In Britain, it was a time of whispers, for re-examining one’s friends and neighbours.

The Summer Isles, by Ian R. MacLeod

There’s a long tradition of alternate history novels, sometimes marketed as science fiction and sometimes not. Many are pure what-ifs having a bit of fun exploring what might have been. Some, however, explore the world we have through the funhouse mirror of the world we could have had.

The Summer Isles is a novel of a fascist Britain. I read it in the run up to the present US elections, shortly after our own Brexit vote. It’s a timely moment for this sort of book, but perhaps too timely to make it entirely enjoyable.

summer-isles

Brooke is a sixty-something Oxford history don in 1940s Modernist England. He’s a mediocre talent brought to prominence by his once having taught John Arthur, Britain’s prime minister and beloved leader, the architect of Britain’s Modernist renaissance and recovery from post-Great War ruin. John Arthur praised Brooke, or Brook as he accidentally called him, in his memoirs and that was enough for just a little of Arthur’s glamour to rub off on him.

John Arthur’s Britain is a gleaming and successful place. Portraits of John Arthur are everywhere, gazing down from offices and public lavatory walls alike. The trains are clean and they run on time. The country’s become something of an international pariah, but who cares when it’s recovered its prosperity and pride?

Brooke has found his own cosy Oxford nook and learned to forget inconvenient facts and to ignore inconvenient questions. He mostly doesn’t even correct the frequent misspelling of his name, accepting Arthur’s version as somehow supplanting the original. He reflects that “As easily as some faintly flavoured and not entirely disagreeable medicine, my whole life was already slipping by.”

Then come two crises. The first isn’t wholly unexpected. Brooke is gay and that is of course quite illegal, and in John Arthur’s Britain punished by mandatory cures and possible disappearance. He meets his lover, a married man, via a public toilet where each of them marks the wall to signal their availability and chosen meeting spot. One day his lover has left his mark on the wall, but doesn’t turn up to their rendezvous. Something has clearly happened to him.

The second crisis is less predictable. Brooke’s been unwell for a while now, but a trip to the doctor leads to visits to consultants and in less time than he’d have dreamt possible a terrible diagnosis:

“As I was saying, Brooke, I’ve been following your case, and giving it quite a lot of thought. Outwardly, you’re still in good enough health. I can see that. But as I think I explained, this tumour in your right lung has been growing for some time. With the problem of metastasis—I mean, of course, lymphatic spread—I really don’t think that there’s any need to operate.”

Not even any need for an operation! A stupid bubble of joy rises up from my stomach, then dissolves.

I’m very annoyed with myself by the time I finally step back out into the sunlight. I’m even annoyed with myself about feeling annoyed. So stupid, stupid. The idea that you might eventually die is something that you get used to as you grow older, but actual death is quite different. Death that could stop you seeing this year’s Wimbledon. Death that makes it pointless to buy a decent pair of shoes that’ll last you through next winter.

Somehow, I hadn’t realised that having lung cancer meant not just being ill, not just having my life shortened, but really dying.

I feel so angry.

The Summer Isles is shot through with melancholy and regret. Brooke has bargained away his life as has his Britain, both in thrall to a man who redefined them to his own design. Brooke decides to find out what happened to his lover, and so accidentally sets himself on a path to the heart of Modernist Britain.

Here he has found his lover’s house and asks a neighbour what happened to the family. The neighbour explains that the wife was Polish, then continues:

“Yes. And a few of them over here—it’s understandable that they want to come, isn’t it—just as long as they don’t make themselves a burden, earn a decent living, talk like we do and don’t bother our children and keep themselves to themselves and make a proper effort to fit in.”

“So what was the problem?”

“She was a Jew, wasn’t she. All these years they’ve been living next door and acting all normal and hiding it from us. I mean, it’s the deceit I really can’t stand. And he must have known. Must have been in it with that job of his, and helped her fake the papers when they married. Her with coming round through that door in a sunhat sometimes to give me a few extra cuttings for the rockery Les was working on.” Mrs. Stevens raises her shoulders and shudders theatrically. “To think of it. It’s the dishonesty. And her nothing but a dirty little Jew.”

Modernism needed someone to blame for the country’s disappointments. Immigrants, Jews, they made good culprits. The Jews were relocated to the far north, to Scotland’s Summer Isles where they were reportedly given pretty whitewashed houses and where nobody ever heard from them again. They were tempted there by:

Government leaflets with titles like What To Do If You’re A Jew (report straightaway to the Duty Sergeant at your local Police Station—“don’t worry, he’ll have dealt with your problem many times before”)

But if the leaflets didn’t tempt enough they were moved there all the same.

Brooke’s lover and his family have now been sent to the same location, and Brooke decides to take some long-overdue leave and follow the footsteps of an old holiday he took thirty years past with the great love of his life: a trip around Scotland in which they’d meant to visit the Summer Isles but had never quite made it as the war intervened and Brooke’s lover returned home to sign up. This time Brooke plans to complete the journey.

Brooke has no idea what may have happened in the Summer Isles and is mystified when he reaches Scotland and finds that nobody admits any memory of the Jews passing through and that the islands themselves are no longer even shown on local maps. Of course, as readers we have a pretty good idea what’s happened because we know our own real history. Brooke becomes more interested in his own past and his memory of his lost love than the absent islands and forgotten Jews, and frankly I thought this a better book for not showing what the reader can imagine all too well.

On his return Brooke finds the past returned in more immediate form: the tenth anniversary of John Arthur’s rule is fast approaching as is John Arthur’s fiftieth Birthday and John Arthur has personally asked that Brooke be invited to the celebrations at Number 10. It occurs to Brooke that after all these squandered years this could be an opportunity to finally make a difference. If one man had killed Napoleon early on what harm would Europe have been spared? If one man kills John Arthur, what harm might Europe yet be spared?

I won’t go into what happens, not least as the solidly executed plot is the least interesting part of the book. I loved MacLeod’s characterisation of Brooke himself, not so much a has-been as a never-really-was but who retains a quiet humanity regardless. Now he’s John Arthur’s personal guest he finds himself sought after by Oxford’s ambitious dean and invited to exclusive parties. Sadly for Brooke, while he was never quite brilliant enough to have won his way to his Oxford position on his own he’s more than clever enough to see the truth of his shabby world and the compromise he’s made of his life.

MacLeod’s vision of a fascist Britain also persuades. It’s a passive-aggressive sort of place, quickly turning when fuelled with drink to just plain aggressive. Ugliness is kept behind the scenes. Torture is carried out in ordinary looking office buildings. John Arthur promised certainty to people who felt left behind by history, and for that his followers were prepared to believe anything:

After the confusions and disappointments of their lives, these poor and jobless men were desperate to be told that, yes, it was all quite simple.

Besides, what he tells them is what they secretly wanted to believe anyway:

… all Modernism did was take what people said to each other over the garden fence and turn it into Government policy.

There’s even at times a rather British sense of humour to it all. It’s a quiet novel which fits because it’s an exploration of how fascism may manifest differently in different countries but of how the same underlying ugliness remains. We look at the trappings of other countries’ insanities – of 1930s Germany or McCarthyite America – and we say to ourselves “that couldn’t happen here, that’s a product of their history, their culture” but all we’re doing is confusing the cosmetic for the actual. If it happens to us it won’t wear the same clothes or shout the same slogans, but that doesn’t make us immune.

7 Comments

Filed under MacLeod, Ian R., Science Fiction

… she would drink nothing for a week except a beer or a glass of wine after work each day.

The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates

Where to start with such a book? Perhaps with the opening paragraph which is sufficiently brilliant that it leaves anything I might say quite redundant:

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce. That happened in 1930, when Sarah was nine years old and Emily five. Their mother, who encouraged both girls to call her ‘Pookie,’ took them out of New York to a rented house in Tenafly, New Jersey, where she thought the schools would be better and where she hoped to launch a career in suburban real estate. It didn’t work out – very few of her plans for independence ever did – and they left Tenafly after two years, but it was a memorable time for the girls.

easter-parade

The Easter Parade is a study in disappointment, and that first paragraph sets the stage beautifully. Leaving aside the power of that first sentence let’s look at some of the other elements for a moment: we know that ‘Pookie’ wants to be seen by her daughters more as friend than authority figure; the cutesy nickname suggests she might not be very practical which is immediately confirmed by that unsuccessful move to Tenafly and by that aside on her various plans; and then that final coda that “it was a memorable time for the girls” which somehow makes the whole thing infinitely sadder.

Easter tracks the Grimes sisters from childhood through to middle age. Sarah is the pretty one, popular and conventional. Emily lacks her sister’s curves and confidence but is both more independent and clearer-sighted. Early on they travel to the city to see their father. They think he’s an important journalist and are shocked when he explains that he’s “only a copy-desk man”. Sarah still boasts of him at school; Emily reminds her afterwards of the diminished reality.

Sarah saves herself through adolescence and marries a dashing and popular boy named Tony who has English parents and movie-star good looks. It’s what a good girl does and he seems a good catch, but we know from that opening sentence that the marriage won’t make her happy.

Emily meanwhile loses her virginity to a soldier on leave whom she never sees again, goes to college and then gets jobs in journalism and ultimately in advertising. Where Sarah chose marriage, family and domesticity Emily chooses independence and a career, but we still have that opening sentence reminding us that neither sister has a happy life.

The writing, as ever with Yates, is exquisite. I loved this description of part of Emily’s encounter with that soldier:

Somewhere above Forty-second street he kissed her. It wasn’t the first time she had been kissed – not even the first time she’d been kissed on top of a Fifth Avenue bus; one of the boys in high school had been that brave – but it was the first kiss of its kind, ever.

Despite that theme of disappointment, or perhaps because of it, there are no great tragedies here. Sarah would count losing her virginity to a random soldier as a disaster but Emily doesn’t suffer any for it. There are deaths, but from illness or age (perhaps sometimes exacerbated by too much to drink for too long, but natural all the same). Nobody is murdered; nobody dies in a car crash or rail collision; aliens don’t invade; the world doesn’t end; life carries on.

Years slip by sometimes in a sentence. Sarah and Emily drift apart. Each of them wants a little of what the other has perhaps because neither has a whole life. But then, who does? We all have to make choices.

Sarah dreams of doing some writing and her early efforts suggest talent, but her husband isn’t interested and she’s not part of that world. Nothing she writes ever gets finished and nobody really cares except her.

Emily meanwhile marries a man who comes to resent her for his impotence and some years later moves with an aging poet named Jack to a writer’s workshop in Iowa where he hopes to rediscover his early talent. Like Sarah, Emily tries putting her man ahead of herself and briefly abandons her career to support Jack’s but he too comes to resent her when his writer’s block fails to clear. Somehow Sarah can’t unlock the door to Emily’s creativity, nor Emily the door to Sarah’s domesticity.

There’s a sense that it all tracks back to their parents. To their father who considered himself a failure and who wrote headlines for a minor newspaper whose politics he disagreed with. To their mother with her fantasies of a grandeur and an elegance she could never realise. But perhaps that’s too easy, because none of the other characters seem any happier and they don’t all have divorced parents.

Early on in the novel Sarah and Tony go to watch the Easter Parade. They’re photographed there, young and happy and full of life and love. It’s paradise captured in a Kodak moment. Perhaps that’s the clue to this novel. Happiness is fleeting. Life can’t be frozen in a snapshot; kept inviolable against age and defeat.

Tony’s career never takes off. Sarah drinks too much and grows fat and dowdy. Emily is successful but lonely. Pookie dissolves into her own fantasies. Years after their breakup Emily sees a review of Jack’s new volume of poetry which he’s finally managed to write. It’s lacklustre and the reviewer quickly moves on to a newer poet.

If Tony and Sarah had died that day at the Easter Parade, if some chunk of masonry had fallen from a building flattening them both, then their lives would have been judged happy to that point. People would mourn their lost potential; their bright future. Instead they lived and the future turned out not to be so bright after all. It’s not the divorce that makes the Grimes’ sisters’ lives unhappy. It’s living.

I’ll end with one final quote from fairly early in the novel. Here Emily and Pookie are visiting Sarah and Tony who’re now set up in a home of their own. Sarah is married as she wanted, Emily’s at college as she wanted. Pookie can see her daughters doing well for themselves. They should all be happy and yet …

[Sarah] served a lunch that was almost as inadequate as one of Pookie’s meals; then the problem was that the conversations kept petering out. Sarah wanted to hear ‘everything’ about Barnard, but when Emily began to talk she saw her sister’s eyes glaze over in smiling boredom. Pookie said “isn’t this nice? Just the three of us together again?” But it wasn’t really nice very nice at all, and for most of the afternoon they sat around the sparsely furnished living room in attitudes of forced conviviality. Three women with nothing much to say to one another. Color illustrations of Magnum Navy fighter planes in action occupied one wall; on another was the framed Easter photograph of Sarah and Tony.

I suspect I’ve made this sound bleak and to be fair a novel about the disappointments of life can’t help but be a little bleak. However, the honesty and the beauty of the writing takes it above that. This is a sad novel, but not a depressing one. As it closes nobody is any the wiser, but life continues. It may not always be all we’d wish, but it’s the only game in town.

Other reviews

Jacqui over at Jacqui Wine’s Journal pushed me over the line into reading this (I’ve owned it for ages). Her review is here. Jacqui also linked to reviews by Kim at Reading Matters here and by guest reviewer Carly at Tomcatintheredroom here.

Carly’s review picks up two key themes that I wish I’d picked up above, but it felt like cheating to change my review to follow hers. They’re the theme of the pursuit of art as an unsuccessful route to meaning which crops up repeatedly here; and the devastating quality of small heartbreaks. Carly quotes an exchange that she calls “one of the most quietly devastating in any work of fiction” and I can’t disagree with her. Follow the link above to see it for yourself.

14 Comments

Filed under Yates, Richard

You love life. I covet life.

Vlad, by Carlos Fuentes and translated by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger

A few years back or so Lee Rourke kindly sent me a review copy of one of Dalkey Archive’s books. Vlad was popped in as an unexpected extra on the basis he thought I might like it. This shows two things: firstly that Lee has an eye for interesting books; secondly that I’m a terrible person to send review copies to because literally years can pass before I get to them.

Vlad is a strange one. It’s a cross (an unholy contamination?) between literary fiction and horror. Vlad the Impaler, Dracula, comes to contemporary 21st Century Mexico City. As he notes, licking his lips, it’s home to “twenty million delectable blood sausages!” Where better for a vampire to hide and feast?

At the same time it’s a surprisingly compassionate novel about class, sensuality, life and loss. That’s the thing about vampires, as myths go they’re very flexible.

vlad

Yves Navarro is a successful law firm partner. Zurinaga, the legendary senior partner of his firm, asks him to take care of a European client as a personal favour. Zurinaga is old school, Mexico City’s elite. Navarro is delighted to be able to help him.

The mandate is a simple one. The client is a Central European count who wishes to move to Mexico City and has a particular kind of property in mind. Navarro’s wife Asunción works in real estate so Navarro can handle the legals and she the house-hunting and between them it’s a complete service.

The Navarros are a perfect middle class couple. They have good jobs, money, and a 10-year-old daughter Magdalena whom they both adore. By day they’re sober and responsible, and at night they delight in each other’s bodies with a passion their daytime professionalism never hints at.

Life is good then, but no life is ever truly perfect. Some years past they lost their other child, their son Didier, to a drowning accident. They’ve survived his loss as a couple and as a family, but the absence stays with them. Didier’s body was never found, a fact Navarro was grateful for and which Asunción felt robbed her of a chance to say a proper goodbye. It’s an old wound, never healed but which together they’ve learned to work around. Didier’s gone, but always present:

Didier dissolved into the ocean, and I am incapable of hearing the break of a wave without thinking that a trace of my son, turned to salt and foam, is coming back to us, after circulating incessantly, like a ghost ship, from ocean to ocean…

Zurinaga’s friend has some odd stipulations for his new house. There must be no neighbouring properties. It must be “easy to defend”. It needs to have a ravine out the back, and a tunnel between the house and the ravine. Oh, and there must be no windows …

Navarro is a polite man, urbane, he facilitates without asking questions. Asunción finds a suitable house and Navarro manages the paperwork and before long the count has set up home together with his peculiar hunchback servant and apparently a little girl around Magdalena’s age.

The count is a grotesque. Ancient, wrinkled, bald. His ears are curiously malformed and he wears mirrored sunglasses even in the shower. He takes an interest in Navarro who acts as if everything is normal even when he notices that every room in the house has a gutter built into it; even when he finds a picture of Asunción and Magdalena tacked up inside a cupboard.

The whole motif of a lawyer at the home of a mesmeric but malignant count is of course a shout-out to Bram Stoker’s original Dracula. Fuentes knows his source material. However, Vlad also works as social commentary. Part of the reason Navarro asks so few questions is that the count was introduced as a friend of Zurinaga’s. He comes with the highest possible social pedigree and introduction.

Most people on finding themselves in a house with the windows bricked up and gutters along the walls would be looking to leave immediately. Most would have questions if they then found a photo of their family. Navarro is too polite, too professional. He also lives two existences: at night one of passion with Asunción; by day one of bloodless professionalism.

Vlad is in places very funny. There’s a scene where the count invites Navarro over to dinner and Navarro finds him still in the shower. The emaciated and disturbing figure of the count emerges, absolutely naked, and launches into conversation quite ignoring Navarro’s discomfort:

Standing next to a naked Central European count who liked to discuss the philosophy of life and death, I tried to lighten things up a little.

Despite Navarro’s efforts things quickly darken. Magdalena sleeps over with a schoolfriend, but days pass and Navarro doesn’t see her. There’s a plausible explanation from everyone he speaks to but no matter how many good answers you get there comes a point you start to worry. The count asks Navarro “Do you know where your children are?”; Navarro misses the horror implicit in the plural. Soon after Navarro finds his comfortable life and assumptions sliding ever-quicker through his fingers. Control was only ever an illusion.

By the end we’ve left comedy far behind and we’re into questions of mortality and the price worth paying to preserve your child’s innocence. It’s a descent into horror that terrifies more through temptation than intimidation.

Vlad is a short novel. My copy is a physically small hardback with comfortably sized margins and even then it’s only a little over 100 pages. Really it’s more of a novella, but it packs a lot into its space. It unfolds after reading and leaves an impression greater than its size would suggest.

As you’d expect, the count dominates proceedings once he arrives. It’s always the monsters who bring the glamour. But Navarro’s failings are human ones and it’s that which brings the interest. Come for the black comedy. Stay for the melancholy compassion.

Other reviews

Grant reviewed this at his 1st Reading’s blog here. I also found online this fascinating review by an Australian professor of political economy who discusses the book in the context of Mexico City’s politics and urban geography. It’s a short piece and more readable than that makes it sound. I recommend it.

Separately, Stu reviewed Carlos Fuentes’ The Eagles’ Throne here. I included it because I thought it illustrated Fuentes’ range, and because it’s worth linking to  Stu’s blog which holds an absolute treasure-trove of Mexican literature worth exploring.

22 Comments

Filed under Fuentes, Carlos, Mexican Literature

It was the power of Business, not the deliberations of statesmen, that shaped the destinies of nations.

Uncommon Danger, by Eric Ambler

It was John Self of The Asylum who alerted me to Eric Ambler through his review of Ambler’s Journey into Fear. I’m not a fan of the thriller genre, but I’ve enjoyed some Le Carré and Deighton and Ambler is something of a precursor to both of them.

From late September through October this year I was exceptionally busy at work. I needed a book that would be fast moving and easy to read but gripping even when I was tired. I reached for the Ambler that had sat on my shelves for the five years since John’s review. It was a good choice.

uncommon-danger

Uncommon doesn’t leap straight into the action. Instead it features a brief prologue set in a London-based oil company boardroom. The CEO wants access to Romanian oil fields, but needs political change to achieve it. He calls in a Colonel Robinson, who despite his name is quite clearly no Englishman…

The story then shifts to Kenton, a freelance journalist who’s just blown his savings in an ill-judged card game. Desperate, he buys a ticket to Vienna on the Orient Express hoping he can borrow some money from an old acquaintance once he gets there. Like most decent thriller writers Ambler is strong on description, and particularly on description of luxury:

He had been waiting for three-quarters of an hour when the Night Orient Express from Ostend came in, flecked with melting snow. Behind the steamy windows of the coaches, braided waiters hurried towards the first class restaurant car. He heard the clatter of dishes and the clink of glasses. From where he stood out of the wind he could see a destination board on the side of one of the sleeping cars – Wien, Buda-Pesth, Belgrade, Sofia, Istanbul. The Orient Express looked warm and luxurious inside and he was glad when it moved out. At that moment it seemed to epitomize all the security and comfort – bodily, financial and gastronomic – that he craved. He wallowed in self-pity.

Evocative isn’t it? Kenton finds himself sharing his carriage with one other traveller, Sachs:

His face was narrow and he had the kind of jowl that should be shaved twice a day, but isn’t. He wore a dirty starched collar with a huge grey-flowered tie and a crumpled dark-striped suit. On his knees rested a limp American cloth attaché-case from which he was extracting paper bags containing sausage and bread. A bottle of Vichy water stood propped against the back of the seat beside him.

Kenton hasn’t eaten so he’s grateful when Sachs shares his food, but for all his generosity Sachs doesn’t seem wholly trustworthy and as they approach the border he becomes increasingly nervous. Soon Sachs asks Kenton if he minds carrying a package over the border for him. He’ll pay well now and more on the other side. Kenton knows it stinks, but he’s desperate so he takes the deal.

It’s no spoiler to say that Sachs doesn’t survive long. Kenton finds himself on the run suspected of Sachs’ murder and pursued both by Russian intelligence and by the sinister “Colonel Robinson”, who is quickly revealed to be the notorious professional assassin and agent-provocateur Saridza.

Ambler doesn’t mess around and by about page 26 the broad outlines of the plot and the key players are all fairly well set out. There are details to be filled in (quite why the photos Kenton discovers in Sachs’ package matter so much), but even those you can take a pretty good guess at. The package is a classic McGuffin. The real interest is in the chase.

Uncommon Danger does have some great characters. Kenton himself I found a bit bland, but I loved the main Russian agent Zaleshoff who “rarely said what he really thought without making it sound like a clumsy attempt to dissemble. Passionate conviction was with him a sign of indifference to the point at issue.” Zaleshoff is aided by his beautiful sister, Tamara, and naturally a romance starts to bloom between her and Kenton (though it feels a bit tacked on to be honest, but at least Ambler doesn’t spend much time on it).

On the other side of the equation Saridza makes a convincing adversary, even if he does at one point literally leave Kenton and Zaleshoff to apparent certain death after gloating to them both about his plans. Quite why he didn’t just shoot them was never entirely clear to me, save that if he had the book would have ended there…

Saridza is assisted by the brutal and sadistic Captain Mailler, formerly of the black-and-tans. While Saridza’s in it for the money Mailler seems to like working in the shadows because of the freedom it gives him to hurt people. There’s a definite element of Bond villain and henchman here which surely must have influenced Fleming (not least when, for a second time, someone gives key information to Kenton on the basis that it won’t matter now as there’s nothing he can do to stop them…)

As well as all that there’s gunfights, tense escapes past border-guards, thrilling chase sequences, all the sorts of things you’d expect. The ingredients are pretty familiar but Ambler puts them together well (and, to be fair, helped make them the standards that they are today).

What’s less usual here is the politics. Later writers draw on the Cold war and conflicts of nations. Governments are the key actors. For Ambler governments are as much puppets as Kenton himself. The real power is big business.

Saridza is working for a UK oil company. His goal is to destabilise Romania and he plans to do this by leaking Russian secrets to them (again, all by page 26). The Russians are reactive. Without corporate interests none of this would be happening and for Ambler that’s true of the whole shadow game:

One end of the game was played in the rarified atmosphere of board-rooms and weekend shooting parties; the other was played, with persons like Sachs as counters, in trains, in cheap hotels, in suburbs of big cities, in murky places away from the bright highways dedicated to the rosy-cheeked goddess of tourisme.

There’s an appealing and for me fairly persuasive cynicism here. In Ambler’s Europe those at the top take decisions without looking too closely at how they’ll be implemented, then men like Saridza take whatever steps are necessary to make those decisions happen. Saridza isn’t so stupid as to report back his methods, and his bosses aren’t so stupid as to ask him. The world goes on, possibly with fewer people in it, and profits are made. As Ambler observes “The Big Business man was only one player in the game of international politics, but he was the player who made all the rules.”

Plus ça change. Uncommon Danger was first published back in 1937 and you would think that would date it. In fact, despite the use of elements such as the Orient Express, Soviet agents and the now distant pre-war setting Ambler’s exploration of corporations as drivers of conflict makes it more timely than you might expect and perhaps more relevant than the later fiction he helped inspire.

Other reviews

None I’m aware of, but I’m happy to be corrected in the comments.

7 Comments

Filed under Ambler, Eric, Thrillers

Doing wrong for its own sake made him happy.

The Hotel of the Three Roses, by Augusto de Angelis and translated by Jill Foulston

I recently read De Angelis’ Death of a Banker which I liked but didn’t love. It was a first novel, which showed in its over-evident debt to Agatha Christie and a tendency to portentousness in the first half.

Being perfectly honest, if it had been an English novel of similar period I probably wouldn’t have read more. I don’t follow the excellent British Crime Library series after all, many of which are frankly better than the first De Angelis. 1930s Milan is sufficiently unusual to me, and the Pushkin brand sufficiently influential, that I tried his next anyway.

three-roses

As with Death of a Banker, the novel opens in fog:

The rain was coming down in long threads that looked silvery in the glare of the headlamps. A fog, diffuse and smoky, needled the face. An unbroken line of umbrellas bobbed along the pavements. Motor cars in the middle of the road, a few carriages, trams full. At six in the afternoon, Milan was thick with darkness in these first days of December.

It worked in the first book and De Angelis saw no reason to change it for the second (a statement that’s true of several of the book’s elements). However, in terms of character chronology Three Roses is actually set before Banker, and is Inspector De Vincenzi’s first major case.

Banker had a figure moving through the fog, Roses has three of them. They create that initial sinister note that De Angelis is so fond of:

Their profiles were beaked, their eyes bright and alert, and with those chins and noses they seemed to be cleaving the crowd and the heavy mist of fog and rain. How old they were was anyone’s guess. Age had fossilized their bodies, and each was so similar to the others that without the colourful hat ribbons under their chins—mauve, claret, black—a person might have thought he was hallucinating, convinced he was seeing the same woman three times in a row.

The three women are seeking out their brother, Carlo Da Coma. He’s a long-term guest at the Hotel of the Three Roses (I love novels set in hotels with long-stay guests), behind on his bills and borrowing money from the staff. His sisters want to buy one of his few remaining assets from him – an already heavily mortgaged property. The sale would more than clear his debts and he has no use for the place, but he refuses “just to spite them”. He then goes upstairs to his room:

a garret with rooftop views. A small iron bed, a chest of drawers with a mirror, a washbasin standing on a pedestal, an enamel jug, a couple of chairs. But there was a yellow leather trunk and a suitcase of pigskin. And on the walls, three large colour prints by Vernet. Authentic ones which, with their galloping horses and flying jockeys, were alone worth everything else illuminated by the dusty lamp. The trunk, the suitcase and three prints were all Da Como had brought back with him from London. Remains of a shipwreck—his shipwreck. Apart, of course, from the heavily mortgaged Comerio property.

Da Como is a perversely nasty piece of work, but he’s far from the only one. Later that evening as guests eat, play cards, enjoy a drink, the gossipy hunchback Bardi runs into the main room screaming that a man has been hanged upstairs. The body was positioned where only a few people might discover it, Da Como among them. Is someone trying to send a particularly macabre message?

Meanwhile, De Vincenzi is already interested in the hotel having received an anonymous letter warning that a “horrible drama is brewing, one that will blow up if the police don’t intervene in time. A young girl is about to lose her innocence. Several people’s lives are threatened. … the devil is grinning from every corner of that house.”

De Angelis clearly hasn’t lost his fondness for the over-dramatic. De Vincenzi is troubled by the letter and his concerns are swiftly proved justified when the police are called to investigate the hanging. De Vincenzi is “profoundly disturbed. He had a vague presentiment that he was about to experience something dreadful.”

The forebodings aren’t as oversold here as in Banker, but De Angelis does overuse this motif of having characters reflect on how terrible and evil the events about to unfold are. He sets up expectations which he then inevitably struggles to deliver and as devices go it’s a bit hammy. Here the events are more sinister than in Banker but even so it’s a serious crime, not the devil riding out.

What at first looks like a potential suicide quickly becomes something much worse (now I’m at it…) The dead man was posed after being killed:

“He did not die by hanging,” he uttered slowly and softly, and De Vincenzi felt a quick shiver pass beneath his skin. “Someone hung him up after he was dead.”

What unfolds is a complex plot involving an inheritance, an old crime, and many if not most of the guests. There’s an international cast and soon more bodies, and more than one of the guests appear to have brought the same creepy vintage doll with them for no reason De Vincenzi can discover.

There’s a distinctly gothic tone to the proceedings. Bardi, the hunchback, is hairless even to the extent of having no eyelashes and has a face “so smooth, so furrowed with tiny lines at his temples and the corners of his mouth as to give the impression of an almost obscene nudity.”

In case a hairless hunchback isn’t sufficient, other characters of note include: a skeletal Levantine who dresses entirely in black and claims divinatory powers; a youthful gambling addict; a grotesquely fat man named Engel who along with Da Como may have been the target of the displayed corpse and who is the keeper of one of those creepy dolls I mentioned. Nobody’s past bears much examining. It’s distinctly a cabinet of curiosities.

Da Como went to get a tumbler from the sink and filled it with cognac. De Vincenzi watched him drink without stopping him. Even he could have done with a drink. Recounted like that in the deep, raucous voice of a man who looked like an orangutan dressed up as a clown, and in a room with whitewashed walls, by the pink light of a dusty lamp, the story had profoundly depressed him.

Quite. Who can blame him?

Roses is flatly a better book than Banker. It’s over the top, but the claustrophobic setting of the hotel marooned in fog with nobody allowed to leave (in case the murderer disappears) works well. It soon becomes apparent that the murderer isn’t done yet, forcing De Vincenzi to work against the clock interrogating guests who’re desperate for the killer to be caught before they’re next, but not so desperate as to reveal their common knowledge of what’s behind it all.

I wasn’t always absolutely persuaded by De Vincenzi’s methods and he’s not the most interesting series character I’ve read, but the setting, tone and plot worked well enough and overall it was a fun lightweight read. I plan to read the next in the series, which Pushkin Vertigo have already released.

Other reviews

Guy wrote this one up at his, here.

10 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, De Angelis, Augusto, Italian Literature, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

We had a nice time in Reno

Run River, by Joan Didion

Run River opens with a death, then backtracks to show the wasted lives that led to it. It’s a lonely and melancholic book; a tale of a declining American aristocracy told in coldly lucid prose.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

Lily heard the shot at seventeen minutes to one. She knew the time precisely because, without looking out the window into the dark where the shot reverberated, she continued fastening the clasp on the diamond wrist watch Everett had given her two years before on their seventeenth anniversary, looked at it on her wrist for a long time, and then, sitting on the edge of the bed, began winding it.

In most novels a gunshot is a call to action. Characters spring to life. They scream; run towards or away from the shot; grab a gun themselves; hide; call for help. They react. Lily hears a shot and takes the time to wind her watch.

run-river

Once the watch is wound Lily checks the bedside table for her husband’s gun. She’s not surprised to find it missing. She’s not surprised when she heads outside to find that her husband has murdered her lover, Channing. She’s a little upset because she doesn’t think it was necessary, but it’s not an emotional scene. Lily and Everett aren’t emotional people, or if they are they don’t know how to express what they feel. Perhaps if they did Channing wouldn’t be dead.

That all happens in 1959. The book then jumps back to 1938, to Lily and Everett’s early days as a couple and onward to their marriage and life together. All the years leading up to that night and to Channing’s corpse.

In 1938 Lily is a student, born to privilege and a certain wealth. Her ancestors were among the early settlers of the West. She’s not happy at college and when Everett shows interest in her during a break she’s happy to return it. He’s from the same background as she is, the same historic stock. He’s the default option.

They marry, but Lily is reluctant to make a show of it so it happens in Reno without their families. They go to live on Everett’s ranch with his father and sister and she gives him two children. It’s the life she was bred for but she has no aptitude for it. She makes invitation cards for parties hardly anyone attends. She doesn’t mind. She only organised the parties because she thought she should.

Everett is a simple man living the life he was always meant to – the life his father and grandfather and so on led. The 1930s aren’t a great time to be a rancher though and it’s not clear Everett’s that good at being one anyway. He’s not the man his ancestors were. Nor is Lily the kind of wife they would have wanted.

These people drift on monied but pointless. The war comes and in what should be a warning sign Everett feels no great need to visit or call home even when he can. He likes being away, he likes the undemanding company of other men. The war gives him a purpose, but wars don’t last and the ranch still waits for him.

Lily doesn’t find any purpose. The days of the old rancher society are fading and she’s idled into her life. She took the path of least resistance and it’s led nowhere in particular.

Everett’s sister, Martha, is another major character and fares no better than Lily and Everett. We know early on that she doesn’t make it to 1959. Martha’s a vulnerable and unhappy woman. She falls in love with Channing, years before he becomes Lily’s lover. He’s of the new California, brimming with schemes to get rich that never quite come off. He doesn’t marry her. Martha lives in limbo, caught between the expectations of her class and her love of a man who is never quite brave or bold enough to be worth the devotion she gives to him.

Martha doesn’t consider Lily good enough for Everett and criticises her for her infidelities, but nothing is resolved. These characters pass noiselessly through their own lives, coexisting and occasionally colliding but somehow never quite communicating. Everett doesn’t know how to say what he feels, and Lily would rather not:

The reconciliation made her quite as uncomfortable as the scene downstairs had; things said out loud had for her an aura of danger so volatile that it could be controlled only in that dark province inhabited by those who share beds.

Snatching at what had seemed for a moment a chance to steer the conversation away from the particular and into the realm of topics so impersonal and so unweighted that they could be safely talked about.

In Greek myth the dead inhabit Hades, a shadow-realm where shades of the once-vibrant living wander without passion or pleasure. Food tastes of ashes. All passion is past. Those who loved each other in life recognise each other but only memories of feelings stir.

Sacramento should be a long way from Hades, but here it isn’t. It’s not a parallel Didion draws but it struck me that Lily and Everett had somehow abdicated their own lives and created their own little sunwashed Hades.

As ever with Didion the prose is magnificent. These two quotes come from a rare moment of grace when Lily and Everett go with Martha and Channing for a few days’ vacation on Lake Tahoe:

In the shining clarity of that afternoon in the mountains, the air so clear and sharp and the horizons clean and distant, it had seemed to Everett for a while that they could have again what he had wanted them to have, could lie in bed and laugh, neither accusing the other of anything.

All that evening, he had pretended with her, had played her game because that was the way he wanted it too, and later they swam in the lake, the water so clear that with only the moonlight and the handful of lights strung out on the dock he could make out rocks thirty feet below the surface, so cold that swimming was like grappling with dry ice.

In a sense this is a novel of people sufficiently privileged as to be able to create their own problems, as opposed to most who find the world creates problems enough for them already. Despite that their lives are still tragic. They’re still with us the Lilys and Everetts. Children born to a past that’s already made their choices for them unless they have the strength of character to break away from everything that made them, and how many of us can do that?

Late in the book Lily reflects of Everett and Channing both that “they seemed afflicted with memory.” So they are. They’re born to expectations they can’t live up to; heirs to kingdoms they’re not fit to rule. It’s 1959, America is on the eve of the ‘60s (Run River was written in ’63) and the world is changing. Lily and Martha and Everett and Channing and all of them are leftovers from history and while their forebears wrote America’s story the narrative has now moved on.

Other reviews

Didion’s never a hard sell, but it was Emma’s review at Book Around the Corner here and Jacqui’s at Jacqui Wine’s Journal here that persuaded me to read this. Thanks as ever to both.

16 Comments

Filed under California, Didion, Joan

Reality outwaits us all.

Bird in a Cage, by Frédéric Dard and translated by David Bellos

Albert has been away from home for six years. He returns just before Christmas to an empty apartment unchanged since his mother’s death some four years past. Albert is alone and lonely.

He heads out onto the crowded streets of his Paris suburb and goes to a grand restaurant his mother always dreamed of eating in but never dared to. Now he’ll eat in it without her. Along the way he buys “a small silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust” with a tiny velvet bird inside. He has no tree to decorate, but the tiny ornament is a reminder of the past he’s lost.

birdinacage

The restaurant is grand and traditional and packed with families and Christmas shoppers. Dard describes it rather well, including how it doesn’t even smell like an ordinary restaurant:

Chiclet’s smelled of absinthe and snails, and of old wood too.

I loved that little snippet of description. Near Albert’s table is a woman with a small child. He can’t help but observe them:

The woman looked like Anna. She had dark hair as Anna did, the same dark and almond-shaped eyes, the same dusky complexion and the same witty, sensual lips that scared me. She might have been twenty-seven, which is what Anna would have been. She was very pretty and smartly dressed. The little girl didn’t have her eyes, or her hair, or her nose, but in spite of that she still managed to look like her mother.

We don’t yet know who Anna was. The woman flirts lightly with Albert, but eventually their meals come to their end and the woman leaves with the girl. Albert leaves too:

Let me be clear: I was not following them. I picked the same street simply because it was the way to my flat.

Of course, Albert, of course. He follows them to a nearby cinema. They buy a ticket; so does he. The usherette thinks they’re together and sits him next to the woman.

I could feel the human warmth of the woman, and it overwhelmed me. The perfume of her overcoat shattered me.

He’s not sure if she’s inviting his attention or simply indifferent, but he ends up going home with her. After that, things get complicated.

Bird in a Cage is a little gem of a novel. It’s 120 pages just and brilliantly judged. By going to that restaurant, buying that little bird in a cage, Albert has walked into a situation that wouldn’t be out of place in a Clouzot film and I ate the whole book up in practically one sitting.

It’s actually difficult to say a lot more without spoiling this. I’ve not really touched on the plot and I’d strongly recommend against reading any kind of synopsis. This is a book where you want to be as lost as Albert and where you want to discover alongside him what’s really going on.

Bird has melancholy, regret, passion and murder. It’s very much a psychological piece as Albert finds himself trapped between the horror of an incomprehensible nightmare inside the woman’s flat and the dream of some desperately needed human connection in the form of the woman herself. It is very, very good and exactly the kind of book I look to Pushkin for.

There are some stylistic issues. Dard massively overuses exclamation marks and really doesn’t need to since his plot is dramatic enough without them. There was a point where I started to find that slightly jarring, but then the intensity of the story kicked in and I stopped noticing quite so much. It’s a flaw, but not a fatal one and certainly not one that would make me hesitate to recommend this book to anyone with a taste for psychological noir fiction.

I’m conscious this is a particularly short review, but far better here to say too little than too much. I’ve already bought Pushkin’s second Dard, The Wicked Go to Hell, and I look forward to more. Dard was one of these insanely prolific writers (over 300 novels according to Wikipedia) so he should keep Pushkin busy for a while yet.

Other reviews

Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations reviewed this here and inspired me to read it. Thanks, as so often before, are due accordingly.

17 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, Dard, Frédéric, French Literature, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

I enjoyed universal affection. I was Mrs Hawkins.

A Far Cry From Kensington, by Muriel Spark

Many (many) years ago I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I’d guess that it’s the only Muriel Spark most people have heard of (because of the film). It was excellent, but somehow I wasn’t prompted to read more. It felt like I’d read the essential work. I hadn’t of course. I’d just read the famous one.

Recently I decided to give Spark another try and I chose A Far Cry from Kensington for the simple reason that I grew up in Kensington and it seemed that might lend it some personal interest. It’s a pretty random reason to read a book, but it worked out because Far Cry is quite simply superb.

Superb incidentally is very much a post-reading judgement. Early on in Far Cry I thought it rambling and baggy. It isn’t and by the time I’d finished I realised it was one of the more tautly constructed novels I’ve read this year. Stick with it.

farcry

The book opens with the narrator, Mrs Hawkins, lying awake with her mind turning back to her time living in Kensington in 1954. Years have passed. She no longer lives in London and it wouldn’t matter if she did because the Kensington of her today is a far cry from the Kensington of back then. This is a reverie of a lost world.

In 1954 Mrs Hawkins is young and enormously fat (it’s relevant). She works in an upmarket publishing house in the West End, mostly fobbing off authors and print companies who’re all chasing payment. The business is going bust and she soon reveals that her boss Martin York eventually went to jail for fraud.

Martin York isn’t a bad man. He overextended and overjuggled and ultimately comes unstuck committing a stupid forgery in the hope of buying a little more time. At his trial the judge reproves him with the words “Commercial life cannot be carried on unless people are honest” before sentencing him to seven years. A harsh penalty for a foolish misjudgment, but the penalty for honesty is one of the themes of this book.

In the evenings Mrs Hawkins goes home to a rooming house in downmarket South Kensington. Her landlady, Milly, is a charming but still respectable Irishwoman who runs a reputable house. The other tenants include a quietly middle-aged married couple, a medical student, a district nurse, a young woman with family income, and a polish dressmaker named Wanda Podolak. Like the publishing house few of them have much money. The difference between the people at work and at home is one of attitude, or perhaps of honesty:

At Milly’s in South Kensington, everybody paid their weekly rent, however much they had to scrape and budget, balancing the shillings and pence of those days against small fractions saved on groceries and electric light; at Milly’s, people added and subtracted, they did division and multiplication sums incessantly; and there was Kate with her good little boxes marked ‘bus-fares’, ‘gas’, ‘sundries’. Here, in the West End, the basic idea was upper class, scornful of the bothersome creditors as if they were impeding a more expansive view.

Both at Milly’s and at work Mrs Hawkins is much relied upon:

There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in me. I looked comfortable.

There are two more key elements to throw into the mix. The first is at work:

At this point the man whom I came to call the pisseur de copie enters my story. I forget which of the French symbolist writers of the late nineteenth century denounced a hack writer as a urinator of journalistic copy in the phrase ‘pisseur de copie’, but the description remained in my mind, and I attached it to a great many of the writers who hung around or wanted to meet Martin York; and finally I attached it for life to one man alone, Hector Bartlett.

Hector Bartlett: he’s hanger-on to the famous and highly regarded author Emma Loy; a writer of terrible prose who uses his connections to get published; a man so petty that when in one scene a dog in a pub snaffles part of his sausage roll he dunks the remaining bit in mustard before feeding it to the unsuspecting animal.

Bartlett is entirely without merit, but nobody in the publishing world dares say so because Emma Loy is too important to upset. Nobody that is save Mrs Hawkins who calls him a “pisseur de copie” to his face and then repeats the phrase to anyone who asks what she did to offend him. If challenged why she said such a thing she merely replies that it’s true and says it again.

The second key element  is at home. Wanda Podolak receives a poison pen letter:

Mrs Podolak, We, the Organisers, have our eyes on you. You are conducting a dressmaking business but you are not declaring your income to the Authorities. Take care. An Organiser.

The only people who know about Wanda’s business are her friends, housemates and clients. The letter must come from someone she knows and trusts and that fact poisons her life. Someone is smiling to her face but intent on harming her.

Emma Loy has Mrs Hawkins fired for the pisseur de copie remark and over the course of the novel continues to make Mrs Hawkins’ life difficult. Loy has power in Hawkins’ world but Hawkins isn’t willing to cover her truth with a convenient lie. Mrs Hawkins suffers for her honesty, but at least knows where she stands and who stands against her. Wanda by contrast is completely lost.

Perhaps at this point you can see why I initially found the book a bit baggy. There was so much going on: the collapsing publishing house; the feud with Hector Bartlett and Emma Loy; Mrs Hawkins’ subsequent publishing jobs; the poison pen problem. Amidst all this Mrs Hawkins constantly makes retrospective asides to the reader commenting on the situations she encountered or the people she met while all this was going on. All I can say that Muriel Spark knows what she’s doing and is in complete control of her material. You can trust her.

What particularly stands out for me in Far Cry is the lightness of Spark’s touch. This is a very funny book. Mrs Hawkins is constantly offering advice, both to those around her and to the reader. She loses weight by just eating half of whatever’s put in front of her and offers this as a tip to the overweight reader “without fee, included in the price of the book”. Every few pages she passes someone “some very good advice”, and much of it is pretty good but there’s certainly a lot of it. My favourite, easily, was this:

It is a good thing to go to Paris for a few days if you have had a lot of trouble, and that is my advice to everyone except Parisians.

Quite. What could one add?

The comedy leavens the tragedy. There’s a lot of serious stuff here: embittered hack writers; an imprisonment for fraud; the poison pen letters; and later some of the characters attach far too much credence to the quack-claims for an obviously fake box-apparatus that supposedly can be used to heal the sick (to me fairly obviously based on Orgone boxes save that here you don’t climb inside).The material could choke, but as with Bainbridge the treatment is so light that even at its darkest the book is a delight to read.

I’ll end with one final quote, taken from one of Mrs Hawkins later jobs where she becomes a literary editor. Her approach is one I would recommend to anyone else considering that profession:

‘When you are editing copy, Mrs Hawkins, what sort of things do you look for?’ said Howard Send. ‘Exclamation marks and italics used for emphasis,’ I said. ‘And I take them out.’

My advice to any aspiring writer who may happen to read this is to do as Mrs Hawkins does. She is, in this and many other things, quite right.

Other reviews

I actually don’t have any noted, but I suspect I may have missed some. If I have please let me know in the comments.

18 Comments

Filed under Spark, Muriel

something about the darkness of the streets has a meaning

Voyage in the Dark, by Jean Rhys

This is England, and I’m in a nice clean English room with all the dirt swept under the bed.

Rhys is the poet of hypocrisy and unspoken disapproval. Voyage is the third in her series of four novels exploring the experience of women facing the indifferent cruelty society reserves for those who don’t quite fit.

RhysVoyage

Anna Morgan is a teenager recently come to the UK from the Caribbean. Her father died and her stepmother pointedly had no place for her, so to England it was. It’s not a voluntary homecoming, or any kind of homecoming at all for that matter. Anna loved the Caribbean, the warmth and colour of it. She was mostly raised by her family’s black housekeeper and (to her stepmother’s disgust) played with the mixed race children. She sees blacks as “warm and gay”, whites as “cold and sad”, which given she’s white says more about her than it does about race relations.

Anna finds England a dismal and dispiriting place. She works as an actress, barely surviving. Her outlook is bleak, as reflected in this quote where she sees a couple kissing:

A man and a girl were leaning against the railings in Berwick Square, kissing. They stood without moving in the shadow, with their mouths glued together. They were like beetles clinging to the railings.

There’s a lot to pull out there. “A man and a girl”, already a power imbalance. That image of their mouths glued together which seems to me somehow nauseating and nauseated. Then the beetle imagery. Anna isn’t a romantic. Except, of course, that she is. How can you be 18 and an actor and not be a romantic?

Anna shares a room with her friend Maudie, also a showgirl. While walking one evening they meet two men who pick them up and buy them drinks. Anna later goes to dinner with one of them at his club and sleeps with him there. It’s the price you pay for the food and company. It’s expected. He puts money in her handbag before she leaves. It wouldn’t do to give it to her directly, she’s not a prostitute after all.

The man is Walter and Anna’s relationship with him is inherently unequal. He’s older and richer. They meet at his club or other places he chooses. She loves him. He pays her rent. It’s not what Anna was looking for but it’s not as if there’s much better on offer.

Of course, you get used to things, you get used to anything. It was as if I had always lived like that. Only sometimes, when I got back home and was undressing to go to bed, I would think, ‘My God, this is a funny way to live. My God, how did this happen?’

Anna places her hopes on Walter, too young to realise what she is to him. When he dumps her he does so by having a friend write to her (cheque enclosed, naturally). It’s the Edwardian equivalent of dumping someone by text. It’s cowardly, though by his own lights Walter hasn’t behaved badly. Surely Anna wouldn’t have expected him to marry her? He treated her well when they were together, let her down as politely as he could, gave her a reasonable sum to tide her over until she finds another man. What more could he do? All he asks now is that she return any of his love letters that she may have kept so as to avoid potential future embarrassment.

Walter isn’t the only one to treat Anna shabbily. Her landladies judge her; when she visits her family in England they want nothing to do with her; her stepmother’s written her off. Anna has no skills, no contacts, nothing to offer save herself to whatever man might be interested.

In modern parlance Anna is depressed, and Voyage in the Dark is (among the many other things it is) a masterful exploration of depression as lived experience. At night she can’t keep her thoughts at bay, by day she can distract herself until the next night:

When it was sad was when you lay awake, and then it began to get light and the sparrows started – that was when it was sad, a lonely feeling, a hopeless feeling. When the sparrows started to chirp.

But in the daytime it was all right. And when you’d had a drink you knew it was the best way to live in the world, because anything might happen. I don’t know how people live when they know exactly what’s going to happen to them each day. It seems to me that it’s better to be dead than to live like that. Dressing to go and meet him and coming out of the restaurant and the lights in the streets and getting into a taxi and when he kissed you in the taxi going there.

In most books sparrows chirping would be a symbol of hope. Rhys is better than that, smarter. Here the sparrows are just another reminder of exclusion and irrelevance. Depression is a stained glass window all in grey. Everything outside is coloured by it.

The language here brings the reader within Anna’s experience. I opened a page at random while writing this piece and found a chapter beginning as follows:

There were two slices of dark meat on one plate, two potatoes and some cabbage. On the other plate a slice of bread and a lemon-cheese tart.

‘I’ve brought you up the bottle of vermouth and the siphon you asked for,’ the landlady said. This one had bulging eyes, dark blobs in a long pink face, like a prawn.

We move seamlessly from a fairly prosaic description of the meal to the line about the vermouth (which tells us that Anna is drinking) and then to the description of the landlady who has herself become a sort of unappetising food. The text is suffused with disgust. Note too that “This one”. Like the men, the landladies change particulars but not nature.

In a decade or so Anna will be Julia Martin of After Leaving Mr Mackenzie. Both live by sharing their emotions and their bodies with men who’ll move on in due course to something more permanent. Both are honest, but nobody wants their honesty. If they were of a higher social class, if they had money, they could live independently but they don’t so they can’t. That doesn’t leave many options.

At the same time Rhys avoids the simplicity of saying it’s all society’s fault. At one point Anna shares with a woman named Ethel, who tries to make a go of herself with a small business. Anna finds that incomprehensible, turning instead to Maudie and another friend Laurie who live outwardly glamorous and inwardly shabby lives wearing clothes bought for them by the men they go out with. It’s another manifestation of depression – Anna finds it easier to drift and to depend on the men she meets than to adopt Ethel’s puritan work ethic.

Novels about teenagers are usually about learning self-reliance, becoming yourself (whoever that might be), finding confidence and discovering the world. Anna discovers the world all right, but she doesn’t like it much and it doesn’t have much time for her. Later in the novel when she meets another man she reflects “My mouth smiled at him.” It’s a true but chilling line (something I could say of a great many of the sentences here). It’s ok though. He only wants her mouth smiling, that outward show. He doesn’t really care if the smile remains once he leaves the room. They never do.

Other reviews

The two I’d immediately single out are by the Lonesome Reader, here, and by Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Blog, here. Both rightly pick out the same key quote:

Soon he’ll come in again and kiss me, but differently. He’ll be different and so I’ll be different. It’ll be different, I thought. ‘It’ll be different, different. It must be different.’

Of course, it won’t be.

22 Comments

Filed under Modernist Fiction, Rhys, Jean

The dead man had been killed by a shot from a revolver. So what was the prussic acid doing there?

The Murdered Banker, by Augusto De Angelis and translated by Jill Foulston

Piazza San Fedele was a bituminous lake of fog penetrated only by the rosy haloes of arched street lamps.

So far there seem to be two very distinct strands to the Pushkin Vertigo imprint. On the one hand there are intense psychological thrillers like Vertigo and She Who Was No More. On the other are highly traditional cosy crime/whodunnit novels like The Murdered Banker, only written by European authors less well-known to an English-speaking audience.

I’m not a huge fan of whodunnits in English so I’m probably not the best audience for them in translation. Despite that I was tempted to try a De Angelis and quite frankly I got the titles mixed up and forgot this was the one that the ever-reliable Guy Savage didn’t particularly rate. Oh well.

the-murdered-banker

Inspector De Vincenzi is relaxing on a foggy night at his Milanese police station with a pile of books kept carefully out of the public’s view. He’s reading Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent and has Plato’s Eros and the Epistles of St Paul standing by in a drawer. Already we’ve established the kind of man he is: an intellectual, but not one indifferent to the impression he presents to those seeking his help.

Unexpectedly, his old friend Aurigi walks in claiming to have spent the past few hours wandering the streets in the freezing fog. Shortly after comes a call: a dead body has been found in Aurigi’s apartment. De Vincenzi is convinced that his old friend couldn’t be a murderer, but he has no alibi and when it turns out that the dead man is a banker to whom Aurigi owed a substantial debt that he couldn’t pay the case starts to look open and shut regardless of De Vincenzi’s doubts.

The problem is that while the police have a corpse, a motive and a suspect with no alibi there are facts at the scene that don’t add up. Why was a full bottle of prussic acid left at the scene given the victim was shot? Why would Aurigi commit the crime in his own apartment and leave himself without alibi? Why is the clock running one hour fast?

The oddest thing with The Murdered Banker is that early on De Vincenzi and another officer comment on how horrifically mysterious and inexplicable it all is, as later do De Vincenzi and Aurigi:

“You can’t trust appearances,” Maccari said, looking at him and shaking his head. “I have a feeling there’s something behind this that’s escaping us at the moment. Something horrible and unnatural. Too awful to contemplate.”

“I’m afraid—do you understand? I’m frightened of knowing what happened in here!

Both men stood looking beyond the door of the room to the door of the apartment. It was opening. From that moment on, the door took on the function of Destiny, determining the course of events each time it swung open like a terrible Nemesis.

I could quote more on those lines. It’s all terribly dramatic, but it quickly turns out that while the facts are complex and need a fair bit of investigation to untwine there’s nothing horrible or unnatural here nor ever any hint (other than the characters’ own statements) that there might be. To add to a slight sense of melodrama there’s also a bit of the stage-play to it all, with almost all the action taking place in Aurigi’s apartment with the characters wandering on and off-stage but returning each time to the same few rooms.

De Vincenzi soon determines that this is a murder with too many clues and, after a while, too many suspects (and more than one doubtful confession). He resignedly observes:

if one dismisses the idea of premeditation in this crime, it couldn’t have happened. And if one allows for it, it couldn’t have been carried out the way it appears to have been.”

It’s mysterious, but at the end of the day it’s still a man shot in a front room and several people who might be guilty (each for fairly understandable reasons). De Vincenzi oversells the horror in a book that (rightly) contains nothing horrific.

It’s all very clearly inspired by Agatha Christie, acknowledgedly so since one character quite directly says to De Vincenzi  “Oh, you have only to get the little grey cells of your brain working!” which is about as clear a shout-out as every you might hope for.

The character that quote comes from is the sadly underused Harrington – a flashy local PI brought in to shadow De Vincenzi’s investigation who adopts an English name for professional purposes. Harrington doesn’t really do much and the story would be much the same without him, which is a bit of a shame since to be honest I’d be more interested in following the adventures of a rather spivvy private investigator than yet another unusually insightful police inspector.

As always with this kind of novel there are some apparent coincidences that turn out to be anything but, and some others that really are coincidences. Arguably it’s a bit arbitrary that so much happens on the same night, but then the novel is about a case that’s tough to crack and if part of the reason its tough is a chance muddying of the investigative waters that’s fair enough. Besides, as De Vincenzi rightly observes: “wasn’t everything about real life and reality a bit arbitrary?”

In the end this is a rather slight affair which doesn’t quite fulfil the dramatic expectations it sets up early on. It’s fun and I may still read The Hotel of the Three Roses (great title if nothing else), but it shows that it’s De Angelis’ first try and I think readers who aren’t completists could happily skip on to some of his hopefully more polished later outings.

Other reviews

Guy Savage’s review, which I really should have read afresh before buying this since I entirely agree with it, is here. If you know any others please do let me know.

10 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, De Angelis, Augusto, Italian Literature, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo