Monthly Archives: September 2014

Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers (review)

Carson McCullers is another of those authors I’ve been aware of for many years, but had never got around to reading. So when I saw Clock Without Hands in the half-price sale at Blackwell’s Charing Cross, I knew I had to have it. First published in 1961, Clock Without Hands was McCullers’s final novel prior to her death in 1967 (aged 50 years). She is widely recognised as one of the great American writers of her time, and Gore Vidal described her writing as ‘one of the few satisfying achievements of our second-rate culture.’

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Set in 1953 in a small town in Georgia, USA, Clock Without Hands focuses on four men whose lives are connected both in the present and by events in the past. As the book opens, thirty-nine-year-old J.T. Malone, owner of the local pharmacy, learns that he is suffering from leukaemia and is given only twelve to fifteen months to live. This news prompts the unassuming Malone to reflect on his life and its disappointments: the ‘Jew grinds’ that had crowded him out of medical school thereby forcing him to move over to pharmacy instead; the lack of intimacy and love in his stilted marriage; a sense of bewilderment as to where or how he had lost his way in life:

As he sat holding the pestle there was in him enough composure to wonder at those alien emotions that had veered so violently in his once mild heart. He was split between love and hatred – but what he loved and what he hated was unclear. For the first time he knew that death was near to him. But the terror that choked him was not caused by the knowledge of his own death. The terror concerned some mysterious drama that was going on – although what the drama was about Malone did not know. The terror questioned what would happen in those months – how long? – that glared upon his numbered days. He was a man watching a clock without hands. (pg. 27, Penguin Classics)

Malone’s closest friend and confidante is Judge Fox Clane, a rambunctious former congressman who has suffered his own tragedies in life. Some seventeen years have passed since Judge Clane lost his son, Johnny (to suicide), his daughter-in-law (who died in childbirth) and his wife (to cancer), but the death of his son in particular continues to haunt his thoughts.

Judge Clane believes in white supremacy and the ‘noble standards of the South.’ He is firmly in favour of maintaining racial segregation in all aspects of civilised life, and as such his views are in direct opposition to those of his grandson, the sensitive Jester Clane (the third of our four main characters and Johnny’s son):

‘The time may come in your generation – I hope I won’t be here – when the educational system itself is mixed – with no colour line. How would you like that?’

Jester did not answer.

‘How would you like to see a hulking Nigra boy sharing a desk with a delicate little white girl?’

The Judge could not believe in the possibility of this; he wanted to shock Jester to the gravity of the situation. His eyes challenged his grandson to react in the spirit of Southern gentlemen.

‘How about a hulking white girl sharing a desk with a delicate little Negro boy?’

‘What?’

Jester did not repeat his words, nor did the old Judge want to hear again the words that so alarmed him. It was as though his grandson had committed some act of insipient lunacy, and it is fearful to acknowledge the approach of madness in a beloved. It is so fearful that the old Judge preferred to distrust his own hearing, although the sound of Jester’s voice still throbbed against his eardrums. He tried to twist the words to his own reason. (pgs. 29-30)

Jester befriends a local black boy, Sherman Pew, a bright, confident and articulate orphan who, as a baby, was left abandoned on a church pew. Sherman is unaware of the identity of either of his parents, but is especially keen to find his mother. Pew is also connected to Judge Clane in more ways than one; he once saved the Judge from drowning, and is now in Clane’s employ as an ‘amanuensis’  to write letters, read poetry, fix drinks and attend to his medical needs. At times, Sherman revels in his position as Judge Clane’s ‘jewel’; he considers himself a cut above the other household help and often behaves in a rude or fickle manner towards Jester, whose feelings for Sherman run deep.

As the narrative unfolds, we learn more about events in the past, revelations that shed a different light on the connections between these characters. The circumstances surrounding Johnny’s suicide become clear to Jester prompting him to choose a particular path for the future. And when Sherman discovers information regarding the identity of his parents, the consequences of subsequent events touch all the main players in this novel.

I greatly enjoyed Clock Without Hands; the four main characters, particularly Judge Clane, are skilfully realised. McCullers explores some thought-provoking themes with great insight and understanding of the human condition. Malone and Judge Clane both experience periods of isolation and detachment, but their responses differ; Malone faces up to his own mortality and seeks solace and understanding in the church (although few answers are forthcoming); Clane feels threatened by the prospect of racial integration and aims to guard against any advance in this movement. Perversely, there are times when he seems to forget that Sherman is black, but the Judge’s relationship with this young man is born out of guilt as well as gratitude for saving his life.

Ultimately, Clock Without Hands focuses on interracial tensions and injustices and how these ‘sit’ alongside our beliefs and principles. The novel’s title is significant here; racial integration would move the clock forward, but Judge Clane seems content for the South to remain in the early-sixties or revert to bygone days.

Clock Without Hands is published in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.

Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier (review)

Having enjoyed the slightly surreal dark humour of a couple of Pascal Garnier’s other books, The A26 and How’s the Pain?, I was keen to read more by this author. And when I saw Guy Savage’s review of Moon in a Dead Eye, I knew I had to try this one.

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Moon in a Dead Eye is set in Les Conviviales, a secure gated community in the South of France. In the opening pages of this novella, we meet Martial and Odette Sudre, recent arrivals at the community lured there by the promise of ‘a fresh approach to retirement’, activities at the village clubhouse and a life in the sunshine. Trouble is, as the first residents to move into Les Conviviales, Martial and Odette find themselves rattling around with little to occupy their rain-soaked days. The only other occupant is Monsieur Flesh, the rather creepy caretaker-manager. In fact, the whole place has the eerie atmosphere of a graveyard, a mood augmented by the clinical, almost sanitised feel inside the couple’s bungalow:

Everything had that box-fresh, plastic smell. Fair enough, it was practical, everything worked as it should, but it was like living in a hotel. (pg. 8, Gallic Books)

Through the window, the row of TV aerials stretched off into the distance like crosses in the cemetery. We’ve bought ourselves a plot to lie in(pg. 11)

Martial was none too keen to move in the first place, but now they’re here, Odette is determined to make the best of things. She furnishes their bungalow with all manner of mismatched tat and yearns to find new hobbies, ‘anything as long as it’s new!’

A month or so slips by, and finally another retired couple – Maxime and Marlène Node – arrive at Les Conviviales and the Sudres are dying to make their acquaintance:

Madame Node’s girlish figure appeared at the end of the hallway, but as she walked the few steps to the door with her hand outstretched before her, she gained the full weight of her years. She was still slim and trim, but the spots on her skin (which seemed to have undergone a facelift or two) made her look like a withered reinette apple.

‘Oh, how kind of you to come! Marlène. How do you do?’

It was extraordinary how Maxime Node could talk whilst still displaying his dazzling array of teeth. (pg. 17)

The Nodes have come to this gated community for a variety of reasons: a decline in Maxime’s health despite his deluded belief that he still looks pretty dashing for a man of his age; an increase in crime and burglaries in the Node’s Orléans neighbourhood; a sense of feeling under threat in their own home.

At first, the two couples gossip about one another behind their backs. The Sudres consider the Nodes showy, while Maxime cannot imagine himself seeing in the New Year with the Sudres – they’re just not his type of people:

‘Not likely! And as for socks with sandals, dear God!’ (pg. 24)

But seeing as they’re the only residents in this enclave, the two couples form an attachment, and soon they’re running errands for one another and socialising together.

Into this mix comes Léa, a single woman, another retiree; she’s friendly, unassuming and attractive, and it’s not long before Maxime – who has form in this area – makes a play for her with hilarious results.

In Moon in a Dead Eye, Garnier explores our sense of paranoia as a society, particularly that which exists amongst the middle-classes. Maxime seems paranoid about many things: growing old; the criminals or ‘vermin’ who gnawed away at his and Marlène’s nice life in Orléans. And here, inside the bubble of Les Conviviales, Maxime wonders if the residents are under surveillance. After all, those CCTV cameras are everywhere:

They weren’t exactly fighting for space at the pool. In fact, it was starting to feel a bit weird, all the empty houses. Maxime had joked about it the other night.

‘What if they’re watching us, like guinea pigs in a lab? They could secretly be filming us and studying us like rats…’

‘Why us? There’s nothing out of the ordinary about us. We’re just normal people.’ (pg.44)

Garnier augments the slightly sinister tone of this novella with little touches, such as these lines strategically planted at the end of a chapter:

An ant emerged from between two flagstones. Knitting its antennae together, it seemed to ponder which way to go. Marlène crushed it under her foot. (pg. 26)

And the author steps it up a notch when a group of gypsies arrives and set up camp down the road from the gated community. Maxime’s phobias magnify and he’s convinced the gypsies are all set to invade Les Conviviales:

‘You obviously don’t know much about gypsies. They’re masters of disguise. You don’t see them, you think everything’s peachy and then, bam! You end up with a knife in your back.’

‘That’s a bit over the top, Maxime.’

‘Not at all, Odette! I served in the war; I know a thing or two about ambush…’

‘You fought against the gypsies, did you?’

‘No, of course not! But they’re all the same…’

‘Who’s all the same?’

‘Other people! The ones who are out to get us and take our things! Oh for Christ’s sake, forget it. If you’d rather shut your eyes to it and let them cut your throat while you sleep, that’s your problem.’ (pg. 72)

These passages illustrate Maxime’s lack of tolerance with ‘other people,’ anyone he considers beneath him or threatening in some way. Anyone who isn’t ‘normal.’  Life inside the hermetically sealed bubble of the gated community simply accentuates these feelings. Moreover, the emptiness and deserted state of the village reflects the disappointments, regrets and missed opportunities in the occupants’ lives – each character looks back on these moments at certain points in the narrative. It’s as if they’re simply existing. Waiting. Caught in an airless trap:

‘…Right from day one, I’ve felt like I was living under a bell jar here – do you know what I mean?’

‘Absolutely. A big glass cloche, like the ones you put over melons.

‘Exactly…a glass trap.’ (pg.103)

Garnier has a great deal of ruthless fun with this set-up. Moon in a Dead Eye is a terrific little novella, shot through with wicked humour at the expense of this ill-fated bunch of characters. There is much darkness here too; almost a sense of Garnier prodding his characters as he waits for everything to kick off. The ending is spectacular and brilliantly surreal, and I didn’t see the exact nature of it coming (even though I had a sense of what to expect based on the other Garniers I’ve read). In his review, Guy drew the comparison between Garnier and Jean-Patrick Manchette, and I can see the similarities. Reading Moon in a Dead Eye, I’m reminded of Manchette’s sideswipes at bourgeois society in Fatale. And for some reason, I’m also reminded of Adam Curtis’ documentary series The Power of Nightmares in the sense of how fear of a phantom enemy can breed paranoia causing us to exaggerate threats that have little grounding in reality, the consequences of which can be colossal.

Moon is a Dead Eye is my favourite Garnier so far. Highly recommended if you like this type of thing (which I do).

Moon in a Dead Eye (tr. by Emily Boyce) is published in the UK by Gallic Books. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

Testing the Current by William McPherson (NYRB Classics)

First published in 1984 and reissued by NYRB Classics in 2013, William McPherson’s excellent first novel Testing the Current harks back to a bygone age. Set in the late 1930s in a small town in Michigan near the Canadian border, the novel focuses on one year in the life of eight-year-old Tommy MacAllister. Each summer, Tommy’s family and their financially-comfortable WASP friends retreat to a group of small islands in the river that runs by their town, where their days centre on rounds of golf at the country club, dinners, dances and other social engagements.

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Tommy is a keen observer of behaviour, often picking up much more than his elders realise, but at eight years of age, he doesn’t always know why people behave the way they do. And this idea brings us to the novel’s main theme: namely, this young boy’s growing awareness of the adult world and his quest to make sense of it:

And at that moment, as he stared off into the dusk, beneath the paper lanterns hanging from the eaves of the long porch and the moss baskets of ivy and begonias, there was nothing on his mind that he could put into words, more a state of mind than anything on it – solitude, the mystery of life, that sort of thing, which at eight, he had a sense of but lacked the structure in which to put it. (pg. 11, NYRB)

Driven by a desire to understand the ‘many mysteries of the grown-up world,’ Tommy is constantly curious about his surroundings, frequently asking questions his parents seem unable to answer to his satisfaction:

“Do you love Daddy?” Tommy persisted. “Of course I love Daddy,” his mother replied. She was really exasperated now. “He’s my husband! He’s your father! Now Tommy, stop being a pest.” But Tommy, unable to resist, asked, “Who do you love more, me or Daddy?”

“I love you both,” his mother said, softening a little. “It’s a different kind of love, that’s all. When you get older, you’ll learn that love is a lot more complicated than it seems, my darling. A lot more complicated. It’s not at all simple.”

It seemed simple to Tommy. Love was love, he thought, and that was that, the only difference being that you loved some people more than others. How could there be different kinds of love? (pg. 121)

Tommy’s brothers, John and David both college-age, both dating girls seem very grown-up with their own lives to lead. But the young boy finds adult allies in the shape of Mrs Steer, mother of his friend Amy and the only Democrat in his parents’ set and the somewhat eccentric Mrs Slade, whom – to the embarrassment of his mother – Tommy finds fascinating. Mrs Slade, a neighbour who also happens to be the aunt of David’s girlfriend Margie, injects herself with morphine, a habit acquired following a double mastectomy – another thing everybody except Tommy seems to know, but never discusses. Never that is until a family dinner (with Margie in attendance) when Tommy tells of how Mrs Slade showed him the needle and injected herself in the leg. Later that night when John tells Tommy that Mrs Slade is ‘a dope fiend,’ the young boy considers Mrs Slade more exciting and interesting as a result:

“Why does Mrs Slade take morphine?” Tommy asked. It sounded delicious (pg. 36)

As the novel progresses, little happens in the way of plot: Tommy’s grandmother dies; a fire breaks out at his father’s plant; the family celebrates Tommy’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas and a silver wedding anniversary. But throughout, Tommy continues to struggle to process the behaviour of those around him. In a pivotal scene on New Year’s Eve, our protagonist hides under the dinner table during a party hosted by his parents. Unbeknownst to the guests, he observes something he isn’t meant to see, something he knows to be wrong, and this unsettles him deeply. When Tommy is discovered under the table, he wishes he had never come down to the party and his mother takes him to bed:

There were tears in her eyes, too. Tommy thought, when she bent to kiss him, and tuck the blankets around him so he’d be snug and warm in the frozen middle of the first night of the New Year. The cold heavy clips she wore in the neck of her dress brushed against him as her soft lips touched his own soft cheek. Tommy hugged his mother tightly to him.

[…]

 “There, there,” she said. She sat on the edge of his bed and began to sing her familiar lullaby: “Bye baby bunting, Daddy’s gone a-hunting, Gone to get a rabbit skin to wrap my baby bunting in,” but the lullaby did not assure him. The pale light from the half-open door to the hallway radiated from behind her. It caught in the stones in her ears, in the jeweled arrow in her hair, in the two clips she wore like tiny shields on her dress, and flared in the prism of his tears like a shower of cold, infinitesimal, brilliant darts. He could not see her shadowed face. (pgs. 187-8)

Alongside its primary theme, Testing the Current also touches on other issues of the time. Although never to the fore, the relatively recent Depression is there in the background, and while Tommy’s father has done well to profit in recent years, other members of his family are down-at-heel. Racial tensions occasionally flare as Native Indians serve the island and WASP community.

Finally, there is a strong sense of nostalgia, family customs and rituals in this novel, a theme illustrated by this passage in which Tommy, along with his brothers and mother, decorate the Christmas tree:

When the lights were finally in place, Tommy took the ornaments very carefully from their boxes and laid them out on a table near the tree. He hung his special favorites on the branches he could reach while John and David and his mother decorated the higher branches. His mother even stood on one of the dining-room chairs to do it, which was breaking one of her own rules. Then, when all the ornaments and lights were in place, she straightened out the tattered, crumpled tinsel as usual, pressing it with her hand against the tabletop, and, because no one else would do it, draped it from the branches herself. The sight was touching to Tommy, and he moved to help her. He was filled with happiness, and a welling sadness, too, there with his mother and her tinsel, his handsome brothers –even David looked handsome to him now – and he wished his father would take part. He made a comment occasionally from his chair, looking up from his business papers and columns of figures from the adding machine at the plant, but mostly he stuck to his work. He wasn’t very good at decorating, he said. (pg 137)

I chose this section as it also highlights how Tommy’s relationship with his father differs to that with his mother. While Tommy enjoys a close and loving bond with his mother, that closeness isn’t quite reciprocated in his relationship with his father. At one point, Tommy reflects how his father could be so nice one minute but end up saying something mean the next.

Testing the Current is a quietly compelling slow-burner. It’s beautifully written, and its focus on Tommy and his family’s day-to-day lives reminds me (once again) of John Williams’ Stoner, a remarkable book that gives us the story of a man’s seemingly less than remarkable life. There are similarities, too, with Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, although McPherson’s prose feels more matter-of-fact — and appropriately so considering his focus is the life of an eight-year-old-boy — than Stegner’s .

I’ll finish with one of my favourite sections from this book in which Tommy reflects on the passing of his grandmother:

Her life was over. It was a blessing. He thought of her lying now in her lavender dress on the pale silk of her coffin, alone in the darkness of the earth, the rose grasped in her hand. He thought of the soft skin stretched over her cheekbones, and he imagined her eyes behind their closed lids, fixed and straining toward the surface, her face expressionless, her body still, waiting for what he did not know. He thought of the whole vast population of the dead, of all those bodies lying amidst the roots of the trees in the cemetery by the river, composed, quiet, facing the earth above them, and the earth the sky, separated from one another by the limitless, embracing soli and from the crushing weight of the world itself by their solitary wooden cases lined with silk. How lonely it seemed, what flimsy protection. He wondered if his grandmother’s good smell was warming the winter earth, and if she knew when the sun was shining, when the snow was falling, when the grass would grow again. (pg. 65)

Testing the Current is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

She [Lila] answered: “Each of us narrates our life as it suits us.”

As summer draws to an end, I’ve been reading a couple of chunksters: one of my own choosing – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante – and one selected by a member of my book group; the latter shall remain nameless (for now at least) as I’m still deciding whether or not to review it. Anyhow, let’s return to the Ferrante…

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the third volume in Elena Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels. As I’ve already reviewed the first two books in the series (My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name) in detail, I’m going to cover book three more briefly, especially as some of you may be reading the earlier volumes at the moment.

Warning: In order to review this third volume, I need to mention a few details from the first two books and the third novel, too.

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This third instalment in the series picks up where book three left off: the period is the late sixties, and Elena and Lila are in their early twenties. Elena’s first novel has just been published and Nino Sarratore is back in her life (albeit briefly), coming to her aid when a critic attacks her work. Despite the fleeting reappearance of Nino, Elena goes ahead with her marriage to Pietro, a rather dull but steady junior Professor and the couple settle down to life in Florence. Elena’s novel is a commercial success, but critical responses are mixed; one critic describes it as ‘a cheap version of the already vulgar Bonjour Tristesse.’ Harsh words indeed.

Elena struggles to write especially once children arrive, and she feels trapped by her marriage, isolated by a decline in her relationship with Pietro and the demands of motherhood. Having recently read The Days of Abandonment, I can now see clear links between the Neapolitan novels and the raw candour of Ferrante’s earlier work (there are other quotes I could include here, but I’d like to avoid revealing too much about the plot):

I felt abandoned but with the impression that I deserved it; I wasn’t capable of providing tranquillity for my daughter. Yet I kept going, doggedly, even though I was more and more frightened. My organism was rejecting the role of mother. And no matter how I denied the pain in my leg by doing everything possible to ignore it, it had returned and was getting worse. But I persisted, I wore myself out taking charge of everything. […] I thought: I’m becoming ugly and old before my time, like the women of the neighbourhood. And naturally, just when I was particularly desperate, Lila telephoned. (pg. 240 Europa Editions).

Meanwhile, Lila becomes involved in a left-wing movement, and the novel has much to say about the socio-political turmoil and unrest in Italy at the time (specifically The Years of Lead). In this scene, Lila describes the repressive and abusive conditions in the sausage factory in which she works:

Can you imagine, she asked, what it means to spend eight hours a day standing up to your waist in the mortadella cooking water? Can you imagine what it means to have your fingers covered with cuts from slicing the meat off animal bones? […]The women have to let their asses be groped by supervisors and colleagues without saying a word. If the owner feels the need, someone has to follow him into the seasoning room; his father used to ask for the same thing, maybe also his grandfather; and there, before he jumps all over you, that same owner makes you a tired little speech on how the odor of salami excites him. […] The union has never gone in, and the workers are nothing but poor victims of blackmail, dependant on the law of the owner, that is: I pay you and so I possess you and I possess your life, your family and everything that surrounds you, and if you don’t do what I say, I’ll ruin you. (pgs. 121-122)

Essentially, though, Those Who Leave focuses on Elena and the development of her character during the period, her direction and ambitions in life, and naturally a comparison with Lila is never far away:

Become. It was a verb that had always obsessed me, but I realized it for the first time only in that situation. I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition. I had wanted to become something – here was the point – only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her. (pgs. 346-347)

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is another very good instalment in this epic story, perhaps not quite as compelling as the first two novels, but a necessary step in the overall journey from the girls’ childhood to middle age. That said, Ferrante’s writing is as rich in detail as ever, and the stage is most definitely set for a terrific fourth (and final) novel…but we shall have to wait until 2015 for that one to be published. I for one am looking forward to it immensely.

Tony Malone (at Tony’s Reading List) has also reviewed this book.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is published in the UK by Europa Editions. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler (book review)

The hunch I had was as vague as the heat waves that danced above the sidewalk (pg. 19, Penguin Books)

Ah, how I love Raymond Chandler and his hard-boiled private investigator, Philip Marlowe. In my other life, I would be Vivian from The Big Sleep, but that’s another book…

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In Farewell, My Lovely, Chandler’s second novel, the action opens with Marlowe investigating a run-of-the-mill missing-person’s case. During his pursuit, Marlowe stumbles upon something far more interesting altogether. He encounters Moose Molloy, a big bruiser just out of jail and on the lookout for his former love, Velma. The scene is Florian’s, a ‘dine and dice emporium’, a place where Velma worked as a singer at the time of Moose’s conviction some eight years ago. Before he knows it, Marlowe is right in the thick of it; Moose, who doesn’t seem to know his own strength, ends up breaking the bar manager’s neck and heads off with a gun leaving Marlowe to get drawn into the investigation.

One of the things I love about Chandler is his brilliant knack for describing scenes in such a way that we, as readers, feel we’re right there with the characters themselves. Here’s Marlowe as he meets the cop in charge of this case:

A man named Nulty got the case, a lean-jawed sourpuss with long yellow hands which he kept folded over his kneecaps most of the time he talked to me. He was a detective-lieutenant attached to the 77th Street Division and we talked in a bare room with two small desks against opposite walls and room to move between them, if two people didn’t try it at once. Dirty brown linoleum covered the floor and the smell of old cigar butts hung in the air. Nulty’s shirt was frayed and his coat sleeves had been turned in at the cuffs. He looked poor enough to be honest, but he didn’t look like a man who could deal with Moose Molloy.

He lit half of a cigar and threw the match on the floor, where a lot of company was waiting for it. (pg. 15)

Marlowe quickly discovers that Florian’s used to be owned by a guy named Mike Florian, now deceased but survived by his widow, Jesse. And when Marlowe pays Mrs Florian a visit, she appears to have something to hide…

‘Well, what do I do – date her up?’ Nulty asked.

‘I did it for you. I took in a pint of bourbon with me. She’s a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud and if she had washed her hair since Coolidge’s second term, I’ll eat my spare tyre, rim and all.’

‘Skip the wisecracks,’ Nulty said.

‘I asked Mrs Florian about Velma. You remember, Mr Nulty, the redhead named Velma that Moose Molloy was looking for? I’m not tiring you, am I, Mr Nulty?’

‘What you sore about?’

‘You wouldn’t understand. Mrs Florian said she didn’t remember Velma. Her home is very shabby except for a new radio worth seventy or eighty dollars.’

‘You ain’t told me why that’s something I should start screaming about.’

‘Mrs Florian – Jesse to me – said her husband left her nothing but his old clothes and a bunch of stills of the gang who worked at his joint from time to time. I plied her with liquor and she is a girl who will take a drink if she had to knock you down to get to the bottle. After the third or fourth she went into her modest bedroom and threw things around and dug the bunch of stills out of the bottom of an old trunk. But I was watching her without her knowing it and she slipped one out of the packet and hid it. So after a while I snuck in there and grabbed it.’

I reached into my pocket and laid the Pierrot girl on his desk. He lifted it and stared at it and his lips quirked at the corners. (pg 37-38)

Having read a few of Chandler’s books, I’m starting to admire this author more for his writing than his storylines. Farewell, My Lovely is all about sharp dialogue, attitude and mood. The plot itself is important of course, and this one has twists and turns aplenty, but the storyline almost seems secondary to those other aspects. The narrative is peppered with Marlowe’s wisecracking quips and one-liners (which just cry out to be quoted) and Chandler’s use of metaphor and simile is quite something:

A bogus heartiness, as weak as a Chinaman’s tea, moved into her face and voice. (pg. 26)

Her eyes stayed on the bottle. Suspicion fought with thirst, and thirst was winning. It always does. (pg.28)

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. (pg. 97)

Alongside the search for Moose and Velma, Chandler introduces another stand to narrative as Marlowe picks up a job accompanying a man aiming to buy back a stolen necklace. At first the two cases appear unconnected, but Marlowe sniffs out a link, and our down-at-heel detective gets sucked into a web of corruption and power that has infected the affluent classes. Marlowe works on hunches, gets into all manner of scrapes, but we seem to know he’ll make it through somehow.

Farewell, My Lovely is a great noir – perhaps not quite up there with The Big Sleep, but it’s a downright enjoyable read all the same. Highly recommended.

Farewell, My Lovely is published in the UK by Penguin Books. Source: personal copy.

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig (tr. by Tess Lewis)

Peirene Press continues to do a great job in discovering top-quality European fiction – novellas and short story collections which always have something interesting to offer. I’ve reviewed a couple of their novellas on the blog, The Mussel Feast and The Blue Room, both of which are excellent thought-provoking reads. Peirene curate their books by theme, and Maybe This Time (a collection of short stories first published in Austrian German in 2006) is the third in their Male Dilemmas: Quests for Intimacy series.

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Hotschnig’s stories are quite difficult to describe, but the experience of reading this collection is akin to experiencing a lucid dream, one that blurs the margins between reality and the imaginary. In her introduction to the book, Meike Ziervogel, founder of Peirene Press, says of Hotschnig’s work ‘outwardly normal events slip into drama before they tip into horror,’ and I can see what she means by this statement. Initially, many of these stories appear to be heading in a certain direction, but then something shifts, and we begin to question our understanding of events. In some instances, the change is relatively subtle, but in others we are rapidly pitched into dark and unsettling territory.

In The Same Silence, the Same Noise, we encounter a man observing his neighbours as they sit in deckchairs on their jetty. As the story progresses, he becomes obsessed and irritated by his neighbours’ presence and their indifference towards him, so much so that he begins to feel a growing sense of paranoia:

They lay next to each other on their deckchairs, arms by their sides, legs bent or straight. For hours they didn’t move, not even to wave away the mosquitoes or scratch themselves. Every day, every night, always the same. Their stillness made me feel uneasy, and my unease grew until it festered into an affliction I could no longer bear. At first, I had thought them part of the idyll I had come here to find, but now their constant presence irritated me. When I realized how easily one could see into my house from their jetty, I felt annoyed, caught out, exposed. Under surveillance, even. Yet I was the one who never let them out of my sight. (pg. 12, Peirene Press)

As this story progresses, the narrator steps up his observations, distancing himself from his friends in the process, and he realises his fixation with these neighbours is an attempt to escape from his own life. And this brings me to one of the main themes in Hotschnig’s collection, that of identity:

They refused contact, yet they willingly exposed themselves to me. I had caught the scent of their lives, which obviously had reached some sort of premature end. I had fed on them, devoured them, and now I wanted more. I couldn’t resist absorbing their most fleeting emotions as my own, and so I carried them inside me and I lived out their disquiet, which was also my disquiet (pg. 17)

In the most unnerving story in the collection, Then a Door Opens a Swings Shut, an elderly woman leads a man – his name is Karl – into her house where he is confronted by a sprawling collection of dolls. Three of the dolls, which the woman calls ‘her children,’ represent her successful grown-up daughters. The situation takes a more disturbing turn when the woman introduces her visitor to Karl, a doll that bears an exact resemblance to the man himself. As our narrator allows himself to be drawn into the old woman’s life, there is a blending of identity between the man and the doll. It’s a very creepy story indeed, one that reminds me a little of some of Yoko Ogawa’s dark tales in Revenge.

Hotschnig explores another aspect of identity in Maybe This Time, Maybe Now (one of my favourites) in which a family come together and wait for Uncle Walter, the one member of their clan who never visits on these occasions. The narrator’s parents live in constant hope that Walter might show up one day, just to have everyone together for once. As we observe the family gathering, it’s almost as though the narrator’s parents fail to recognise others as individuals in their own right. No one else seems to matter except the elusive Walter; all other family members are subsumed into an amorphous formation. Here’s an extract from an early section of the story:

But Walter doesn’t come, at least not while we are there. We don’t make up for his absence, those of us who are present, and no matter how hard we try to distract them, to make them forget about Walter, it never works. The rest of us do count for something, but not enough compared with him, since Walter’s absence makes us all invisible in our parents’ eyes and in our own. Those who are missing are noticed, but only until they come through the door, join those who are waiting and disappear into the group. It’s always the same game, who’s there and who isn’t, how many are we now, and who might then still come and who not. (pg. 59)

As the story progresses, we begin to doubt Walter’s existence. After all, the younger family members have never laid eyes on him either in the flesh or photographs. He exists only through stories that pass through the family, through the expectations and dashed hopes that have passed from one generation to another:

In this sense, we have always lived with Walter. We know him and don’t know him. (pg. 60)

In another favourite story from the collection, Two Ways of Leaving, a man follows a woman as she goes about her day. At first we are led to assume that this man is a pursuing a stranger, perhaps for somewhat voyeuristic reasons. As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that these two individuals are connected is some way. Hotschnig cleverly leads our train of thought in a particular direction, only for the story to tilt slightly thereby challenging our assumptions in the process.

As I’m writing this post, I can see another theme emerging from this intriguing collection of stories – that of observation, the act of observing others from a distance, how we make assumptions about their lives, situations and motives. And there’s a good dose of ambiguity to these tales; in fact, I found a couple of them quite tricky to pin down. Hotschnig leaves plenty of space to allow the reader to draw their own interpretation of events, to make these rather eerie dreamlike stories their own. There is much food for thought here.

Stu at Winstonsdad’s blog has also reviewed this collection.

Maybe This Time is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: I won a copy of this book in the Peirene Press PeiQuiz – my thanks to the publisher.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (review)

Patrick Hamilton’s quite brilliant novel, The Slaves of Solitude, takes us back to the winter of 1943. Having being bombed out of her room in Kensington a year ago, Miss Roach, a spinster in her late thirties, is now residing in Thames Lockdon, a fictional town by the river just beyond Maidenhead. Much of the action takes place in the Rosamund Tea Rooms boarding house, where Miss Roach lives along with a handful of other residents. At first, the town had provided a welcome respite from the bombings in London, but now, after more than a year, life in Thames Lockdon seems closer to Hell. Having given up any hope of marriage some years ago, Miss Roach’s rather drab and dreary existence is mirrored by the dismal surroundings in which she finds herself:

Miss Roach turned on the switch by the door, and saw her room in the feeble light of the bulb which hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room and which was shaded by pink parchment. She saw the pink artificial-silk bedspread covering the light single bed built of stained oak – the pink bedspread which shone and slithered and fell off, the light bedstead which slid along the wooden floor if you bumped into it. She saw the red chequered cotton curtains (this side of the black-out material) which were hung on a brass rail and never quite met in the middle, or, if forced to meet in a moment of impatience, came flying away from the sides; she saw the stained-oak chest of drawers with its mirror held precariously at a suitable angle with a squashed match-box. (pg 7, Constable)

Hamilton has a wonderful knack for capturing the stifling and oppressive atmosphere in this provincial boarding house:

This system of separate tables, well meant as it may have been, added yet another hellish touch to the hellish melancholy prevailing. For, in the small space of the room, a word could not be uttered, a little cough could not be made, a hairpin could not be dropped at one table without being heard at all the others; and the general self-consciousness which this caused smote the room with a silence, a conversational torpor, and finally a complete apathy from which it could not stir itself. 

[…] 

Sometimes an attempt at a conversational jailbreak was made, and there would be some unnecessary loud and cheerful exchange between table and table: but this never had any hope of success. As the maid handed round the vegetables one voice dropped down after another; the prisoners were back in their cells more subdued than ever. (pgs. 12-13)

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Miss Roach, a respectable yet somewhat meek woman, finds herself besieged not only by her drab surroundings, but also by the bullying behaviour of another of the Rosamund’s residents, the ghastly Mr Thwaites. Thwaites considers life in the Rosamund Tea Rooms as a ‘sort of compulsory indoor game, in which he perpetually held the bank and dealt the cards.’  With the Rosamund’s dining room as his main stage, Mr Thwaites proceeds to hold court, steering the conversation at mealtimes and passing judgements on the other residents, especially Miss Roach who has to sit at his table:

Mr Thwaites made a habit of being the first in the dining room for breakfast. No one had ever been known to beat him to it. Five, or even ten minutes before the time, he would be found sitting in his place at the table for four in the corner. It was as though he were fretful for the day to start, to be in his presidential position and to take charge of the day from the beginning. However early they appeared, those who entered after him, saying ‘Good morning, Mr. Thwaites’ and catching his eye, had a distant feeling of being on the mat for being late. Miss Roach did at any rate. 

This morning, the Saturday following the one on which she had had drinks with Vicki Kugelmann at the Rising Sun, Miss Roach was in the room while the gong was still being hit, and took her place at the table with Mr Thwaites.

‘Good morning,’ said Mr. Thwaites. ‘You’re very early, aren’t you?’ But this was not intended as a compliment: it still meant that she was late. It implied merely that a chronically late Miss Roach had appeared relatively early upon the scene.

‘Yes,’ said Miss Roach, ‘I suppose I am.’

Mr. Thwaites, fingering his knife, now quietly stared at Miss Roach. When alone with her he frequently stared at her like this, quite unconscious of her embarrassment and even of the fact that he was doing it. It was the preoccupied stare of one who sought to discover some fresh detail in her appearance or demeanour about which he could say or think something nasty. (pgs. 83-84)

Hamilton’s characters are pin-sharp, and there are some wonderful darkly comic scenes in the Rosamund Tea Rooms – a black tragicomedy of manners might be one way to describe these sections. He has a keen ear for dialogue, too, and the novel contains some terrific extended passages which convey Thwaites’ coded conversations with the other boarders. It’s not just what Thwaites says; it’s more what he implies – the implication behind his blustering, coupled with his tone. These aspects seem equally (if not more) important than his actual words. Here’s the beginning of one of his exchanges with Miss Roach:

‘Well,’ he said. ‘Your friends seem to be mightily distinguishing themselves as usual,’ and oh God, thought Miss Roach, not that again, not that again.

Miss Roach’s ‘friends’ – according to Mr. Thwaites – were the Russian people, and Mr. Thwaites did not like or approve of these people at all. (pg. 17)

Actually, the Russians were not Miss Roach’s ‘friends’. She had simply left some political publications hanging around in the Lounge, an activity that Mr. Thwaites considered ‘a diseased and obscurely Russian thing to do.’ As a consequence, Mr. Thwaites comes to associate Russia with Miss Roach and proceeds to torment her accordingly.

Into Miss Roach’s miserable life comes an American officer, Lieutenant Pike, who brings a glimmer of light and spontaneity to the proceedings. He takes Miss Roach for drinks at the local pub, evening walks in the park and at one stage even appears to hint at marriage. But the spontaneous Lieutenant, who also has a fondness for rather too much whisky, often disappears for several days at a time. While Miss Roach is attracted to Pike, she’s unsure as to where she stands with him.

The situation is further complicated by the arrival of a new lodger at the Rosamund, Vicki Kugelmann, a German woman whom Miss Roach has befriended in the town. At first Vicki charms the Rosamund’s residents, Mr. Thwaites included, whom Vicki quickly identifies as the dominant figure of the boarding house. In fact, the previously rather chauvinistic Thwaites seem positively smitten by Vicki despite his initial suspicion of having to reside alongside a German woman. If anything, Thwaites seems ‘more alert, lively and responsive’ when Vicki is around, and this change in his demeanour is accompanied by an increasingly savage and sarcastic attitude towards Miss Roach, ‘as if he were angrily comparing her to Vicki.’

And it’s not only the Rosamund’s residents who fall under Vicki’s spell. Miss Roach’s American Lieutenant considers Vicki cute, and the German ends up joining the couple on a raucous night out. As far as Lieutenant Pike and Vicki are concerned the evening’s a blast; but Miss Roach is embarrassed by her friends as they cavort around in a drunken manner, and she cannot wait to get home. It’s not long before Vicki reveals another side to her personality as she adopts a rather spiteful and disdainful attitude towards Miss Roach:

‘No,’ said Vicki, moving towards the door. ‘You are not sporty, Miss Prim.’ She reached the door and opened it, ‘You must learn to be sporty, my friend. You are the English Miss. No?…Good night.’(pg. 169)

Alongside the main narrative, Hamilton also does a terrific job in capturing the ‘endless snubbing and nagging’ nature of war and its effects on provincial towns such as Lockdon. Billboard signs lecture inhabitants at every opportunity – citizens must not waste bread, use unnecessary fuel, undertake journeys unless absolutely necessary, etc. etc.  The war, which had started by making drastic demands of people, had now turned into a ‘petty pilferer’, stealthily stealing every last luxury and necessity. Even a simple sign that says ‘NO CIGARETTES. SORRY’ seems to sneer at Miss Roach with its rather sarcastic and nasty ‘sorry’.

I won’t say any more about the story for fear of spoiling it, but our sympathies are with Miss Roach as we will her to escape the confines of this ‘death-in-life’ existence. Suffice it to say that The Slaves of Solitude is a downright enjoyable and satisfying novel – as devastating as it is darkly humorous, as accomplished as it is atmospheric. I can’t recommend it highly enough – one for my end-of year highlights.

Max at Pechorin’s Journal has posted an excellent review of this novel.

The Slaves of Solitude is published in the UK by Constable. Source: personal copy.