Monthly Archives: March 2016

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

The American short-story writer Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) is currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance. More than seventy of her stories were published during her lifetime, mostly in collections issued in the 1980s and ‘90s from small presses such as Turtle Island and Black Sparrow Press. Now, more than a decade after her death, Berlin and her work are reaching a much wider audience courtesy of this collection of forty-three of her pieces, A Manual for Cleaning Women, brought to us by the team at Picador. This is a wonderful set of short stories, so raw and striking that I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ll read a better collection all year.


Lucia Berlin seems to have lived many lives during her time, and her work draws heavily on various experiences from her lonely and unhappy childhood right through to her more settled old age. Before the war, Berlin’s father worked in the mining industry; consequently, the family moved around a fair bit, spending time in Idaho, Kentucky and Montana. When her husband went off to the war, Berlin’s mother took Lucia and her younger sister to live with their grandparents in El Paso – Mamie and Grandpa both feature in a number of the stories included here, as do other members of the Berlin family, most notably Lucia’s sister.

Berlin grew up fast. By her early thirties, she had been married and divorced three times and was raising four sons more or less on her own. During her lifetime she worked as a high school teacher, a cleaning woman, a switchboard operator, and a hospital ward clerk. As a young mother, she struggled with alcoholism, finally overcoming her addiction later in life. She lived in Chile, New York and Oakland; then in the early nineties, she spent the best part of two years in Mexico City, caring for her sister who was dying of cancer. (Berlin’s mother died in the mid-eighties, a possible suicide.)

I mention these events because they have a direct bearing on Berlin’s work. Her stories are little slices of life, vignettes drawn from her own remarkable experiences. With more than forty pieces in this collection, it’s going to be impossible for me to cover even half of these stories. My aim instead is to give you a flavour of the collection, primarily Berlin’s style and a few of her key themes.

In the titular story, the narrator, a domestic cleaner, offers a kind of guide to others performing the same role in similar households. It’s a blend of advice to cleaning women – ‘never make friends with cats, don’t let them play with the mop, the rags. The ladies will get jealous.’ – and reflections on the various employers the cleaner encounters. Here’s the narrator on the Blums, both of whom are psychiatrists, marriage counsellors with two adopted pre-school children. (The narrator has already warned us of the perils of young kids: ‘Never work in a house with “preschoolers.” Babies are great. You can spend hours looking at them, holding them. But the older ones…you get shrieks, dried Cheerios, accidents hardened and walked on in the Snoopy pyjama foot.’)

The Blums have a lot of pills, a plethora of pills. She has uppers, he has downers. Mr. Dr. Blum has belladonna pills. I don’t know what they do but I wish it was my name.

One morning I heard him say to her, in the breakfast nook, “Let’s do something spontaneous today, take the kids to go fly a kite!”

My heart went out to him. Part of me wanted to rush in like the maid in the back of Saturday Evening Post. I make great kites, know good places in Tilden for wind. There is no wind in Montclair. The other part of me turned on the vacuum so I couldn’t hear her reply. It was pouring rain outside. (pg. 32)

Alongside these acute observations, the narrator reflects on her lost lover, Ter, a young cowboy from Nebraska. These passages are indicative of the deep sense of loss and loneliness that runs through several of Berlin’s stories.

Once he told me he loved me because I was like San Pablo Avenue.

He was like the Berkeley dump. I wish there was a bus to the dump. We went there when we got homesick for New Mexico. It is stark and windy and gulls soar like nighthawks in the desert. You can see the sky all around you and above you. Garbage trucks thunder through dust-billowing roads. Gray dinosaurs. (pg. 33)

Unsurprisingly, given the background I mentioned earlier, much of Berlin’s work features women trying dealing with the harsh realities of their fractured lives. We meet a bright but lonely young girl struggling to adjust to a new school; a mother so desperate for her next drink that she leaves her children unattended in bed while she goes in search of alcohol; a young addict experiencing her first detox in a hospital; there are many more, several are heartbreaking.

Some of these stories are set in the places we’d rather not think about too often: prisons, backstreet abortion clinics, detox wards and emergency rooms. In Mijito, one of the most haunting pieces in this collection, a ward clerk/nurse describes how she copes with the suffering she encounters in her work.

When I go out there I sort of cross my eyes, and when I call the patient’s name I smile at the mother or grandmother or foster care mom but I look at a third eye in their forehead. I learned this in Emergency. It’s the only way to work here, especially with all the crack babies and AIDS and cancer babies. Or the ones who will never grow up. If you look the parent in the eyes you will share it, confirm it, all the fear and exhaustion and pain. On the other hand once you get to know them, sometimes that’s all you can do, look into their eyes with the hope or sorrow you can’t express. (pg. 335)

By now you’re probably thinking that this all sounds terribly grim. Yes, these stories explore pretty harrowing territory, but the flashes of wry humour in Berlin’s work help to balance the tone often providing some much-needed relief from the bleakness of the protagonist’s situation. In Angel’s Laundromat, the narrator, a woman living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, describes why she goes to Angel’s, a down-at-heel launderette frequented by old women, travelling people, teenage Chicana brides and Pueblo Indians. I loved the final lines in this passage.

I go to Angel’s. I’m not sure why, it’s not just the Indians. It’s across the town from me. Only a block away is the Campus, air-conditioned, soft rock on the Muzak. New Yorker, Ms., and Cosmopolitan. Wives of graduate assistants go there and buy their kids Zero bars and Cokes. The Campus laundry has a sign, like most laundries do, POSITIVELY NO DYEING. I drove all over town with a green bedspread until I came to Angel’s with his yellow sign, YOU CAN DIE HERE ANYTIME. (pgs. 5-6)

There are other moments of brightness, too: stories drawn from Berlin’s time with the men in her life, two of whom were jazz musicians; pieces featuring her cousin, the beautiful Bella Lynn; stories of her reconnection with Sally, the sister she nursed through the final stages of cancer. These pieces are compassionate, graceful and emotionally truthful; the writing is shot through with little insights about life. In Wait a Minute, the narrator is reflecting on what happens to time when a loved one dies. Time stops for the person who has passed away, but for those who are left behind it runs amok, disrupting the normal rhythms of their days and nights.

The bad part is that when you return to your ordinary life all the routines, the marks of the day, seem like senseless lies. All is suspect, a trick to lull us, rock us back into the placid relentlessness of time. (pg. 380)

There are some truly remarkable pieces in this collection, several of which reminded me of the work of Raymond Carver and Joan Didion. Sometimes when I read short stories, I can sense the author’s hand on the tiller, driving the narrative in a certain direction, engineering events and developments towards a pre-determined outcome. There is none of that sense of deliberate construction or artificiality here. Berlin’s stories are natural, free-flowing and fluid; they feel grounded in authenticity and truth.

I’ll finish with one final quote, a passage that illustrates Berlin’s skill in capturing a strong sense of place in her writing. Her descriptions are thick with the sights, smells and sounds of her locations, making it easy for the reader to visualise these scenes in their mind. In this excerpt from Tiger Bites, the narrator is returning to Mexico, a place that hums with activity.

We came to the bridge and the smell of Mexico. Smoke and chili and beer. Carnations and candles and kerosene. Oranges and Delicados and urine. I buzzed the window down and hung my head out, glad to be home. Church bells, ranchera music, bebop jazz, mambos. Christmas carols from the tourist shops. Rattling exhaust pipes, honkings, drunken American soldiers from Fort Bliss. El Paso matrons, serious shoppers, carrying piñatas and jugs of rum. (pg. 75)

For another perspective on this very impressive collection, click here for Gert Loveday’s review.

A Manual for Cleaning Women is published by Picador – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a copy for review.

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

While working as a private tutor in Berlin in the 1930s, the English author Christopher Isherwood wrote Mr Norris Changes Trains, a novel set in the city during the final years of the Weimar Republic. Despite the troubled times of its setting, Mr Norris is a warm and engaging story which charts the somewhat peculiar friendship that develops between two men following a chance encounter on a train.


The novel is narrated by William Bradshaw, a young Englishman living in Berlin. As the story opens, Bradshaw is returning to the city from Holland by train. Faced with the prospect of a long and tiresome journey, he strikes up a conversation with the man in his carriage, Mr Arthur Norris, a gentleman of ‘independent means.’ Right from the start it is clear that there is something a little odd about Mr Norris. His features are somewhat out of kilter, not least his chin which appears to have slipped sideways ‘like a broken concertina,’ plus he’s wearing a wig. And then, as the train approaches the border with Germany, Norris becomes visibly agitated, even more so once the passport officials board the train to begin their rounds.

He was extremely nervous. His delicate white hand fiddled incessantly with the signet ring on his little finger; his uneasy blue eyes kept squinting rapid glances into the corridor. His voice rang false; high-pitched in archly forced gaiety; it resembled the voice of a character in a pre-war drawing-room comedy. He spoke so loudly that the people in the next compartment must certainly be able to hear him. (pg. 8)

After a tense and lengthy examination of Norris’ passport, the border officials seem satisfied with his credentials and move along to the next carriage. Mr Norris is most relieved. Bradshaw, on the other hand, is left feeling rather protective of his companion. He imagines Norris to be guilty of nothing more than a little petty smuggling, a line of silk for his wife or a box of cigars here and there, certainly nothing more sinister. As a thank you for the provision of some much-needed moral support, Norris invites Bradshaw to join him for lunch, and by the time the train pulls into the city station the two men have struck up a rather unlikely friendship, agreeing to meet for tea at Norris’ flat the following Saturday. Little does he know it at the time, but the feeling of affectionate protectiveness Norris inspires in Bradshaw that day is set to characterise their relationship over the next three years…

On his arrival at Norris’ flat, Bradshaw soon discovers that his new friend runs an import-export business. Although it’s never quite clear exactly what is being imported or exported, whatever it is, it doesn’t appear to be entirely above board. This feeling is only heightened when a client comes knocking at the door, an action which prompts Mr Norris to go into hiding in the hope that the caller will go away. At one point in the novel, Bradshaw reflects on his impressions of Mr Norris, a very telling passage as it turns out.

Certainly, I rather enjoyed playing with the idea that he was, in fact, a dangerous criminal; but I am sure that I never seriously believed it for a moment. Nearly every member of my generation is a crime-snob. I was fond of Arthur with an affection strengthened by obstinacy. If my friends didn’t like him because of his mouth or his past, the loss was theirs; I was, I flattered myself, more profound, more humane, an altogether subtler connoisseur of human nature than they. And if, in my letters to England, I sometimes referred to him as ‘a most amazing old crook’, I only meant by this that I wanted to imagine him as a glorified being; audacious and self-reliant, reckless and calm. All of which, in reality, he only too painfully and obviously wasn’t. (pg. 44)

One of the many delights of this novel is the character Isherwood has created in Mr Norris. He is a rather delicate and fussy individual, used to the finer things in life even though he seems to have little money of his own to indulge in such luxuries. (His daily grooming regime is very precise and elaborate, not unlike that of a grande dame with lotions and face creams aplenty.) That said, when he is flush, he is more than generous to his friends, buying them little presents whenever he can. As he gets to know Bradshaw, Norris reveals a little of his childhood and the years he spent travelling around Europe with his adoring mother prior to her death. I loved this description of how Mr Norris frittered away his inheritance in the space of a couple of years, in the days of his early twenties when he didn’t know any better.

It disappeared with magic speed into the mouths of horses and the stockings of ballet girls. The palms of servants closed on it with an oily iron grip. It was transformed into wonderful suits of clothes which he presented after a week or two, in disgust, to his valet; into oriental knick-knacks which somehow, when he got them back to his flat, turned out to be rusty old iron pots; into landscapes of the latest impressionist genius which by daylight next morning were childish daubs. Well-groomed and witty, with money to burn, he must have been one of the most eligible bachelors of his large circle; but it was the Jews, not the ladies, who got him in the end. (pg. 50)

In addition to his business interests, Norris also has links with the Communist Party, an activity that brings Bradshaw into contact with one of the movers and shakers in the group, a certain Ludwig Bayer. As the novel progresses, Bradshaw gets drawn into one of Norris’ schemes. At first it appears as though Bradshaw must travel to Switzerland in order to facilitate a meeting between a mutual friend, Baron von Pregnitz, and Mr Norris’ business contact from Paris, a man known as ‘Margot’. Without wishing to reveal too much about the plot, there is more to this connection than meets the eye, and the somewhat naïve William Bradshaw is all set to get caught up in it!

I really loved this novel. The two central characters are superbly drawn. Even though it’s abundantly clear that Mr Norris is something of a swindler, he is hugely likeable with it. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat protective towards him, a little like Bradshaw does when he meets him on the train. Alongside Bradshaw and Norris, the novel also features a cast of colourful characters, all of whom are drawn with great care and attention to detail: there is Mr Norris’ menacing secretary, Schmidt, a thug and a bully, a man who seems to show scant regard for his employer at the best of times; there is Baron von Pregnitz (known to his friends as ‘Kuno’), a man with a penchant for boys’ own adventure stories; and finally there is Bradshaw’s landlady, Frl. Schroeder, a motherly type who takes quite a fancy to Mr Norris with all his charms.

Set as it is in the Berlin of the early 1930s, the novel takes the reader to the restaurants and nightclubs of the city, the atmosphere heavy with a mix of dust, perspiration and cheap perfume. There is the occasional decadent party or two, most notably a New Year’s Eve bash where Bradshaw meets Norris’ lady friend, Anni, a dominatrix complete with black jacket, black skirt and knee high boots to match, a kind of uniform of sorts. As the novel progresses, the mood in Berlin darkens quite visibly. The city can be a dangerous place as is made clear in the following passage.

Berlin was in a state of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs, or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines. In the middle of a crowded street a young man would be attacked, stripped, thrashed, and left bleeding on the pavement; in fifteen seconds it was all over and the assailants had disappeared. (pgs. 107-108)

Ultimately, Mr Norris is a portrait of pre-war Berlin, a story that is by turns charming, witty and tragic. The character of Mr Norris was inspired by the memoirist, critic and internationalist, Gerald Hamilton, a friend of Isherwood’s from his Berlin days. I’ll finish with a short quote that sums up Mr Norris’ approach to business – he is speaking to Bradshaw at this point.

‘I think,’ he continued at length, ‘I may safely claim that in the course of my whole career I have very seldom, if ever, done anything which I knew to be contrary to the law….On the other hand, I do and always shall maintain that it is the privilege of the richer but less mentally endowed members of the community to contribute to the upkeep of people like myself. I hope you’re with me there?’ (pg. 48)

My copy of Mr Norris Changes Trains was published by Vintage Books in an edition which also contains Goodbye to Berlin, Together the two books are known as Isherwood’s Berlin Novels. Max has also reviewed this book, and you can read his excellent review here.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

Back in December, when I put together my reading list for the Classics Club, one of the first books I selected was Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark (first published in 1934). Rhys’ second novel, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931), had been a favourite of mine from 2015, so it seemed right to choose her next book, Voyage, as a follow-on read. If anything, I think Voyage is even better than its predecessor. A masterpiece in miniature – a brilliant, painful, devastating book that leaves it mark upon the reader.


Set largely in London in 1913/14, Voyage is narrated by an eighteen- year-old girl, Anna Morgan, brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, Hester, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna to survive on her own following the death of her father.

When we first meet Anna, she is working as a chorus girl in a show, sharing a room with fellow showgirl, Maudie, as their tour moves from one seaside town to another. One afternoon when Anna and Maudie are out for a walk they meet two men, one of whom is Walter Jeffries, a relatively wealthy man who lives and works in London. Walter is quite taken with Anna, and when the girls’ tour winds up in the capital, he invites Anna to dinner at a hotel in Hanover Square.

Anna is young, vulnerable and inexperienced in love. At first she rejects Walter’ advances, pushing him away as forcefully as possible. In a very subtle scene, Rhys explores the rush of thoughts running through Anna’s mind as Walter tries to kiss her. It’s as if she is looking down on herself, her mind disconnected from her body in some way. She longs to start all over again with Walter and for everything to be better next time.

I sat down on the bed and listened, then I lay down. The bed was soft; the pillow was as cold as ice. I felt as if I had gone out of myself, as if I were in a dream.

Soon he’ll come in again and kiss me, but differently. He’ll be different and so I’ll be different. It’ll be different, I thought. ‘It’ll be different, different. It must be different.’ (pg. 21)

It’s not long before Anna falls for Walter, becoming largely dependent on him for both financial and emotional support. But Walter is a weak and spineless man; at nearly twenty years her senior, he is only interested in Anna as a plaything, a young girl ripe for the taking. When it comes to breaking off relations with Anna, Walter gets his friend, Vincent, to write to her on his behalf, explaining that he doesn’t love her any more, in fact he almost certainly never did.

What follows is Anna’s unravelling as she drifts around London in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, trying to make ends meet as best she can. I could say a little more about the plot, how Anna ends up slipping somewhat unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort and warmth; but there are other, potentially more interesting aspects of the book that warrant discussion here.

What is so impressive about Voyage is the way Rhys immerses the reader in Anna’s thoughts and emotions; we are completely inside this young girl’s mind, sensing everything with her, feeling her pain and desperation, her hopes and expectations as she is exploited by those around her. The book is written in a modernist style which moves seamlessly from Anna’s thoughts to her memories of life in the West Indies to events happening around her at the present time. The following quote gives a feel for Rhys’ approach. In this scene, Anna has arranged to meet Walter in the hope of persuading him to continue with their relationship. Her thoughts about Walter are intercut with memories of a funeral she attended as a child (presumably either her mother’s or her father’s as both her parents are dead).

I imagined myself saying, very calmly. ‘The thing is that you don’t understand. You think I want more than I do. I only want to see you sometimes, but if I never see you again I’ll die. I’m dying now really, and I’m too young to die.’

…The candles crying wax tears and the smell of stephanotis and I had to go to the funeral in a white dress and white gloves and a wreath round my head and the wreath in my hands made my gloves wet – they said so young to die…

The people there were like upholstered ghosts. (pg. 83)

England is portrayed as a cruel and harsh country, a dark, unwelcoming place that offers very little in the way of support. Rhys makes excellent use of recurring imagery to augment this feeling of exclusion: ‘dark houses all alike frowning down one after the other all alike all stuck together.’  At times, Anna feels trapped in a room where the walls appear to be closing in on her, an image which adds to the sense of claustrophobia in the novel. All this provides a stark contrast to the West Indies of Anna’s childhood, vividly portrayed as a lush land brimming with colour, a location full of the sights, smells and sounds of life.

Those around Anna are often quick to pass judgement on her actions. Her closest friends criticise her for not making an effort to go out and talk to people. There is an assumption that because she is young and has her whole life ahead of her, she ought to be happy and optimistic. But in reality, Anna is struggling to cope with life; she is cold and tired and homesick. All she craves is a little warmth and affection; either that or the safety of sleep – at least it’s a respite from having to live.

But I stopped going out; I stopped wanting to go out. That happens very easily. It’s as if you had always done that – lived in a few rooms and gone from one to the other. The light is a different colour every hour and the shadows fall differently and make different patterns. You feel peaceful, but when you try to think it’s as if you’re face to face with a high, dark wall. Really all you want is night, and to lie in the dark and pull the sheet over your head and sleep, and before you know where you are it is night – that’s one good thing. You pull the sheet over your head and think, ‘He got sick of me,’ and ‘Never, not ever, never.’ And then you go to sleep. You sleep very quickly when you are like that and you don’t dream either. It’s as if you were dead. (pgs. 120-121)

Anna’s landladies also waste little time in moralising about her position, labelling her a common little tart because she comes home in the middle of the night and then goes out a day or so later dressed up to the nines (the assumption being that Anna has purchased some new clothes with the money received for services rendered). This sense of moral judgement extends to the broader society too. In this scene, Anna and her friend Laurie have been taken out to a restaurant by two men. By the end of the dinner, a woman at the next table is getting annoyed with Anna’s party (Laurie, in particular, is a little drunk). Here are Anna’s thoughts on this woman and others of a similar ilk.

But I was thinking that it was terrifying—the way they look at you. So that you know that they would see you burnt alive without even turning their heads away; so that you know in yourself that they would watch you burning without blinking once. Their glassy eyes that don’t admit anything so definite as hate. Only just that underground hope that you’ll be burnt alive, tortured, where they can have a peep. And slowly, slowly, you feel the hate back starting… (pg. 103)

And then there is Hester, Anna’s stepmother, a sanctimonious, self-righteous creature who cares little for her stepdaughter’s welfare. Here’s how Anna describes her – I thought this description was simply brilliant:

She had clear brown eyes which stuck out of her head if you looked at her sideways, and an English lady’s voice with a sharp cutting edge to it. Now that I’ve spoken you can hear I’m a lady. I have spoken and I suppose you now realize that I’m an English gentlewoman. I have my doubts about you. Speak up and I will place you at once. Speak up, for I fear the worst. That sort of voice. (pg, 50)

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I really loved this book. It’s a certainty for my end-of-year highlights; in fact I think it might be one of the best things I’ve ever read. Anna’s story is all the more tragic given its connection to Rhys’ own life experience – the novel feels semi-autobiographical in nature. By the time I’d finished reading it, my notebook was full of scribbles and quotes, many of which I’m struggling to find room for here.

I’ll finish with one final quote, a passage which, along with the earlier one on Anna not wanting to go out, seems to capture something of the essence of this book. There is an overwhelming sense of bleakness, fear and disillusionment running through this story, and I think you can see it here. (As a slight aside, clothes appear to play an important role in the lives of the women in Rhys’ novels. If a woman is to attract a new man she must look presentable, so clothes are often seen as offering a form of hope, a possible opportunity for the future.)

The clothes of most of the women who passed were like caricatures of the clothes in the shop-windows, but when they stopped to look you saw that their eyes were fixed on the future. ‘If I could buy this, then of course I’d be quite different.’ Keep hope alive and you can do anything, and that’s the way the world goes round, that’s the way they keep the world rolling. So much hope for each person. And damned cleverly done too. But what happens if you don’t hope any more, if your back’s broken? What happens then? (pgs. 111-112)

Voyage in the Dark is published by Penguin Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

First published in 1967, A Sport and a Pastime is the American writer James Salter’s third novel. Prior to becoming a writer, Salter served as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, and he drew on this experience for his first novel, The Hunters, an absorbing story of a pilot’s desire to deliver a successful mission. Despite a revival of interest in his work in recent years (his final novel, All That Is, was published in 2013), Salter remains largely unknown to many readers, a situation I still find hard to understand given the quality of his writing.


Set in France in the 1960s, A Sport and a Pastime is the story of an affair between a young American man, Philip Dean, and an eighteen-year-old French girl named Anne-Marie. The novel is narrated by another man, an unnamed narrator in his mid-thirties, who hooks up with Philip while spending some time in Autun, a small town in the Burgundy region of France. As the book opens, the narrator is travelling by train from Paris to Autun, an extended section that immediately draws the reader into the story as a rush of images fly by.

The hills close in and run beside us as we begin slowly to move away from the city. The windows of houses are open to the warm morning air. Hay is stacked in the shape of boxes, coops, loaves of bread. Above us the sudden passage of a church. In its walls, cracks wide enough for birds to nest in. I am going to walk these village roads, follow these brilliant streams.

Rose, umber, camel, tan—these are the colors of the towns. There are long, rising pastures with lines of trees. St Julien du Sault—its hotel seems empty. Shocks of hay now, bundles of it. Great squares of corn. Cezy—the station like scenery in a play that has closed. Pyramids of hay, mansards, barricades. Orchards. Children working in vegetable gardens. JOIGNY is painted in red. (pg. 4)

The house in Autun is owned by two friends of the narrator’s, Billy and Cristina, a couple currently living in Paris. There is a sense that they are the beautiful people, floating around from one long, languorous evening to another. Having been introduced to the narrator at a party, Philip arrives unexpectedly at the house in Autun shortly after the narrator moves in. Even though the two men do not know each other very well, they end up spending time together, driving around the countryside in Philip’s convertible, a 1952 Delage.

One evening when the narrator is out with Philip, he notices a young girl at a dance – it is Anne-Marie. Shortly afterwards, we cut to a scene in a restaurant; the narrator, Philip and Anne-Marie are having a meal together, and the affair between Philip and the girl is just beginning to get underway. The remainder of the novel presents an account of Philip and Anne-Marie’s relationship, as perceived almost entirely through the imagination of the narrator. The young couple spend their days travelling around France, driving from one town to another, staying at hotels and eating out most evenings. Salter’s prose is full of sensual imagery; the descriptions of Philip and Anne-Marie making love are highly erotic, so much so that I wondered how they were received at the time of the novel’s publication. Here’s a quote from the early stages of their relationship – most of the sex scenes are much more graphic than this, but it should give you a feel for the novel’s tone.

He has wrapped her in an enormous towel, soft as a robe, and carried her to the bed. They lie across it diagonally, and he begins to draw the towel apart with care, to remove it as if it were a bandage. Her flesh appears, still smelling a little of soap. His hands float onto her. The sum of small acts begins to unite them, the pure calculus of love. He feels himself enter. Her last breath—it is almost a sigh—leaves her. Her white throat appears. (pg. 56)

From an early stage in the novel, it becomes apparent that the narrator is unreliable. At several points in his narration, he fully admits his lack of reliability. In effect, he is presenting us with a description of what he imagines is happening between Philip and Anne-Marie at the time. (Moreover, he is looking back at his stay in Autun from some point in the future, several years down the line I suspect.)

The narrator’s own situation is of some significance here. During his time in Autun he becomes attracted to a divorcee, Claude Picquet, whom he sees about the town; and yet other than exchanging a few pleasantries with her, he seems hesitant to make a more definite move. By contrast, everything seems so easy for Philip. At twenty-four, he is handsome, self-assured and highly intelligent. Despite his brilliance as a student, he had felt restless at Yale, ultimately dropping out to pursue a different type of education: lessons in the school of life. There is a sense that the narrator is envious of Philip, worships him even. In many ways, he represents the man the narrator wishes he himself could be.

If I had been an underclassman he would have become my hero, the rebel who, if I had only had the courage, I might have also become. Instead I did everything properly. I had good marks. I took care of my books. My clothes were right. Now, looking at him, I am convinced of all I missed. I am envious. Somehow his life seems more truthful than mine, stronger, even able to draw mine to it like the pull of a dark star. (pg. 33)

At one stage I began to wonder if Philip Dean ever existed at all, or whether the narrator had created him out of his own shortcomings, his own insecurities and dreams. After all, at one stage he states ‘I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him.’ Either way, I suspect the narrator may have been in love with Anne-Marie himself, as he fantasises about what might have been.

Could she, I have often wondered over the empty plates in restaurants, in cafés where only the waiters remain, by any rearrangement of events, by any accident could she, I dream, have become mine?…I look in the mirror. Thinning hair. A face marked by lines, cuts they are, almost, that define my expressions. Strong arms. I’m making all of this up. The eyes of a clever and lazy man, a passionate man… (pgs. 96-97)

A Sport and a Pastime is a difficult novel to summarise – it’s a book that feels as though it needs to be experienced for itself. Much of its power stems from the world Salter creates, so much so that it’s hard to capture this feeling in a review.

Very little happens in the way of plot. Philip and Anne-Marie travel around France in Philip’s car, they have dinner, make love, sleep and lie around in bed for much of the time. At one point, they visit the girl’s mother and stepfather. From a relatively early stage, there is a sense that the affair cannot last, particularly as the two lovers come from contrasting backgrounds and have very different aspirations in life. A simple girl at heart, Anne-Marie wants little more than to get married and have a family, whereas Philip is wary of getting too tied down. His feelings towards Anne-Marie oscillate throughout the course of their affair; at times he clearly adores her, but there are other occasions when he seems close to ending the relationship.

While there is much to like in this fluid, dreamlike novel, I didn’t love it quite as much as I’d hoped to. I found myself wondering whether it might be a touch self-indulgent, more so than Salter’s later novel Light Years, which I adored when I read it a few years ago. Perhaps my favourite thing about A Sport and a Pastime is Salter’s shimmering prose, a quality that comes into its own in the wonderful descriptions of the French countryside (like those in the quote near the beginning of my review) and the passages on Autun. He writes beautifully about France, the little shops and cafés, the restaurants and meals, the scenery and landscape.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that gives a sense of the blurring of the margins between reality and the imaginary in this story. Perhaps it will encourage you to read it for yourself.

One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change. In fact, there is the danger that if I continue to try, the whole concert of events will begin to fall apart in my hands like old newspaper. I can’t bear to think of that. The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design. (pg. 48)

For another perspective on this book, do read this excellent review from Max at Pechorin’s Journal.

A Sport and a Pastime is published by Picador. Source: personal copy.

Divertimento 1889 by Guido Morselli (tr. Hugh Shankland)

When Guido Morselli took his own life at the age of sixty, Italy may well have lost one of its finest writers. Up until the time of his death in 1973, not one of Morselli’s novels had been accepted for publication; all seven were subsequently published in Italy, where Morselli now seems to have gained the recognition he so richly deserved at the time. Sadly for us, only one of his books appears to be available in English: Divertimento 1889, an utterly charming story of an escape from royal life during the Belle Époque period of the late 19th century.


Morselli uses Umberto I, King of Italy from 1878 to 1900, as a model for his fictional protagonist. As the novel opens, we find the King in his office in Monza (the Royal Place in the North of Italy), weighed down by a mountain of paperwork and official duties. His mood is somewhat dispirited as he reflects on the tedium of life as a royal, a role that offers him very little satisfaction or sense of achievement.

This futile slavish job of his, condemned to trail the length and breadth of his ungrateful land – dusty, disjointed Italy – with no power and no responsibilities and yet pursued everywhere by papers and couriers, as though it all depended on him, as though he could alter a thing. Still, nothing but trials and tribulations. One headache after another. And his Household to think of, his family. Two households, two families. And himself caught between the two of them, bored stiff with both, and with his need for freedom, for seclusion. (pg. 5)

It soon becomes clear that the King is living beyond his means. He is married, there is his lover to think of, plus the estates to maintain, all of which means that his outgoings have been exceeding his incomings in recent years. Luckily for the King, a solution may be close to hand. When one of his advisers, the rather dashing Vigliotti, informs him that a lady has expressed interest in purchasing one of his properties – a rustic castle in Monferatto – the King sees an opportunity to solve all his financial problems. With this in mind, he dispatches Vigliotti to Switzerland to sound out the lady in question, a certain Frederika von Goltz. As Frau von Goltz is currently convalescing at home in Wassen, the King wonders whether this development might not present another lucky break. Why not accompany Vigliotti to Switzerland so as to be on hand if required during the negotiation of the sale? Furthermore, as The King is keen to keep any potential deal under wraps, a plan begins to hatch in his mind – why not travel incognito? It would be a chance to experience life as an ordinary human being, even if only for a week or two. All at once his mood lightens considerably.

Adventure? Why yes, in so far as it was a complete novelty. In his line of business the most appropriate description for time off, even a vacation, would be hard labour. On holiday at Racconigi or San Rossore he would be lucky to get three hours a day to call his own. The Royal Palace at Monza was no better than a branch office of headquarters in Rome. Journeys by land or sea, visits to friends, hunting or fishing parties, all came down to strict timetables and fixed itineraries, more or less official engagements. But this was right out of the ordinary. An incognito which was not a joke. Turning himself into Signor X or Y or Z would be like being born again, or living in a different world. And outside Italy as well, where it need not be a delusion, it might even last. (pg. 20)

Once the requisite preparations have been made, the King and a small group of his most trusted advisers set out by train, the ‘official’ reason for their visit being a hunting trip to the Swiss Alps. The King, who is travailing under the alias of Count Moriana, is delighted to arrive at his destination in Goeschenen; the Hotel Adler is simple yet comfortable.

The next afternoon, the King discovers one of the small pleasures in life as he takes a leisurely walk by himself. Unlike all the other foreign visitors who stop to gaze at the landscape surrounding Goeschenen, the King is lost in his own thoughts; nothing else exists outside the private happiness of his world.

Girls up from the valley of the Reuss with baskets of bilberries and cyclamen still had things left to sell, laid out beside them in the backs of carts where they sat, in their black flower-embroidered skirts and white stockings, their legs dangling. He was alone, praise God, in the midst of these people who knew nothing of him. No escort, no bodyguard, no police commissars clumsily got up as civilians for a man who normally could go nowhere without outriders and a whole ‘train’ of swallow tailcoats and kepis festooned with gold braid – guarded, insulted, assaulted, or acclaimed and showered with flowers. He felt no temptation to take the mountain road, happy to promenade up and down between the hotel and the post-station, passing the occasional tourist armed with guidebook and binoculars or country folk making their way home from market or returning with full panniers from their mountain-pastures. (pg 42-43)

Other pleasures await the King while he remains undercover: a spot of shopping in the town; a quiet game of cards now and again; there is even time for a dalliance or two. The King is rather taken with Clara Mansolin, Vigliotti’s beautiful young fiancée who is also staying in the hotel. The attraction is mutual. In this scene, one which illustrates the wonderfully comic tone of this novella, the King is running through his moves in preparation for a secret rendezvous with Clara.

And as he undressed in his room preparatory to taking a bit of a nap he mentally reviewed the ritual objections, and the time-honoured replies. ‘But sir, you propose to rob me of the most precious thing I have.’ Reply: ‘You will be rewarded.’ ‘But sir, you will get me into trouble.’ ‘Never fear, I’ll defend you.’ There was a third possible line of resistance, and here the appropriate peremptory reply was suggested to him by a distant Savoy forebear, Prince Eugene. ‘But sir, I am the wife of one of your officers.’ ‘Madam, I do not detract from my officers’ honour by bedding their wives. I enhance it.’ (pg. 110)

Perhaps inevitably, certain developments threaten to disturb the King’s escapade. An inquisitive journalist happens to recognise Clara, an old flame from his past. Closer inspection of the party reveals the true identity of the Count, leaving the journalist with a potential scoop on his hands – what is the King of Italy doing on an undercover mission in Switzerland? Secret talks of a political nature, perhaps? Furthermore, the King’s cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm, appears to be threatening to pay him a visit, a development that causes no end of confusion among the royal advisors. The King has absolutely no time whatsoever for his zealous young cousin, a point that becomes abundantly clear from the following passage.

To come charging up into these mountains to turn the whole place upside down for one day, for two days, affronting Swiss neutrality with his performing troupe of bodyguards in silver breastplates and gilt helmets, his generals and his ministers, preceded by an advance party of swallow-tailed flunkeys and aides, secretaries and sundry other hangers-on – the notion would have crossed his mind, without a doubt. And he had to thank all the saints in heaven that some graver task, some bolder project, had driven it out of his head. (pgs. 105-106)

Divertimento 1889 is a captivating story, a celebration of the joys of freedom and the need to escape from one’s duties every now and again. Morselli’s sprightly prose, with its lively humour and somewhat farcical tone, mirrors the delights of upping sticks and going off on a lark to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. On the surface, it may seem a touch frothy, an entertaining tale with no real wisdom to impart. Dig a little deeper, however, and there are other insights to uncover. Morselli’s story touches on the development of technology, echoing a theme that remains all too relevant today – can we ever truly escape from all forms of communication – in the King’s case the telegraph – when in need of a little solitude? Perhaps the novella’s most poignant message relates to the passing of time. I loved the following quote, a passage that encourages us to savour every moment of life before it slips away.

For a long time the Chief had not picked up a newspaper or looked at a calendar, and yet with every nerve in his body he felt time passing. In a way he had never felt it before, so remorselessly fast and elusive, and for the simple reason that it would have been wonderful to be able to slow it down, and hold it. (pg. 136)

I’m delighted to have discovered this little gem via Scott’s excellent review over at the seraillon blog. The book is currently out of print, but second-hand copies are available online. It would be wonderful to see it back in circulation with a publisher such as Pushkin Press or NYRB – I’d like to think that it’s just their type of thing.

Divertimento 1889 was published by EP Dutton (Obelisk). Source: Personal copy.