Monthly Archives: June 2015

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell)

This month the members of my book group are reading Jewish author Stefan Zweig’s only full-length novel, Beware of Pity, which he completed in 1938.

Beware cover

Set in an Austrian garrison town close to the Hungarian border in the months leading up to the outbreak of WW1, the novel tells the story of Anton Hofmiller, a young cavalry lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian Army. When we first encounter Hofmiller, the year is 1938, and he is recounting his history to a writer whom he meets through mutual friends. Despite being recognised for bravery, Hofmiller readily admits that he ran head first into the Great War to escape a desperate situation. He proceeds to relay his tale, a story that illustrates how ‘courage is often only another aspect of weakness.’

Returning to 1914, we find Hofmiller as a young, idealistic officer, one who is somewhat impoverished compared to his fellow cavalrymen. One day, by way of a mutual friend, he receives an invitation to dinner at the home of Herr von Kekesfalva, the richest man in the district. But unfortunately for the young lieutenant, this is where his troubles begin. Hofmiller arrives late to the dinner but is welcomed with open arms by Kekesfalva and his pretty niece, Ilona. Faced with an array of the finest dishes and wines, the young lieutenant gets carried along by the experience and his usual shyness falls away as he chats with Ilona. But as the evening draws to a close, Hofmiller realises that he has forgotten to ask his host’s daughter, Edith, to dance. When he does so, the young girl cries out in anguish; unbeknownst to Hofmiller, Edith is partially paralysed, unable to walk more than a couple of paces even with the aid of crutches. On discovering his faux-pas, Hofmiller is mortified, and he runs from the Kekesfalvas’ home in fright. Consequently, he is deeply ashamed of his actions and worries that his folly will be the talk of the town and his regiment.

At pains to make amends, Hofmiller sends Edith a basket of flowers by way of an apology and is delighted when, in return, he receives an invitation to tea at the Kekesfalvas’. All is forgiven, and the lieutenant is welcomed into the fold of the Kekesfalva family where he feels moved by the positive effect his presence has on Edith’s spirits. At the age of twenty-five, Hofmiller is rather naïve and inexperienced in the emotional complexities of human relationships. He feels for Edith’s plight and is enthused when the sympathy he shows towards the girl brightens her eyes and brings light to the Kekesfalvas’ rather gloomy household.

But as he continues to visit the family, Hofmiller begins to see another side to Edith’s character. Deeply resentful of the constraints of her disability, she can be impatient, strong-willed and extremely demanding. Her mood can turn on the briefest of gestures – charming one minute, spiteful or hysterical the next – making Hofmiller a little more attuned to her suffering:

I had to be always on my guard against crossing the barely perceptible line beyond which sympathy, instead of being soothing, injured the easily wounded girl even more. Spoilt as she was, she demanded on the one hand to be served like a princess and pampered like a child, but next moment such though for her feelings could turn her bitter, because it made her even more clearly aware of her own helplessness. (pg. 83)

Slowly but surely, Hofmiller gets drawn into to a complex web, an emotional entanglement involving the whole Kekesfalva family. Edith becomes increasingly dependent on his visits. Meanwhile, Hofmiller begins to worry about the perceptions of others – do his comrades think he is taking advantage of the Kekesfalvas’ generosity, for instance?

When Hofmiller fails to show at the house one day, Edith is distraught. It soon becomes clear that Edith does not want the lieutenant’s pity – what she desires is Hofmiller’s true affection, she is deeply in love with him. Unfortunately for Edith, Hofmiller is horrified by this discovery – he views her purely as a friend.

The situation is exacerbated by Herr von Kekesfalva’s fixation on finding a cure for Edith’s condition. He is absolutely desperate to see her happy and settled before he dies (the strain of caring for this demanding child is taking its toll on his health). As a result, Kekesfalva – perhaps unwittingly, as he appears well-intentioned – places a significant emotional burden on Hofmiller to continue visiting Edith. Every time Hofmiller tries to extricate himself from the situation, the mere sight of Kekesfalva tugs at his heart strings making it impossible for him to turn away.

At last Kekesfalva raises his head, and I see beads of sweat standing out on his brow. He takes off his clouded glasses, and without that glittering protection his face immediately looks different, more naked so to speak, more wretchedly tragic. His eyes, as so often with the short-sighted, appear much duller and wearier behind the lenses that amplify his vision. And the sight of the slightly reddened rims of his eyelids makes me think that this old man sleeps little, and poorly. Once again I feel that warm surge of emotion – an emotion that I now know to be pity. All at once I am facing not the rich Herr von Kekesfalva, but an old man weighed down by cares. (pg. 113)

By turn, Edith is equally desperate to be able to walk again for the sake of Hofmiller. She is pinning all her hopes on a new treatment, one she believes will make her better and fit for a life with the lieutenant. Unfortunately, while Hofmiller knows that this treatment will prove ineffective in Edith’s case, the Kekesfalva family do not. (Edith’s physician, Dr Condor, has confided in the young lieutenant.) This leaves Hofmiller with a terrible dilemma. Should he tell Edith the truth, that the new treatment is pointless, an action almost certain to trigger a deep emotional crisis in the girl? Or should he encourage her to embark on the therapy in the knowledge that it will buoy her spirits and buy him some breathing space albeit temporarily?

What follows is a roller-coaster ride of emotions as Hofmiller is asked to shoulder more and more responsibility for Edith and her quest for recovery. There are periods of fear and heightened tension as he realises exactly what is at stake, but there are also brief respites when he believes a solution is in sight. At times, Hofmiller convinces himself that he is doing the right thing, that a well-intentioned deception is kinder than the cruelty of truth. (Oh, the things we do to spare the feelings of others…)

Why worry whether I had said too much or too little? Even if I had promised far more than in all honesty I should have done – well, that compassionate lie had made her happy, and to make someone happy can never be wrong or a crime. (pg. 219)

Beware of Pity is a rich and gripping novel, one that sweeps the reader along to its dramatic conclusion. The characters are complex; each of the main characters – Hofmiller, Edith, Kekesfalva and Dr Condor – has their own individual failings.

Alongside the emotional turmoil, the novel offers us a glimpse of a vanished world. The descriptions of Hofmiller’s time with the regiment are beautifully rendered, as are the dinners and scenes at the Kekesfalvas’. The writing is engaging, and Anthea Bell’s translation reads very smoothly – the following passage gives a feel for the style:

A huge full moon stood overhead, a shining, polished silver disc in the middle of the starlit sky, and as the breeze, warm from the sunny day, blew mild summer air into our faces a magical winter seemed to have descended on the world in that dazzling moonlight. The gravel looked white as freshly fallen snow between the neatly pruned trees that cast their dark shadows on the open path, and the trees themselves seemed to be holding their breath, standing now in the light and now in the dark, like alternating mahogany and glass. (pg. 133)

There is even time for a brief diversion within the novel – the story of how Kekesfalva made his fortune could be a novella in its own right.

Ultimately though, this is a novel about moral and ethical choices, the consequences of our actions, and the trouble that sheer weakness can cause (perhaps even more than brutality or wickedness). I’ll finish with a quote from Dr Condor that gets to the very heart of the novel (he is speaking to Hofmiller). A similar version of this passage also appears as an epigraph.

“…But there are two kinds of pity. One, the weak-minded, sentimental sort is really just the heart’s impatience to rid itself as quickly as possible of the painful experience of being moved by another person’s suffering. It is not a case of real sympathy, of feeling with the sufferer, but a way of defending yourself against the sufferer’s pain. The other kind, the only one that counts, is unsentimental but creative. It knows its own mind, and is determined to stand by the sufferer, patiently suffering too to the last of its strength and even beyond. Only when you go all the way to the end, the bitter end, only when you have that patience, can you really help people. Only if you are ready to sacrifice yourself, only then!” (pg. 240)

For the interested, there is an excellent introduction to the novel by Nicholas Lezard here (published in The Guardian).

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig (tr. Anthea Bell) is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy (ebook).

Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash

I often read short stories alongside a novel, something concise and manageable to serve as a change of pace from my main read. The stories in Stay Up With Me fulfil this role perfectly: several are poignant and melancholy; one or two are painfully amusing; all are very enjoyable indeed.

This collection consists of thirteen stories, some of which have already appeared in literary journals and publications (including McSweeney’s and the Chicago Tribune). As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to try to cover each story in turn. My aim instead is to give a flavour of the themes and a little of what I thought of the set as a whole.


Barbash’s stories concern themselves with the troubled lives of middle-class Americans, mostly individuals living in New York City or Upstate NY. Several of the stories delve into the relationship between a parent and their child – some are told from the perspective of the parent while others focus on the child’s viewpoint. In many cases, the mother or father is no longer with their original partner – these tales feature the separated, divorced and widowed.

In the opening story of the collection, The Break, a mother watches as her son takes up with a woman she considers to be beneath him, a low-ranking restaurant hostess. The mother is struggling to come to terms with her feelings towards this woman; she is upset and angry.

The mother was surprised by what she felt then – not embarrassed, even for him. She felt enraged and invaded, as though someone had broken into her home and stolen something valuable. (pg. 4)

The mother’s own marriage ended in a separation, so she wants something better for her son – she’s aiming for perfection. The hostess, however, is far from ideal; it’s as if this woman has violated the mother’s hopes and dreams.

She had always imagined a life for her son that would exceed her own: more travel, better clothes and food, a little land maybe, near a body of water; an unimpeachably bright, elegant and decent partner, whom the mother could imagine as a daughter, the one she’s never had, for whom she could now buy sweaters and stylish scarves and sign the gift cards Love, Elaine. But what if what she wanted wasn’t what he wanted? What if this hostess was what he wanted? Her awful little apartment, her abject little life. And what if they had children and they looked not like him at all but like her? She pictured two children, four and six with the hostess’s face, those small dull eyes and those sunken nostrils. (pg. 13-14)

When I think of this collection, one of the main themes that come to mind is a sense of emotional distance. Many of these stories involve people in a state of emotional disconnection, individuals struggling to connect with a member of their family or with life in general.

In Her Words, one of my favourites from the collection, a college lecturer feels compromised when his son, Rajiv, starts dating one of his pupils, an attractive girl by the name of Rachel. Before long, Rachel is sleeping over at the lecturer’s house, padding around with her underwear exposed and observing the father as he reads in bed. The father is uncomfortable with the lack of privacy in his own home, but when he expresses his concerns to Rajiv, the boy is unresponsive. “It’s my house too,” he replies. As the story unravels, it’s as if the traditional roles of parent and child have started to reverse. The son is the one setting the ground rules; the father must reluctantly accept the new order.

It is at times like this that I wonder if it is possible to dislike your offspring, whether the rule about love holds for every father and son. Because I do not like his selfishness when it comes to me.

The fact that his mother and I have been separated for two years now has made me more pliable and then more resentful. It used to be that I set rules and enforced them. Here I’ve let him dictate matters, and so the matter of Rachel Weisman has been closed. She will sleep in our house and I will be uncomfortable. (pg. 40)

In Balloon Night, another favourite from the collection, Timkin is hosting a Balloon Night Party is his city apartment, an annual event where guests can view the balloons being inflated for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. As the story begins, we learn that Timkin’s wife, Amy, has just walked out leaving him with little time to call the guests and cancel the party. Undeterred, he decides to go ahead with the event and pretends his wife is away on business. There’s a bittersweet contrast between the buzz of the party and the fading nature of Timkin’s marriage to Amy. It feels like one of Barbash’s signature stories.

Several of the narratives are melancholy in tone with a poignant emotional hit in the closing scenes; others end on a more hopeful note. Two or three of the stories contain painfully funny scenes – January is one such story, and it also features a failing relationship between a child and their parent. Here’s how it opens:

My mother is dating a man named Russell who owns a boat with the words Smooth Sailing on the back. Russell has put Smooth Sailing away for the winter and he’s trying to talk my mother into an all-day Nordic safari, maybe even a drive out onto frozen Lake Ontario, which on a day like today will feel like the Sahara itself, he says. He shows up at our house with his blue-tinted sunglasses and a neon green ski jacket on, as though there’s a ski lift in our house. (p. 119)

Russell is a bit of a dork. Even though January opens on a humorous note, the story soon turns much sadder and darker in tone, but these emotional changes never feel awkward or forced.

Letters from the Academy (probably the funniest story in the collection) charts the decline in a relationship between a tennis coach and his young protégé, Lee. The narrative is played out through a series of increasingly desperate letters from the coach to Lee’s father. Here’s a tiny snippet to give you a flavour:

While Pete Sampras is a well-known celebrity, I do not know if it is in your wishes for your son to be the hitting partner of a washed-up balding husband of a second-rate Hollywood starlet. (pg. 113)

I very much enjoyed Tom Barbash’s stories in Stay Up With Me. These are mostly quiet, unshowy stories, but no less satisfying as a result. They tend to follow a classic path, one that draws the reader into the narrative as it unfolds, and elements of a character’s backstory are revealed. These tales are gratifying plate-cleansers, and yet they’re memorable and emotionally truthful too. I’m left admiring the author’s ability to capture the changing nature of his characters’ feelings, their conflicting emotions:

…sending Henry plummeting into that blind alley of resentment where he both hated his father for making his mother leave and felt responsible for him in his fragile loneliness. (pg. 137)

Eric (Lonesome Reader) has also reviewed this collection.

Stay Up With Me is published in the UK by Simon & Schuster. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

The Way Some People Die by Ross Macdonald

Last year, The Drowning Pool, the second book in Ross Macdonald’s ‘Lew Archer’ series of hardboiled detective novels, rescued me from a brief reading slump. Next up then is number three in the series, The Way Some People Die, which I’d picked up a couple of years ago following Max’s excellent review.


As the novel opens, Lew Archer, a private investigator working the suburbs of Southern California, is called to the Santa Monica home of worried mother, Mrs. Samuel Lawrence. Her daughter, Galatea (‘Galley’) Lawrence, a nurse at Pacific Point hospital, has been missing without a trace for a couple of months. Prior to her disappearance, Galley was nursing a guy named Speed, who had been shot in the stomach in suspicious circumstances. To add to the intrigue, Galley was last seen moving out of her apartment in Pacific Point accompanied by an unknown man of a sinister nature. Consequently, Mrs Lawrence is worried that her daughter, a girl who attracts men like bees to a honey pot, has got herself mixed up in some kind of trouble.

Archer isn’t overly concerned though; girls skip off with guys all the time. Nevertheless, he agrees to do a bit of rooting around. One look Galley’s photograph swings it. ‘She was a girl you saw once and never forgot,’ a girl with bold and passionate looks, ‘curled lips, black eyes and clean angry bones.’

As he goes about his business, Archer discovers that Galley appears to have disappeared with a small-time hoodlum called Joey Tarantine. Joey and his brother Mario are connected to a bigger fish, a powerful gangster named Dowser, and it’s not long before Archer find himself face-to-face with this predator. Dowser is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, a man whose main methods of communication are money and violence (not necessarily in that order). Even though he despises Dowser and his type, Archer knows he will have to deal with him to uncover the mystery surrounding Galley’s disappearance.

I didn’t want Dowser’s money, but I had to ask him for it. The giving and receiving of money, its demand and its refusal, were Dowser’s basic form of communication with other people. That and the threat, the blow, the infliction of fear and pain. (pg. 41)

Max’s review includes a great analysis of Dowser (do read it). Macdonald has a keen eye for characterisation – it’s one of the reasons why this novel is so satisfying. Dowser is a little lacking in the height department, a stocky man with a body shaped like a cube. He is the embodiment of a mobster suffering from ‘short man syndrome,’ a power-crazy man driven by greed and insecurity. This next quote captures it nicely:

I sat down across the table from Dowser and looked him over. He took a few strutting paces on the patio tiles, his arms folded across his chest. With his swollen body wrapped in a white beach robe, he reminded me a little of a Roman emperor sawed off and hammered down. It was strange that men like Dowser could gain the power they had. No doubt they got the power because they wanted it so badly, and were willing to take any responsibility, run any risk, for the sake of seizing power and holding on. They would bribe public officials, kill off rivals, peddle women and drugs; and they were somehow tolerated because they did these things for money and success, not for the things themselves. (pg. 203)

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, but it’s deliciously twisty and turny. There are bluffs and double-crosses, murders and bloodshed, drugs and dollars. It’s a proper mesh of vice, a world populated by villains with fat rubber faces, and Galley can be found right in the middle of it.

Rather than dwell on the plot, I’d like to mention a few of the other things I enjoyed about this book. As you might expect, this being a gumshoe detective novel, the dialogue is sharp and moody. Here’s a good example. Archer is following up on a lead; he goes to see Jane Starr Hammond, an acquaintance of Keith Dalling’s (a faded actor, another man wrapped up with Galley). The scene is vintage hardboiled:

“I’m looking for a woman named Galley Lawrence. Mrs. Joseph Tarantine. Do you know her?”

A shadow crossed her face. Her hardening blue gaze reminded me that I hadn’t shaved or changed my shirt for over twenty-four hours. “I think I’ve heard the name. Are you a detective?”

I admitted that I was.

“You should shave more often; it puts people off. What has this Mrs. Tarantine been up to?”

“I’m trying to find out. What did she used to be up to?”

“I really don’t know Mrs. Tarantine. She lives in the same apartment building as a friend of mine. I’ve seen her once or twice, I think, that’s all.”

“Under what conditions?”

“Normal conditions. She dropped into my friend’s apartment for a cocktail one afternoon when I was there. I didn’t like her, if that’s what you mean. Her appeal is to the opposite sex. Frank sexuality is her forte. If I wanted to be catty I’d call it blatant.” Her forte was the cutting word. (pg. 69)

I also love the way Macdonald evokes a strong sense of place, the dimly-lit city streets and dark underbelly of the California suburbs. The trail takes Archer from Pacific Point to Palm Springs to San Francisco. The territory is dark and atmospheric.

I switched on my headlights as I wheeled out of the parking lot. The gray dusk in the air was almost tangible. Under its film the city lay distinct but dimensionless, as transient as a cloud. The stores and theaters and office buildings had lost their daytime perspectives with the sun, and were waiting for night to give them bulk and meaning. (pg. 30)

And lastly, but by no means least, there’s Lew Archer himself. Macdonald has created a wonderful character in Archer, one the reader can invest in and care for. He is world-weary but also humane and compassionate. He can see Mrs. Lawrence is down on her luck as soon as he arrives at her home.

The house didn’t look as if it had money in it, or ever would have again. I went in anyway, because I’d liked the woman’s voice on the telephone. (pg. 3)

That’s Lew Archer in a nutshell. He feels a sense of despair for some of the lost and wayward souls he encounters as he goes about his business, guys who have drifted into a life of crime because they don’t know what else to do with their lives. Boys like Ronnie, a twenty-year-old delinquent, caught up in the drugs racket:

There was really nothing to be done about Ronnie, at least that I could do. He would go on turning a dollar in one way or another until he ended up in Folsom or a mortuary or a house with a swimming pool on top of a hill. There were thousands like him in my ten-thousand-square-mile beat: boys who had lost their futures, their parents and themselves in the shallow jerry-built streets of the coastal cities; boys with hot-rod bowels, comic-book imaginations, daring that grew up too late for one war, too early for another. (pg. 135)

The Way Some People Die is a terrific hardboiled novel, probably my favourite of the three Lew Archer books I’ve read so far. It’s nicely paced, and the absorbing narrative keeps the reader guessing right up to the very end. The denouement, when it comes, is thoroughly satisfying. If, like me, you enjoy the likes of Chandler and Hammett, Ross Macdonald is worthy of your time – he’s one of the best.

The Way Some People Die is published by Vintage Crime / Black Lizard. Source: personal copy.

Agostino by Alberto Moravia (tr. Michael F. Moore)

First published in the mid-1940s, Alberto Moravia’s novella, Agostino, is a striking portrayal of the passing of a young boy’s innocence over the course of a seemingly idyllic summer.


Thirteen-year-old Agostino and his widowed mother are spending the season at a seaside resort in Italy. As the story opens, we can see how Agostino looks up to his mother, a strong, attractive and serene woman who remains in the prime of her life. He enjoys spending time by his mother’s side catering to her every need as the pair soak up the sun and swim in the sea.

Agostino would see the mother’s body plunge into a circle of green bubbles, and he would jump in right after her, ready to follow her anywhere, even to the bottom of the sea. (pg. 4)

One morning, a tanned, dark-haired young man appears on the beach and invites Agostino’s mother to join him on a boat ride out to sea. Agostino is convinced that his mother will politely turn down the invitation as with the others that have preceded it, but much to his surprise she is quick to accept. Left alone on the beach, Agostino feels a mix of annoyance, disappointment and humiliation at his mother’s actions; it is as if he has been abandoned at the drop of a hat.

What offended him most wasn’t so much the mother’s preference for the young man as the quick almost premeditated joy with which she accepted his invitation. It was as if she had decided not to let the opportunity slip away and to seize it without hesitation as soon as it presented itself. It was as if all those days on the sea with him she had been bored and had only come along for lack of better company. (pg. 7)

The following day the young man returns to invite the mother on another boat trip, but this time she insists that Agostino join them on the pattino. Agostino, who has always viewed his mother as dignified and serene, is surprised to see her behaving in a playful and flirtatious manner in the company of this interloper. The mother seems blind to her son’s presence; meanwhile Agostino is left feeling uncomfortable and confused by this apparent change in his mother. At one stage during the trip, the mother’s belly brushes against Agostino’s cheek and this seemingly insignificant moment (certainly in the eyes of the mother) stirs a deep sense of repulsion in the boy.

She lowered herself awkwardly onto the plank, brushing her belly against her son’s cheek. A trace of moisture from the wet bathing suit was left on Agostino’s skin and a deeper warmth seemed to evaporate the moisture into steam. Although he felt a sharp stab of murky repulsion, he obstinately refused to dry himself off. (pg. 12)

In the days that follow this image remains in Agostino’s mind and it comes to represent the sense of revulsion he now feels towards his mother.

Shortly after this incident Agostino comes into contact with Berto, a rough, aggressive local boy who lives in an impoverished part of the town. Coming from a wealthy and sheltered background, Agostino is not used to mixing with coarse boys like Berto but events with his mother have left him in need of an escape. Agostino is drawn towards Berto despite the boy’s savage nature, a quality that becomes apparent when Berto picks a fight with him.

He was not so much frightened as bewildered by the boy’s extraordinary brutality. It seemed incredible that he, Agostino, whom everyone had always liked, could now be hurt so deliberately and ruthlessly. Most of all he was bewildered and troubled by this ruthlessness, a new behavior so monstrous it was almost attractive. (pg. 22)

Berto introduces Agostino to his friends, a collective of streetwise working-class kids presided over by a local boatman, Saro. The boys have been watching Agostino’s mother and her new admirer, Renzo; they know Agostino has been playing the ‘third wheel’. The crude banter comes thick and fast as the boys speculate about the nature of relations between Agostino’s mother and her dark-haired friend. Once again, Agostino experiences a mix of emotions: embarrassment, confusion, but also a strange sense of gratification almost as though some of his past humiliations have been redressed.

He felt as if he should object, but these uncouth jokes aroused in him an unexpected, almost cruel feeling of pleasure, as if the boys had unknowingly avenged through their words all the humiliations that his mother had inflicted on him lately. (pg. 29)

Prior to meeting Berto and his companions, the naïve and innocent Agostino had little understanding of sex, but recent events and discussions with the gang have roused a strong sense of curiosity in his mind. He wonders what his mother and Renzo have been getting up to in his absence – something of a sensual nature he suspects – so he goes looking for clues.

The truth is, he might not have been seized by a desire to spy on his mother and to destroy the aura of dignity and respect with which he had viewed her if, on that same day, chance had not set him so violently on this path. (pg. 41-42)

Agostino’s mother, however, is blissfully oblivious to her son’s awakening sexuality. She has no awareness of the emotional turmoil unfolding in Agostino’s mind, no idea of the provocative nature of her sensual behaviour. In her eyes, he remains an innocent child.

She walked back and forth in front of him as if he weren’t there. She would pull her stockings on and off, slip into her clothes, dab on some perfume, apply her makeup. All of these gestures, which had once seemed so natural to Agostino, now seemed to take on meaning and become an almost visible part of a larger more dangerous reality, dividing his spirit between curiosity and pain. (pg. 69)

Agostino is a novella of juxtapositions and tensions. Alongside the boy’s struggle to come to terms with the maelstrom of emotions evoked by his mother’s behaviour, Moravia also exposes Agostino to another facet of sexuality through his interactions with the local gang. Even though they expose his naiveté and gullibility, Agostino longs to be accepted by Berto and his gang and he continues to seek them out. In a memorable scene, the boys are preparing to go skinny dipping in the river. While Agostino is shy and somewhat reluctant to expose his body, the other boys are eager to strip – they boast of their virility and measure one another up in the process. Presiding over events is Saro, is an utterly nasty piece of work, a man who exerts his power and influence over the boys at key moments in the narrative. The toad-like description is very apt here:

The boys, getting ready to dive in, acted out hundreds of obscene gestures, tripping, pushing, and touching each other with brashness and an unrestrained promiscuity that shocked Agostino, who was new to this type of thing. He too was naked, his feet bare and caked with cold mud, but he would have preferred to hide behind the cane, if only to escape the looks cast his way through the half-closed eyes of Saro, crouching and motionless, like a giant toad who dwelled in the canebrake. (pg. 61)

Agostino is a short but very powerful novel full of strong, sometimes brutal, imagery. The murky, mysterious waters of the settings mirror the cloudy undercurrent of emotions in Agostino’s mind. Ultimately, this is a story of a young boy’s transition from the innocence of boyhood to a new phase in life. While this should be a happy an exciting time of discovery, for Agostino, the summer is marked by a deep sense of pain and confusion. His feelings towards his mother have changed; reverence and affection have morphed into a swirling and disturbing mix.

As the novella draws to a close, Agostino seeks to insert something akin to a psychological buffer between himself and his muddy feelings towards the mother. He longs for an alternative outlet for his awakened sexuality, freedom from the dark obsessions that have tainted his summer. To discover whether or not Agostino achieves these aims, I would urge you to read this excellent book for yourself.

I bought this book on the strength of two trusted recommendations: Guy’s review and an endorsement from Scott (of Seraillon). Thank you, both.

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

Cà dei Frati Lugana – a wine match for Rendezvous in Venice by Philippe Beaussant

Last month I reviewed Rendezvous in Venice by Philippe Beaussant, a beautiful novel of love, art and Venice. (You can read my review by clicking on the link.) I don’t need much of an excuse to open a bottle of Italian wine, so I rummaged through the bottles at home in search of a suitable match. This Cà dei Frati Lugana caught my eye. It comes from a family-run estate on the south banks of Lake Garda near the northern Italian town of Sirmione – the vineyards are situated about 150 km from Venice, so that’s near enough for me.


Lugana is a white wine is made from a grape variety known locally as Turbiana (previously thought to be Trebbiano di Soave). The Cà dei Frati is a personal favourite, the best example of a Lugana I’ve tasted. It’s fresh, rounded and very moreish – think baked apples, a squeeze of lemon and a whiff of thyme. Perfect for a warm summer’s evening and a vicarious trip to Venice/the Italian Lakes.


Wine stockist: I bought my bottle of Cà dei Frati Lugana, 2013 from The Wine Society, priced at £12.50 per bottle. (No longer available, but the 2014 vintage is in stock.) It’s relatively widely available elsewhere – you can check stockists via wine-searcher.

Rendezvous in Venice (tr. by Paul Buck and Catherine Petit) is published in the UK by Pushkin Press.

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding was one of my reading highlights of 2014 and ever since then I’ve been looking forward to trying her debut, the jazz novel, Young Man with a Horn. I’m glad to say it did not disappoint, far from it. This novel is a modest triumph, finely crafted and deeply felt.


First published in 1938, Young Man was inspired by the music, but not the life, of Leon (Bix) Beiderbecke, the legendary cornetist and pianist of the Jazz Age. The novel opens with a prologue in which an unnamed narrator, possibly an observer or biographer, offers an overview of the story of Rick Martin’s life. Rick was a jazz musician, a young white guy with a rare talent for creating some of the sweetest, most imaginative music known to man. But we know from the outset that Rick’s life is over, he’s ‘washed up and gone’. His passion for music was so great that he struggled to keep pace with his own ability – here’s how the short prologue ends:

Our man is, I hate to say it, an artist, burdened with that difficult baggage, the soul of an artist. But he hasn’t got the thing that should go with it – and which I suppose seldom does – the ability to keep the body in check while the spirit goes on being what it must be. And he goes to pieces, but not in any small way. He does it so thoroughly that he kills himself doing it. (pg. 12)

The remainder of the novel is divided into four sections, each one covering a key phase in Rick’s story.

Orphaned as a baby, young Rick is raised by his (largely absent) older sister and brother. By the age of fourteen, Rick is skipping school and teaching himself to play the piano at the All Souls’ Mission church in Los Angeles. Around this time, he meets an eighteen-year-old black guy, Smoke Jordan, at the local Pool Hall. Rick is fascinated by Smoke’s natural sense of rhythm; he can see it in the way Smoke moves across the floor as he sweeps up at Gandy’s Pool Hall. At first, Smoke is a little wary of getting too close to Rick, but a lasting friendship soon develops between the pair as they bond over a mutual love of music.

First there was his absorbing interest in the music, and next there was his deep feeling for Smoke Jordan, the only person in the world he knew and loved. Or it may have been first Smoke and then the music. Whichever came first, the two had to be bracketed together. (pg. 38)

This deep relationship between the two young men (one white, one black) is one of the most touching and affectionate features of the novel, it’s beautifully rendered by Baker.

Smoke and Rick spend their nights sitting outside the Cotton Club listening to Jeff Williams and his Four Mutts. This band is hot, the players know what they’re about both collectively and singly, and Rick soaks it all up. Smoke knows the band and one evening the two boys are invited into the Club. Rick is in his in element; he is entranced by the music, not only the piano but the trumpet too. The way Art Hazard plays that horn simply blows him away.

It may have been the gin; something had him fixed up so that he was playing constantly right up to the place where genius and madness grapple before going their separate ways. It was Hazard’s night. (pg.53)

Jeff Williams agrees to teach Rick a thing or two about the piano and Art Hazard does the same with the horn. Rick’s world revolves around the music. He practices piano in the afternoons followed by a couple of hours on the trumpet, and in the evenings he heads to the Cotton Club to hear Jeff’s band. Rick just gets better and better; he’s on his way.

By the age of twenty, Rick is playing first trumpet in Jack Stuart’s dance band for a summer season in Balboa. Jack, a traditionalist by nature, wants the band to play straightforward arrangements of crowd-pleasing tunes, but Rick is itching to improvise a little; he needs an outlet for his creative juices. There’s a great scene where Rick gets to play things his own way for one dance number. He doesn’t show off, he’s respectful about it and lets the music speak for itself; out comes a sound that ‘could be tender and still hold its own shape’. Four choruses later and Rick has the crowd, they won’t leave the dancefloor. From that point on, every fourth number features a Rick Martin trumpet solo.

The final section of the novel moves to New York where Rick shifts up a gear to play in Lee Valentine’s band. Four years on and he’s working in Phil Morrison’s outfit, the leading society orchestra in NYC, playing hotels, drawing a crowd and earning more money than he has time to spend. When his stints with the orchestra are through for the night, Rick heads over to Louie Galba’s, a musicians’ hangout. Here he is reunited with Smoke, some of the guys from Jeff Williams’s band and other great musicians he has met along the way. By the age of twenty-four, Rick has become the big name; he’s the leading trumpet player in America.

It is here in New York that the tension between Rick’s creative drive and his ability to keep his life on an even keel starts to rise. His personal life gets complicated when he meets and falls for Amy, a bright and intelligent society girl.

When she came into a room, Rick felt it and his knees went cold. When she bent her head to light a cigarette from the match he held, he was lost until the flame burned his finger. When she stood in her long white robe in front of the fireplace, propping an elbow against the mantel and crossing her feet in the classic attitude of insouciance, he couldn’t let himself look at her; the sight of her twisted him. (pg. 137)

I love that quote, it could have come straight out of a Chandler novel (or the film, Casablanca).

Rick and Amy are happy for a little while, but it doesn’t last. Rick continues to push, to give himself up to the music, and when the fall comes he takes it hard.

Young Man with a Horn is a very fine novel; there is much to enjoy here. Baker writes so vividly and realistically about jazz musicians and their music; it’s one of the many pleasures of this book. As an example, here’s a passage from the scene where Rick is inside the Cotton Club listening to Jeff’s band.

Jeff led them to it with four bars in the key, and then the three horns came in together, held lightly to a slim melody by three separate leashes. Then Jeff left the rhythm to the drums, and the piano became the fourth voice, and from then on harmony prevailed in strange coherence, each man improvising wildly on his own and the four of them managing to fit it together and tightly. Feeling ran high, and happy inspiration followed happy inspiration to produce counterpoint that you’d swear somebody had sat down and worked out note by note on nice clean manuscript paper. But nobody had; it came into the heads of four men and out again by way of three horns and one piano. (pg. 49)

Baker also nails the ambience of the Harlem speakeasies, the clubs and hangouts where players congregate after hours. She captures the bond and sense of kinship between these musicians so well. At a time when racial tensions remain present in America, it’s refreshing to see just how natural it is for Rick and one or two other white musicians to jam alongside Smoke and his compatriots.

Ultimately though, this is the story of a young man’s fall from grace, of an artist so talented he couldn’t contain it.

In Rick Martin’s music there was, from the first, an element of self-destruction. He expected too much from it and he came to it with too great a need. (pg. 11)

Even though we know the arc of Rick’s life from the opening pages, the narrative remains compelling and engaging to the very end. I’ll finish with a favourite quote from the novel, one that conveys something of the wistful tone of the closing section.

They played hard and they played well and it wasn’t all solo either. Toward daylight they had built up a blend of melody and harmony that was older and emotionally deeper than the brave virtuosity of the first hours. It was the music of men who look backward with wisdom rather than forward with faith. They were tired now, and dependent on each other, not so ruggedly individualistic. They brought the dawn in with sad and mellow music. (pg. 154)

Young Man with A Horn is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.