Monthly Archives: September 2015

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Having arrived late to Penelope Fitzgerald, I’ve been trying to catch up with a few of her novels over the past year or so. The Bookshop will make my end-of-year list, so I had high hopes for Booker Prize winner, Offshore, another novel that draws on Fitzgerald’s own life experience. Her time working in a Southwold bookshop informed the former while her years living on a barge on the Thames gave rise to the latter.

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First published in 1979 but set in the early sixties, Offshore features a small community of individuals who live on houseboats on the Battersea Reach stretch of the Thames. It’s probably fair to say that these boat dwellers are outsiders, unsettled characters getting by on the margins of society. Despite living within touching distance of the security and solidity of dry land, they remain vulnerable, somewhat cast adrift in life.

The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway. (pg. 2)

The group’s somewhat reluctant leader is Richard, an investment counsellor and ex-Navy man who lives on Lord Jim, a converted minesweeper. Living alongside Richard is his ‘shires-bred’ wife, Laura, a woman who would much rather a nice house in the Home Counties, preferably something straight out of Country Life magazine. Dreadnought is occupied by Sam Willis, a semi-retired painter of maritime landscapes. Then there’s Maurice, a sympathetic, easy-going rent boy who allows his boat to be used as a repository for stolen goods. One or two others also feature, but the novel’s central character is 32-year-old Nenna, owner of Grace.

Offshore ebbs and flows along with the lives of these somewhat fragile, lonely individuals. While the story touches on various situations that affect different members of the community, this is not a plot-driven novel. Instead, Fitzgerald’s focus is on her characters: their hopes and aspirations, their failures and compromises.

Nenna’s marriage has broken down (possibly temporarily, possibly permanently) and she lives on Grace with her two children, Martha (aged 12) and Tilda (aged 6). Martha and Tilda are independent, resourceful creatures. Like the children in The Beginning of Spring and The Bookshop, they seem mature beyond their years.

One of the things I like most about Fitzgerald is the way she conveys the sense of a character in just one or two sentences. Take Nenna, for instance:

Nenna’s character was faulty, but she had the instinct to see what made other people unhappy, and this instinct had only failed her once, in the case of her own husband. (pgs. 10-11)

And here’s a telling description of Martha, Nenna’s eldest – telling in the sense that it conveys almost as much about Nenna as it does about her daughter:

Nenna would have felt better pleased with herself if she had resembled her elder daughter. But Martha, small and thin, with dark eyes which already showed an acceptance of the world’s shortcomings, was not like her mother and even less like her father. The crucial moment when children realise that their parents are younger than they are had long since been passed by Martha. (pg. 21)

Whenever she is alone, Nenna’s thoughts turn to the demise of her marriage to Edward. (Ideally she would like Edward to come and live on Grace with her and the children, but that seems a fairly distant prospect.)  These reflections take the form of a judicial hearing in which Nenna is questioned by a judge, while her conscience, quite uninvited, maintains a close watch over the proceedings. Here’s a brief excerpt:

‘…Why don’t I go to him? Well, why doesn’t he come to us? He hasn’t found anywhere at all that we could all of us live together. He’s in some kind of rooms in the north-east of London somewhere.’

‘42b Milvain Street, Stoke Newington.’

‘In Christ’s name, who’s ever heard of such a place?’

‘Have you made any effort to go and see the plaintiff there, Mrs James? I must remind you that we cannot admit second-hand evidence.’

So now it was out. She was the defendant, or rather the accused, and should have known it all along. (pg. 40)

In the hands of another writer, this could have been a little gimmicky, but Fitzgerald uses it very effectively here. It gives a clear insight into Nenna’s mind – the way she thinks and how she sees her relationship with Edward.

When Nenna finally goes to see him in Stoke Newington, things don’t go quite to plan. She finds Edward lodging in a single room in a house owned by the mother of one of his old school friends, hardly an ideal setting for a reconciliation.

Things were going as badly as they could. From the room immediately beneath them, somebody began to play the piano, a Chopin nocturne, with heavy emphasis, but the piano was by no means suitable for Chopin and the sound travelled upwards as a hellish tingling of protesting strings.

‘Eddie, is this the only room you’ve got?’

‘I don’t see anything wrong with it.’

She noticed now that there was a kind of cupboard in the corner which was likely to contain a washbasin, and a single bed, tucked in with a plaid rug. Surely they’d do better making love on board Grace than on a few yards of Mackenzie tartan? (pgs. 113-114)

One of most impressive things about Offshore stems from Fitzgerald’s ability to treat her characters with sympathy despite their failings. She has a knack for conveying humour alongside the misfortune and calamities that touch the lives of these barge-dwellers, and yet there is compassion in her writing, too.

While I didn’t love Offshore quite as much as The Bookshop, there is plenty to enjoy here. Each scene is beautifully observed. The novel has a strong sense of place, alive with the sights and smells of the riverside and glimpses of Chelsea in the early sixties. Fitzgerald offers just enough detail to give the reader a sense of each of her characters, their personality and outlook on life. Maurice is as amusing as he is hapless. There are touching exchanges between Nenna and Richard as they find solace in each other’s company. Willis’s attempts to patch up and sell his boat end in disaster – an impromptu party to celebrate the potential sale of Dreadnought is one of the novel’s delights. In some ways, Offshore reminded me a little of Mike Leigh’s films (something along the lines of High Hopes), and that’s no bad thing.

Max’s excellent review prompted me to pick up this novel, and his post contains links to a range of other reviews and articles about the book.

Offshore is published by Fourth Estate. Source: personal copy. Book 12/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

I can’t quite recall how I first heard of American writer Paula Fox, possibly via a conversation on Twitter or through the blogosphere, but either way she sounded interesting. First published in 1970, Desperate Characters was her second novel. After being out of print for several years, it was reissued in 1999 and is now regarded by some as a potential classic of 20th-century American literature.

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Set in New York in the late 1960s, this short novel follows a weekend in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a childless upper middle-class couple living in Brooklyn. The Bentwoods are privileged; they have plenty of money, a Mercedes-Benz sedan, and a second home on Long Island. In many ways, they exist in a world cocooned from poverty, social deprivation and disorder.

One Friday evening, as the Bentwoods are dining at home, a familiar stray cat reappears at their back door. Sophie takes pity on the cat, gives it a saucer of milk and strokes its back, an action that prompts the creature to bite her. Here’s how it happens:

She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck at her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto’s presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat as she jerked her hand back from that circle of barbed wire. (pg. 6)

That’s a great passage. It contains so many different elements: the hints about Sophie’s character; the danger lurking close to home; the sense of violation.

At first, Sophie does little to attend to the bite. She is reluctant to seek medical treatment, passing the incident off as ‘nothing’, even though deep inside she feels vitally wounded in some way. Having fed the cat on at least one previous occasion, she feels bemused and somewhat betrayed by its attack. As time passes fear begins to set in: her hand swells up; signs of infection start to appear; someone mentions the possibility of rabies. All this only serves to unnerve Sophie; even everyday objects start to appear somewhat unsettling.

The living room looked smudged, flat, Objects, their outlines beginning to harden in the growing light, had a shadowy, totemic menace. Chairs, tables, and lamps seemed to have only just assumed their accustomed positions. There was an echo in the air, a peculiar pulsation as of interrupted motion. Of course, it was the hour, the light, her fatigue. Only living things do harm. […] Who would pity her in her childish terror, her evasion, her pretence that nothing much had happened? Life had been soft for so long a time, edgeless and spongy, and now, here in all its surface banality and submerged horror was this idiot event – her own doing – this undignified confrontation with mortality. (pg. 47)

One of the most striking things about this novel is the way in which Fox uses the cat bite as a catalyst, a starting point for further exploration. In effect, the incident is the first of a number of disturbing events that threaten to destabilise the Bentwoods’ seemingly harmonious existence over the course of the weekend. For instance, Sophie answers the telephone to a heavy breather; a stone is thrown through the window of a friend’s house; their holiday home is vandalised. One by one the episodes pile up. In one memorable scene, a visibly distressed black man knocks at the Bentwoods’ door, pleads to use their phone and ends up borrowing money from them. In many respects, it feels like an invasion of their bourgeois world.

Desperate Characters is a subtle and very effective character study; slowly but surely Fox peels away the layers to expose Sophie’s vulnerability and Otto’s failings. In some ways it reminded me a little of Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the WeddingI didn’t love it quite as much as Cassandra, but that said, Baker’s novel sets a very high bar. In the end, I was left wondering what it is that Sophie fears the most. She clearly dreads the prospect of injections, but is she more unsettled by the threat of rabies or by the reality of her life with Otto? As we follow Sophie over the course of the weekend, we learn of her previous affair with a publisher named Francis, a relationship that obviously meant a great deal to her. When the affair ended, and Francis returned to his wife, Sophie was left feeling as though she had suffered ‘an irreversible loss’. In this scene, she reflects on her marriage to Otto, a man in the midst of his own troubles:

If all these months, she had so ardently lived a life apart from Otto without his sensing something, it meant that their marriage had run down long before she had met Francis; either that or worse – once she had stepped outside rules, definitions, there were none. Constructions had no true life. Ticking away inside the carapace of ordinary life and its sketchy agreements was anarchy. (pg. 62)

Fox uses contrasts to good effect throughout the story. There is a striking difference between the order of the Bentwoods’ house and the chaos Otto and Sophie encounter when they call upon Mr Haynes, the somewhat unreliable caretaker of their Long Island retreat. Here’s a brief excerpt from the description of the Haynes’ house, a property that looks as if it has been ‘assembled by a centrifuge’.

Rubber tires leaned against every surface. Cans, tools, pails, lengths of hose, rusted grills, and summer furniture were spread out in front of the house, presenting a scene of monkeylike distraction – as though each object had been snatched up and then dropped, a second’s forgetfulness erasing all memory of original intention. A clothesline was strung across the porch and from it hung a few limp rags. A bicycle with twisted handlebars lay against the steps. And from a small chimney black smoke poured as if, inside the house, the inhabitants were hurriedly burning up still more repellent trash before it drowned them. (pg 131-132)

There is a broader significance to the story, too. It seems to signal a crisis in a certain type of American life, an unravelling of the American Dream in a changing world. I’ll finish with a final quote from Charlie, Otto’s former business partner and fellow lawyer (the dissolution of their partnership adds another element of tension to the narrative). Even though he is alone with Sophie, Charles’ comments refer to both her and her husband:

“You don’t know what’s going on,” he said at last. “You are out of the world, tangled in personal life. You won’t survive this…what’s happening now. People like you…stubborn and stupid and drearily enslaved by introspection while the foundation of their privilege is being blasted out from under them.” He looked calm. He had gotten even. (pg. 39)

For the interested, here’s a link a profile of Paula Fox published in The Guardian.

Desperate Characters is published by Flamingo, an imprint of HarperCollins. Source: personal copy. Book 11/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Topkapi – The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

In need of a change from all the translated fiction I’ve been reading lately, I turned to Eric Ambler’s 1962 crime caper, The Light of Day (also published as Topkapi). A good decision as it proved to be hugely enjoyable, just what I was looking for at the time.

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The novel is narrated by Arthur Abdel Simpson, a small-time thief who makes a living by hustling tourists on their arrival at Athens airport. As the story opens, Simpson is recounting the tale of how he got mixed up with Harper, a man who turned out to be more dangerous than he appeared at first sight. As Simpson looks back on past events, here’s how his story begins:

It came down to this: if I had not been arrested by the Turkish police, I would have been arrested by the Greek police. I had no choice but to do as this man Harper told me. He was entirely responsible for what happened to me.

I thought he was an American. He looked like an American – tall with the loose, light suit, the narrow tie and button-down collar, the smooth, old-young, young-old face and the crew cut. He spoke like an American, too; or at least like a German who had lived in America for a long time. Of course, I now know that he is not an American, but he certainly gave that impression. His luggage, for instance, was definitely American: plastic leather and imitation gold locks. I know American luggage when I see it. (pg. 1)

It’s a good opening, one that pulled me into narrative – you know from the start that something bad has happened to the narrator, and he holds Harper responsible for it.

When Simpson spots Harper at the airport, he marks him out as someone seemingly unfamiliar with Athens, reasonably well off and thus a suitable target for one of his petty scams. He offers to act as the visitor’s driver and guide to the city, and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, Harper agrees. But unfortunately for Simpson, Harper has him all worked out from the get-go, and when Simpson tries to steal a few travellers cheques from his wallet, Harper catches him red-handed.

He turned and stared at me. All at once his face was neither old-young nor young-old. It was white and pinched and his mouth worked in an odd way. I have seen faces go like that before and I braced myself. There was a metal lamp on the writing table beside me. I wondered if I could possibly hit him with it before he got to me.

But he did not move. His eyes flickered towards the bedroom and then back to me. (pg. 21)

Having discovered Simpson’s scam, Harper blackmails him into playing a part in his own shady plan. Simpson must drive a high-class American car from Athens to Istanbul, no questions asked – it’s either that or Harper will turn him over to the police. Harper, on his part, claims he is doing a favour for the daughter of a business associate, Fräulein Elizabeth Lipp, the car’s registered owner. Even though Simpson suspects the car may be carrying illicit goods (drugs, jewellery, money or suchlike), he knows he has to go through with it. Harper has already strong-armed him into signing a confession for the purposes of ‘insurance’.

Once he is clear of Athens, Simpson stops, takes a good look inside the car and finds nothing. But on his arrival at the border with Turkey, he gets stopped by the Turkish police. A more thorough search of the car is conducted, arms and explosives are discovered, and Simpson is placed under arrest. His position is further complicated by the fact that his passport is out of date. The Egyptian government has refused to renew it, revoking his citizenship in the process; in effect, Simpson is stateless. Having discovered the arms, The Turkish Secret Service is convinced that they must be destined for some kind of political attack. As a result, they force Simpson to act as their agent, coercing him into reporting on Harper’s every move along with those of his associates.

As he continues his story, we learn more about Simpson as a character, particularly his mistrust of authority figures which stems from his days at an English public school. Here he is on the people who run counter-espionage groups, men like Major Tufan, his contact from the Turkish ‘Second Section’. He considers these men to be ‘suspicious, unbelieving, […], petty’ and ‘inhuman’.

With them, it is no use having just one story; and especially not a true story; they automatically disbelieve that. What you must have is a series of stories, so that when you they knock the first one down you can bring out the second, and then, when they scrub that out, come up with a third. That way they think they are making progress and keep their hands off you, while you gradually find out the story they really want you to tell. (pg. 49)

Once he re-establishes contact with Harper, Simpson must take one risk after another in order to satisfy Major Tufan’s demands for information. He has to get as close to Harper’s gang as possible without blowing his cover in the process. In this scene, Simpson realises he’s being sounded out by Miss Lipp, Harper’s glamorous companion, in all likelihood the true brains of the operation.

I couldn’t help glancing at her. She was watching me in her amused, considering way, but there was nothing sleepy about her eyes now. They were steadily intent.

And then I got the message. I was being sounded, either to discover what I had made of the setup and if they had left any shirt-tails showing, or to find out if I could be trusted in some particular way. I knew that how I answered would be very important indeed to me; but I didn’t know what to say. It was no use pretending to be stupid any more, or trying to avoid the issue. A test was being applied. If it failed it, I was out – out with Harper, out with Tufan and his Director, out with the Turkish customs, and, in all probability, out with the Greek police as well. (pg. 113)

Before long, Simpson finds himself embroiled in Harper’s plot, which isn’t quite the political attack the Turkish authorities are anticipating. Caught between a rock and a hard place, our narrator has little option but to play the game. That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the story, but this is a hugely entertaining, well-paced escapade with plenty of action, especially in the closing stages.

This is my first experience of Eric Ambler’s work, and I hope it won’t be the last. As far as I can tell, several of his novels feature fairly unsuspecting civilians, often short of money, who find themselves caught up in some conspiracy or other. Despite his failings and previous brushes with the law, Simpson is the underdog in this scenario – he’s an eminently likeable character, and I found myself rooting for him all the way. As he recounts his narrative, Simpson goes over his actions, highlighting his thinking and the options open to him at the time.

My thanks to Scott (of seraillon) and John (of Noirish) for recommending Eric Ambler and this classic novel in particular. In 1964, the story was filmed as Topkapi, directed by Jules Dassin, starring Peter Ustinov in the role of Simpson, Maximilian Schell as Harper and Melina Mercouri as Elizabeth Lipp. It’s been a while since I watched it, so it’s time for another look.

Topkapi – The Light of Day is published by House of Stratus. Source: personal copy. Book 10/20, #TBR20 round 2.

In Love by Alfred Hayes

A couple of years ago I read My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes, a story of an affair between a married man and a wounded aspiring actress (Max and Guy have reviewed it). Had I been blogging at the time, it would have made my end-of-year highlights, so I was looking forward to reading another Hayes novel: In Love, first published in 1953.

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As In Love opens, an unnamed man in his late thirties is telling his story to the pretty young girl he has just met in a hotel bar. It’s a tale that charts the various stages of his relationship with another young woman, a love affair that now appears to be over. As the narrator begins to relate his story, we get the sense that he is trying to understand what happened and why. He appears lost and adrift in a world that no longer holds any purpose or meaning for him.

At the time of their meeting, the object of the narrator’s affection, a nameless woman in her early twenties, is living on her own in a studio apartment in New York. By way of the narrator, Hayes does a fine job of conveying this woman’s sense of vulnerability. She is recently divorced and still a little bruised following her failure to connect with her former husband, and despite being young, beautiful and relatively hopeful, she exudes a sense of melancholy. What she wants more than anything is some comfort that the future will hold something better for her: a permanent relationship, a comfortable home, and another child. (There is a young girl from her first marriage, a daughter named Barbara who resides with the woman’s mother.) In short, she is hoping for the American Dream.

…but it seems to me now that this disorder, so much in evidence, and so little cared about, came from the fact that she considered the life that she was leading then as only temporary. This house, the way she lived, was only a hasty arrangement, thrown together to cover a time in her life which she did not consider too important, and in which she did not feel any necessity for putting things into any sort of final order. The final order had not yet arrived; she was waiting for it to arrive. (pg. 13)

But as the narrator looks back to early stages of the affair, it’s as if he is entering his own separate dream. We see a time when everything is free-spirited and idyllic, a period he expects to continue for as long as it suits him.

She would exist among these love letters and these portraits for as long as I loved her. I did not, of course, think of myself as loving her forever, but neither did I think of the time when I would stop loving her. No, what I thought, I suppose, really, was that this scene would remain forever unchanged: […] It was a very convenient and fixed and unvarying idyll I had in mind, a simple sequence of pleasures that would not seriously change my life or interfere with my work, that would fill the emptiness of my long evenings and ease the pressures of my loneliness, and give me what I suppose I really thought of as the nicest amusement in all the amusement park: the pleasure of love. (pgs. 18-19)

One evening while the woman is out with friends, she meets a wealthy businessman by the name of Howard, who offers her $1,000 to spend the night with him. The woman is tempted; she is flattered and curious. Howard appears sincere and lonely. $1,000 is a lot of money, a potential nest egg for her daughter, Barbara. And besides, the narrator has always maintained that they should have an open relationship leaving them free to see other people every now and again.

I don’t want to say too much about what happens next, but Howard’s proposition sparks the decline in the narrator’s relationship with his lover. As the woman becomes increasingly involved with Howard, the narrator begins to experience a kind of paralysis. At first he is only too ready to believe that this woman still loves him; her relationship with Howard is purely one of convenience, something she can step away from at any moment. Little by little though, the woman becomes absorbed into another life, a process that throws into sharp relief the emptiness of the narrator’s own existence.

All I knew, really, was that she had taken away with her when she had gone something which in the past had held me together, some necessary sense of myself, something without which I seemed in danger of collapsing; and whatever it was, an indispensable vanity, an irreplaceable idea of my own invulnerability, it was gone and only she could restore it to me, or so I thought. For without whatever it was, I seemed poor, depleted, injured in some mysterious way; without it, there was nothing to interpose between the world and me. (pg. 78)  

I read In Love during the hot, heady days of early July, and despite turning the story over in my mind for several weeks I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it. As a reader, I found the two central characters, the nameless narrator and the equally anonymous woman, rather difficult to engage with. At times, the narrator appears self-centred, bitter and eaten up by jealousy. But there were moments when I felt something approaching sympathy for him, especially as he doesn’t quite realise how much he is in love with this woman until she has virtually slipped away from him. And when I think of the young woman, she isn’t quite as fragile as she appears at first sight; as the story moves forward, a somewhat more unpredictable side to her character emerges.

If the ‘proposition’ element of the set-up sounds familiar, the introduction to this NYRB edition draws the comparison with the 1993 film Indecent Proposal in which Robert Redford makes a similar proposal to Demi Moore. Hayes’ novel is very different though; it is much darker and more penetrating than Adrian Lyne’s film. In Love reminded me very much of another novel I read earlier this year, Simenon’s Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, also set in New York and published in the period immediately following WWII. The sense of loneliness and desolation evoked by Edward Hopper’s paintings of the 1940s is another touchstone for Hayes’ story.

Hayes’ prose is very evocative, and the early chapters of the novel are full of long, meandering, meditative sentences. At times In Love reminded me of certain aspects of James Salter’s work, something along the lines of Light Years, although there is much more bitterness in the Hayes, especially in the closing stages.

Ultimately, In Love is an examination of the breakdown of a relationship, the transition from hope to disillusionment, from desire to jealousy, from expectation to loss. I’ll finish with a quote that seems to capture it as well as any other:

I suppose no evening is ever again like the very first evening, the nakedness ever again quite the nakedness it is that first time, the initial gestures, hesitant and doubtful and overintense, ever again what they were, for nothing we want ever turns out quite the way we want it, love or ambition or children, and we go from disappointment to disappointment, from hope to denial, from expectation to surrender, as we grow older, thinking or coming to think that what was wrong was the wanting, so intense it hurt us, and believing or coming to believe that hope was our mistake and expectation our error, and that everything the more we want it the more difficult the having it seems to be… (pgs. 22-23)

Guy has also reviewed this novel, and his excellent post contains some notes on the author’s background and career as a screenwriter.

In Love is published by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 4/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

My first encounter with Silvina Ocampo’s work came in the shape of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, a novella she co-wrote with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares. This playful take on the traditional murder mystery genre made my 2014 end-of-year highlights, so I’ve been looking forward to reading Thus Were Their Faces, a collection of Ocampo’s short stories published earlier this year. In her introduction to this collection, Helen Oyeyemi informs us that the panel of judges for Argentina’s National Prize for Literature deemed Ocampo’s body of work to be “demasiado crueles” meaning “far too cruel”  and so they denied her the prize. While it’s true to say that several of these stories feature rather sinister events, I’m not sure I would simply label them as “cruel”. They’re far more interesting than that, a point I hope to demonstrate in this review.

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Faces contains forty-two stories drawn from seven different collections of Ocampo’s writing published from 1937 to 1988; the pieces vary in length from one or two pages to longer works.

Several of the pieces throughout the collection feature individuals who possess the ability to see into the future, an unsettling sense of clairvoyance that often arouses suspicion amongst those around them. In one of my favourite stories, Autobiography of Irene, a young woman describes how she foresaw her father’s death three months before it happened.

I was happy, but the sudden death of my father, as I said before, brought about a change in my life. Three months before he died, I had already prepared my mourning dress and the black crepe; I had already cried for him, leaning majestically on the balcony railing. I had already written the date of his death on an etching; I had already visited the cemetery. All of that was made worse by the indifference I showed after the funeral. To tell the truth, after his death I never remembered him at all. (pg. 78)

This clever, beautiful and moving piece ends with a development that brings Irene’s story full circle, one that made me turn back to the beginning to read it a second time.

The supernatural crops up again in The House Made of Sugar, the first of several excellent pieces taken from Ocampo’s 1959 collection, The Fury. In this disquieting story, the narrator tells of his partner, Cristina, a woman whose life is governed by superstitions.

There were certain streets we couldn’t cross, certain people we couldn’t see, certain movie theaters we couldn’t go to. Early in our relationship, these superstitions seemed charming to me, but later they began to annoy and even seriously worry me. When we got engaged we had to look for a brand-new apartment because, according to her, the fate of the previous occupants would influence her life. (She at no point mentioned my life, as if the danger threatened only hers and our lives were not joined by love.) (pg. 91)

Finally, the narrator finds what he hopes will be the ideal place: a little house that looks as if it is made of sugar. On discovering that the house had been occupied in the past and subsequently remodelled, he decides to keep quiet and let Cristina believe that their home is brand new. But once the newly-weds move in, the narrator starts to notice certain changes in Cristina’s behaviour. Slowly but surely she begins to inhabit another woman’s life, that of the mysterious Violeta, the previous occupant of the house.

In The Photographs, a fateful little story from the same period, Ocampo shows her talent for taking what should be a joyful celebration and injecting a touch of the macabre into it. Recovering from a stay in hospital and unable to walk unaided, Adriana is allowed home for her fourteenth birthday party. As they wait for the photographer (Spirito) to arrive, the guests entertain themselves with ‘stories of more or less fatal accidents. Some of the victims had been left without arms, others without hands, others without ears’.

Members of the family jostle and position Adriana for a series of photographs, moving and manipulating her as if she were a rag dog. As the story unravels, there is a striking contrast between the sugar-coated sweetness of the occasion and the insensitivity shown towards the young girl.

In the third photograph, Adriana brandished the knife to cut the cake, which was decorated with her name, the date of her birthday, and the word “Happiness,” all written in pink icing, and covered with rainbow sprinkles.

“She should stand up,” the guests said.

An aunt objected: “And if her feet come out wrong?”

“Don’t worry,” responded the friendly Spirito. If her feet come out wrong, I’ll cut them off later.”

Adriana grimaced with pain, and once more poor Spirito had to take her picture sunken in her chair surrounded by the guests. (pgs. 122-123)

The Velvet Dress, touches on another contrast: the dual nature of velvet, a fabric that feels smooth when rubbed one way and rough when rubbed the other; a fabric with the power to repel as well as attract. This story features a woman who is having a dress made-to-measure, a velvet dress featuring a dragon motif embroidered with black sequins.

I couldn’t tear myself away from watching the fittings of the dress with the sequin dragon. The lady stood up again and, staggering slightly, walked over to the mirror. The sequin dragon also staggered. The dress was now nearly perfect, except for an almost imperceptible tuck under the arms. Casilda took up the pins once more, plunging them perilously into the wrinkles that bulged out of the unearthly fabric. (pg. 146-147)

Without wishing to give too much away, this brief but effective tale takes a sinister turn. It’s narrated by a child, the dressmaker’s companion, who peppers the narrative with several cries of “How amusing!”

This childlike sense of mischief and wickedness is present in several of Ocampo’s stories, especially those from the 1950s and ‘60s. Other pieces from this period include:

  • The Wedding: another story with a sting in its tail, this one featuring a girl who hides a huge spider in the hairpiece of her soon-to-be married neighbour, Arminda. As the girl’s friend says “Spiders are like people: they bite to defend themselves.”
  • Mimoso: a sinister story of a woman who has her beloved dog embalmed following its death. But when someone taunts and criticises her for doing so the woman takes her revenge in the most fitting way possible.
  • The Perfect Crime, in which a man commits a crime of passion involving poisonous mushrooms.
  • The Lovers, which features a couple who meet sporadically. Shy and with little to say to one another, they indulge in a ritual of picnicking on cakes. As they devour the pastries with ‘loving greed and intimacy’ they find a way to commune with each other and their movements become synchronised.
  • Thus Were Their Faces: a strange, dreamlike story in which forty children from a school for the deaf strive to assume similar characteristics, personalities and identities ‘as if they wanted to become equal’. Here’s an extract:

They were also linked by the violence of their gestures, by their simultaneous laughter, by a boisterous and sudden feeling of sadness in solidarity hidden in their eyes, in their straight or slightly curly hair. So indissolubly united were they that they could defeat an army, a pack of hungry wolves, a plague, hunger, thirst, or the abrupt exhaustion that destroys civilizations.

At the top of a slide, out of excitement not wickedness, they almost killed a child who had slipped in among them. On the street, in the face of admiring enthusiasm, a flower vendor almost perished, trampled with his merchandise. (pg. 193)

Several of Ocampo’s stories blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. One of the earliest stories, The Imposter, demonstrates this to good effect. In this extended piece, the young man who narrates the story is sent on a journey by a family friend to check up on his son – the boy has hidden himself away at a secluded ranch in the countryside. When the narrator arrives, several objects and people remind him of things he has seen before: images, people and scenes from his dreams start to appear in reality; strange developments occur; and as the story progresses, one begins to question what is real and what is illusory. This is another story featuring a shift that will have you flipping back to the beginning to read it again.

Some of Ocampo’s final stories are characterised by a free-spirited wildness, possibly the product of an especially vivid imagination in the years leading up to her death. Others are gentler, tenderer pieces such as And So Forth, which features a man who falls for a mermaid. This beautiful, mystifying story reads like a prose poem, an ode to a different kind of love.

I love the stories in Thus Were Their Faces, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of the pieces point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. Ocampo studied painting with the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, and this flair for the artistic shows in her prose which sparkles with strange and mysterious imagery. This is an unusual and poetic collection of stories – highly recommended.

Thus Were Their Faces is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 9/20, #TBR20 round 2.