Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó (tr. George Szirtes)

The Hungarian writer Magda Szabó is perhaps best known for her 1987 novel The Door, a poignant story of the relationship between two women – a writer and her housekeeper. (It’s been on my radar for a while, although I’ve yet to read it.)  Iza’s Ballad (an earlier novel) also features a complex relationship between two women at its heart – in this instance, the frustrations and heartbreak of a distant mother-daughter relationship. More specifically, the book digs deep into the damage we inflict on those closest to us – often unintentionally but inhumanely nonetheless. It is a story of many contrasts; the differences between the generations; the traditional vs the new; the rural vs the urban; and the generous vs the self-centred.

Seventy-five-year-old Ettie and her husband Vince have lived a traditional life in the Hungarian countryside since their marriage some fifty years before. They have one daughter, the progressive, idealistic Iza, a brilliant doctor who now works in Pest (eastern Budapest), where she is well respected and successful. While Iza is a dutiful daughter, paying monthly visits to her elderly parents, she rarely shows any emotion, devoting herself instead to a demanding job in rheumatology.

Everything changes for both women when Vince dies of cancer. At first, Ettie fears being left alone in the old house, the long empty days stretching out ahead of her with no husband to talk to or care for. But Iza – a direct, controlling person at heart – decides that Ettie must come and live with her in the apartment in Pest as it’s clearly the right thing to do. There is no consultation with Ettie at this point, simply a unilateral decision that Iza makes with no attempt to establish Ettie’s wishes. Nevertheless, in her relief at not being abandoned, Ettie defers to Iza’s better judgement – clearly her capable daughter knows best – and she goes along with the plan.

Straight after Vince’s funeral, Iza bundles Ettie off for a week at a sanatorium, effectively as a way of getting ‘the old woman’ out of the way while she arranges the move. The former family home is sold to Iza’s ex-husband, Antal, a kind, considerate man who retains a fondness for Ettie despite his broken relationship with her daughter. Meanwhile, Ettie must contend with a maelstrom of emotions on her own – grief at the loss of her beloved husband, relief at the prospect of a new life with Iza, and concern over the packing up of the house. Her major consolation is the prospect of being surrounded by Vince’s possessions once she arrives in Pest.

It was an enormous relief to her [Ettie] that she wouldn’t have to live by herself in a house bereft of Vince, but it was terrifying not be present while Iza packed up ready for the removal men. ‘You’d only torture yourself,’ retorted Iza, ‘you have spent enough time crying. I know my flat, know where I am taking you, I know where things will fit and what will look best. I want you to be happy from now on.’ (p. 56)

What follows when Iza brings her mother to the city is truly heartbreaking to observe. Very few of the couple’s treasured possessions have survived the move, and those that have are barely recognisable from their former selves. Vince’s favourite chair has been reupholstered, transforming it from a comfortable, careworn reminder to an alien object, erasing its emotional value for Ettie as a result. Naturally, Ettie is devastated by this casting aside of her former life. Virtually everything familiar has been discarded or left behind, accentuating Ettie’s crushing sense of loss.

She felt as if some elemental blow had destroyed everything around her and that only now did she really know what it was to be a widow, someone absolutely abandoned.

She didn’t cry while Iza was in the room, just looked pale and was more quiet than usual, but she tried to say something nice, however awkward, about the practicality of the arrangement and Iza’s helpfulness and kindness. (p. 89)

Everything required for comfort was present and correct but she still felt as though she had been robbed. (p. 92)

As the days and weeks slip by, Ettie continues to struggle with her new life in the city. Every time she tries to do something to please Iza, such as cooking a favourite meal from the girl’s childhood or brewing traditional Turkish coffee, the gesture backfires, aggravating Iza on her return from work. While Ettie has been used to a life of housework and cleaning, Iza’s housekeeper Teréz takes care of everything in Pest – an arrangement that Iza is determined to maintain. Unsurprisingly, this leads to tension between Ettie and Teréz, prompting Iza to intervene…

The old woman listened. She felt silly and unable to mount an argument; she was so cowed by the accusation that she got on Teréz’s nerves that she dared not say a word. Should she say that she’d like to be the one who looked after her [Iza], and that she’d enjoy taking care of things and finding out what she liked? Or that she [Ettie] had worked all her life, that she liked working and would like to find a way of showing how grateful she was for not being left alone? She kept quiet. (p. 98)

One of the great tragedies here – and there are many – is Iza’s lack of appreciation of her mother’s needs and emotions. On her return from work, Iza simply wants some peace and quiet, so she soon becomes irritated by Ettie’s questions and constant presence in the flat.

Her [Ettie’s] constant presence, the way she kept opening doors, always wanting something to happen at precisely the times Iza was exhausted and wanted rest and quiet, a space where nothing happened, saddened her and forced her to spend ever less time at home, only as much as was absolutely necessary. (pp. 131–132)

With Iza out at work all day, there are precious few opportunities for Ettie to spend time with her daughter or to share how she is feeling. Ettie knows she should be grateful to Iza for bringing her to Budapest, but the loneliness she is experiencing is destroying her, and with no one to talk to, these emotions remain locked in. As the novel unfolds, we can almost see Ettie wasting away before our eyes. In effect, she is retreating into herself as much as possible for fear of doing anything that will aggravate either Iza or Teréz. For Ettie, large chunks of the day are spent riding the tram routes across the city to steer clear of Teréz or whittled away alone at the flat.   

While the reader’s sympathies will almost certainly be weighted towards Ettie, Szabó is mindful of portraying each of her characters as complex, rounded individuals, complete with their shortcomings and failings. Like all of us, Ettie has her faults, from her jealousy of Lidia, the gracious nurse who holds Vince’s hand as he is dying, to her resentment of Teréz for robbing her of the chance to cook Iza’s meals. Similarly, while Iza has many faults ranging from selfishness and a lack of emotional intelligence to brusqueness and insensitivity, the situation is not entirely black and white. Her dedicated approach to work is undeniable, an asset widely recognised by colleagues and patients alike. Nevertheless, Iza’s lack of understanding towards her mother is horrifying to observe – while every physical comfort is provided for Ettie, the requisite emotional support is sorely missing from Iza’s approach. (Interestingly, this lack of emotional involvement is mirrored in Iza’s relationships with men – both her ex-husband Antal, who left Iza for fear of being destroyed by her, and Iza’s current lover, Domokos, who suddenly realises he might be destined for a similar fate.)

As this heartbreakingly poignant novel approaches its inexorable conclusion, Ettie returns to her old country home for the instalment of Vince’s headstone – a visit that prompts a reunion with Antal and a touching reminder of her former life. Despite the undeniable sadness in this story, this was a knockout read for me – a richly textured portrait of two very different women, unable to reach out to one another despite their familial bond.

Iza Ballad’s is published by NYRB Classics (US) and Harvill Secker (UK); personal copy.

Hotel Splendide by Ludwig Bemelmans  

The Austrian-born writer and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans is perhaps best known for the Madeline series, a much-loved collection of children’s picture books, mostly from the 1950s. But before he made his name as an artist and writer, Bemelmans spent several years in the New York hotel industry, working his way through the ranks from lowly bus boy to assistant manager of the private banqueting suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

Hotel Splendide is an affectionate series of vignettes recounting Bemelmans time at the Ritz-Carlton during the decadent 1920s – an utterly charming book that reflects the author’s eye for an amusing anecdote or observation while still maintaining a genuine sense of humanity. It’s a delightful collection of sketches, perfectly capturing the rituals and idiosyncrasies of a bygone age, perfect for dipping into during the dark days of winter.

Hotels frequently have a culture all of their own, and Bemelmans captures the Splendide’s to a T. Inside the mirrored dining room and banqueting suites, the rich and powerful indulge in champagne and caviar, attended to by a vast array of staff who must satisfy their guests’ every desire. When Bemelmans joins as a busboy, he is assigned to the section managed by an eccentric waiter named Mespoulets, hidden away near the rear balcony. It’s the least desirable area of the dining room, a sort of outpost where the maître d’, Monsieur Victor, seats the lowest of the low, including those who have proved troublesome in the past.

Monsieur Victor used our tables as a kind of penal colony, to which he sent guests who were notorious cranks, people who had forgotten to tip him over a long period of time and needed a reminder, undesirables who looked out of place in better sections of the dining-room, and guests who were known to linger for hours over an order of hors d’œuvres and a glass of milk, while well-paying guests had to stand at the door waiting for a table. (pp. 11–12)

Mespoulets quickly reveals himself to be a candidate for ‘the worst waiter in the world’. While the best servers are alert, attentive and speedy, Mespoulets is the exact opposite, frequently delivering the wrong orders and spilling food on the guests. Only his calligraphy skills keep him in a job – invaluable for writing menus with an elegant flourish worthy of the Splendide’s standing. Nevertheless, Bemelmans soon learns the ropes by observing the inner workings of the hotel, progressing rapidly through the ranks to the upper echelons of private banqueting.

The book is punctuated by several pen portraits (and, in some instances, accompanying pen-and-ink illustrations!) of the hotel’s most eccentric and demanding clients. Nowhere is this more evident than within the walls of the private dining suite, where the rich and powerful quickly slide from dignity to drunkenness and debauchery.

Sometimes they fell on their faces and sang into the carpet. Leaders of the nation, savants, and unhappy millionaires suffered fits of laughter, babbled nonsense, and spilled ashes and wine down their shirt-fronts. Some of them became ill. Others swam in a happy haze and loved all the world. (p. 47)

If anything, the behind-the-scenes views are even more fascinating than the guests, and Bemelmans does a fabulous job of drawing back the curtain to reveal the inner workings of the hotel, a place where hierarchies and unwritten rules must be understood and respected. Take Monsieur Victor as an example. This powerful maître d’ is a stickler for discipline, firing a waiter or busboy every six months or so, sometimes for no particular reason, just to keep the remaining staff on their toes. Meanwhile, the savviest waiters can pick up stock market tips from their Wall Street diners, enabling them to play the markets to supplement their wages – a practice that sometimes interferes with the smooth running of service.

Naturally, the stock market interfered with the service of the Hotel Splendide. Waiters stood in line trying to get at a telephone to call their brokers. In the restaurant they collected in groups, where they discussed, trends, exchanged market tips and advice, and shouted quotations at each other. They calculated profits on the backs of menus and they disappeared for long stretches of time, during which they sat in some out-of-the-way corner of the hotel, dreaming and planning what to do with their profits. (p. 53)

Bemelmans is equally good on the Splendide’s traditions and institutions, the little touches that set it apart from other leading hotels in the city. I particularly love this passage about the six elderly ladies who write the diners’ bills in longhand, a practice that has slipped out of use in most other establishments.

In a corner of the main dining-room of the Splendide, behind an arrangement of screens and large palms that were bedded in antique Chinese vases, six ladies of uncertain age used to sit making out luncheon and dinner checks. When a guest at the Splendide called for the bill, it was brought to him in longhand – contrary to the practice in most other hotels in New York City – in purple link, on fine paper decorated with the hotel crest. The six ladies, seated at a long desk near the exit to the kitchens, attended to that. (pp. 82–83)

Several of the vignettes feature Professor Gorylescu, a magician with a sideline in palmistry, who is frequently engaged as an entertainer during the Splendide’s private dinner parties. With his characteristic blend of wit and humanity, Bemelmans reveals how Gorylescu memorises the forthcoming engagements in the private banqueting diary with the aim of offering his services to the organisers. In truth, this practice is strictly forbidden, but Bemelmans turns a blind eye to the Professor’s antics out of friendship and generosity. We also learn of the Professor’s attempts to incorporate a dog into his act – not to mention his exploits with the ladies, including a party of glamorous dancers in town with the Russian ballet. Despite his age and appearance, Gorylescu is something of a ladykiller, giving rise to some of the most delightful anecdotes in the book.

Alongside these amusing vignettes, there’s a discernible note of poignancy in some of Bemelmans’ reflections – most notably in the stories featuring Fritzl, a homesick busboy who hails from the author’s home town of Regensburg. When Fritzl makes a catastrophic error, dropping a rack of lamb in full view of the diners, Bemelmans takes the boy under his wing, finding him a role where he can flourish and thrive. In time, Fritzl saves enough money to buy a smart suit, and he dreams of making a big splash on his return to Regensburg, keen to show friends and family that his new life is a success. Nevertheless, on their return home, the pair find their home town much diminished, and their former tutor – a man who taunted Fritzl as a boy for his shabby clothes and appearance – is now reduced to wearing threadbare trousers of his own. Consequently, Fritzl shelves his plans to lord it over the Professor, sympathising with his plight and the reversal of fortunes.

In summary then, Hotel Splendide is a delightful collection of vignettes, capturing the splendour of a bygone age with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies. What makes this book such a joy to read is Bemelmans’ blend of warmth, charm and humanity, his exquisite eye for an amusing observation without ever tipping into cruelty. The reflections – rich in period detail and atmosphere – are exquisitely conveyed, ably revealing the inner workings of this prestigious hotel. A must read for anyone interested in 1920s New York in all its decadence and glamour, particularly those readers with a fondness for hotels!

Hotel Splendide is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson Carr

I’ve had slightly mixed experiences with Carr’s mysteries in the past, but this is a good one!

First published in Britain in 1942, The Seat of the Scornful combines an intriguing mystery with some different interpretations of what constitutes justice. Central to the story is the formidable judge, Justice Horace Ireton, a man who enjoys playing ‘cat-and-mouse’ with the accused, sometimes allowing a convicted criminal to stew in their own juice before approving a stay of execution. As his colleague Fred Barlow observes:

“…He [Justice Ireton] doesn’t care twopence about the law. What he is interested in is administering absolute, impartial justice as he sees it.” (p. 23)

The judge would like his daughter, twenty-one-year-old Constance, to marry Barlow, an affable barrister with good career prospects. Constance, however, has other ideas. Much to her father’s displeasure, Constance has fallen for Tony Morell, a charismatic entrepreneur with a rather shady past.

He [Morell] was one of those self-consciously virile types which are associated with the Southern European; the sort of man who, as Jane Tennant once put it, always makes a woman feel that he is breathing down the back of her neck. (pp. 19-20)

When the couple announce their intention to marry, Judge Ireton offers Morrell a sizeable amount of money to disappear without a word to Constance about their agreement. At first, Morell appears to accept the offer. But after returning to the judge’s bungalow the following evening to collect his payment, Morrell is found dead in highly suspicious circumstances, a scenario that clearly implicates Justice Ireton as the murderer.

Before long, Dr Gideon Fell, who happens to play chess with Ireton, is called in to assist the police with their investigations – and what appears to be a relatively simple case soon throws up some very interesting complications. As it turns out, several people connected to the judge were in the area at the time of the murder. In fact, the room where Morell’s body was found was easily accessible through some open French windows – the very opposite of a ‘locked room’!

As the mystery unfolds and we learn more about the other potential suspects, the judge’s views on justice and the law become increasingly relevant. Can motivations or extenuating circumstances ever justify such a serious crime? And is circumstantial evidence ever sufficient to establish guilt? These questions and more are explored through Carr’s cleverly constructed mystery.

The characterisation is particularly good here, with Carr’s portrayal of Justice Ireton feeling authentic and believable. Constance Ireton is well-drawn too, a rather headstrong girl with a capacity for flighty emotions. Similarly, Carr does well to create some compelling supporting players, most notably Fred Barlow and Constance’s friend Jane Tennant, who also find themselves drawn into the investigations.

The solution, when it comes, feels a bit convoluted with a couple of last-minute twists that will likely divide opinion. Nevertheless, this thoroughly enjoyable mystery keeps the reader guessing right to the very end!

The Seat of the Scornful is published by the British Library as part of their Crime Classics series; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The London Train by Tessa Hadley

There is a touch of Brief Encounter about The London Train, Tessa Hadley’s 2011 novel featuring two parallel narratives that ultimately come together and connect. In one sense, this wonderfully subtle book can be viewed as an exploration of the fault lines and emotional disconnects in two seemingly stable marriages. Moreover, the story also highlights how these fissures can be exposed by random events, from the sudden disappearance of a daughter to a chance encounter on a train.

Structurally, the book is divided into two sections that initially appear to be separate novellas: The London Train and Only Children. However, by the time the reader reaches the midpoint of the second section, the connection between these beautifully constructed narratives becomes clear.

The first story revolves around Paul, a middle-aged writer and reviewer who lives in Wales with his second wife, Elise, a successful restorer of antiques, and their two young children, Becky and Joni. From an early stage, Hadley hints at an air of restlessness or lack of fulfilment surrounding Paul. Having recently lost his mother, Paul is haunted by dreams of his childhood, gnawing away at the guilt he feels over his infrequent visits before her death. While Elise and the girls provide Paul with a comfortable, loving home environment, he occasionally wishes that his life were more spontaneous and free-spirited – a little like that of his bohemian friend Gerald, a part-time University tutor, who seems to get by on a combination of humous, Scotch eggs and weed. Moreover, an ongoing dispute with his neighbour – the deliberatively obstructive farmer Willis – is a further source of agitation for Paul and Elise.

The story really gets going when Paul’s eldest daughter – nineteen-year-old Pia, from his earlier marriage to Annelies – goes missing from her London home. When Paul tracks Pia down, he discovers she is pregnant and living with the child’s father, a Polish man named Marek, in a squalid flat near King’s Cross. At first, it is unclear whether Marek is a conman, an entrepreneur, or a fantasist, with his dreams of setting up an import-export business for Polish delicatessen goods. Nevertheless, there is something magnetic about this quietly authoritative man and his sister, the equally compelling Anna. Consequently, Paul finds himself getting drawn into their world – to the point where he temporarily leaves Elise after a furious row to camp out with Pia and Marek in their claustrophobic flat.

As soon as Marek and Anna were in the flat, Paul saw that Anna was a force just as her brother was, and that Pia had been drawn to both of them, not just the man. Both moved with quick, contemptuous energy, crowding the place; Paul recognised that they were powerful, even if he wasn’t sure he liked them, and couldn’t understand yet what their link was to his daughter, or whether it was safe for her. (pp. 67–68).

In essence, the combination of tensions Paul is experiencing – his worries over the stability of Pia’s future with Marek; the guilt he feels about neglecting his mother; the ongoing row with Willis; and his underlying sense of restlessness – conspire to expose the fault lines in his relationship with Elise. Several differences between the couple rise to the surface, from the contrasts in their family backgrounds and social class to their current values and attitudes to life, prompting a kind of mid-life crisis for Paul as he starts to feel the pull of Anna.

Hadley’s second story focuses on thirty-something Cora, who has recently left her older husband, Robert, a rather stuffy and emotionally detached Civil Servant, high up in the Home Office. Cora is now living in Cardiff, having lovingly renovated her parents’ house following their deaths; and while her new role as a librarian is not particularly demanding, she enjoys the lack of stress after several years as an English teacher.

At heart, Cora keeps her feelings under wraps, finding it hard to confide in her closest friend, Frankie, who also happens to be Robert’s sister. While Robert tries to persuade Cora to return to London, she is content to remain in Wales, enjoying her freedom and a new-found air of self-possession. As far as Cora sees things, Robert appears to view their marriage as a kind of ‘contract or a piece of legislation’, not a living, breathing relationship driven by deep emotions.

Nothing could shake his [Robert’s] hierarchy of importance, where work was a fixed outer form, inside which personal things must find their place. Once, she had gloried in cutting herself to the right shape to fit it. (p. 172).

As you’ve probably guessed by now, these two stories come together when Paul and Cora meet by chance on the Cardiff-to-London train. An attraction gradually develops as they chat during the journey, culminating in an arrangement to meet again the next time Cora is in Cardiff. Before long, the pair are embroiled in a passionate affair, which feels especially liberating for Cora, given the sense of loneliness surrounding her marriage to Robert.  

Their relations were asymmetrical. She was the completed thing he wanted, and had got – he had seen her whole that very first time on the train, her strong particular stamp of personality written for him to read, clear as a hieroglyph; whereas she was absorbed in his life as it streamed forward, lost in him, not able to know everything he was. She couldn’t have imagined, in her old self, the pleasure to be had in such abandonment (p. 264)

I think I’ll leave it there in terms of the plot, save to say that Hadley plays with the timings of various events, moving smoothly from one timeline to another to weave her stories together.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is Hadley’s ability to create a strong connection between the reader and her central characters, especially Cora, whose inner life is portrayed with just the right degree of intimacy. In both stories, we see how seemingly stable marriages can be eroded over the years by small failings and disappointments, highlighting these characters’ relatable flaws and shortcomings.

Hadley also successfully draws out various parallels and connections between the two stories without the underlying themes ever feeling overworked. For instance, both Cora and Paul are separated from their respective partners – possibly temporarily or maybe more permanently. Both are grieving a parent with no siblings to share their grief or sense of loss. Both are at pivotal points in their lives when their choices are likely to have significant ramifications for themselves and others.

Running alongside the central theme of the fragility of marital relationships are various related areas, including coping with a family bereavement, female desire and self-possession, and the balance between freedom and domestic responsibility. There’s also a discernible undercurrent of unease about key social and political issues, ranging from the damaging effects of climate change to the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, especially those earmarked for deportation. In his Home Office role, Robert is under investigation for a major fire at an immigration removal centre, with a formal inquiry due to reach a critical point. Once again, Hadley demonstrates subtlety in her treatment of these topics, conveying her perspective in a thoughtful and compelling way.

Robert’s fire, however, had been at one of the new purpose-built centres: brick buildings on brownfield sites, as blandly featureless from the outside as mail-order depots or units on an industrial estate. […] this modern apparatus for punishment stood lightly and provisionally in the landscape, like so many husks, or ugly litter. The appearance of the buildings, Cora thought, was part of the pretence that what was processed inside them was nothing so awful or contaminating as flesh and blood. The buildings made possible the dry husks of language in the reports that Robert read, and wrote. (p. 191).

In summary then, The London Train is an exquisitely written novel on the messy business of middle-class life and the vulnerability of seemingly stable relationships. Yet, by the end of this richly textured book, there is a sense of optimism for the future, the possibility of reconnections, new beginnings, and a deeper understanding as the dust settles on these characters’ lives. Highly recommended for lovers of character-driven fiction with a focus on interiority.

Clouds Over Paris by Felix Hartlaub (tr. Simon Beattie)

When I was casting around for something suitable to read for Lizzy’s German Lit Month, Clouds Over Paris (The Wartime Notebooks of Felix Hartlaub) caught my eye. It’s a series of vignettes and observations penned by the German-born historian and fledgling writer Felix Hartlaub, who was posted to Paris in 1940 as a researcher for the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During his time in the French capital, Hartlaub recorded his impressions of a city under occupation, frequently finding beauty amid the harsh realities of war. As such, Clouds Over Paris offers readers the opportunity to see the city through the eyes of an outsider, a man who felt somewhat uncomfortable about his presence as a German national.

Hartlaub’s style is wonderfully impressionistic (almost stream-of-consciousness in style), and the notebooks are full of evocative imagery, capturing the feel of a city under siege. With an artist’s eye for detail, he writes vividly of soldiers hanging out in cafés and bars, Parisians queuing for food at a butcher’s shop, and anglers fishing in the Seine, their wives desperately waiting to bag any catches. The night-time scenes are particularly atmospheric, with the eerie silence accentuating the sound of soldiers’ movements through the streets.

Blackout. There is an eleven o’clock curfew for Parisians. Only occupying forces are left on the streets, which are deathly quiet. Military boots, solitary or in groups, the odd civilian scooting past, the brim of his hat pulled down low. A breezy night, some big marauding clouds float past at a reasonable height, a burnt-brownish colour. In a patchy bank of cloud, scattered spots of moonlight. Further south, in the rough direction of the Dôme des Invalides, a searchlight shoots up, fixing on a low, ragged cloud, which appears to stop, stretching out paws anew.  The searchlight, cut off from the ground, dies away in a fraction of a second. (p. 59)

Something that comes across very strongly here is the sense of discomfort Hartlaub feels about his presence in the city. Unsurprisingly, he is met with suspicion by the French – as an outsider and an occupier, there is an air of isolation surrounding him as he goes about his day.

The icy ring of alienation and mistrust he has cast about him. He is firmly pinned down within it, his gestures winning no space, his words lacking the air to carry. […]

A couple in the neighbouring séparé, back-to-back with him. Muffled words into each other’s shoulders, the silence of long kisses. The couple leave, eyeing him as they go past, in his empty red mirrored compartment. He returns their gaze: benign, full of admiration, and at the same time veiled, not quite there. (pp. 36–37)

Journeys on the Métro only heighten this sense of unease, especially when Hartlaub is required to show his travel pass, the distinctive colouring of which clearly reveals his nationality. Interestingly though, he is equally uneasy in the company of German soldiers with whom he feels ‘no connection whatsoever’ as his eyes land on their epaulettes.

Alongside the fragments of encounters between soldiers and various ladies of the nights, there are some marvellously evocative descriptions of the buildings in Paris, ranging from views of the city’s streets to a sequence of sketches of a once-glamorous hotel, now a little careworn in the midst of occupation. Night-time trysts are a regular occurrence here, as are minor infringements of the blackout regulations. Nevertheless, the staff go about their usual business as far as possible, from the three lift operators, each with his own distinctive personality, to the room service staff, expertly manoeuvring their trays with precision.

Room service staff scoot across the carpets: a hive of activity, as nearly all the milords and ladies breakfast in bed. The heavy tray clamped at shoulder height, head tucked at an angle. The other hand is for opening doors. The long coat-tails like the wing-cases of giant beetles. One, with thick horn-rimmed spectacles, sweaty red face, a strong smell of wine sometimes trailing behind him, is a farmer’s boy from Picardy. The stiff curved shirt front, clippers for ration cards in his pocket on a silver chain. (pp. 114–115)

Hartlaub writes particularly vividly about the skies over Paris, capturing the various colours, the shapes of clouds and the contrast between light and shade with consummate ease. (The notebook entries cover the period from March to August 1941, with Hartlaub taking the opportunity to record a wide range of impressions, reflecting seasonal changes and variations in weather.) Despite the trials of war, he clearly finds immense beauty in the Paris skyline, especially in spring.

The reflection of the Seine carries the pale brightness of the western sky away to the left, to the east. Approaching frost spices the air, yet the weeping willow which leans out over the river from the Square Notre-Dame is already covered with green. The thick, broad crowns of the chestnut trees, which, neither discoloured nor deformed, have managed to retain all that frost and moisture and hold up the snowy sky, are now seized with white foam, pale bursting stars. (p. 43)

Sadly, Hartlaub died in 1945, disappearing from Berlin just days before the war ended. As such, he never had the opportunity to see his work in print. In fact, it’s not entirely clear whether he thought of these fragments as notes for a future novel or a private record of his time in Paris. Many of the passages break off suddenly, and there are a number of omissions that give some of the vignettes an unfinished feel. Nevertheless, the book offers a fascinating insight into an occupied city glimpsed from the perspective of an outsider who felt uncomfortable about certain aspects of the war.

Clouds Over Paris was translated by Simon Beattie and published by Pushkin Press in 2022 – making the book available in English for the first time. My thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart (tr. Michael Hofmann)

The German writer Irmgard Keun lived a fascinating life. Having enjoyed great success with her first two novels Gilgi, One of Us (1931) and The Artificial Silk Girl (both of which I adored), she found herself blacklisted when the Nazis swept to power in 1933. By 1936, Keun was travelling around Europe in the company of her lover, the Jewish writer Joseph Roth. After Midnight (1937) and Child of All Nations (1938) were written while Keun was in exile abroad, with the writer finally returning to Germany in 1940 under an assumed name – possibly helped by a false newspaper report of her suicide. A final novel, Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart, was published in Germany in 1950 but has only recently been translated into English by Michael Hofmann in 2021.

Ferdinand differs from Keun’s earlier novels by virtue of its focus on a male character. So while Gilgi, Silk Girl and Midnight, all feature strong women, full of determination and life, Ferdinand is narrated by a dandyish daydreamer with a tendency to drift. Consequently, Ferdinand seems to lack the narrative drive of Keun’s previous work, which makes for a somewhat frustrating read (for this reader at least). Nevertheless, there are still various elements to enjoy here, although it’s probably best suited to die-hard Keun fans rather than first-time readers of her work.

Set in post-war Cologne, where black-market trading and other dodgy activities are rife, the novel reads like a series of pen portraits and sketches as our eponymous hero, Ferdinand Timpe, tries to make his way in a rapidly changing world. Just like Ferdinand himself, the narrative meanders around, bumping into various acquaintances and members of the extended Timpe family, each one more eccentric and absurd than the last. Take Ferdinand’s brother Luitpold as an example, a furniture maker in southern Germany – a man who always manages to stay afloat, despite his dire money management.

Luitpold represents the type of good fellow who in nineteenth-century novels gets into trouble by issuing bonds for unreliable friends, allowing bills to fall due, paying allowances to children who were not his, and opening his heart and his wallet to impoverished widows. By the rules of our rough new world he is classified as a noble idiot. (p. 105)

Ferdinand’s future mother-in-law is another strange one, eagerly combing the bombed-out city for all manner of booty from typewriters to louche paintings.

The city seemed wiped out, destroyed. But some things weren’t. In the midst of the ruins there were a few intact, abandoned houses and flats in pallid, ghostly glory. Everything belonged to everyone. Insatiable and obsessed, my forget-me-not-blue mother-in-law went on the prowl, and snaffled among other things as sewing machine, various typewriters, four rugs, seventeen eggcups, a gilt frame, a bombproof door, a poultry cage, and a pompous drawing-room painting depicting a voluptuous woman lying prone in pink, puffy nudity, a blue moth teetering on the end of her pink index finger, and the whole thing somehow casual. (p. 60)

Funnily enough, the stolen painting gives rise to a particularly amusing anecdote when the former owners of the artwork appear on the scene. But despite this troublesome development, Ferdinand’s mother-in-law, Frau Klatte, insists that the painting is a treasured heirloom, passed down through her family from one generation to the next. As far as Frau Klatte sees it, the former owners are ‘awful people’ who are ‘not even properly married’, and a protracted tussle over the item subsequently ensues.

At heart, Ferdinand lacks ambition, which contributes to his rather aimless approach to life. As such, he recognises his lack of suitability for various professions, ranging from teaching and academia to administration and business. In a case of mistaken identity, Ferdinand lands a gig as a writer for Red Dawn, an emerging literary journal, but he struggles to settle on a subject for his story. Eventually though, another job turns up, with Ferdinand acting as a kind of agony aunt for unhappy wives looking to let off steam about their husbands’ shortcomings.

Most women would rather be married unhappily than not at all. Besides they are rarely as unhappy as they think they are. Some have an inborn martyr complex and take suffering for a sign of moral superiority. They like to be pitied. For these wives I have a pained frown in the corner of my mouth and a look of melancholy sympathy. That sees me through, and I don’t even need to speak. (p. 117)

As Ferdinand makes his way through the city, he is also on the lookout for a new suitor for his fiancée, Luise. Having allowed himself to become engaged to Luise before the war, Ferdinand now wishes to extricate himself from the arrangement. In truth, after a stint as a prisoner of war, he really wants to live alone for a while as he adjusts to a world of freedom. The trouble is, there are Luise’s feelings to be considered, hence our protagonist’s quandary on what to do for the best. As the novel draws to a close, an ironic development comes to Ferdinand’s rescue, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself should you decide to read the book.

The novel ends with a party at Cousin Johanna’s place, a reunion of sorts as various friends, relatives and strangers come together, fuelled by an assortment of music and drink. It’s a fitting end to a somewhat disjointed novel – but maybe that’s a perfectly accurate reflection of life in post-war Cologne, shortly after Germany’s currency reform in 1948.

So, in summary then, not an entirely satisfying experience for me, although Keun’s pithy observations on human nature and various aspects of 20th century life are always interesting to read. For other (more positive) views on this book, Grant’s review and Max’s summary are worth reading, accessible via the links.    

Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. (Read for Lizzy’s German Lit Month and Novellas in November.)

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

I always enjoy returning to the comforting world of Barbara Pym, populated as it is by ‘excellent’, well-meaning women, idiosyncratic Anglican clergymen and somewhat fusty academics. It’s a place that seems both mildly absurd and oddly believable, full of the sharply-observed details that Pym captures so well. First published in 1958, A Glass of Blessings is another lovely addition to this author’s body of work, a charming novel of mild flirtations and misunderstandings.

Blessings is narrated by Wilmet Forsyth, a well-dressed, attractive woman in her early thirties, comfortably married to the dependable but rather dull Rodney, a civil servant at the Ministry. Having met in Italy during the war when Wilmet was in the Wrens and Rodney in the Army, the couple now live quite amiably with Sybil, Rodney’s amiable mother, in a well-heeled London suburb.

With Rodney out at work all day and Sybil busy with her charitable work, Wilmet is rather at a loss for something to do. Rodney doesn’t want his wife to work as his salary provides more than enough for them to live comfortably at the family home. And in any case, Wilmet doesn’t appear to have trained for any roles – why should she with a solid husband to take care of her? So, instead, Wilmet spins out her days on a combination of bits and pieces, attending evening classes in Portuguese with Sybil, lunching with various friends and spending time with the priests at her local parish.

As is often the case with Pym, there are few, if any, dramatic plot developments here. Instead, Pym focuses on the characters and the interactions they have with one another over the course of the story. For a woman in her early thirties, Wilmet has led a somewhat sheltered existence – there were no lovers before Rodney, she has no children and few close friends to speak of, and her social circle is relatively narrow. So when Piers Longridge – the brother of her closest friend, Rowena – starts paying Wilmet some attention, she looks forward to a little mild flirtation…

I got into the train in a kind of daze. As it lurched on from station to station I gave myself up to a happy dream in which I went to look after Piers when he was ill or depressed or just had a hangover. And yet, had that been what I meant when I had made my offer to him? Not an offer, exactly. But if not an offer, then what? I felt that Piers really needed me as few people did. Certainly not Rodney, I told myself, justifying my foolish indulgence. Piers needed love and understanding, perhaps already he was happier because of knowing me. When I had reached this conclusion I felt contented and peaceful, and leaned back in my seat, smiling to myself. (pp. 174–175)

Wilmet, it seems, is not terribly good at reading other people and picking up on their signals – a failing that leads to disappointment when she finally meets Piers’ flatmate. (I’ll leave you to discover the wonderful irony of that moment for yourself, should you decide to read the book!)

It seemed as if life had been going on around me without my knowing it, in the disconcerting way that it sometimes does, like the traffic swirling past when one is standing on an island in the middle of the road. (p. 248)

Pym is a keen observer of human nature, and the novel is full of the gentle humour that Pym excels in. Mr Bason, the new housekeeper at the local parish, is a great source of amusement, passing judgement on his employers and their tastes in food and furnishings at every given opportunity. Bason is one of those wonderful Pym creations – a slightly camp, gossipy man with a penchant for objects of beauty but little time for those who fail to appreciate either his interests or his culinary talents. In particular, he takes pleasure in ‘borrowing’ Father Thames’ treasured Fabergé egg, much to Wilmet’s horror during a chance encounter at the grocer’s…

Would Mr Bason go on talking about the Fabergé egg? I wondered. And was it my duty to say something to him? Surely not here, among the All-Bran, the Grapenuts, the Puffed Wheat, the Rice Krispies and the Frosted Flakes?

‘Father Bode will have his cornflakes,’ said Mr Bason, seizing a giant packet of Kellogg’s. ‘Of course Father Thames has a continental breakfast, coffee and croissants.’

‘My husband likes Grapenuts,’ I found myself saying feebly. Then, gathering strength, I asked, ‘And what do you have? An egg?’ (p. 193)

There’s also an interesting subplot involving Mary Beamish, a steady young woman who Wilmet initially dismisses as rather dull.

Mary Beamish was the kind of person who always made me feel particularly useless – she was so very much immersed in good works, so splendid, everyone said. She was about my own age, but smaller and rather dowdily dressed, presumably because she had neither the wish nor the ability to make the most of herself. (p. 17)

Nevertheless, as Wilmet learns more about the needs and lives of those around her, she becomes more sympathetic to Mary’s situation, showing a different side to her character than we see at first. Moreover, there’s a lovely hint of irony to their friendship, so while Wilmer is busy dreaming of a flirtation with Piers (and possibly the attractive Assistant Priest, Father Ransome, too), Mary is quietly getting on with a little romance of her own!

As ever with Pym, the dialogue is witty and charming, highlighting each character’s foibles and quirks – her talent for gentle social comedy is second to none. Interestingly, there are hints of a more bohemian world opening up than in earlier Pym novels as we begin to see the transition from a traditional, conservative world to a more liberal society. Piers and his circle of friends are the main embodiment of modernity here, but there are other little touches too, especially in Sybil’s relationship with Professor Root, a frequent caller at the Forsyth house.

Finally, for fans of Pym’s earlier novels, there are various cameo appearances and mentions of characters from these books, including Prudence Bates (from Jane and Prudence), Archdeacon Hoccleve (from Some Tame Gazelle) and the dashing Rocky Napier from Excellent Women). I couldn’t help but laugh at the idea that both Wilmet and Rowena had crushes on Rocky Napier – presumably from their days as Wrens when they encountered Rocky in Italy. 

‘Oh this weather,’ Rowena sighed, pulling off her pale yellow gloves. ‘It makes one so unsettled. One ought to be in Venice with a lover!’

‘Of course,’ I agreed. ‘Whom would you choose?’

There was a pause, then we both burst out simultaneously, ‘Rocky Napier!’ and dissolved into helpless giggles. (p. 159)

In summary, then, A Glass of Blessings is another delightful novel by the inimitable Barbara Pym. As the story draws to a close, Wilmet’s husband, Rodney, also confesses to a harmless flirtation of his own. Nevertheless, the book ends on a contented note with few worries about the couple’s future together. Wilmet, in particular, has a better understanding of those around her, enriching the various relationships she has formed in her affable social circle.     

A Glass of Blessings is published by Virago Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. Max has also written about this one, and you can read his thoughtful review here.

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

Every now and again, a book comes along that catches the reader off-guard with its impact and memorability. Elena Knows – the third novel from the award-winning writer and activist Claudia Piñeiro – seems set to be that kind of book, for this reader at least. Even though it’s only a week or so since I read it, I strongly suspect that the issues raised by this novel (and the skill with which Piñeiro conveys them) will likely resonate with me for some time. In short, the book is a powerful exploration of various facets of control over women’s bodies. More specifically, the extent to which women are in control (or not) of their own bodies in a predominantly Catholic society; how religious dogma and doctrines exert pressure on women to relinquish that control to others, often against their will; and what happens when the body fails us due to illness and/or disability.

Central to the novel is Elena, a woman in her mid-sixties who has severe Parkinson’s Disease, a condition that places significant restrictions on her mobility, which fluctuates throughout the day.

When Elena’s daughter, Rita, is found dead, her body hanging from the bell in the church belfry, the official investigations deliver a verdict of suicide, and the case is promptly closed by the police. Elena, however, refuses to believe the authorities’ ruling based on her knowledge of Rita’s beliefs. Elena knows – or thinks she knows – that Rita would never have entered the church on a rainy day due to a deep-seated fear of lightning. The cross on the church roof would have acted as a powerful lightning conductor, making the building a precarious place to take shelter on the afternoon in question.  

No one knows as much about her daughter as she does, she thinks, because she’s her mother, or was her mother. Motherhood, Elena thinks, comes with certain things, a mother knows her child, a mother knows, a mother loves… (p. 49)

Consequently, Elena is determined to conduct her own investigation into Rita’s death. The trouble is, she can only move around for a couple of hours at a time once each dose of her Parkinson’s medication kicks in. So, with no other viable options at her disposal, Elena embarks on a tortuous journey across the city of Buenos Aires in the hope of calling in a favour from an acquaintance named Isabel. While Elena hasn’t seen Isabel for twenty years, she believes the latter owes her a debt of gratitude for a past kindness – significant enough to call on Isabel to act on her behalf.

The narrative is very cleverly structured as it mirrors the times when Elena takes her tablets: morning (second pill), midday (third pill) and afternoon (fourth pill). Once each tablet takes effect, Elena can move for just an hour or two before her body stops responding, effectively immobilising her until it’s time for the next dose, and the cycle can begin again.

By holding the reader close to Elena as she makes her way across the city, Piñeiro enables us to see just how difficult it is for someone with severe Parkinson’s to complete simple actions that others take for granted e.g. walking the five blocks from her home to the train station, buying a ticket, boarding the train, timing her journey to ensure she’ll get a seat, and getting off the train at her destination – each of these tasks feels like a Herculean challenge for Elena. Moreover, the sheer difficulty of this journey creates a genuine sense of tension as her body could seize up at any point, leaving Elena in limbo until it’s time for her next pill.

As Elena marks out the journey in manageable stages, we learn more about her relationship with Rita and various events from the past. While Elena clearly loved Rita very deeply, their relationship was stormy with both parties experiencing significant anger and frustration, typically driven by the limitations imposed by Elena’s Parkinson’s. There were times when Rita felt disgusted by her mother’s condition, especially the lack of control Elena had (and still has) over certain bodily functions, such as her constant tendency to drool. In effect, Rita was fast becoming her mother’s carer as Elena’s condition worsened. The endless bureaucracy around medical insurance proved another source of frustration for Rita, highlighting the system’s dehumanising effect and lack of sensitivity to the urgency of patients’ needs.

As the narrative unfolds, we see how the teachings of the Catholic Church have contributed to the lack of control women have over their own bodies. Certain actions, such as abortion, are condemned by the Church, imposing severe restrictions on the options open to women should they become pregnant.

…we, as Christians, know that our bodies do not belong to us, that our bodies belong to God, and so we cannot go against Him […] The Church condemns suicide just as it condemns any murder, any wrongful use of the body that does not belong to us, whatever name you want to give the action, suicide, abortion, euthanasia. Parkinson’s, she says, but he ignores her. (p. 53)

Moreover, Piñeiro sets up various juxtapositions in the novel, highlighting the complexity of the moral issues at play. For instance, while Elena must relinquish control of her bodily movements to Parkinson’s (the terrible ‘whore’ illness she refers to as ‘Herself’), she is quite prepared to ask another woman for the ‘use’ of her body to act as a surrogate investigator on her behalf. There are other examples here too, most notably how some pregnant women seeking abortions are prevented from gaining access to the appropriate support due to extreme pressure from others – such as women with opposing views.

By exploring the specific demands placed on each of the two central characters – Elena and Rita – together with the demands and controls they seek to place on others, Piñeiro successfully highlights some of the injustices in this society. (The final section of the story is exceptionally powerful and compelling, delivering a cruel twist of fate that I did not anticipate beforehand. It’s a development that lends a crushing note of irony to the novel’s title, prompting us to us to question how well we know ourselves and others when faced with a terrible dilemma.)

For a novel first published in Argentina in 2007 (and subsequently translated into English in 2021), Elena Knows still feels incredibly timely, especially given recent political developments around women’s rights. It’s a powerful and urgent read full of depth and complexity – as Max commented in his 2021 reading highlights, this is an excellent example of how the investigation into a potential crime can be used as a vehicle in fiction to explore pressing societal issues. There are so many layers to unpack here, not only around agency and bodily autonomy but in other areas such as motherhood and identity. I’ll finish with a final quote that taps into some of these themes, just to give a more rounded view of the novel’s concerns.

What name does she [Elena] have now that she’s childless? Has Rita’s death erased everything she was? Her illness didn’t erase it. Being a mother, Elena knows, isn’t changed by any illness even if it keeps you from being able to put on a jacket, or freezes your feet so that you can’t move, or forces you to live with your head down, but could Rita’s death have taken not only her daughter’s body but also the word that names what she, Elena, is? (p. 49)

Elena Knows is published by Charco Press; personal copy.

Big Blonde by Dorothy Parker – a post for the #1929Club

As some of you may know, it’s Simon and Karen’s #1929Club this week, a celebration of books originally published in 1929 – you can find out more about it here. So, for my contribution to the event, I’ve chosen Dorothy Parker’s Big Blonde, an excellent story that traces the sad and unfulfilling life of an ageing good-time girl as she slides into alcoholism and depression. This striking tale highlights how the society of the day made certain assumptions about women based on their appearance and situation; and while things have undoubtedly changed significantly since then, Parker’s story still has a degree of resonance with certain attitudes today.

Central to the story is Hazel Morse, a large, fair-haired woman ‘of the type that incites some men when they use the word ‘blonde’ to click their tongues and wag their heads roguishly’. Hazel is in her twenties when we first meet her, working as a model in a wholesale dress business. Through her work, she has the opportunity to meet various men, many of whom find her attractive and are keen to take her out.

Right from the very start, we see how Hazel is defined by her appearance, especially her blonde hair. Men tend to assume she is a good-time girl, fun and easy-going in company and an all-round ‘good sport’. At first, Hazel responds well to this attention, enjoying her popularity and the various benefits this confers. 

Her job was not onerous, and she met numbers of men and spent numbers of evenings with them, laughing at their jokes and telling them she loved their neckties. Men liked her, and she took it for granted that the liking of many men was a desirable thing. Popularity seemed to her to be worth all the work that had to be put into its achievement. Men liked you because you were fun, and when they liked you they took you out, and there you were. So, and successfully, she was fun. She was a good sport. Men liked a good sport. (p. 13-14)

Nevertheless, the situation changes somewhat when she marries Herbie Morse, a ‘quick, attractive man’ with a fondness for drink. With her thirties looming on the horizon, Hazel is keen to settle down to a life of cosy domesticity. Herbie, however, has other ideas, choosing instead to stay out drinking till late at night. Consequently, the couple often argue when Herbie gets home…

She fought him furiously. A terrific domesticity had come upon her, and she would bite and scratch to guard it. She wanted what she called ‘a nice home’. She wanted a sober, tender husband, prompt at dinner, punctual at work. She wanted sweet, comforting evenings. The idea of intimacy with other men was terrible to her; the thought that Herbie might be seeking entertainment in other women set her frantic. (p. 18)

In truth, Herbie still sees Hazel as a specific personality type – a carefree, easy-going blonde who enjoys a bit of fun – rather than an individual with needs and desires of her own. (Significantly, Hazel is referred to as Mrs Morse throughout the story, characterising her identity through her role as a wife.) In particular, Herbie fails to see that Hazel craves some love and affection, especially when she’s feeling low. As such, his tolerance is tested by this change in his wife’s behaviour – as far as Herbie is concerned, Hazel is no longer the good-time girl he signed up for in their marriage, but he makes no attempt to understand her feelings or situation.

With the arguments between the couple becoming increasingly violent, Hazel turns to alcohol herself, drinking during the day as a way of blurring the loneliness and depression – a situation that ultimately ends in the breakdown of the couple’s marriage.

By this point in the story, Hazel is also seeing Ed, a married man she met through her neighbour and daytime drinking partner, Mrs Martin – a forty-something blonde who hosts parties for good-time ‘boys’ in her flat. (In truth, Mrs Martin is essentially Hazel in ten years’ time unless something more hopeful happens to set her life on a different trajectory.)

While Hazel is relatively happy to be Ed’s mistress for a while, their relationship comes to an end when Ed moves to Florida for work. A succession of unsatisfying dalliances swiftly follows as Hazel slips further into depression.  

In her haze, she never recalled how men entered her life and left it. There were no surprises. She had no thrill at their advent, nor woe at their departure. (p. 31)

Throughout the story, Parker highlights how the emptiness of Hazel’s life is defined by the roles ‘available’ to her as a (once-)attractive blonde – roles dictated by societal expectations of her gender and physical appearance. As such, she is expected to be (in turn): a fun-loving, good-time single girl who enjoys going out; an easy-going, sociable wife, tolerant of her husband’s failings; and a lively, cheerful mistress who keeps her troubles under wraps. Each of these idealised images contrasts starkly with Hazel’s inner life, which remains largely unfulfilled.

As the years pass by, Hazel sees the long, slow parade of miserable days stretching out ahead of her – the steady succession of men, just like the ones that have come and gone, and the interminable evenings of being ‘a good sport’, largely for their benefit. With a wave of misery sweeping over her, it feels like she is being crushed between ‘great, smooth stones’ as the horror of her situation sets in

Big Blonde is a quietly devastating story with a distinct air of tragedy. While the reader hopes for a brighter future for Hazel, they fear that she is trapped in a vicious circle with little agency to break free…

Big Blonde is included in the Penguin Modern The Custard Heart by Dorothy Parker; personal copy. It’s also available in this lovely Penguin Little Clothbound Classic edition

Post After Post-Mortem by E. C. R. Lorac

Over the past few years, the British Library has been doing a splendid job in reissuing various vintage mysteries by the English writer Edith Caroline Rivett – mostly under her main pen name E. C. R. Lorac, but also the excellent Crossed Skis, which Rivett wrote as Carol Carnac. First published in 1936, Post After Post-Mortem is another very enjoyable addition to the list – an intriguing, complex mystery with a psychological edge.

Central to this novel are the Surrays, a highly successful family of intellectuals from Oxfordshire. Each of the five Surray children is a high achiever in their chosen field, from the eldest, Richard, the brilliant psychiatrist, to the youngest, Naomi, who has just been awarded a First in Classics. The middle daughter, Ruth – a critically-acclaimed writer – is as prolific as the other Surrays, with several books under her belt. Having just completed her latest manuscript, Ruth is thinking of taking a little break from the stresses and strains of a literary life. So, when a family birthday prompts the Surray clan to gather at their Oxfordshire home of Upwood, Ruth decides to stay with her parents once the gathering is over.

Richard, however, is a little worried about Ruth’s mental well-being, having spotted the signs of potential trouble ahead. As such, he is hoping that Ruth will accompany their mother, Mrs Surray, on a walking holiday in Europe. However, before their plans can be finalised, there is a literary gathering at Upwood – an event that turns to tragedy when Ruth is found dead in her bed the following morning.

At first, the cause of death appears to be a clear case of suicide. A box of sleeping tablets is found on Ruth’s bedside table, along with a suicide note and a newly altered will (signed but not witnessed). It seems that Ruth had been under significant strain before her death, and Richard is especially keen to avoid any additional distress for the family through undue speculation about the circumstances. After all, what’s the point in delving into Ruth’s past history or her state of mind in the weeks leading up to the tragedy when the cause of death seems so unequivocal?

Richard Surray’s one desire at that moment was the instinct of a physician to prevent the spread of a deadly disease. He feared desperately that other lives might be involved in this web of emotional confusion, as he foresaw fresh misery—for his mother and father and sister—if certain possibilities were made public, were dragged into the searchlight of popular curiosity… (p. 58)

With no other pertinent information emerging at the Inquest, the Coroner concludes that Ruth died from an overdose of barbiturates, noting a verdict of suicide in the records. Case closed, or so it seems. However, when Richard returns to his rooms in Bloomsbury, he finds a letter from Ruth, posted on the night of her death, in which she appears quite jolly and upbeat, full of grand plans for the week ahead. Hardly the kind of note that someone would have written had they been on the verge of taking their own life.

After some soul searching and wrestling with his conscience, Richard decides to show the letter to a trusted acquaintance, Chief Inspector Macdonald, a familiar figure to regular readers of Lorac’s mysteries. Naturally, when Macdonald sees the letter, his suspicions are aroused, and in time he is officially appointed as lead detective in the case…

“…You [Richard] argue—quite rightly, to my thinking—that something happened to her [Ruth] after she had written that letter to you. It might have been something which altered her whole outlook, and caused her to commit suicide. It might be something totally different which alters the entire case, so that the verdict of suicide is no longer tenable. One thing is certain—the evidence produced [at the Inquest] was incomplete and consequently misleading. It has to be reconsidered.”  (p. 80)

The deeper Macdonald delves into Ruth’s life and movements before her death, the more he feels that vital information is being withheld, most notably by various members of the Surray family. On the one hand, it could be argued that Richard is trying to protect his mother, Mrs Surray, from further distress; but on the other, he (or another member of the family) might be concealing something for more sinister reasons.

She [Mrs Surray] had resented the Chief Inspector’s presence and the reiteration of those questions which she had answered already, and she resented the implication of his presence that there was more to be told than had been told. Trying to keep a firm hand on nerves that were beginning to torture her, she admitted that Macdonald was considerate and courteous and capable—and in spite of it she hated him, and unfortunately she had let him see it. (p. 122)

As Macdonald’s investigations proceed, it becomes clear that Ruth had fallen for the rather unsuitable Keith Brandon in the months before her death. Brandon – an explorer and serial womaniser at heart – had subsequently turned his attention to Ruth’s younger sister, Naomi, now conveniently out of the picture in the Hebrides. Did this spurning of affection for Brandon prompt Ruth to commit suicide, or was she killed deliberately – either by Brandon or by another player in the mix?

Suspicion also falls on the attendees at the literary party at Upwood on the night of the tragedy. Ruth’s publisher, Vernon Montague, stood to gain from her death, having been named as her literary executor in the freshly-altered will. Also in attendance at the event were Geoffrey Stanwood, a humble novelist whose work Ruth had been championing after a chance discovery, and Charlton Fellowes, a young essayist whom she had not previously met. Interestingly, Naomi was also staying at Upwood over the weekend in question, although not present at the literary gathering itself.

As this slow-burning mystery unfolds, further sinister events occur, including a fire, two poisonings and an ‘accident’ involving two of the potential suspects, giving Macdonald plenty to get his teeth into. As ever with Lorac’s Macdonald mysteries, we see plenty of dogged policework in the investigations; and while the Chief Inspector shows as much understanding and compassion towards the Surray family as possible, he never allows these considerations to distract from uncovering the truth.

Interestingly, there’s quite a strong focus on characterisation in this one. We learn more about Ruth as the mystery unfolds – a reticent, highly-strung woman who had hidden quite a lot of herself from the world, despite her career as a prolific writer. Richard, too, comes in for quite a lot of scrutiny, especially as his motives for the suppression of key information are explored. He seems to think that brilliant, intellectual women are more fragile and prone to living on their nerves than their male counterparts – a view that tips into sexism at times. 

There are also some interesting asides about the ethics of the posthumous publication of a writer’s unfinished works, to the point where I began wonder if Lorac was conveying some of her own views on the subject through Ruth’s thoughts and actions.

All in all, then, a very solid, leisurely mystery with some interesting characters and motivations at its heart. The solution, when it comes, is quite an intriguing one, albeit a little obscure – not something I would have worked out for myself without Macdonald’s explanation, but technically possible nonetheless!

Post After Post-Mortem is published by the British Library; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.