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

Far Eastern Tales, by W. Somerset Maugham

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

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

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

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

FarEasternMaugham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews

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

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Filed under Maugham, W Somerset, Short Stories

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

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

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

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

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

Cavafy Penguin

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

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

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

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

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

The Tobacconist’s Window

Near the brightly lit window

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

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

One Night

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

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

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

One Night – Keeley and Sherrard translation

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

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

 

One Night – Daniel Mendelsohn translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews

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

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Filed under Cavafy, CP, Poetry

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

The Blue Fox, by Sjón and translated by Victoria Cribb

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

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

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

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

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

BlueFox

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

Here’s how it opens:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, all this was in his mess-bag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other reviews

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

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

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Filed under Icelandic Literature, Novellas, Sjón

She is so terribly afraid of me.

Margaret and I, by Kate Wilhelm

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

MargaretandI

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Science Fiction, Wilhelm, Kate

My #TBR20

Scroll down if you just want to skip straight to the pictures of books…

TBR20 is an idea of Eva Stalker’s, with the aim being to focus on reading more and on buying less.

The concept is very simple, and since I’m very late to it already familiar to a lot of people. Basically, you read 20 books you already own before buying any more.

Most people who’ve taken it up have interpreted that as pick 20 books you already own and read those before buying any more, but strictly speaking that wasn’t the original concept. Originally it was just read any 20, deciding which out of the ones you own as you go along.

I rather like the idea. I’ve posted before about my own concerns with buying replacing enjoying here and by way of follow-up here. I also link in that first post to an article by an old friend of mine about why people buy things they don’t then use, that’s here to save digging around and it’s very much worth reading.

The interesting thing about following the pick 20 approach is it forces you to think about your reading. 20 books is probably two to three months reading, quite possibly more if I get very busy at work. That’s a hell of a commitment.

What do I actually want to read? How much literary fiction? What if I feel like some SF? What about books to unwind to when I’m under pressure elsewhere in life? All Modernism and no crime sounds indigestible.

On the other hand, making lists is sort of fun if you’re the sort of pedantic individual I am, and there are quite a few books I’ve been wanting to read for a while but which keep getting put off for no particularly good reason. A little discipline pushing me to read them would be no bad thing.

So, after much amendment, consideration, reconsideration, re-reconsideration and so on, here’s my #TBR20:

Physical

IMG_0383

Kindle

IMG_0385

The Grimwood is an SF/crime title, because potentially three months without any SF seems excessive. The Killer inside Me is just long overdue, and fills the hard-bitten noir gap. The rest are a mix of books I’ve wanted to read for a long time chosen in part though to give me a little variety.

Diving Belles and Jesus’ Son are both short story collections, but both are better read as single works in one go rather than interspersing them between other reads. As such I’ve effectively treated them as novels. Otherwise, I’ve not included any short stories or poetry and I plan to let myself read as much of those as I want along the way (provided I already own them of course).

I do plan to break the rules in one way, because there’s a good chance this project will overlap with my Summer holiday in the US, and I don’t own some of the books I’d planned to read on that trip. I may therefore allow myself to buy Hari Kunzru’s Gods without Men specifically to read while out there, if I haven’t finished the #TBR20 by then (which I probably won’t have). I considered having an exception for Seth’s Golden Gate on the same basis, but practically I doubt I’ll take a hardcopy book with me on holiday when I have a kindle so unless I’m sure I can read it immediately before I go that would just be a fudge.

Eva’s original post, for the curious, is here and her #tbr20 posts generally can be found here. Her original post in particular really is very good, and very well written, so if you haven’t already I do encourage you to read it.

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Filed under Personal posts

“It is difficult,” the slime mold thought morosely, to no one in particular, “to please Terran girls.”

Clans of the Alphane moon, by Philip K. Dick

Any book that features a telepathic yellow Ganymedean slime mold as a major character can’t be all bad, even if that book does show a frankly creepy interest in its female characters’ breasts.

Clans

Philip K. Dick has won a certain critical acclaim in recent years, with readers who wouldn’t normally look at SF being aware at the very least of his most acclaimed titles. Dick though was prolific. Sure, there was Ubik and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (best title ever?) and the other big hitters, but there was also a ton of pulp SF.

Our Friends from Frolix 8 (another great title). The World Jones Made. A Maze of Death. Clans of the Alphane Moon. None of them first rank Dick, certainly none of them literary Dick, but each of them a solid piece of classic SF.

Chuck Rittersdorf is in the process of being divorced by his wife, Mary, a famed marriage counsellor. Mary’s frustration with his lack of ambition has been building for years, and she’s enacting her revenge by taking so much of his money in the settlement that he’ll be forced to go for a higher paid job just so he can pay her alimony.

Gleefully she placed the last sweater in the suitcase, closed it, and with a rapid turn of her fingers, locked it tight. Poor Chuck, she said to herself, you don’t stand a chance, once I get you into court. You’ll never know what hit you; you’ll be paying out for the rest of your life. As long as you live, darling, you’ll never really be free of me; it’ll always cost you something. She began, with care, to fold her many dresses, packing them into the large trunk with the special hangers. It will cost you, she said to herself, more than you can afford to pay.

Mary is, unfortunately, one of the most sexist depictions of a female character I’ve read in years. There’s a lot to like in this book, some great ideas and a lot of nicely done comedy, but its treatment of women is actively unpleasant. Every female character description includes noting what her breasts look like, it’s dressed up in terms of some future fashion involving nipple dilation but it’s blatantly just something Dick is fixated on. The only woman to have any agency as a character is Mary, and she’s a self-deluding shrew. I don’t defend any of this. If you read this book you read it despite its monumental sexism. I don’t think that means it shouldn’t be read, because there are a lot of great ideas here, you just have to wade through some crap to get to them.

Chuck, the hapless husband, writes dialogue for CIA propaganda robots. He’s good at it, with a keen eye for comedy that gets the targets listening. His wife wants him to work as a scriptwriter for famous comedian Bunny Hentman (real name Lionsblood Regal, he had to tone it down, “who goes into show biz calling himself Lionsblood Regal?”). Bunny would pay a lot more than the CIA, but Chuck enjoys his work and likes being a public servant. If he’s going to meet his alimony though he’ll need more than a government paycheck.

Meanwhile, in the Centauri system, a psychiatric colony abandoned 25 years ago after a disastrous war has evolved its own unique culture. Now Mary has been appointed as one of the crew sent to reestablish contact, to provide aid to the profoundly mentally ill colonists, and of course to take it back under Earth control. They claim it’s a mission of mercy, but it’s colonialism plain and simple.

In the colony meanwhile, they’ve adapted and without anyone there to tell them they’re broken they’ve created a functional society.  They’ve built cities, with the population of each sharing a common mental illness.

The Pares live in Adolfville, where they develop new strategies and technologies to protect themselves against their many presumed enemies. The Manses live in Da Vinci Heights, making new breakthroughs in art and science in a frenzy of enthusiasm, each of which they rapidly bore of. The Skitzes have Joan d’Arc, where they have ecstatic visions of a greater reality and act as poets and priests to the others. The Heebs have Ghanditown, a disorganised hovel where they eschew ambition and materiality and slip slowly into catatonia. There’s the Polys, from Hamlet Hamlet, who remain childlike for life, imaginative dreamers but impractical. The Ob-Coms run the administration, making sure everything works. Finally the Deps dwell in “endless dark gloom” in Cotton Mathers Estates.

The colonists have a council with a representative from each city, and the opening scene of the book where Gabriel Baines, the Pare representative, attends the council meeting is brilliantly funny. Gabriel doesn’t just walk in of course, he first sends in a robot double to check for traps. Once inside he changes seat, argues with the Manse representative, is frustrated by the Heeb who spends much of the time sweeping the floor, and waits impatiently for the Skitz who finally shows up floating in through the window.

They’re meeting because Manse telescopes have picked up the ship from Earth, and they’re wondering how to defend themselves. The Earth ship says it’s come to help them, but as one of its crew notes: “Those people in Adolfville may be legally and clinically insane, but they’re not stupid”.

In large part this is a satire on the artificial boundaries between sanity and insanity. The colonists may not have the greatest society in history, but the one back on Earth doesn’t look so hot either. When someone observes “Frankly, we feel there’s nothing more potentially explosive than a society in which psychotics dominate, define the values, control the means of communication.” they’re talking about the colonists, but as reader you can’t help feeling Dick’s talking about his contemporary America.

There’s some lovely irony as the people on the ship, the sane ones, justify to themselves what’s essentially an act of unprovoked aggression on their part. Here Mary briefs the rest of the crew:

Our presence here will accelerate the hallucinating tendency; we have to face that and be prepared. And the hallucination will take the form of seeing us as elements of dire menace; we, our ship, will literally be viewed—I don’t mean interpreted, I mean actually perceived—as threatening. What they undoubtedly will see in us is an invading spearhead that intends to overthrow their society, make it a satellite of our own.”

“But that’s true. We intend to take the leadership out of their hands, place them back where they were twenty-five years ago. Patients in enforced hospitalization circumstances—in other words, captivity.”

It was a good point. But not quite good enough. She said, “There is a distinction you’re not making; it’s a slender one, but vital. We will be attempting therapy of these people, trying to put them actually in the position which, by accident, they now improperly hold. If our program is successful they will govern themselves, as legitimate settlers on this moon, eventually. First a few, then more and more of them. This is not a form of captivity—even if they imagine it is. The moment any person on this moon is free of psychosis, is capable of viewing reality without the distortion of projection—”

“Do you think it’ll be possible to persuade these people voluntarily to resume their hospitalized status?”

“No,” Mary said. “We’ll have to bring force to bear on them; with the possible exception of a few Heebs we’re going to have to take out commitment papers for an entire planet.” She corrected herself, “Or rather moon.”

I’ve barely touched here on the plot. Chuck tries to kill himself, but is interrupted by his next door neighbour, a telepathic slime mold from Ganymede (“I had planned to borrow a cup of yogurt culture from you, but in view of your preoccupation it seems an insulting request.”) With the Ganymedean as unlikely mentor he decides instead to remote control a propaganda robot on Mary’s ship to murder her, figuring he can blame it on the colonists. Can the colonists defeat the Earth ship? Can Chuck and Mary reconcile their differences? Are the CIA right that Bunny Hentman is really a spy for blind alien insects? If you want to know the answers, you’ll have to read it to find out.

I’ll end with one final quote. I’ve chosen this one because it illustrates why despite the appalling sexism I still rather like this book. Here the council is voting on a plan that might just save them all:

When the total vote had been verified everyone but Dino Watters, the miserable Dep, turned out to have declared in the affirmative.

“What was wrong with you?” Gabriel Baines asked the Dep curiously.

In his hollow, despairing voice the Dep answered, “I think it’s hopeless. The Terran warships are too close. The Manses’ shield just can’t last that long. Or else we won’t be able to contact Hentman’s ship. Something will go wrong, and then the Terrans will decimate us.” He added, “And in addition I’ve been having stomach pains ever since we originally convened; I think I’ve got cancer.”

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere that I know of, though I’m sure there are some. There’s a great piece here in the Guardian though by writer Sandra Newman which uses Clans as an example of how some old-school SF could be at the same time wildly inventive and wildly offensive, and how perhaps both qualities arose out of the genre’s lack of literary credibility and so the lack of any need to pander to any expectations of good taste or convention. It’s a good article, and even if you never read the book I think her argument is still worth considering.

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Filed under Dick, Philip K, Science Fiction

The bridge looked good again.

Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra and her identical twin sister, Judith, have been inseparable all their lives. Cassandra thought they always would be, but nine months ago Judith went to New York for a year leaving her behind.

Cassandra expected Judith to return and for them to build their lives together, sisters against the world. Instead Judith has announced she’s getting married to some doctor she met out East, and Cassandra’s been invited to the wedding.

And I knew right now … why I’d been asked to the wedding. I’d been asked because I could stop it in time, I could stage a last-minute rescue.

Cassandra

Cassandra and Judith grew up on a California ranch. Their family was close-knit: their father, a retired and politely drunk professor of philosophy, raised them using the Socratic method, treating his children as if they were adoring students; their mother, a famous writer, died a few years back but helped instill in them a sense of their own intellectual merit; their grandmother is a kind and loving woman but with a distinct preference for maintaining propriety rather than for seeing uncomfortable truths. As a family they were rich, artistic, elitist and above all self-contained (“we had our own pinnacle to look down from”).

When Cassandra and Judith left home, they left home together. They got an apartment in Berkeley, and because Judith was musical Cassandra bought a high-end piano for them to share. For Cassandra the piano is a symbol of the sisters, of their indivisibility.

I only listened and knew how good she was and what a piano we had, and later that night when she quit playing and came out onto the deck where I was looking at the lights and listening, she said, “We ought to live this way, don’t you think?” It was as if I’d been waiting all my life to hear her say it, and I said yes, oh yes, how could we imagine it ever being any other way? Let’s never get stuck with outsiders, just be ourselves and keep it honest, now we’ve got this piano.

When Judith moves to New York that’s bad, but marriage is much worse. The piano is beautiful, but cut in half it would be ruined. The parallel is obvious.

The book opens with Cassandra driving to the wedding. It’s first person voice, and immediately that voice is a troubled one. In a marvellously hardboiled line (so fitting for a book set in California) Cassandra glances at the Golden Gate bridge, noting that it looks good again. She means it looks tempting, like an exit.

En route she stops at a bar, drinks more than she should, and looks at her reflection. I have a pet hate of characters looking in mirrors and describing themselves, but here it works because of course Cassandra has spent her entire life looking at herself mirrored in Judith. Without Judith as contrast and support, Cassandra’s own identity starts to unravel.

my face in a blue mirror between two shelves of bottles. The bottles looked familiar enough, but I didn’t immediately recognize the face, mostly, I think, because I didn’t want to. It’s a face that’s given me a lot of trouble.

As Cassandra drives along you quickly get a sense of her: intelligent; brittle; impulsive; self-destructive. She sees a pumphouse spraying out water in the desert heat, stops, climbs a ladder to it and dunks her head straight into the jet to refresh herself; she wants to phone ahead to let the family know she’s arriving early, so calls from a phonebooth intended only to be used for emergencies. She drives with the top down on her car, the resulting sunburn leaving her uncomfortable in her own skin literally as well as figuratively. She’s fearless, except for her fear of living.

Judith later drives down the same road with her fiancé by her side, in a section of the book narrated by her. They don’t stop for a drink. They drive responsibly.

We were passing a pumphouse with a long pipe sticking out of it and throwing a beautiful head of white water into a cement weir. I wished I could put my head into it, but I laid it on Jack’s shoulder instead and thought about the door we’d open not so long from now.

“How would it be to phone ahead?” I said. “There’s an emergency telephone booth along here somewhere.” “This isn’t an emergency,” Jack said.

A book like this lives and dies by its characters. Cassandra’s narrative voice is intense, almost overwhelming, but also wry and observant of everything except the things she doesn’t want to see. Judith’s only emerges when Cassandra’s is briefly silenced. Judith is sensible, practical, normal. Cassandra, who it slowly emerges is gay, doesn’t even have the option of being normal (the book was published in 1962 – even without Cassandra’s emotional issues it’s not a period where a gay woman could aspire to a life of suburban married contentment).

Cassandra is writing a thesis she can’t finish, staying cocooned in the academic world she learned from her father. Her relationships are brief encounters only, nothing with even a hint of a future. In a sense she’s insisting on living forever as she did as a child, her and Judith sufficient and separate and aloof. Judith though, Judith doesn’t want to be separate and aloof. She wants to marry, to have a nice house, to settle down. This quote is from Cassandra’s section:

“You told me so many things,” I said. She waited a minute, looking back over her shoulder toward the pool; then she looked down at me, and said very quietly, “No, I don’t think I really told you anything. It was all you, you did the talking, you made all the plans, and I, I don’t know, but I think I got sort of drowned in it, or snowed under. When you hit your stride you’re—” “I’m what. Tell me. I absolutely have to know what I am when I hit my stride.” “You’re overwhelming. It’s some sort of crazy vitality and it goes out like rays. I’d forgotten what it’s like to be with you—kind of a circus. Only—”

A lesser novelist would have made Jack, Judith’s fiancé, unsympathetic. In fact though he and Judith are a good match and he’s a definite catch. He’s a handsome young doctor, friendly and polite, and he loves Judith as much as she loves him. He’s exasperated by Cassandra, but more because he sees her as self-indulgent than anything else. Where Cassandra talks about wanting to die, Jack replies “Quit talking about wanting to die,” … “Dying is a big thing.” Jack offers Judith an equal union, not a perpetual role as Cassandra’s ballast.

Dorothy Baker was a playwright as well as an author, and it shows here. Cassandra at the Wedding is in essence a three-part play (Cassandra’s section, Judith’s section, Cassandra’s second section). It almost all takes place in the same location, there’s only a handful of characters, and it features that classic dramatic motif of a family reunion leading to personal revelations and conflicts.

If this were a play, it would be an excellent one. It has sharply written characters and dialogue, cleanly delineated scenes and no fat. It’s packed with great little exchanges and observations (mostly Cassandra’s, Judith’s nicer and not looking from the outside):

“There’s probably a school for wives,” I said, “but you don’t need to go.” I felt better, and I looked at her obliquely to see if she felt worse, but there was no sure way to tell.

I don’t like things rumpled up. If there is tissue paper all over everywhere I shove it under the bed. I have ideas of order.

His hair was so clean that each single hair had its own halo.

He’d never known his mother, and his father died when he was twelve. No home life at all, which is probably why he turned out so well.

The heat hung in wavy layers above the road and made it look like water.

I could keep quoting, but I’ve done so too much already. I’ll wrap up then by just saying that this is a perfect example of exactly why I and so many others regard NYRB Classics as a go-to publisher for quality work.

On a final note, while the NYRB Classics edition is the one I read, while looking for a picture of the cover to add to this post I came across the alternative cover below. It’s just about the most misleading thing I’ve seen in ages.

Cassandra2

If you bought Cassandra at the Wedding hoping for a light pastel beach read about twins’ comic misadventures around a wedding, well, I think you’d be entitled to feel a little misled.

Other reviews

The review that persuaded me to read this was Jacqui’s at JacquiWine’s Journal, here. There’s also a great review at 1streading’sblog here, which went up back when I was still reading the book myself. Please feel free to link to others in the comments.

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Filed under Baker, Dorothy, US Literature

fields of mud crushed under the weight of of the impending dark

The A26, by Pascal Garnier and translated by Melanie Florence

I’ve long wanted to read Pascal Garnier. He’s been well reviewed on the blogosphere, I love noir and his books sounded punchy and darkly funny. The A26 was my first. Unfortunately, I absolutely hated it.

the-a26

Bernard and Yolande are brother and sister. Bernard is in advanced middle age, Yolande is elderly and hasn’t left their house in decades. They’re hoarders, nothing is ever thrown out; Yolande never leaves and she and Bernard inhabit a bizarre twilight world of their own creation. Bernard however is dying.

‘Bernard’s not gone to work today, he wasn’t up to it. He’s getting tireder and tireder, thinner and thinner. His body’s like this house, coming apart at the seams. Where am I going to put him when he’s dead? There’s not a bit of space left anywhere. We’ll get by, we’ve always got by, ever since I can remember. Nothing has ever left this house, even the toilet’s blocked up. We keep everything. Some day, we won’t need anything else, it’ll all be here, for ever.’

Yolande’s only interaction with the outside world is peering at it through a small hole in the door. There’s a new road being constructed nearby, progress continuing in the wider world while utterly resisted in their private one. Bernard used to go out to work, but now he’s retired so mostly he just goes out for shopping and to kill strangers.

Yup, Bernard’s a serial killer. There’s no particular reason he is. He starts killing for no obvious reason other than that the plot kind of demands it, and the fact that the entire book wallows in horrible and pointless deaths. At one point one poor sod happens just to drive past a character and moments later is described as being killed in a terrible car crash. It’s post-bleak, absurdly so (but not for me comically so).

Yolande is a solipsistic narcissistic delusional psychopath. Bernard isn’t particularly narcissistic or delusional, but he still does ok on the solipsistic psychopathy front.

In the sky the dark was spreading like a pool of ink. A sprinkling of stars appeared. Bernard aimed his finger and rubbed out a few. Every second, some of them died, people said. What did that matter when four times as many were born in the same time? The sky was an enormous rubbish tip.

His attitude to people reflects his attitude to stars. We don’t matter, and there’s always more where any of us came from.

I found the characters and story here a parade of grotesqueries, utterly artificial and contrived. It reminded me in some ways of Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, with his (in that case initially credible) characters tortuously contorted, prodded and pulled into the shape demanded by his improbable plot. I also found it rather sexist (“A woman, even if she’s in her pinny and wearing a black eye, always tidies her hair in the rear-view mirror.” – seriously?).

Anyway, I hated this one too much to give it a fair review. For me it had no real redeeming features but was just 100 pages of relentless ugliness, but I’m in a minority and it’s been very well received on the blogosphere as has Garnier more generally. I’m not therefore arguing that this is a bad book, simply that it was a (very) bad book for me.

It may be that I’m not just not Garnier’s reader, or it may be that I am but not for this book. I will note however that the Melanie Florence translation read well, quite simply it wouldn’t be possible to dislike it as much as I did if the translation were weak (odd as that may sound).

Other reviews

There’s a good few, but I’ll link to two in particular and invite anyone reading to link to others in the comments. This is from Stu at Winstonsdad, because Stu is always good value and there’s nobody better informed on translated literature, and this from Tomcat of Tomcat in the Red Room because I love his blog and I don’t get to link to it as often as I’d like since we often read different books.

I suspect most reading this already know Stu and don’t need me to recommend him further. Tomcat though you may not know, in which case I’d encourage you to take a look over his blog generally as his level of analysis really is very good indeed. Frankly here I think he just gets the novel better than I did, I simply bounced off it and that was that, but Tomcat’s review is sophisticated and well-informed and a great example of why I follow his blog.

19 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Garnier, Pascal, Noir, Novellas

“The log has gone away.”

The Inheritors, by William Golding

The Inheritors is a hard book to describe, and in particular it’s hard to describe without making it sound forbidding or pointless. It’s the story of a small group of neanderthals facing extinction as they encounter their nemesis, us. That’s potentially interesting, but not so much so that I’d want to read the book for that alone. What’s really interesting here is the use Golding makes here of language to take us into the minds and experiences of creatures almost, but not quite, like us.

golding-inheritors

The people are a small tribe of neanderthals. They believe they are all the people in the world, which of course is itself an indication that they must already be fairly near extinction. There aren’t many of them: Mal the old man who is their leader; Ha who is brave and will be leader when Mal dies; Lok who is the protagonist and is something of a happy-go-lucky idiot, dim even by the undemanding standards of these Neanderthals; Fa who is a fiercely intelligent (for a neanderthal) and independent minded young woman; a young mother and the “young one”, a baby which clings to the fur of her neck as they travel; Liku, a small and inquisitive child; and the “old woman” who keeps the tribe’s fire in a clay container and acts as their priestess.

The reason I just listed out all the characters is very simple. A month after reading this I can still remember each of them by name, with the exception of the young mother. I can bring them instantly to mind as people, as personalities, distinct and alive. It’s a remarkable feat of characterisation. Golding can make a semi-sentient caveman alive in a way most writers struggle to achieve for a contemporary character of a sort I might actually meet.

The people do not experience themselves as separate to the world, they do not see human and animal as fundamentally separate categories. To them the whole world is alive, their perspective essentially animist. When they move to their summer territory and find a rock they had left in a cave there Ha comments that it is a good rock, because it has stayed in place. In Biblical terms they are of the creation, not set above it or apart from it. They are pre-lapsarian.

The people were silent. Life was fulfilled, there was no need to look farther for food, tomorrow was secure and the day after that so remote that no one would bother to think of it. Life was exquisitely allayed hunger.

When the people have a memory they wish to share, or are imagining something not present or in the future, they are incredibly literal about it. “I have a picture” they declare, holding their hands on their heads to indicate where the picture is. Lok only ever has the one picture, of how he found a tree-root that looks a bit like a person and which is now Liku’s favourite (only) toy. As I said he’s not the brightest.

The end of the world, of their world, when it comes arrives suddenly and without explanation. It is literally beyond their understanding. It starts with something small, a log they use each year to cross a deep river is missing, moved, but who could have moved it? There is after all only the people. It’s a foretaste of the damage we will do. Someone, one of us, has passed by and changed the environment without any awareness of the possible harm. Now the people have to cross the freezing cold river without the log, Mal falls in and the chill he receives will be the death of him. Already we’re killing them and we don’t even know they’re there yet.

Soon the people realise that they’re not alone, there are new people, others. The others do not live within the world as the people do. They change it. In a key piece of symbolism (flagged in the excellent foreword, so I can’t claim my own insight here) the others haul their canoes up the waterfall that exists in the summer territory, going literally against the current. They control the world, impose their own rules upon it. Separate to the world as they are though they don’t instinctively understand it as the people do. What they don’t understand they fear, and what they fear they hate. They don’t understand the people.

Although the book has a classic objective narrative voice, much of it is described from the level of the neanderthals’ own understanding and perspective. That makes something of a detective of the reader, partly as sometimes you have to work out aspects of their religious and cultural life which they reference but never examine (they’re not an introspective lot), but also as the book progresses as you have to work out what’s actually happening when they themselves don’t understand it.

Suddenly Lok understood that the man was holding the stick out to him but neither he nor Lok could reach across the river. He would have laughed if it were not for the echo of the screaming in his head. The stick began to grow shorter at both ends. Then it shot out to full length again. The dead tree by Lok’s ear acquired a voice. “Clop!” His ears twitched and he turned to the tree. By his face there had grown a twig: a twig that smelt of other, and of goose, and of the bitter berries that Lok’s stomach told him he must not eat. This twig had a white bone at the end. There were hooks in the bone and sticky brown stuff hung in the crooks. His nose examined this stuff and did not like it.

It can take a moment to realise that what’s happened is the other has fired an arrow at Lok. It’s incomprehensible on two levels, firstly because Lok can’t imagine a bow and arrow or how they’d work, but secondly and just as importantly because from Lok’s perspective there is absolutely no reason for the other to wish to harm him.

The neanderthals’ world is brilliantly evoked. They live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, largely subsisting on berries and the occasional scavenged meat left after a predator kill (they don’t hunt animals themselves, and appear to have religious objections to killing, the existence of which must mean that the idea of killing is not unfamiliar to them). They rely almost as much on smell as sight, and among the many mysteries the new people present is how they seem blind to the scent-traces they leave behind them. The people fear water because they cannot swim, value fire because while they can tend it they cannot make it. They have religion, burial practices, segregation of roles by gender, a whole world of culture and significance all of which persuades and all of which is utterly doomed.

In a way The Inheritors becomes a parable of the fall of man. The people exist in the garden, in a state of innocence. The others as Lok observes (referring to the waterfall rather than the bible, but I think Golding’s meaning is pretty clear), “are a people of the fall; nothing stands against them.” At one point Lok and Fa spy on the others, see them getting drunk (the people have no concept of brewing); fighting among themselves (the people have no concept of that either); see one man’s mate slip behind a tree to have sex with his rival. They see sin, but being themselves not fallen aren’t tainted by it, not that that will save them.

The Inheritors is an extraordinary and exceptional novel. It presents challenges, particularly as it can take a while to get into the people’s mindset and very different way of seeing the world. Early on there’s a fairly ill-judged episode where Lok falls from a cliff, barely catching on to some roots to save himself, for reasons he doesn’t understand. It’s an utterly confusing passage not just in terms of why it happened but even what exactly happens, the reader sharing Lok’s utter bafflement (I reread it three times then just gave up and moved on). Interestingly, the foreword notes that Golding’s wife advised him to change that section as it would confuse readers. He didn’t, perhaps because he wanted the reader to share Lok’s confusion, but she was right.

Once you get past those initial difficulties though the rest of the book immerses you in a perspective that is alien but always consistent. Golding creates a new world through language. It’s a dazzling example of what literature is capable of, making us see the world through different eyes and in doing so see ourselves anew.

Other reviews

The only one I’m aware of on the blogosphere is the one that first got me interested in the book, and that’s John Self’s review at The Asylum, here. He covers some aspects of the book I didn’t touch on above (there’s a lot in this one and not all the points fitted well with what I wanted most to talk about). I completely recommend and agree with his review.

There’s also a great review here by the marvellous Penelope Lively in the Guardian. The Lively review contains some fairly hefty spoilers, but since the neanderthals aren’t still with us (save perhaps traces of them in our genes) it’s pretty obvious right from the beginning how this one ends so even if you normally avoid them I don’t think spoilers are much of an issue with this book.

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Filed under Golding, William, Science Fiction

The sound of a motorhorn separated us like thieves.

Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan and translated by Irene Ash

It’s nearly a month now since I read Bonjour Tristesse, but the memory of it still cuts through the books I’ve read since. It’s no surprise this was a massive hit when first published; it’s delicious.

bonjour-tristesse

Now that, that is a good cover. Brilliant even.

Cécile, “seventeen and perfectly happy”, is on holiday with her father, “a frivolous man, clever at business, always curious, quickly bored, and attractive to women.” They’ve taken a villa on the French Riviera and it’s no wonder she’s so happy, for she’s her daddy’s darling and she’s young, pretty and rich. “I dare say I owed most of my pleasures of that time to money; the pleasure of driving fast, of having a new dress, buying records, books, flowers.”

Her father’s current mistress is staying with them, Elsa, “a tall red-haired girl, sensual and worldly, gentle, rather simple, and unpretentious; one might have come across her any day in the studios and bars of the Champs-Élysées.” Cécile, emulating her father, idles her time away with Cyril, a university student who is “tall and sometimes beautiful, with the sort of good looks that immediately inspire one with confidence.”

The holiday is a sojourn in paradise. Everything is perfect, for Cécile anyway. Her days are awash with confident, spot-free adolescent sensuality.

The first days were dazzling. We spent hours on the beach overwhelmed by the heat and gradually assuming a healthy golden tan; except Elsa, whose skin reddened and peeled, causing her atrocious suffering. My father performed all sorts of complicated leg exercises to reduce a rounding stomach unsuitable for a Don Juan. From dawn onwards I was in the water. It was cool and transparent and I plunged wildly about in my efforts to wash away the shadows and dust of the city. I lay full length on the sand, took up a handful and let it run through my fingers in soft yellow streams. I told myself that it ran out like time. It was an idle thought, and it was pleasant to have idle thoughts, for it was summer.

Then however comes the “amiable and distant” Anne – “At forty-two she was a most attractive woman, much sought after, with a beautiful face, proud, tired and indifferent.” Elsa has youth and enthusiasm on her side, but Anne is in a different league. Educated, sophisticated, possessed of unquestionable taste, Anne is the epitome of bon chic, bon genre. Elsa hasn’t a hope against competition like that.

Soon Elsa’s out and Anne’s firmly in, and Cécile’s at first delighted since she likes Anne and perhaps aspires one day to be like her. Then it dawns that Anne has quite clear ideas about the kind of life she wants, and about the desirability of father and daughter leading a carefree existence of sun and pleasure (and Anne has a point, given that Cécile frequently wakes up with a hangover).

Worse yet, Cécile’s father seems actually serious about Anne, she’s not just another lover, she’s genuine competition for his interest and affections. Quite quickly Cécile decides she wants Anne back out, and the easy-going Elsa back in the picture.

The Times’ quote on the cover refers to the book as “thoroughly immoral”, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Instead I’d say it’s delightfully amoral. Cécile is like a less innocent Emma, arranging the lives of those around her in accordance with her views of how things should be, but unlike Emma she’s working to her convenience rather than their perceived benefit. In a way Cécile is something like a cat, attractive and affectionate but essentially self-interested.

Sagan was 18 when she wrote this and in part that shows. The emotions here are big emotions, this is (as the old Hollywood cliché goes) a summer that Cécile will never forget and it’s all rather dramatic. We’re definitely not in Colm Tóibín-type territory here where nothing much happens, slowly.

Bonjour Tristesse is a novel of surfaces, perhaps also reflecting Sagan’s age. Everyone here is pretty much as they appear to be, the only person with any ulterior motives is Cécile and we know those as she’s the narrator (and she’s a reliable narrator). This isn’t a novel where you’ll be spending ages considering possible meanings, symbolism and themes, it is what it fairly plainly is. That’s ok though, because it’s not trying for that kind of depth and it succeeds marvellously at what it does try for, at evoking an immediacy of experience.

The next morning I was awakened by a slanting ray of hot sunshine that flooded my bed and put an end to my strange and rather confused dreams. Still half asleep I raised my hand to shield my face from the insistent heat, then gave it up. It was ten o’ clock. I went down to the terrace in my pyjamas and found Anne glancing through the newspapers. I noticed that she was lightly, but perfectly, made up; apparently she never allowed herself a real holiday. As she paid no attention to me, I sat down on the steps with a cup of coffee and an orange to enjoy the delicious morning. I bit the orange and let its sweet juice run into my mouth, then took a gulp of scalding black coffee and went back to the orange again. The sun warmed my hair and smoothed away the marks of the sheet on my skin. I thought in five minutes I would go and bathe.

I love that quote. There’s a tremendous intensity about the sun and the coffee and the orange. Even a month later it still resonates with me, and when I think of this book that’s what I think of, Cécile sitting in the fierce sun gulping scalding black coffee and biting into an orange. It’s character made manifest through breakfast.

To an extent Bonjour Tristesse reminds me of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which is high praise given that’s one of my favourite novels of all time. It has that same sense of people playing with others’ lives without troubling themselves as to the damage they might do in the process. It has that same sense too of revelling in sheer physical pleasure and a heedlessness born of privilege without responsibility.

In case it’s not obvious I distinctly enjoyed Bonjour Tristesse. I had meant to buy the Heather Lloyd translation (I don’t recall why), but the Irene Nash was the one in stock when I went to Foyles so that’s what I read. I can’t of course compare the two translations, not having enough French and more importantly not having read both, but the Nash was a fluid read that didn’t once jar me with apparent anachronisms or odd turns of phrase so I’d have no hesitation at all in recommending it (though that doesn’t mean of course it’s good, for all I know the French text is packed with anachronisms and odd turns of phrase after all).

Other reviews

I’m not aware of any other reviews of this in the blogosphere, but if I’ve missed any please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under French Literature, Sagan, Françoise