Category Archives: Comic Fiction

We have to deal with people the way they are, not how we’d like them to be.

Lightning Rods, by Helen DeWitt

The thing that makes A Modest Proposal horrific isn’t that it suggests eating babies. It’s that it uses the prevailing logic of its day to make a pretty good case for eating them.

Done well, satire takes our own assumptions and arguments and turns them around. It holds up a mirror to our own hypocrisy. It’s uncomfortable, and by that standard Lightning Rods is very good satire indeed.

Joe is a failing Midwest vacuum cleaner salesman. His product’s too good and all his prospective customers already have one. He drinks endless coffees with potential buyers who don’t want to replace their existing machines. He’s not found his market niche.

Joe spends more and more of his time in his trailer home idly masturbating. He’s not even very good at that: he keeps getting distracted by irrelevant background details in his fantasy scenarios and going limp.

What he doesn’t realise is that all of this is preparation. Like so many great American success stories Joe’s a failure at first because he hasn’t yet learned to follow his dream. Admittedly, his dream is a little different to most: it involves imagining having sex with women whose upper bodies poke through a hole in the wall or a window or whatever so that all he sees is their bottom halves. It’s an utterly objectifying dream which reduces his fantasy women to pure parts. Still, it’s his dream and that’s what makes it special.

The book’s written in hindsight – the reader knows that Joe will have an idea that will “one day lead to a multi-million dollar industry that would improve the lives of millions of Americans.” This then is an inspiring rags-to-riches story of a man who by being true to himself and daring to think differently changes lives and makes his fortune. It’s the American dream.

Joe’s idea definitely involves thinking differently. He realises that companies all across America are struggling with workplace sexual harassment. He theorises that it’s the libidos of top-performers that create all the tension. If you could have a workplace invention that helped discharge those tensions, well, then you could make real money while doing good at the same time.

If [a top earner] wanted an outlet for his sexual urges he would have to invest the time talking to someone about her interests, with no guarantee that anything would come of it, or he would have to go home and jerk off to a magazine or video, or he would have to pay someone, with all the risks that entailed. But how much time does the top earner in a company realistically have to talk to someone about her interests? If he hires someone, on the other hand, a guy in that kind of position has a lot to lose. He has a reputation that can be damaged. What real choices does he have? If he’s at the office he can’t even put M&M’s down somebody’s blouse. Let alone get any kind of real sexual satisfaction. And a guy like that is going to be spending a lot of time on the job. He works his butt off and at the end of the day he can go home to a magazine. Just like Joe Schmoe sitting on his butt all day in a trailer.

Joe is a salesman, and one of his many mottos is that “We have to deal with people the way they are, not how we’d like them to be.” So, some guys make money for their companies but harass female employees. You could change their behaviour, but that’s not how a salesman thinks. A salesman deals with the world as it is, not as he’d like it to be.

Joe decides that what the workplace needs is “lightning rods” – women who work as secretaries or administrators or whatever and who most of the time do that job, but who also anonymously provide a service where from time to time their rear-half is wheeled through a hole in the wall for the company’s highest-performing men to have sex with. Hiring them will help discharge the sexual tensions that could otherwise build up and become problematic.

It is of course an utterly repulsive concept. DeWitt though dresses it in the blandly positive language of corporate life. Joe sells the idea to his first client by pointing out that they have legally-mandated disabled toilets but no disabled employees. Why not make use of those cubicles by installing Joe’s facility within the existing unused facility? It’s just plain efficient and it makes good use of a wasted resource.

Of course some find the idea distasteful, but for Joe it’s all in the presentation. He’s not providing prostitutes but professional women who do a great day job and then provide this extra service (of course for a suitable uplift in pay). For it all to work he doesn’t just have to convince the (notably all male-run) companies but also the women who’ll slide backwards into those holes. Naturally, he sells the concept to them with the language of empowerment:

He said: “It’s not for everyone. We’re looking for the kind of woman who is confident about herself. The kind of woman who has aims she wants to achieve. We’re looking for someone with maturity. We’re looking for someone who wants to make a real contribution to the company and expects to be compensated accordingly.”

As Joe would say, it’s a win-win. The women get a pay uplift and the knowledge they’re making a difference. The guys get protected from their own impulses:

The way to look at it was, if a guy, through no fault of his own, has not been brought up to treat women with respect, is it fair that his whole career should be put in jeopardy? Is it fair that on top of the disadvantage he has anyway in competing against guys who have been to Harvard and Yale, he should have the additional handicap of endangering his career every time he is in the vicinity of female personnel?

DeWitt is too good a writer to editorialise about Joe’s idea or its adoption. Instead she adopts an utterly flat tone. Joe’s not a deluded creep who lucks out by finding himself in a culture that sees women as commodities. He’s a hero of contemporary capitalism. He’s a pioneer disrupting traditional industries and hierarchies. Before too long:

absenteeism was down, profits were up, everything was for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

Of course he faces difficulties along the way. Much of the book is a faintly repetitive telling of how Joe encounters some problem such as a hostile HR manager or race relations laws which require him to hire women regardless of ethnicity (which in turn makes it harder to maintain their anonymity), but each time he thinks of a solution. It’s the can-do ethic which made America great.

Of course some details have to be smoothed out along the way, but any great enterprise always encounters a few hiccups. As one of the women reflects (Renée who uses her earnings to study law and eventually becomes a Justice of the Supreme Court):

[America] was set up from scratch by people who managed to overlook minor details like slavery and a whole sex.

Sure, you can if you want get bogged down in questions of morality and legality, but why when you could be changing the world instead?

Lightning Rods is partly an examination of how language can be used to make the unacceptable palatable. The corporate-speak here masks something most of us would find viscerally wrong, but in real life we talk of “rightsizing” when we mean mass layoffs or of “finding efficiencies” when we mean sweating assets and, again, mass layoffs. Language doesn’t disguise what we do but it does put it in a candy shell so that we can swallow it without difficulty.

However, Lightning Rods is also a critique of a certain seductive mentality. Let’s look at that saying of Joe’s again:

We have to deal with people the way they are, not how we’d like them to be.

Superficially that makes sense. It’s persuasive. It seems almost like common sense. We have to engage with reality, with the people we actually have in front of us, not with the imaginary people that we’d like them to be.

All that’s true so far as it goes. The trouble is if we only ever deal with people as they are nothing changes. Nothing gets better. Women used not to have access to education or the vote. Deal with people as they are and that doesn’t change. You have to confront people to make progress. You have to refuse to deal with them as they are.

We don’t of course have lightning rods in the workplace. Joe’s idea would never fly in real life. Back in the ‘90s though and even early 2000s as a junior I overheard multiple senior workplace conversations about whether it was better not to put certain employees in front of certain clients. Companies weren’t in the business of social change. They had to deal with people as they are, and if a client was sexist or racist or homophobic it was unfair to both the employee and the client to put someone from one of those groups in front of them.

I don’t hear those conversations any more. I’m not saying they never happen but they’re no longer mainstream thought. Sometimes it’s better not to accept people as they are.

Other reviews

Lots, mostly absolutely glowing. John Self of The Asylum argues here that the book is primarily about language in a post that first alerted me to this; David Hebblethwaite here mildly disagrees with John in terms of the book’s focus but agrees on its excellence; Gaskella also sings its praises here. I’m sure I’ve missed others. Also worth noting is this tremendous negative review of the book by Bibliokept which is pretty much a model of how to write well about a book you didn’t like.

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Filed under Comic Fiction, DeWitt, Helen

She left her hesitations behind with her home-made woolens.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Back in 1938 when Winifred Watson first submitted Miss Pettigrew to her publisher they didn’t want to accept it. Watson replied “You are wrong, Miss Pettigrew is a winner.” She was quite right, because Miss Pettigrew is most definitely a winner.

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Written in 1938 Miss Pettigrew is an utterly delightful and absurdly affectionate fairy-tale. It tells of how the mousey and over-looked Miss Pettigrew through a clerical mishap at her employment agency meets nightclub entertainer Delysia LaFosse and over the course of a single day has her life utterly transformed.

Miss Pettigrew is:

a middle-aged, rather angular lady, of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if any one cared to look.

That “if any one cared to look” there is devastating. Miss Pettigrew is a desperate woman. Her money’s run out, her string of governess jobs have been a sequence of disasters and if she can’t find a new position within the day she’ll be homeless. Her clothes are threadbare and she expects nothing but rejection when she goes for one last job interview.

When she knocks on Delysia LaFosse’s door what she finds isn’t what she expects at all. Delysia is beautiful, glamorous, rather fast. There’s no evidence of a child (because Miss Pettigrew has been sent to the wrong job) and Delysia has no idea why she’s there but Delysia’s life is full of random happenstance so the appearance of a dowdy middle-aged woman isn’t particularly surprising to her.

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Before Miss Pettigrew can explain her presence the dashing young Phil emerges from the bedroom. Miss Pettigrew is shocked, but when Delysia asks for help to get Phil out without hurting his feelings she somehow manages the task and from there the day is set. Shortly after the doorbell rings again and in walks Nick, nightclub manager and by appearance matinée idol. He’s fantastically jealous and if he learns Phil’s been there it’s all up for Delysia. Suddenly Miss Pettigrew is needed. She’s never been that before.

What follows is a dizzying array of callers and escapades. Phil and Nick aren’t the only men in Delysia’s life and while Delysia is charming an ability to cover her tracks isn’t among her talents. Soon Delysia has adopted Miss Pettigrew, Guinevere, as a dependable friend in her hour of need. Miss Pettigrew tries to muster up the courage to say she’s there for a job but instead finds herself sucked into a world of glamour and just plain fun that her parents long warned her against and yet which doesn’t seem so bad when she finally sees it in the flesh.

Miss Pettigrew sat savouring to the full a blissful sense of adventure, of wrongdoing: a dashing feeling of being a little fast: a worldly sense of being in the fashion: a wicked feeling of guilty ecstasy. She enjoyed it. She enjoyed it very much.

There are cigars left behind by Phil to explain to the magnetically caddish Nick, the smoothing of Delysia’s friend Miss Dubarry’s boyfriend troubles to attend to, a cocktail party to attend, a first visit to a nightclub… As the day goes on Miss Pettigrew finds herself something else she’s never been before: accepted.

Pettigrew1

Until this day Miss Pettigrew had always prized being a lady above all else. It hasn’t got her much, only “polite, excluding courtesies” from gentlemen and her current poverty. Still, it’s how she was raised:

Powder, thundered her father, the curate, the road to damnation. Lipstick, whispered her mother, the first step on the downward path. Rouge, fulminated her father, the harlot’s enticement. Eyebrow pencil, breathed her mother, no lady … !

It explain a lot that her father thundered and fulminated while her mother whispered and breathed. What hope poor Miss Pettigrew? No wonder she made her forties without ever having been kissed.

Delysia though gives her confidence, asking for help and advice and sharing without second thought her clothes and life. Miss Dubarry owns a leading beauty salon and gives Miss Pettigrew a transformative makeover (something often promised in real life, but which more usually seems to result only in the purchase of another moisturiser and a remarkably expensive eyeshadow).

It’s nonsense, of course, but it’s beautiful nonsense. I was reminded slightly of The Grossmiths’ The Diary of a Nobody which like Miss Pettigrew is a supremely compassionate novel. Nobody here is truly wicked, even Nick who’s the closest to a villain the book has is just vain and self-centred rather than actually being bad.

The book does contain a few of the less pleasant attitudes of its time. Miss Pettigrew at one point criticises Phil as having “a little Jew in him” and suggests “when it comes to marriage it’s safer to stick to your own nationality”. Happily, these elements come up on only one or two pages out of the entire 234-page novel and I think one can make some allowances for when it was written.

Miss Pettigrew is an old-fashioned champagne glass of a novel. It’s deceptively light, effervescent and packs a surprising punch. It’s always pretty obvious what’s going to happen, and yet I wanted to see it happen all the same because Watson had me caring about all of them. Will Delysia find the right man? Will Miss Dubarry be reconciled with her Tony? Will Miss Pettigrew’s new friends stick by her when they learn why she really turned up? You don’t need to read the book to know how those questions will be answered, but as with any good romantic comedy the trick is in how they’re answered. It’s a book for when you’re feeling a bit down and need a lift, or if you’re emerging from something terribly dark or serious and need a breath of heady air. It’s lovely, and that’s not a word I get to use of many of the books I tend to read.

I’ll end by noting that this was my first Persephone Books title and I was hugely impressed by the sheer quality of the book. It’s nicely bound, sits well in the hand, the paper’s high quality and the spine doesn’t crack when you hold the book open. It’s peppered with period illustrations from the original text which are quite adorable and it even comes with its own bookmark. Extraordinary.

Other reviews

Lots, most of which I’ve lost the links to. Here however is Jacqui’s of JacquiWine’sJournal, here‘s Ali’s of Heavenali and here‘s Simon Savidge’s of SavidgeReading. As ever please feel free to link to others in the comments.

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Filed under Comic Fiction, Watson, Winifred

Sybil arranged the flowers in a heavy cut glass vase, rather badly.

A Glass of Blessings, by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym is one of many mid-Century authors to have gone badly out of fashion. In her case it’s perhaps in part because her world of polite dinner parties, mildly worried vicars and comfortably middle-class anxieties seems now at best quaint and at worst precisely the sort of thing the Angry Young Men of the ’50s and ’60s were rebelling against.

Pym however, like P.G. Wodehouse, is an exquisite artist of the utterly unimportant. A Glass of Blessings is one of the finest novels I’ve read this year, and has every chance of making my end of year list.

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The narrator, Wilmet Forsyth, is an attractive and fashionable woman who is peacefully but uneventfully married. Her husband, met during the excitement of wartime, is now a responsible civil servant and the pair live with his mother Sybil, who in a distinct contrast to normal stereotypes largely likes and supports Wilmet and has a rather wicked sense of wit in her own right:

‘Thank you,’ said Rodney seriously. ‘We – my wife and mother, rather – are very fond of gooseberries. We often eat them in one form or another.’
‘Perhaps they are more a woman’s fruit,’ said Sybil, ‘like rhubarb. Women are prepared to take trouble with sour and difficult things, whereas men would hardly think it worth while.’
The men were silent for a moment, as if pondering how they might defend themselves or whether that, too, was hardly worth while.

Wilmet’s chief challenge in life is that it’s socially inappropriate for her to work and financially unnecessary, and besides she doesn’t really want a job with all that entails. As she has no children though she has little to fill her days, and the romance of her early years with her husband has long since been replaced with sober contentment. Their marriage is perhaps best captured by her husband’s annual birthday gift for Wilmet, a sensible transfer of a reasonable amount of money into her bank account. It’s practical, but it’s not exactly thrilling.

As I write this it’s a month or so since I read the novel and I find I barely remember the plot, but in fairness there barely is a plot so perhaps it’s not so surprising that it escapes me. Wilmet is active in her local church, and much concerned with the arrival of a handsome new curate and with the mystery represented by the lifestyle of her best friend’s rather unsuitable brother, Piers.

The lack of much of a plot is of course precisely the main challenge Wilmet faces. If there were a plot, if there were events and characters in motion she’d have something to do. Wilmet’s problem is that she’s in stasis. She is, quite simply, bored. She takes to spending her days with Piers, harbouring a slight crush on him and comically unaware that he’s obviously gay. She takes Portuguese lessons with Sybil, helps organise a blood drive and find a new housekeeper for the vicarage. None of it is quite enough and some of it starts therefore to take more weight than it can easily bear:

I began to be ashamed of my lack of experience – I had not had a lover before I married, I had no children, I wasn’t even asked to clean the brasses or arrange the flowers in church. But I had done something to make Piers happy and that compensated for everything.

Wilmet has many strengths: she’s intelligent, quick-witted, has a good sense for fashion and colour, is pretty, likable and charming. Unfortunately what she is not is particularly observant. Wilmet is somewhat self-centred, not horribly so but enough that she doesn’t notice most of what’s going on with the other characters in the novel. Wilmet isn’t alone here in facing questions of how to live her life, how to be happy, but almost every major character development comes as a complete surprise to her in part because she doesn’t really expect anything around her ever to change.

Blessings at times has a somewhat wistful feel to it. It’s not that Wilmet wants the world very different than it is, why would she given how well she’s doing from it? It’s just that she wants, well, something else. Something she can’t put her finger on. In a way however it’s very adult. Wilmet may find her husband not quite as exciting as he once was, but that doesn’t mean she wants to trade him in or to discard their marriage and years together. Her problem is the problem faced by many women of her class before it became socially acceptable for them to have jobs – she’s smarter than her allotted role has any need for.

At one point Wilmet’s best friend’s husband makes a pass at her, but while she’s slightly flattered she’s no Madame Bovary and the husband’s certainly no Rodolphe Boulanger. Really they’re all too English to do anything so dramatic as passionate affairs or suicide, it wouldn’t be entirely the done thing. Wilmet tries to spend her time on good works, but others are better at that and she’s clearly just filling time. Her attempts at charity are half-hearted and she’s slightly too cosseted to really understand the needs of the poor:

It made me sad to think of the decay and shabbiness all around, and the streamlined blocks of new flats springing up on the bombed sites, although I supposed it was a good thing that children should now be running about and playing in the square gardens, their shouts and laughter drowned by the noise of the machinery that was building hideous new homes for them.

All of which takes me back to P.G. Wodehouse. If people didn’t already know him the idea of a novelist writing about privileged young men in 1920s London stealing policemen’s helmets for a laugh and mooning over pretty waitresses would I suspect sound fairly unappealing. It would be easy to dismiss as fiction best left to its time, but Wodehouse is a genius and his creations though very much of their moment are also timeless.

Wilmet’s world is in some ways further away than Wodehouse’s. I didn’t particularly understand the clerical politics and the postwar society she portrays is far less popular in modern dramas and fiction than Wodehouse’s post-earlier-war period with its country houses and birth of Modernism. It doesn’t matter though, because the novel itself is just as likable and charming as Wilmet. How can you resist a narrator, an author, who writes like this:

At that moment I heard the bell ring and shortly afterwards Sir Denbigh Grote came into the room, rubbing his hands together as if it were a cold afternoon. He looked so much like a retired diplomat is generally supposed to look, even to his monocle, that I never thought of him as being the sort of person one needed to describe in any detail.

I could easily go on quoting. I have more quotes noted from this novel than most others I’ve read recently put together. I’ll allow myself one more, just to reassure those who might be concerned that the novel is somehow religious and worthy. It’s not – the church here fulfils more of a social than spiritual role and Wilmet is very much a woman of this world rather than the next:

On either side of the central space were two large white marble statues, male and female, perhaps representing knowledge and wisdom, courage and hope, or other suitable concepts. I looked down at the female’s great broad white feet and imagined that were she not barefooted she might have trouble with her shoes. I could almost see the incipient bunion and feel the pain of the fallen arch.

It’s not an easy thing to write a novel in which a basically nice character faces very ordinary and undramatic problems and to make it interesting. Really the only other example I can immediately think of is Colm Toibin with his Brooklyn. To do that though and to make it funny too, that really is very impressive indeed – as one of the priests says “it’s the trivial things that matter” and Pym ably proves his point. This is my first Pym, but I don’t intend it to be my last.

Other reviews

Guy Savage alerted me to Barbara Pym and convinced me to read her. His review of Blessings is here. I also found online this review at Vulpes Libris, where interestingly the reviewer is themselves a member of the Church of England and so able to shed a little light on the accuracy of those aspects of the novel. If you know of others, please let me know in the comments. Edit: As mentioned in the comments Kaggsy also reviewed this, and liked it a bit less than I did. Her review, which I recommend as ever, is here.

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Filed under Comic Fiction, Pym, Barbara

“Love is a dangerous territory for athletes.”

The Man in a Hurry, by Paul Morand and translated by Euan Cameron

Way back in 2009 I read and loved Paul Morand’s memoirs, Venices. It’s an elegantly written book that’s held up well in memory and that I still recommend.

Venices is notable among other things for skipping Morand’s years as a collaborator in the service of the Vichy government. It was written in 1971 when Morand’s fascist sympathies were distinctly out of fashion, and when his pro-Nazi and openly anti-semitic views of the 1930s and 1940s were perhaps from his perspective best glossed over.

The Man in a Hurry however was written in 1941, and is therefore a rare example of a comic novel written by an open supporter of the Nazi and Vichy regimes. It’s actually pretty good, though far from flawless. Still, it’s interesting that a man could hold such horrific views, be an advocate of such evil, and yet be a talented writer. Perhaps the art and the artist truly are separate beasts, or perhaps not. I’ll return to that near the end of this piece.Morand

Pierre Niox is a Parisian antique dealer. Despite his profession he epitomises the modern man, or perhaps better the Futurist man, for Pierre is obsessed with speed above all else. He lacks all patience, drives fast and devises elaborate time-and-motion techniques to speed up his morning routine. All his trousers are fitted with zips to avoid wasting time fiddling with buttons and naturally he puts his shoes on at the same time as doing up his tie.

Here’s how he’s introduced:

At the point at which the road reached the top of the slope and was about to dip down on the other side again, the man jumped out of the taxi without waiting for the driver to brake. He went into one of those suburban taverns where in the summer you can have lunch with a view and where you can dine in the cool of the evening. With an anxious step, he charged down the path lined with box hedges and rushed over to the terrace. […] He took a seat at  a metal table and clapped his hands. Twice, he glanced at his watch, as if it were friend. Nobody chose to bring him a drink. Finally, a waiter in his seventies whose rheumatism was aggravated by working at night came to wipe the table with a duster. Why, since he had achieved his aim, did the visitor appear disconcerted?

Pierre falls into conversation with a Jewish psychologist who sees him and takes interest in this curious case of accelerated development. Their conversation sparkles, as do all the conversations in this book. Morand is nothing if not witty.

“Do you believe in the afterlife? Do you talk with God?”

“I reckon that, having tricked me by bringing me into the world, it’s for Him to get in touch first.”

Here is a later exchange with Pierre’s friend and business partner, the aptly named Placide:

Quickly and badly, that’s my motto!”

“An epitaph more likely.”

“Epitaphs are the mottos of the dead.”

Over the course of around 350 pages Pierre manages to irritate all those around him through his obsession with pointless velocity. Placide tries to balance Pierre’s mania with his own taste for leisure and the good life, but without success and so has to part ways. Pierre’s comically bad servant (servants always seem to be comically bad in novels of this sort, which strikes me as a form of snobbery) quits, and even Pierre’s cat moves on to find an owner less prone to constantly rearranging its environment.

Pierre seems a hopeless case, but then he meets the beautiful Hedwig of the Boisrosé clan, and the Boisrosé never do anything quickly. Will love redeem Pierre where all else has failed?

This then is a satire on modernity, and in many ways is still a surprisingly timely one. Pierre today would be hurrying down the street checking his emails on his Blackberry while making calls on his bluetooth headset, duly proud of his ability to multitask. You probably work with him; quite possibly you occasionally are him. I know I occasionally am.

In the  Boisrosé Pierre meets his nemesis. Madame de  Boisrosé lives with her three daughters, the four of them a tightly knit and self-reliant unit. The eldest married, but her husband soon found his home mostly empty with his wife preferring to spend her days with her mother and sisters than with him. Can Pierre adjust his speed enough to win Hedwig, the second daughter? If he does, can he keep her by his side or will she too be lured back to the comforting  Boisrosé bosom? The family matriarch is a formidable opponent, “unparalleled in her ability to use her weakness in an intimidating manner.” Hedwig won’t be prised easily away from her…

Morand couldn’t write a bad sentence if he tried, and the book is filled with neatly crafted set-pieces and encounters. Pierre is absurd, but not so much so that he isn’ t recognisable, and the satire largely hits the spot. It’s a fun little tale, and a good choice for a lighter holiday or airplane read. There are however two key problems it suffers from.

The first issue is that while I describe it as a fun little tale above, it’s not actually that little. It’s ironic that a book satirising speed should take 350 pages, and it would frankly have been more effective at 250. A friend suggested that the length was perhaps itself a comment on Pierre’s haste, but I think that’s too kind. The book sags a little in the middle and while I never got bored I did find myself thinking that less might have been more.

The second issue is more problematic. Morand isn’t, here at least, a writer of great psychological subtlety and characters tend to be somewhat stereotyped. The Boisrosé for example are Creoles with a mix of French and Caribbean blood, and that Caribbean ancestry is the reason given for their lassitude. The Boisrosé aren’t lazy and part-black, they’re lazy because they’re part-black.

Stereotyping in a comic novel isn’t of course a mortal sin any more than it is in a pulp novel. When you’re aiming for broad strokes it’s hardly surprising characters get a little simplistic, and carefully nuanced psychological portraits would have sat oddly against characters like Pierre and Placide. Still, there’s something a little ugly in a 1940s novel portraying mixed-race characters as less energetic by virtue of their blood, and generally this is a somewhat cold novel with Morand’s characters being types rather than people.

I wouldn’t describe The Man in a Hurry as a racist novel – it’s a product of its age and its author’s sensibilities and the racial elements aren’t central to it. It was however flawed for me by some of its attitudes. A surprised character is at one point described as having “wide-open eyes [that] resembled those of a Negro being taken to the circus”. Much worse, when Pierre visits New York late in the novel he discovers that “In Harlem, the centre of the darkest idleness, the Negros slept all day long.” It’s just one sentence, but it’s an unpleasant one.

That brings me back to the art and the artist. Morand is an excellent stylist. He’s funny, graceful and writes superb prose. Here at least though his art is compromised by a lack of sympathy with his characters and with a tendency to typecast them in a rather racially essentialist way, which given his real world views seems perhaps a fault not just of the work but also of the man.

On a final note, I received this as a review copy from Pushkin Press. It’s their first hardback release and it is physically one of the most beautiful and pleasing to hold books I own. They’ve done marvels with it, and Paul Morand I’m sure would be delighted with it (if not perhaps by all of my review).

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, or at least not the blogs I follow. Please feel free though to link in the comments to any you think particularly interesting.

 

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Filed under Comic Fiction, French Literature, Morand, Paul

May nobody call me an unreliable narrator.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo and translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell

Some books are just delightful. The other day I finished a rereading of The Illiad, an epic poem over 3,000 years old full of tragedy and loss and extraordinary humanity. It’s hard after something like that to know what to read next. Then I happened to read a review at JacquiWine’s Journal, here, and there was the answer. I bought Where There’s Love, There’s Hate immediately on finishing her review; started it that night and drank it down over the next couple of days. It’s a Tom Collins of a novel, refreshing and a perfect palate cleanser.

Here’s how it opens:

The last drops of arsenic (arsenicum album) dissolve in my mouth, insipidly, comfortingly. To my left, on the desk, I have a copy, a beautiful Bodoni, of Gaius Petronius’ Satyricon. To my right, the fragrant tea tray, with its delicate chinaware and its nutritive jars. Suffice to say that the book’s pages are well worn from innumerable readings; the tea is from China; the toast is crisp and delicate; the honey is from bees that have sipped from acacia flowers and lilacs. And so, in this encapsulated paradise, I shall begin to write the story of the murder at Bosque del Mar.

The narrator is Dr Humberto Huberman, and he starts his tale with him en route to a much-needed holiday and writing retreat by the seaside. As he assures the couple he shares a train carriage with, he is not only a respected physician but also a writer of screenplays, currently writing a contemporary film treatment of Petronius’ Satyricon. How could any reader not put their full trust in such a companion?

The arsenic by the way is not Dr Huberman committing suicide, it’s a daily medicinal dosage for Dr Huberman prides himself on having seen past the limitations of mere conventional medicine; Dr Huberman is a homeopath and it’s surely only my own prejudices that had me seeing him within a handful of pages as essentially a self-important quack.

As Huberman is carried through the night, he reflects to himself:

When will we at last renounce the detective novel, the fantasy novel and the entire prolific, varied, and ambitious literary genre that is fed by unreality? When will we return to the path of the salubrious picaresque and pleasant local color?

When indeed?

Where-Theres-Love-Theres-Hate
Huberman has a romantic dream of a seaside idyll and a secluded private resort. It’s certainly isolated: “The building, white and modern, appeared picturesquely set in the sand like a ship on the sea, or an oasis in the desert.” What he finds though is a failing hotel with windows that can’t be opened due to endless sandstorms; where heat and flies make the inside intolerable and treacherous terrain makes the outside positively dangerous.

The other guests include one of his patients, Mary, to whom he had recommended a rest cure at the same resort. With Mary is her sister Emilia and Emilia’s fiancé, Atuel, as well as a Dr Cornejo. The only other guest is an older man named Dr Manning who spends most of his time quietly losing at solitaire.

The hotel’s run by Dr Huberman’s cousin Esteban which soon explains why Dr Huberman’s really staying there – he’s not paying. There’s also Esteban’s resentful wife Andrea and her oddly sinister nephew, Miguel, a boy with a fondness for killing and embalming animals and a marked fixation on Mary. Finally, there’s an elderly and possibly simple typist who wanders about swatting flies and ringing the bell for meals.

Before long it’s apparent that not all is well in this sandy paradise. On his first day Dr Huberman overhears a seemingly needlessly bitter argument involving Mary, Emilia, Atuel and Dr Cornejo. At dinner that night Emilia has evidently been crying, and Mary rather than sympathise bullies her into playing the piano for everyone. Later Dr Huberman sees Mary throwing herself passionately at Atuel. Something is most definitely up.

In the morning Dr Huberman is woken early by Andrea calling through his door, asking for help:

Andrea looked at me with weepy eyes, as if preparing to throw herself into my arms. I kept my hands resolutely in my pockets.

Mary has been found dead, killed by strychnine poisoning. There’s no strychnine bottle in her room, and no apparent shortage of people who might have wished her harm. It’s fortunate for everyone really that Dr Huberman is there to take charge of the investigation until the police come, and to assist them once they do.

In a more ordinary novel Dr Huberman would be a Miss Marple, a Poirot, and in a sense he is. The difference is Miss Marple and Poirot are actually genuinely gifted amateur detectives, keen psychologists ever attentive to the smallest detail. Dr Huberman by contrast is in love with the idea of finding himself the hero in a real-life detective novel, misses virtually every clue and repeatedly shows a near complete indifference to the feelings of others (particularly when they get between him and his meals, which are his real focus of interest):

Andrea was pale and a tremble in her jaw foretold the imminence of a sob. Barely hiding my impatience, I realized that a delay in the arrival of my soup was all but inevitable. I decided it would be prudent not to speak until it had been served.

What follows is hilarious. The police soon arrive and begin their own investigation, and once they’ve cleared Dr Huberman as their initial chief suspect they bring him on board to assist, though whether it’s because his help is wanted or because it keeps him quiet isn’t entirely clear. When the Victor Hugo-quoting chief detective moves to arrest Emilia, Dr Huberman becomes convinced she’s innocent and sets out to identify the real criminal.

Dr Huberman though isn’t the only amateur detective present. The police surgeon, an apparent drunk, shows signs of being a Columbo-esque figure whose insight is masked by a feigned bumbling exterior; Manning, who seemed a harmless old man concerned only with his cards, turns out to have a sharp and perceptive eye for clues; it goes on. Soon it seems there are more detectives than suspects.

What’s wonderful here is Dr Huberman’s utter incompetence, irrelevance even. At one point he deduces where some missing jewels must be based on where they would be were this a novel. He’s wrong, but not even momentarily daunted. He interprets everything according to his own prejudices, for example describing Atuel at various points as behaving slyly, as having unnatural composure, the manner ” of an overly debonair tango crooner”. Dr Huberman though has half-convinced himself he’s in love with Emilia (as the hero of a novel would be of course), and it’s fairly obvious that mostly he’s just jealous of Atuel.

As an aside, sometimes when a mediocre blockbuster movie or romcom comes out I see people argue that you should just turn your brain off as you enter the theatre and have fun. It’s just entertainment they cry, just enjoy it. Why should we have to do that though? Why should we have to turn our brains off to have fun? Why can’t a blockbuster or a romcom be smart? They can be of course. Anyone who’s seen His Girl’s Friday would never dare argue that a romcom for example can’t be both funny and almost cuttingly clever.

I see the same argument made for books every summer in the broadsheets, which should know better. They start recommending “beach reads”; the suggestion again is that you should just switch off your critical faculties and ignore dull prose and clichéd plotting. Why? Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is an utter refutation of that. It’s pure entertainment, but it’s good entertainment, it’s well written entertainment, more to the point it’s intelligent entertainment.

This is a hugely fun book. It’s incredibly silly, knowingly so with Dr Huberman even flat-out stating that he’s not an unreliable narrator. It’s a perfect choice for a beach or flight; it’s not remotely taxing, but nor does it once ask you to turn your brain off. It laughs with you, not for you.

As I said at the opening I discovered this through Jacqui’s review, which in turn was inspired by 1stReading’s Blog’s review here. Another interesting review is at the mookseandthegripes here.

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Filed under Argentinian Literature, Casares, Adolfo Bioy, Comic Fiction, Crime Fiction, Ocampo, Silvina

a random collection of desperate acts

Troubles, by J.G. Farrell

Troubles is perhaps the bleakest comic novel I’ve read. It opens with the narrator, unidentified, talking about the Majestic hotel which once stood on a peninsula in rural Ireland. Today, whenever that is, it’s a burnt out ruin littered with unusual numbers of small animal bones and great quantities of cast-iron bathtubs, bed-frames and lavatory bowls all showing how grand the hotel must once have been.

The unknown narrator comments that the Majestic had been in decline for some time before its end. A man named Edward Spencer had taken ownership of the hotel and managed it with the aid of a threadbare staff who catered to the limited needs of his guests and family. Those guests were a dwindling number of elderly ladies who had visited for years. Many of them had no other home. The Majestic then was a decaying hulk with only a few rooms of weak life left within it.

Troubles is the story of how a man known as the Major came to the Majestic, and what happened to him there. It’s also the story of how the British Empire lost Ireland and how ultimately it lost its empire.

This is a longer quote than I’d usually wish to include, but it gives an excellent feel for the style of language used and the sly humour that permeates the novel:

In the summer of 1919, not long before the great Victory Parade marched up Whitehall, the Major left hospital and went to Ireland to claim his bride, Angela Spencer. At least he fancied that the claiming of her as a bride might come into it. But nothing definite had been settled.

Home on leave in 1916 the Major had met Angela in Brighton where she had been staying with relations. He now only retained a dim recollection of that time, dazed as he was by the incessant, titanic thunder of artillery that cushioned it thickly, before and after. They had been somewhat hysterical – Angela perhaps feeling amid all the patriotism that she too should have something personal to lose, the Major that he should have at least one reason for surviving. He remembered declaring that he would come back to her, but not very much else. Indeed, the only other thing he recalled quite distinctly was saying goodbye to her at an afternoon thé dansant in a Brighton Hotel. They had kissed behind a screen of leaves and, reaching out to steady himself, he had put his hand down firmly on a cactus, which had rendered many of his parting words insincere. The strain had been so great that he had been glad to get away from her. Perhaps, however, this suppressed agony had given the wrong impression of his feelings.

Although he was sure he had never actually proposed to Angela during the few days of their acquaintance, it was beyond doubt that they were engaged: a certainty fostered by the fact that from the very beginning she had signed her letters ‘Your loving fiancée, Angela’. This had surprised him at first. But, with the odour of death drifting from the dug-out in which he scratched out his replies by the light of a candle, it would have been trivial and discourteous beyond words to split hairs about such purely social distinctions.

That quote comes from very early on and it created certain expectations for me. I had a sense of where the book was going. Yes, I wondered who the mysterious narrator was and what part they’d have to play, but I expected a certain kind of story. A story about an Englishman encountering a ramshackle and eccentric Irish family. Anyone reading this probably already knows the broad outline of that story as its usually told. I just thought that here it would be well written.

Troubles is well written. It’s not though simply a novel about an Englishman encountering a ramshackle and eccentric Irish family. That does happen, but this is no tale of Irish whimsy.

The Major is taken to the Majestic by Angela’s brother, and then left in the hotel’s echoing lobby. Nobody greets him. Nobody takes his bag. Eventually he finds his way to the Palm Court where Angela, her father and some friends of the family are taking tea.

The Palm Court proved to be a vast, shadowy cavern in which dusty white chairs stood in silent, empty groups, just visible here and there amid the gloomy foliage. For the palms had completely run riot, shooting out of their wooden tubs (some of which had cracked open to trickle little cones of black soil on to the tiled floor) towards the distant murky skylight, hammering and interweaving themselves against the greenish glass that sullenly glowed overhead. Here and there between the tables beds of oozing mould supported banana and rubber plants, hairy ferns, elephant grass and creepers that dangled from above like emerald intestines. In places there was a hollow ring to the tiles – there must be some underground irrigation system, the Major reasoned, to provide water for all this vegetation. But now, here he was.

When I talked about my expectations for the novel what I was really talking about was my expectations for its plot, and by plot I mean a sequence of events with narrative coherence and logic. A story with a beginning, middle and end.

Troubles has a beginning (the arrival of the major) and it has an end (the opening page tells the reader that the Majestic burnt down). A lot happens between those two points in time so it has a middle. Does it have a plot though? Is there narrative coherence and logic? Or is it rather a sequence of meaningless events conveniently bracketed by moments that have no ultimately greater significance than any others?

That’s one sense in which this is not a straightforward novel (though it’s not a difficult one either), and one I’ll return to. The other is that of course all this acts as metaphor. For the Majestic read British rule in Ireland, or even the British Empire itself. For Edward, his family, friends and guests read the English in Ireland, ruling over a local populace they neither understand nor respect.

As the book progresses the lines between masters and servants become blurred. The local villagers grow hostile. The Majestic sales on – a bubble of decaying order ruled by assumptions of status that the world increasingly no longer recognises.

I’ll put my cards on the table. Troubles is brilliant. In 2010 it won the “Lost Booker” prize (a retrospective prize for the year 1970 designed to cover books which lost eligibility due to a change in the prize’s rules around that time). I haven’t read every book that was eligible for the Lost Booker, but given the extraordinary quality of Troubles I’m not at all surprised that it won.

The Major gets drawn deeper and deeper into the life of the Majestic but seeing its decline does not mean he can stop it. The hotel’s structure crumbles while it becomes overrun with feral creatures: tribes of cats; soldiers serving in the black-and-tans; a pair of pretty and wilful twins who couldn’t care less for propriety as long as there are dances and new dresses to be had (Resolute Reader in his review sees them as a harbinger of the 1920s and I think he’s absolutely right).

The old order, both in the Majestic and in Ireland, is being swept away. It’s disappearing not gently, but in violence and brutality. The young are indifferent to its passing and the old barely notice it. In between are those like the Major who are old enough to be part of how things were but young enough that they still have to live in the world as it now is.

As well as all this Farrell has a marvellous turn of phrase. The Major attends family dinners where “… silence collected between the tables in layers like drifts of a snow.” Later the Major sadly observes a “… bath of peeling gilt and black marble in which, no doubt, many a bride of the last century had washed away her illusions of love.”

I wrote recently about how the comic novel fails to get the literary respect it deserves (I was inspired by a post to that effect at Tomcat in the Red Room’s blog). Troubles is the best example I could imagine of how a comic novel can also be a piece of genuinely exciting literature. It’s superbly written and operates on a number of levels but at the same time it’s extremely funny.

Farrell never loses sight of the human among the unravelling of Empire. He describes how the old ladies gain new energy putting up Christmas decorations and mounting little expeditions into the nearby village, fleeting moments of purpose. He brings out the Major’s bitterness brought back from the Great War and tamped down just out of sight. There is warmth here in the writing so that even in the face of the despair and tragedy that pervades the novel it’s possible to laugh while seeing quite plainly that really there’s nothing to laugh about.

I said I’d return to the question of whether Troubles has a plot, or just things that happen. It’s not actually the easiest question to answer. Ultimately though Troubles is subversive in part because it uses traditional narrative techniques but undermines them from within. The novel is a form of history. Like history it has a narrative, it has major characters and minor ones, it has a direction.

In truth though all that is a lie. History has only the narrative we give it. Historical periods start and end where we choose them to do so. Which individuals stand out is dependent not just on who did what but on what records remain and on the agendas of the historians researching them. The only direction history truly has is forward and that is mere fact – it isn’t a direction with purpose. History is written with narrative coherence and logic, but that’s just because that’s the only way we can understand it.

Troubles then as a historical novel reflects how history is created. Things happen, and from them a beginning is chosen and an ending. Certain characters are emphasised, certain parts of what occurs are given prominence while others remain in the backdrop. In the end though it’s all what Edward in an appeal to faith desperately wants it not to be. A random collection of desperate acts.

The Resolute Reader review I referred to is here. John Self reviewed Troubles here and wasn’t nearly as taken by it. Obviously I disagree with his view but a John Self review is never to be sniffed at. Sam Jordison of the Guardian also wrote about it here.

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Filed under Booker, Comic Fiction, English Literature, Farrell, J.G.

Someone, wearing an anorak, knocked on my door at lunchtime.

The Pets, by Bragi Ólafsson and translated by Janice Balfour

Comic novels struggle to be taken seriously. Howard Jacobson recently won the Booker of course, but that’s a definite exception and as Jacobson himself noted he’d been waiting a fair while for the honour.

The book I’m currently reading is JG Farrell’s Troubles. It’s brilliant (so far anyway). It’s extremely well written and it’s extremely funny too. Why shouldn’t it be? There’s no conflict between quality and comedy.

The Pets is a story about a man, Emil, who returns home from a flight abroad to find an old acquaintance waiting for him. It’s not a welcome reunion. What do you do though when you don’t feel able to say to someone that actually you’d rather not talk to them? That question is the essence of the whole book. 

Really it’s no small risk one takes, boarding an airplane. For three hours (not to mention on longer trips) one is locked in a tight, uncomfortable space, way above any civilization, with unpredictable people, who could drink themselves senseless or spill their food and drink over you—and the only place of salvation is the toilet.

The flight’s as bad as Emil fears. He’s seated next to a man called Armann Valur who refuses to take the hint when Emil plugs in headphones. Armann insists on conversation but he has nothing interesting to say. It’s not all bad though because an old object of Emil’s desire, Greta, is also on the flight.

Emil met Greta years ago when they were both teenagers. He saw her slip into a bedroom with a boy at a party and come out later with tousled hair. He wanted her but never got her. Now he has another chance – they fall into conversation and she agrees to visit him at home later that night. He doesn’t mention that he already has a girlfriend. He was feeling a bit ambivalent about that relationship anyway.

When he does get home though he gets some disturbing news. A man came round looking for him earlier wearing an anorak and carrying a plastic bag full of beer. He soon realises who that man was. Years ago Emil housesat in London for a friend of his father’s. Emil took along a coworker from home that he’d got to know – Havard. It was only later he realised that Havard had some serious psychological problems.

I haven’t heard from Havard for about five years, since we sat in the kitchen on Brooke Road in Stoke Newington and I gave him four hundred pounds to go away. Go away as far as possible, much further than just out of London, preferably to another country. And he said—with a grin fueled by the two or three pints of Special Brew he had drunk before lunch—that if I could give him four hundred more then he would never show his face again.

Emil didn’t give him the four hundred more. He should have.

Soon after Emil arrives home Havard returns. Emil doesn’t want to see him so he pretends he’s not in, and when Havard climbs through the window that means Emil has to keep pretending not to be home or explain why he didn’t answer the door. Emil hides under the bed. Havard decides to wait, and in the meantime invites some people over.

Emil isn’t really a bad man, but he is a bit of a coward. His girlfriend wants them to have a more serious commitment to each other. He’s not sure about that, but he doesn’t want to say that to her. He doesn’t pick up the gifts she asked for in London but he doesn’t break up with her either. Armann is a pestering bore, but Emil doesn’t want to tell him to shut up. Havard is profoundly disturbed and potentially dangerous, but all those years ago back in Stoke Newington Emil ignored all the signs until it was too late.

Tragicomedy is tricky stuff, but that’s what’s happening here. Emil doesn’t really deserve to be trapped under a bed as increasing numbers of people come into his home, drink his duty free alcohol and criticise his music collection. Then again, the pets didn’t deserve what Havard did to them either:

For some reason he thought it was highly appropriate to play the ukulele for the iguana. It was meant to be some kind of “Galapagos atmosphere,” as he called it, but the sound he produced was as sad as the fate the Mexican iguana was to meet three weeks later.
 

I love that quote. It’s so foreboding and yet so absurd at the same time. That’s the essence of this novel. There’s a vein of menace that runs through much of it, but it’s coupled with pathos (Emil, Armann and Havard are all in their different ways a bit pathetic) and Emil’s compromises are ones that most of us make to some degree.

When I was a kid my parents routinely pretended not to be home to unwelcome visitors. We’d sit there, unmoving, waiting for whoever was outside to go away. Often the TV would be hurriedly switched off. Sometimes we sat for a long time, because whoever was outside had heard the TV being switched off and was annoyed at being ignored and so kept on banging to be let in.

I’ve tried to ignore people on planes by focusing on a book, but then put it down when someone clearly wanted to talk. I’ve preferred to be polite rather than assertive. That’s not even necessarily a bad thing. Is my desire to be left alone really more important than someone else’s desire for a bit of company? Is it altruism though that’s motivating me, or fear of seeming rude?

Most of us I suspect have known people who knew their relationships weren’t working out but didn’t want to be responsible for the breakup. I can understand that (though I’ve seen it result in some very unpleasant passive-aggressive behaviour). I’ve been on both sides of that conversation and while being dumped is no fun at all at least afterwards you can blame the other person. If you’re the one doing the dumping it’s hard to feel good about yourself.

Some people, like Havard, never worry about social embarassment. They never pretend to be out, or pretend something is going ok when it isn’t. Others, like Emil, would rather hide how they feel than risk unpleasantness. Most of us are somewhere in between. Here Ólafsson takes the two extremes and brings them together. Havard is a sort of anti-Emil. His nemesis. 

The line between tragedy and farce is always narrow. In a way it’s a question of importance. If what’s at stake really matters then it’s tragedy. If it all ends in blood and ruin it’s probably not going to be that funny (not intentionally so anyway, The Duchess of Malfi though can go that way). If what’s at stake is petty, but important to the characters, that’s farce.

I heard about The Pets over at Guy Savage’s blog here. I don’t think it’s a well known novel in English, and I think it should be. While writing this I also found a review by Stewart of Booklit here which is worth reading for a still positive but less enthusiastic perspective.

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Filed under Ólafsson, Bragi, Comic Fiction, Icelandic Literature

You would not enjoy Nietzche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.

P.G. Wodehouse is one of the best comic writers in print, a master of the comic phrase, with a style of writing which I believe requires far more skill than is immediately apparent (much like Runyon in that, though the styles are very different in some respects). He is an incredibly funny writer, endlessly quotable, fully deserving of his fame.

Wodehouse’s most famous creations are of course Bertie Wooster and his Gentleman’s Gentleman, Jeeves. It’s unlikely anyone reading this doesn’t know who they are, but on the off chance Bertram Wooster is a wealthy young man of good family but, like Winnie the Pooh, of very little brain. Still, he’s a generous young man, innocent of harm and generally a pretty nice chap. Jeeves is his valet, a man of unusual intelligence and resource, a perfect servant and one on whom Bertie relies to get him and his friends out of their endless scrapes involving fearsome aunts, unsuitable chorus girls and other unlikely adventures.

‘Sir?’ said Jeeves, kind of manifesting himself. One of the rummy things about Jeeves is that, unless you watch him like a hawk, you very seldom see him come into a room. He’s like one of those weird birds in India who dissolve themselves into thin air and nip through space in a sort of disembodied way and assemble the parts again just where they want them. I’ve got a cousin who’s what they call a Theosophist, and he says he’s often nearly worked the thing himself, but couldn’t quite bring it off, probably owing to having fed in his boyhood on the flesh of animals slain in anger and pie.

Probably the best place to start with Jeeves and Wooster is the 1923 collection The Inimitable Jeeves, eleven connected short stories which as well as being among the first are among the best Wodehouse ever wrote. After that, comes Carry on, Jeeves – the collection I’m writing about today. Written in 1925, this contains ten stories, many of them set during Bertie’s sojourn in New York in hiding from his Aunt Agatha, and which are in the main brilliant.

Like the TV series House (for the first three seasons anyway) or the boxing stories of Robert E. Howard, almost every Jeeves and Wooster story follows much the same template. That doesn’t matter, one doesn’t read Wodehouse for the plot, one reads for the sheer brilliance of the prose, but it can mean that a collection can be more enjoyable if spaced out a story or two at a time between other reads. That said, I gulped this collection down in two days, and enjoyed it thoroughly, good enough writing after all forgives any fault.

So, what is this template? Well, it doesn’t hold for every story, but it does for most. Here goes:

1. We normally open to learn that Bertie and Jeeves have to a degree fallen out, normally over some sartorial experiment upon which Bertie is engaged and of which Jeeves does not approve.

… Soft silk shirts with evening costume are not worn, sir.’
‘Jeeves,’ I said, looking the blighter diametrically in the centre of the eyeball, ‘they’re dashed well going to be. I may as well tell you now that I have ordered a dozen of those shirtings from Peabody and Simms, and it’s no good looking like that, because I am jolly well adamant.’
‘If I might-‘
‘No, Jeeves,’ I said, raising my hand, ‘argument is useless. Nobody has a greater respect than I have for your judgement in socks, in ties, and – I will go farther – in spats; but when it comes to evening shirts your nerve seems to fail you. You have no vision. You are prejudiced and reactionary. Hidebound is the word that suggests itself. It may interest you to learn that when I was at Le Touquet the Prince of Wales buzzed into the Casino one night with soft silk shirt complete.’
‘His Royal Highness, sir, may permit himself a certain licence which in your own case-‘
‘No, Jeeves,’ I said firmly, ‘it’s no use. When we Woosters are adamant, we are – well, adamant, if you know what I mean.’
‘Very good, sir.’

2. Next, generally while the frost of disapproval is yet on, one of Bertie’s chums approaches him with a problem which to them seems insurmountable. Normally, it involves a disapproving relative on whom the friend is reliant for funds, but who for one reason or another is threatening to cut off the same, or it involves a desire to marry an unsuitable girl, generally of a theatrical persuasion (often in the chorus). Sometimes, it’s both.

I began to understand why poor old Bicky was always more or less on the rocks. To the casual and irreflective observer it may soud a pretty good wheeze having a duke for an uncle, but the trouble about old Chiswick was that, though an extremely wealthy old buster, owning half London and about five counties up north, he was notoriously the most produent spender in England. He was what Americans call a hard-boiled egg.

Sadly for poor old Bicky, he is dependent upon the above hard-boiled egg for his remittance, but that only flows because the old man believes Bicky is a success in business, and his forthcoming visit to New York will show that instead Bicky’s most notable feature is his ability to imitate a bull-terrier chasing a cat up a tree.

3. As neither Bertie nor his friends have much in the brains department, Jeeves suggests a scheme. And yet, despite the man’s undoubted brilliance, it often fails to quite come off on the first instance.

‘I was about to suggest, sir, that you might lend Mr Bickersteth this flat. Mr Bickersteth could give His Grace the impression that he was the owner of it. With your permission, I could convey the notion that I was in Mr Bickersteth’s employment and not in yours. You would be residing here temporarily as Mr Bickersteth’s guest. His Grace would occupy the second spare bedroom. I fancy that you would find this answer satisfactory, sir.’

[Later, Bertie hears that Bicky is not entirely happy with the outcome.]

‘What’s his trouble now?’
‘The scheme which I took the liberty of suggesting to Mr Bickersteth and yourself has, unfortunately, not answered entirely satisfactorily, sir.’
‘Surely the duke believes that Mr Bickersteth is doing well in business, and all that sort of thing?’
‘Exactly, sir. With the result that he has decided to cancel Mr Bickersteth’s monthly allowance, on the ground that, as Mr Bickersteth is doing so well on his own account, he no longer requires pecuniary assistance.’

4. Jeeves, however, is dauntless. With a little behind the scenes maneouvering and a great deal of native wit, he brings matters to a successful conclusion. Young love is brought together, aunts and uncles continue the provision of funds, all is well with the world. In gratitude, Bertie allows Jeeves to dispose of the offending garment over which they had originally fallen out.

‘Oh, Jeeves,’ I said; ‘about that check suit.’
‘Yes, sir?’
‘Is it really a frost?’
‘A trifle too bizarre, sir, in my opinion.’
‘But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is?’
‘Doubtless in order to avoid him, sir.’
‘He’s supposed to be one of the best men in London.’
‘I am saying nothing against his moral character, sir.’

The suit, it is fair to say, is by this point not long for Bertie’s wardrobe.

And that’s it, with that template and the odd minor variation you could in theory write most of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, except you couldn’t at all because none of that matters in the slightest. The structure, the plot, is merely a hook on which to hang the dialogue, the absurd situations, the general farce of it all.

Characters, too, follow types. As in the Commedia Dell’Arté the same personalities (though their names may change) recur time and again, story to story – the fearsome aunt, the rich but eccentric uncle, the intimidating fiancée, the irritating and untrustworthy young nephew, the dim but affable friend (usually either an impoverished artist or well off but dim chum from Oxford). Again, it doesn’t matter, the Commedia Dell’Arté is a meaningful comparison because it does precisely the same thing and for the same reason – the familiarity is a springboard for creativity, not merely a restraint on or lack of it.

And there we have it. On this occasion, the stories include the first encounter between Bertie and Jeeves, and one marvellous story told from Jeeve’s perspective (the stories are normally told in Bertie’s voice). Of the ten, nine are extremely funny, one a bit of a duff but that’s not a bad strike rate. This is an exceptional collection, from a major talent.

My analysis above may have made it all seem a bit dry, a bit formulaic, but it really isn’t. Instead, it’s the most wonderful froth, the foam on a glass of champagne, a quote on every page and a collection it’s impossible not to be cheered by. The formula allows Wodehouse in the space of a short story to create elaborate set-ups, mischances and misunderstandings that lead to quite simply hilarious outcomes. There is an inevitability, if an elderly aunt is convinced (wrongly) that Bertie hates cats, you know he’ll step on the poor thing before leaving the room, but watching it all unfold is a key part of the pleasure.

After the desolation of One Man’s Justice, this was the perfect follow-up and antidote, beautifully written, exceptionally funny, really quite wonderful. There is a reason these stories, these characters, are so widely loved. I’ll finish with one final quote, a conversation between Bertie and an unwelcome house guest:

‘What ho!’ I said.
‘What ho!’ said Motty.
‘What ho! What ho!’
‘What ho! What ho! What ho!’
After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.

Carry on, Jeeves – sadly the rather marvellous cover in this Penguin edition appears to be being discontinued, a great shame. On another note, Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes blog has written up one of the Psmith series here, which may also be of interest.

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Filed under Comic Fiction, Wodehouse, P.G.

I sat up, and the room was full of a man with a gun.

Somebody Owes Me Money, by Donald E Westlake

I love the pulps, pulp westerns, weird tales, adventure pulps, and definitely crime pulps. At their best, pulp novels are immediate, exciting, a ton of fun and sometimes surprisingly well written.

Until recently though, I’d never heard of Donald E. Westlake. I’d missed out. Fortunately, Guy Savage of the wonderfully titled blog His Futile Preoccupations wrote up the excellent Somebody Owes Me Money, here. That caught my interest, I bought myself a copy, and now I owe Guy Savage for the recommendation.

Somebody Owes Me Money was originally published in 1969 and is now reprinted by Hard Case Crime (an imprint I shall be looking out for a lot more going forward). By mischance, when I started it I mistakenly thought it a contemporary novel written in 2008, and was mystified by the lack of mobile phones and general period feel of the novel, eventually I realised it was contemporary, just not our contemporary. Ahem.

Anyway. Somebody Owes Me Money is the story of how Chet Conway, a New York city cabbie, a gambler, and an eloquent fellow, discovers the corpse of his bookie and ends up having to investigate the murder himself. Chet recounts the story himself, in the first person, almost the whole tale therefore being in the present tense (possibly a stylistic tip of the hat to Runyon).

Here, in the opening two paragraphs, Chet tells us a bit about himself:

I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent. That’s always been my problem, eloquence, though some might claim my problem was something else again. But life’s a gamble, is what I say, and not all the eloquent people in this world are in Congress.
Where I am is in a cab in New York City. Fares frequently ask me how it is somebody as eloquent as me is driving a cab, and I usually give them a brief friendly answer which doesn’t really cover the territory. The truth is, my eloquence comes from reading rather than formal higher education, which limits the kind of job open to me. Besides, driving a cab gives me the chance to pick my own hours. Day shift when the track is closed, night shift when it’s open. If there’s a game somewhere I’m particularly interested in, I skip a night and nobody cares. And if I’m broke, I can work as many hours as I want till I make it up.

In his own writeup, Guy talks about how as soon as he read that section, he was hooked. I was the same, it’s funny, breezy, tells you a lot about the character but also establishes him as an essentially reliable narrator. We’re not in tricky literary territory here, we’re metaphorically in the back of a cab or in a bar, being told a story by a likeable guy. We’re being invited to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Chet’s tale starts with him being given a tip on a horse race by a fare, he’d rather have had a cash tip, but you get what you get and the guy seemed a smart guy so Chet places the bet. Chet’s been losing a lot lately, and needs a big win, so he bets big. The horse wins, but when Chet goes to collect, somebody’s killed his bookie. Chet realises that the bookie would have been fronting for a syndicate, so somebody, somewhere, owes him that money.

The rest of the book unfolds from Chet’s attempts to get his money, in the process popping up on the radar of the police, fueding mobsters, the dead guy’s sister and assorted other characters most of whom assume that Chet is deeper into this thing than he is and most of whom at one point or another hold him at gunpoint trying to work out what his angle is. Chet, who despite all that still manages to make it to his twice weekly poker game, keeps pushing on, partly because once involved he needs to find out what really happened in order to get himself out of it, but just as much because he really, really needs his winnings. Here, Chet explains his philosophy when it comes to violence:

If you spend much time driving a cab around New York City, especially at night, sooner or later you’ll find yourself thinking about anti-cabby violence, and what you would do if anybody ever pulled a gun or a knife on you to rob you in the cab. A long time ago I decided I was no hero, I wouldn’t argue. Anybody with a knife or gun in his hand is boss as far as I’m concerned. It’s like the old saying: The hand that cradles the rock rules the world.

Another likeable quality of this book, is the lack of bravado shown by its protagonist. Chet’s full name is of course Chester, a name he hates. He wants people to call him Chet instead, but by and large nobody does, he’s just not that impressive a guy and whatever he may want to be called Chester is what he gets. He’s smart, but he’s not ambitious or any kind of a go-getter. He’s just a smarter than average average joe, with a nice line in dialogue but none of the tough guy nature of a Spade, Marlowe or Hammer.

Here, he’s held at gunpoint (as he often is in this novel) and ordered up a flight of stairs in an apparently deserted garage:

I went up the stairs. Our six feet made complicated echoing dull rhythms on the rungs, and I thought of Robert Mitchum. What would Robert Mitchum do now, what would he do in a situation like this?
No question of it. Robert Mitchum, with the suddenness of the snake, would abruptly whirl, kick the nearest hood in the jaw, and vault over the railing and down to the garage floor. Meantime, the kicked hood would have fallen backward into the other one, and the two of them would go tumbling down the steps, out of the play long enough for Mitchum either to (a) make it to the door and out of the building and thus successfully make his escape, or (b) get into the hood’s car, in which the keys would have been left, back it at top speed through the closed garage door, and take off with a grand grinding of gears, thus successfully making his escape and getting their car into the bargain.
But what if I spun around like that, and the guy with the gun was Robert Mitchum? What would he do then? Easy. He’d duck the kick and shoot me in the head.
I plodded up the stairs.

Part of the comedy comes from Chet being so plainly unsuited to the plot of the novel, at one point he’s holed up recovering from a bullet wound, a series of different tough guys calling round to interrogate or threaten him, he spends much of a couple of chapters lying in bed literally hiding under the covers while the dead guy’s sister (pictured on the cover of the novel) stands off the hoods and protects him.

Somebody Owes Me Money features a great protagonist, but that’s far from its only strength. Westlake also shows a nice eye for characterisation, each of the crowd at the twice weekly poker game is brought quickly and easily to life, so that you feel like you’re at the table with them. No small feat, given I don’t play poker and have no understanding of the rules. Even minor characters, like Chet’s father who spends his days analysing insurance policies in the ever vain hope of finding money-making loopholes or the investigating detective with his incredibly kitsch home bar with electric lights and porcelain drunks, are well drawn and sympathetic. Westlake’s characters are a likeable crew, owing more to the criminals of Runyon’s Broadway than the world of say Thompson’s petty grifters.

Westlake is comfortable working within his genre, clearly knowing it backwards, and so it’s no surprise that the dead bookie’s sister is a beautiful blonde packing a pearl-handled automatic in her handbag. What does surprise is that Westlake’s comfortable enough to have a bit of fun with genre expectations. Sure, the sister’s a beautiful blonde, but she’s also good in a fight, loyal and maybe not so bright – not the usual qualities one expects of a beautiful blonde in a hardboiled novel. There’s a playful subversion here, a writer at home with his craft enjoying himself with it, something that shows up again near the end when the characters discuss the discovery of the real murderer in a way which echoes strongly the likely reactions of readers used to traditional mystery novel conceits – were the clues fair, was there a reasonable chance to solve the puzzle?

Like any good hardboiled writer, Westlake also has a gift for snappy dialogue. Characters come out with lines such as “… they’d fill you with so much lead we’d have to paint you yellow and call you a pencil.” and “You’re a nice guy and I like you, but I can get along without you. I can’t get along without me for a minute.” He also has a real feel for location, place, which I consider essential to good crime fiction. This is very much a New York novel, full of affection for the city and its unruffleable inhabitants.

Graham Greene used to refer to his novels as entertainments, that’s what this is, it’s not a serious novel – it’s an entertainment. But, and it’s no small but, it’s a very good entertainment indeed. It’s funny, well written, skilfully paced and somehow despite it’s cast of low-lives, gangsters, gamblers and idiots, strangely cheering. It’s a novel where the nice guys win, and where an ordinary joe turns into a sort of hero, even if not a very brave hero. Chet is an everyman, easy to relate to, and perhaps that too is part of the novel’s charm, after all, as Chet says:

… there’s a touch of Robert Mitchum in all of us, or anyway the desire to be Robert Mitchum in all of us.

Somebody Owes Me Money

By the way, check out the wonderfully pulp-styled cover for this edition, which can be seen at the above link. One of my pet hates is the trend to dress up fiction considered lowbrow in highbrow covers, to conceal what is really being read. Harry Potter being reprinted for adults with sombre themed covers, instead of the colourful and exciting covers on the editions aimed at children. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reading pulp, or SF, or or YA or fantasy or whatever, so there’s no need to hide it. I love this style of cover, and Hard Case Crime win my admiration for using it.

On the topic of covers though, their choice for a new Sherlock Holmes imprint done “Hard Case Crime style” is clearly having fun with the whole concept, marvellous stuff.

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Filed under Comic Fiction, Crime Fiction, Westlake, Donald E.

The theory is that they are mad

Recently, I had the misfortune to read a book which I enjoyed far less than I had hoped (The Necropolis Railway). Happily, I’ve now had the opposite experience, a book I picked up with a view to reading something light to refresh my palate after an Anthony Powell turned out in fact to be a clever and witty satire which was far more rewarding than I had anticipated.

The novel in question is Super-State, by Brian Aldiss. Nominally science fiction, it is in fact a satire of humanity itself, a book which I suspect could only have been written by a man in his late 70s with its mix of laughing despair at what is mockingly referred to in several places in the novel as The Human Condition (the capitals are his).

Super-State is set around 40 years from now, though the exact date is not important and no particular attempt is made at credible world-building of the sort many sf fans are fond of. Rather the shift to the future allows an ironic commentary on how little the world has progressed, how despite advances in technology people are much the same and how although the dream of a united European super-state has been realised all that achievement has accomplished is to move Europeans from hating each other to hating non-Europeans.

The novel has a plot, though it is hardly central. Europe is building up to a possible war with a new Chinese breakaway Islamic state (not as unlikely a scenario as it sounds actually), meanwhile humanity’s first manned mission to the outer planets is en route to the Jovian moon Europa. A range of figures, first introduced at a society wedding which opens the novel, live their lives in the midst of the build up to war while an unknown hacker group called the Insanatics interrupt broadcast adverts with doleful messages about humanity’s basic lack of rationality. Similarly, the crew of the spaceship Roddenberry, wonderfully described as “a tiny needle in the lethal immaculacy of space”, send updates back to Earth of their hopes of discovering life on Europa and their increasingly failing food supplies.

All of the above makes this sound after all as if it is a plot driven novel, it is not. The plot barely features, it is merely a backdrop, potentially momentous events (war, first planetfall on a Jovian moon, possible discovery of extraterrestrial life, a massive natural disaster) are happening but most people either largely ignore them or exploit for their own immediate ends.

As noted above, this is not really a science fiction novel (though there is an interesting albeit brief defence of science fiction as a genre). The only real science ficional element is the inclusion of androids, robot servitors who work as labourers or casual workers (while European gunboats sink vessels full of refugees seeking to reach European shores, due to fears of immigrants). Occasionally we are shown conversations between groups of androids in private, these conversations acting as a Greek chorus commenting on the main activities of the novel. The androids believe themselves to be the pinnacle of creation, to be rational, to be superior to the humans they serve. However, when one group discuss taking over the world their plan falters when they realise they do not know how to get out of the cupboard they have been locked in for the day. The androids are like humanity itself, believing the story to be about them, when in fact there is no story at all.

“‘At the shop today I saw a small crying thing being carried.’
‘It will grow into a human.’
‘Why was it crying?’
‘The theory is that it knows it will have to grow into a human.'”

The androids are absurd, their understanding painfully limited (on considering a funeral: “‘Then why did they bury him in the ground?’ ‘They have a theory he will get better there.'”) and yet their commentary does have a certain unwitting resonance. In a real sense they are us, their limitations a mirror held up to our own absurd sense of importance. What they are definitely not is an attempt at a realistic depiction of future artificial intelligence, this is not that sort of novel (though I can recommend that sort of novel, should anyone wish me to…).

In a sense it is a novel of vignettes, characters interrelate – one character will be a relative of another or have romantic intentions to another, the characters are connected by family, lust and politics, some characters manage meaningful (to them, not to the world) connections to each other, but there is intentionally no sense of a greater pattern. Things happen, some good, some bad, and people make their lives and impose meaning among and upon those events. Some characters fall in love and some then die pointlessly. Good and bad fortune are spread indiscriminately. A practical joke can backfire and kill a man, a war can become a farce when waged and yet still be deadly for all that.

The Europe of Aldiss’s future is a familiar one. Mass immigration is actively feared, though now the response is military in nature. Wars are threatened against small and far away states, while commentators condemn militarism and others point to attacks carried out on European soil as clear justification for hostilities (who is right? Who knows?). Political leaders are accused of pursuing war for their own political and economic interests. A scandal leaks about the sinking of a refugee ship with 4,000 people aboard, but besides a few media commentators nobody is interested. A novelist writes romantic fictions with absurdly over-sacharine prose, she sells in the millions. A learned broadcaster makes programs about humanity, its history and its failings but at home has disowned his own children. Hypocrisy is rife, business and politics continue, the world is as it ever was for all the scenery provided by the technology has changed.

The writing is skilful, light and generally sardonic in tone. The book is littered with small asides which comment wrly on the whole (a general notes “‘Even, mm, truth can be subversive in wartime'”). Characters are broadly, but effectively, sketched (“Daniel Potts who, in his early sixties, had a countenance somewhat resembling a disappointed walnut,”). Characterisation does not aim at realism, most characters are lightly drawn and held up for satirical effect, although certain characters are given greater depth where seriousness helps deliver the point being made through them.

Some satirical strands run through the book, such as the Europe-wide implementation of social algebraic coding, a nobel-prize winning new form of mathematically derived social science intended at ironing out income disparities within Europe. Early in the novel we see its unintended consequences on the ground, with families being paid for not drinking too much and government issued serious literature sent out to families (with each European country getting to select a different book for distribution each month, and with many choices inevitably causing vast offence to the legions of those waiting to be offended). Later we see the social algebraic codist himself, working now on mathematics to improve ethical behaviour, until his funding is cut due to the need to pay for the war. Again, small asides feature (speaking of the social algebraic coding: “This enlightened move was slowly but surely abolishing gross inequalities between rich and poor within the super-state, with the exception of Switzerland”).

The media is satirised, we receive thought for the day broadcasts of breathtaking banality, a reporter goes out after every major event to ask passers by in the street for their (utterly uninformed) views on the matter at hand. Each Insanatics broadcast is inserted into an advert and we hear a small part of each such advert, for products that no one could have any genuine need for. We are talking to ourselves and into the void, but it is far from clear that we are listening to each other while pretty clear that nobody else is around to listen.

In the end, it is a hard novel to describe, in an admirably concise 230 pages Aldiss covers politics, the military, the media, immigration, the European Union, the illusion of romantic love, the value of art, the absurdity of our notions of importance as a species, the absurdity of our notions of personal importance, many things, certainly more than I have covered here. He hits his targets well, the book is often funny, it offers no solutions and indeed strongly implies that there are none to be found. We are absurd, we are not really conscious or wise despite our beliefs to the contrary, we are painfully limited and only dimly aware of our limitations. But we are, at least, funny. At the end we have to laugh, even though it is laughter in the dark.

While writing this blog entry, I came across a comment by Aldiss on this novel taken from an online interview, he said:

“As for writing style — that is something that gets forged by practice. Diversification is the name of the game. In [my latest novel] Super-State, I have taken what for me is a new approach to story-telling. That is to say, I have subsumed the narrative into disparate episodes, some serious and many witty or satirical. By this means, I am able to convey a bigger overall picture, and ask “What’s happening in the world?” This is what concerns me at present, with so much change in process. Science fiction is the new old business of holding a mirror to nature!”

And that is what I think this book is about. Aldiss is holding a mirror up to our nature, and while the image we see is ludicrous, it is not unfortunately distorted.

http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/WEBSITE/WWW/WEBPAGES/showbook.php?id=1841492116

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Filed under Aldiss, Brian, Comic Fiction, Science Fiction