in the surprisingly hotly contested Best Novel Set in Berlin category.

Goodbye to Berlin is the second in Isherwood’s loosely linked Berlin stories collection. It was published in 1939, four years after Norris and with Germany on the brink of war. It’s a portrait of a city in violent decline; of an increasingly intolerant culture that has neither room nor sympathy for marginal people.

Goodbye to Berlin

Here’s the opening two paragraphs:

From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied façades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scroll-work and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle-class.

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

Goodbye to Berlin conjures the disappearing city back to life in all its squalor and glory. Berlin is one of the great cinematic cities, and Isherwood’s camera captures it well. A city though is nothing without its people, and Isherwood shines there too with a cast of sharply distinguished characters drawn from life. Most famous of all of these of course is the inimitable Sally Bowles:

I noticed that her fingernails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. … Her face was long and thin, powdered dead white. She had very large brown eyes which should have been darker, to match her hair and the pencil she used for her eyebrows.

‘Frau Karpf, Leibling, willst Du sein ein Engel and bring zwei Tassen von Kaffee?’ Sally’s German was not merely incorrect, it was all her own. She pronounced every word in a mincing, specially ‘foreign’ manner. You could tell that she was speaking a foreign language from her expression alone.

Sally Bowles for me, and I imagine for most people, is inseparable from Liza Minelli’s career-defining performance in Cabaret. It’s a film I first saw as a teenager and which I’ve enjoyed several times since, never tiring of it. It’s an absolute classic.

The difficulty with seeing a film before you read the book it’s based on is that the film can define (and thus limit) the book. Instead of a world of imagined possibilities you see Liza Minelli or Sean Connery or whoever played a character in the film. It’s therefore a tribute to Goodbye Berlin that as I read it I saw past the film to Isherwood’s characters.

Here Sally is an English teenager, though no less precocious than in the film. She’s a terrible singer and her cabaret career is short-lived. Like Holly Golightly she makes her money from rats and super-rats (not that she calls them that, but while the labels and countries might differ the men don’t much). Also like Holly she gets by on a combination of charm, self-belief and never looking back.

Sally looms large but is just one of a fascinating cast. Fraulein Schroeder, first met in Norris, reappears here still letting out rooms to eke out her pension; later Isherwood spends a summer with Peter, a gay intellectual, and Otto, Peter’s more sexually fluid working class boyfriend; from there Isherwood comes to share a cramped Berlin apartment for a while with Otto’s family the Nowaks, including Otto’s brother in the Hitler Youth; and finally there’s the rich Landauers, Jewish owners of a rich Berlin apartment store with whom Isherwood becomes friends.

It’s a rich brew. Sally makes her money by sleeping with older men (the only younger one she sleeps with turns out to be making his money by sleeping with older women), but it’s hard to see where she’d fit into the Nazi ideal of Kinder, Küche, Kirche. Peter loves Otto and jealously tries to control him with money, while Otto rebels by staying out late and sleeping with women. They have no future together, but then Peter at least has no future in Germany at all.

The Nowaks and Fraulein Schroeder are ordinary working class people, likable and on a personal level open minded. They don’t hate Jews or gays or even have any particular opinion on them, but the economy is stagnant and there are bills to pay and you have to adapt to the times you live in…

Meanwhile the Landauers are well-off, educated and sophisticated. They’re established, establishment even. It’s hard for them to believe that there’s no longer a place in Germany for them, let alone the places the Nazis have in mind to send them to. Isherwood can see it because he’s already seen what the Nazis do to the powerless, and he can see that the Landauer’s money won’t grant them any immunity.

If there’s a common theme here it’s of people dancing on the brink of an abyss. Rich or poor, gay or straight, middle class or working, each of them slowly adjusts almost without noticing to a world that gets a little uglier every day. What’s happening is there to see all around them, but the facts are too terrible to be acknowledged so mostly they close their eyes or play down its significance.

Some of course do recognise what’s happening, Isherwood among them. He has the luxury of being able to leave. Others who should do the same either can’t, or won’t.

Every evening, I sit in the big half-empty artists’ café by the Memorial Church, where the Jews and left-wing intellectuals bend their heads together over the marble tables, speaking in low, scared voices. Many of them know that they will certainly be arrested – if not today, then tomorrow or next week. So they are polite and mild with each other, and raise their hats and inquire after their colleagues’ families. Notorious literary tiffs of several years’ standing are forgotten.

The book closes in the winter of 1932. Fraulein Schroeder, who once voted Communist, now talks “reverently about ‘Der Fuhrer'”. The Nowaks are likely doing the same. “After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.” Along the way this is a charming and funny novel, filled with quotable scenes and likable characters. That’s what makes it so very sad.


Filed under Berlin, Isherwood, Christopher

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac

Vertigo, by Boileau-Narcejac and translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

Like I suspect a lot of people I had no idea Hitchcock’s Vertigo was based on a book. The film, if you’ve not seen it, is easily among Hitchcock’s best and is a masterpiece of mood and obsessive desire. I’m a big fan of it.

When Pushkin Press recently launched their new crime imprint they named it Vertigo, after this book (or more properly after the film, since the book’s title roughly translates as Among the Dead). No surprise then that it was one of their initial release titles.

It’s classic Pushkin material. We’re talking mid-20th Century underappreciated European fiction here, and if that’s not Pushkin’s beat what is?

I’m going to write this review on the assumption you’ve not seen the film, though anyone reading this probably has.


Before I start, that photo above doesn’t really do the book justice. The new Pushkin Vertigo range have a simple but very effective graphic design – relatively few elements but with a nicely judged off-kilter sense of unease.

Paris, 1940. Roger Flavières is a former policeman turned lawyer. His practice hasn’t taken off and his life hasn’t gone as he’d hoped. “He was one of those people who hate mediocrity without themselves being able to scale the heights.” He’s a damaged man, crippled by guilt over a colleague’s death that he blames himself for and which caused him to quit the police.

As the novel opens Flavières  is contacted by old acquaintance Paul Gévigne, a successful industrialist who needs somebody he can trust to watch his wife, Madeleine. Gévigne claims that Madeleine has become oddly distant, that she seems to go into increasingly frequent trances and extraordinary as it might seem that she may be being influenced by the spirit of a dead ancestor. Gévigne wants to take care of her, but with war in the offing he’s too busy expanding into the arms trade and putting himself in position to profit from the coming conflict.

Flavières finds Gévigne repugnant and is reluctant to get involved, but he agrees at least to take a look at Madeleine. From the moment he does so he’s sunk.

… his thoughts lingered over her eyes, intensely blue, but so pale that they didn’t seem quite alive, eyes which certainly could never express passion. The cheeks were slightly hollowed out under prominent cheekbones, just sufficiently to harbour a faint shadow which suggested languor. Her mouth was small with hardly any lipstick on it – the mouth of a dreamy child. Madeleine – yes, that was undoubtedly the right name for her. […] She was unhappy, of course.

Flavières begins to follow Madeleine, but soon moves from being an investigator to a sort of paid companion. Gévigne encourages Flavières to spend all his days with her, even when Flavières admits he’s developing feelings. Gévigne doesn’t care, argues that’s to the good as it’ll make Flavières all the more diligent. The situation reeks, but Flavières ignores the warning signs as the more time he spends with Madeleine the more he idolises her and the less he can bear the idea of being apart from her.

Let’s look back at that quote above. Flavières’ never been good with women, and now he has Madeleine with her “eyes which certainly could never express passion” and her “mouth of a dreamy child”. He loves her, but his love is worship of a goddess, not desire for a woman.

Meanwhile in the background the war continues. Early on nobody takes it that seriously – the press is full of opinion pieces about how the German army is hopelessly ill-equipped to advance and of the folly of German aggression. Both France and Flavières are in denial, but the sun is shining, Flavières is in love and the German menace is distant and not to be taken too seriously.

For me easily the most audacious part of the novel was the mirroring of Flavières’ fortunes and those of France itself. As he begins to worry how long he can protect Madeleine from herself and her increasingly otherworldly moods, the news from the front becomes more disquieting. The press remains upbeat, yet the fighting keeps getting closer to Paris. Neither situation can last.

It was known now that the German armour was advancing on Arras, and that the fate of the country was in the balance. Every day more cars drove through the town, looking for the bridge and the road to the South. And people stood in the streets silently staring at them, their hearts empty. They were more and more dirty, more and more ramshackle. With a shamefaced curiosity, people would question the fugitives. In all this, Flavières saw the image of his own disaster. He had no longer the strength to go back to Paris.

The novel then jumps forward four years, to a ruined France and equally ruined Flavières. The personal and the public are here inseparable; one a mirror to the other. Flavieres believed Madeleine long dead, but then sees her in a post-war newsreel; he’s already lost her once, he won’t let it happen a second time.

Vertigo is a clever and psychologically astute examination of desire and obsession. Flavières’ character is expertly realised, and the slow unravelling of what’s really going on with Gévigne and Madeleine is masterfully handled. If you have seen the film you’ll know much of the gist, but the film changes a lot too and there are subtleties here which it can’t equal (much as I love it).

The afterword explains that writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wanted “to develop a new kind of crime fiction”, less whodunnits and more victim-focused nightmares. On the strength of Vertigo they succeeded, and while I received this book as a review copy I’ll definitely be buying Pushkin’s other Boileau-Narcejac.

I’ll end with a small note on the translation. Generally it reads smoothly and the language is effective and evocative. I can’t say how true it is to the original, but it reads well. Very occasionally however translator Geoffrey Sainsbury leaves a phrase in French, presumably for flavour but I found it slightly jarring as in my imagination at least the whole thing is in French (and on one occasion I actually didn’t know what a phrase meant which seemed needlessly irritating). Still, despite that complaint if Sainsbury has translated the other Boileau-Narcejac I’ll still be pleased to see his name (tucked away in the copyright page as it is).

Other reviews

Lots and lots of them. I noted both Jacqui’s review from her Jacquiwine’s Journal, here and Guy’s review from His Futile Preoccupations here. Both of those are sufficiently good as to make mine rather redundant. However, I’m sure I’ve also read others which I’ve since lost the link to so as always please feel free to link me to them in the comments.


Filed under Boileau-Narcejac, Crime Fiction, French Literature, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.

Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway is perhaps the poster-child for high modernism and stream of consciousness fiction. As a result, for years I had the impression it was an austere and technically demanding novel.

The reality is quite different. Mrs Dalloway is an easy and effervescent read that brims with life. Better yet, it’s not perfect. It’s a snobbish book which is a definite flaw, but which here is no bad thing because it would be terribly off-putting if it actually were flawless.


Clarissa Dalloway is an upper middle class society hostess. She’s married to a slightly dull and only moderately successful cabinet minister whose career has reached its peak and who will never see truly high office. On one level the entire novel takes place within a single day as Clarissa prepares for a party she’s hosting that evening. On another level it ranges across time, because while our bodies can only exist in the present our minds are constantly travelling to remembered pasts and imagined futures.

The novel opens with Clarissa’s viewpoint, but skips effortlessly to other characters’ perspectives – like a skimming stone on a sea of consciousness. Clarissa is concerned with the party and with old memories stirred by the unexpected visit of an old suitor, Peter. He’s in London to arrange a divorce so he can remarry, but seeing Clarissa opens old doors for him too and invites comparisons between his new love and his old.

The story spirals out. Septimus Smith is a shell-shocked war veteran hallucinating dead friends to the dismay of his young Italian wife Lucrezia. She does her best to calm him, but his experiences and terrors are utterly beyond her experience. Meanwhile Sally Seton, Clarissa’s girlhood friend, is in town. She’s no longer the daring and unconventional free-spirit Clarissa once knew but now a settled mother of five. Their various ages, genders and social positions differ; the connecting thread is life.

Here’s Clarissa in Bond Street near the start of the novel:

Bond Street fascinated her; Bond Street early in the morning in the season; its flags flying; its shops; no splash; no glitter; one roll of tweed in the shop where her father had bought his suits for fifty years; a few pearls; salmon on an iceblock. “That is all,” she said, looking at the fishmonger’s. “That is all,” she repeated, pausing for a moment at the window of a glove shop where, before the War, you could buy almost perfect gloves. And her old Uncle William used to say a lady is known by her shoes and her gloves. He had turned on his bed one morning in the middle of the War. He had said, “I have had enough.” Gloves and shoes; she had a passion for gloves; but her own daughter, her Elizabeth, cared not a straw for either of them.

For me, there’s both a truth and an elegance to that prose. Clarissa’s attention moves seamlessly from a glove shop to Uncle William to Uncle William’s death back to gloves and then on to her daughter Elizabeth. It’s thought as river, flowing and eddying and never quite repeating.

Clarissa, who “knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed;” is full of life and fascination with the world “to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing;” but she has little outlet for any of it and it’s not clear now if she’d even want one. It’s evident that she once loved Sally Seton, and there’s no sign she felt anything like the same emotional pull to either her husband or Peter (or any other man), but her only choice was between the men on offer.

Sally Seton’s choices weren’t much better, and while she seems happy enough the contrast between the freedom she once embodied and the respectability she’s since embraced is a painful one. Nobody here has quite captured their youthful dreams, but then again who does?

Septimus too seems closer to his dead friend Evan than to his living wife. The past overwhelms him; the choices not taken or denied by circumstance. Better to be Richard Dalloway whose career may not be what he’d once hoped but who has done his best and is content with the now and not the then.

Existence here is a brief but blazing thing; we are most alive when we let the world in raw and immanent. In one of the novel’s most dazzling sequences Clarissa’s daughter rides on the top deck of a bus feeling a sense of liberation after a stultifying lunch – it’s an entirely quotidian experience yet here vibrant and real because of the directness with which she lives it free as she is of the weight of recollection that holds down her elders.

Where the book works less well is in its slight sense of superiority. Woolf is often very funny; it’s hard not to love lines like:

He thought her beautiful, believed her impeccably wise; dreamed of her, wrote poems to her, which, ignoring the subject, she corrected in red ink;


(she herself when alone in the evening found comfort in a violin; but the sound was excruciating; she had no ear)

However, at times there’s a definite air of condescension. Septimus reflects, “it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning”, but for Woolf that doesn’t appear to justify a poor choice of wallpaper. Status is among the book’s concerns and within the fiction it’s clear both that Clarissa is a snob and that other characters see her that way, but that doesn’t innoculate the wider novel from sharing its primary character’s chief flaw. Mrs Dalloway is a snob, and Mrs Dalloway is a snobbish novel.

Still, it’s also a brilliant novel and it deserves a better reputation than the one it has. Better not because it has a bad reputation (it obviously doesn’t), but because it’s not widely seen as the entertaining,engaging and thought-provoking novel that it actually is. Clarissa’s situation – society wife of an Edwardian government minister – may be highly specific but her sense of the vitality of life and the incredibility that it must end is something I’ve certainly felt myself and that I suspect most others have:

All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was ! – that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how, every instant . . .

Other reviews

Grant of 1streadingblog just reviewed this himself, which is very timely. His excellent review is here. Otherwise, Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings (a lovely blog name by the way) reviewed Mrs Dalloway’s Party which is a related collection of short stories including the original first chapter of this novel and viewpoints of other characters on the party itself. That review is here.

I’m sure there are many more out there, so as ever please let me know what I’ve missed in the comments.

Edit: I meant to link to my own previous Woolf review, of her Jacob’s Room. My review of that is here.


Filed under Modernist Fiction, Woolf, Virginia

The hand that holds the money cracks the whip.

Mildred Pierce, by James M. Cain

James M. Cain is one of the giants of noir fiction. I’ve previously reviewed his The Postman Always Rings Twice, and like pretty much everyone I loved it. Since I’ve never seen the movie of Mildred Pierce and didn’t know the story in advance I figured it would be something similar – desperate people struggling to keep their heads above water but with the land increasingly far from sight.

Well, there’s a bit of that, but Mildred Pierce is something darker and richer too. It’s a novel about a woman who gives everything she has for a daughter who just doesn’t give a damn. It’s a story of love, obsession, power and definitely money. It’s bloody good.

Mildred Pierce is a married mother of two daughters. It’s the Great Depression and times are hard: her husband’s real estate business is a failure and Mildred’s baking cakes at home for sale to their neighbours to help make ends meet. When the marriage breaks up things look bleak; Mildred’s barely getting by, and soon might not be getting by at all.

… in the same mail was a brief communication from the gas company, headed ‘Third Notice’, and informing her that unless her bill was paid in five days, service would be discontinued. Of the three dollars she got from Mrs Whitley, and the nine she got from the other orders, she still had a few dollars left. So she walked down to the gas company office and paid the bill, carefully saving the receipt. Then she counted her money and stopped by a market, where she bought a chicken, a quarter pound of hot dogs, some vegetables, and a quart of milk. The chicken, first baked, then creamed, then made into three neat croquettes, would provision her over the weekend. The hot dogs were a luxury. She disapproved of them, on principle, but the children loved them, and she always tried to have some around, for bites between meals. The milk was a sacred duty. No matter how gritty things got, Mildred always managed to have money for Veda’s piano lessons, and for all the milk the children could drink.

Money isn’t the only problem. Now Mildred’s divorced the other wives see her as a threat and the men, married or not, see her as fair game. An unmarried woman is a dangerous thing. Her best friend advises her to land another man as soon as she can, and the recruitment agent she sees tells her flat-out to do the same because there’s no jobs and millions of applicants, most of them with training and experience – Mildred has neither.

Here are sales people, men and women, every one of them with an A1 reference – they can really move goods. They’re all laid off, there’s no goods moving, but I don’t see how I could put you ahead of them. And here’s the preferred list. Look at it, a whole drawerful, men and women, every one of them a real executive, or auditor, or manager of some business, and when I recommend one, I know somebody is getting something for his money. They’re all home, sitting by their phones, hoping I’ll call. I won’t call. I’ve got nothing to tell them. What I’m trying to get through your head is: You haven’t got a chance. Those people, it hurts me, it makes me lie awake nights, that I’ve got nothing for them. They deserve something, and there’s not a thing I can do. But there’s not a chance I’d slip you ahead of any one of them. You’re not qualified.

Mildred’s pride means she sees herself as a potential secretary or  receptionist, but nobody else does. She’s not willing to do just anything and even turns down a job as a housekeeper. Eventually needs must though and as things get more desperate she gets lucky and finds a job as a waitress at a diner. Slowly, things start to turn around for her because Mildred is smart and strong-willed and nobody’s fool. Well, nobody save her daughter’s fool.

Veda is Mildred’s oldest, and Mildred spoils her relentlessly ignoring every sign of the effect that’s having. Nothing is too good for Veda, who is rapidly growing up to be a vain and arrogant snob. They row, Mildred stung by Veda’s condescension and ingratitude, but Mildred’s more proud than angry seeing in Veda an indomitable self-respect which Mildred feels she compromised in herself by taking that waitressing job. Mildred’s sure Veda would never have lowered herself that way, and Mildred intends to see that she’ll never have to.

Here Mildred, convinced that Veda has a real talent for music, prepares to take her to a new and extremely expensive piano tutor:

For the occasion, she laid out some of Veda’s new finery; a brown silk dress, brown hat, alligator-skin shoes, and silk stockings. But when Veda got home from school, and saw the pile on the bed, she threw up her hands in horror. ‘Mother! I can’t be dressed up! Ooh! It would be so provincial!’ Mildred knew the voice of society when she heard it, so she sighed, put the things away, and watched while Veda tossed out her own idea of suitable garb: maroon sweater, plaid skirt, polo coat, leather beret, woollen socks, and flat-heeled shoes. But she looked away when Veda started to dress.

As of that quote there’s about half the book to go, and I haven’t touched on most of what happens up to then and I’m certainly not going to say what happens next. If you’re lucky enough like me not to have seen the film before reading the book it’s worth having the opportunity to discover the story for yourself.

Mildred Pierce wasn’t remotely what I expected. I thought it was a crime novel. It’s nothing of the kind. Instead it’s the story of one highly determined woman; of the men she forms relationships with; the women who support her; and above all of the dangers of a parent putting the weight of their own ambitions on their child. It’s a remarkably powerful read. It takes talent to turn what could easily have been a soap opera into a taut pageturner, but Cain easily pulls it off and this is right up there with his other classics Postman and Double Indemnity*.

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, but I expect that’s only because I’ve missed them. Please let me know in the comments.

*Actually, I think in the case of Double Indemnity the film’s better than the book, but it is a good book even so.


Filed under Cain, James M., California, Hardboiled

(events! if you want those, you’d best stop reading now)

Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy

When I started Satin Island I already knew it was Booker-nominated. I’d read multiple glowing reviews, and I remembered absolutely loving McCarthy’s first novel Remainder. Everything then, every authority including my past self, told me that it was a significant book. Perhaps it is, significance after all is a collective judgement. Having finished it though I’m not persuaded it’s a very good book.

Satin Island

U is a corporate anthropologist (“Call me U”), working for “the Company” on the “Koob-Sassen Project” – a project so huge and complex that it will touch the lives of almost everyone in the developed world (perhaps beyond) and yet that will be so subtly pervasive that nobody will even notice it. The Company is a kind of advertising/marketing/strategy consultancy, headed by a gnomic corporate guru whose every sentence seems weighted with meaning and whose every recommendation is received with gravity and respect.

U’s role in the Company is an ambiguous one. Years previously he wrote an anthropological treatise on the club scene, one where he was as much participant as observer, and this brought him to the guru’s attention and now U works in the Company basement putting together files of possible phenomenological observations that somehow transmigrate into sellable product.

Currently U’s obsessed with a possible murder case involving a parachutist whose chute didn’t open. He spots an apparent pattern of similar crimes with similar investigations each unfolding in similar ways but across multiple jurisdictions. At the same time he’s fascinated by a major oil spill and sits absorbed by rolling news footage of the oil blossoming out, coating and transforming all that it touches. McCarthy is good on the curious sterility of modern news reporting and the odd juxtaposition and equal weighting of car bombings, earnings reports and natural disasters:

I popped the news page open as I talked to her. The airspace lock-up was announced halfway down, adjacent to and in the same font-size as the marketplace truck bombing. Above it, slightly larger, the oil spill, with a sequence of photos showing tugs, oil-covered men wrestling with grips and winches, those black-ringed outlying islands, the giant oil-flower and so forth. The editor had chosen a “fade” effect to link the shots together, rather than the more abrupt type of succession that recalls old slideshow carousels. It struck me as the right effect to use, aesthetically speaking.

U himself is a cipher, which is fine because this isn’t a novel of character. He’s a coldly distant narrator fond of a kind of pseudo-French style philosophising which involves a great deal of placing interpretative significance on the world but shows little evidence that any of it has any meaning to anyone beyond those indulging in it. Here’s an example of how that feeds into his work:

I got really into creases. Jeans crease in all kinds of interesting ways: honeycomb, whisker, train-track, stack … I catalogued no fewer than seventeen different crease-types, each of which has slightly different innuendos. To frame these—that is, to provide a framework for explaining to the client what these crease-types truly and profoundly meant—I stole a concept from the French philosopher Deleuze: for him le pli, or fold, describes the way we swallow the exterior world, invert it and then flip it back outwards again, and, in so doing, form our own identity. I took out all the revolutionary shit (Deleuze was a leftie); and I didn’t credit Deleuze, either. Big retail companies don’t want to hear about such characters. I did the same thing with another French philosopher, Badiou: I recycled his notion of a rip, a sudden temporal rupture, and applied it, naturally, to tears worn in jeans, which I presented as the birth-scars of their wearer’s singularity, testaments to the individual’s break with general history, to the successful institution of a personal time. I dropped the radical baggage from that, too (Badiou is virtually Maoist). This pretty much set up the protocol or MO I’d deploy in my work for the Company from then on in: feeding vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine. The machine could swallow everything, incorporate it seamlessly, like a giant loom that re-weaves all fabric, no matter how recalcitrant and jarring its raw form, into what my hero would have called a master-pattern—or, if not that, then maybe just the pattern of the master.

As ever, we’re into issues of authenticity. We’re back into the exploration of repetition which McCarthy manages so well in Remainder, and in many ways this novel is itself a repetition of Remainder, save with a less interesting execution. Beyond that, well, just because one can say that ripped jeans represent birth-scars of the wearer’s singularity doesn’t make that interpretation a thing in the world. It’s just words. We could say anything, apply almost any meaning we can create, but the jeans remain the same and I doubt any of it reflects why someone actually buys a pre-ripped pair of jeans.

The difficulty with a novel of ideas is that once you’ve jettisoned character and plot what remains had better be pretty damn good. It’s a common issue in SF, albeit for a very different sort of idea. You want to write a novel about some bizarre implication of contemporary physics, but to sell that to the typical SF fan (in which for these purposes I’d include myself) you need characters and plot.

That by the way is why it’s often a category error to criticise big SF novels for weak characterisation. The characters aren’t the point – they’re just the sugar-coated pill that the big idea sits inside. Take away that sugar coating and the ideas have to sell themselves. That’s McCarthy’s challenge here.

So, the first half of Satin Island is a novel of ideas examining issues of authenticity and the imposition of meaning, narrated by a protagonist who utterly fails to persuade of the validity of his own insights. It’s also a sort of corporate satire, though not a successful one as I got the distinct impression that McCarthy knew as much about modern corporate life as I do the life of Amazonian rain forest tribes. I’ve seen a bit on tv, but I’ve never met anyone from those cultures. On the other hand, it’s not quite the same since I’m aware I know nothing of those people and I don’t write smug books about them.

U refers to “sub-clauses of contracts sitting in the drawers of cabinets” which is a lovely sentence but bears no real resemblance to how things actually work (we have electronic filing these days). The depictions of meetings and workplace conversations seem to owe more to how characters behave in sitcoms than in real offices. None of the work can be described save in the blandest generalities, and while that seems to be intended as satire I found myself wondering if it also reflected a simple ignorance of what most people actually do in their jobs.

Perhaps the best example is the descriptions of the Koob-Sassen Project, which mimic real corporate conversations about how lives will be revolutionised by some new process or design. Unfortunately, I actually work on multi-billion pound projects in real life and while from a distance I can see how it might sometimes sound like nothing real is being discussed that doesn’t make it so.  In reality large projects tend to have very concrete anticipated outcomes, and if those don’t materialise very hard questions start to be asked very quickly.

I’m at risk of being a car-enthusiast criticising a Virginia Woolf novel because it references a make of car that didn’t come out until a year after the time in which the novel  is set. It’s another form of category error to complain of a novel not getting details right where those details aren’t the focus of the novel. Still, if you’re going to have an element of corporate satire in your book it does help to give the sense that you’ve at least spent a day in an office.

[Edit: After writing this I found a review on a consultancy firm’s blog where they comment on the accuracy of the depiction of their business. I’m not changing what I wrote since I don’t like editing pieces once written, and it remains true that I wasn’t persuaded, but it seemed fair to flag the contradiction. I link to the consultancy piece at the end.]

By about the halfway mark I was very close to abandoning Satin Island, but then McCarthy does something clever. U gives a Ted talk in which he waffles on in his usual unconvincing fashion about issues in contemporary anthropology, and something wonderful happens:

To understand that question fully, though (I concluded), what we require is not contemporary anthropology but rather an anthropology of The Contemporary. Ba-boom: that was my “out”. My talk was met with silence, then, when my audience realized that I’d finished, a smattering of polite clapping. No one approached me to discuss it afterwards. Later that evening, in the “wet” or Turkish sauna, I recognized one of the other delegates. He recognized me too, but broke off eye-contact immediately before slipping away into the steam.

Until that point, I’d taken U largely at face value. Suddenly it became apparent however that within the fiction others had much the same reaction as I did. U spent his 15 minutes on stage saying nothing that means anything, and the audience recognised that, which means that McCarthy recognises it and which means U isn’t to be trusted. If that’s the case then U’s patterns, his borrowings from French philosophers and impositions of meaning, none of it can be trusted.

Soon U is fantasising about how his talk might have been received; about the talk he might have given and how he would verbally crush a dissenter and win rapturous acclaim from all present. It’s a bit pathetic, and as it marks a return to U’s uninterrupted voice it resonates with most of what’s gone before and calls it all into question. Since U is the narrator he’s able to present each of his ideas as being somehow incisive and intelligent, but it’s not at all clear that anyone agrees with him save possibly his boss (and even he seems to regard U primarily as a form of corporate mascot).

With that I read on with renewed interest, but as I did so I ran into another difficulty. Satin Island is a novel of ideas in which the vehicle for those ideas himself undermines them by his own unpersuasive advocacy. It becomes terribly meta, as we’re examining questions of authenticity through a character who is himself inauthentic, both in that he’s (intentionally) not a convincingly drawn human being and in that even to others in the novel he’s quite evidently talking bollocks. That’s clever, but I’m not sure it’s interesting.

In his fantasy Ted talk U says “Nature is senseless.” That’s true. U’s boss commissions him to write a great report; a definitive anthropology of our age. It’s no spoiler to say that the task is impossible. U is trying to capture reality in words, and the task is beyond him (Lee Rourke grapples with the same idea to an extent, though for me more successfully, in his Vulgar Things). U philosophises, finds apparent patterns, interprets, but none of it means anything because beneath it all the raw stuff of reality just continues.

If you wished you could read say the Deepwater Horizon spill as a metaphor for how capitalist realism consumes and transforms our relationship with the natural world, drowning the real in the commercial. Perhaps that metaphor might be useful in some contexts, but it doesn’t save a single bird or fish. We can describe the world however we like, but if we confuse our descriptions for the thing itself we commit a worse category error than any of the others I’ve mentioned so far in this piece.

Where does that leave me? The second half of Satin Island undermines and validates the first, making the whole a much better book than its (initially disappointing) parts. For all that though, McCarthy already wrote a better book on these issues and there’s nothing he does here that he didn’t do better in Remainder. I don’t regret reading Satin Island because McCarthy can write and because at his best he does capture something of the strangeness of our age, but so does William Gibson and frankly I think Gibson does it better.

Other reviews

While this had massive press attention (generally favourable, save the FT which was much closer to my take), I don’t think it’s received quite the same interest from the blogosphere. In fairness, if I were McCarthy that’s the way round I’d want it. David Hebblethwaite wrote a couple of short pieces on it, one of which is here. Trever Berrett of the ever-reliable mookseandthegripes blog (which desperately, desperately needs a search box Trevor) writes a fairly favourable review here, though I note that he says he admired it more than he loved it. I’m sure I’ve missed others, so please alert me to them as usual in the comments.

Edit: I also found this review from what I think is a consultancy firm’s blog, which is much more positive than I am about the depiction of the corporate environment. Perhaps then McCarthy does know what he’s talking about in terms of this world, and it’s me that’s wrong in extrapolating from my different form of advisory business experience. To be fair to McCarthy this seems to be a real outfit, and yet their mission statement reads “River dives in to the trends, needs, experiences and expectations of consumers. We use these immersion platforms to create new opportunities for our clients’ products and brands” which I suspect wouldn’t look out of place in U’s Company. Also, in fairness to McCarthy, after poking around their site for a bit I honestly couldn’t tell you what they actually do.

If anyone reading this is wondering why I didn’t make any comparison with DeLillo, it’s because I’ve only read one DeLillo and only know there are comparisons to be made because people have mentioned it to me. The comparisons tend to be unfavourable.

Finally, I received this as a free review copy from netgalley. I don’t think however that inclined me to be unduly kind to it.


Filed under Booker, McCarthy, Tom, Modernist Fiction

Whatever got lost out at sea would eventually be washed up there.

Vulgar Things, by Lee Rourke

When I was in my mid-20s I found myself for a while living in a rented room after a serious breakup. I lost my job about the same time, and then one night the flat was burgled and pretty much everything I had was stolen. I was left with little more than the clothes I was wearing while out that evening. At the time it was a bit crap, but I was young and I was lucky, and so my life fitted into a neat narrative where I took everything falling apart as a chance to take a different direction and build something better second time around.

Jon Michaels is a recently divorced editor in a small publishing house who’s laid off in the opening chapter of Lee Rourke’s Vulgar Things. As he drinks to celebrate and forget, he gets a call from his brother telling him that their odd and reclusive Uncle Rey has killed himself and as the brother is too busy Jon needs to go down to Canvey Island in Essex and clear out Uncle Rey’s caravan.

Jon’s situation and my own have some broad parallels, though no more so than many other people’s stories. The opening here is a device – Rourke needs Jon in a state of breakdown where he’s looking desperately for something real to hold on to (and which he disastrously tries to find in the detritus of his uncle’s life). Still, whatever meaning books carry is as much a product of what we bring to them as what’s between their covers, so I thought the anecdote relevant. Besides, I was struggling to open this piece.


Jon makes his way to Canvey Island, an isolated spot off the Thames Estuary built from reclaimed land. It’s about 30 miles from London and apparently used to be something of a seaside resort, but those years are decades past and now it’s largely industrialised and might as well be 300 miles away. What’s extraordinary here, and what’s undoubtedly the best aspect of this novel, is quite how good Rourke is at evoking this landscape.

I’ve forgotten just how flat and eerie the island is: the idea that the land beneath my feet actually lies below sea level – the estuary looming high up behind the sea walls – becomes more worrying with every step. The sky above me, massive and grey, stretched to its limits, bears down on the island. I look over to the large oil refinery that dominates the immediate horizon to my right. There are people in hard hats over there, bobbing about, doing stuff with popes and machinery. Maybe that’s where everybody is? Working hard at the refinery.

I can hear something, off in the distance. It comes to me suddenly. There it is, the rumble of an oil tanker’s engines ahead of me out on the Thames, a constant baritone, its vibrations felt from the tip of my toes to the hair on my head, all around me, quivering on my tongue and through the fine hairs in my nostrils. There it is again, a slow, aching, constant rumbling, from somewhere within the water above, making slow progress towards Tilbury. I stop dead and listen to it pass, until it fades from my range and the tingling subsides within me.

Uncle Rey’s caravan is by the Lobster Smack, a real Canvey Island pub which is something of a local landmark. The caravan is a rundown affair piled high with pages from a manuscript Uncle Rey seems to have been working on as well as videos and DVDs forming a decades-long video diary of sorts (strongly reminiscent in form and content of Staniland’s diary in Derek Raymond’s He Died with his Eyes Open). In an adjacent shed there’s a high-end telescope. Rey seems to have spent his time gazing at the stars, struggling to write some book that never came near to being published and recording hour after hour of, well, of what exactly?

Jon meanwhile is in a near-permanent alcohol-induced fug and has become fixated on a woman he sees on Southend Pier whom he thinks needs rescuing from some uncertain “they”. What follows is a sort of confused detective story, as Jon tries both to understand the traces his uncle left behind and to track down this woman so that he can save her, whether she needs saving or not.

Rey’s manuscript, itself titled Vulgar Things, is a confused stream of consciousness attempt to somehow rewrite Petrarch’s Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta (Book of Common Things, or if you prefer, Book of Vulgar Things), which I’ve not read and hadn’t heard of before reading this book. It includes allusions to some sin or crime involving Jon’s own mother who Rey apparently idealised and called his Laura (a Petrarchian reference I utterly missed). Jon takes Laura as the name for his own mystery woman, and so his life and Rey’s become muddled, both of them lonely men pouring all their frustration and desire on a woman who’s as much a creation of their need as she is a person.

What Rey was grappling with, and what of course Rourke himself is grappling with, is how to say something true on a piece of paper. Rey tried to take Petrarch’s words which spoke to him and to somehow make them current so that they were fresh again, but he failed. He wanted to say something real, and spent hour upon hour on tape and DVD-R looking for the words, but he failed in that too. Meaning and redemption both escaped him, and he wasted his years in a lonely caravan engaged on a mad project nobody would ever care about.

I wanted it to reveal everything, in a clear and beautiful language … But I failed to do that, and I’ve spent my entire life talking into this thing, because of it, trying to come to terms with it, trying to work things out, talking, talking, talking, in the hope that one day something real would appear, you know, that crystallised moment when I speak reality … I’ve waited a long time, a whole lifetime, but nothing, reality has eluded me … it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t fucking exist …

Nobody save Jon that is, who comes to realise that he was Rey’s imagined audience. Jon himself however is in little better shape than his dead uncle. He wanders the streets looking for his own Laura and becomes enmeshed with East European organised criminals who he thinks are forcing her into prostitution, though it’s quite clear to the reader that the woman he saw on the pier and the prostitute he tries to rescue are completely different women with only a passing resemblance to each other.

Jon’s mother has no voice here. All we know of her is what Jon and others remember and Uncle Rey’s rantings and digressions. The actual woman is lost from view, hidden somewhere behind Uncle Rey’s idealisation of her. Jon is similarly now denying his Laura’s reality, so blinded by his own need that he conflates different women together into one imagined whole. Early on in the book he goes to a pub where strippers perform for a few quid put in an empty beer glass. He doesn’t see it, but his unasked-for rescue is the same as watching those strippers. Either way it’s men preferring a fiction of a woman to a real one.

If that gives the impression that this is something of a novel of ideas then that’s fair. Rourke is looking here at issues of authenticity, and male gaze is one of several examples. Uncle Rey wanted to say something true, but couldn’t. He wanted to find something transcendent in his Laura, just as Jon does in his, but each instead turned a real person into an imagined one. Perhaps the irony though is that while all of that is interesting, it’s in the description and dialogue where Vulgar Things most sings to me.

There’s a rather wonderful self-undermining Wicker Man-esque quality at times to Vulgar Things. Mr Buchanan, landlord both of the Lobster Smack and of Uncle Rey’s caravan, is friendly and helpful but does he have ulterior motives? Everyone seems to know Jon’s business and Canvey Island seems a repository of nightmares and secrets, but is that just Jon’s drink-fuelled paranoia? Jon stumbles across the landscape, drunk and carrying a very solid walking stick which he’s not afraid to lash out with, and it’s hard to avoid the sense that if there’s anyone in the book you’d cross the road to avoid it’s Jon himself.

Vulgar Things isn’t always an easy book to read. Rourke’s style is intentionally flat; Jon isn’t the most sympathetic of protagonists; Uncle Rey’s sections never go on too long but even so are by their nature confused and rambling; and there’s a certain artificiality to the whole which is there to underline the issues of authenticity but can’t help distancing the reader. For all that, it’s a resonant book which brings a rather strange corner of England persuasively life and by its end I felt like I’d personally walked the streets of Canvey Island and nearby Southend, drank in their pubs and been shouted at by their needlessly aggressive locals.

The fact that the novel is an artificial construct isn’t actually as interesting as some current theorists (“cough”TomMcCarthy”cough”) seem to think. It’s always been true, and yet the novel continues. For me, Rourke’s best talents as an author are place and mood – he’s tremendous at both. Uncle Rey would argue that it’s impossible to capture reality on the page, and I suspect so would Rourke, but I’m not sure that matters when what we can capture is impressions as real as any we have in memory.

I’ll end with some pictures of Canvey Island. Here’s the Lobster Smack:


Here’s some Canvey Island caravan homes:

Canvey homes

And here’s the Canvey Island strip (beat this Blackpool):

Canvey Island strip

Other reviews

My review of Lee Rourke’s first novel, The Canal, is here. Vulgar Things doesn’t seem to have been as widely reviewed as I’d expect: there’s a rather good one by Essex native Sara Crowley on her blog here; a very interesting one which talks more of the underlying theory from Bibliokept here; and a rather negative review at the Guardian here, which I link to for a different view (the comments argue the writer missed the book’s point, but I don’t think he did – he just didn’t like it). There’s also an excellent interview with Lee Rourke at The Quietus, here. Finally, there’s a short review but with a very good dialogue quote at 3:AM magazine here.


Filed under Rourke, Lee

I was in no mood for people who tried to lay claims on me.

Open City, by Teju Cole

Identity and memory intermingle, both at the national level and the individual. Who we are is in part a creation of who we were, but our perception of who we were is itself a creation of who we think we are. Slippery stuff.

In the final year of his psychiatry fellowship Julius takes to walking the streets of his adopted home city, New York. His “aimless wandering” allows him to think, to observe. He is a  flâneur of the New World, and for much of its length Open City is an account of his thoughts and encounters during his dérive.

By its end, it’s much harder to say exactly what Open City is. It’s too fluid and too subtle to be so easily pinned down.


I ENTERED THE PARK AT SEVENTY-SECOND STREET, AND BEGAN to walk south, on Sheep Meadow. The wind picked up, and water poured down into the sodden ground in fine, incessant needles, obscuring lindens, elms, and crab apples. The intensity of the rain blurred my sight, a phenomenon I had noticed before only with snowstorms, when a blizzard erased the most obvious signs of the times, leaving one unable to guess which century it was. The torrent had overlaid the park with a primeval feeling, as though a world-ending flood were coming on, and Manhattan looked just then like it must have in the 1920s or even, if one was far enough away from the taller buildings, much further in the past.

The cluster of taxis at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South broke the illusion. After I had walked another quarter hour, by then thoroughly drenched, I stood under the eaves of a building on Fifty-third Street. When I turned around, I saw that I was at the entryway of the American Folk Art Museum. Never having visited before, I went in.

Julius was born and raised in Nigeria to a Nigerian father and a German mother, then college-educated in the US. He is an intellectual, a lover of art and literature and particularly of classical music. If his brow were any higher he wouldn’t be able to walk through doors without crouching.

Over the course of the novel he walks around; looks at some paintings; visits an elderly professor who has become a friend; has an extended holiday in Belgium; gets mugged; meets some old companions from his childhood in Nigeria. On the whole it’s pretty uneventful stuff. The action here is internal.

Themes slowly emerge: recurring imagery of birds; musings on what constitutes freedom; the towering emptiness of the 9/11 Ground Zero site; questions of memory. Julius’ mind turns to art or to the problems facing his patients or the people and places that he sees. Through it all his voice is cool and dispassionate. Although his movement through the city is profoundly physical Julius remains always inside his own head.

The language of the book is, not to put too fine a point on it, beautiful.

The following day, returning to Sheep Meadow, on a circuitous route to a poetry reading at the Ninety-second Street Y, I noticed the masses of leaves dying off in bright colors, and heard the white-throated sparrows within them calling out and listening. It had rained earlier, and the fragmented, light-filled clouds worked off each other; maples and elms stood with their boughs still. Above a boxwood hedge, the swarm of hovering bees reminded me of certain Yoruba epithets for Olodumare, the supreme deity: he who turns blood into children, who sits in the sky like a cloud of bees.

As readers we are privy to Julius’ thoughts, to his interiority. Those around him of course are not, and one recurring element of the book is how other African immigrants repeatedly see him as a “brother”, a fellow African who has some kinship with them by virtue of shared origin and heritage. The connection they see is literally skin deep. In the US Julius is seen as a black man, an African, but he’s half German and in Nigeria was viewed at least by some as a rich white. What the Africans he meets see as a common link is to him mostly just an imposition by strangers of a false commonality. These African New Yorkers aren’t educated sophisticates like Julius – they’re taxi drivers and postal workers. Where they see bonds of race, Julius sees divisions of class.

For most of the book I accepted Julius’ view of himself at pretty much face value, and took the focus of the book to be his observations of the world around him. Perhaps that reflects my own nature as a slightly introspective intellectual type. Then however Julius goes to Brussels, ostensibly to find his maternal grandmother with whom he’s long since lost touch but really as an extended holiday. He takes about a month there, which with all due apologies to any Bruxellois who may read this is a hell of a long time to give a very quiet city.

In Brussels he naturally muses on the doubtful legacy of King Leopold II in the Congo. Belgium still has public statues to Leopold II and at home at least he doesn’t seem to be seen as one of the worst colonial monsters of the 19th Century. History has been kind to Leopold, largely forgetting the monstrous cruelty and slaughter he presided over.

Brussels today is the capital of Europe; Belgium is the European Union in microcosm with different nationalities co-existing under a shared but federalised polity. I’ve been there several times and it’s quite charming if perhaps a little dull for the casual visitor. It’s full of good restaurants and has bars with more choice of beer than I could drink in a lifetime. It’s easy to forget that many of its grand public buildings were financed by horror. History, like memory, is a matter of negotiable perspective.

It was a bronze bust of the poet Paul Claudel, set on a plinth on the side of the road like a shrine to Hermes. Claudel had served as French ambassador to Belgium in the 1930s, and later went on to fame as a writer of Catholic plays, and as a right-winger. His support for the collaborators and Marshal Pétain during the war earned him much scorn, but W. H. Auden, himself a leftist agnostic, spoke kindly of him. Auden had written: “Time will pardon Paul Claudel, pardons him for writing well.” And as I stood there in the whipping wind and rain, I wondered if indeed it was that simple, if time was so free with memory, so generous with pardons, that writing well could come to stand in the place of an ethical life.

While in Brussels Julius becomes briefly friends with a Morrocan immigrant named Farouq; a semi-radicalised intellectual who works in a phone shop and who has become highly politicised in the face of local prejudices. Julius and Farouq are both immigrants concerned with the world of ideas, both have left Africa to make new and better lives, but Julius has fared much better than Farouq and is as naturalised to his new home as Farouq is alienated from his. Farouq, driven to the margins of Belgium, is filled with fire and anger; Julius, who has found status and a comfortable income in the US, is uncommitted and resolutely apolitical.

Julius and Farouq’s conversations got me questioning quite where Julius stood. To be apolitical is a political choice, and Julius’ refusal to take a stance either with Farouq or to clearly break with him started to seem of a kind with his wider approach to life. He dislikes people who are too vocal about climate change, not because he disagrees with the science but from a distaste for “fashionable politics”. There can be such a thing as too much detachment. When he meets a postal worker who is also an amateur poet he agrees to go to a poets’ cafe with the man, but then makes “a mental note to avoid that particular post office in the future.” Most of us would do the same, but with Julius it starts to look like a pattern.

Julius is a perpetual outsider. In his role as flâneur he sees the city, but from a self-created distance. Where is the life in his life? He has his elderly friend, but where are the friends his own age? His girlfriend broke up with him, but where are the attempts to find someone new? He has his art, his music, but other than the rather sterile world of ideas who does he belong to?

Most of the people around me yesterday were middle-aged or old. I am used to it, but it never ceases to surprise me how easy it is to leave the hybridity of the city, and enter into all-white spaces, the homogeneity of which, as far as I can tell, causes no discomfort to the whites in them. The only thing odd, to some of them, is seeing me, young and black, in my seat or at the concession stand. At times, standing in line for the bathroom during intermission, I get looks that make me feel like Ota Benga, the Mbuti man who was put on display in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. I weary of such thoughts, but I am habituated to them. But Mahler’s music is not white, or black, not old or young, and whether it is even specifically human, rather than in accord with more universal vibrations, is open to question.

Near the end of the book Julius encounters people he knew from his days in Nigeria, one of whom remembers him in a way that is completely at odds with his own ideas of self. It’s a profoundly jarring and uncomfortable moment, one that jolted me as a reader from the comfortable Julius-space I’d come to inhabit, just as Julius is jolted from his easy assumptions of who he is.

Julius quickly reasserts his sense of self and moves on, untroubled, just as Belgium today worries little about Leopold’s Free State and the lasting consequences for the Congo. As a reader however I was left uncertain as to quite what I had read, what the significance of the intentionally anti-climactic ending that followed was, and who the narrator was that I’d spent so long with. In a genuinely excellent interview with 3:AM Magazine, Cole says “there’s no such thing as a right to remain untroubled.” Part of Open City’s strength, quite beyond the sheer beauty of its prose, is how troubling it is.

I’ll end just by noting how much more I could have said but didn’t. I’ve only mentioned in passing the use of birds as a recurrent motif, and will have to leave analysis of that to others. There’s a great deal to be said about how Julius embodies a form of cosmopolitan diversity which is both internalised and very modern, and yet which very clearly belongs to an internationalised class of the highly educated and highly paid. There’s a great deal more to be said about the treatment of memory in the book. There’s a lot here. This is a book that merits close reading, and rereading. In the end I’m not sure there’s any higher compliment one can make to any book than that.

Other reviews

In terms of blogs fewer than I thought, though it may just be that I’m not finding them. Hungry Like the Woolf’s review is here, and is good on the birds and makes some interesting contrasts with Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending. Just William’s Luck’s review is here, and discusses among many other things the meaning of the title which I haven’t even touched upon. There’s a review at a political blog here which for me makes the mistake at one point of conflating Julius’ worldview with Cole’s, but which otherwise is highly perceptive and very strong on the book’s political elements. As ever, please alert me to any I’ve missed in the comments.

Edit: Cathy and Rough Ghosts both flagged their reviews to me in the comments. Cathy’s (which I had commented on but clearly had forgotten) is here and reading it again I’m struck by how thorough and insightful it is – it really is very good. Rough’s is here and makes some nice comparisons with Sebald as well as picking up on the very current nature of the novel.

In addition, while I don’t normally link to newspaper reviews since I figure those are easy enough to find, it’s worth reading the tremendous comment by Bix2bop below the line at the Guardian’s review here. The review itself is fine and has some good points on negative space in the novel, but the comment is genuinely good and well worth reading.

Finally, here’s a quote from Teju Cole taken from the 3:AM interview I refer to above:

In my view, the novel is one of Europe’s greatest gifts to the world. America and Africa collaborated to give the world jazz. We’ll call it even.

That seems fair.


Filed under Cole, Teju, New York