After Claude by Iris Owens

Ever since I read Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding back in the autumn of 2014, I’ve been searching for something similar, another hidden gem of a book with a spiky (anti-)heroine in the central role. While Iris Owens’ striking novel After Claude – first published in 1973 – doesn’t quite reach the same heights as Cassandra, for the majority of its 200 pages it comes pretty close. The story centres on a trainwreck of a woman, so outrageously forthright in her interactions with those around her that there are times when she makes Cassandra seem like a relatively normal, well-adjusted human being.

The character in question is Harriet, a fiercely intelligent lady with a razor-sharp line in cutting one-liners. The trouble is, she also displays a terrible lack of self-awareness and understanding of her impact on others. In her own mind, Harriet is a smart, considerate, lively companion; but in reality, the situation couldn’t be more different. She is lazy, rude, bitchy and relentlessly argumentative, always believing herself to be in the right whatever the circumstances or topic under discussion.

When we first meet Harriet, she is in the throes of reflecting on her very recent break-up with Claude, ‘the French rat,’ the man she has been living with for the past six months. The story is told through a series of flashbacks covering various timepoints in Harriet’s recent life – more specifically, the days leading up to her split with Claude, one or two interactions with her best friend, Maxine, and a disastrous evening spent with Claude and his friend, a French playboy names Charles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the acrimonious nature of their break-up, Harriet paints a rather scathing picture of Claude. As far as she sees it, Claude – an assistant director of a French television news crew based in the US – is the somewhat uncommunicative, artistic type, often conveying his responses via facial expressions instead of words, especially where women are concerned.

He could talk for hours, days, but only on carefully selected topics, such as every disappointing course of his most recent meal. But discourse? Converse? Exchange ideas? Never, and certainly not with that brain-damaged segment of the population called women. (p.10)

The problem is, Harriet’s innate tendency to respond to virtually every comment with a counter-argument or snide remark has succeeded in alienating Claude to the point of no return. (The novel opens with an extended quarrel between Harriet and Claude on the artistic merits or not of a movie they’ve just seen, ‘a sort of Communist version of Christ’s life,’ as Harriet puts it. Naturally, she hated the film, and she outlines her objections with great gusto. The whole exchange is both painfully funny and sharply acerbic, a combination that sets the tone for the book itself.) Here’s a brief excerpt from one of their exchanges shortly before the split – Harriet is the first to speak.

“Are you hungry?” The creep still didn’t answer. The fact is that Claude, not having been raised by kidnappers, was habituated to regular meals, not scavenging.

“I’m not hungry.” It walked! It talked! It went to the kitchen and got itself a can of beer.

“I can’t find the opener,” he complained in that same hurt voice I’d been tolerating for two full weeks.

“Why don’t you telephone Paul Newman? I read he always wears a can opener around his neck, like a cross. Maybe he’ll lend you his.” (p. 19)

Shortly afterwards, Claude hits Harriet with the sucker punch. He wants her out of his flat by the following Monday, belongings and all; she has simply become far too difficult to live with.

“Me a bore?” I laughed, amazed that the rat would resort to such a bizarre accusation. I have since learned never to be amazed at what men will resort to when cornered by a woman’s intelligence.

“When you get an idea in your head, when you have an opinion, which is always, you’ve got to make a speech about it, not once, but ten times. If anyone manages to break in, you bury them; you grind them into little pieces with your big mouth. I’ve had it, Harriet. I want you out.” (p. 22)

The weekend ultimately ends with Harriet being driven to the Chelsea Hotel by Charles and Claude, but not before she has had an opportunity to change the locks on Claude’s apartment and been tackled by the police for trespassing on her (former) boyfriend’s property. Quite an eventful few days all in all.

Interspersed with the recollections of the dying days with Claude are passages on the only other significant relationships in Harriet’s life – those with her friends (or in the first case, ex-friend) Rhoda-Regina and Maxine. Here’s Harriet on Rhoda-Regina, her former friend from school, the girl she went travelling with some five years ago.

Rhoda-Regina had been my oldest and best friend. I’d known her almost as long as I’d known myself. We’d gone through school together, except that she, being insecure as a female, had gone on to collecting degrees. We’d sailed to Europe together, me to stay for five crucial years, during which I’d grown out of my Brooklyn chrysalis into a creature of indeterminate origins, while Rhoda-Regina had barely lasted through the summer, rushing back to her beloved highway-robber analyst like Dracula making dawn tracks to his coffin. (pp. 67-68)

Back in the story’s present day, Harriet has now succeeded in destroying any relationship she ever had with Rhoda-Regina as a result of her unreasonable behaviour as a tenant. After returning from Europe following a crisis some months earlier, Harriet turned to her old pal R-R, who agreed to take her in for a little while. Unfortunately, after another outrageous and terribly misjudged incident (this one designed to encourage the perennially uptight and stingy R-R to chill out a little), Harriet found herself out on the streets. It was at this point that she met Claude for the first time as his apartment just happened to be in the same block as Rhoda-Regina’s. So, for the last six months, Harriet has been running the gauntlet on entering and exiting the premises, desperately trying to avoid any unpleasant confrontations with R-R, her bête noire on the ground floor.

Harriet also bitches about her current best friend (quite possibly her only friend), the wealthy and pampered Maxine – both behind her back and directly to her face. Here’s a typical example – Maxine is the first to speak.

 “You’re lucky to have such a wonderful skin,” she crooned, but since she didn’t look up from her gold compact, I couldn’t tell which of us was supposed to be so lucky. She glanced up. “Not a wrinkle or a blemish. What do you use?”

“Sperm,” I said, damned if I’d let her drag me into one of her beauty commercials that begin with compliments and finish with her imploring me to consider plastic surgery. (p. 46)

And here’s one of Harriet’s personal observations on Maxine, so typical of Iris Owens’ ability to pepper her writing with pointed one-liners.

There was a sufficiency of rhinestones in her thong platforms to refinance the purchase of Manhattan. (p. 45)

In essence, After Claude is a character study, a portrait of a complex woman who says what she thinks without filtering anything or sparing anyone else’s feelings. She is uber-demanding, sarcastic and combative – and yet, underneath it all, there is a vulnerable, insecure woman, someone who is terrified of being on her own, especially if it means having to survive without a man. (There are several points in the novel when Harriet tries desperately to cling on to Claude, even though she knows in her heart of hearts that their relationship is over.)

As the story proceeded to unfold, I found myself growing increasingly fond of Harriet in spite of her many flaws and annoying habits. Yes, she is a car crash on legs, but she’s also very sharp and witty with it. During the novel, she turns her irreverent gaze on a number of stereotypes – the fussy and pretentious playboy, the self-satisfied domestic goddess, the bimbo air stewardess (who really does come across as a name-dropping airhead) – all to very good effect. While I wasn’t entirely convinced by the final section of the book, in which Harriet gets involved with the members of a drugged-up hippie sex cult (very 1960s/early ‘70s), I loved the rest of it.

To finish, I’ll leave the last word to Harriet. Here she is responding to a taxi driver’s comments on her resemblance to Anne Bancroft (I guess he must have had the character of Mrs. Robinson in mind here).

“I bet a lot of people have told you, you look like Anne Bancroft,” he said, gazing into his crystal ball.

“Why? Has she been complaining to you lately?” (p. 91)

After Claude was published by NYRB Classics; personal copy

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Last year Dorothy B. Hughes made my end-of-year highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. There’s a good chance she’ll make the list again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse was published in 1946, the year before Lonely Place. It’s a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there. I think it’s my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I’ve read this year.

The novel focuses on Sailor, a former street kid turned city slicker who has travelled to a ‘hick town’ near the US border with Mexico in search of the main man, a corrupt state Senator referred to here as ‘the Sen’. While the Sen believes he has finished with Sailor, our protagonist definitely hasn’t finished with Sen. According to Sailor, the Sen owes him a sizeable bundle of money, the remaining payment for a murder that didn’t quite go to plan – and if the Sen refuses to pay up, Sailor thinks he has enough knowledge of what really happened to pin the rap on the Sen. When he gets what’s due to him, Sailor plans to cross the border into Mexico. Once there, he can set up a little business peddling liquor or suchlike, maybe even find a beautiful girl, a silvery blonde with clear, shimmering eyes. All he has to do is to find the Sen and shake him down.

The trouble is, it’s Labor Day weekend, and the town is packed full of people, all there to celebrate the Fiesta. When he arrives on the bus from Chicago, dirty, sweaty and in need of a wash, Sailor is frustrated to discover that all the local hotels are full (even the crummiest ones), leaving him no other option but to bunk down on the ground for the night. Nevertheless, he soon discovers that the Sen is holed up in the smartest hotel in town, the swanky La Fonda complete with its plush bar and fancy restaurant. And so the quest begins, as Sailor confronts the Sen and pushes for his payoff. At first, the Sen is elusive, playing for time while he considers his options. But Sailor is determined; he knows what’s due to him, and he’s out to get it.

He wasn’t going to give up that kind of money. He needed it; it belonged to him; he was going to have it. What was owed and what he deserved above it. Five thousand dollars. The most he’d ever had at one time. Peanuts. He should have asked ten. The dough wouldn’t do the Sen any good where he was going. (p. 172)

To complicate matters further for Sailor, there’s another significant player in the mix – McIntyre (aka ‘Mac’), a Chicago-based cop and long-time acquaintance of Sailor’s, who also happens to be in town, allegedly for the Fiesta. Mac is the wise, down-to-earth type, someone who watches and waits and plays his cards fairly close to his chest. At first, Sailor thinks Mac is trailing the Sen; but as the weekend unfolds, it becomes clear that Mac is keeping tabs on Sailor too, a dynamic that adds another layer of tension to the situation, certainly as far as Sailor is concerned.

If only he could only bust open McIntyre’s head, see what was inside it. If he could only lay out those little squares, like lottery tickets, each one labeled with a name and a thought and a plan. Was his name on the winning ticket, the losing ticket; or was it the Sen’s? He couldn’t ask McIntyre; he could only sit tight and wait. And make talk. (p. 128)

Hughes makes good use of the animated backdrop of the Fiesta, complete with its mix of Spanish, Indian and gringo revellers, thereby conveying the frenetic atmosphere in the local bars and streets. (As one might expect, the novel’s language and racial descriptors reflect the prevailing attitudes of the day.) There are times when Sailor feels caught in a labyrinth, an encircling trap from which there appears to be no escape – a feeling that is reflected in the rather circular nature of the chase as Sailor tries to get what he desires from the Sen.

The streets were whirling louder, faster; on the bandstand a fat black-haired singer blasted the microphones and the crowds screamed ‘Hola! Hola!’ as if it were good. A running child with remnants of pink ice cream glued on his dirty face bumped into Sailor’s legs, wiped his sticky hands there. Sailor snarled, ‘Get out of my way,’ a balloon popped behind him and the kid who held the denuded stick squalled.

He had to get out of this. (pp. 116-117)

On the face of it, the Fiesta appears to be gay and jolly, a time for release and celebration; but below the surface glamour lurks a much darker undercurrent, a terrible note of death and destruction, a hangover from the days of previous crimes against humanity.

Fiesta. The time of celebration, of release from gloom, from the specter of evil. But under celebration was evil; the feast was rooted in blood, in the Spanish conquering of the Indian. It was a memory of death and destruction. (p. 24)

As the story unfolds, we learn more about Sailor and his troubled childhood – in particular, his abusive, alcoholic father, downtrodden mother and the impact of poverty on his formative years. There are echoes of the past here, sights that trigger memories of desperate times and circumstances, things that Sailor would much rather forget.

He knew then what was familiar in her; she was the hopeless face and sagging shoulders and defeated flesh of all poor women everywhere. He wanted to bolt. Even in this small way he did not want to be pushed back into the pit of the past. The pit he believed he had escaped forever. (p. 187)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hughes also excels at capturing the inherent sense of loneliness and alienation that Sailor is experiencing. It’s a quality that also underscores her portrait of Dix Steele, the lone wolf protagonist in her brilliant novel, In a Lonely Place.

What sucked into his pores for that moment was panic although he could not have put a name to it. The panic of loneness; of himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity. It sucked into his pores and oozed out again, clammy in the chill of night. (p. 57)

The Sen, on the other hand, emerges as a sly, shadowy figure, a somewhat elusive presence. He is the one who first spotted young Sailor’s talents at the pool hall all those years ago and subsequently groomed him for a key role in his organisation.

As the weekend plays out, it becomes increasingly clear how hard it will be for Sailor to carve out a new life for himself given the nature of what he’s attempting to pull off. There are various points in the story when he could choose to do the right thing, to set himself on a better track for the future – to find out if he decides to take any of these opportunities, you’ll have to read the book. Mac, an honest and decent man at heart, is keen to help Sailor – if only Sailor would agree to talk to him about what really happened on the night of the murder. (In another life, Mac knows that he could have ended up like Sailor, and vice versa, the two men having grown up not far from one another in the same rugged neighbourhood.) Another possibility for redemption comes in the form of old Pancho, the kindly man in charge of the battered fairground carousel, who takes Sailor under his wing, offering him tequila and a blanket for the night while also trying to set him on a straighter path.

Ride the Pink Horse is an excellent noir, one that highlights the existential nature of our existence, how our lives and destinies are largely shaped by our own choices and actions. The title refers to the coloured wooden horses on Pancho’s shabby merry-go-round. It could also be viewed as a metaphor for life itself, e.g. the ups and downs that we all experience as we make our way from the cradle to the grave or a few minutes of enjoyment in which we can forget all our troubles. Either way, it’s an apt title. There’s a film too, directed by and starring Robert Montgomery. I’m hoping to track it down fairly soon.

Ride the Pink Horse was published by Canongate Crime; personal copy.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party presents a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes.

The novel follows the final twenty-four hours of a three-day shoot, a landmark event in the social calendar of the Nettlebys and their immediate set. Our host is Sir Randolph Nettleby, a landowner and member of the old guard, one who values the long-established traditions of rural life and the gentlemanly spirit of the shoot. In this capacity Sir Randolph is ably assisted by his wife, Minnie, a slightly foolish but charming woman with a great appetite for socialising – she is the perfect hostess for the formal dinners and elaborate lunches which accompany the main attraction.

Present at the party are several esteemed guests, the rich and successful, the beautiful and decorative. All of these individuals appear to know one another quite well as they are all part of the same social set. There is Minnie’s bridge partner, Sir Reuben Hergesheimer, a well-travelled and wealthy financier who now views England as his adopted home; the rather pretentious and stuffy Bob Lilburn and his beautiful wife, Olivia, one of the most sensitive and sympathetic characters in the group; and Lionel Stephens, a very successful young barrister who has fallen for the lovely Olivia and all her charms. Also in attendance are the Nettlebys’ rather disapproving but practical daughter-in-law, Ida, and her four children, Cicely, Marcus, Osbert and Violet. (Ida’s husband, John, is abroad on business.) Nineteen-year-old Cicely, a romantic at heart, flirts openly with another of the guests, Tibor Rakassyi, the dashing Hungarian aristocrat who promises to invite her to see his homeland in the forthcoming months. Lastly (at least among the upper classes) we have two of the most interesting characters in the book, the rather conceited and ultra-competitive Lord Gilbert Hartlip, widely known one of the best shots in England, and his highly spirited wife, Aline, a knowing woman who has enjoyed several affairs in recent years. Her latest lover, the vacuous Charles Farquhar, has also been invited to participate in the shoot.

Aline was a fairly demanding guest and if the presence of the handsome but stupid (in Sir Randolph’s view) Charles Farquhar would keep her quiet so that her husband could concentrate on his shooting, Sir Randolph was perfectly happy to ask him. Gilbert Hartlip was one of the best shots in England, if not the best of all, and it was a pleasure to see him in action – sometimes a bit of an anxiety as well, for he had some of the star performer’s temperament and could be very difficult if he thought he was not being given his dues share of the best places. (p. 13)

In addition to the cream of society, we also meet the various servants and workers responsible for the smooth running of the event. Chief among these is Glass, the head gamekeeper who manages the finer details of the shoot, issuing instructions to his team of beaters on how best to raise the pheasants and woodcock on the right flight paths for each ‘drive’. A little like Sir Randolph, Glass is another traditionalist, a man wedded to the ways of the land. He would like nothing better than for his son, Dan, to follow in his footsteps to become assistant gamekeeper at the estate; but Dan is bright and intelligent with a natural aptitude for science and nature. As a consequence, he is torn between staying at Nettleby to support his father and going to college to further his education, an endeavour Sir Randolph has offered to fund.

Other members of the supporting classes include the thatcher and poacher, Tom Harker, whom Glass has enlisted (albeit somewhat reluctantly) as one of the beaters to man the event, and Cecily’s maid, Ellen, a friendly, kind-hearted girl who comes to the aid of young Osbert when his beloved pet duck goes missing on the final morning of the shoot. Also present are Albert and Percy, the young lads who load the guns for Gilbert Hartlip and Lionel Stephens during the periods of intense shooting which take place throughout the day.

As the novel unfolds, we learn more about the main characters, their distorted moral values and the rarefied world in which they circulate. What Colegate does so well here is to shine a light on the farcical nature of Edwardian society, the sheer pointlessness of the endless social whirl and the ridiculous codes that govern it. We see the elaborate preparations for lunch at the boat-house, an activity which requires the butler and footmen to transport a hot meal to its destination via hay boxes to keep it warm. There are the frequent changes of clothes throughout the day, with a need for each outfit to be perfectly suited to the particular occasion – not to mention the prospect of social embarrassment when one doesn’t have the ‘right’ kind of shirt studs to hand to wear at dinner. In this scene, Olivia Lilburn is making fun of her husband’s worries over that very matter; clearly these things are terribly important to Bob if not to his wife.

‘Oh, Society.’

‘Don’t dismiss it in that way, Olivia. Society is very important. I hate going into it inadequately equipped.’

‘It’s not a battle surely?’

‘In some ways it is not unlike a battle.’

‘In which he with the too-smart shirt studs bites the dust?’

‘Well…’ he began unwillingly to smile. ‘Sustains a setback maybe.’

Olivia laughed, putting her head with its thick crown of auburn hair back against the blue chaise-longue. ‘You are quite ridiculous.’

‘It’s all very well. You can dismiss these things if you like, but they are the structure of our lives and if we lose respect for them we lose respect for ourselves.’ (p. 38)

While Olivia Lilburn has come to the realisation that she is trapped in an empty and shallow world, there is little she can do to break away from it. For all her insight and sensitivity, Olivia is virtually powerless when faced with the well-established structures that govern her place in society. In this scene, Olivia has just been observing her husband, Bob, in conversation with Minnie Nettleby, rattling off the names of various people in attendance at some social function or other without showing the slightest interest in any of the individuals themselves. A sort of ritual ‘checking of the compass points’ as Olivia regards it.

The object of the thing appeared to be enumeration rather than enlightenment. Once she had said to him, ‘Supposing there are some other people somewhere, people we don’t know?’

He had looked at her seriously.

‘What sort of people?’

‘Perfectly charming people. Really delightful, intelligent, amusing, civilized…And we don’t know them, and nobody we know knows them. And they don’t know us and they don’t know anybody we know.’

Bob had thought for a moment and then he had said, ‘It’s impossible. But if it were not impossible, then I don’t think I should want to know such people. I don’t think I should find anything in common with them.’ (p. 120)

I love that quote; it seems to capture so much about these people and their abject disregard for others. While Colegate doesn’t overtly judge her characters, she does shine a light on their disreputable morals and skewed principles.

As the shoot progresses, a competition starts up between Gilbert Hartlip and the normally relaxed Lionel Stephens, a rivalry which is just as keenly felt between their respective loaders, Albert and Percy. Lionel, impassioned by his love for Olivia, begins to fire on all cylinders, shooting his birds with great speed and accuracy. There is even some suggestion of him encroaching onto Gilbert Hartlip’s territory, a development the latter does not welcome, keen as he is to maintain his reputation as one of the country’s finest shots. Significant tensions ensue, much to the dismay of Sir Randolph, who detests any attempts by participants to keep a count of their individual kills. At one point, the action is enlivened by the appearance of an animal rights activist who ultimately appears to find some common ground with the host, much to the surprise of some of the guests.

What makes this book all the more fascinating for readers is the knowledge that a whole way of life for this generation is about to be swept away with the advent of the Great War. Sir Randolph clearly fears change as the political and industrial developments of the day are already threatening to destabilise the familiarity of his world. He bemoans the decline of the agricultural industry and the long-standing traditions of rural life.

‘…For generations we ran the country; it did not suffer from our rule. If the landlord class goes, everything goes. It will be the ruin of rural England. Ida tells me I am prejudiced. Show me the man with blood in his veins who is not.’ (p. 28)

All in all, this is a brilliant novel, poised and subtle in its depiction of the shallowness of the society at the time.

While checking the details for this post, I was surprised to discover that the book had been published as recently as 1980. In many ways it actually feels like a much older novel, one that could have been written in the 1920s or ‘30s, such is the authenticity of the world Colegate creates here. It’s a very impressive achievement. There’s a film too, directed by Alan Bridges (who also adapted L. P. Hartley’s The Hireling for the screen, another book I read this year). I’m looking forward to watching it.

The Shooting Party is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Hester Lilly by Elizabeth Taylor

Originally issued in 1954, Hester Lilly was Elizabeth Taylor’s first volume of stories. (It’s also my first experience of her short fiction.) There are some brilliant stories here, up there with some of the best scenes from her longer works. The titular piece, in particular, encapsulates many of this writer’s key trademarks: her ability to create nuanced characters with real emotional depth; her acute observations of the subtleties of human interactions; and her capacity to elicit the reader’s sympathy for difficult individuals in spite of their inherent flaws. I’ll come back to this story at the end of my review; but first, a few words about the collection itself.

Hester Lilly comprises seventeen stories of varying length, from brief sketches lasting a couple of pages to the novella-sized titular piece which opens the collection. As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going try to cover every story; instead, I’ll try to focus on a few favourites to give you a flavour of the volume as a whole.

In the aptly titled story Spry Old Character, a lively veteran horse-trader named Harry has no alternative but to move to a Home for the Blind following the death of his sister/carer. An odd-man-out among the genteel residents of the care home, Harry is left feeling lonely, grumpy and neglected, deflated as he is by the patronising ministrations of Matron and the anodyne environment she seems intent on encouraging.

“You’ll have the company of others like you,” his neighbours had told him. This was not so. He found himself in a society, whose existence he had never, in his old egotism, contemplated and whose ways soon lowered his vitality. He had nothing in common with these faded seamstresses; the prophet-like lay-preacher; an old piano-tuner who believed he was the reincarnation of Beethoven; elderly people who had lived more than half a dim life-time in dark drapers’ shops in country towns. Blind they might not have been; for they found their way about the house, its grounds, the village, with pride and confidence. Indoors, they bickered about the wireless; for the ladies liked a nice domestic play and thought some of the variety programmes ‘suggestive’. The racing results were always switched to something different, hastily, before they could contaminate the air. (pp. 84-85)

In time, Harry makes friends with the local bus drivers and conductors who ferry him around the district on a regular basis – if nothing else, it’s a brief respite from the atmosphere of the home. This is a bittersweet story; the central character is at once both comic and tragic.

Swan-Moving is a very different type of story, one that demonstrates an element of range in Taylor’s work. In this piece, a young swan settles in a dirty pond in a rather shabby, neglected village, much to the fascination of the local residents. Somewhat surprisingly, the swan’s presence seems to spark a sense of change in the locality. As the swan blossoms and grows more resplendent, so do the villagers – for the very first time, they come together to spruce up their village, decorating their houses in bright (albeit rather garish) colours in an effort to improve their environment. This is a lovely story with a slightly magical touch, a delightful addition to the collection.

Taylor’s ear for dialogue comes to the fore in Nods & Becks & Wreathed Smiles as a group of women meet up for a gossip at the local tea shop. Naturally, the subjects under discussion are wide-ranging, from the trials of childbirth to the shortage of fish in the local shops to views on Mrs Liddell’s new ring. This is a short sketch, beautifully observed.

Other stories cover a child’s observations of an elderly woman on holiday from the hustle and bustle of London (The Idea of Age); a woman’s memories of her just-deceased mother as she sits by her side in hospital (First Death of Her Life); and the desperate disappointment of schoolboy’s day out with his mother, their individual worlds seemingly poles apart (A Red-Letter Day). What unites these stories, and many others in this excellent collection, is their ability to capture a scene so effectively, thereby giving the reader access to the thoughts and feelings of the central characters.

Where this collection really excels though is in its depiction of domestic stories: the palpable tensions between semi-estranged partners; the unspoken agonies of lifeless marriages; the painful attempts of a mother to outdo her neighbour.

In Gravement Endommagé, one of my favourite stories in the collection, a married couple – Richard and Louise – drive through the war-ravaged countryside in France, the destruction of the buildings around them only serving to mirror the damaged nature of their relationship. They have come to the continent for a holiday, a trip designed to ‘set things to rights’ between them, their petty bickering with one another having descended into more direct animosity. The years of hardship and isolation during the war have brought about a significant change in Louise, making her fearful and edgy. Now that the grand conflict is over, she remains damaged – intolerant, complaining and overly reliant on drink.

Her doctor, advising the holiday, was only conventional in his optimism. If anyone were benefited by it, it would be the children, stopping at home with their grandmother—for a while, out of the arena. What Richard needed was a holiday away from Louise, and what Louise needed was a holiday from herself, from the very thing she must always take along, the dull carapace of her own dissatisfaction, her chronic unsunniness. (p. 114)

Shadows of the World also falls into this category; it offers a brief yet highly effective snapshot of a family, each individual member orbiting in their own semi-isolated world. This is another beautifully observed story, each thread coming together to form a broader whole.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Hester Lilly, the longest story in the collection at 78 pages. In this piece, a middle-aged woman, Muriel, is dismayed at the prospect of the arrival of her husband’s cousin, a young lady by the name of Hester Lilly. Having been married to Robert for some years, Muriel now feels uncertain of her position in the relationship, and so she imagines Hester, with her undoubted youth and potential beauty, to be a significant threat. However, on Hester’s arrival at the boarding school where Robert works, Muriel fears are initially laid to rest; Hester is gauche, nervous and poorly dressed, every garment appearing to be either too small or too big for her frame.

Nevertheless, it is not long before Muriel realises that she must be on her guard against Hester. With this in mind, she decides upon a pre-emptive strike, casually dropping the following remark into a conversation with her charge: “Of course, you are in love with Robert.” Better to unnerve Hester by tackling the issue head-on before the girl gets a chance to develop any such notions of her own.

Muriel insinuated the idea into the girl’s head, thinking that such an idea would come sooner or later and came better from her, inseparable from the very beginning with shame and confusion. She struck, with that stunning remark, at the right time. For the first week or so Hester was tense with the desire to please, anxiety that she might not earn her keep. Robert would often find her bowed in misery over indecipherable shorthand, or would hear her rip pages out of the typewriter and begin again. The waste-paper basket was usually crammed-fill of spoilt stationary. Once, he discovered her in tears and, half-way across the room to comfort her, wariness overtook him. He walked instead to the window and spoke with his back to her, which seemed to him the only alternative to embracing her. (pp. 8-9)

A little later, Muriel tries to consolidate her position with the following comments, whereby she stresses the triviality of young love and its differentiation from a deeper, more lasting relationship.

“Robert? Oh, yes! Don’t fuss, dear girl. At your age on has to be in love with someone, and Robert does very well for the time being. Perhaps at every age one has to be in love with someone, but when one is young it is difficult to decide whom. Later one becomes more stable. I fell in love with all sorts of unsuitable people—very worrying for one’s mother. But by the time I met Robert I was old enough to be sure that that would last. And it has,” she added quietly; and she chose a strand of white silk and began work on the high-lights of a rose petal. (pp. 13-14)

I suspect some readers might find Muriel a rather cruel and pathetic woman, eaten up with jealousy over the more vulnerable Hester. While I recognise these flaws in Muriel’s character, I couldn’t help but feel a degree of sympathy for her too. She is desperately isolated in her marriage to Robert, a rather cold man who has long revealed himself to be a stranger to her. He no longer displays any tenderness or affection towards Muriel, a fact that is only exacerbated when she finds herself drawn into a compromising position with one of the schoolmasters at a local dance.

This is a terrific story that will test your responses to each of the individual characters. There is also another player in the mix, a desperately sad old woman, Mrs Despenser, who tries to befriend Hester when she goes out for a walk one night. Mrs D is a hangover from a bygone age, a lonely individual living in abject squalor in a dilapidated cottage with only her cat for company. She is desperate for Hester to stay a little while to alleviate her loneliness.

All in all, this is a fine collection of stories, an excellent introduction to Taylor’s short fiction. While a couple of the shorter pieces didn’t quite fly for me, they were never less than well observed. A fairly minor point considering the high quality of the other stories here.

Hester Lilly is published by Virago; personal copy.

The Executioner Weeps by Frédéric Dard (tr. David Coward)

Earlier this year, I read and loved Bird in a Cage, a devilishly clever noir by the French writer Frédéric Dard. Originally published in 1956, The Executioner Weeps is my second Dard – and thankfully it’s just as intriguing as the first.

The novella is narrated by native Frenchman Daniel Mermet, a moderately successful artist who has travelled to a seaside town near Barcelona for a holiday. One night, as Daniel is driving alone in a remote part of the Spanish countryside, a beautiful young woman steps out of nowhere in front of his car – Daniel is travelling too fast to stop, so he hits the woman, crushing her violin case in the process. The incident marks a turning point in Daniel’s life, the full significance of which only becomes apparent much later in the story. Nevertheless, there is a sense of foreboding right from the start, particularly in the series of thoughts that flash through Daniel’s mind in the seconds before impact.

The instantaneousness of thought is remarkable. In less than a second I’d asked myself a whole lot of questions about my imminent victim. I found time to wonder who she was, what she was doing at that hour on that deserted road carrying a violin case, and especially why she’d deliberately thrown herself under the wheels of my car. But most particularly I’d asked myself another more secret, more human question: how many sins was I about to rack up with this disaster? At that time of night, there’d be no witnesses to testify that it was a case of suicide. (p. 10)

Believing the woman to be largely unharmed, Daniel decides to take her back to his motel where she can rest for the night – and besides, as he doesn’t speak the local language, involving the authorities at this stage might turn out to be problematic.

When the woman wakes up the next morning, it becomes clear that she is suffering from a case of amnesia – her knowledge of a past or present life is non-existent. In the absence of any formal papers, the only clues to her identity are a handkerchief embroidered with the letter ‘M’ and her clothes which carry the label of a dressmaker based in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a suburb of Paris.

In an effort to help the woman uncover her background, Daniel contacts the French consul and the local police, but neither seems interested in pursuing the case. After all, there’s nothing to prove that she is definitely a French citizen or a missing person – and if her family are worried, surely they will initiate any necessary enquiries themselves?

Meanwhile, Daniel finds himself falling in love with this sweet-natured woman who by now has developed an affinity with the name ‘Marianne’. As their relationship blossoms, the couple spend long lazy days together in the idyllic surroundings of Castelldefels, enjoying the pleasure of one another’s company as they live their lives in the moment – so much so that Daniel begins to dread someone coming along in search of Marianne as this would almost certainly bring an end to his happiness. To Daniel, Marianne represents beauty and purity, qualities he hopes to capture in her portrait which he sets out to paint. Nevertheless, while the finished painting is a technical success, there is something rather unnerving about it. Albeit subconsciously, Daniel’s brushstrokes have revealed a curious look in Marianne’s eye, a sinister glint that seems to hint at some unknown element in her personality.

I had succeeded in capturing Marianne’s most unguarded expression so well that I could read her character better in my painting than in her face. Now, in the come-hither look in her eye with which she stared at me I detected a bizarre glint which quite disconcerted me. There was a sparkle in it which didn’t seem to belong with the rest of her; it encapsulated a level of sustained attentiveness which was almost disturbing in its intensity. (p.48)

Much as Daniel would like to remain in a secluded dream world with Marianne, two things come together to force his hand. Firstly, he hears that his work is to be exhibited in the US, a development that will require him to travel to the country in question to support the event. If he is to attend, then Marianne must come too – but without a confirmed identity, how on earth will she be able to travel?

Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, Daniel finds that he cannot separate himself from the mystery of Marianne’s past, especially once certain clues about this period start to emerge. In particular, he is haunted by some unanswered questions about his lover’s former life. Why did Marianne appear to throw herself at his car that night on the road? Who or what was she trying to escape from? With the fear of the unknown gnawing away his heart, Daniel decides to travel to Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the hope of uncovering the truth for himself. What he finds there is truly devastating, both shocking and heartbreaking – so much so that he is forced to see Marianne in a completely different light.

She’d seemed so distant, so far away, in the white-painted Casa and on the wide beach lit by an infernal sun. I saw her, so to speak, through the wrong end of a telescope. She was tiny, out of my reach. There was a whole world between us. I’d just crossed the frontier to the land of her past and it was just as if I was now watching her from a point inside her old life. (p. 86)

The Executioner Weeps is both a dark mystery and an intriguing love story, the two strands coming together to form a highly compelling whole. Like Bird in a Cage, it is another of Dard’s ‘novels of the night’, an unsettling noir with a distinct psychological edge – the pace really steps up a gear in the final third as the net starts to close in on Daniel’s world.

Stylistically this is a beautifully-written book, shot through with an undeniable sense of tragedy and loss, a quality that adds a touch of poignancy to the noirish tone. In essence, Daniel is caught between his desire to cling on to his idealised vision of Marianne – an image typified by her apparent tenderness and beauty – and his fear of having to confront the emerging darkness in her past. I’ll finish with a final quote from a relatively early point in the novella, one that hints at some of the unsettling developments to come – Daniel is just about to paint Marianne’s picture for the first time.

There’s nothing more terrifying for a painter than a blank white canvas. It’s like a window that opens onto infinite possibilities. A window from which the most disturbing metamorphoses may emerge. (p. 42)

This is my contribution to Richard’s Literature of Doom event – now extended to cover French ‘Doom’ as well as the Argentinian and Russian varieties. Guy has also reviewed this book here.

The Executioner Weeps is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

I have long wanted to read the German writer Irmgard Keun, ever since Grant and TJ started to cover some of her books – Gilgi and After Midnight – on their respective blogs. Then last summer, Karen reviewed another of Keun’s novels, The Artificial Silk Girl, and when I read her post, I knew this was the one for me – well, as a starting point at the very least. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin.

First published in 1932, Silk Girl is narrated by Doris, a striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start. It reflects her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Doris longs for the finer things in life, fashionable clothes and accessories, the bright lights and the big city. She dreams of becoming a successful actress in the movies. Instead, she’s stuck in a provincial town, in a dead-end office job she’s barely qualified for, trading on her charms and good looks to keep on the right side of the boss. Moreover, Doris is forced to pass the majority of her wages to her lazy father who promptly uses the money to get drunk. What little is left over goes on a treat, in this case a new hat – well, a girl’s got to keep up appearances, especially if she wants to get ahead.

But I immediately bought a hat for myself with the 50 marks I had left, with a feather and in forest green – that’s this season’s fashion color, and it goes fabulously well with my rosy complexion. And wearing it off to the side is just so chic, and I already had a forest green coat made for myself – tailored with a fox collar – a present from Käsemann, who absolutely almost wanted to marry me. But I didn’t. Because in the long run, I’m too good for the short and stocky type, particularly if they’re called Käsemann. But now my outfit is complete, which is the most important thing for a girl who wants to get ahead and has ambition. (p. 5)

Shortly after getting the push from her job by knocking back the advances of an amorous attorney, Doris lands a small break as an ‘extra’ with the theatre company in her hometown. Once there, she uses all her womanly wiles and a few white lies to move forward, securing a walk-on part with a spoken line in the process. However, it’s not long however before Doris is found out, leaving her no other option but to hightail it to Berlin with little more than a stolen fur coat for company. On her arrival, she is dazzled by the new environment, the sights and sounds of this glamorous city.

Berlin is so wonderful. I would like to be a Berliner and belong here. The Resi, which is behind Blumenstrasse, isn’t a restaurant really. It’s all colors and whirling lights, it’s a beer belly that’s all lit up, it’s a tremendous piece of art. You can find that sort of thing only in Berlin. You have to picture everything in red and shimmery, more and more and more, and incredibly sophisticated. (p. 77)

All too soon the harsh realities of life kick in and Doris finds herself moving from one temporary room to another, her fortunes ebbing and flowing according to the generosity (or not) of the people she encounters along the way. With the police possibly on her tail and no official papers to hand, Doris knows it would be difficult for her to find a short-term job – in any case, she doesn’t particularly want one, not if her previous experiences of conventional work are anything to go by. There are various encounters with men – some kind and charming, others less so – but the most promising ones always seem to have a wife or another woman tucked away somewhere. Doris is smart enough to know her own value, so she uses her looks and personality to blag herself some decent clothes and a few drinks every now and again. Even though life in the city can be tough and lonely, Doris is determined to follow her own path in an effort to get on. The conventions of marriage and domesticity are not for her, something she learned a while ago by observing the lives of those other girls back home.

But it’s a good thing that I’m unhappy, because if you’re happy you don’t get ahead. I learned that from Lorchen Grünlich, who married the accountant at Grobwind Brothers and is happy with him and her shabby tweed coat and one bedroom apartment and flower pots with cuttings and Gugelhupf on Sundays and stamped paper which is all the accountant allows her to use, just to sleep with him at night and have a ring. (p. 69)

Rather cleverly, the story is conveyed through a series of reflections, ostensibly presented as a set of journal entries that capture Doris’ thoughts as she strives to survive. In some respects, Doris is like a camera, recording and portraying the highs and lows of life in Berlin. There are some dazzling passages here, presented in a compelling stream-of-consciousness style, particularly the impressionistic sections in which Doris relays the vibrancy of Berlin to her blind neighbour, Herr Brenner, complete with all its characteristic lights and colours. The journal entries also reveal elements of Doris’ backstory – in particular, her impoverished and less-than-happy childhood – along with her sharp observations on the social order of the day, especially the situation for women. The last quote is a great example of this critique of society’s views and expectations.

While the narrative begins in a very breezy, upbeat manner, the tone darkens significantly as the story progresses. The initial surface glamour of life in Berlin soon falls away, leaving Doris hungry for a little food, warmth and affection – things she knows she may have to rely on a man to provide.

So they have courses teaching you foreign languages and ballroom dancing and etiquette and cooking. But there are no classes to learn how to be by yourself in a furnished room with chipped dishes, or how to be alone in general without any words of concern or familiar sounds. (p. 118)

Keun’s heroine has been likened to Sally Bowles from Christopher Isherwood’s seminal novel Goodbye to Berlin. While there are undoubtedly similarities between the two characters, particularly in terms of their attitudes and the Weimar-era setting in which they find themselves, the women I was most reminded of while reading Silk Girl were those from the works of Jean Rhys. In this scene, Doris is so desperate that she allows herself to be picked up by a man, a stranger who stops her in the street, probably in the belief that she is a prostitute. It could have come straight out of one of Rhys’ early stories.

And we talked to each other at a restaurant and I was supposed to order wine and I would much rather have had something to eat. But that’s just like them – they don’t mind paying large sums for something to drink, but as soon as they have to pay just a small amount for something to eat they feel taken advantage of, because food is a necessity, but having a drink is superfluous and therefore elegant. (pp. 125-126)

All in all, The Artificial Silk Girl is a very impressive novel, an evocative insight into a city on the cusp of political change – in this respect, it would make a great companion piece to the Isherwood I mentioned a little earlier. Doris is such a wonderful creation, an instinctive woman who turns out to be more sensitive and fragile than she appears at first sight. (In fact, the book itself is also much deeper than its initial breeziness suggests – more thoughtful and considered in many respects.) It can be so hard to strike the right note with a first-person narrative, but Keun nails it here, giving us a very convincing portrait of this feisty yet vulnerable girl about town.

I read this novel for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month which is running throughout November – there’s some info about it here. If you’re interested in learning more about Irmgard Keun, you might want to take a look at Max’s review of Volker Wiedermann’s book, Summer Before the Dark, which includes passages covering Keun’s relationship with the writer Joseph Roth, whom she met in Ostend 1936. It’s a very poignant story, all the more so because we know what was looming on the horizon for the years that followed.

The Artificial Silk Girl is published by Other Press; personal copy.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Long-standing readers of this blog may recall my admiration for Joan Didion’s work, both her fiction and her non-fiction pieces. I’ve already written about three of this writer’s books: her debut, Run River; her seminal novel, Play It As It Lays; and, probably my favourite so far, her remarkable memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. Published in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem brings together twenty of Didion’s essays, mostly articles that were originally written for magazines between 1965 and 1968. It’s a perceptive, erudite collection, piercing in its ability to capture a certain time and cultural mood, reflective in its observations on the social context of the day. There are some standout pieces here, many of which would stand up to a second or third reading – I hope to give you a flavour of them in this review. (This is my contribution to Simon and Karen’s 1968 Club which is running throughout the week.)

The book comprises three sections: Life Styles in the Golden Land; Personals; and Seven Places of the Mind. One element that runs through several of the pieces, irrespective of their central theme, is a palpable sense of place – nicely illustrated by this passage from the opening paragraph of the first essay in the collection, Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.

The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. (p. 3)

Some Dreamers is an account of love and death in the golden land, the story of a marriage that has broken down, a woman who was tried for murder and judged for perhaps wanting too much from life. It’s a haunting piece, underscored with a sense of the dissolution of the American Dream.

Didion is particularly good on the eerie nature of Las Vegas, a place where the notion of time, at least in the traditional sense, does not seem to exist.

Almost everyone notes that there is no “time” in Las Vegas, no night and no day and no past and no future […]; neither is there any logical sense of where one is. One is standing on a highway in the middle of a vast hostile desert looking at an eighty-food sign which blinks “STARDUST” or “CAESAR’S PALACE.” Yes, but what does that explain? This geographical implausibility reinforces the sense that what happens there has no connection with “real” life; Nevada cities like Reno and Carson are ranch towns, Western towns, places behind which there is some historical imperative. But Las Vegas seems to exist only in the eye of the beholder. All of which makes it an extraordinarily stimulating and interesting place, but an odd one in which to want to wear a candlelight satin Priscilla of Boston wedding dress with Chantilly lace insets, tapered sleeves and a detachable modified train. (pp. 80-81)

In Marrying Absurd, she writes about the commercialisation of the marriage business in Vegas, the nineteen wedding chapels that compete with one another, each offering bigger, better, faster, more ‘genuine’ services than the next – the implication being that the addition of candlelight or a free phonograph record of the ceremony will somehow make the wedding feel more authentic, more sincere.

Elsewhere in this collection, Didion reveals her fondness for Hawaii, a place that moves and touches and saddens her like no other, stimulating her senses in the process. In many respects, she finds it a troubling island, one where the legacy of war runs far and deep.

War is in the very fabric of Hawaii’s life, ineradicably fixed in both its emotions and its economy, dominating not only its memory but its vision of the future. (p. 196) 

Other pieces in the collection focus on particular people, various cultural figures from the sixties: iconic individuals such as John Wayne, whom Didion visits on the set of The Sons of Katie Elder; Joan Baez and her ability to engage with a generation (‘She was the right girl at the right time’); and Howard Hughes, a man renowned for his idiosyncratic behaviour. At the time, there were endless stories about Hughes, passed around and traded ‘like baseball cards’.

By July of 1967 Howard Hughes is the largest single landholder in Clark County, Nevada. “Howard likes Las Vegas,” an acquaintance of Hughes’s once explained, “because he likes to be able to find a restaurant open in case he wants a sandwich.” (p. 71)

As far as Didion sees it, the fact that we have made a folk hero of this man – someone who actually represents the complete opposite of our traditional heroes – tells us something interesting about ourselves. She argues that the real point of money and power in America is not the obvious one (the things that money can buy and the buzz to be gained from flexing one’s muscles); rather it is the ability to facilitate personal freedom, mobility and privacy that is important. This is the real deal.

A couple of my favourite pieces in the collection focus on the personal, areas that reveal something enlightening about Didion herself. A compulsive notetaker from the age of five, Didion states that it was never her intention to make notes as a way of maintaining a factual record of what she had been doing or thinking at certain periods in her life. Instead, she views the keeping of a notebook more as a way of capturing her feelings, a reminder of how things felt to her at the time. Either way, she views the keepers of private notebooks as somewhat troubled individuals, ‘lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.’

Other personal essays in the collection cover Didion’s reflections on morality, self-respect and going home to her family in the Central Valley of California. In Notes from a Native Daughter, she writes vividly about what it is like to come from Sacramento, one of the somewhat insular valley towns in the heart of the state. She describes a town that had grown up on the farming industry only to discover (much to its shock) that the land could be put to more profitable use – certainly as far as the wider world of the 1950s was concerned. In this elegiac piece, Didion mourns the passing of several things: the passage of time; the various changes to the town over the years; the loss of connections with the old Sacramento; the loss of people with the knowledge of how things used to be.

I mentioned earlier the strong sense of place that runs through many of the pieces in this collection. Before I finish, I’d like to highlight another couple of common themes, the first of which revolves around some form of social fragmentation or disintegration. It’s there in several of the essays I’ve discussed so far; and it’s also present in the titular piece, an account of the time Didion spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco where she hung out with the street kids, the movers and shakers in the neighbourhood. This was a time when she observed first-hand the atomization of a society.

It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves. (p. 84)

In this piece, Didion offers the view that at some point from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, we had failed to take care of these children, failed in our duty as guardians and protectors.

‘We had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling’. (p. 123)

As a consequence, the children of Haight-Ashbury seemed less in rebellion against the society than uninformed about it.

The final theme I’d like to highlight is a feeling of anxiety or unease, a quality that underscores many of these pieces. Once again, this is apparent in some of the essays I’ve already covered. It’s even there in a brief passage on the Los Angeles weather, the hot, dry Santa Ana wind, a foehn wind with the potential to create both physical and mental turmoil in the city. I’ll leave you with a final quote which is taken from Los Angeles Notebook, one that seems to capture something of this palpable sense of angst.

Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are. (p. 221)

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; personal copy.