The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard

First published in 1956, The Long View offers an insightful view of the different stages of a deeply unhappy marriage, one that ultimately seemed destined for disaster right from the start. The novel has a very interesting structure, beginning in 1950 when the couple in question – Antonia and Conrad Fleming – have been married for twenty-three years, and then winding back in time to 1942, 1937 and 1927, the time of their honeymoon. In this respect, it mirrors the structure of François Ozon’s excellent film, 5×2, which focuses on five key timepoints in the disintegration of a middle-class marriage, presenting them in reverse order. Crucially, Howard’s story finishes in 1926 just before Antonia meets her future husband for the first time. While the story is presented mostly from the perspective of Antonia, there are times when we are given access to Conrad’s thoughts, albeit intermittently.

When the novel opens in 1950, Antonia is preparing for a dinner party to recognise the engagement of her son, Julian, to June Stoker, a rather unexceptional young woman who seems desperate to get away from her insufferable mother. I say recognise as opposed to celebrate as there appears to be nothing joyous or pleasurable about this occasion. If anything, Julian – an advertising executive – looks set to emulate the model of an ill-fated marriage set out by his parents. There is a sense that finding a socially acceptable wife is the next thing on the list for Julian; and June, with her innocence and naivety, seems as suitable a prospect as any. June isn’t sure of her feelings for Julian (or of his for her); she merely hopes that everything will turn out okay in the end. Antonia recognises these doubts all too clearly, a point that only becomes fully apparent once the latter stages of the narrative are revealed. Conrad, for his part, is convinced that the couple’s time together will follow a well-trodden path, one almost certainly destined to create complications for both parties.

He had no doubt that Julian was marrying an exceptionally, even a pathetically, dull young woman, and the only mitigating feature of the affair, Julian’s extreme youth, was not likely, in view of his work and disposition, to count for very much. He would probably attempt to extricate himself at thirty, or thereabouts, by which time he would have two or three brats, and a wife, who, drained of what slender resources had first captivated him, would at the same time be possessed of a destructive knowledge of his behaviour. This would inevitably lead to his leaving her (if indeed he were to achieve it) for entirely the wrong reasons. (p. 16)

You’ve probably got the measure of Conrad by now, a selfish, arrogant and thoroughly obnoxious man who is largely absent from the family home in Holland Park, London. He cares very little for Antonia, a point that becomes abundantly clear from the opening pages of the novel.

He had a heart when he cared to use it. But on the whole, he did not care in the least about other people, and neither expected nor desired them to care about him. He cared simply and overwhelmingly for himself; and he felt now that he was at last a man after his own heart. The only creature in the world who caused him a moment’s disquiet was his wife, and this, he thought, was only because he had at one period in their lives allowed her to see too much of him. (p. 15)

After twenty-three years of marriage, Antonia has been left feeling emotionally drained and worn out. Having long since given up the battle of striving for Conrad’s approval and affection, she now faces the long years ahead, trapped in a stagnant life upon which she must try to carve out some kind of meaningful existence for herself.

It was too late to mourn any private intentions she might once have had towards herself – she had been loved, and touched and fashioned; dominated, protected, and ignored, until even her enjoyment of the wallpaper that her husband despised was coloured by the fact that he despised it. Even the few occasions when she had thought that she had asserted herself were direct results of her association with him. (p. 61)

There are other worries for Antonia too, most notably in the shape of her rather impulsive daughter, Deirdre, a girl who always seems to have two men on the go at any one time. It soon becomes clear that Deirdre also looks set to make a mess of her life – in this case by running off with the fall-back option when it turns out that her preferred lover does not reciprocate her feelings for him.

As the novel moves back in time, Howard peels back the layers of Antonia and Conrad’s marriage, enabling us to see key moments in their relationship and the fault lines therein. With his work taking him all over the country, Conrad sees little of Antonia during WW2, their paths occasionally crossing in London in between missions. The marriage is well and truly dead by this stage, suffocated by Conrad’s controlling personality and the fallout from his earlier affairs.

In 1937 (ten years into the marriage), we find the couple on holiday with friends in St Tropez, with Conrad desperate to get away from the group. In the end, he goes back to London to see his beautiful young lover, Imogen, a girl who shares something of the freshness and innocence of Antonia back in the days of her youth. By this point in the marriage, Antonia has started to realise that some of Conrad’s liaisons run the risk of disrupting the nature of her life with him. In this scene, Antonia recalls the occasion when she spotted her husband at the opera in the company of a ravishing young woman, a point she confronted him with later that night.

He had begun calmly by saying that the whole scene was horribly dated, and that were she to attend the opera more often she would learn that such behaviour as hers invariably led to disastrous consequences; but when these remarks merely elicited from her a flood of ill-considered and conventional allegations he became dangerous: wholeheartedly agreed with her, ignored her tears, and left her on the discouraging note that there were only two kinds of people – those who live different lives with the same partners, and those who live the same life with different partners; a remark, he said, to which she could not possibly object, since she had so perfectly created the situation which provoked it. (p. 124)

Back in 1927, we find the couple on honeymoon in Europe with the warning signs apparent from the start. It soon becomes clear that Conrad simply wants to mould and fashion the malleable Antonia into something to suit his very exacting needs. In essence, he treats Antonia like a decorative pawn in some sort of elaborately designed game.

‘I married you,’ he said slowly and clearly, ‘because you are going to be extremely beautiful, which means for me that you will be a pleasure to see, a delight to be with, and because, possessing you, I shall be envied by others. Knowing this, I wanted you. I married you because you are not a fool, because you have innate good taste, because you have a vast capacity for enjoyment, and because, if I was to marry at all, I wanted at least the possibility of perfection. You will not be perfect: but the amount that you will fall short will be my fault – not yours – and that responsibility is more desirable to me than anything else. (p. 278)

Perhaps most revealing of all is the final section of the novel set in 1926 where we find the nineteen-year-old Antonia – or Toni as she is referred to here – living at home with her parents in Sussex. Toni’s flighty and sociable mother, Araminta, fails her daughter badly, criticising and teasing her at every opportunity. In some ways, Araminta views Toni as a sort of rival, the latter’s innocence and youth representing potential threats to her own allure and beauty.

She was, her mother said, too tall and far too thin; her hair, although positively dark, was too fine to be manageable and she had almost no colour. Her eyes were her only good feature, said her mother, and proceeded to dress her in every shade of inferior blue which detracted from them. (p. 324) 

Toni’s father, on the other hand, is cold and withdrawn, eschewing the social whirl of weekend parties at the house in favour of working on his books. At first, it appears as though Wilfred is blind to his wife’s affairs and other goings on in the house; but when the desperately gauche and naïve Toni finds herself falling for one of her mother’s friends, it transpires that her father has observed and understood the situation all too clearly.

The revelations in this final section of the novel go a long way to explaining why Antonia married Conrad so quickly the following year. Moreover, they also cast a particular light on certain events in the earlier sections of the book – most notably Conrad’s fascination with his young lover, Imogen, and June Stoker’s forthcoming marriage to Julian.

The Long View is an interesting but claustrophobic novel. While I liked the opening and closing sections, I found the middle sections too protracted and drawn out. The writing is good, but it lacks the economy and focus I admire in the work of other writers such as Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Fitzgerald. There are times when the tone is very caustic and bitter, too clinical and critical for my tastes. As the story is told almost exclusively from Antonia’s perspective, it could be argued that the picture we see is rather one-sided. I have no doubt that Conrad is responsible for much of the trouble in the Flemings’ marriage, but Antonia is not without blame either – she too has affairs at certain points in the relationship.

Nevertheless, I’m not unhappy that I read this novel – at least now I can say that I have tried Elizabeth Jane Howard.

The Long View is published by Picador; personal copy.

Last Night by James Salter

Last year I wrote about A Sport and a Pastime, a critically acclaimed novel by the American writer James Salter, a book I liked in parts but didn’t particularly enjoy as a whole. This year I thought I’d try some of Salter’s short fiction – more specifically, Last Night (2006) a set of ten stories, many of which first appeared in various literary journals and magazines in the years leading up to the publication of this collection. Once again, this turned out to be a bit of a mixed experience for me due to the variable quality of the material. There is one standout story here, some very good ones, and a few that seem either less compelling or less memorable. Nevertheless, there is something intriguing about this author’s work, particularly his ability to capture particular moods or scenarios (e.g. the emotional charge between two lovers, the intensity of some of those key moments in life).

The opening story, Comet, features two typical Salter protagonists: a capable, elegant middle-class American man, Philip Ardet, and his beautiful wife, Adele.

She was still young enough to be good-looking, the final blaze of it, though she was too old for children, at least if she had anything to say about it. Summer was coming. Out of the afternoon haze she would appear, in her black bathing suit, limbs all tan, the brilliant sun behind her. She was the strong figure walking up the smooth sand from the sea, her legs, her wet swimmer’s hair, the grace of her, all careless and unhurried. (p. 4)

At first, all seems well in the Ardets’ relationship, their lives appear comfortable and settled; but as the story unfolds a somewhat different picture emerges. A conversation at a dinner party opens up old wounds for Philip and Adele as another woman reveals that her husband has been having a secret affair for the last seven years. As a consequence, we gain an insight into the bitterness that is eating away at Adele, an emotion that threatens the stability of her marriage to Philip.

In My Lord You, one of my favourite pieces in the collection, a drunken poet arrives late to a dinner party where he proceeds to harass, both verbally and sexually, another of the guests – a married woman named Ardis – spouting Oscar Wilde and Ezra Pound in the process. (For his part, Ardis’ husband does nothing to intervene in the incident, a significant factor as it highlights his impotence when faced with the possibility of confrontation.)

In spite of being disturbed by this annoying poet, Ardis remains somewhat fascinated by him, so she goes in search of his poetry and then his house to see how he lives. Ultimately, Ardis is drawn into the poet’s life in a rather unexpected way, especially when his dog follows her home and proceeds to set up watch outside. This is a strange story, unsettling and compelling in relatively equal measure.

Such Fun features three young women at the end of a girls’ night out. Their conversations focus on the men they have been seeing, their recent break-ups, their past and current loves – in other words, the trials of finding the ‘right’ partner in life. But unbeknownst to the other two women there, Jane, the quietest member of the group, is carrying a painful burden, one she only reveals to an unknown taxi driver as he drives her home, the tears streaming down her face.

Several of the most successful stories in this collection feature unexpected twists or revelations towards the end, pieces like Give in which the all-too-familiar ‘comfortable man-having-an-affair-with-another-woman’ scenario is given a different spin. Others are more poignant, stories such as Palm Court, in which a man receives a phone call from a woman from his past, a development that triggers memories of their time together and the opportunities he failed to grasp.

Desire, betrayal, frustration – these are the emotions at the heart of many of these stories. In Platinum, another of my favourites in the collection, a seemingly happily married man is having an affair with a seductive young woman, only to be given away by a pair of his wife’s earrings when his lover insists on borrowing them. While this might sound like another rather clichéd scenario, Salter gives the story a new twist, the sort of development you don’t necessarily anticipate even though the clues are there in the narrative almost right from the very start.

The book ends on a startling note with the titular piece, Last Night, undoubtedly the best story in this collection. Walter’s wife, Marit, is terminally ill with cancer. Unable to tolerate the pain any longer, Marit has asked Walter to hasten her death, a wish we assume he has agreed to carry out even though we are not privy to any of their earlier discussions on this point.

It was in the uterus and had travelled from there to the lungs. In the end, she had accepted it. Above the square neckline of her dress the skin, pallid, seemed to emanate a darkness. She no longer resembled herself. What she had been was gone: it had been taken from her. The change was fearful, especially in her face. She had a face now that was for the afterlife and those she would meet there. It was hard for Walter to remember how she had once been. She was almost a different woman from the one to whom he had made a solemn promise to help when the time came. (p. 123)

It is Marit and Walter’s last night together. Their final supper has ended, the lethal injection lies ready and waiting in the fridge. We think we know how this story will unfold, how both of these individuals deserve our sympathies as they confront Marit’s mortality; but once again, Salter wrongfoots us in the most surprising way, a move that causes us to question our earlier assumptions about values, morals, intentions and motives. This is a highly memorable story, one that is likely to stay with you for quite some time.

In spite of the variability of the stories in this collection (I’ve skipped the lesser ones), the quality of Salter’s writing is never in doubt. As with much of this author’s work, there is a discernible undercurrent of sensuality running through several of these pieces, a mood that is matched by the elegant and graceful nature of the prose – you can probably see it in my first quote, the one on Adele. I’ll finish with a final passage, just because it captures something of Salter’s style, the way he can sketch a lasting image in just a few well-judged sentences.

At six, he somehow made his way home. It was one of those evenings like the beginning of a marvellous performance in which everyone somehow had a role. Lights had come on in the windows, the sidewalk restaurants were filling, children were running home late from playing in the park, the promise of fulfilment was everywhere. In an elevator a pretty woman he did not recognise was carrying a large bunch of flowers somewhere upstairs. She avoided looking at him. (pp. 84-85)

Last Night is published by Picador; personal copy

Spring Night by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Elizabeth Rokkan)

I first came across Tarjei Vesaas when a wine friend recommended him to me. He’s a Norwegian writer, probably best known for The Ice Place (1963) and The Birds (1957), both of which I can wholeheartedly recommend. The latter was namechecked by Karl Ove Knausgaard as one of the best Norwegian novels ever – but don’t let that put you off, it really is an excellent read. Spring Night (1954) is the third Vesaas I’ve read, and it’s easily my least favourite of the three. Nevertheless, it does contain some interesting elements, particularly in the set-up.

Fourteen-year-old Olaf and his older sister, Sissel, have been left home alone for the day and night while their parents travel to a nearby town to attend their uncle’s funeral. As the book opens, the afternoon is drawing to a close; it is a broiling hot day in late spring, and the atmosphere lies heavy with heat and humidity. It is clear from the start that Olaf is looking forward to the experience. The house though old and familiar feels different in some way, released from the presence and weight of his parents. There is a sense of freedom in his demeanour as he wanders among the nearby glade, exploring the lush and heady plants that grow there in wild abundance. Furthermore, he is fascinated by his sister, Sissel, and her boyfriend Tore, spying on them from a short distance as they engage in a lover’s tiff.

She straightened up. Olaf was ready to run, but she did not move, and he grew quiet again, spellbound by this game that he knew would some day also be his own game. (p.8)

Once the scene has been set, the story gets underway in earnest as the evening descends and preparations for supper begin. Olaf and Sissel are alone in the house, Tore having left some time earlier. All of a sudden there is a sharp knock at the door, urgent and persistent in tone. Olaf runs to the door and opens it, only to be confronted by the following situation.

It hit him hard, and nailed him fast at first – prepared as he was for something unpleasant by that threatening knocking. He saw a small group of people. Four of them. They had come up to the porch. Two men were supporting or carrying a young woman, and a young girl stumbled down the steps; it must have been she who had pounded so heavily and demandingly on the door. Now she was down with the others again and hid in back of them.

One of the men turned the burden over to the other alone, lurched over to the post on the porch and pounded at it, meaninglessly and in confusion. He was a small tousled man with excited eyes and arms he could not hold still. What sort of people were they? The man waved his arms wildly in front of Olaf and shouted:

‘Is there someone here who can help us? Who are you, anyway?’ (pp. 27-28)

A family of five has just descended upon the house in the hope of gaining some help and shelter following the breakdown of their car. The group is notionally headed by Hjalmar, a rather nervous, fidgety man who spends most of his time fluttering around and chattering incessantly. Then there is Hjalmer’s son, Karl, a brusque man whose primary concern is getting urgent medical assistance for his heavily pregnant wife, Grete, who appears to be in the early stages of labour. Accompanying them is Karl’s younger sister, Gudrun, a girl who bears a striking resemblance to an imaginary friend of Olaf’s – she even shares the same name as his make-believe confidante. Last but not least, the group is completed by Kristine – Hjalmer’s second wife – who at first appears to be unable to walk or talk, although later this turns out to be far from the case.

In essence, these deeply flawed, dysfunctional individuals bring all their psychological baggage and troubles into the house, inflicting their problems on Olaf and Sissel in the process. What follows is a series of oblique conversations undercut with family tensions, rash words and brooding silences. Here’s a short excerpt from a typical scene.

Olaf had to look at the two beside the radio again. They sat there as if they were playing some sort of mute game no one else knew. The man flitted around, chattered, picked things up and put them down again. The woman sat motionless in the chair. Olaf was on her side and said:

‘But I guess he wasn’t so awfully nice in the car.’

Gudrun looked at him quickly:

‘What do you know about that?’

‘Just heard about it. That’s the way it was, isn’t it?’

‘No one was nice in the car,’ Gudrun replied curtly. (pp. 48-49)

As Olaf tries to make sense of it all, several questions are raised in his (and the reader’s) mind. Why is Kristine pretending to be mute when she can clearly talk? Why does she appeal to Olaf for help and protection against her husband? Why does Karl remain so agitated, even once a midwife arrives to support Grete? And what exactly went on in the car before it arrived at Olaf and Sissel’s house?

While Vesaas doesn’t provide any easy answers to these questions, he does create an interesting set-up in the house. There is the basis for a terrific noir here – the hot and sultry weather; the unsettling atmosphere of the setting; the two innocent teenagers home alone for the night; and the group of unhinged strangers who pitch up unannounced, brimming with unexplained tensions and secrets – but instead Vesaas takes the narrative in a different direction, one that I found somewhat unsatisfying in the end. I think this story is meant to signify the loss of a young boy’s innocence as Olaf comes face to face with the complexities and confusions of the adult world. (He is certainly affected by the dramatic events of the night, and by each and every one of the visitors he encounters.) Nevertheless, I found it much less successful than several other books I’ve read which explore this timeless theme in different ways – novels like Alberto Moravia’s evocative Agostino; Stefan Zweig’s impressive Burning Secret; L. P. Hartley’s classic The Go-Between; and, a recent favourite, Olivia Manning’s wonderful School for Love. In the end, I found Spring Night rather oblique and ambiguous, too evasive for my tastes.

My other quibble relates to the character of Olaf. While it is suggested at the beginning of the novel that he is fourteen, later on it emerges that he is the same age as Gudrun who is thirteen. Either way, Olaf struck me as being much younger in his thought processes and actions, probably closer to eleven, although I’m willing to accept that he may have led a very sheltered life.

On a more positive note, the simplicity of Vesaas’ pared-back prose works well with the novel’s themes and point-of-view. The story is told mainly from Olaf’s perspective, so the style matches his childlike view of the world. Vesaas also does well in conveying the dark and brooding atmosphere of the surrounding landscape, especially in the opening chapters. There is a sense of something dangerous lurking in the nearby glade, an early sign of things to come. If only the bulk of the book had lived up to the promise of those early chapters, perhaps it would have resulted in a more satisfying reading experience for me.

Spring Night is published by Peter Owen; personal copy.

Find a Victim by Ross Macdonald

Longstanding readers of this blog may recall my intention to work through Ross Macdonald’s hardboiled novels – more specifically the books featuring his Los Angeles-based private detective, Lew Archer. Find a Victim is number five in the series – not the pick of the bunch by any stretch of the imagination, but an entertaining read nonetheless. (Here are the links to my reviews of the earlier books in the series, The Drowning Pool [#2], The Way Some People Die [#3] and The Ivory Grin [#4] – all can be read as standalone works.) While it may sound a little odd, this was a comfort read for me. I know what I’m going to get with a Lew Archer novel: something familiar yet satisfying with enough twists and turns to maintain my interest. And that was broadly the case here – it turned out to be just what I needed to read after the rather episodic nature of The Adventures of Sindbad.

So, back to Find a Victim. As the book opens, Archer is driving from Los Angeles to Sacramento when he is flagged down by a blood-stained man who has been shot and left to die in a ditch near a deserted stretch of the highway. With no sign of life for miles, Archer puts the severely wounded man in the back of his car and sets off to find help in the nearest town, a place called Las Cruces. On his arrival at a motel on the outskirts of town, Archer arranges for an ambulance to take the injured man to hospital – an action which turns out to be too late as the man dies before the medics can save him. Consequently, Archer must hang around to assist the authorities with their enquiries into the murder, a development that piques the detective’s interest especially once he starts to get the measure of the neighbourhood and its rather shady inhabitants.

La Cruces in the sort of small town where everybody is either related to or connected with everybody else. Archer encounters open hostility from the off: the motel owner is none too pleased with Archer for turning up with a dying man in his car; the local Sheriff seems defensive and mistrustful of him, especially once he realises that he’s dealing with a private eye; even the dead man’s boss, a local big-shot named Meyer, seems to have something to hide. (It turns out that the dead man, Tony Aquista, was driving a lorry containing a large consignment of bonded bourbon when he was shot. The truck in question is now missing, probably hijacked during the shooting – another crime for the authorities to follow up as soon as poss, especially given the nature of the cargo.) All is not well with the women in the town either. Kate Kerrigan, the motel owner’s wife, is clearly trapped in an abusive and loveless marriage, a point that Archer deduces from the word go. Then there is the question of Meyer’s daughter, Anne, who manages Kerrigan’s motel – she has been missing for the past week after failing to show up at work. As a consequence, Archer feels compelled to get involved in the case, whether the locals want him to or not.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Archer?” His grooved, stubborn mouth denied his willingness to do anything for anybody.

I told him I had stumbled into the case and wanted to stay in it. I didn’t tell him why. I didn’t know exactly why, though Kate Kerrigan had something to do with it. And perhaps the dark boy’s death had become a symbol of the senseless violence I had seen and heard about in the valley towns. Here was my chance to get to the bottom of it. (p. 38)

What follows is a sequence of events that leads Archer deeper and deeper into a complex web of vice, one that includes additional murders, robberies, corruption, adultery and sexual abuse – interestingly, family conflicts and double-dealings are themes that run through a number of these novels.

In Archer, Ross Macdonald has created a detective with a conscience, a fundamentally decent man who doggedly pursues the truth, even when he knows it will lead to some dangerous encounters along the way. As in the previous novels, Archer gets beaten up and thrown around by those who are aiming to protect their own interests, and yet he keeps on coming back for more. Moreover, his conviction in getting to the heart of the matter is thorough and unrelenting. When the District Attorney tries to pin the crimes on the ‘obvious’ suspect, Archer refuses to accept the convenient option; he follows his instincts, refusing to dismiss any nagging doubts in the process. By so doing, it is clear that he will discover the true perpetrators of the crimes in question, even if the authorities seem less than willing to listen to him.

As I mentioned a little earlier, this isn’t the strongest of the early Lew Archer novels; some of the characters feel a little thin and clichéd. In particular, it lacks a distinctive female figure, someone like Galatea from The Way Some People Die or the vulnerable and damaged Maude Slocum from The Drowning Pool. Nevertheless, there are some nice touches here and there, like this description of the motel owner, Don Kerrigan.

He came back toward me, running his fingers lovingly through his hair. It was clipped in a crew cut, much too short for his age. I guessed that he was one of those middle-aging men who couldn’t face the fact that their youth was over. It gave him an unreal surface, under which a current of cruelty flickered. (p. 17)

One of the most enjoyable aspects of these Lew Archer novels is Macdonald’s ability to evoke a strong sense of place. From the seedy bars and clubs of small towns like Las Cruces to the barren terrain of the Californian desert to the mountains near the border with Nevada, it’s all here.

I looked back to the south and then to the north. No cars, no houses, no anything. I had passed one clot of traffic somewhere north of Bakersfield and failed to catch another. It was one of those lulls in time when you can hear your heart ticking your life away, and nothing else. The sun had fallen behind the coastal range, and the valley was filling with twilight. A flight of blackbirds crossed the sky like visible wind, blowing and whiplashing. (p. 3)

All in all, this is probably a book for Archer completists. If on the other hand you’re looking to try one of the early novels just to get a sense of Macdonald’s style, then I would recommend either The Drowning Pool or The Way Some People Die, both of which are excellent reads. Finally, I must give a shout-out to Max at Pechorin’s Journal who persuaded me to read these novels in the first place. Here’s a link to his excellent review of #1 in the series, The Moving Target.

Find a Victim is published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; personal copy.

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy (tr. George Szirtes)

When I put together my list for the Classics Club back in December 2015, I included a few translations alongside various British and American novels I had been intending to read for a while. The Adventures of Sindbad was one of my random picks, a collection of interlinked stories by the Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy (the pieces were originally published in journals/magazines from 1911 to 1917 and then collated together in this volume in 1944). Krúdy was something of a literary star in his day, producing over fifty novels and some three thousand short pieces before his death in 1933. The Adventures of Sindbad comprises a series of stories and sketches featuring the titular character, Sindbad, a sort of Hungarian Don Juan, whose reminiscences of times past are recounted in this somewhat strange and haunting book.

Right from the start, Sindbad is portrayed as a rather charming rogue, a serial seducer and heart-breaker who flits from one desirable woman to another whenever the mood takes him. He loves the thrill of the chase, the constant stalking of his prey, so much so that he has a tendency to lose interest once the lady in question is within his grasp. If there was ever a quote that typified a character’s modus operandi, then this must surely be it:

His whole long life he had been ‘my darling’ to two or three women at any one time. He wouldn’t leave a woman in peace until she had fallen in love with him. And that was why he had spent one tenth of his life waiting under windows, gazing longingly, humbly, unhappily or threateningly. He had a genius for observing women, for following them secretly and discovering their hopes, secrets and desires. Sindbad spent so much time standing motionless, listening to the whirring of sewing machines in small suburban houses, or taking a carriage in order to follow another carriage that galloped along bearing a sweet-scented woman in a wide hat, or stealthily watching a lace-curtained window lit up for the night, or observing a woman at prayer in the church and trying to guess who or what she might be praying for, that sometimes he barely had time to pluck the fruit he coveted. He tired of the business: some new adventure attracted him, excited his blood, his dreams, his appetite, so he failed to complete his previous mission. And thus it was that in the course of his life some eleven or twelve women waited for him in vain, at rendezvous, in closed carriages, on walks through woods or at distant stations where two trains should have met. Sinbad wasn’t on the train, and the woman, that special one, would be standing hopefully at the window, watching from behind the curtains, frightened, wetting her dry lips with her tongue. And several trains would rattle by… (pp. 13-14)

Over the course of this book, Sindbad recalls the various women he has loved and lost over the course of his life. From peasant girls to countesses, from widows to actresses, Sindbad is hugely possessive over his conquests, often expecting them to remain faithful to him even when he has forsaken them for another. Here is a man with rather unrealistic expectations of his lovers, whose view of love is highly idealised, passionate and romantic. To Sindbad, love is everything; if there is no love, what is there left to live for?

He woke and the procession of dream women faded in the half-light of like a lantern carried by some housewife across a snow-covered yard on a winter evening. For a while the glow of the lamp may be seen against a wall or haystack; a dark-haired female figure sways on the ripples of darkness, then the last woman, bright-eye, wearing a feathered hat, finally disappears in the far distance – leaving Sindbad alone with his heartache. And shortly after this he began to feel ever more certain that very soon, perhaps within the hour, he would die. (pp. 28-29)

While there is little plot to speak of here, the sketches are packed full of vivid images. Pictures of these characters in their natural surroundings come to life in Krúdy’s hands.  Sinbad is especially fascinated by his conquests’ clothes. In his eyes, all women look the same when they are naked – but when they are dressed in all their finery (or not-so-finery), that’s another matter altogether. He has a penchant for a finely turned ankle, especially when it is clothed in a delicate stocking.

Sindbad could still see the trace left by his kiss on the fading velvet of her lips: amorous farm-girls’ bodies left just such marks among the meadow flowers, their contours still apparent on the crushed lawn. The white neck which craned so curiously from the black dress was like a bird’s neck twinkling under the black velvet ribbon, the pocket of her coat was warm and lined with cat fur and made a little nest into which Sindbad slid his hand to find hers. (pp. 63-64)

Hungary suffered heavily in the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War, and I think it’s possible to detect a sense of this pain in Krúdy’s stories. As George Szirtes explains in his excellent introduction to the NYRB edition of this book, the country lost two-thirds of its land and one-third of its population to neighbouring territories when the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon were agreed. Krúdy’s tone is highly melancholy and elegiac; the veil of nostalgia lies over every story, and the shadow of death – suicide, in particular – is never far away. (Sinbad is heavily preoccupied with his own mortality, and thoughts of his impending death feature in several of his reminiscences from the afterlife.) Interestingly though, Krúdy’s style could also be described as modernist, a feature that provides a fascinating contrast to the long-established, traditional world he depicts in these sketches. There are early elements of magical realism here as Sinbad’s spirit comes back as a sprig of mistletoe; and then he wonders whether it might have been more interesting to return as an ornamental comb instead – perhaps so. Either way, there are playful notes in some of these stories, ironic touches that serve to balance some of the underlying sadness and sense of loss.

I think I heard about this book via Emma at Book Around the Corner. As Emma quite rightly points out in her excellent billet – do read it – these stories need to be spaced out over time. There is some wonderful writing here, sumptuous and evocative in style; but as with anything rich, it is best consumed in small doses. If I have a criticism of these pieces, I would say that for me they lack an element of differentiation. After a while, there is a tendency for several these individual romantic encounters to merge into one. For the most part, the objects of Sindbad’s attention are lightly sketched in terms of character/personality, an approach that doesn’t always make it easy to distinguish one story from the next. Nevertheless, I’m glad I decided to read this collection; I think it would suit lovers of European literature, particularly those interested in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early part of the 20th century. Fans of Gaito Gazdanov’s work should take a look at these stories too; there are some interesting parallels between these writers, particularly in terms of tone and themes.

The Adventures of Sindbad is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (tr. William Weaver)

First published in 1962, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is the probably the best-known novel in the Italian writer Giorgio Bassini’s series of works about life in his native Ferrara, a city in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romana. You can find out more in these introductory pieces by Dorian and Scott who are co-hosting a readalong of the book over the course of this week.

The story opens with a prologue set in 1957 in which the novel’s unnamed narrator is out for the day with friends. On their way back from the seaside, the group decides to stop at an Etruscan necropolis near Rome, and a young girl named Giannina asks her father why these ancient tombs do not seem quite as melancholy as more recent ones. Her father replies that it is because the Etruscans died so long ago, almost as though ‘they had never lived, as if they had always been dead’. By contrast, we can still remember the people who died fairly recently; hence we feel closer to them and miss them more acutely. Giannina then points out to her father that by virtue of their conversation, she has been reminded that the Etruscans were also alive once – and so their lives are given weight and recognition in her mind, just as much as those of the more recently deceased. It’s a poignant scene, one that triggers a series of memories for the narrator as he reflects on the time he spent in the company of his own lost loved ones, the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy Jewish family from Ferrara, who played an important part in his youth. There was the kindly Professor Ermanno and his wife, Signor Olga, their rather sensitive son, Alberto, and, most importantly of all, the beautiful, mercurial daughter, Micòl, with whom the narrator (also Jewish) was so tragically in love.

At the end of the prologue, Bassani reveals that all the remaining members of Finzi-Contini dynasty perished at the hands of the Nazis in 1943, deported to the concentration camps where they were unlikely to have received any kind of burial at all. Hence the stage is set for this deeply poignant and elegiac novel, a beautiful hymn to a lost and gilded world, one that was ultimately swept away by the dark forces at play during WW2.

Winding back in time to the late 1920s, the Finzi-Contini household seems to have set itself apart from the rest of the Jewish community living in Ferrara at the time. The family are wealthy, privileged and rather aloof – or at least, that’s how they are perceived by others, most notably the narrator’s father who, among other things, pours scorn on Alberto and Micòl’s playful behaviour during services at their local synagogue. While the narrator and his contemporaries attend the public school, the young Finzi-Continis are privately educated at home, to be glimpsed only occasionally at exam time and, during the early years, at their place of worship. The family estate is magnificent, a large house surrounded by acres of land – the famed garden of the book’s title – all enclosed within a vast protective wall. To the narrator, there is an air of separation and rejection about the Finzi-Contini estate; and yet there is something fascinating and intimate about it too. Oh to be admitted to the secluded garden of Eden, what a privilege that would surely turn out to be!

Well, the young narrator almost gets his chance one day in 1929, while seeking an escape after a poor result in his maths exam he encounters Micòl Finzi-Contini peering over the top of the garden wall. It’s a glorious moment, one that lives long in his memory for many years to come.

How many years have gone by since that far-off afternoon in June? More than thirty. Nevertheless, if I close my eyes, Micòl Finzi-Contini is still there, leaning over the wall of her garden, looking at me, and speaking to me. She was hardly more than a child, in 1929, a thirteen-year-old, thin and blond, with great, pale, magnetic eyes. I, a little boy in short pants, very bourgeois and very vain, whom a minor scholastic mishap was enough to plunge into the most childish desperation. We stared at each other. Above her, the sky was a uniform blue, a warm sky, already of summer, without the slightest cloud. Nothing could change it, and nothing has changed it, in fact, in my memory. (p. 33)

In spite of Micòl’s encouragement to join her in the garden, the narrator never manages to make it over the wall that day, a point that foreshadows the arc of his future relationship with the girl. Instead, the narrator has to wait almost another ten years before being invited into the grounds, this time by Alberto, largely on the assumption that he has been forced to resign from the local tennis club on account of his status as a Jew. The time is October 1938, around two months after the declaration of the racial laws which, among other punitive measures, prohibit Jews from frequenting recreational clubs of any kind. What follows for our narrator is a luminous Indian summer, a glorious sequence of days spent playing tennis, relaxing in the sunshine, and exploring the Finzi Contini’s garden largely in the company of the alluring Micòl.

We were really very lucky with the season. For ten or twelve days the perfect weather lasted, held in that kind of magic suspension, of sweetly glassy and luminous immobility peculiar to certain autumns of ours. It was hot in the garden; almost like summertime. Those who wanted could go on playing till five thirty and even later, with no fear that the evening dampness, already so heavy towards November, would damage the gut of the rackets. At that hour, naturally, you could hardly see on the court any longer. But the light, which in the distance still gilded the grassy slopes of the Mura degli Angeli, filled, especially on a Sunday, with a far-off crowd (boys chasing a football, wet nurses seated knitting besides baby carriages, soldiers on passes, pairs of lovers looking for places where they could embrace), that last light invited you to insist, to continue volleying no matter if the play was almost blind. The day was not ended, it was worth lingering a little longer. (p. 56)

Earlier I alluded to the tragic nature of the narrator’s love for Micòl: tragic because we know from the outset that Micòl dies at the hands of the Germans; and tragic because this love is never reciprocated (or so it appears in the novel). There are times when the narrator could make his feelings known to Micòl, most notably when the pair seek shelter from the rain in a secluded coach house in the estate’s grounds; and yet he fails to seize the opportunity until it is too late. Like her family and everything they seem to represent, the beautiful Micòl remains somewhat elusive and out of the narrator’s reach.

Countless times, in the course of the following winter, spring, and summer, I went back to what had happened (or rather, had not happened) between me and Micòl inside Perotti’s beloved carriage. If on that rainy afternoon, when the radiant Indian summer of ’38 suddenly ended, I had at least managed to speak to her—I told myself bitterly—perhaps things between us would have gone differently from the way they went. Speak to her, kiss her; it was then, when everything was still possible—I never ceased repeating to myself—that I should have done it! (p. 81)

I don’t want to say too much more about the narrative. After all, this is not a plot-driven novel. It’s much more about character, atmosphere and mood; the recreation of a rarefied and evocative world, made all the more poignant because we know that virtually everything we see is about to be destroyed. Bassani’s prose is wonderfully evocative, rich in detail and ambience. There are some long, looping passages here which at times reminded me a little of some of Javier Marías’ writing.

While the novel has at its heart an intensely personal love story – imbued as it is with a strong aura of fatality – it is also a reflection of life for the Jews of Ferrara during the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. We gain an insight into the political developments of the day, particularly through the character of Giampiero Malnate, a Communist friend of Alberto’s from Milan, who debates politics with the narrator during their visits to the Finzi-Contini household.

All in all, this haunting novel encapsulates the loss of many things: the loss of a love that was never meant to be fulfilled; the loss of a sheltered world of innocence and sanctuary; and perhaps most tragically of all, the loss of virtually a whole generation of humanity. While the overall mood and tone remain dreamlike and elegiac, Bassani never lets us forget the terrible impact of events to come. I’ll finish with a final passage, one that captures a sense of that feeling. In the following scene, the narrator is attending a Passover supper with his family – the racial laws have been in place for a number of months.

I looked at my father and mother, both aged considerably in the last few months; I looked at Fanny, who was now fifteen, but, as if an occult fear had arrested her development, she seemed no more than twelve; one by one, around me, I looked at uncles and cousins, most of whom, a few years later would be swallowed up by German crematory ovens: they didn’t imagine, no, surely not, that they would end in that way, but all the same, already, that evening, even if they seemed so insignificant to me, their poor faces surmounted by their little bourgeois hats or framed by their bourgeois permanents, even if I knew how dull-witted they were, how incapable of evaluating the real significance of the present or of reading into the future, they seemed to me already surrounded by the same aura of mysterious, statuary fatality that surrounds them now, in my memory; (pp. 124-125)

Other bloggers participating in the readalong include Dorian, Scott, NathanielGrant, Max, Bellezza, Frances and Anthony – I’ll add links to their reviews as and when they become available.

My copy of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis was published by Harcourt.

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

It’s been a while since I last read any Evelyn Waugh (probably more than five years in fact), but the recent appearance in the TV schedules of the BBC adaptation of Decline and Fall prompted me to pick him up again. First published in the late 1920s, Decline and Fall was Waugh’s debut novel, a cutting satire which took as its target Britain’s class-conscious society, in particular, the establishment or powers that be and their outrageous codes of behaviour.

The novel focuses on a year in the life of Paul Pennyfeather, a rather naive but genial individual who gets caught up in a bizarre sequence of adventures which prove to be his undoing. Through no fault of his own, Pennyfeather is booted out of his college at Oxford for indecent behaviour after being stripped of his trousers by the drunken members of the Bollinger Club (a thinly veiled reference to the University’s notorious Bullingdon Club). A rather unfortunate turn of events given the fact that Pennyfeather, a theology student, was cycling back from a student union meeting at the time, minding his own business as usual. Under the circumstances, Pennyfeather’s guardian decides that he must discontinue his ward’s allowance, thereby leaving our protagonist in the unenviable position of having to find a job. So before long, Pennyfeather finds himself being interviewed for the role of junior schoolmaster at a bottom-of-the-league school in Wales, a position for which he feels totally unqualified.

‘But I don’t know a word of German, I’ve had no experience, I’ve got no testimonials, and I can’t play cricket.’

‘It doesn’t do to be too modest,’ said Mr Levy. ‘It’s wonderful what one can teach when one tries. Why, only last term we sent a man who had never been in a laboratory in his life as senior Science Master to one of our leading public schools. He came wanting to do private coaching in music. He’s doing very well, I believe. Besides, Dr Fagan can’t expect all that for the salary he’s offering. Between ourselves, Llanabba hasn’t a good name in the profession. We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School and School. Frankly,’ said Mr Levy, ‘School is pretty bad. I think you’ll find it a very suitable post. So far as I know, there are only two other candidates, and one of them is totally deaf, poor fellow.’ (pp. 16-17)

On his arrival at Llanabba, Pennyfeather encounters a strange assortment of oddballs and fools: there is the eccentric head, Dr Fagan, an absurd character who harbours delusions of grandeur regarding the relative standing of his school; then there are Dr Fagan’s daughters, the equally offbeat Flossie, and the briskly efficient Diana (or Dingy as she is fondly known); and last but not least, there are the other masters, a ragtag of misfits who prove to be just as unsuited to their jobs as young Pennyfeather. The standouts here are Prendergast (‘Prendy’ for short), a rather nervous former clergyman who gave up the cloth after being plagued by doubts, and the genial Captain Grimes, an ex-public school man who almost always ends up ‘in the soup’.  In this scene, Grimes is giving Pennyfeather the lowdown on his beleaguered colleague.

‘Prendy’s not so bad in his way,’ said Grimes, ‘but he can’t keep order. Of course, you know he wears a wig. Very hard for a man with a wig to keep order. I’ve got a false leg, but that’s different. Boys respect that. Think I lost it in the war. Actually,’ said the Captain, and strictly between ourselves, mind, I was run over by a tram in Stoke-on-Trent when I was one-over-the-eight. Still, it doesn’t do to let that out to everyone. Funny thing, but I feel I can trust you. I think we’re going to be pals.’ (pp. 26-27)

Oddly enough, virtually everyone Pennyfeather meets at the school exhibits a strong desire to open up to him, and so our protagonist gets to hear all their life stories whether he wishes to or not!

At first, Pennyfeather is daunted by the prospect of facing a classroom full of unruly boys, but he soon settles into a rhythm, especially once it becomes clear that he is not expected to teach them anything useful or relevant. The main idea is to keep the youngsters quiet.

‘That’s your little mob in there,’ said Grimes; ‘you let them out at eleven.’

‘But what am I to teach them?’ said Paul in sudden panic.

‘Oh, I shouldn’t try to teach them anything, not just yet, anyway. Just keep them quiet.’ (p. 37)

There are some wonderfully comic scenes in the first half of the novel, most notably those focusing on a landmark event in the school’s calendar, the annual Sports day. At a moment’s notice, Pennyfeather is put in charge of managing the full programme of races and contests, with the hapless Prendergast as referee and Captain Grimes as timekeeper. No expense is spared in preparing the refreshments for the occasion as Dr Fagan is keen to impress the visiting parents and the local dignitaries. Unfortunately, things don’t quite go to plan – not surprising really, especially given the head’s record at hosting these events in the past.

‘During the fourteen years that I have been at Llanabba there have been six sports days and two concerts, all of them, in one way or another, utterly disastrous. Once Lady Bunyan was taken ill; another time it was the matter of the Press photographers and the obstacle race; another time some quite unimportant parents brought a dog with them which bit two of the boys very severely and one of the masters, who swore terribly in front of everyone. I could hardly blame him, but of course he had to go. Then there was the concert when the boys refused to sing “God save the King” because of the pudding they had had for luncheon. One way or another, I have been consistently unfortunate in my efforts at festivity. And yet I look forward to each new fiasco with the utmost relish. Perhaps, Pennyfeather, you will bring luck to Llanabba; in fact, I feel confident you have already done so. Look at the sun!’ (p. 58)

To begin with, Prendergast has one too many at the pub before the races get underway, and so he ends up firing the starting pistol into a boy’s foot by mistake. The boy in question, Tangent Circumference, is carried off to the refreshments tent where he is given a large slice of cake to quell his wailing. Then there is a dispute over the result of the six-furlong race when Lady Circumference accuses the winner, Percy Clutterbuck (the son of the owner of a local brewery), of having skipped a lap. Unsurprisingly, the Clutterbucks are far from impressed.

As the holidays approach, Pennyfeather receives an invitation from wealthy socialite Margot Beste-Chetwynde (pronounced ‘Beast-Cheating’), mother of one of the more sensible boys at the school. He is to act as a private tutor for a few weeks, coaching her son, Peter, with extra lessons over the Easter break. The glamorous Margot has taken a bit of a shine to Pennyfeather following his exploits at the Sports day – and the schoolmaster, for his part, is also smitten. Little does our protagonist know that his trip to Margot’s residence in Hampshire will lead to even more trouble as once again he finds himself caught up in a scandal through little fault of his own. To say any more would probably give the game away, but suffice it to say that Margot isn’t quite as sweet or innocent as she appears at first sight.

I found Decline and Fall an enjoyable satire, albeit somewhat uneven in places, especially in the latter stages of the narrative. While the first half of the novel is tight and packed with viciously comic moments, the second seems more wayward. When the story moves away from the brilliantly-realised settings of Oxford and Llanabba, it loses its way somewhat, becoming sillier and more contrived in the process. Nevertheless, Waugh’s natural sense of comic timing remains impressive throughout. He has a keen ear for dialogue, too, especially in the scenes which are set within the confines of academia. For the most part, Waugh is aiming his sights at the establishment here – the badly-behaved privileged classes, the criminal justice system, even the Press – but there are times when it is hard to feel fully on board with his brand of humour. There are some unfortunate racial slurs here, mostly uttered by rather flawed characters whom we are invited to chastise; nevertheless, they do make for somewhat uncomfortable reading in today’s more enlightened age.

By the end of the novel, we come full circle as Pennyfeather returns to Oxford. Renewal is a running theme in the narrative with several of the characters reappearing in new guises at various points, desperately trying to reinvent themselves in the process. As an observer remarks to Pennyfeather in the closing stages of the story, ‘Now you’re a person who was clearly meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored watch the others.’ He is talking about life here, a messy business at the best of times. Somehow or other, the innocent Pennyfeather was catapulted onto the great revolving wheel of life – imagine it as a wild ride at the fairground – and roundly thrown off again, almost immediately and with a severe bump. Maybe, just maybe, he can find his way back to solid ground.

Decline and Fall is published by Penguin Modern Classics; personal copy.