The Hireling by L. P. Hartley

The British writer L. P. Hartley is perhaps best known for his novel The Go-Between (1953), a beautifully written story of a young boy’s loss of innocence set against the backdrop of a blistering English summer. It is a book of many contrasts; perhaps most notably, the divisions between the classes, the barriers and conventions that can stand in the way of relationships between people from markedly different social backgrounds. Hartley explores this theme again in The Hireling as an emotionally repressed chauffeur finds himself developing a somewhat inappropriate relationship with one of his regular customers, the lonely but very wealthy Lady Franklin.

The novel centres on Leadbitter, a hard-bitten ex-Army man who is struggling somewhat to find his way in civilian life – the story is set in the period following the First Word War. Part of Leadbitter’s problem stems from his inherent tendency towards bitterness and self-protection. His life is governed by a certain moral code, one that values loyalty, punctuality and discipline, while keeping any softer emotions or feelings firmly under wraps.

Feelings with Leadbitter were something to keep hidden, something of which, if people knew, they would take advantage, and the deeper the feeling, the more closely he guarded it. (p.179)

Having tired of working in the Fire Service, Leadbitter has now sunk his war gratuity into the down payment on a car, setting himself up as a driver for hire for the well-to-do people of London. On the surface, he is unfailingly polite, reliable and discreet, qualities his customers value in spades. Nevertheless, there are times, especially when he is off duty, when Leadbitter struggles to keep his feelings of hostility under control. To him, life is a battle, a conflict of sorts during which his patience is frequently tested. In short, his deep-rooted cynicism is a defence mechanism against the outside world. Here is a passage from one of Leadbitter’s many musings on the nature of his customers. No one ever seems to recognise that he might have needs of his own or other commitments to attend to, especially not the women. Women have never done Leadbitter any good in his life; for starters, they never seem to know what they really want…

Such a being as the perfect customer did not exist, though some had more faults than others. Unpunctuality was one of the worst, and of this the women were particularly guilty. They would make a point of his being there on time and then keeping him waiting for an hour; they would expect him to pick up their friends and drop them again in distant places; they would challenge his choice of the route; they would want him to wait in streets where waiting was prohibited; they would ask him to turn round and go back; they would want to keep him long after he was due on another job. They did not or would not understand that time, which was as elastic to them as an accordion-pleated skirt, was a strait-jacket to him. (p. 50-51)

Then one day Leadbitter is called to collect a new customer, a young widow by the name of Lady Franklin, who hires him to take her on a pilgrimage to a country cathedral. As it turns out, Lady Franklin is still grieving the loss of her husband – she blames herself for not telling him she loved him and for not being by his side at the time of his death some two years earlier. Part of her reason for hiring the car is to pour out her troubles to a complete stranger – namely Leadbitter – in the hope that by doing so she can get over her loss and find a way back to reality. Moreover, Lady Franklin has been advised to take more of an interest in other people’s stories in the belief that this will aid her recovery. So, to this end, she asks Leadbitter to tell her about his own life, which he does by inventing an imaginary wife and family – in the heat of the moment, he thinks this might secure him a decent tip.

One cathedral trip leads to another, each outing following a familiar pattern, one that begins with Lady Franklin and her ‘obsession’ for unburdening herself and then ends with Leadbitter spinning tall tales of his make-believe home life. In essence, Lady Franklin is living vicariously through Leadbitter and his family, to the extent that she helps him out financially when he fabricates a story about the imminent repossession of his car.

Their conversations usually followed the same pattern: beginning with Lady Franklin and her obsession, they ended with Leadbitter and his fictitious home-life. Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies; but Lady Franklin asked a great many questions and Leadbitter told her a great many lies. He had no scruples in doing this because it was his principle to give his customers what they wanted. In practice the customer was often wrong, in theory the customer was always right, and theory dictated Leadbitter’s behaviour. Except when ‘they’ annoyed him beyond bearing he himself did not come into it. (pp. 54-55)

Leadbitter, who for years has had no emotional life to speak of, takes a perverse sort of pleasure in inventing an imaginary one for the benefit of his employer. In some ways, he is living out a personal fantasy, one in which Lady Franklin herself comes to play an increasingly important role.

Instalment by instalment, as if composing it for the wireless, he built up a serial story of himself and his wife and their children, the story of an ideally happy family. Not that the Leadbitters were always happy; they had their ups and downs, of temper, health, and spirits, and they were chronically hard up. But whatever befell them […], it took place in an idyllic atmosphere, an atmosphere of gold and pink, with a never-empty box of chocolates on the table. For the whole fantasy owed its imaginative impulse to his dream – that dream in which someone rather like Lady Franklin was his wife. (pp. 55-56)

Much to his surprise, Leadbitter finds himself getting emotionally attached to Lady Franklin to the point where he makes a pass at her during one of their trips. Moreover, he also comes clean about his fictitious wife and family by declaring that they don’t exist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lady Franklin is rather shocked by her driver’s actions, so she rebuffs him and asks to be let out of the car some ten miles from home. While Lady Franklin is very grateful to Leadbitter for the help he has given her in overcoming her grief – his actions have in fact prompted a kind of reawakening in her – she cannot begin to think of him as a potential lover. For a start, they belong to very different social spheres; and besides, as far as Lady Franklin has been concerned – at least up to this point – Leadbitter was a married man with a family to support. How could she possibly get involved with an adulterer or a liar when she is just getting over her own guilt at the loss of her husband?

At first, Leadbitter’s pride is severely wounded; as far as he sees it, Lady Franklin has led him up the garden path and then rejected him because of his class. But then his feelings towards her start to soften, especially once he discovers that she has fallen for a clot of an artist named Hughie who also happens to call on his services as a driver. Hughie doesn’t love Lady F; rather he is attracted to her money, the glamorous lifestyle such a bounty can support. In a rather fateful turn of events, Leadbitter discovers that Hughie plans to continue seeing his longstanding lover, Constance, after his fothcoming marriage to Lady Franklin. So, Leadbitter is faced with a dilemma: should he destroy Lady Franklin’s new-found happiness by revealing the true nature of Hughie’s intentions, or should he keep quiet and let the erroneous marriage go ahead?

I’ll leave it there with the plot; to reveal any more might spoil the story, although it’s fair to say that what happens next is pretty dramatic.

While I didn’t love this book quite as much as The Go-Between, I really did enjoy it a great deal. The central characterisation is excellent, very convincing and compelling. Hartley takes a lot of care and attention in setting up the nature of Leadbitter’s character in the novel’s opening chapters, an investment which proves very valuable as the narrative develops. Deep down, Leadbitter seems to have Lady Franklin’s best interests at heart, even if he struggles to reconcile and contain his conflicting emotions – at a critical point in the story, he almost blurts out his true feelings for her but is cut off before he can finish his declaration. He knows his place in the British class system but longs to break away from it.

All in all, this is a very good novel with much to commend it. There’s a film version too, summarised here in this typically insightful piece by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. It sounds somewhat different from the book, especially in the closing stages; nevertheless, I’m looking forward to watching it very soon.

The Hireling is published by John Murray; personal copy

Les Belles Amours by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. Francis Wyndham)

A couple of summers ago I read Louise de Vilmorin’s Madame de ___ (1951), an exquisite novella that follows the fate of a pair of earrings as they pass from one person to another. (You may be familiar with the story via the Max Ophüls film, The Earrings of Madame de…, widely considered to be a masterpiece of French cinema.) In my eagerness to try another by de Vilmorin, I tracked down a copy of Les Belles Amours (1954), a novel that explores the complexities of romantic liaisons, a subject close to the author’s own heart. As outlined by John Julius Norwich in his afterword to Madame de ___, de Vilmorin’s love life was characterised by a series of intricate romantic entanglements. These included an engagement to the French writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, an affair with Orson Welles (to whom Les Belles Amours was dedicated), and an extended liaison with Duff Cooper, the British Ambassador to France at the time. As Francis Wyndham once commented, ‘You couldn’t say she [de Vilmorin] was beautiful, but there was an aura about her. In some mysterious way, she was tremendously attractive’.

So, back to the novel itself, Les Belles Amours is in a similar style to Madame de ___. In short, it is another beautifully constructed story, by turns elegant, artful, astute and poignant. I hope to find a place for it in my 2017 highlights.

The narrative revolves around the respective fortunes of three central characters: the handsome roué, Monsieur Zaraguirre; the young libertine Louis Duville; and the alluring woman who manages to capture both of their hearts. (Interestingly, we never learn the young woman’s name as her identity throughout the novel is characterised by her attachment to each of the two men in turn.)

At nearly sixty, the distinguished Monsieur Zaraguirre remains irresistible to women – the fact that he now resides in South America only adds to his attraction. Wherever he goes, this successful businessman makes a lasting impression; women fall at his feet, longing to capture his attention and maybe his heart too. While M Zaraguirre clearly enjoys the company of women, he remains somewhat detached from his lovers, avoiding emotional involvement at all costs. When he senses that a woman is getting too close to him or tiring of the uncertainty of the situation, he bids her farewell with a diamond ring, a parting gift to remember him by.

To love him was to regret him, his kiss did not diminish his essential remoteness, liberty could be divined beneath his ardour and independence showed through his fidelity. He inspired and disarmed possessiveness, and as he was inaccessible women longed to own him. ‘Ask me for anything you want, except a promise,’ he told them… (p. 18)

During his frequent business trips to Europe, Monsieur Zaraguirre often spends time with his closest friends, the Duvilles, at their home of Valronce in the French countryside. The Duvilles long to see their thirty-year-old son, Louis, settled with a suitable wife and to this end Mme Duville spends her days inviting a succession of attractive young girls to the house in the hope that her son will fall in love with one of them. Louis, for his part, remains somewhat immune to these beauties, preferring instead to spend his leisure time in Paris where he amuses himself with a succession of casual love affairs. Easily bored, he is a lover of late nights, fast pursuits and glamorous mistresses, all to the mild distress of his parents.

Then, one weekend, Mme Duville’s cousin, a distinguished Colonel, brings his niece, a beautiful young widow, to Valronce where she meets and forms a bond with Louis. The pair are instantly attracted to one another, so much so that they announce their engagement before the day is out.

Carried away by love, he made up his mind from one moment to the next, without thinking it over, so certain was he of his love. It is true that the violence of love makes patience impossible; however, it was not only love, it was doubtless a presentiment which made him wish to be married at once, without waiting. (p. 21)

The Duvilles are delighted by the news, and preparations for the wedding immediately swing into action – the couple are to be married within the month. Naturally, the Duvilles invite their good friend, M Zaraguirre, to their son’s wedding, an invitation the latter is only too keen to accept. Nevertheless, when M Zaraguirre arrives at Valronce only days before the marriage is to take place, he too finds himself falling in love with Louis’ fiancée – and what’s more, the feeling is mutual. During this scene, M Zaraguirre and the young woman in question are alone in the garden. In response to an enquiry about her feelings, Louis’ fiancée opens her heart. In the eyes of the experienced roué, it seems she has mistaken an affectionate form of friendship for one of love.

‘He is charming, he charmed me and I wanted the happiness he offered me. It is understandable that I should be delighted by so simple a prospect, and I loved Louis, yes, I loved him and I love him still with all my heart. Tell me, have I confused love with affectionate friendship, or am I really heartless?’

She was touching, sincere and in great distress.

‘Friendship is often as sudden as love,’ answered M. Zaraguirre. ‘Friendship is a wise form of love that reassures the heart and doesn’t disturb the imagination.’

‘Ah! I don’t want to lie to Louis or deceive him, yet that is what I am doing when I realise that in the future I shall do nothing else. My life was blameless before you came but since you are here everything has changed, even myself.’ (pp. 44-45)

M Zaraguirre and the young woman spend the night together and then elope the following morning (the day of the wedding) thereby leaving poor Louis in the lurch. Naturally, the Duvilles are devastated, and M Duville senior breaks off all relations with M Zaraguirre once the true nature of the situation comes to light. Within a matter of weeks, Louis’ former fiancée has become Mme Zaraguirre, and the couple waste no time in departing for South America where they settle into a rhythm of life together, sheltered by the beauty of M Zaraguirre’s colonial country house, Tijo.

Some five years later, Mme Zaraguirre decides to accompany her husband on one of his business trips to Europe. It will give her an opportunity to visit various members of her family whom she has not seen since her elopement. While in France, Mme Zaraguirre makes a new friend, a rather silly, gossipy woman who encourages her to live a little by spending some time in Paris, a city she has never been interested in visiting until now. As M Zaraguirre has business to attend to elsewhere, Mme Zaraguirre accompanies her friend to the capital where she runs into Louis Duville at a gathering. At first, it would appear as though Louis has forgiven his former fiancée for deserting him, but at heart, the underlying situation is more complex than that. When it transpires that Mme Zaraguirre would like nothing more than to bring about a reconciliation between her husband and his old friend M Duville, Louis sees an opportunity for revenge, thereby setting in motion an elaborate dance, one in which each party hopes to play the other to their own advantage.

They could not escape the past for long. Days at Valronce and in Lorraine emerged one by one from their conversation; they remembered the same moments with the same emotion and yet their thoughts were not alike: while Mme Zaraguirre, slightly committing herself, wished only to obtain from Louis Duville a favour that would add to her husband’s happiness, Louis Duville, still moved by the memory of his beautiful love, hoped to avenge himself on a man who had humiliated him. When the comedy they were acting was over, Mme Zaraguirre thought that she had reconquered a heart free from bitterness and Louis thought that he had re-won a woman who loved easily. Besides, she attracted him. (p. 75)

What follows is a complex sequence of manoeuvres, something that doesn’t quite go according to plan for either player. I won’t go into the details here; I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself should you decide to read the book. Nevertheless, by the end of the story, my sympathies were firmly with Louis – and with M Zaraguirre for that matter. Mme Zaraguirre is a complex character, at times rather selfish and indifferent to the feelings of others. While I loved reading about her, I certainly wouldn’t trust her as a friend or a potential ally. Perhaps the signs were there at an early stage with this description, a reflection on her demeanour as a young widow.

It was doubtless to cheat loneliness and boredom that, apparently ignorant of the passions she aroused, she played a game of promising without compromising herself. There was even a suggestion of distance in the way she held out the flower of illusion like a sceptre. She was mistress of a reserve that made men dream, and women resented that. No one could reproach her for anything, and yet no one trusted her. However she had a heart and was capable of love. (p. 34)

There is something timeless about Les Belles Amours. The story is set in the mid-1920s, but it could easily have been any time in the late 19th century. My Capuchin Classics edition comes with a set of beautiful pen and ink drawings which add a lovely touch, enhancing the mood of particular scenes.

I loved this novel of intrigues, infidelity, and the complexities of the heart – highly recommended for lovers of French fiction and classic literature in general.

A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan (tr. Irene Ash)

Last summer, I read and adored Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan’s seminal novella about love, jealousy and desire – in essence, the games a young girl plays with other people’s emotions. This year I was keen to read her follow-up, the 1956 novella, A Certain Smile – this time in the Irene Ash translation which was rushed out in the same year. (You can read my additional post about Heather Lloyd’s recent translation of Bonjour Tristesse here). In summary, A Certain Smile is the bittersweet story of a young girl’s ill-fated love affair with an older married man, one that epitomises the emotions of youth complete with all their intensity and confusion. While I didn’t love A Certain Smile quite as much as Tristesse, I did enjoy it a great deal. It’s a lovely book for the summer, best read on a lazy afternoon in the sun with a cool drink by your side. Perfect reading for #WITMonth (women in translation) which is running throughout August.

The novella is narrated by Dominique, a law student at the Sorbonne, who is experiencing an overwhelming sense of boredom with life. She is bored by her rather immature and petulant boyfriend, Bertrand, by her studies at the University, and at times by the city of Paris itself. Dominique spends her days idling her time away in cafes, listening to records on the jukebox, and generally lolling around. Sagan perfectly captures this sense of ennui, the feelings of listlessness and detachment that stem from a lack of clear purpose in Dominque’s life.

Nevertheless, everything looks set to change for Dominique when Bertrand takes her to meet his Uncle Luc, a businessman and traveller. Luc is older than Bertrand, more self-assured and sophisticated. Naturally, Dominique is instantly attracted to him. In some ways, she sees Luc as a kindred spirit; his expression suggests a certain sadness, a weariness with the world in general.

He had grey eyes and a tired, almost sad expression. In a way he was handsome. (p. 12)

Luc, for his part, is also attracted to Dominque; somewhat unsurprisingly, her youth and freshness prove appealing to him.

To complicate matters further, Luc is married to the charming Françoise, a kind and generous woman who takes Dominique under her wing, buying her clothes and acting as a sort of mother figure in a gentle, subtle way. (In reality, Dominique’s sees little of her own mother who is still trying to come to terms with the tragic loss of her son, an event which took place some fifteen years earlier.)

In spite of her fondness for Françoise, Dominque finds herself getting more involved with Luc, especially once he invites her to dine alone with him without Bertrand or Françoise. Dominque knows she is playing a dangerous game here, but what does that matter? This is the most interesting thing to have happened to her in months.

I was young, I liked one man and another was in love with me. I had one of those silly little girlish problems to solve. I was feeling rather important. There was even a married man involved, and another woman: a little play with four characters was taking place in the springtime in Paris. I reduced it all to a lovely dry equation, as cynical as could be. Besides, I felt remarkably sure of myself. I accepted all the unhappiness, the conflict, the pleasure to come; I mockingly accepted it all in advance. (p.29)

In time, Luc asks Dominique to come away with him to the Riviera. He is keen to spend time with her alone, to show her the sea, and to teach her how to feel less inhibited. Even though she knows Luc will return to Françoise at the end of the trip, Dominque accepts his proposal, complete with all its inherent risks and uncertainties. She steels herself to be resilient, deep in the knowledge that Luc will not fall in love with her. It is clear that there have been other affairs in the past, so why should this one be any different?

‘Afterwards I’d go back to Françoise. What do you risk? To get attached to me? To suffer afterwards? But after all, that’s better than being bored. You’d rather be happy and even unhappy than nothing at all, wouldn’t you?’

‘Obviously,’ I replied.

‘Isn’t it true that you’d risk nothing?’ repeated Luc, as if to convince himself.

‘Why talk about suffering?’ I said. ‘One must not exaggerate. I’m not so tender-hearted.’ (p. 47)

Dominique and Luc spend an idyllic fortnight in Cannes, making love and generally enjoying one another’s company. They are united by a common lethargy, a weariness for the day-to-day business of life.

We walked in step, had the same tastes, the same rhythm of life; we liked being together, and all went well between us. I did not even regret too much that he could not make the tremendous effort needed to love someone, to know them, and to dispel their loneliness. We were friends and lovers. […] Sensuality was not the basis of our relationship, but something else, a strange bond that united us against the weariness of playing a part, the weariness of talking, in short: weariness itself. (pp. 64-65)

Somewhat inevitably and in spite of her best intentions, Dominque finds herself falling in love with Luc. She is young and inexperienced in these matters, and her natural emotions soon take over; but when the holiday comes to an end, Luc goes back to Françoise, leaving Dominque on her own in Paris to pick up the pieces.

Everything had turned to dust and ashes. I realized that I was not suited to be the gay paramour of a married man. I loved him. I should have thought of that sooner, or at least have taken it into consideration; the obsession that is love, the agony when it is not satisfied. (p. 101)

This is a book in which emotions are expressed both freely and openly. Sagan really excels at capturing what it feels like to be young: the conflicted emotions of youth; the lack of interest in day-to-day life; the agony and despair of first love, especially when that feeling is not reciprocated. In short, she portrays with great insight the painful experience of growing up. The prose is cool, clear and candid, a style that perfectly suits Dominique’s character and the nature of her story, while the mood is free-spirited and oh-so-French – like a Jean-Luc Godard movie or Mia Hansen-Løve’s appropriately-titled 2011 film, Goodbye First Love.

In spite of everything that has gone before, Dominque’s story ends on a more hopeful note. There are moments of brightness earlier in the narrative too, like this scene in which our narrator reflects on Paris, the ‘shining golden city’ that stands apart from so many others. I’ll leave you with this final passage which I loved for its youthful exuberance.

Paris belonged to me: Paris belonged to the unscrupulous, to the irresponsible; I had always felt it, but it had hurt because I was not carefree enough. Now it was my city, my beautiful, shining golden city, ‘the city that stands aloof’. I was carried along by something that must have been joy. I walked quickly, was full of impatience, and could feel the blood coursing through my veins. I felt ridiculously young at those moments of mad happiness and much nearer to reality and truth than when I searched my soul in my moods of sadness. (p. 28)

A Certain Smile is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings has also reviewed this novel.

#WITMonth is coming – some suggestions of books by women in translation

As in previous years, Meytal at the Biblibio blog will be hosting Women in Translation (#WITMonth) throughout the month of August. It’s a celebration of translated literature by women writers – you can find out more about it here. I’ve reviewed quite a few books in this category over the years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read next month, here are a few of my favourites.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

A quintessential summer read, Bonjour Tristesse is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions, all set against the blistering heat of the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel – I’ll be reading Sagan again this year, this time in an Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these individuals as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. All in all, this is a delightfully entertaining read.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was just twenty-three when her debut novel, Nada, was published. It’s an excellent book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. Here we see the portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. This is a wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. Truly deserving of its status as a Spanish classic.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940, Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. This was a standout read for me.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson)

By turns satirical, insightful, artful and poignant, this is a fascinating collection of short stories and sketches, notable for the sheer variety in tone. What makes these stories particularly intriguing is their connection to various aspects of Teffi’s own life and experience, from her time in Russia prior the Revolution to the years she spent as an émigré in Paris. Her first-hand account of Rasputin – a highly perceptive piece – is worth the entry price alone.

La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

When Elisa realises her husband, Gilles, has become entangled with Victorine, her attractive younger sister, she is devastated. Beautifully written in a sensual, intimate style, this is a very compelling novel with a powerful ending. The writing is spare but very emotive – Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to Elisa’s point of view giving us near-complete access to her inner thoughts and feelings. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of writers like Simenon and Jean Rhys.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the stories in this volume of forty-two stories drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of her pieces point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. An unusual and poetic collection of stories that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. A good one for dipping into, especially if you’re in the mood for something different.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

More short fiction, this time from Japan, Revenge comprises eleven interlinked short stories, elegantly connected via a set of recurring images and motifs threaded through the individual narratives. Characters flow from one story to the next; we revisit specific locations and scenes from earlier tales, only to see things from a different viewpoint as our perspective changes. It’s all very cleverly constructed. In Revenge, we meet characters who seem isolated or detached from society in some way; many live alone, their lives infused with sadness and loneliness. Ogawa has a real talent for exploring some of the disquieting parts of the human psyche, the acts of darkness that can lurk just beneath the surface of the everyday. An excellent collection of unsettling stories.

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

To be honest, highly autobiographical books aren’t my usual my cup of tea, but NHBtN is so good that it warrants inclusion here. Virtually impossible to summarise in a couple of sentences, this remarkable story focuses on a woman’s quest to gain a deeper understanding of her mother following the latter’s death by suicide. A genuinely absorbing and compelling book, beautifully written in a sensitive style – de Vigan’s prose is simply luminous.

And finally, a special mention for a fairly recent read:

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal (tr. Jessica Moore)

In this highly unusual, utterly compelling novel, we follow Simon Limbeau’s heart for twenty-four hours – from the young man’s death in a freak accident one morning, to the delicate discussions on organ donation with his parents, to the transfer of his heart to an anxious recipient in another city later that evening. De Kerangel explores the clinical, ethical and the emotional issues at play with great sensitivity. Superbly written in a fluid, lyrical style, this is a novel that will stay with you long after the final page has been turned. (A cliché, I know – but in this case, it’s actually very apt.)

This book has already been widely reviewed across the blogosphere, so I’m not planning to cover it in more detail here. Instead, I can point you towards a couple of thoughtful posts that I recall seeing – this one by Grant at 1streading and this one by Marina Sofia. It’s definitely worth considering.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading one or two of them next month. Maybe you have plans of your own – if so, what do you have in mind? Or perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? Please feel free to mention it here.

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

First published in 1953, Black Wings Has My Angel is now regarded as something of a noir fiction classic, aided no doubt by the publication of the NYRB Classics edition at the beginning of 2016. As a novel, it has all the hallmarks of a top-flight noir: a damaged soul driven by lust, desire, frustration and greed; a manipulative femme fatale who turns out to be more rapacious and unhinged than the protagonist himself; and an unstable situation that proves a catalyst for their ultimate self-destruction.

Chaze’s novel is narrated by a man who calls himself Tim Sunblade, a small-time con on the run following a breakout from Parchman Penitentiary, Mississippi. Having amassed some ready cash by roughnecking it on a drilling rig in the Atchafalaya River for a few months, Tim is just about set to hit the road for Denver where he hopes to make a big killing. His ultimate aim is to carry out a heist on an armoured vehicle full of cash, a plan originally hatched by Jeepie, a fellow inmate at Parchman who was shot during the escape.

As the novel opens, Tim is relaxing in the bath in some two-bit hotel in Louisiana when the bellhop brings him a ten-dollar prostitute for the night, a shapely number by the name of Virginia. But, as we soon discover, Virginia is no ordinary small-town hooker; she’s a classy lady, leggy and beautiful – ‘a slender, poised thing with skin the colour of pearls melted in honey’. It’s pretty clear that Virginia is somewhat out of place in this joint. There are hints of money about her person – good clothes, expensive-looking luggage, and a general desire for the high life. If truth be told, Virginia is actually a five-hundred-dollar-a-night call girl on the run from a messy situation in New York, something involving the city’s District Attorney – a revelation that emerges a little later in the story. At this stage in the game, Tim knows that something is up; he just doesn’t know what exactly. Nevertheless, after a few days of wild sex, he finds himself attracted to Virginia, so he decides to take her on the road with him, at least for a while.

Going across the Red River bridge, I sailed my Mississippi tags over the iron railing and saw them hit the water with a splash, forty feet below. She watched me, leaning back in her padded-leather corner, smoking quietly. Nothing seemed to surprise her: the car, the tags, the business of taking an unchartered trip with an unknown man. The wind whipped her bright hair the way it does in the soft-drink advertisements, co-operatively, beautifully. The cross-stripes of tar on the white highway thumped faster and faster beneath the wheels until the thumping became a buzzing. The air was soft, yet not dead. And over all of it lay the very good feeling of going somewhere. (p. 13)

At first, Tim convinces himself that he’s going to dump Virginia at a filling station on the way to Denver – a woman like her is always going to attract a lot of attention, and that’s the last thing he needs if he’s going to get away with the heist. But the robbery is a two-person job, and he needs an accomplice to pull it off. So, after a few cat fights along the way, Tim decides that Virginia is cool enough and tough enough to help him out with the raid. Plus, by this point, he’s fallen for her, which means there’s more than one reason to keep her around.

On their arrival in Colorado, the pair begin to make plans. They rent a house in a decent neighbourhood in Denver where they pose as newlyweds, just an ordinary, respectable couple going about their business like any other. Tim gets a job in a sheet metal plant, a role that gives him access to the tools and other resources he needs to prepare for the heist. On his days off work, he follows the bank’s armoured car, monitoring its movements in detail to establish the driver’s routine when making the pickups. By doing so, Tim uncovers a habit that the driver’s sidekick has fallen into, something that will give him an ‘in’ when it comes to pulling the heist.

Meanwhile, back at the house, Virginia is getting impatient, eager as she is to get her hands on the money with the aim of hightailing out of Denver, away from the monotony of a life posing as a contented housewife. As a consequence, she begins to turn up the heat on Tim…

All of a sudden I was mad and sick. I loathed the sound of the knife on the oilstone. I wanted to throw it in her face and get out of the car and start running, anywhere, just running. […] I was going downtown to kill a man who hadn’t done a damned thing to me, to kill an old guy whose only fault as far as I knew was throwing chewing gum wrappers in the street. I was going to kill him because I wanted money more than I wanted him to live and I was going to kill him filthily. Or maybe I wasn’t. Maybe he was going to kill me and go on the rest of his life with the gum wrappers. I know now that I would have probably backed out of it if it hadn’t been for Virginia and the desire to remain a big bad lad in her eyes. Anyway, I didn’t want any mushy farewell business with Virginia, no sentimental sendoff. Not for a thing like this. (p. 115)

I’ll leave it there with the plot, save to say that Tim and Virginia’s story doesn’t end with the heist. In a gripping denouement, two cruel twists of fate come together, developments that ultimately prove to be the couple’s undoing. It’s as if Tim and Virginia are chasing a dream that will never bring them any real happiness or sense of satisfaction in life, a dream as hollow and empty as Virginia’s lavender-grey eyes.

Black Wings Has My Angel is a very good noir, a highly compelling story powered by strong emotions of desire, greed, suspicion and general debauchery. The characterisation is excellent, both credible and convincing. The love-hate relationship between Tim and Virginia is very well drawn; at times the sense of repulsion they exhibit for one another is as strong as the feeling of mutual attraction. Virginia is painted as a rather hard, voracious and impulsive woman, someone who is prepared to stop at nothing to get what she wants. Tim, on the other hand, has a little more depth to his personality. He is a veteran of the Second World War, irrevocably damaged by the brutality of conflict and the soul-destroying experience of life in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp where he was held for almost three years.

I told her how it’d been spending thirty-four months in the Japanese prison camp on the Island of Luzon, clamped there in the heat and filth with ten thousand others, and how they buried the weak ones alive, some of them who were too weak to work, too weak even to throw off the dirt and sit up in their graves. I told about getting my honourable discharge button and going home and selling office supplies until I blew my cork and landed in Parchman [jail] with Jeepie and Thompson and the others, and how at Parchman I’d decided I was through with being locked up and through being poor. (p. 55)

As a consequence of these experiences, Tim is frustrated by the mind-numbing nature of civilian life in post-war America; the prospect of sweating it out in a dead-end job seems utterly pointless to him.

This novel has been compared to the work of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, classics like The Postman Only Rings Twice and The Getaway. If you enjoy this style of noir fiction, chances are you’ll take to this. The writing isn’t quite in the same league as Cain’s or Thompson’s, but the storyline definitely stands up to the comparison.

I’ll finish with a final quote on Virginia, one that captures something of her presence and something of Chaze’s style. It’s textbook noir.

I wanted Virginia. She was a creature of moonlight, crazy as moonlight, all upthrusting radiance and hard silver dimples and hollows, built for one thing and only one thing and perfectly for that. (p. 177)

Guy has also reviewed this book here.

Black Wings Has My Angel is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

First published in 1945 but set largely in the interwar years, Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love is a wonderful novel about a young woman’s search for true love, complete with all the delights and disappointments such a quest entails.

While Mitford’s novel focuses on the amorous adventures of Linda Radlett, everything we see and hear is filtered through the lens of Linda’s cousin, the sensible and level-headed Fanny. Having been abandoned by her mother – known within the family as ‘the Bolter’ for her tendency to run off with a sequence of lovers – Fanny has been raised by her kindly Aunt Emily in a small but comfortable home in Shenley. Childhood Christmas holidays are spent with the rather eccentric Radletts at their estate in the Cotswolds, a large manor house by the name of Alconleigh. The Radlett family is headed by Fanny’s Uncle Matthew, a large blustering man whose favourite sports are catching Germans with his entrenching tool, hunting of any description (including the pursuit of his children around the grounds), and stomping about in search of an outlet for his many frustrations; then there is Aunt Sadie (Emily’s sister), who does her best to maintain some semblance of order within the household; and finally, the six Radlett children, most notably Linda, Fanny’s cousin and closest friend. Mitford does a great job in conveying the various idiosyncrasies of this unconventional upper-class family – we are privy to their passions and beliefs, their rather silly preoccupations with outmoded social conventions, and their various peccadillos and habits.

The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives. (p. 9)

Fanny and Linda spend much of their time chatting together about girlish things, hiding out in the linen closet (or ‘Hons’ cupboard’ as it is called), the only warm place in the house. It is here that the hopelessly romantic Linda talks of finding true love, one that is lasting and passionate, the sort that only comes along once in a lifetime. In particular, she is entranced by the glamour and sophistication of the smart set of bright young things she meets by way of her neighbour and advocate, the cultured Lord Merlin.

By the time of her coming-out ball, Linda is ripe for the taking. Much to Uncle Matthew’s dismay, she falls in love with an attractive young banker, Tony Kroesig, whose family originally hailed from Germany, albeit several generations ago. In this scene, Uncle Matthew lets rips to Davey, Aunt Emily’s delightful but rather sensitive husband. As you can see, his language is gloriously unfiltered, very much a reflection of his bombastic nature and the prevailing attitudes of the day.

‘Who is that sewer with Linda?’

‘Kroesig, Governor of the Bank of England, you know; his son.’

‘Good God, I never expected to harbour a full-blooded Hun in this house – who on earth asked him?’

‘Now, Matthew dear, don’t get excited. The Kroesigs aren’t Huns, they’ve been over here for generations, they are a very highly respected family of English bankers.’

‘Once a Hun always a Hun,’ said Uncle Matthew, ‘and I’m not too set on bankers myself. Besides, the fellow must be a gate-crasher.’

‘No, he’s not. He came with Merlin.’

‘I knew that bloody Merlin would start bringing foreigners here sooner or later. I always said he would, but I didn’t think even he would land one with a German’ (p. 56)

At first, both families are dead against the match, albeit for very different reasons. Uncle Matthew has an intense hatred of all foreigners, irrespective of their standing and tenure in Britain. The Kroesigs, on the other hand, consider landed gentry such as the Radletts to be feckless and no longer of any great relevance in the modern world. Moreover, they would prefer young Tony to concentrate on his career for a while, with the hope that he might also go on to marry the daughter of one of the other big banking families in the city, thereby creating a union of great worth. Nevertheless, in spite of this initial opposition, the Kroesig-Radlett wedding goes ahead, and Linda and Tony begin their rather ill-fated life together.

As Fanny quite rightly intuits, the marriage turns out to be a failure almost right from the start. Tony is soon revealed to be a frightful bore, a pompous, self-centred ass whose only interests revolve around money and politics – shortly after the wedding he gains a comfortable seat as a Tory MP. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Linda proves a disappointment to the Kroesig family who consider her eccentric, distracted and extravagant. Tony’s work and political activities are of no interest to Linda whatsoever, a point which becomes patently obvious for all to see. By the time her daughter Moira is born, Linda has fallen totally out of love with Tony; his many shortcomings are simply too ingrained to overlook, those first flushes of love have long since gone.

The young man she had fallen in love with, handsome, gay, intellectual, and domineering, melted away upon closer acquaintance, and proved to have been a chimera, never to have existed outside her imagination. Linda did not commit the usual fault of blaming Tony for what was entirely her own mistake, she merely turned from him in absolute indifference. This was made easier by the fact that she saw so little of him. (p. 88)

Then one day at her in-laws’ home, Linda meets Christian Talbot, a handsome Communist full of energy and ideas. Entranced by this young man, his passions and beliefs, she runs away from Tony in the hope of finding true love with husband number two.

Linda was a plum ripe for shaking. The tree was now shaken, and down she came. Intelligent and energetic, but with no outlet for her energies, unhappy in her marriage, uninterested in her child, and inwardly oppressed with a sense of futility, she was in the mood either to take up some cause, or to embark upon a love affair. That a cause should now be presented by an attractive young man made both it and him irresistible. (p.98)

But once the initial excitement dies down, Linda discovers that her new life with Christian isn’t all she had hoped it would be. All too soon, during a trip to France to support the refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War, Christian reveals himself to be a rather hopeless husband. Concerned as he is with the major revolutions of the day, Christian remains oblivious to the feelings and emotions of others, especially those closest to him; it is radical ideas and left-wing causes that interest Christian, not individual people and their emotional needs. All of a sudden this becomes apparent to Linda – and so she packs her suitcase and leaves, forsaking another husband in the process.

Then, just when Linda is at her lowest ebb, stranded in Paris with insufficient money to make it home to England, a dashing stranger appears and comes to her rescue. The man in question is Fabrice, a wealthy duke and bon viveur, the man who turns out to be the one great love of Linda’s life. At long last, there is a chance of true happiness for our heroine; but the question is, will it last?

But she was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love. Twice in her life she had mistaken something else for it; it was like seeing somebody in the street who you think is a friend, you whistle and wave and run after him, and it is not only not the friend, but not even very like him. A few minutes later the real friend appears in view, and then you can’t imagine how you ever mistook that other person for him. Linda was now looking upon the authentic face of love, and she knew it, but it frightened her. That it should come so casually, so much by a series of accidents, was frightening. (p. 139)

The Pursuit of Love is an utterly charming novel. It is by turns hilarious, artful, touching and poignant, peppered as it is with Mitford’s sparkling dialogue and wit. The author has drawn heavily on her own family here, particularly in the portrayal of Uncle Matthew, a thinly-veiled version of her father, Lord Redesdale. The characterisation is fabulous throughout, from the privileged, whimsical Linda, to the indomitable Uncle Matthew, to the pitch-perfect minor characters of Davey and Lord Merlin, both of whom remain ardent supporters of Linda in her quest for personal fulfilment. Even the infamous Bolter makes a cameo appearance at one point – another memorable character, vividly sketched.

For all its wit and satirical humour, this novel also conveys a strong sense of humanity. In spite of her many mistakes and failings, Linda is always welcomed back into the family fold, supported by Fanny, Aunt Sadie and even Uncle Matthew. There is a sense of real support and affection here, a family sticking together despite what life may throw at it.

As the story draws to a close during the turmoil of WW2, Mitford also reminds us of the fragility of our existence. This was not a time for the frivolous pleasures of love; rather the focus was on survival and the preservation of life. While the closing section is rather poignant, the novel ends on a fitting note. All in all, this is a great book, fully deserving of its status as a modern classic. I enjoyed it immensely.

The Pursuit of Love is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Last year I read and really enjoyed Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel Memento Mori, a darkly comic exploration of ageing and mortality. In the hope of building on this positive experience, I recently turned to another of her early works, the wonderfully titled The Girls of Slender Means. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a great success. It’s a mercurial novel. Deceptively light at first sight, there are some genuine elements of darkness lurking just beneath the surface, all of which come together to make it a really interesting and surprising read.

Set mostly in the summer of 1945, The Girls of Slender Means centres on the May of Teck Club in Kensington, a hostel for the ‘Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.’

At an early stage in the novel, Spark maps out the social hierarchy that has developed within this large boarding house, once a private residence back in Victorian times. The ground floor houses the staff offices, dining room, recreation room and drawing room (the latter freshly papered in depressing shades of sludge-like brown), while the first floor accommodates the youngest members of the club, girls between the ages of eighteen and twenty, recently released from boarding school and used to living in communal dormitories, not unlike the curtained-off cubicles in this part of the building.

The girls on this floor were not yet experienced in discussing men. Everything turned on whether the man in question was a good dancer and had a sense of humour. The Air Force was mostly favoured, and a D.F.C. was an asset. (p. 27)

For those with more money, the second floor offers a little more privacy: shared rooms for two or four residents, mostly occupied by young woman in transit and those looking for flats or bedsits. The third floor is home to a mix of girls, either prim and pretty young virgins destined for a life of near-celibacy, or bossy women in their late twenties who are too sharp to fall for the charms of any man. Finally, the most attractive, sophisticated and lively girls are to be found on the top floor of the house, typically those with interesting jobs or lovers, and active social lives to boot.

As they realised themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means. (p. 9)

Also residing at the May of Teck are three spinsters in their fifties, women who have somehow managed to sidestep the usual rules of the establishment that require members to move on once they reach the age of thirty. These elderly residents provide some nice comic moments in their interactions with one another, and in those with the younger residents of the club.

By 1945 they had seen much coming of new girls and going of old, and were generally liked by the current batch, being subject to insults when they interfered in anything, and intimate confidences when they kept aloof. (pp. 14-15)

The novel focuses on a handful of the girls who reside at the May of Teck – mostly those on the top floor of the building – offering glimpses of their daily preoccupations and concerns as they try to go about their lives as best they can. While the timeline moves backwards and forwards throughout the novel, the majority of the action takes place over three months: the period between VE day in May and VJ Day in August 1945.

Central to the novel is Jane Wright, who in 1945 is working for a slightly dodgy publisher, checking out the financial status of aspiring authors and trying to uncover their weak spots for her employer to exploit when negotiating contracts. Also featuring prominently are the beautiful Selina Redwood, a rather statuesque girl who values poise and elegance above all else, Dorothy Markham, the impoverished niece of Lady Julia Markham, chairwoman of the club’s management committee, and Anne Baberton, the owner of a fabulous Schiaparelli gown that is loaned out to the other girls on the top floor whenever the occasion demands. This suitably glamorous dress causes a quite stir wherever it makes an appearance…

‘You can’t wear it to the Milroy. It’s been twice to the Milroy…it’s been to Quaglino’s, Selina wore it to Quags, it’s getting known all over London.’

‘But it looks altogether different on me, Anne. You can have a whole sheet of sweet-coupons.’

‘I don’t want your bloody sweet-coupons. I give all mine to my grandmother.’

Then Jane would put out her head. ‘Stop being so petty-minded and stop screeching. I’m doing brain-work.’ (p. 35)

(Jane is constantly seeking peace and quiet to concentrate on her important ‘brain-work’.)

Finally, and perhaps most notably, there is Joanna Childe, the self-sacrificing daughter of a country clergyman in the High Church. Young Joanna, who firmly believes that her one great chance for love has already passed her by, now devotes herself to giving elocution lessons to the other occupants of the house in exchange for payment or extra ration coupons. She is a lover of poetry, and her recitations of famous lines and stanzas are threaded through the novel adding an extra element of hilarity and interest.

Most of the chatter among the girls revolves around everyday issues: the men they are dating; their food rations and diets; the trading of clothing coupons and other luxuries; who gets to wear the posh frock when they have an important date, and so on. Nevertheless, against this light-hearted backdrop, there are signs of darker forces at play, mentions of notable events from 1945 are dropped in every now again – most worryingly perhaps, the emerging threat from the deployment of the atomic bomb.

Spark also inserts another strand into the story, one which adds a somewhat unsettling note. In the opening pages of the novel, a death in the present day (presumably some point in the 1960s) acts as the catalyst for the flashbacks to 1945. The missionary, Nicholas Farringdon has been killed in an uprising in Haiti, news of his death having reached Jane by way of a Reuters bulletin – she now works as a successful reporter for a leading women’s journal. Back in the 1940s, Jane had introduced Nicholas – then an aspiring author and intellectual whom she had been tasked with investigating – to the May of Teck Club. He was said to have been an anarchist, albeit a most unlikely one. No one could quite believe it of him at the time.

He was said to be an anarchist. No one at the May of Teck Club took this seriously as he looked quite normal; that is to say, he looked slightly dissipated, like the disappointing son of a good English family that he was. (p. 32)

Winding back to 1945, Jane is rather attracted to Nicholas and his somewhat bohemian lifestyle. He takes her to parties and poetry gatherings, introducing her to other writers in the process. Ultimately though, Nicholas gets mixed up with the glamorous Selina, spending hot summer nights with her on the May of Teck’s roof.

Nicholas had decided to do everything nice for Jane, except sleep with her, in the interests of two projects: the publication of his book and his infiltration of the May of Teck Club in general and Selina in particular. (pp. 65-66)

Elements of Nicholas’ ultimate fate are revealed in present-day conversations between Jane and the other former members of the May of Teck. Like Joanna’s recitations, these snatches of dialogue are threaded through the novel, a feat Spark pulls off to good effect.

The tone of the novel is by turns sharp, witty, touching and poignant. As the story heads towards its dramatic conclusion, Spark introduces a development that turns out to be both gripping and devastating. It is perhaps no surprise that the earlier elements of humour segue into a sense of imminent tragedy. In a clever twist, the phrase ‘of slender means’ in the novel’s title has a double meaning. On the one hand, it refers to the girls’ limited financial resources, while on the other it also relates to their physical build and hip measurements. Only the slimmest girls can slip through the narrow slit-window of the top-floor washroom to gain access to the May of Teck roof for a spot of sunbathing. Selina and Anne can manage it, but not the others, especially not Jane who is rather plump. The ability (or not) to slip through this aperture plays an important role in the closing stages of the book, but I had better not say too much more about this for fear of revealing any spoilers.

I really enjoyed this novel with its cast of interesting, well-crafted characters. Spark manages to pack so much into these 140 pages; it’s really quite remarkable. The period detail is excellent too, very evocative of the time, as evidenced by this passage from the opening page. I’ll leave you with this description of London, a city still in the early stages of recovery from the devastation of WW2.

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit. (p. 7)

The Girls of Slender Means is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.