The Barbarous Coast by Ross Macdonald

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Ross Macdonald – now acknowledged to be one of the leading proponents of the hardboiled novel alongside Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Many of Macdonald’s best books feature the world-weary Lew Archer, a private eye with a conscience – a fundamentally decent man who doggedly pursues the truth, even though he knows he’s likely to get roughed-up along the way.

Book #6 in the Lew Archer series is The Barbarous Coast (1956), a compelling and intricate mystery featuring many of the elements I’ve come to know and love in Macdonald’s novels. More specifically: twisted, dysfunctional families with dark secrets to hide; damaged individuals with complex, psychological issues; elements of desire, murder and betrayal, all set within the privileged social circle of 1950s LA.

As the novel opens, Archer is arriving at The Channel Club, a high-end leisure club for the rich and famous, where he is to meet the establishment’s owner, Clarence Bassett. On his way into the club, Archer runs into a man who appears to be creating a disturbance, arguing with the security guard in an attempt to confront Bassett. The agitator in question is George Wall, a sportswriter from a Toronto newspaper – a fact Archer discovers during his subsequent meeting with Bassett. In short, Bassett wants Archer to get Wall off his back, proposing to pay the detective to nip the harassment in the bud. Usually, this would be a matter for the police, but Bassett is reluctant to involve them in any way, fearing the potential for a scandal which could damage the club.

Wall, for his part, believes Bassett is hiding his wife – a twenty-one-year girl named Hester Campbell, who appears to be caught up in some serious trouble. Wall hasn’t seen Hester since she left him in Toronto a few months ago, but a recent phone call from her suggests she is in danger. The connection to Clarence Bassett is longstanding one, Hester Campbell having known Bassett for many years, ever since she began diving at the club as a young girl. While Bassett knows of Hester’s return from Toronto to California, he claims not to have seen the girl for around three months – in all probability Hester is running around with some man she met through the club following her split from George Wall.

In the end, Archer agrees to try and find Hester, albeit somewhat reluctantly – like the seasoned detective that he is, our detective knows when something isn’t right, and that’s almost certainly the case here. While Bassett offers to pay for Archer’s services, just to get the nuisance off his back, Wall insists on paying the fees himself – a move that leaves Archer playing babysitter to his client as they set off in search of the missing girl.

“It’s right down your alley, isn’t it?” Bassett said smoothly. “What’s your objection?”

I had none, except that there was trouble in the air and it was the end of a rough year and I was a little tired. I looked at George Wall’s pink, rebellious head. He was a natural-born troublemaker, dangerous to himself and probably to other people. Perhaps if I tagged along with him, I could head off the trouble he was looking for. I was a dreamer. (p. 24)

As more information about Hester and her whereabouts comes to light, it transpires that the girl has links to a Hollywood studio – a dubious operation run by a group of powerful bigwigs. Perhaps more significantly, Hester appears to have come into a large sum of money in the last month or so, enough to buy back the upmarket property that used to belong to her family. According to the girl’s mother, Hester claims that the money came from her late husband’s estate, but this is clearly a lie – George Wall is neither wealthy nor dead. So, given his experience of these situations, Archer suspects the money may be the proceeds of some form of blackmail. Nevertheless, two key questions remain: who is Hester bribing, and what kind of hold does she have over them?

The unravelling of the web of deceit surrounding Hester brings Archer into contact with a variety of nefarious individuals, from the washed-up-boxer-turned-actor, Lance Leonard (aka Miguel Torres), to the womanising head of the film studios, Simon Graff, to the corrupt mobster, Carl Stern. What starts as just another missing person case soon morphs into something much darker, taking in multiple murders, blackmail, cover-ups and the use of a ‘cat’s paw’ to accomplish at least one dirty deed.

In his quest to uncover the truth, Archer finds himself in the midst of Hollywood, a world he finds shallow and meaningless, populated by individuals caught up in a superficial dream.

There were actresses with that numb and varnished look, and would-be actresses with that waiting look; junior-executive types hacking diligently at each other with their profiles; their wives watching each other through smiles; (p. 140)

It’s a wealthy, privileged sphere of society, indelibly tainted by the lure of corruption.

As ever, Macdonald’s descriptions of the Californian environment are lucid and evocative, effectively portraying the shadowy ‘feel’ of the place. For this novel, we’re in Malibu and Beverley Hills, locations where some of the houses have delusions of grandeur.

Manor Crescent Drive was one of those quiet palm-lined avenues which had been laid out just before the twenties went into their final convulsions. The houses weren’t huge and fantastic like some of the rococo palaces in the surrounding hills, but they had pretensions. Some were baronial pseudo-Tudor with faked half-timbered façades. Others were imitation Mizener Spanish, thick-walled and narrow-windowed like stucco fortresses built to resist imaginary Moors. The street was good. but a little disappointed-looking, as though maybe the Moors had already been and gone. (p.78)

As the novel draws to a close, there is a sense that Archer is at once both wired and weary, despairing of the darkness in the underbelly of LA.

Time was running through me, harsh on my nerve-ends, hot in my arteries, impalpable as breath in my mouth. I had the sleepless feeling you sometimes get in the final hours of a bad case, that you can see around corners, if you want to, and down into the darkness in human beings. (p. 226)

Overall, The Barbarous Coast is another thoroughly enjoyable entry in the Lew Archer series. While the plot feels a little convoluted and tricky to follow at times, everything slots into place relatively smoothly in the final chapters, with an additional, unforeseen twist right at the end.

Once again, Macdonald demonstrates his skill in moving the narrative forward through dialogue underscored with the ring of truth and authenticity. While Lew Archer is the most well-developed character here, the other players are nicely sketched – particularly the secondary characters who frequently add some interesting dashes of colour. Of particular note are Hester’s former landlady, Mrs Lamb, a straight-talking woman with ‘an air of calm eccentricity’; and the girl’s mother, Mrs Campbell, who naively believes Hester’s lies about her fortuitous inheritance.

There is some beautiful writing in this novel, from Macdonald’s nicely judged metaphors and observations to his poetic descriptions of the landscape. In this scene, Archer is driving into the Canyon, on his way to Lance Leonard’s house in the darkness of the night.

I left the house the way I had entered, and drove up into the Canyon. A few sparse stars peered between the streamers of cloud drifting along the ridge. Houselights on the slopes islanded the darkness through which the road ran white under my headlight beam. Rounding a high curve, I could see the glow of the beach cities far below to my left, phosphorescence washed up on the shore. (p. 108)

You can find my reviews of other novels in the Lew Archer series listed below. Each one can be read as a standalone – but to follow Macdonald’s development as a writer, it would be worth starting with an early entrant, probably The Drowning Pool.

The Drowning Pool [#2); The Way Some People Die [#3]; The Ivory Grin [#4]; Find a Victim [#5].

Max and Radhika have also written about their experiences of the series. You can find their latest posts here and here.

The Barbarous Coast is published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; personal copy.

Recent Reads – Rosamond Lehmann, Romain Gary and Ellen Wilkinson

Mini reviews of three recent reads – hopefully you’ll find something of interest across the mix.

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann (1932)

This beautiful, charming novel – presented through a blend of stream-of-consciousness and more traditional narrative – manages to combine a lightness of touch with a real depth of personal feeling.

On the day of her seventeenth birthday, Olivia Curtis receives from her parents a roll of flame-coloured silk to be fashioned into an evening dress for a forthcoming dance. The occasion will represent Olivia’s introduction to society, a world already glimpsed by her older sister, the attractive, more self-assured Kate.

In the days leading up to the dance, we sense Olivia’s anticipation of the event, a mixture of excitement and apprehension over various aspects of the evening: nervousness as to how her dress will turn out; speculation over who else will be attending, particularly which boys; worries about there being sufficient dance partners for the girls; and ultimately, whether her first experience of a ball will be a success or a disappointment. The idea of ending up as a wallflower is almost too much for Olivia to bear.

Why go? It was unthinkable. Why suffer so much? Wrenched from one’s foundations; neglected, ignored, curiously stared at; partnerless, watching Kate move serenely from partner to partner, pretending not to watch; pretending not to see one’s hostess wondering: must she do something about one again? – (but really one couldn’t go on and on introducing these people); pretending not to care; slipping off to the ladies’ cloakroom, fiddling with unnecessary pins and powder, ears strained for the music to stop; wandering forth again to stand by oneself against the wall, hope struggling with despair beneath a mask of smiling indifference. (pp. 126-127)

The ball itself is beautifully conveyed in a series of vivid scenes, immersing the reader in the atmosphere of the event. Lehmann’s style is evocative and impressionistic, like the brushstrokes of watercolour artist practising their craft. The little pen-portraits of various attendees are very finely sketched, giving just enough detail to bring the characters to life.

Ali has written a characteristically perceptive review of this book, highlighting some interesting observations on class. Simon has also written about it here (his piece focuses on Olivia’s clothes and appearance). Olivia and Kate are very much viewed as country mice by their sophisticated cousin, Etty, also present at the dance – while bright and respectable, the middle-class Curtis family belong to a somewhat different social sphere to that of their hosts, Sir John and Lady Spencer. Olivia’s seamstress, the rather tragic Miss Robinson, provides another contrast – a woman whose narrow, unfulfilled life is heartbreaking to see.

I really enjoyed this novel for its expressive, impressionistic style, the exquisite prose, and its insight into the inner life of an expectant young girl. Very highly recommended indeed.

Promise at Dawn by Romain Gary (tr. John Markham Beach) (1961)

A thoroughly engaging memoir of this French writer’s early life and ongoing quest to fulfil his mother’s ambitions, namely for Gary to become a great artist, a person of distinction. In addition to these creative pursuits, the memoir also touches on Gary’s time as an instructor and pilot during the Second World War. It is by turns humorous, entertaining, charming and poignant, a story that blends the light-hearted with the moving and profound.

I stood there in my leather flying jacket, with that ridiculous cigar in my mouth, my cap pulled down jauntily over one eye, my hands in my pockets, and the familiar tough look on my face, while the whole world around me became a strange, foreign place empty of all life. That is what I chiefly remember of that moment today: a feeling of utter strangeness, as though the most familiar things, the houses, the trees, the birds, and the very ground under my feet, all that I had to come to regard as certainties, had suddenly become part of an unknown planet which I had never visited before. My whole system of weights and measures, my faith in a secret and hidden logic of life were giving way to nothingness, to a meaningless chaos, to a grinning, grimacing absurdity. (p. 212)

Grant has already written an excellent review of this book, and I agree with pretty much everything he says in his piece – do take a look. Emma has a page devoted to Romain Gary on her blog, so you’ll be able to find more posts about the author’s work there.

This is a thrilling yarn laced with philosophical reflections on this nature of life – my first encounter with this esteemed writer, but hopefully not my last.

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson (1932)

I do love these British Library Crime Classics with their vintage settings and stylish covers. This is an interesting entry in the series from the Labour politician and writer, Ellen Wilkinson. In short, it is a most enjoyable mystery with a political edge.

Up-and-coming Conservative MP and parliamentary private secretary, Robert West, turns amateur detective when an influential financier is shot dead during a private dinner at the House of Commons. What appears at first to be a case of suicide turns out to be far more complicated than that, especially once the official investigation – led by Inspector Blackitt of the Yard – gets underway.

This is a compelling little mystery with a likeable central character in Robert West. While the ending feels a little rushed, the atmosphere in the House of Commons is captured in vivid detail, bringing to life the hustle and bustle of political life in the 1930s.

Shaw followed West along the locker-lined corridor to that octagonal space where the heart of Parliament beats. The House of Commons had risen soon after the nine o’clock division, and it was now ten-thirty, but groups of Members still stood excitedly discussing the sensation of the day–-for the threatened crisis had disappeared with the announcement of the Government’s majority. Again Shaw had to admire his friend’s technique.

Every one made a dart at West, who somehow managed to deny rumours, to quieten agitated and elderly M.P.s and even to deal with a cynical young woman who wanted to know why he had only shot one poor little millionaire instead of turning a machine-gun on to the whole Front Bench. (p. 43)

There are some nice reflections on the changing nature of Britain too, as the old traditions and values must give way to new sources of business and revenue streams. The economic context/state of the nation forms an important backdrop to the story, adding to the political intrigue.

Karen has written a great review of this, and I agree with everything she highlights in her piece. In spite of a few flaws, this is an interesting mystery with an atmospheric sense of place.

My copies of Invitation to the Waltz, Promise at Dawn, and The Division Bell Mystery were published by Virago, Penguin, and the British Library respectively; personal copies.

The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

Last summer I read my first Dorothy Whipple, Someone at Distance (1953), a thoroughly compelling novel on the systematic destruction of a marriage – a timeless theme rendered with real insight and attention to detail. This year I’m returning to Whipple with one of her earlier novels, The Priory (1939), in a post for Jessie’s Perspehone event (running from 31st May to 9th June).

The Priory is something of an Upstairs-Downstairs story, revolving around the residents of Saunby, a crumbling old estate in the middle of England in the years leading up to the Second World War. The estate is home to the Marwood family: Major Marwood, a widower; his daughters, Christine (aged twenty) and Penelope (nineteen); and the Major’s unmarried sister, the somewhat eccentric Victoria. Also present in the house are various servants, most notably the ineffectual cook, Mrs Nall, the mismatched maids, Bertha and Bessy, and Major Marwood’s trusty right-hand man, Thompson.

Unfortunately for the family, Major Marwood has no head for finances with the estate’s outgoings far outweighing any incomings. Moreover, the buildings at The Priory are deteriorating and in need of relatively urgent repair. In spite of the estate’s dire financial situation, Major Marwood’s priorities remain focused in one direction only – namely, his beloved cricket during the forthcoming summer season. Every August the Major hosts a lavish cricketing fortnight, providing full board and lodgings for visiting teams and refreshments for all spectators. Assisting the Major in this capacity is Thompson, an ex-professional cricketer who proves vital support to The Priory team during the event.

Meanwhile, Christine and Penelope continue to amuse themselves up in the nursery where they have lived since they were children, taking their meals separately from the rest of the family. The girls’ aunt, Victoria, is another law unto herself, content to spend her days painting pictures (which she does rather badly), eschewing any responsibility for the house in favour of artistic pursuits.

Conscious of the need for change in the future, the Major decides to remarry, prompting a proposal to his lady friend, Anthea Sumpton – not a catch exactly, but a suitable woman to take charge of the girls, both of whom should be thinking of marriage themselves sooner rather than later.

It didn’t matter, though, whether she [Anthea] had money or not; he would marry her with or without. She was so suitable. In a second marriage you thought of suitability not of romance. (p. 20)

The girls, for their part, are horrified by their father’s decision to remarry, fearing any changes their new stepmother may introduce in the house.

The first half of this thoroughly enjoyable novel focuses on Anthea’s marriage to the Major, and the gradual realisation on her part that her new husband is anything but loving and romantic – in truth, the Major is rather perfunctory and set in his old ways. Nevertheless, Anthea is made of strong stuff, stronger than might appear at first sight. On discovering what she has let herself in for at Saunby, the new Mrs Marwood is determined to get the house into some sort of order, sacking the hopeless Mrs Nall and enlisting Bessy’s help to clear the rooms of clutter. Then, much to the Major’s horror, Anthea discovers she is pregnant, a development that will lead to even more household expense, especially if the child is a boy. (In the Major’s world, boys are destined to receive a proper education at a reputable school, while girls must make do with a governess at home.)

In the second half of the novel the focus shifts, falling primarily on Christine and her marriage to the promising cricketer, Nicholas Ashwell, whom she meets during the annual cricketing fortnight at Saunby. While the Ashwells are very wealthy and want for very little in the way of material possessions, Nicholas has always felt dependent on his father, unable to make a living of his own on account of Sir James’s reputation and standing in the community.

Christine and Nicholas are blissfully happy at first, but their marriage soon begins to sour, tainted by Nicholas’s attachment to ‘the crowd’, a group of fast-living friends who spend their time drinking and playing poker. In truth, Christine misses her old life at Saunby, while Nicholas wants to continue pretty much as before – in essence, neither of them is finding married life very easy to adjust to.

Penelope, for her part, is also rather unhappy, bereft at the loss of her sister from Saunby. Primarily as a means of escape from Anthea and the changes in the house, Penelope marries Paul Kenworthy, a kindly, handsome man who truly adores her. Luckily for Penelope, Paul has enough money to keep her in a comfortable manner, something she soon becomes accustomed to.

Alongside the ‘upstairs’ developments affecting the Marwoods, there is no shortage of drama below stairs at Saunby. Perhaps most notably, Thompson finds himself caught up in an impossible love triangle with the manipulative Betha and the lovely Bessy, a situation that plays out in a very affecting fashion, much to the reader’s distress.

The Priory is a very engaging novel, one that explores the complexities of family relationships and the choices we make when faced with significant change. For readers who enjoy a decent amount of plot, there are lots of interesting developments throughout the narrative as these families adjust and reshape themselves over time. Whipple introduces various elements along the way, including compromising indiscretions, unwanted pregnancies, manipulative actions and painful separations. The narrative strands are thought-provoking and absorbing – I’ve barely scratched the surface of them here.

The lack of options for women is a major theme throughout, particularly when marriage proves to be elusive – or worse, a failure. At one point towards the end of the story, Christine reflects on the nub of the issue, vowing that something must change in time for the next generation – for girls like her daughter, Angela.

What did women in her position do? What did they do? If there was only marriage for girls brought up in the way she and Penelope had been brought up and marriage failed, what then?

It was a question parents, in her world, did not ask themselves.

‘All the money goes on the sons,’ thought Christine. ‘They just trust to luck about the daughters, hoping they’ll be pretty enough to make a good marriage. If they’re not, they just have to exist like Rosamund Hunter and the rest, and end up like Aunt Victoria.’ (pp. 424-425)

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the depth of characterisation Whipple brings to the story, particularly in her portrayal of the main female characters, Anthea, Christine and Penelope. Individuals who at first seem rather neglected and worthy of our sympathies turn out to have considerable failings, revealing themselves to be selfish or downright obstinate. Conversely, those who appear to be unfeeling and domineering are actually very caring at heart, particularly in times of desperate need. The way that characters change and develop throughout the narrative is one of the most engaging aspects of the book.

As the novel draws to a close, the threat of WW2 looms on the horizon. While the ultimate ending might feel too neat and tidy for some readers’ tastes, I was happy to go with it. This is good old-fashioned storytelling at its most enjoyable, particularly for fans of British fiction between the wars.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, books 5-9

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I’ve been working my way through Anthony Powell’s marvellous twelve-part sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, reading the individual novels between other books in my TBR. So far, I’ve posted a detailed piece on book one, A Question of Upbringing, and a summary of some of highlights from books 2-4 – more specifically Powell’s skills with character, attention to detail and meditations on the nature of life.

Continuing in the latter vein, here are a few more things I’ve been enjoying in this series, particularly in books 5-9.

It’s been interesting to revisit some of the main characters in the story at various points, just to see how they’ve changed and developed over time. While the clumsy, pretentious Widmerpool pops up relatively frequently (much to my delight), other acquaintances from Jenkins’ schooldays – friends such as Charles Stringham and Peter Templer – make more occasional appearances.

In this scene from book 6, The Kindly Ones, Jenkins meets Templer again after a gap of some years. From a distance, Templer appears to have changed very little; however, on closer inspection, the difference in his appearance is more marked, not only in build but in demeanour too. (As ever, these reflections are relayed by Jenkins, the narrator throughout.)

It was a warm autumnal evening, so that we were all in the garden when Templer’s car drew up at the gate. The vehicle was of just the kind I had predicted. Templer, too, as he jumped out, seemed scarcely to have changed at all. The car was shaped like a torpedo; Templer’s clothes gave the familiar impression – as Stringham used to say – that he was ‘about to dance backwards and forwards in front of a chorus of naked ladies’. That outward appearance was the old Templer, just as he had looked at Dicky Umfraville’s nightclub four or five years before. Now, as he strode up the path with the same swagger, I saw there was a change in him. This was more than the fact that he was distinctly fatter. A coarseness of texture had always coloured his elegance. Now, that coarseness had become more than ever marked. He looked hard, even rather savage, as if he had made up his mind to endure life rather than, as formerly, to enjoy it. From the first impression that he changed hardly at all, I reversed judgement, deciding he had changed a great deal. (p. 101, book 6)

I love the way Powell blends humour with more thoughtful tones in this passage – the comic image of Templer dancing followed by the wistful observation on the endurance of life, highlighting a sense of sufferance over enjoyment. It’s Powell’s undoubted ability to transition from one emotion to another, seamlessly moving from humour to contemplation, that makes the passage so effective.

As with the previous volumes, Jenkins’ reflections on the nature of life are dotted through the novels, adding a few meditative touches to the narrative here and there – always interesting and nicely judged. The following quote comes from book 5, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant – a passage that captures the mix of emotions triggered by thoughts of love, especially amongst friends and acquaintances.

That old feeling of excitement began to stir within me always provoked by news of other people’s adventures in love; accompanied as ever by a sense of sadness, of regret, almost jealousy, inward emotions that express, like nothing else in life, life’s irrational dissatisfactions. (p. 155, book 5)

There are some gloriously comic scenes throughout the series, perhaps none more so than the incident in which Barbara Goring – a one-time love interest of Jenkins’ – pours a dispenser of sugar over Widmerpool’s head during a party (an episode from book 2, if I recall correctly).

Humour also plays a key role in book 7, The Valley of Bones, when Jenkins is called up for service in the Second World War. (This is the first book in the sequence to focus on the War – a shift from the earlier volumes where the ‘meat’ of the narrative is concerned with Jenkins’ education, various relationships and the ongoing whirl of social activities.)

As a second lieutenant in the Welsh regiment, Jenkins finds himself surrounded by a plethora of flawed and ineffectual characters, particularly where essential duties are concerned. There is Gwatkin, the rather foolish and inept commanding officer whose head is turned by a friendly barmaid; Deafy Morgan, a well-intentioned infantryman whose impaired hearing proves a liability in vulnerable situations; not to mention the infamous Sayce,  a near-criminal and ‘Company bad character’ who manages to make a complete hash of everything he touches.

In one of the funniest scenes from this novel, the regiment receives a visit from the Divisional Commander, General Liddament, who is horrified to discover that the men have not been given porridge for breakfast – possibly the fault of Gwatkin as far as Liddament is concerned. The suggestion that some members of the human race may not even like porridge appears to be anathema to the General.

[General Liddament] ‘No porridge?’

[Gwatkin] ‘No porridge, sir.’

General Liddament pondered this assertion for some seconds in resentful silence. He seemed to be considering porridge in all its aspects, bad as well as good. At last he came out with an unequivocal moral judgement.

‘There ought to be porridge,’ he said.

He glared round at the platoon, hard at work with their polishing, oiling, pulling-through, whatever they were doing. Suddenly he pointed his stick at Williams, W. H., the platoon runner.

‘Would you have liked porridge?’

Williams, W. H., came to attention. As I have said, Williams, W. H., was good on his feet and sang well. Otherwise, he was not particularly bright.

‘No, sir,’ he said instantly, as if that might be the right answer.

The General was taken aback. It would not be too much to say he was absolutely staggered.

‘Why not?’

General Liddament spoke sharply, but seriously, as if some excuse like religious scruple about eating porridge would certainly be accepted as valid.

‘Don’t like it, sir.’

‘You don’t like porridge?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Then you’re a foolish fellow – a very foolish fellow.’ (pp. 95-96, book 7)

Alongside the dry humour, this book is tinged with notes of tragedy, the challenges of living through the war juxtaposed with the absurdity and horror of the situation – a theme that is continued into book 8, The Soldier’s Art.

The fire-engines had driven away. The street was empty. I thought how good Eleanor was in a situation like this. Molly had been good too, when it came to disaster. I wondered what would happen to Ted. The extraordinary thing about the outside of the house was that everything looked absolutely normal. Some sort of a notice about bomb damage had been stuck on the front-door by the wardens; otherwise there was nothing to indicate the place had been subjected to an attack from the air, which had killed several persons. (p. 165, book 8)

And then, just when you least expect it, Widmerpool appears again at the end of book 7, much to Jenkins’ (and the reader’s) surprise. There are some classic Widmerpool moments, particularly in book 8, where he is confirmed as an unfeeling, self-centred individual of the highest order.

By book 9, Jenkins – now a Major – has secured a role in the War Office, acting a point of liaison with those in charge of various Allied forces. This volume also sees the proper introduction of the infamous Pamela Flitton, briefly glimpsed at Stringham’s wedding in an earlier novel. With her trademark air of rage and despair, Miss Flitton proceeds to create merry hell in all manner of romantic entanglements, a characteristic typified by the following passage.

‘Giving men hell is what Miss Flitton likes,’ he said. ‘I know the sort. Met plenty of them.’

There was something to be said for accepting that diagnosis, because two discernible features seemed to emerge from a large, often widely diversified, canon of evidence chronicling Pamela Flitton’s goings-on: the first, her indifference to the age and status of the men she decided to fascinate: the second, the unvarying technique of silence, followed by violence, with which she persecuted her lovers, or those who hoped to be numbered in that category. She appeared, for example, scarcely at all interested in looks or money, rank or youth, as such; just as happy deranging the modest home life of a middle-aged air-raid warden, as compromising the commission of a rich and handsome Guards ensign recently left school. In fact, she seemed to prefer ‘older men’ on the whole, possibly because of their potentiality for deeper suffering. (p. 74, book 9)

By the end of book 9, even Widmerpool – now a Colonel and hungry for power – has fallen under Pamela Flitton’s spell. I am very much looking forward to seeing how this situation develops in the post-war instalments, books 10-12. What a remarkable series this is turning out to be.

Two excellent novels by Brigid Brophy – The Snow Ball and Flesh

The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy (1964)

I’ve been keen to return to Brigid Brophy for quite a while, ever since I read her thoroughly engaging coming-of-age novel, The King of a Rainy Country, a book imbued with the freshness of youth. Luckily the Bloomsbury Oxfam turned up trumps a few months ago with a lovely secondhand copy of The Snow Ball, Brophy’s fifth novel, initially published in the mid-1960s.

It’s a playful, seductive book, shot through with a captivating sense of wit. In essence, Brophy is riffing with the themes of Mozart’s celebrated opera Don Giovanni, reimagining the relationship between the titular character, DG, and Donna Anna, the young woman he tries to seduce. (As the opera opens, the attempted seduction has just taken place, but its success or otherwise remains unclear.)

The setting for Brophy’s novel is a grand house in London where various guests have gathered for an 18th-century costume ball on New Year’s Eve. (Although the exact period is never specified, the story appears to take place in the early 1960s.) Central to the narrative are Anna K, a fortysomething divorcee attending the ball as Mozart’s Donna Anna, and another guest (identity unknown) who is dressed as a masked Don Giovanni.

When Don Giovanni kisses Donna Anna on the stroke of midnight, naturally the pair are attracted to one another, irresistibly drawn together in the woozy atmosphere of the ball. As the remainder of the night unfolds, we follow this couple in a provocative dance of sensuality and seduction, a liaison brought to life through Brophy’s exquisitely crafted prose. The use of dialogue is particularly impressive, highlighting the sophisticated nature of the author and her lead characters.

They were again leaning on the parapet, arm parallel with arm, cheek parallel with cheek; but not touching. Anna had let her clasped hands drop, from the wrists, below the level of the parapet, but not out of Don Giovanni’s sight. She was aware of his head turned ten degrees from the straight and of his gaze resting, consumingly, on her hands.

“My husband—” she began, but broke off. She twisted her wedding ring a millimetre further round. “Please let’s remain anonymous.”

“All right. But it restricts the conversation.”

“It needn’t. Tell me what sort of person you are. In general terms.”

“I don’t think in general terms.”

“What things do you think about?”

“Mozart and sex,” he said.

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing else in general terms. And you?”

 Mozart, sex and death,” she said.

There was a pause. They both burst into laughter. (p. 66)

Brophy skilfully intercuts this flirtation with tantalising glimpses of other couples at the ball, most notably teenagers Ruth (Cherubino) and Edward (Casanova) who are embroiled in their own romantic entanglement – partially captured through a series of real-time diary entries by Ruth. The two young lovers are beautifully sketched in a manner that highlights their individual airs and affectations to great effect. Interestingly, their relationship acts as a striking contrast to the Donna Anna-Don Giovanni arc: the awkwardness and inexperience of youth vs the sophistication of more seasoned lovers. Also participating in a separate clandestine tryst are the ball’s hosts, fifty-something Anne (a close friend of Anna K’s) and her fourth husband, Tom-Tom.

In spite of my lack of familiarity with Mozart’s opera, I found this an utterly captivating read, accentuated by some beautiful descriptive prose. This is a highly imaginative novel of seduction, ageing, mortality and Mozart – definitely worth seeking out.

Flesh by Brigid Brophy (1962)

Having enjoyed The Snow Ball so much, I decided to go on a hunt for more novels by Brophy – a search that eventually uncovered Flesh, a suitable companion piece from 1962. Once again, Brophy demonstrates her natural ability to riff with the creative arts, this time alluding to Rubens’ women as symbols of sexuality.

When we are first introduced to Marcus, he appears as a shy, socially awkward, gangly young man, struggling to find his place in the world. By the end of the narrative, he is transformed – infinitely more comfortable with himself and his relationships with others. The woman who brings about this fundamental change in character is Nancy, a self-assured, sexually experienced young woman whom Marcus meets at a party.

Flesh is the story of Marcus and Nancy’s relationship, a sexual awakening of sorts played out against the bohemian backdrop of 1960s London. In the following scene from an early stage in their relationship, Nancy encourages Marcus to dance, something he has never felt confident to do in public before – happily, the outcome is rather enchanting.

But Marcus was wrapped, enchanted, in his discovery of dancing, which felt to him like floating not in the water but in the air. He did not care who was watching or visualising what. This publicly permitted parody of an experience he had never had, sexual intercourse, at last liberated his physical response to Nancy. He was amazed to find it so unlike – and yet so exactly the realisation of – his erotic daydreams. It was easier; the imagination need not be worked, but responded of its own instant accord to the actuality of the thing – a real person, real legs, moving : yet because of the actuality it was also harder, inasmuch as muscles had actually to grip and let go, and to be displaced. And in the same way it was both less and more exciting. (p. 35)

There’s some interesting character development here, particularly with Marcus who evolves quite significantly under Nancy’s reassuring influence. The novel also contains some beautiful descriptive passages about sex – always sensual and evocative, never gratuitous or overly explicit. Instead, everything is beautifully judged.

As ever, Brophy is wonderful when it comes to detail, particularly in her depiction of the secondhand furniture shop where Marcus works. Fans of Rainy Country will find much to enjoy in the portrayal of the establishment’s owner, the rather idiosyncratic Mr Polydore, with his scarlet bow tie and lavender suede shoes.

This is another smart, sexy, thoroughly enjoyable novel from Brigid Brophy, an author who seems ripe for rediscovery, particularly in the current era of women’s empowerment.

My copies of The Snow Ball and Flesh were published by Allison & Busby.

Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates

I’ve written before about Richard Yates, a writer with an innate ability to understand his characters’ failings and self-delusions, portraying the bitter cruelty of their dashed dreams with real insight and humanity. In this, his penultimate novel, Yates offers us another riff on this theme by focusing on a young couple, Michael and Lucy Davenport, just starting out on their lives together in 1950s New York.

While Lucy’s family are very wealthy, Michael refuses to live off his wife’s money, preferring instead to pursue his ambitions as a writer, supplementing his income with a mindless job in a publishing house. At the start of the novel, Michael and Lucy seem very much in love with one another, but all too soon the marriage begins to stagnate and sour. Michael generates some interest in his work with an early collection of poems – particularly his best piece ‘Coming Clean’ – however, he struggles to repeat the success. Meanwhile, Lucy is becoming increasingly frustrated with their second-rate living conditions, knowing full well that her fortune could buy them a more comfortable lifestyle. Comparisons with their friends, the Nelsons, only make matters worse for the Davenports, particularly given Tom Nelson’s success as an artist with pieces in some of the leading galleries in New York.

By the end of the first section of this three-part novel, the Davenports’ marriage is over, leaving Michael with little idea of what to do next.

He left the house, slamming the kitchen door, and made his way up past the extravagance of Ben Duane’s flower beds. But once he was at his desk he couldn’t lift a pencil or even see straight. He could only sit with half his fist in his mouth, breathing hard through his nose, trying to comprehend that the bottom had dropped out of everything. It was over.

He was thirty-five, and he was as frightened as a child at the thought of having to live alone. (pp.116-117)

In the second and third sections of the novel, we learn what happens to Lucy and Michael following the split. Lucy fares better than Michael in this respect, pursuing various creative activities in an effort to find herself. As the months slip by, Lucy dabbles in acting, taking the role of Blanche DuBois in a local production of A Streetcar Named Desire; she joins a creative writing class, drawing on some of her own experiences to produce some promising short stories; finally, Lucy tries her hand at painting, but with limited success – in truth, her works are naïve and amateurish. There are various affairs and relationships along the way, most of which are short-lived, just like her passionate liaison with Jack Halloran (aka Casimir), the enigmatic director of the theatre group.

Later still, when she lay on her bed and gave in at last to the kind of crying Tennessee Williams described as “luxurious,” she wished she had allowed him to write down his name. Casimir what? Casimir who? And she knew now her nice little curtain-line about Stanley Kowalski had been worse than cheap and spiteful – oh, worse; worse. It had been a lie, because she would always and always remember him as Jack Halloran. (p. 181)

Michael, for his part, continues to pursue his literary ambitions, but once again with limited success. His early life post-Lucy is characterised by periods of instability and mental illness, culminating in a spell in Bellevue, a specialist psychiatric hospital in New York. In time, Michael finds some solace in the form of a new, much younger wife, Sarah Garvey, a guidance counsellor at his daughter’s school, but he never seems truly contented.

Meanwhile, the Davenports’ daughter, Laura (aged nine at the time of her parents’ separation) is becoming increasingly disconnected from the world, eventually leaving her home with Lucy to join a hippy commune in California.

The novel closes on a more optimistic note with a meeting between the two Davenports. By now, Lucy is in a good place in life, gaining fulfilment from her new role as an ambassador for Amnesty International. There is a sense that she at least has stopped chasing after the pursuit of artistic fulfilment, possibly in the realisation that it might be hopelessly beyond her talents. For Michael, the situation is more ambiguous; his imminent move to a new teaching job in Boston may lead to the break-up of his second marriage; however, he seems relaxed about the future, still harbouring ambitions of another success to rival ‘Coming Clean’. As for his relationship with Sarah, there is a sense of que será, será – whatever will be, will be.

In writing this novel, Yates gives us an insight into the frustrations and disappointments of a suburban existence, of young hopes eroded by the crushing realities of life. The sections focusing on Lucy’s experiences are particularly good, illustrating once more this author’s undoubted skills in portraying complex, flawed women in ways that feel both perceptive and humane.

While the novel lacks the dramatic tension of Revolutionary Road, it is still very much worth reading for the nuanced characterisation alone. Probably one for Yates completists rather than newbies, who might be better starting with The Easter Parade, or possibly the short story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. Irrespective of the changing times, Yates is a writer whose work still stands up today; the emotions he captures in these books are enduring and timeless.

(Revolutionary Road was a pre-blog read for me, hence the lack of review – but you can find Max’s excellent post on the novel here.)

Young Hearts Crying is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

I’ve been saving this collection of stories for a while, ever since my friend, N, picked it up for me during a trip to New York a couple of years ago. The twenty pieces included here span the period from 1891 to 1934, virtually the whole of Edith Wharton’s career as a writer. Several are in the style of Wharton’s great society novels, exploring the tensions between restraint and passion, sincerity and hypocrisy, respectability and disgrace. In short, they are sharp, nuanced and incisive. Here we see life as it was in the upper echelons of New York society with its traditional social mores and codes, frequently stifling freedom of action in favour of compliance and conformity.

The opening story, Mrs Manstey’s View, features a protagonist outside of Wharton’s own social class – a relatively lonely, elderly woman who lives at the back of a New York boarding house, far removed from the wealthy areas of the city. Mrs Manstey is largely confined to her room where she gains pleasure from gazing at the outside world via the view from her window. In spite of the dwelling’s urban location, various flowers and plants are visible and abundant, altering in prominence with the changing of the seasons.

Mrs. Manstey’s real friends were the denziens of the yards, the hyacinths, the magnolia, the green parrot, the maid who fed the cats, the doctor who studied late behind his mustard-colored curtains; and the confidant of her tenderer mustings was the church-spire floating in the sunset. (p. 6)

One day, Mrs Manstey learns that her neighbour, Mrs Black, is planning an extension, a full-sized structure that will block out her view – no longer will she be able to see the proliferation of the natural world, the tangle of shrubs that brighten her days. Mrs Manstey knows that drastic measures are called for, and she acts accordingly – to say any more would spoil the effect. This is a lovely story tinged with poignancy, one that highlights the value of beauty and pleasure over the desire for commercial gain.

In A Journey, one of the standout pieces in the collection, a respectable woman is escorting her husband home to New York following a spell in warmer climes. The husband is chronically ill and unlikely to recover, but for now appears to be well enough to make the trip. With the train journey underway, the wife proceeds to reflect on the past. There is a sense that the couple’s marriage has deteriorated in line with (or possibly even ahead of) the husband’s decline in health, such is the extent of the change in his character.

Tensions increase when the wife realises that her husband has died during the journey, a development that raises the stakes in an already strained situation. Fearing their expulsion from the train if the body is discovered, the wife must try to conceal the death from the other passengers – something that is easier said than done, particularly given the crowded nature of their compartment.

After that many faces seemed to press upon her. The passengers were on their way to the dining-car, and she was conscious that as they passed down the aisle they glanced curiously at the closed curtains. One lantern-jawed man with prominent eyes stood still and tried to shoot his projecting glance through the division between the folds. The freckled child, returning from breakfast, waylaid the passers with a buttery clutch, saying in a loud whisper, “He’s sick”; and once the conductor came by, asking for tickets. She shrank into her corner and looked out of the window at the flying trees and houses, meaningless hieroglyphs of an endlessly unrolled papyrus. (pp. 95-96)

This is a superb story, steeped in mood and emotion, giving it the feel of a nightmare or hallucination. Wharton excels in her portrayal of a woman on the edge, the rhythm of her prose mirroring the relentless momentum of the train as it hurtles onwards to its final destination. A tour de force in miniature with some very memorable imagery.

The Rembrandt is a lovely, beautifully-observed story of opposing principles, one that highlights the importance of human emotions in any financially-based decision. It focuses on a museum art dealer who is called upon to give his opinion on a picture owned by a friend of his cousin’s – a lady by the name of Mrs Fontage. Finding herself in need of money, Mrs Fontage wishes to sell the picture, which she believes to be a Rembrandt. However, on seeing the painting, the dealer can tell it is nothing of the kind. What is he to do? If he tells Mrs Fontage the painting is worthless, he will shatter not only her future but her memories of the past, too – the story behind the acquisition of the picture is clearly very precious. On the other hand, if he says nothing or gives the impression that the painting is valuable, her hopes will be raised under false pretences. In short, there appears to be no easy way out for the dealer, irrespective of the option he chooses.

Looking at that lamentable canvas seemed the surest way of gathering strength to denounce it: but behind me, all the while, I felt Mrs. Fontage’s shuddering pride drawn up in a final effort of self-defense. I hated myself for my sentimental perversion of the situation. Reason argued that it was more cruel to deceive Mrs. Fontage than to tell her the truth; but that merely proved the inferiority of reason to instinct in situations involving any concession to the emotions. (p. 105)

All in all, this is an excellent story, one with a surprise or two up its sleeve.

Autres Temps…, another excellent piece, explores the social scandal surrounding divorce, particularly in the years of the late 19th century. Interestingly, it also illustrates how attitudes were beginning to change, highlighting the contrast between the Old New York and a younger, more liberal society starting to break through.

The story focuses on Mrs Lidcote who, years earlier was condemned by her peers for leaving her husband for another man. When it transpires that her daughter, Leila, is about to get divorced in similar circumstances, Mrs. Lidcote is assured that times have changed. Divorce is no longer considered quite as shameful as it once was, leaving Mrs Lidcote free to return to New York from her self-imposed exile abroad. However, once she is installed in Leila’s new marital home, Mrs Lidcote realises that a re-entry into society will not be quite as simple to achieve. While attitudes have moved on, Mrs Lidcote’s position has not; her time has passed, leaving her tainted for eternity.

“…Probably no one in the house with me stopped to consider that my case and Leila’s were identical. They only remembered that I’d done something which, at the time I did it, was condemned by society. My case has been passed on and classified: I’m the woman who has been cut for nearly twenty years. The older people have half forgotten why, and the younger ones have never really known: it’s simply become a tradition to cut me. And traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest of all to destroy.” (pp. 319-320)

The final story is another standout, quite possibly the best in the collection. In Roman Fever, two lifelong friends and neighbours, Mrs Slade and Mrs Ansley – both middle-aged New Yorkers, both widows – are sitting on a roof-top terrace overlooking Rome where they are holidaying with their adult daughters. As they gaze across the city, the two women recall past times, in particular their previous visit to the capital some twenty-five years earlier. In this wonderful story of bottled-up jealously, rage and long-held resentment, Mrs Slade confronts her friend in a bid to establish her superiority, dredging up old secrets and acts of duplicity in the process.

To reveal much more might spoil the effect; suffice it to say that this story comes with a killer ending, one of the best last lines I can recall in any story, not just those by this author.

This is a sparkling collection of stories with much to recommend it. Wharton’s prose is precise and incisive, frequently shedding light on the complexities of our motivations and behaviours.

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.