Category Archives: Personal canon

Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust

Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust, translated by Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enright

Where does one start? During the last few weeks my reading has been disrupted by a burst water main, various home repairs, a bout of minor illness and of course by work. I started Within a Budding Grove during a long weekend where I thought I’d have uninterrupted time to enjoy it. I wasn’t so fortunate. In fact there were times in which a week would pass and I wasn’t able to read a single page.

It’s lucky then that Within a Budding Grove is a masterpiece. It’s lucky that Proust is an extraordinary writer. Without the sheer quality of the book I’d have had to abandon it part way through (which I have done once before). As it was though each time I dipped into it I was refreshed by it. That sounds trite, but the truth sometimes is.

I wrote about the first volume of In Search of Lost Time here. In this volume the narrator discovers girls. That may not sound like a lot with which to fill over 600 pages. Proust joins it though with the exploration of art, the gap between dream and reality, a superb portrait of upper-middle class Parisian life in the late 19th Century, a healthy dollop of satire, and with a thousand other things some of which I’m sure I missed.

Besides, as anyone who has been through adolescence knows, the discovery of sex could fill 6,000 pages. The miracle of Proust is that he finds new things to say about what must be the oldest of subjects.

I’ll turn to the plot, such as it is, in a moment. First though I wanted to note something which is becoming increasingly obvious to me. Reading Proust is inescapably personal. As I read I remembered incidents from my own life. It made me think about how I had felt in adolescence and about my small disappointments. It made me think about some of the ways I act. Proust tells a story, and he tells it well, but he also holds a mirror up to me as a reader and that for me takes his work beyond the merely good. This is great art. I’ll come back to what I mean by that.

Within a Budding Grove (in the French, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) is in two parts. In the first the narrator, in his early 20s but by modern standards emotionally much younger, falls in love with Gilberte who does not appear to love him in return. She is the daughter of Swann and Odette, whose story was told in the first volume. Gilberte is pretty and the narrator is obsessed with her but the reality is that he is in love with being in love. This is infatuation, fevered and intense. Here they mock-fight over a letter:

She thrust it behind her back; I put my arms round her neck, raising the plaits of hair which she wore over her shoulders, either because she was still of an age for it or because her mother chose to make her look a child for a little longer so as to make herself seem younger; and we wrestled, locked together. I tried to pull her towards me, and she resisted; her cheeks, inflamed by the effort, were as red and round as two cherries; she laughed as though I were tickling her; I held her gripped between my legs like a young tree which I was trying to climb; and, in the middle of my gymnastics, when I was already out of breath with the muscular exercise and the heat of the game, I felt, like a few drops of sweat wrung from me by the effort, my pleasure express itself in a form which I could not even pause for a moment to analyse; immediately I snatched the letter from her. Whereupon, Gilberte said good-naturedly: “You know, if you like, we might go on wrestling a bit longer.”

The narrator is emerging from childhood in other ways beyond the sexual. He starts to appear in society in his own right. He has his own income and is beginning to form his own ambitions.

As he is gaining independence, the narrator starts to realise some of his earlier goals. He attends the theatre and sees the famous actress Berma perform. He has dreamed of her for years. He has memorised the plays she is most famous for. When she appears in a revival of a play he already knows by heart he is so excited at having a ticket he is almost unable to attend, sick from anticipation.

The performance is a disappointment. Nothing can live up to the expectations the narrator has formed. Similarly when he meets the writer Bergotte, a major influence on the narrator’s idea of his own style, he finds him not at all what he expected. Bergotte doesn’t even look like a writer. Despite this and despite some discouraging remarks from an influential friend of his father’s the narrator still determines to become a writer himself. He loves writing as he loves Gilberte, not the reality of the thing loved but the dream of it.

Everything here is beautifully observed, and often extremely funny. Proust is at home describing a tea party as he is the uncertainty of wondering whether a friendship could be something more. He is as comfortable examining theories of art as which homes will open their doors to Mme. Swann and which will not. A passage where the narrator accompanies Mme. Swann and her entourage on her daily stroll is too long to quote here, but a marvel of description. In her blog Book Around the Corner described Proust as “the Monet of literature: small touches which, seen as a whole, are as vivid as life and move deeply the reader.” That’s spot on. Take this little vignette:

The wife of an elderly banker, after hesitating between various possible exposures for her husband, had settled him in a deck-chair facing the esplanade, sheltered from wind and sun by the bandstand. Having seen him comfortably installed there, she had gone to buy a newspaper which she would read aloud to him by way of diversion, one of her little absences which she never prolonged for more than five minutes, which seemed to her quite long enough but which she repeated at fairly frequent intervals so that this old husband on whom she lavished an attention that she took care to conceal should have the impression that he was still quite alive and like other people and was in no need of protection.

There is so much of love in that passing description of a minor character; one who barely recurs in the narrative. On a different note here’s an example of one of Proust’s many asides. I liked it for its continuing relevance. Proust writes about a very particular time and place, but his comments are frequently universal.

… whenever society is momentarily stationary, the people who live in it imagine that no further change will occur, just as, in spite of having witnessed the birth of the telephone, they decline to believe in the aeroplane. Meanwhile the philosophers of journalism are at work castigating the preceding epoch, and not only the kind of pleasures in which it indulged, which seem to them to be the last word in corruption, but even the work of its artists and philosophers, which have no longer the least value in their eyes, as though they were indissolubly linked to the successive moods of fashionable frivolity. The one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been “great changes.”

In the second part of this volume the narrator goes on holiday to the seaside, to Balbec. There, after some disappointment when he sees the famously beautiful local church which fails to live up to his imagining of it, he is dropped into the stiffly social world of his hotel.

The hotel is Paris in miniature; divided by class and money. The upper classes ignore the middle. The middle form exclusive little social circles within themselves and pretend that they did not wish to attend the salons of the upper classes (to which they were not invited). The staff show differing levels of deference according to their perception of the station of those they serve. The poor press against the windows at night, looking in on a world full of distinctions they cannot see and a luxury they cannot attain.

Like any extended summer holiday of youth, nothing really happens but it happens intensely. At first the narrator is unhappy and homesick. Later he makes a new friend and reencounters an older one, Bloch.

Bloch is another beautifully observed character. He is more worldly than the narrator (Bloch takes him to his first whorehouse, where the narrator loses his virginity), but less socially adept. Bloch is a good friend, but not a flawless one.

Bloch is Jewish. The narrator is not. The narrator thinks nothing of this difference, but others do and through their reactions and comments Proust makes apparent the casual and widespread anti-Semitism running through French life of this period. It’s a theme I understand the next book develops further.

The narrator falls in love with every girl he sees. The less he sees of her in fact, the more he falls in love. A glimpse of a woman from a moving carriage lets him fill in what he can’t see with imagination.

Let but a single flash of reality – the glimpse of a woman from afar or from behind – enable us to project the image of Beauty before our eyes, and we imagine that we have recognised it, our hearts beat, and we will always remain half-persuaded that it was She, provided that the woman has vanished: it is only if we manage to overtake her that we realise our mistake.

I noted that quote, but there’s several on this theme. It’s that constant thread of imagination against reality. The dream of Berma, of Bergotte, of the Balbec church and of every passing farmgirl is the same dream. It’s the dream of the perfect other which once encountered will give meaning and beauty and comfort.

The narrator daydreams of running off with a girl who sells fresh milk to train passengers at a crossing. He hopes to meet some willing country girl who will let him explore her inner self, and he convinces himself that what he wants is not just physical (not just).

I know how he feels. I spent much of my own life stunned by the beauty of women I hadn’t properly seen. At the narrator’s age I would routinely see someone, partly, from the top floor of a bus or across a tube platform and be desperate to meet them. The few occasions I did then run into them they rarely looked much like the image I had formed. My brain took a scant few details and filled in the rest from desire. I conjured futures from an arm downed with light brown hair; from the curve of a hip.

I said Proust was personal.

As he spends his days by the sea the narrator gets slowly drawn into the world of the hotel, and of Balbec. Social doors open for him and opportunities beckon. Then, however, he sees walking alongside the beach a band of girls. They are young, confident, beautiful. They look liberated and rebellious. If he could only meet them then surely one of them, it scarcely matters which, would be as interested in him as he is in them.

… the interplay of their eyes, animated with self-assurance and the spirit of comradeship and lit up from one moment to the next either by the interest or the insolent indifference which shone from each of them according to whether her glance was directed at her friends or at passers-by, together with the consciousness of knowing one another intimately enough always to go about together in an exclusive “gang,” established between their independent and separate bodies, as they slowly advanced, an invisible but harmonious bond, like a single warm shadow, a single atmosphere, making of them a whole as homogenous in its parts as it was different from the crowd through which their procession gradually wound.

He spends days waiting where they walk in the hope of casually running into them. He avoids expeditions with his grandmother (whom, with the easy resentment of adolescence, he treats at times quite badly though he still loves her profoundly), because he fears missing them. He gives huge thought to deducing the patterns of their appearances so he can put himself in their path.

At school I would walk a mile out of my way to talk to a girl I liked, pretending I happened to be going the same way regardless of the inconvenience. I doubt I was alone in that. The level of unnecessary invention at that age is staggering.

What’s wonderful here is the intensity of it all. All the emotions are raw; the friendships and the loves. A passed note holds unbearable significance. A brief touch of the hand has more meaning read into it than a thousand scholars could discover in a thousand obscure texts. The narrator meets an artist (I’ll have a separate post about that hopefully later this month) whose work affects him profoundly but it means nothing against the chance of meeting Albertine, one of the band of girls who finally takes note of him.

I said earlier that this is great art, and that I would expand on that comment. Proust has a daunting reputation. The full six volume work is huge, it lacks chapters and each volume represents hundreds of pages of introspection, digressions on art and psychology, and detailed social comment. It doesn’t look like an easy read. It isn’t particularly.

Proust isn’t though a difficult read either. Yes, it’s dense stuff and yes it needs a bit of attention (the more it gets the more it repays), but it’s incredibly well written and that makes it easier to keep going than you’d expect. It’s often very funny and a joke is rarely that far away.

This is an extraordinarily honest book. It’s an utterly unflinching examination of a life and because while we are none of us alike we are none of us so utterly different either it’s hard not to find parts of one’s own life in that life. It’s a portrait painted with immense skill but also with compassion and wit. It’s a world entire, as we all are.

Proust addresses questions of life, of art, of literature and of mortality. I’ve barely touched here on a fraction of what this book contains. Bookaroundthecorner wrote three excellent blog posts on this volume alone, here, here and here. I haven’t even discussed M. de Norpois whom bookaround rightly focuses on in one of her posts.

If I had one message I’d want anyone reading this to take away it’s this: yes, this is challenging, but it is absolutely worth it. Put the time aside, ignore your overflowing drains, your racking cough and the press of emails and push yourself a little. It won’t be work. It’s not the book to read when you feel like a bit of light escapism, but with just a little dedication it gives back far more than it asks. It’s brilliant and I feel such frustration that I can write so much and still have managed to capture so little about quite how wonderful it is.


Filed under French, Modernist fiction, Personal canon, Proust, Marcel

Oh God, I’m going to think, don’t let me think.

La Grosse Fifi, by Jean Rhys

A little while back I wrote a post about my personal canon as it stands today. It was a list of authors whose work particularly resonates with me. I wrote the post on a particular day and the result was a particular list. Another day might have produced a different one. Whichever day I’d written it though it was always a certainty that Jean Rhys’s name would be there.

As I write this the Man Booker International Prize has been in the news. Philip Roth won, which led to one judge quitting the panel in part on the rather odd basis that Roth writes the same novel time and again. I haven’t read Roth yet so I don’t know if he does, but if he does what of it? Many, many highly regarded authors mine the same territory for their entire careers. That fact alone says nothing of their work’s quality.

Jean Rhys has her territory. Hers is the landscape of women not quite doing ok. Her characters are outsiders looking in on a world that doesn’t particularly understand them and doesn’t particularly want to. Men are unreliable and other women offer little support. It’s a lonely world and one in which the existence of a woman on her own can be extremely precarious.

Penguin Modern Classics recently brought out a series of pocket editions in its modern classics range. Each one has a few short stories by an author, or a short novella. La Grosse Fifi features four stories excerpted from Rhys’s 1927 collection The Left Bank and Other Stories and it’s a nice little introduction to Rhys’s style. If you already like Rhys, you’ll like this. If you don’t know her this is a pretty good place to start.

The title story, La Grosse Fifi, is classic Rhys. The narrator, Roseau, is an Englishwoman staying on her own in a questionable hotel in France. She becomes interested in another guest, Fifi, and forms a sort of friendship with her.

Fifi […] was stout, well corseted – her stomach carefully arranged to form part of her chest. Her hat was large and worn with a rakish sideways slant, her rouge shrieked, and the lids of her protruding eyes were painted bright blue. She wore very long silver earrings; nevertheless her face looked huge – vast, and her voice was hoarse though there was nothing but Vichy water in her glass.
Her small, plump hands were covered with rings, her small, plump feet encased in very high-heeled, patent-leather shoes.

Fifi is not the sort of woman a well bred English girl should be seen with. She’s fat, vulgar, worse yet she is accompanied by a gigolo to whom she is devoted but who like Fifi is both a bit seedy and a bit absurd. Roseau herself though is not entirely the right sort of woman. She says the wrong sort of thing, stays in the wrong sort of place, she’s interesting but perhaps a little too interesting.

‘He’s running off to tell his wife how right she was about me,’ thought Roseau, watching him. ‘How rum some English people are! They ask to be shocked and long to be shocked and hope to be shocked, but if you really shock them … how shocked they are!’

(The ellipses there are in the original text.)

Things rarely go well for women in Rhys’s world. A choice must be made between freedom and respectability. Respectability though is money too. A woman might live as she chooses, but without a husband she will struggle to survive and dependable husbands do not marry undependable women. Fifi is tragic and her love affair with her gigolo slightly pathetic but as Roseau recognises Fifi is also a woman leading her own life on her own terms. Others laugh at her, but Roseau does not.

For God knows, if there’s one hypocrisy I loathe more than another, it’s the fiction of the ‘good’ woman and the ‘bad’ one.

If there’s any quote that summarises Rhys for me it’s that one.

La Grosse Fifi is a strong tale shot through with compassion. The last two, Tea with an Artist and Mixing Cocktails are much shorter mood pieces. Effective enough but limited in their scope. The other story in the collection though is Vienne and that’s worth the price of admission on its own.

In Vienne a young woman is in Vienna with her husband. He plays the currency exchanges and they spend their evenings among the well off and the women who accompany them. Her husband has money, but they came from poverty and she fears they could easily return to it. She loves him, but are his sure investments as sure as he thinks they are? As she reflects “Lovely food. Poverty gone, the dread of it – going.”

Vienne is a dazzling tale. It captures a between-the-wars Vienna caught in a fever dream of money and sex. Most women in the story are dancers who sleep with the rich men who attend their shows; not prostitutes, quite, but not romantics either. Those women are free but depend on men, and when their looks go the men and the money will too. Their best bet is to marry one before their looks fade and hope they’ve made the right choice.

The narrator isn’t a dancer, but her position isn’t that different. Her existence is precarious. Her happiness dependent on her husband’s success. She’s married while she still has her looks. She’s in love. She hopes she made the right choices.

Few authors capture the fear of poverty like Rhys does. I grew up poor myself, my mother and step-father unemployed in a council estate in a grim part of London. It’s impossible really to explain to those who haven’t left a place like that how strong the desire is never to go back to it. Impossible for me anyway. Rhys manages. This is a long quote, but the clarity of Rhys’s gaze makes it well worth setting out in full.

We dined in a little corner of the restaurant.
At the same table a few days before we came, a Russian girl twenty-four years of age had shot herself.
With her last money she had a decent meal and then bang! Out –
And I made up my mind if it ever came to it I should do it too.
Not to be poor again. No and No and No.
So darned easy to plan that – and always at the last moment – one is afraid. Or cheats oneself with hope.
I can still do this and this. I can still clutch at that or that.
So-and-So will help me.
How you fight, cleverly and well at first, then more wildly, then hysterically.
I can’t go down, I won’t go down. Help me, help me!
Steady – I must be clever – So-and-So will help.
But So-and-So smiles a worldly smile.
You get nervous. He doesn’t understand. I’ll make him –
But So-and-So’s eyes grow cold. You plead.
Can’t you help me, won’t you, please? It’s like this and this –
So-and-So becomes uncomfortable, obstinate.
No good.
I mustn’t cry. I won’t cry.
And that time you don’t. You manage to keep your head up, a smile on your face.
So-and-So is vastly relieved. So relieved that he offers at once the little help that is a mockery, and the consoling compliment.
In the taxi still you don’t cry.
You’ve thought of someone else.
But at the fifth or sixth disappointment you cry more easily.
After the tenth you give it up. You are broken – no nerves left.
And every second-rate fool can have their cheap little triumph over you – judge you with their little middle-class judgement.
Can’t do anything for them. No good.
C’est rien – c’est une femme quie se noie!
But two years, three years afterwards. Salut to you, little Russian girl, who had pluck enough and knowledge of the world enough, to finish when your good time was over.

There is a problem with this collection. Rhys wrote assuming a certain kind of audience with a certain kind of education. Characters often break into French, and it’s not translated. If you don’t have at least a memory of school French then there are bits here you’ll just plain struggle with. You need at least a passing familiarity with the language.

My French is weak but managed just well enough that I could follow what was happening and being said. If you’ve none at all that will be an issue. In Vienne it’s worse because Rhys also expects a very basic understanding of German. I really do mean very basic, a handful of words would be fine, but I don’t have any German at all and that meant I had to guess meanings a couple of times and at one key point had to ask my wife to translate a particularly key word.

Perhaps ironically given Rhys assumes a certain level of fluency in the reader Rhys herself gets it badly wrong with the names of some of the characters in Vienne. That story features a number of Japanese investors present in the city, and their names are pretty obviously made up to sound Japanese-ish or are Japanese words that sound about right (one is called Shogun of all things). I appreciate that Rhys couldn’t (as a contemporary writer could) just google some actual Japanese names but it is jarring.

In the end though it’s not the problems I had with languages that stick with me, or Rhys’s problems with Japanese names. It’s these women hoping for the best and knowing they’re not going to get it. Rhys is an extraordinary stylist. She captures an inner world which doesn’t change much story to story, novel to novel. It’s probably her inner world (Vienne seems very close to some real events in Rhys’s life). She’s writing the same thing over and over. But she writes it beautifully. Novelty and literary merit have very little to do with each other.


Filed under Modernist fiction, Personal canon, Rhys, Jean, Short stories

Personal canons (2)

This wasn’t an easy post to write. When the idea of a personal canon was first suggested to me I thought it would be straightforward to work out what mine was. I was wrong. More than that though the task raised questions for me about what I read and the choices I make.

What first struck me is how much my idea of canon has changed over the years. That’s why I decided to have two posts: one of my canon as was and one of it as is.

That first post proved quite fun. I’d forgotten that even as a teenager I’d mixed genre fiction with literary (though the proportions then and now are very different). There was an undeniable nostalgia in remembering writers most of whom I wouldn’t read today but who I do still have a place in my heart for.

This post though? This post raised questions. I expected to put it up about a week after the first. In fact it’s over a month. I’ll talk about why that was shortly, but first…

The list

Here’s my current personal and utterly subjective canon:

J.G. Ballard
Raymond Chandler
Gustave Flaubert
Patrick Hamilton
Stanislaw Lem
H.P. Lovecraft
Vladimir Nabokov
Marcel Proust
Thomas Pynchon
Ann Quin
Jean Rhys
Joseph Roth
Damon Runyon
Arthur Schnitzler
Edith Wharton

The survivors

The three survivors from my previous list, to save the need to check back, are Chandler, Lovecraft and Runyon. Chandler because he remains the king of hardboiled and shows that genre writing needn’t be bad writing; Lovecraft because I still get a thrill from his best tales even though I’ve read them many, many times; and Runyon because he is just a tremendously good writer with a style so accessible it makes it easy to miss how much skill it takes.

Lem should really have been on the last list. He just got missed. He’s a Polish SF writer of remarkable skill most famous for writing the book Solaris (which became a film by Tarkovsky and was later remade by Soderbergh).

Lem wrote SF unlike any other I’d read then (or indeed since). In one story a spaceship at the edge of the solar system sees an ancient alien ship, humanity’s first proof of life beyond the Earth. The crew however are drunk and costcutting means that the ship’s recording equipment is out of order. In another story a signal is picked up from space, but nobody can agree whether it is alien or natural in origin. His work is full of complex considerations of faith, of the knowability of the universe, human fallibility and a great deal of black humour.

In case it’s unclear Lem is one of those few SF writers that I regard as also being a literary writer. Interestingly he had little regard for for SF as a genre, viewing it as generally poorly written and unambitious in terms of language and form. He rated Philip K Dick but sadly it wasn’t reciprocated and Dick denounced him to the FBI claiming that Lem was in fact a Soviet collective masquerading as a single writer with a view to bringing down American SF.

The new canon

I’ve been lucky with Ballard. He has a tendency to write the same books over and over. I’ve skipped enough of his output that each book of his I’ve read was fresh and interesting, and not as others have complained a tired retread of the immediately preceding novel.

Ballard is an author whose success is at the level of the overall work. He’s not a naturalistic writer – few of his dystopic visions are particularly likely in terms of their own facts. He is however a writer who captures a profound sense of quotidian brutality and of the savagery lurking beneath the surface of urban civilisation.

Over at The Asylum John Self has mentioned that he’s found Ballard’s work slightly boring (as damaging a criticism as any I can imagine). I can see that, but it’s never been my experience. I don’t read Ballard for the prose. I read Ballard for the imaginative impact and I think his recognition is well deserved.

Sticking to comments by John Self, he once wrote that Hamilton was not a major writer but that he was an excellent minor one. I don’t quite think in terms of major and minor, but I know what he means.

For me Hamilton is a master at drawing out a world of now largely lost Englishness. His is an England of seedy pubs, down-at-heels boarding houses with overinquisitive landladies, the drone of fascist sympathisers holding forth to a captive audience over a G-and-T. It’s territory Julian Maclaren-Ross knew well too of course.

Hamilton has had something of a revival in recent years and for me it’s very well deserved. Through him I was introduced to Jean Rhys whom I adore and to other lost English writers like Gerald Kersh. That’s one of the tests for who gets on my list – did they broaden my reading? Did they push me forward? Hamilton did.

Sticking with the Brits for a moment I’ll turn to Ann Quin. I was introduced to Quin by Lee Rourke (author of The Canal). I’ve only read one novel by her, Berg, and I’m not quite sure if it entirely merits being included in this post. It’s good, there’s no question for me about that, but I’m not sure it’s a masterpiece. I’m not sure it’s not though either which I find interesting.

Regardless of the status of Berg itself (a mesmerising mix of modernism, English seaside humour and Ortonesque black farce) what’s undeniable is that like Hamilton Quin pushed my reading forward. After Berg I found myself wanting to explore different kinds of books. I wanted more challenge and less reliance on straighforward narrative tools. Quin made me think about what fiction can do, and that on its own justifies her place on this list.

Jean Rhys is an easy inclusion. The image I have when I think of a Jean Rhys novel is of a woman sitting alone in a bar nursing a drink while the other patrons glance over, disapprovingly.

Rhys’s work captures isolation, longing, the marginalisation of women (often by other women) and a host of other profoundly difficult emotions. In terms of language and structure I think she’s exceptional, but hard to pin down. With some writers I can say why they’re good. With Rhys it’s more that I just see that she is.

Moving on, Wharton makes her way onto the list because of the sheer precision and quality of her prose and structure. I’ve read just one Wharton, which is troubling because The Age of Innocence is a masterpiece and it begs the question why I’ve not read more. I’ll come back to that question.

Nabokov, Flaubert and Proust need no explanation.

I’m a recent convert to Pynchon. For me he’s a quintessentially American author. His work (such as I’ve read of it) bubbles with a seemingly undisciplined mass of ideas, characters, riffs and diversions. It’s intoxicating, and for many alienating, stuff. Pynchon isn’t an easy read by any means but he’s pushing form and ideas in the way I think Lem would have liked science fiction to do (I wonder if Lem would have liked David Mitchell? Possibly…).

Pynchon makes me work. When I read him I wallow in uncertainty and am lost. It’s only with hindsight I can make some sense of the territory, and that shifting and ambiguous. On top of that the mix of high philosophy and low culture is one that with my joint loves of literature and pulp I can’t really help but respond to.

That just leaves Joseph Roth and Arthur Schnitzler. I’ve read over the last couple of years a lot of early 20th Century Central European fiction. Zweig, Weiss, Musil, Kosztolanyi and of course Roth and Schnitzler. For me that body of work is among the best literature has produced.

These writers were adept both at the level of the sentence and the novel. They were concerned with acute psychological insight. Freud, whom I have little regard for ironically, is a major influence as is the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. They wrote at a time when the world was in flux and the human psyche seemed finally to be revealing its secrets.

What they also have in common of course is that most of them, one way or another, were killed by the Nazis. Thankfully their work survived and thanks to publishers like Pushkin Press it’s now available again.

Joseph Roth is a superb writer. Had he written in the English language I have no doubt he’d be widely recognised as one of the world’s greats. Sadly many literary readers aren’t open to reading literature in translation. Schnitzler has a more psychological focus than Roth and at his best shows a remarkably subtle insight. I like Zweig, but for me Schnitzler covers the same territory and does so ultimately with greater skill.

The conclusion

I mentioned earlier that writing this post raised questions for me. That’s because what became apparent as I was thinking about what might make up my present day canon was that in many cases the writers I rate highest I haven’t actually read that much of. I’ve read one Wharton. I was so impressed by it that she remains notionally among my favourite writers. A favourite writer though that I’ve read nothing else by.

The works that most excite me tend to be either modernist/experimentalist ones or pre-war Central European fiction. Why then haven’t I read more of them? Why haven’t I read The Unfortunates yet? Why is there so much Roth left for me to read? Why haven’t I tried Marai?

Those are tough questions. Partly of course the answer is that like most of us I have a range of interests and limited time. It’s hardly surprising that there are gaps in my reading. Partly though it’s because I hadn’t been through this exercise.

What strikes me about my list is that I like small books that push boundaries. I like complexity and challenge (like most book bloggers I imagine). I also like Robert E. Howard but nobody’s wholly consistent.

Thinking about this post caused me to reevaluate my reading habits. I’m interested to hear what writers like Amis, McEwan, Franzen and so on are up to but none of them are on my list nor are any writers much like them. That’s not my territory. It’s not what best speaks to me.

Where that leaves me is with a fresh desire to engage with modernism and its descendants. The novel is more than omniscient narrators telling chronologically bound stories. That’s not knocking that form (Madame Bovary is just such a novel and is as good as fiction gets) but there’s a lot more out there.

Equally, I want to read more of those authors I truly rate. If I haven’t read enough Joseph Roth, enough Wharton, enough Flaubert then the fault is mine. Nobody is preventing me.

As a final note, there were for me some odd omissions. I suspect if I get properly engaged with it classic Russian literature will contribute a great many names (Lermontov springs to mind for a start – but if I read more Russian fiction what do I pass up on?).

Given how much of it I’ve read I was also a little surprised that there wasn’t any Japanese literature (still, ask me on another day and perhaps there would have been). That may change when I get to the Makioka Sisters as Tanizaki only got left off at the last moment.

Equally, Berger and Salter should probably both be on the list. I only realised they weren’t on finishing this post. Their absence shows how partial any list of this kind must be.

On the whole though the list made sense to me. What didn’t was how many of them I hadn’t read that much by.

In the end the utility of this exercise for me is that it’s caused me to think. I like to pick books almost at whim – I finish one and read something similar or something in complete contrast. That’s worked well for me, but I have to wonder whether it’s also leading to my preferring range to depth and whether I might not be better served by a little more depth.

For anyone who’s made it this far through what is ultimately a deeply self-indulgent post, are there any writers you’d suggest I read? Since finishing the list I’ve bought some Beckett, McCarthy’s Men in Space, some Josopovici, Burn’s Pocket Money, Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing. If you’ve read through all the above, are there other books or authors that I should be paying more attention to than perhaps I am?


Filed under Personal canon, Personal posts

V, by this time was a remarkably scattered concept.

V, by Thomas Pynchon

V is a confusing novel. It’s a dense near-500 pager which ranges across continents, decades and an awful lot of characters. It has at least two main plot strands, but plot here is a generous term. It’s rich with symbolism, references and outright puns only a fraction of which I expect I got. That’s ok though, even Pynchon probably doesn’t get all of them.

Where to start? Probably where Pynchon does – with demobbed sailer Benny Profane. Profane’s a schlemihl and human yo-yo who falls in with the Whole Sick Crew in 1950s New York and through them with Schoenmaker (beauty-maker) the plastic surgeon, Dudley Eigenvalue the soul dentist and perhaps most importantly Herbert Stencil who is on a quest to track down V.

Profane’s chapters intertwine with the story of Stencil’s quest for V and the narrative soars back and forth in time between Profane’s exploits in the novel’s now and the history of V as discovered and interpreted by Stencil. Put that way it sounds almost straightforward. It’s Pynchon. Nothing is straightforward.

The obvious question is this: who or what is V? Is V a place, a person, a condition? For me V is the questing beast and Stencil its Pellinore, but your V, and his, may be very different.

As spread thighs are to the libertine, flights of migratory birds to the ornithologist, the working part of his tool bit to the production machinist, so was the letter V to young Stencil. He would dream perhaps once a week that it had all been a dream, and that now he’d awakened to discover the pursuit of V. was merely a scholarly quest after all, an adventure of the mind, in the tradition of The Golden Bough or The White Goddess.

But soon enough he’d wake up the second, real time, to make again the tiresome discovery that it hadn’t really ever stopped being the same simple-minded, literal pursuit; V. ambiguously a beast of venery, chased like the hart, hind or hare, chased like an obsolete, or bizarre, or forbidden form of sexua delight. And clownish Stencil capering along behind her, bells ajingle, waving a wooden, toy oxgoad. For no one’s amusement but is own.

I felt terribly clever when I thought of that questing beast analogy. Mostly I felt clever because I read that passage shortly after thinking of it and it seemed confirmatory. I had cracked Pynchon!

My triumph was short lived, though for me that remains a core metaphor. Before too long what had seemed to make sense no longer did. I could see tracks, but only dimly. I was confused and increasingly lost. I was Pellinore.

V is an incredibly confusing novel. It is full of lengthy digressions which may well be relevant, but to what isn’t always clear.

Profane hunts alligators in the sewers with a shotgun and learns of a priest who went mad and set up a ministry to rats (including the voluptuous Veronica) among the tunnels. In the 19th Century an English explorer despairs after perhaps seeing the horrors of Vheissu. But what is Vheissu? A hidden kingdom that only he knows the location of? A code name as some believe for Venezuela, or for Vesuvius? A young woman named Victoria gets drawn into a web of conspiracy and espionage with Vheissu at its centre but does Vheissu even exist or are the agents of the various powers each seeing shadows on the cave wall with nothing to cast them?

There are art heists in Florence and revolutionaries arrested for the wrong revolution, there is chaos and intrigue and death. The Stencil chapters form a sort of overview of the horrors of the 20th Century and the patterns and events giving birth to them, but with one notable omission that I’ll return to.

Profane’s adventures, at least at first, appear to belong to a different novel. He careens through New York with his old Navy buddy Pig Bodine, the beautiful Rachel Owlglass and a host of others. As the novel continues the Stencil and Profane chapters start to come together (forming yet another V within the novel’s structure itself) but at risk of writing a spoiler this isn’t one of those books with a great aha! at the end making sense of all that went before.

Several themes run through the novel. The conflict between the animate and the inanimate is a key one. Profane, a schlemihl, is forever at war with the inanimate world. It seems perpetually to frustrate him – devices fail, objects protrude in his path, but ultimately we are all schlemihls because the truth is that the inanimate is indifferent to us and so frustrates our ambitions without even the kindness of enmity. A bus’s brakes fail and a dozen people die – colliding with the unthinking obstinacy of the inanimate.

The quest for V is in part a quest for logic, for reason in a world that ultimately is reasonless. Stencil’s father is one of the spies involved in V’s earlier history and he has a theory of “the Situation”. A circumstance where various factors outside our control combine to create chaos and destructive change. The Situation is shaped by the heat a crowd face as they pour out of their homes to protest a hated law. Is there a cooling breeze? Is there moonlight to see by? Historians will later find human causes for whatever happened, but the truth is blinder.

The conflict between the animate and the inanimate is one sided. The inanimate merely is. It has no agenda. We, being the creatures that we are, impose meaning on a universe conspicuously lacking it.

Living as be does much of the time in a world of metaphor, the poet is always acutely conscious that metaphor has no value apart from its function; that it is a device, an artifice. So that while others may look on the laws of physics as legislation and God as a human form with beard measured in light-years and nebulae for sandals, Fausto’s kind are alone with the task of living in a universe of things which simply are, and cloaking that innate mindlessness with comfortable and pious metaphor so that the “practical” half of humanity may continue in the Great Lie, confident that their machines, dwellings, streets and weather share the same human motives, personal traits and fits of contrariness as they.

Poets have been at this for centuries. It is the only useful purpose they do serve in society: and if every poet were to vanish tomorrow, society would live no longer than the quick memories and dead books of their poetry.

It’s not all serious. There’s a lot of humour in this book. At times it’s downright farcical though the absurd is rarely far from the tragic. On a page by page basis it’s a very easy read and if I had one tip for approaching it then it would be that. Just read it. Don’t worry about what it means or about what’s really going on. Relax. You’re not going to find V so you may as well just enjoy the journey.

For all the comedy though and the constant in-jokes and puns at the heart of the book is horror. Stencil’s search brings him to the story of Mondaugen – a German in South-West Africa in 1922. A rebellion is feared among the local populace and he holes up in a plantation surrounded by ravines -an impregnable castle against the Red Death stalking the land outside. As the days pass the occupants fall into the decadence of an endless party and the recreation in small scale of the aftermath of a previous uprising in 1904.

The Herero rebellion of 1904 saw what may be the 20th Century’s first genocide. A german general, von Trotha, sought to extinguish the Herero people entirely. All were to be killed, women and children included. The Germans made use of concentration camps, death marches, carried out medical experiments on prisoners, and became obsessed with the threat the Herero presented to German racial purity. One of the scientists involved later became Chancellor of Berlin University where he taught a student named Mengele.

I mentioned earlier a notable omission in this book. That omission is the Holocaust. The Mondaugen chapter explores, in frankly difficult to read detail, a conflict now forgotten which looks all too much like a dry run for what came later.

We remember the Holocaust, but in the West at least not what happened to the Herero people. Even in the face of absolute horror we create narratives and impose a pattern, a beginning and end, to events which may not be anything so tidy. History itself is a form of narrative. To make any sense of what happens we have to choose a point where it starts to happen. In doing so though we obscure as well as illuminate. The same is true for where we choose to say something ended.

We can say the Final Solution started on January 20, 1942, and that’s true and sheds light on what happened. We could say too though that it started in 1904 and that has a degree of truth also. Truth is another narrative, but truth is also millions of brutal murders. There is the logic we find in events, but also the irrevocability of the events themselves which remain the same however we interpret them.

Pynchon later came to see his equation here of the Herero genocide and the Holocaust as superficial and there’s perhaps some truth to that. Even so, he does manage to use that earlier slaughter to cast light on the later one, and that I think has merit.

I’ve talked about the imposition of narrative on history, about the human desire for meaning where really there is none and about the attempt to grapple with the Holocaust. All that is present but I could equally have picked other elements. Those themes are all present, but there’s plenty of others too.

I could have talked about the history of Kilroy and how Profane at one point becomes a human version – hanging off a rooftop with only his face and hands visible as he prepares to rob a dentist of a valuable set of antique dentures. There’s also the powerful theme of the animate incorporating elements of the inanimate – a whole article could be written (and probably has been) just about the symbolism of prostheses in this book from implanted tv remotes to glass eyes with horological designs.

I could have talked too about jazz. The whole novel is infused with the stuff even though it’s only referenced briefly. Pynchon has a core structure from which tangents fly out seemingly without reason, yet somehow manage to return to the central theme just when you thought it impossible. What’s that if not jazz? A book this dense has many interpretations. The only certainty is my failure to capture more than a fraction of them.

This is the second Pynchon I’ve read. To be blunt I thought The Crying of Lot 49 a better novel – tighter and better controlled. It’s not flawless, in particular like many great American authors Pynchon struggles with women whom he tends to reduce to plot elements rather than characters. Note this quote and its assumptions as to the reader’s gender:

Standing before his old door he knocked, though knowing from the sound of it (like we can tell from the buzz in the phone receiver whether or not she’s home) that inside was empty.

The key overall to reading V for me is to treat it like jazz. There’s no point trying to make it all fit into neat progression. All you can do is go with the flow and see where it takes you. In the end your impressions and the narrative you make from it is what’s there. The answers such as there are aren’t in the detail but the overall piece. The reader is in the position of the audience to jazzman McClintic Sphere:

He blew a hand-carved ivory alto saxophone with a 4-1/2 reed and the sound was like nothing any of them had heard before. The usual divisions prevailed: collegians did not dig, and left after an average of 1-1/2 sets. Personnel from other groups, either with a night off or taking a long break from somewhere crosstown or uptown, listened hard, trying to dig. “I am still thinking,” they would say if you asked. People at the bar all looked as if they did dig in the sense of understand, approve of, empathize with: but this was probably only because people who prefer to stand at the bar have, universally, an inscrutable look.

If you read this there’s a good chance you won’t dig and a good chance too that if you try too hard to dig you’ll end the evening still thinking (and that might get in the way of digging too). You’re best just standing at the bar and letting it wash over you. You might still not dig, but you’ll probably at least enjoy yourself along the way.


By way of postscript I originally had another title in mind for this piece. It’s McClintic’s life philosophy and in the face of an insensate universe it’s as good as any other I’ve come across.

“Keep cool but care.”


Filed under Personal canon, Pynchon, Thomas

Personal canons (1)

Recently I made a passing remark about how there wasn’t so much a literary canon as canons. A modernist canon; the capital C canon of US academia; the canons of Russian or French literature.

Guy Savage commented that what was important was one’s personal canon. That got me thinking. What is my personal canon?

I can say what my canon used to be. In my teens and twenties I read mostly sf and while some authors may have been demoted in memory I remember pretty well which ones I really rated back then.

My personal canon today would have little overlap with that earlier canon. My tastes have changed. Still, I thought rather than just post about what my canon is now I’d post about two canons: then and now (ignoring the many intermediate canons I must have had along the way). I’m going to do it in two posts and the second post will also talk a little about how and why my tastes changed.

The list

Back in the ’80s and ’90s if I’d had to list the authors I thought best and most important it would probably have looked a bit like this:

Greg Bear
Gregory Benford
William Burroughs
Raymond Chandler
Philip K. Dick
William Gibson
Joseph Heller
HP Lovecraft
Larry Niven
Damon Runyon
Robert Silverberg
Clifford D. Simak
Bruce Sterling
Jack Vance

Most of those are SF writers. Most of them were also independent of the particular book. My canon consisted of authors, not works.

The genre writers

Gibson and Sterling are of course the main creators of the cyberpunk genre (I’ve reviewed some Gibson’s here actually and still rate him, though he no longer gets onto my canon list unless I was doing an sf-specific one).

Benford, Bear and Niven were all hard-sf authors (though Niven isn’t hard sf by modern standards). Benford and Bear wrote rather physics-heavy works while Niven was fonder of slightly more space operatic stories. Benford is the only one of them I’d still read today (which is a comment on my tastes more than it is on them).

What those five authors had in common was a rigorous approach to logical worldbuilding. That was important to me then. I liked my sf to be serious and coherent. I looked down with the haughty condescension of the fan on what I regarded as lesser genres – soft sf in particular.

Silverberg was never really about coherent worldbuilding. His novels tended to be more offbeat and character driven. Dying Inside for example is about a man with telepathy who is coming to terms with his gift fading as he enters middle age. The Stochastic Man was about a man who develops the ability to see the future – a future which is as fixed and unchangeable as the past.

Simak was different again. He’s a writer I fear rereading in case I no longer love him. He wrote what was referred to as pastoral sf, a genre consisting mainly of him alone. His novels had a warmth and humanity in which the real subject was never science but us. For that reason his novels haven’t aged in the way Niven’s have. Niven’s science was the science of his day and much of it was wrong. Simak’s humanity is the same humanity we’ve always had.

Dick doesn’t need much introduction. His novels played with fractured realities and the nature of sanity and still hold up pretty well. He also wrote a lot of straightforward pulp sf which I actually rather enjoy but which is mostly brushed over by those seeking to promote his literary credentials. Still, if Banville can write crime why couldn’t Dick write Our Friends from Frolix 8?

Vance wrote fantasy novels so wittily crafted that they’d be my main refutation (alongside M John Harrison but I hadn’t read him back then) of those who regard that genre as fundamentally unliterary. It’s not – it’s just that the number of literary authors within fantasy is exceptionally low. Lovecraft’s weird horror tales remain one of the great loves of my life. One that in part I’d struggle to defend, but love is not love that’s wholly rational.

All of those sort of fit together. Hard sf; character driven sf; fantasy and horror. There’s four authors left on that list though. Burroughs, Chandler, Heller and Runyon.

The world beyond genre

My grandfather on my father’s side, Jim, introduced me to Runyon (and to many other authors). I haven’t read the stories in an age, but unlike Simak it’s not because I’m afraid they may not hold up to an adult eye. It’s because I read them so much that I still remember them with remarkable clarity.

Runyon wrote short stories about 1930s and ’40s Broadway. The stories are exceptionally funny, occasionally maudlin, and far better written than most people realise. He’s easy to imitate badly, but hard to copy. For me Runyon is a hugely underappreciated talent.

I’ve no idea how I encountered Chandler but I do remember his impact on me. The plots didn’t interest me nearly as much as those of the sf I read (probably because plot isn’t Chandler’s gift) but the language and attitude were a world away from the more distant worlds of writers like Niven or Silverberg. I read every novel Chandler had written and was astonished by the lucidity of their prose.

As for Heller, perhaps we did Catch-22 in school? I can’t think why else I’d have picked it up but it blew me away and still does. Structurally it’s fascinating. The chapters oscillate through time – always around the same fulcrum. Whatever happened to the Snowden’s of yesteryear? Yossarian can’t bear to think about the answer and nor can the novel, each time it comes close the next chapter veers away in time just as Yossarian’s mind does within the fiction. Extraordinary.

I went on to read Good as Gold and Something Happened, both of which I loved though not as much. What strikes me as odd now is that the Heller sat alongside the Simak and the Sterling. I think I saw the Heller as sui generis and my love of sf was so great that I just wasn’t that tempted to see what else there might be that had the kind of rewards the Heller offered.

That leaves me with Burroughs. I do remember how I encountered him. An English teacher gave me a copy of Naked Lunch and suggested that I try it. I found it difficult but rewarding and went on to read pretty much everything Burroughs wrote. I even read a fairly lengthy biography of him.

Burroughs led me to the other Beats. Ginsberg still speaks to me to this day. Kerouac perhaps less so. I read On the Road but I never loved it as much as I told everyone I did. I reread it a decade or so later and it was still more duty than passion.

I read other Beat writers, but I don’t now remember them. I wore turn-ups on my jeans and thought myself rather clever for having discovered them not realising that they’d never been lost. Secretly I enjoyed Martin Amis more, but his accessibility made him less cool (though in fact I only started reading Martin Amis because one of the cool kids casually mentioned that he was reading him).

So, that was my canon that was. If I took longer I’d think of more, but there’s limited value to that. Next post I’ll talk about my canon that is. Only three writers from the above list are still on it…


Filed under Personal canon, Personal posts

Even the dawn looked faded

Weights and Measures, by Joseph Roth

Once upon a time in the District of Zlotogrod there lived an Inspector of Weights and Measures whose name was Anselm Eibenschütz.

That’s the first sentence of Weights and Measures. Those first four words are among the most iconic in storytelling. Immediately they create a sense of distance but also of the fabulous. Here they are the precursors to a story about a local government inspector’s marital problems and his attraction to a local criminal’s woman. What could be fabulous in that?

Herr Eibenschütz, the inspector, is a former artilleryman who resigned his service in the army at the urgings of his wife.

He had married, as almost all long-serving non-commissioned officers are in the habit of doing. Ah, they are lonely, the long-serving non-commissioned officers! They see only men, nothing but men! The women they encounter flutter past them like swallows. They marry, the non-commissioned officers, to keep hold of at least one swallow, as it were.

I thought that the most beautiful of images. It shouldn’t really work as a paragraph. It contains a great deal of repetition (as do several other passages). Even so it does work. It reads like a fairy story; a fable. It captures a palpable sense of loneliness and the sheer need for another human being to call one’s own.

Eibenschütz sadly did not choose his swallow well. He was happy as an artilleryman and is less so as an inspector of weights and measures. He doesn’t even work for the central government as he is entitled by virtue of his old rank, but only for the local municipality. He takes his task seriously though and travels through the district accompanied by his imposing gendarme checking the honesty of the local traders and shopkeepers. It is unfortunate that they are all dishonest and that none of them has an accurate weight or measure save those they save for his visits. The old inspector was not so scrupulous in his duties.

Eibenschütz then is an honest man in a land of thieves. All are corrupt save him and this does not make him loved. At home things are little better. He captured his swallow, but not love.

For a long time now he had made a habit of going to sleep as soon as they climbed into bed at night, into the two beds pushed closely together, and he no longer spared a glance for her naked body as she undressed before the mirror, perhaps in the hope that he might desire her still. Sometimes she asked him, standing there naked, whether he loved her. She really meant whether he found her beautiful. ‘Yes, of course!’ he said and yielded to sleep, not least to escape the pangs of conscience which his lie might yet produce.

There’s an extraordinary air of melancholy to this book. It opens with Eibenschütz married. His happiness in the army and his loneliness at being without a companion are both already past. Much worse though than being alone is being with someone for whom you have no feeling. This is a book suffused with loneliness.

Soon Eibenschütz suspects his wife of having an affair. She seems too happy and too beautiful. Here only the illicit are ever happy. Rectitude has no rewards.

Suddenly, too, he saw how she had altered. A new, large, tortoise-shell comb held the knot of her thick dark-blue-gleaming hair together. Large golden earrings which she had not worn for a long time, earrings on which dangled tiny delicate golden discs, trembled on her earlobes. Her dark-brown countenance had recovered quite a youthful, indeed a maidenly, ruddy hue. One might say that she looked again as she had looked in the past, as a young girl, when he had first met her in Sarajevo, where her uncle, the master-at-arms, had invited her for the summer.

I won’t say too much more. Eibenschütz discovers the identity of his wife’s lover and and learns that she is pregnant by him (he realises when from nowhere she speaks of how good it would be for their marriage to have a child). His home is no longer welcoming. “Not even the cat would come up to him, as it had done in former times, and allow itself to be stroked.” In his sorrow he takes to frequenting a border tavern owned by the notorious outlaw Jadlowker. It is there that he sees the gypsy woman who shares Jadlowker’s bed, and becomes infatuated with her.

As plots go this one couldn’t be much simpler. It’s a story of love, rivalry and infidelity. There is nothing original to it. It does not aim for originality. What there is though is a clash of ways of life. Eibenschütz is an agent of the state. He tries to impose its rules on a region where by his standards normality is crooked. Jadlowker lives on the border. He is rumoured to have murdered a man in Odessa with a sugar-loaf. He is Eibenschütz’s opposite. He is chaos and lawlessness. He is on the boundary between civilisation and a great dark forest beyond which lies another world (or, more prosaically, Russia).

Like the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself Eibenschütz tries to impose order where there is no place for it. It is in a sense a heroic enterprise, but it cannot succeed. Jadlowker by contrast is free. He has no government to report to and no morality. His freedom is a freedom to do what he wills. He is a killer and a thief.

Roth makes the district of Zlotogrod breathe. He captures its customs such as the way the people rush out in the middle of the night to celebrate the arrival of spring; heralded by the first cracks appearing in the ice which each year coats the local river. The government is far away and they have their local doctors and local courts and when a man needs order he goes to one and when he needs freedom he goes to Jadlowker’s.

The heart here though is Eibenschütz. As he falls genuinely in love with Jadlowker’s gypsy he begins to notice the world about him. He notices the birds singing in the spring and their absence in the winter. He notices the stars overhead and how they seem not meaningless lights as they used to but friendly companions in the night. Nature and the cosmos both change to match the moods of Eibenschütz, Jadlowker and others.

At first I thought the matching of nature and mood thematic. I thought Roth was choosing for the seasons and the sky to follow the narrative. Then I realised that he was doing nothing of the kind. Nature and the sky remain unchanged throughout the book save that the seasons turn as they always do. Men just change their interpretations according to their sentiments and find meaning where there is none.

Weights and Measures is a fable, but it is a dark and sly one. The world here seems suffused with meaning, but gradually it became apparent that the meaning was only ever that which the characters gave it. It was written in 1937 and it contains no hope. The best that can be achieved in Zlotogrod is to leave it.

This is not a well known Roth. I found few reviews of it online and it hasn’t the recognition factor of Hotel Savoy, The Radetzky March or The Legend of the Holy Drinker. It’s not one of his major works. It is, however, beautiful and haunting and superbly written. I’ll finish with one final quote. Here Eibenschütz’s gendarme has been speaking of his own troubles after hearing of those of Eibenschütz himself.

Eibenschütz had long since ceased to listen. But it did him good that a man was speaking beside him, just as it sometimes does one good when the rain is pouring down, even if one does not understand the language of the rain.

The language of the rain. Roth shows a world which is venal and mundane and then makes it fabulous through the sheer beauty of his art. I intend to write a post soon about my personal canon; the works I consider central to my concept of literature. Roth will be on it.

The copy of Weights and Measures I read was published by Peter Owen Classics and translated by David Le Vay. Given how the language sang I’ll look out for Le Vay’s translations in future.

Weights and Measures

Update: 25 November 2014. Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat has now also reviewed this. Her excellent review is here.


Filed under Austro-Hungarian fiction, Central European fiction, German, Personal canon, Roth, Joseph

at least he wasn’t impotent.

Berg, by Ann Quin

A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father…

That’s the opening sentence of Ann Quin’s 1964 novel Berg. It got my attention from the start, and that’s good because Berg was a novel I had to pay attention to. It was dizzying, at times confusing, and stylistically demanding. Berg is a novel that made me work.

Plotwise Berg is very simple. It’s really mostly there in that first sentence. Berg is a travelling hair tonic salesman who lives with his mother. He comes to an unnamed seaside town (clearly Brighton) intending to kill his father who abandoned him and his mother years ago. To get close, he changes his name and moves into the same rooming house. Only a thin partition wall separates him from his father, and his father’s lover Judith. At night he lies there hearing the partition shake as they have sex.

We’re in Oedipal territory here, and Freudian too of course. Berg wants to kill his father, he’s very close to his mother and before too long he’s sleeping with Judith literally taking his father’s place in bed. It all sounds terribly heavy but it’s not. It’s weirdly and wonderfully funny. Blackly so. It’s utterly serious and utterly ludicrous at the same time. It’s absurd and more to the point, absurdist.

The plot then isn’t what makes Berg a challenging book to read. What makes it require attention is the style. Quin writes in an impressionistic flow which make a nonsense of subjective and objective experience. There is no distinction made in the text between dialogue and description or between internal fantasy and external experience. The line between Berg’s and the authorial voice is fluid and shifting.

Quin is often described as an experimental writer. It’s not a term that works well for me. It suggests that she doesn’t quite know what she’s doing – that she’s working it out. The language here though has a precision and a craft that makes it anything but experimental. It’s just not naturalistic.

Time I think for an illustration of that style. This is from fairly early on in the novel. Berg reflects on his childhood then encounters his father:

A sticky sickly child, who longed to be accepted with the others, by those who were healthy, tough, swaggered in well cut suits, brilliantined hair. Your stained, rat-bitten cuffs, and collar, patched behind, the mud squelching through your shoes. But once on your own when you lorded it with beast and flower, striding the hills, welcomed by a natural order, a slow sensuality that circled the sun, rode the wind through the grass-forests, then nothing mattered, because everything comprehended your significance. He swayed in the middle of the road, looking into his father’s eyes; eyes that rolled inwards, joined by a thread through the bridge of his nose, run off from the mole on his right cheek with its one dark hair. Berg stepped back, away from the smell of alcohol and stale tobacco. The old man tottered a little towards him, trying to roll a cigarette. Hey wait a minute, aren’t you the chap who’s taken the room next door, Number 18? Yes thought it was, had a bit too much yourself I see, well why not I say, gives a chap a break doesn’t it? Tongue along paper, a lizard hesitating, then flick, flick of a tail, gone.

Berg is a distinctly English novel. The trappings here are ones that would be recognised by Patrick Hamilton and Julian Maclaren-Ross – seedy boarding houses and seaside towns; tenants hiding from landladies and behind on the rent; down at heel travelling salesmen; chancers, idlers and cheap women no better than they ought to be.

Quin takes those ingredients and mixes them with a suffusion of shadowy sexuality. Berg’s room faces across the street to a dance hall used for casual pickups and easy encounters. He is surrounded by sex with the partition shaking behind him and couples sidling off from the “illuminated palace” opposite.

Once he had ventured across, and brought back a giggling piece of fluff, that flapped and flustered, until he was incapable, apologetic, a dry fig held by sticky hands.

Berg’s own sexuality and sexual ability is questionable. A few pages after that quote above he reflects gratefully that he’s not impotent (it’s quoted in the title). The only potency he shows though is with Judith, it’s only when taking his father’s place he rises to the occasion. At other times there are hints he may be homosexual, but without himself knowing it. Whatever his sexuality it is distorted – dammed up and overflowing into odd outlets.

Berg’s potency is doubtful in other ways too. I won’t say whether he does kill his father in the end or not, but he certainly has lots of opportunities early on and he keeps failing to consumate those too. He considers suicide, but that too evades him. Sex and death are both omnipresent but he struggles to bring either to completion.

As Berg secretes himself into his father’s life his own becomes steadly more brutal and surreal. He kills a cat in a horrifically unpleasant scene and in another is blamed for the untimely death of a budgie. He becomes go-between in his father’s battles with Judith and gets enmeshed in the slowly escalating mutilation of his father’s ventriloquist’s dummy. At one stage Berg disguises himself as a woman (taking great pleasure in wearing Judith’s clothes) but his father returns home drunk and grapples him onto the bed…

In the background, underlining the feeling of Greek tragedy staged by Joe Orton, are a group of unspeaking tramps who seem to increasingly haunt Berg and to frustrate his designs. Here he first encounters them, not realising how much they will come to feature in his life:

He leaned against the boat, his eyes closed, feeling the salt from the spray already in his mouth, and a few grains of sand in his eyes. Smells of seaweed together with oil and tar drifted by him. He waited until the couple had gone before walking back. Past the huddled shapes of tramps moulded into their lumps of rag and newspaper, twitching and squirming under the pier.

I thought Berg a tremendous work. It’s extremely well written. It’s stylistically imaginative and it’s a novel which believes that the novel still has something to say. There’s a tendency to confuse naturalism and the novel, but novels don’t have to be naturalistic. They can be anything that the novelist wants them to be. Quin wrote with a voice which I haven’t heard before, and that’s not so unusual. What is unusual is that it’s a voice largely unlike others that I have heard.

Every few months I see an article about the death of the novel; is the form obsolete? That sort of thing. The novel is not dead. It’s not even particularly poorly. Naturalism will probably be the default style of the novel for decades, centuries even, to come. It’s the style I find most rewarding myself, like most readers. But naturalism is not the only fruit and part of what keeps the novel fresh and keeps it alive is people taking it seriously enough to push it to see what it can do.

Ann Quin took the novel seriously. She tried to write in a new way and wrote about people that even now aren’t best represented in English fiction (though Hamilton, Rhys and Maclaren-Ross have certainly all done their part). She wrote about life in a way that wasn’t naturalistic but that was still recognisably true.

While writing this I found two articles by Lee Rourke talking about Berg, here and here. I agree with his comments in both, and it was actually Lee Rourke who put me onto this novel in the first place, so if Lee sees this then thanks for that recommendation.

Lastly, I’ve not discussed here the influence on Berg of the nouveau roman movement and of Robbe-Grillet. That’s simply because I don’t know the movement, or his work, well enough to competently do so. The Dalkey Archive Press edition I read did come however with an excellent and admirably spoiler free introduction by Giles Gordon which discusses all of this (at least to a degree).

Berg. Quin was a contemporary of BS Johnson and arguably part of the same literary movement. I’ve yet to read Johnson, but an excellent writeup of his The Unfortunates can be found here in case anyone wants to follow that connection up.


Filed under Modernist fiction, Personal canon, Quin, Ann

an orgy of ennui

Slaves of Solitude, by Patrick Hamilton

Literary fame is an odd thing. Apparently in his day Patrick Hamilton was a major writer. An Amis or McEwan. Critics and readers both eagerly anticipated his next novel.

Then he was forgotten. Swiftly and comprehensively. He became unfashionable. He became out of date.

In recent years of course he’s had a revival. I wouldn’t quite call him well known, but there’s been an excellent BBC adaptation of his 20,000 Streets Under the Sky (seriously, it’s very good) and his books are back in print. He’s being read again, and referenced as the important London writer that he was.

Slaves of Solitude is the second Hamilton I’ve read. Previously I’d enjoyed the marvellous Hangover Square; a novel with one of the most memorable femme fatales in fiction (the marvellously hateful Netta) and a convincing portrait of the attractions of fascism to small minded people.

Hangover Square was written in 1941. Slaves of Solitude, Hamilton’s next novel (though he had written several before Hangover) was written in 1947. Unlike Hangover Square, however, Slaves of Solitude is actually set during the Second World War.

Hamilton was a master of depicting an England that thankfully is now mostly extinct. It was an England of seedy boarding houses, of genteel want and petty proprieties. It was an England in which one of the few escapes was the local pub, but even that was all too often filled with bar-room bores and drink in any event made a dangerous escape route from tedium.

In Slaves of Solitude Hamilton shows all of that and shows too as a writer exactly what he’s capable of. Miss Roach, a former teacher now working in publishing, lives in the Rosamund Tea Rooms in the London suburb of Thames Lockdon. Like many, she has fled the dangers of the blitz. She commutes into London each day, and each night is disgorged from Thames Lockdon station to find her way by torchlight (the blackout’s in full force) back to her lodgings.

The novel opens with a wonderful image of London as a crouching beast, breathing in commuters in the morning and exhaling them in the evening. It’s a sort of hell, with Thames Lockdon perhaps a sort of heaven by comparison.

Seen closer it’s clear it’s no heaven. The Rosamund Tea Rooms are run by a Mrs. Payne who has converted an unsuccessful teahouse into a somewhat dismal boarding house. The residents are mostly middle aged and elderly, telephone calls must be taken from Mrs. Payne’s room (which she sees no reason to vacate at such times), meals are had together at set hours and existence is ordered.

Mrs. Payne had put a stop to electricity on the landings simply by taking all the bulbs out – thus succouring her hard-pressed country, the spirit of the black-out generally, and her own pecuniary resources.

Mrs. Roach is a ‘hopeless’ woman. Hopeless in that she is now in early middle age (by the standards of her day), unmarried and with no prospect of marriage. Life in The Rosamund Tea Rooms is for her a perfect hell. Hell because the small community is dominated by a bully and a bore by the name of Mr. Thwaites. Nobody writes bores as well as Hamilton.

Thwaites dominates all conversations. Meal times are a mix of heavy silence and Mr. Thwaites holding forth. To make things worse, he has taken a dislike to Miss Roach and baits her at every opportunity with sly references and insinuations which upset without giving anything concrete to respond to.

So ghastly is Mr. Thwaites that at meal times Miss Roach does not just wait in fear of his attacks on her, she waits in fear too of everything he says because the sheer pomposity of it makes her skin crawl.

Oh God, thought Miss Roach, now he was beginning his ghastly I-with-the-third-person business. As if bracing herself for a blow (as she looked at the tablecloth), she waited for more, and more came.
‘I Keeps my Counsel,’ said Mr. Thwaites, in his slow treacly voice, ‘Like the Wise Old Owl, I Sits and Keeps my Counsel.’
Miss Roach, shuddering under the agonisingly Thwaitesian remark – Thwaitesian in the highest and richest tradition – knew well enough that there was more to follow. For it was a further defect of Mr. Thwaites that when he had made a remark which he thought good, which he himself subtly realised as being Thwaitesian, he was unable to resist repeating it, either in an inverted or a slightly altered form. He did not fail to do so on this occasion.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I Keeps my Counsel, like the Wise Old Bird … I Happens to keep my Counsel … I Happens to be like the Wise Old Bird …’

He gets worse from there, more excrutiating.

Things pick up when an American lieutenant, briefly dining at the Rosamund, takes an interest in Miss Roach. Like the Americans in Britain generally, he comes flush with confidence and money to a tired place filled with the hopeless and people desperate for something to give them hope. He doesn’t know anything of the customs of the Tea Rooms, and he wouldn’t care if he did. Just by being there, he changes everything.

The development of these relationships (among others, other characters grow in importance as the novel develops) is what drives the plot. The battles, mostly one sided, between Mr. Thwaites and Miss Roach are wonderfully realised. Her romance with the American too. His dream is to return home and to make it big in the laundry business. But is that a world the rather literary Miss Roach could make a home in?

The American is a chance of escape, perhaps to America but even if not at least a chance of escape to the local pub which women are increasingly becoming comfortable entering. The pub here is transformative, a place apart from the dreary constancy of wartime privation. A bubble of light and cheer in an England blacked out for fear of bombs.

This is, I understand, the only wartime novel Hamilton wrote. The war here is in one sense far away. There are no bombs in this novel, no battles. In another sense though it’s ever present. The characters are only in Thames Lockdon because of the war. Mr. Thwaites only has Miss Roach in his power because of it. The war here is not exciting or even particularly frightening, rather it is a constant drain that affects every part of life. The war:

…was slowly, cleverly, month by month, week by week, day by day, emptying the shelves of the shops – sneaking cigarettes from the tobacconists, sweets from the confectioners, papers, pens, and envelopes from the stationers, fittings from the hardware stores, wool from the drapers, glycerine from the chemists, spirits and beers from the public-houses, and so on endlessly – while at the same time gradually removing crockery from the refreshment bars, railings from familiar places, means of transport from the streets, accommodation from the hotels, and sitting or even standing room from the trains.

It’s not wholly flawless. There are times, thankfully rare, when Hamilton’s sentences overreach themselves (I’ve no problem with a character “in whom street corners actually stimulated loquacity” but it’s a hard line to read). When it happens it’s a little jarring but it didn’t happen often. I mention it really only for completeness.

In the end, Slaves of Solitude is a genuinely excellent novel. It’s characters are memorable; it’s depiction of wartime England is vivid (if I can use that word for something so grey) and the almost surreal heights of the awfulness of the Rosamund Tea Rooms somehow make it all the more credible. There is a sense that perhaps the Tea Rooms are not hell after all – they are not even that dramatic. Rather they are purgatory. They are an interminable waiting room into which Miss Roach has fallen.

John Self of The Asylum has also written up Slaves of Solitude, here. He also has a review of 20,000 Streets Under the Sky over at his. Both are worth reading.

Slaves of Solitude. Mine is the Constable and Robinson edition, which is excellent and which has equally excellent forewords by Doris Lessing and Michael Holroyd. There’s also an NYRB edition, which I haven’t seen personally but which can be purchased here.


Filed under Hamilton, Patrick, Personal canon

his love was no longer operable

Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust

I doubt I shall ever eat Asparagus again without thinking of Françoise tormenting the kitchen maid.

Swann’s Way is one of the most vivid and extraordinary books I have read. It’s only one sixth of the full work. An introduction to what’s to come. That means it’s incomplete, but even so it’s a masterpiece.

It deals in themes of memory, loss, love (particularly unrequited love), art, the way in which we create meaning out of mere incident and vastly more. It’s beautifully written, often extremely funny and it contains depictions of jealousy I found personally difficult to read they felt so true.

It’s also suffused with a powerful sense of mortality, yet not in a morbid fashion. Rather it shows an immanence in the everyday; a fragile beauty to transient things which are all the more beautiful for their transience. There is a real sense of how fleeting our most important moments are, and how their importance is as often crafted in memory as in the experience of them.

I’m conscious that having written this much I’ve said nothing of what the book is actually about in terms of its story. In part that’s because it’s quite hard to say. The novel opens with Proust/the narrator as a child staying at his grandparent’s house in Combray. He is a nervous and sickly child who dotes on his mother’s affection.

At Combray the high point of each evening for Marcel is the goodnight kiss that he receives from his mother. That kiss is so important to him that he’ll even try to delay it, so as to stave off the bleak time after it’s been given when he has to wait for morning before feeling her love again. On evenings when company calls he knows that there’ll be no goodnight kiss at all but merely a banishing upstairs, and the thought fills him with gloom and terror.

Although this part of the book (indeed all of the book) is shot-through with anguish and unhappiness it’s also full of joy and life. One of the novel’s strengths is its capturing of the intensity of childhood emotion. Little is grey. Instead, the young Marcel’s life is full of light or plunged in darkness.

The Combray section also details Marcel’s family and their habits; the walks they like to take; their peculiar customs (as all families have peculiar customs) and quotidian eccentricities. There is an acute level of social observation and the portraits of the family members, their friends, acquaintances and social world are distinct and persuasive.

Many of the scenes with the family are small comic masterpieces – often with slow buildups making them very difficult to quote. I particularly enjoyed however Marcel’s grandmother’s sisters who “in their horror of vulgarity had brought to such a fine art the concealment of a personal allusion in a wealth of ingenious circumlocution, that it would often pass unnoticed even by the person to whom it was addressed.” This leads to a scene where they seek to thank a friend of the family, M. Swann, for the gift of some wine but do so with such subtlety that he has no idea what they’re talking about.

The young Marcel is an artistic child. He obsesses with the theatre, listing actors he hasn’t seen in order of merit and imagining the wonders of plays he only knows the titles of. He is a prolific reader, but is capable too of being distracted by the sheer beauty of the countryside (which frequently he sees more in his own fantasy of it than in what’s actually before him). Proust revels in descriptive passages, thinking nothing of spending three pages or more on the beauty of a hawthorn bush. It’s dense stuff.

After Combray, the book turns its attention to M. Swann and his great love affair with Odette de Crécy (some years before the events at Combray). Swann is a rich man who keeps company at the finest salons of Paris (something which Marcel’s family, who also know him, are largely unaware of. They generally think of themselves as doing him a favour by receiving him and have a quite erroneous idea of his actual status). Odette is beautiful but vulgar, and not particularly bright. Worse yet, she is not even Swann’s “type”

Although an inveterate womaniser Swann is not at first attracted by Odette, but as time passes his feelings change and he finds himself in love. She becomes more and more important to him; central to his life. It’s a pity then that (as he largely knows from the outset) she’s a woman of doubtful reputation whose own affection for him starts to fade. Where once she would drop everything at the hint of the possibility of an evening with him, eventually she spends time with him only when she has nothing better to do.

Swann’s love is mirrored in the final section of the book, which returns to Marcel who is now a little older (though still a child) and in Paris. Marcel is in love with Swann’s daughter, Gilberte, but like Swann his love does not seem to be returned. There are parallels too between how, as Odette’s love for Swann cools, she causes him to wait on her in hope of her affection and how Marcel waits at Cambray for his mother’s goodnight kiss. With both the adult and the child their love is a thing in itself, independent almost of its object and certainly independent of whether it’s returned.

Returning to the Swann section of the book, it’s clear that Swann loves Odette even though he has no great reason to. She’s not his equal in taste or intellect, she treats him poorly and she’s unfaithful. It doesn’t matter. Gilberte plays with Marcel but gives him no preference to other playmates and seems quite unaware of the passions she inspires in him. Again, it doesn’t matter.

For both Swann and Marcel love is something which flows out of them toward its recipient. That the object of love may not return it is immaterial; the love is not rational and though not being loved is an excellent reason to stop loving reason has no part to play here. Swann undergoes agonies as Odette’s ardour cools, but while his love moves from bringing him happiness to misery it’s intensity remains the same.

Nabokov’s novel Laughter in the Dark has one of the finest opening paragraphs in literature. Among it are the lines “he loved; was not loved”. For Albinus in that novel that combination leads to disaster. In a less dramatic way though it’s something most of us have experienced to one degree or another. The experience and pain of loving where one is not loved is a tragedy no less powerful for it being so common.

Here Swann loves, and while there may be times he is loved it’s not always so. One of the novel’s most powerful scenes comes when fearing infidelity Swann questions Odette about the possibility of past affairs. Despite the answers being deeply hurtful he continues to probe – unable to resist his own perverse urge to know that which he cannot bear. I found it utterly convincing and frankly difficult to read. Whether Odette is unfaithful or not isn’t the point, Swann’s jealousy like his love creates its own Odette who may have little to do with the real woman.

When we are loved we see reflected in the eyes of those who love us someone better than who we are, but hopefully someone we still recognise as related to ourselves. When love sours sometimes we see those we loved (perhaps still love) as worse than they are. We see others through the veil of our own emotions, a truth Powell would have recognised and which he brought out in his own Dance sequence.

As I write this I’m still sorting through my feelings on the work. It’s somewhat stunning and contains so much that this post merely draws out those strands which speak to me as I make this blog entry. Another post on another day could speak to many different things. This is rich and serious writing which is a genuine and sensuous pleasure to read. I laughed at it more than most comic novels I’ve read, and yet at other times I found its emotions so powerful as to be uncomfortable. It’s hard to read a paragraph like this (particularly the last line of the quote) without wincing:

He went to see Odette. He sat down at a distance from her. He did not dare to embrace her, not knowing whether it would be affection or anger that a kiss would provoke, either in her or in himself. He sat there silent, watching their love expire.

My only caution with Swann’s Way would be that it’s writing to sink into and works poorly as a casual read. It demands attention. It repays the effort put into it many times over, but it’s best read a hundred pages or so at a time rather than in smaller instalments.

I’ll wait a month or so before launching into the second volume. I’ll need to be sure I have some free time to do it credit. I’m already looking forward to it though, and while it’s taken me a fair while to get through this one I don’t regret a single moment I spent on it.

Swann’s Way
. I read the Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enright translation published by Vintage Classics. For me it maintained an excellent balance between keeping the prose modern enough to be easily read while retaining the period feel of the original. I can’t speak to its fidelity to the French, but I understand it’s pretty good and it has the benefit over the Penguin Classics version of having the same set of translators for all six works (though I understand the Penguin translations are pretty good too).

Unusually for me, I’ve written this whole entry with barely a quote in it. I couldn’t resist though the following, which is I admit a bit obvious but what’s a discussion of Proust without it?

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, except what lay in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?


Filed under French, In Search of Lost Time, Modernist fiction, Personal canon, Proust, Marcel

Didn’t you say that sex was a ferocious thing?

Quartet, by Jean Rhys

Quartet is a short novel that’s long on cruelty, self-pity and despair. It’s well written, remarkably so for a first novel, but it’s ugly too. Largely autobiographical, written in response to a broken relationship with Ford Maddox Ford, it’s passionate and angry and if you’ve not read any Jean Rhys it’s a very good place to start.

First published in 1928, Quartet is the story of a young woman named Marya Zelli. She’s married to Stephan Zelli, and together they are living in Paris. Sometimes they are well off, sometimes poor, rarely in between. They are, however, largely happy.

Marya loves Stephan, she is unhappy when she meets him, but he has the certainty she lacks. He is “sure of himself, so definite, with such a clean-cut mind”, his self-assurance attracts her, his dominance even. “He criticized her clothes with authority and this enchanted her.” Stephan by contrast sees Marya as having an “air of fatigue, disillusion and extreme youth”. The dynamic between them is left for the reader to conclude, but it is not an equal relationship. Rhys’s eye is unsympathetic, she notes that Stephan “had all his life acted on impulse, though always in a careful and businesslike manner.”

When Stephan is unexpectedly arrested, thrown in jail for trafficking in stolen goods, Marya is left adrift. She is not a self-reliant woman, and she has no money, and if there is one thing true in Rhys’s fiction it is that a woman without money is in a dangerous place. For Marya, the answer lies with a man named Heidler and his wife Lois, an English expatriate couple who offer her a room in their house.

Heidler is a massively solid man, older, intelligent but with an “expression of obtuseness – perhaps even brutality”. Lois is younger than him, “country with a careful dash of Chelsea”. On their first meeting, they talk of Marya as if she weren’t present, Heidler puts his heavy hand on her knee under the table. Once she is in their home, Marya is exposed to his advances, caught between him and Lois, who appears to be turning a deliberate blind eye. To them the whole thing is some sort of game, but it is one that Marya is emotionally ill equipped to play.

And plotwise, there’s not so much more. The novel charts Marya’s affair with Heidler, its impact on her and on her relationships with Stephan (whom she visits in prison) and with Lois. Heidler, like Stephan in this one thing only, is utterly lacking in self-doubt, the women revolve around him and their existence is largely defined by his. There are novels in which strong women lead independent lives, this isn’t one of them.

I commented above on Rhys’s eye being unsympathetic, that’s true throughout this short (less than 150 pages) novel. There’s a brutality in her gaze, she sees a world that is without pity and in which love is all too often an expression of weakness. The novel is full of marvellous descriptions, little vignettes of Paris life and of the vague existences of people for whom things haven’t quite worked out as hoped:

Opposite her a pale long-faced girl sat in front of an untouched drink, watching the door. She was waiting for the gentleman with whom she had spent the preceding night to come along and pay for it, and naturally she was waiting in vain. Her mouth drooped, her eyes were desolate and humble.

Happiness in this world is fleeting, hard purchased. For people like the Heidlers it seems easier, their own lack of doubt inures them to the savagery that surrounds them, but Marya is too open and too emotional to close herself off that way – she is not built to be happy, perhaps not stupid enough.

Or, perhaps, she is simply mired in self-pity and depression. Marya is to a large extent her own enemy, she is not a woman who makes good choices. We are given little insight into Stephan or Heidler’s interior worlds, no real understanding of their motivations or thoughts, but what is clear is that neither loves Marya as she does them. Marya, put simply, could do better.

Marya’s world is one that is filled with small incidents and large emotions. Marya is unstable and prone to outbursts. She fits poorly into the bourgois world of the Heidlers’, whose friends soon see her as a woman who has set out to trap Heidler not seeing that the truth is quite the reverse. Marya is shaped by the Heidlers’ narratives (by their personal myths Powell would say), her frail needs are overwhelmed by their expectations. They, in turn, are confused by her refusal to follow the script they have determined for her, by her resistance, futile as it may be.

Where Quartet succeeds is in its vision of people who are not quite managing, people who are living in Hemingway’s Paris but aren’t fashionable enough to find their way into one of his novels. Stephan is an adventurer, but not a successful one. Marya is desperate, her own victim. They are people locked out of a happier world they can see right in front of them, but cannot quite get into.

Here, walking to the tram, Marya passes a merry-go-round:

Marya stayed there for a long time watching a little, frail blonde girl, who careered past, holding tightly on to the neck of her steed, her face tense and strained with delight. The merry-go-round made her feel more normal, less like a grey ghost walking in a vague shadowy world.

Rarely have I seen someone enjoying themselves described in a fashion that makes it sound quite so unappealing.

Where Quartet struggles slightly is linked with its strengths. There are times when Rhys’s eye is a little too pitiless, where a little more empathy might help the book. The excellent foreword by Katie Owen makes it clear how autobiographical this work is, and perhaps that’s the issue. Rhys herself was angry with the real life equivalents of her characters, and it shows. Although there’s the occasional hint of their humanity, Lois and Heidler in particular are almost monsters, sometimes one wonders if that’s entirely fair. There’s a viciousness to the descriptions that can make for hard reading:

Lois was extremely intelligent. She held her head up. She looked at people with clear, honest eyes. She expressed well-read opinions about every subject under the sun in a healthy voice, and was so perfectly sure of all she said that it would have been a waste of time to contradict her. And in spite of all of this, or because of it, she gave a definite impression of being insensitive to the point of stupidity – or was it insensitive to the point of cruelty? Which? That was the question. But that, of course, is always the question.

Still, although the anger of the novel sometimes lets it down, it also gives it real impact. There are passages which I thought simply breathtaking, wonderfully well written. I’ve already quoted too much in this review, I’ll come to why in a moment, but I can’t resist two last quotes just to show how good Rhys can be. Here, Marya reflects on the hotel room Heidler installs her in once he has made her his mistress:

An atmosphere of departed and ephemeral loves hung about the bedroom like stale scent, for the hotel was one of unlimited hospitality, though quietly, discreetly and not more so than most of its neighbours. The wallpaper was vaguely erotic – huge and fantastically shaped mauve, green and yellow flowers sprawling on a black ground. There was one chair and a huge bed covered with a pink counterpane. It was impossible, when one looked at that bed, not to think of the succession of petite femmes who had extended themselves upon it, clad in carefully thought out pink or mauve chemises, full of tact and savoir faire and savoir vivre and all the rest of it.

Here, much later and while resting in Nice, Marya is visited by Miss Nicholson, a friend of the Heidlers. They go to the zoo together:

There was a young fox in a cage at the end of the zoo – a cage perhaps three yards long. Up and down it ran, up and down, and Marya imagined that each time it turned it did so with a certain hopefulness, as if it thought that escape was possible. Then, of course, there were the bars. It would strike its nose, turn and run again. Up and down, up and down, ceaselessly. A horrible sight really.
‘Sweet thing,’ said Miss Nicholson.

There is tragedy in that first quote, and savage horror in that second (which is perhaps the entire novel in microcosm). The book is filled with such moments. It’s not a light read, but it is a very good one.

So, why so many quotes? Unfortunately for me, my reading of this novel coincided with a brutal period of work, which meant I had to stop reading entirely for over a week and then finished it while exhausted (now passing, in case anyone wonders). That lost for me a lot of the novel’s narrative flow, and meant that although I couldn’t help but notice how many passages were well written, I didn’t get as good an overall feel as I’d have liked. That’s a shame, and I’ll revisit it in future, but it does mean that my review of it becomes a bit like my experience of it, a collage of impressions rather than a more coherent whole.

Rhys struggles a bit with the ending of Quartet, which isn’t as strong as the rest of the novel. There’s a sense that she didn’t quite know how to wrap it up, perhaps even that there is no obvious ending. Even with that though it’s an excellent introduction to her work, it’s not as good as Good Morning, Midnight (which I discuss here), but it’s still a surprisingly mature work and one that I’d recommend for a spare gloomy evening.

For the curious, John Self wrote a review of another Rhys, Voyage in the Dark, here. He makes a comparison with Patrick Hamilton, which is typically insightful of him and I think the two writers do complement each other with their visions of joyless relationships with drink and other people. In addition, the always interesting Guy Savage writes up Wide Sargasso Sea here, it’s the novel she’s famous for though I note he doesn’t consider it her strongest.



Filed under Modernist fiction, Paris, Personal canon, Rhys, Jean