Monthly Archives: May 2016

Love in a Bottle by Antal Szerb (tr. Len Rix)

Born in Budapest in 1901, Antal Szerb was one of the leading figures in 20th-century Hungarian literature. Although his family was Jewish, he was baptised at a young age and remained a Catholic for life. A prolific essayist, reviewer and writer of fiction, Szerb is perhaps best known for his wonderful novel, Journey by Moonlight, published in 1937. (I read it pre-blog, but there are links here to recent reviews by Emma and Max.) During the 1940s, Szerb faced increasing hostility and persecution due to his Jewish descent, culminating in his incarceration and murder in a concentration camp in 1945. He was 43 years old when he died.

Alongside the essays and novels, Szerb also wrote a number of short stories and novellas. Love in a Bottle brings together a selection of these short pieces which span the breadth of this author’s career, from his student years in the early 1920s to the time shortly before his death in the mid-1940s.

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The book is divided into two parts, the first of which contains three early stories written between 1922 and 1923. These pieces draw heavily on the traditions of myths and fairy tales. In Ajándok’s Betrothal, a young girl (Ajándok) longs for a suitor of her own, especially once her sister becomes engaged to a man from their village. When a mysterious wanderer named Máté arrives during the festivities on St John’s Night, young Ajándok is convinced he is destined to be her future husband. Like the other pieces in this section, this story is shot through with a noticeable sense of loneliness and isolation; its heroine is young, beautiful and ‘as solitary as a river by night.’

Next we have The White Magus, a tragic story set in the time of Byzantine Empire. All across Byzantium, children are dying from a strange, unfathomable illness. The only ray of hope comes from the beautiful Princess Zoë whose kindness, compassion and magical touch provide a brief respite from the suffering. As a consequence, she spends her time visiting the sick children of the land, comforting them and helping out wherever possible.

Zoë was indefatigable, loyally accompanying every grieving mother on these last journeys. But not one of those distraught parents knew the depth of pain that she did. With every child that went to the grave, part of her own life was being buried. It was not just the mothers’ tears that burnt into her heart. It was also the nameless, mysterious grief that had claimed the children, and her earnest desire to understand the fatal secret in their eyes, as they slowly faded into death. (pg. 51)

When Zoë succumbs to the same illness, the elders of the land set off for the Carpathian Mountains to consult the great oracle, the White Magus. Rumour has it that the Magus knows all the deepest secrets of life itself, so it is hoped that he will be able to cure the princess. Without wishing to give too much away, the Magus can see a possible course of action, but it is one that will come at a price.

The third of the early stories, The Tyrant, features the powerful Duke Galeazzo of Milan, a ruler who confines himself to his tower of solitude, never setting foot in the city he presides over with such shrewdness. Despite taking an interest in his protégé — a young boy named Lytto — the Duke has tried to banish all feelings of love from his heart. This is a story which explores the theme of isolation and the struggle to control one’s inner feelings when that state is disrupted.

The second section of the collection contains eight stories, all written between 1932 and 1943. The first two, Cynthia and A Garden Party in St Cloud, are free-flowing pieces which feel quite personal in style, almost as though they might have been inspired by experiences in Szerb’s own life. The stories begin to explore the somewhat idealised view of romance that often characterises a man’s youth. They are by turns playful, witty and ironic. Cynthia tells of a brief love affair, a relationship in which the narrator is drawn to the titular character for her superior social class and her eighteenth-century wit. In St Cloud, the protagonist finds himself attracted to two women, one of whom, Marcelle, is the girlfriend of his friend, Gábor. This is a wonderful story which reminded me a little of Journey by Moonlight.

I drank and marvelled at her chameleon-like nature. To tell the truth, she had always deeply attracted me: I loved both her wonderful two-sidedness and its very transparency, in the same way that I had always been secretly attracted to walking sticks that could turn into umbrellas, slide rules that could be used as laryngoscopes, and the symbols in Ibsen. I was also drawn to her for the reason that men are generally attracted to women: that is to say, I have no idea why. But this particular attraction I had dismissed as just another of the hopeless loves with which I serially embellished my young life. (pg. 120)

Romance features once again in A Dog Called Madelon, in which the protagonist, János Bátky is convinced that he will only find true passion by dating a woman with an aristocratic pedigree – in other words, a Lady Rothesay as opposed to one of the less alluring ‘Jennys’ he tends to meet.

Yet again, Jenny managed to forget some item of her clothing, and when she called back she found Bátky in a terminally bitter mood. He had been reflecting on the way his whole life had been frittered away on a procession of frightful little Jennys, when ever since boyhood he had yearned for a Lady Rothesay. History held the sort of erotic charge for him that others found in actresses’ dressing rooms—a truly great passion required three or four centuries’ historical background at the very least. (pg. 172) 

This is a story with an ironic twist in its tail, one of my favourites in the collection.

In another highlight, Musings in the Library, a young man finds himself falling for a girl he meets in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. This story has an interesting ending, one that highlights the paradoxical nature of life, that sense of tension between happiness and disillusionment.

The titular story, Love in a Bottle, harks back to the mythical legends of Szerb’s early stories as the magician, Klingsor, tries to free Sir Lancelot from his love of Queen Guinevere. In this playful piece, the spirit of Love takes the form of a kind of sprite to be found sitting inside the young knight’s body.

The Incurable features a writer who cannot prevent himself from putting pen to paper, even when he is paid to give up his craft. This is a comical story, a short sketch but no less satisfying for its brevity.

The book ends with a slightly different work: a historical piece titled The Duke, an imaginary portrait of the owner of the Palazzo Sant’Agnese near Rome at the time of the late 16th century. It feels very different to the other pieces in the book, possibly closer in style to Szerb’s novel, The Queen’s Necklace.

Love in a Bottle is a really interesting collection, especially for lovers of Szerb’s novels (or for readers with an interest in European literature per se). Those with some knowledge of the author’s other works will be able to spot connections to some of these pieces – for example, János Bátky, the lead character in A Dog Called Madelon, shares a name with the protagonist of Szerb’s first novel, The Pendragon Legend (both were published in 1934). The geneses of his themes are here in these stories: the idealised romanticism of youth; a preoccupation with the self; the tensions between opposing emotions; the contradictory nature of life itself. All in all, this is another intriguing collection of stories from Pushkin Press, a welcome addition to their translations of Szerb’s work.

At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

First published in 1945, At Mrs Lippincote’s was Elizabeth Taylor’s debut novel. This is my third Taylor (after Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A Game of Hide and Seek), and if anything it has left me even more eager to read the rest of her books.

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As the novel opens the Davenant family are moving into their new home, a house near the RAF base where Flight Lieutenant Roddy Davenant is currently stationed. (The setting is a small town somewhere in the South of England during WW2.) Roddy has been present at the base for a little while, but he is now being joined by his wife, Julia, the couple’s young son, Oliver, and Roddy’s spinster cousin, Eleanor. From the opening pages, it is clear that Julia feels somewhat uncomfortable in these unfamiliar surroundings. The Davenants have rented the house from the recently widowed Mrs Lippincote, a woman they have yet to meet, but whose presence hangs over the place like a dark shadow. At first sight, the house is rather dark and oppressive, full of mahogany furniture, old-fashioned furnishings and yellowing photographs. Here’s Julia as she contemplates a picture of a wedding group, presumably one showing the Lippincotes on their wedding day.

‘And now it’s all finished,’ Julia thought. ‘They had that lovely day and the soup tureen and meat dishes, servants with frills and streamers, children. They set out that day as if they were laying the foundations of something. But it was only something which perished very quickly, the children scattered, the tureen draped with cobwebs, and now the widow, the bride, perhaps at this moment unfolding her napkin alone at a table in a small private hotel down the road.’ (pg 10)

In some respects, this could be seen as a metaphor for the future direction of Julia’s own marriage to Roddy as there is very little in the way of warmth and affection here. Even though Julia is not terribly likeable, I found her very interesting and intriguing. She is quite feisty, often willing to say whatever comes into her head without really thinking about the consequences, especially where Roddy’s cousin Eleanor is concerned. Julia makes no secret of the fact that she is not overly fond of Eleanor, a point that becomes increasingly apparent as the story unfolds. Eleanor, who happens to be in love with Roddy, despairs of Julia for not being a more conventional wife. She believes Roddy deserves a woman who would be prepared to support him; someone to stand behind him by making his career her life’s work; someone who would be a valuable asset as opposed to a hindrance or embarrassment. In other words, someone like Eleanor herself. This next quote seems to capture something of the dynamics at play between Julia, Roddy and Eleanor – Julia has just asked Roddy if there is anywhere they could go for a drink.

“I can’t take you into the Ante-room to-night,” said Roddy in a satisfied way. “It isn’t ladies’ night.”

“Can’t we have a drink in this damned place, without relying on the caprice of a lot of officers? And are there no pubs?”

“Only down in the town. This is a residential district. If you go, you will have to take the bus, and when you get there it will be closing time.”

“It wouldn’t be worth it,” said Eleanor quickly, lest she might be left to the washing-up.

“Ladies’ night!” cried Julia in a fury. “It sounds like a lot of red-faced Masons with wives in royal blue satin and pink carnations. ‘We will put aside our secrets and our stories about copulation and give the old girls a break.’ I couldn’t go to one of those. My pride wouldn’t allow it.”

Eleanor, whose evening dress was royal blue, leant forward and said to Roddy: “What time do you start in the morning?”

“Nine.”

‘If I had Roddy,’ thought Eleanor, ‘my greatest happiness would be to go out with him to meet the other wives. Why should her pride not allow it?’ She could not forgive Julia for wanting more than her own dearest dream. (pg. 11)

In time, Julia strikes up an unlikely friendship with Roddy’s boss, Wing Commander Mallory – they share a mutual interest in the novels of the Brontë sisters. There is some mild flirting between Julia and the Wing Commander, but nothing too serious. If anything, the Commander has Julia’s own interests at heart as he would like to see her happy with Roddy, something which seems but a distant hope from the start.

Julia also spends time with the rather forlorn Mr Taylor, an old acquaintance from London — now in diminished circumstances — whom she bumps into one evening while out for a walk. She visits him in his ‘club’ (effectively a members bar set up in his bungalow), but once again there is no real suggestion of romance here. It is not a lover she is after, but some form of companionship, ‘some other person whose words would link together with hers’ and with whom ‘some chord might be struck.’  

Roddy dislikes the idea of Julia being out on her own of an evening, especially when it becomes apparent that she has been having the occasional drink or two. It is his belief that respectable married women should not go cavorting about the countryside at night, walking into pubs on their own and generally letting the side down. I must admit to finding this next quote rather telling.

She exasperated him. Society necessarily has a great many little rules, especially relating to the behaviour of women. One accepted them and life ran smoothly and without embarrassment, or as far as that is possible where there are two sexes. Without the little rules, everything became queer and unsafe. When he had married Julia, he had thought her woefully ignorant of the world; had looked forward, indeed, to assisting in her development. But she had been grown up all the time; or, at least, she had not changed. The root of the trouble was not ignorance at all, but the refusal to accept. ‘If only she would!’ he thought now, staring at her; ‘If only she would accept.’ The room was between them. She stood there smiling, blinking still in the bright light. He was still fanning the air peevishly with his hand. (pg. 105)

As a break from the atmosphere at Mrs Lippincote’s, Roddy’s cousin Eleanor finds some much-needed companionship in the form Mr Aldridge, a colleague at the school where she teaches. (Eleanor has a backstory that I won’t reveal here but it’s something which adds another dimension to her character.) In time, she also falls in with a group of Mr Aldridge’s friends, a loose collective of Communists who live nearby. Even though they realise Eleanor is rather lonely and in need of a friend, the members of this group treat her as an individual in her own right, accepting her into their fold wherever possible. For her part, Julia cannot help but needle Eleanor about her relationship with Mr Aldridge, passing snide comments here and there, attempting to belittle both her cousin-in-law and Mr Aldridge in the process.

“Have you been to tea with your young man?” Her very way of saying ‘your young man’ implied that he was not, and was not likely to be, anything of the kind. She always dealt too lightly and therefore cruelly with Eleanor’s personal life. (pg. 56)

As with the other Elizabeth Taylor novels I’ve read, there is a strong cast of secondary characters here. The Davenant’s very bookish son, Oliver, is an absolute delight. He forms a very touching friendship with the Wing Commander’s daughter, Felicity, as the two children go fishing together by the local river. Mrs Lippincote’s charwoman, the formidable Mrs Whapshott, also deserves a mention. From the very outset, Julia feels uneasy in this woman’s presence as she imagines the slow but steady disintegration of the house is being reported back to Mrs Lippincote on a weekly basis.

All in all, this is another very subtle novel by Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps closer in style to A Game of Hide and Seek than to Mrs Palfrey. Each scene is beautifully observed – Taylor was reported to have said that she wrote in scenes rather than in narrative, and I think you can see it here in her debut.

At one point in the novel, Julia states that she wants to try to be more grown-up – more understanding towards Roddy, more patient with Oliver, and more charitable towards Eleanor. To find out if she achieves this, perhaps I can encourage you to read this excellent book for yourselves.

For other perspectives, do read these reviews by Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat), Heavenali and Caroline (Bookword).

At Mrs Lippincote’s is published by Virago Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.

Announcing Jean Rhys Reading Week: 12th-18th September 2016

Well, this is happening! Firstly, thank you to everyone who responded and shared my post on canvassing interest in a Jean Rhys Reading Week. The response has been amazing – it seems as though several of you are keen to read and discuss Rhys’ work, which is great to hear. Early September has emerged as the most convenient or preferred option for the majority of you, so we’ve decided on w/c 12th September – please save the date in your diaries.

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Also, I’m delighted to announce that Eric Karl Anderson, who writes so eloquently about books at the brilliant Lonesome Reader website, will be joining me in hosting the event. Eric is a long-standing fan of Jean Rhys, so it’ll be great to have him on board as a co-host. We’re both very excited by the prospect and we’ll be planning the event over the summer months – please do get in touch with either of us if you have any thoughts or suggestions. You can contact us via our blogs or via Twitter where we tweet @JacquiWine and @lonesomereader.

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In the meantime, maybe you could think about a Rhys you might like to read for the event? Ideally, we’d like as many people as possible reading and talking about Rhys during September’s event, sharing reviews, thoughts and experiences as we go through the week. Once again, thanks so much to everyone who has expressed an interest so far. It’s been wonderful to see so much love for this writer’s work over the past week!

All the best,

Jacqui and Eric

PS Eric is on holiday right now, so please don’t worry if he doesn’t respond to any messages immediately – he’ll be back shortly.

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym

Earlier in the year, I had a lot of fun with Barbara Pym’s much-loved novel, Excellent Women (1952). It came as part of a set of three Pym novels from The Book People, so when Simon reviewed No Fond Return of Love (also included in my purchase), this sounded like the ideal follow-on read.

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The protagonist in No Fond Return (1961) is Dulcie Mainwaring, a thirty-something-year-old spinster who works as an indexer and proof-reader from her home in the London suburbs. As the novel opens, Dulcie has just arrived at a ‘learned conference’ for indexers and suchlike, a gathering she hopes will give her an opportunity to meet some new people and to observe something of the lives of others, even if it’s only for a day or two. (A few months earlier, Dulcie had broken up with her former fiancé, Maurice, a separation that has left her feeling rejected and mindful of her position as a somewhat lonely spinster; hence her decision to come to the meeting in the hope of experiencing something a little different.)

On the first evening of the conference, Dulcie meets Viola Dace, a fellow indexer who happens to be staying in the room next door. At first sight, the two women present quite a contrast to one another – Dulcie looks rather dowdy in her tweed suit and brogues while Viola appears more confident with her black dress and rather unruly hair. As the two women get talking, it becomes clear that Viola knows one of the speakers at the conference, the rather handsome editor, Dr Aylwin Forbes. Here’s a short excerpt from their conversation – it’s a beautifully observed scene, characteristic of Pym’s ability to convey so much during a brief exchange.

Viola named the journal which Aylwin Forbes edited. ‘I happen to know him rather well,’ she added.

‘Oh?’

‘He and I were once…’ Viola hesitated, teasing out the fringe of her black and silver stole.

‘I see,’ Dulcie said, but of course she did not see. What was it they were once, or had been once to each other? Lovers? Colleagues? Editor and assistant editor? Or had he merely seized her in his arms in some dusty library in a convenient corner by the card index catalogues one afternoon in spring? Impossible to tell, from Viola’s guarded hint. How irritating it sometimes was, the delicacy of women!

‘Is he married?’ asked Dulcie stoutly.

‘Oh, of course – in a sense, that is,’ said Viola impatiently.

Dulcie nodded. People usually were married, and how often it was ‘in a sense’. (pg. 7)

It turns out that Viola has a bit of history with Aylwin, having fallen for him while she was working on the index for one of his books at some point in the not-too-distant past. Even though very little actually happened between the two of them, Aylwin’s wife, Marjorie, must have found out about Viola as she ended up leaving her husband to move back in with her mother. With Aylwin effectively separated from Marjorie, Viola hopes to rekindle the relationship; Aylwin, on the other hand, seems more intent on avoiding Viola as far as possible.

When she realises that Aylwin may not be terribly keen to get involved with her again, Viola turns to Dulcie for moral support. Like Mildred in Excellent Women, Dulcie is one of those reliable types who can be called upon in moments of distress, often putting the needs of others before her own, especially when it comes to matters of the heart.

Somehow these two rather mismatched women end up staying in touch with one another after the conference, a connection that Viola is keen to utilise when she needs a new place to live. In this scene, Dulcie has taken a call from Viola asking if she can stay with her for a few weeks, just until she finds a new place to live. Even though deep down she knows she is being used, Dulcie cannot help feeling flattered and recognised in some way when Viola makes her approach.

Dulcie came away from the telephone with mixed feelings. She realised dimly that Viola was making use of her, yet it was flattering to feel that she had been chosen, even to be made use of. Though perhaps she had been approached only as a very last resort – ‘that big house, plenty of room, but in the suburbs…a woman I met at the conference in August – rather dreary but a good-natured soul…’ (pg. 57)

A few days later, Viola moves in with Dulcie and her eighteen-year-old niece, Laurel, who has come to stay with her aunt while she takes a course at secretarial college.

Dulcie, for her part, is also attracted to Aylwin; after all, he is rather good looking, even if he is in his late forties. She is somewhat fascinated by this rather handsome academic; and so, putting her research skills to good use, she embarks on a sort of quest to discover everything she can about him and his family. (In effect, this interest in others offers Dulcie some kind of excitement and light relief from the mundane nature of her everyday life.) Through a sequence of bizarre coincidences and lucky breaks, Dulcie’s natural sense of curiosity brings both her and Viola into contact with several members of Aylwin’s extended family. There is Aylwin’s wife, the rather dreary Marjorie, and her mother, Mrs Williton; Alywin’s brother, Neville, a vicar with woman troubles of his own; and the boys’ mother, the rather formidable Mrs Forbes, owner of the Eagle House Hotel in Taviscombe. (The actual plot is more than a little far-fetched, but I suspect that’s all part of the fun in a Pym novel!)

Alongside the main characters, there is a large cast of secondary characters, most notably Dulcie’s next-door neighbour, Mrs Beltane, and her blue-rinsed poodle, Felix, the beady-eyed dog with a penchant for petit fours. Like Excellent Women, No Fond Return contains a number of rather comical set-pieces, all played out in this familiar Pym world of afternoon tea, jumble sales, church gatherings and various learned organisations. As one might expect, each scene is very keenly observed.

Threaded through the novel are Dulcie’s observations and reflections on the nature of relationships, particularly those between men and women. On two or three occasions, she thinks back to her time with Maurice and wonders if it is sadder to have loved someone unworthy of her affection than never to have loved at all. (Maurice had not wanted to marry Dulcie, or as he put it ‘he was not worthy of her love’.) With the benefit of hindsight, she can now see that the marriage would have been a mistake.

If I had married Maurice, she thought doubtfully, I might have had a child, but the picture of herself as a mother did not become real. It was Maurice who had been the child. Theirs would have been one of those rather dreadful marriages, with the wife a little older and a little taller and a great deal more intelligent than the husband. Yet, although she was laughing, there was a small ache in her heart as she remembered him. (pgs. 51-52)

The suitability (or not) of various ‘matches’ is a key theme. When Dulcie meets Aylwin’s wife, Marjorie, she finds her rather dull and drab. Surely Aylwin would be better suited to someone who could support him and help him with his work? Someone like Dulcie, perhaps. (To complicate matters further, Aylwin has taken a fancy to Laurel, Dulcie’s young niece – and that relationship, should it ever become serious, would most certainly not be considered an appropriate match!) As the novel draws to a close, Dulcie begins to wonder whether all loving relationships have a touch of the ridiculous about them. Perhaps there aren’t any ‘perfect’ matches in life after all?

At times, there is a sense that Dulcie finds it more comfortable to live vicariously through the lives of others rather than attempting to change her own. (There are a number of references to how characters might behave and how scenes might play out if they were in a novel.) Nevertheless, she remains open to new experiences and somewhat hopeful for the future; maybe, just maybe, there is a chance that love will be returned fondly after all.

No Fond Return of Love is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.

Canvassing interest in a Jean Rhys Reading Week

Back in March when I wrote about Jean Rhys’ third novel, Voyage in the Dark, Grant (of 1streading’s blog) commented that he had a stack of Rhys books just waiting to be read. If only someone would hold a Rhys reading week (hint, hint), then it might encourage him to get started. So with this in mind, along with my own interest in tackling another of her books in the not too distant future, I’d like to canvass interest in the possibility of a Jean Rhys reading week later this year. You know the type of thing: a week-long event where readers would read a book (or even a short story or two) by Rhys and share their thoughts by posting a review on their blog, by talking about it on Twitter/other social media channels or by commenting on the reviews/chatter posted during the week. (Even if you’ve already read everything by Rhys, maybe you could revisit a favourite?)

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If you’re wondering who Jean Rhys is or was, she is widely considered to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. The daughter of a white Creole mother and a Welsh father, Rhys grew up on the Caribbean Island of Dominica, moving to England at the age of sixteen to live with an aunt. After the death of her father, she drifted into a series of jobs spending time as a chorus girl, a mannequin, and an artist’s model. Rhys led a tough and tortured life, but in many ways those harsh experiences made her the writer she was. (Her work is now considered to have been way ahead of its time.) She started writing when the first of her three marriages broke up. You can read a little more about her here in these articles from The Guardian and The Paris Review.

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During her lifetime, Rhys published five novels: Quartet (1929); After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931); Voyage in the Dark (1934); Good Morning, Midnight (1939); and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). She also wrote several short stories – a number of collections have been published and are still available to buy secondhand if you’re willing to hunt around. There is a series of letters too, plus Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

Please let me know in the comments if you would be interested in participating in a Rhys reading week. If so, it would be useful to hear if you have any preferences on timings. If there’s sufficient interest in an event, then I’m thinking either early-mid July or the beginning of September. That way, we could avoid the school holidays and any clashes with Women in Translation Month which runs during August. Also, if you would be interested in co-hosting the event with me, please let me know – I’m still fairly new to Rhys, so it would be useful to have someone with a bit more experience under their belt to act as a co-host. You can contact me here or via Twitter (@JacquiWine). Finally, any shares of this post would be much appreciated, just to spread the word and to enable me to gauge the level of interest. Cheers.

Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates

Continuing with my aim of working my way through the canon of one of my favourite writers, I recently turned to Richard Yates’ third novel, Disturbing the Peace. Following its publication in 1975, critics considered the book to be something of a disappointment, possibly even his weakest. While it may not be as accomplished and as devastating as Revolutionary Road, or as subtle and as melancholic as The Easter Parade, Disturbing the Peace is still a very fine novel. It’s a brilliantly realised portrait of one man’s descent into the depths of total despair. Here’s how it opens:

Everything began to go wrong for Janice Wilder in the late summer of 1960. And the worst part, she always said afterwards, the awful part, was that it seemed to happen without warning. (pg. 1)

Janice is married to John Wilder, the central figure in Yates’ novel. At thirty-five, John finds himself stuck in a comfortable but utterly stifling middle-class existence in New York. Despite his success as a salesman, John doesn’t really enjoy his job selling advertising space in The American Scientist magazine. His marriage to Janice is comfortable but dull, so he plays around a bit; plus he is losing any real ability to connect with his only child, ten-year-old Tommy. In other words, he feels very frustrated with his life.

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As the novel opens, John has just arrived back in NYC following a week-long business trip to Chicago. Unable to face the thought of returning home to Janice, John calls her from a hotel bar. It soon becomes clear that John has been drinking fairly heavily, and he is spoiling for a fight.

“Okay, here’s another thing. There was a girl in Chicago, little PR girl for one of the distilleries. I screwed her five times in the Palmer House. Whaddya think of that?”

It wasn’t the first news of its kind – there had been a good many girls – but it was the first time he’d ever flung it at her this way, like an adolescent braggart trying to shock his mother. She thought of saying What would you like me to think? but didn’t trust her voice: it might sound wounded, which would be a mistake, or it might sounds dry and tolerant and that would be worse. Luckily he didn’t wait long for an answer. (pgs. 2-3)

The remainder of the phone call leaves Janice feeling very concerned about John’s state of mind, so much so that she calls their close friend, Paul Borg, and asks him to go and talk to John at the Commodore – hopefully Paul will be able to sort things out, to talk to him man-to-man. When Paul arrives on the scene, John claims he is suffering from exhaustion brought on by a bad case of insomnia in Chicago. In reality, John is on the cusp of a nervous breakdown; he just doesn’t know it, or maybe he cannot admit that he needs help. When Paul persuades him to check into a hospital for some much-needed rest and recuperation, John ends up arguing with one of the doctors, an action that results in his transfer to the Men’s Violence Ward at Bellevue, a psychiatric unit which sounds more like a prison than a place of care. With it being Labour Day weekend, John ends up spending the best part of a week in Bellevue, an experience that is relayed in vivid and gruelling detail in the opening section of the novel.

When John is finally released from Bellevue, Janice arranges for the family to take a short break at their second home in the country. As with certain other family pleasures, John knows that expectations of the trip will almost certainly outweigh actual fulfilment. Janice gives it her best shot, playing the role of the concerned and devoted wife, talking away in an attempt to fill the silence. Meanwhile, John spends much of his time drinking bourbon, looking out of the window and gazing at pretty young girls as they dive into the nearby lake. At one point, he seems fit to burst with it all.

One good thing: there was plenty of bourbon on the kitchen shelf. As soon as he was dressed he got out the ice and made himself a double that was more like a triple.

“Feel like a drink?” he asked Janice.

“No thanks.” She was sitting on a tall kitchen stool in her slacks with a colander in her lap, snapping string beans for dinner, and didn’t look up. “It’s a little early, isn’t it?”

“Seems late enough to me.”

And not until he’d gone outdoors for the first few greedy swallows did he figure out why he was so angry. It wasn’t because of the girl on the raft (the hell with the girl on the raft), or because Janice had asked if it wasn’t a little early, or because her crisp little snap-snap of string beans had always been an irritating sound; it was because the stool she sat on, with her tennis shoes hooked over its middle rung, was exactly like the cop’s stool at the door in Bellevue. (pgs. 59-60)

This scene ends with John imagining just what he’d like to do with that stool, and it’s not a pretty picture.

As a condition of his release from Bellevue, John agrees to see a psychiatrist. At first, talking therapy seems to provide him with a brief release, a way of delving into the past, but it’s not long before he gets fed up with his physician. There is also the requirement to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but most of the time John’s heart isn’t in it, and he sneaks off for sly drinks immediately before and after each session.

Things start looking up for John when he begins an affair with Pamela Hendricks, an attractive, bright, young girl whom he meets through work. Everything is rosy for a year or so as Pamela seems to offer John some hope in life. The couple share a mutual love of movies, and, with the help of some of Pamela’s old college friends, they begin work on a film based on John’s stint in Bellevue. In time (and following a few developments I won’t go into here) John leaves Janice and moves to California with Pamela with the aim of finalising the movie and getting it into distribution.

The remainder of the novel charts John’s downward trajectory as everything around him unravels. Fuelled by an addiction to alcohol and tormented by his past failings, John systematically destroys pretty much everything that is bright and promising in his life; ultimately he sinks into a depression, one that makes his earlier breakdown seem mild by comparison. Interestingly, there is a direct parallel between John’s own life and that of the protagonist in the final version of the film (the one the producers consider to be more commercially viable than the inside story of Bellevue itself).

As with Yates’ other novels, Disturbing the Peace chips away at the façade that is The American Dream. In this scene, during a brief ‘second honeymoon’ period with Janice, John reflects on the sham of his marriage. It is all merely an act, and he wonders how long they can keep it up.

We’re having Tommy’s favourite tonight,” she said when he was settled at the table. “My own very special meat loaf, baked potato with sour cream, and a simple tossed salad. It used to be one of your favourites too, John. Is it still?

“Sure is. Especially the meat loaf. You suppose I could have another slice?”

“Why, certainly kind sir,” she said. “I’m very flattered.

As the conversation continues in a similar vein, John comes to the following realisation:

Was this really happening? Was she sitting there forking meat loaf into her mouth and dabbing at her lips with a napkin, and was Tommy really there across the table? How could any family as unhappy as this put on such a show every night, and how long could it last? (pg. 149)

Yates is also very strong on the small disappointments in life: John’s frustration at his lack of height; the fact that he never learned to swim; an uneasy game of catch with Tommy that fails to satisfy both father and son. I love this description of a stole that John bought for Janice, a minor tragedy that seems to capture his feelings about the marriage itself.

That stole, too, was a heartbreaker. He had given it to her as a birthday present years ago, after seeing one just like it slung from the shoulders of a pretty girl at the office. But the girl at the office had known how to wear the thing, as a sort of elegant loose shawl, and Janice hadn’t. From the moment she’d rushed from her birthday celebration to pose with it at the hall mirror (“Oh, I love this, John…”) he knew she would never to wear it – it looped and dangled from  her elbows like a rope – and every time she tried only made it worse. (pg 161)

Set as it is in the early 1960s, the novel also touches on the Kennedy phenomenon. John dislikes the Kennedys and everything they represent. When John F. Kennedy is shot dead in 1963, John Wilder realises he feels a degree of sympathy with the assassin. Kennedy had been too tall, too young, too good-looking and too damn successful; ‘he had embodied elegance and wit and finesse.’ Kennedy had been everything John Wilder knew he couldn’t be.

The period detail is wonderful, too. There is a scene where John’s boss takes him out for lunch, a long, languorous, martini-fuelled discussion that could have easily served as the template for one of Don Draper’s liquid lunches with Roger Sterling in Mad Men.

Disturbing the Peace is a more self-analytical novel than Revolutionary Road or The Easter Parade. It is clear that Yates has drawn on his own experiences for inspiration here. There is a bitterness running through John’s narrative, and the ending, when it comes, is pretty bleak. Even so, it leaves me all the more eager to read more of this author’s work in the future; it’s just a question of deciding which one to read next.

Update: MarinaSofia has also reviewed this novel – click here to read her review.

Disturbing the Peace is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

A Legacy by Sybille Bedford

First published in 1956, Sybille Bedford’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Legacy, tells the story of two very different families connected by marriage. As long-standing members of Berlin’s haute bourgeoisie, the Jewish Merzes are very wealthy and very traditional. By contrast, the aristocratic von Feldens hail from Baden, part of Germany’s Catholic south; they are comfortably off but not rich.

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Set against a backdrop of a newly-unified Germany, the book moves backwards and forward in time alighting on various points in the late 19th century and the years leading up to the First World War. Our narrator is Francesca, the daughter of Julius von Felden from his second wife, Caroline, although much of the story she relates has been pieced together based on her conversations with various relatives, coming to her ‘at second and at third hand, in chunks and flashes, by hearsay and tale-bearing and being told.’ Plus there is a touch of ‘putting two and two together’ to complete the picture.

As the novel opens, the narrator recalls the early years of her life, a time she spent shuttling between two houses in Germany: an ‘outrageously large and ugly’ town house in the West of Berlin (home to the Merzes) and a small château in the South (bought for her father by her mother, Caroline). We are then introduced to the Merz household as Francesca spirals back into the history of this branch of her family.

They had no interests, tastes or thoughts beyond their family and the comfort of their persons. While members of what might have been their world were dining to the sounds of Schubert and of Haydn, endowing research and adding Corot landscapes to their Bouchers and the Delacroix, and some of them were buying their first Picasso, the Merz’s were adding bell-pulls and thickening the upholstery. No music was heard at Voss Strasse outside the ball-room and the day nursery. They never travelled. They never went to the country. They never went anywhere, except to take a cure, and they went in a private railway carriage, taking their own sheets. (pgs. 10-11)

By contrast to the Merzes, the members of Julius von Felden’s family are much more engaged with their surroundings; they are country gentleman, landowners with interests in the countryside, the arts and various natural sciences. Julius has three brothers, two of whom, Gustavus and Johannes, also feature prominently in the story.

The two families come together when Melanie Merz meets Julius von Felden during a trip to the South of France. Melanie has been staying with her brother, Edu (a man with a terrible weakness for gambling) and his wife, Sarah, a highly capable woman who is independently wealthy in her own right. There are some wonderful scenes where Sarah and Edu discuss Julius’ intentions towards Melanie. If they are to marry, there is the question of the difference in religions to be settled despite the fact that neither of the two families appears to be practising. In time, Melanie slips away from her family to get baptized, an action which leads to no end of confusion as the first ritual is carried out by a Protestant minister (not a Catholic one), and so a second ceremony has to be conducted in its place.

Even though Julius ends up marrying Melanie (a young woman several years his junior), I couldn’t help but wonder if his heart was really in it, especially when I read the following passage. In this scene, which takes places in the Merzes’ house in Berlin, Melanie is expecting Julius to propose.

They stood among the ferns and azaleas in great fear. He saw the threat to his existence, a cloud moving in that would engulf his private, careful life, a threat of which this house, this town, these people, were at once the portents, the tools and the reality. He felt caught up with, brought by the incomprehensible enmeshment of events to the brink, once more, of change; felt he must give battle or become submerged, felt submerged already by his own depression and forebodings. […] Melanie moved before him: not anything like pacing, taking small steps from flower-tub to window seat; her feet were delicate, her dress swished a little, she managed her skirts well. He was not aware of her at all. (pg. 137)

The couple marry and move to Spain, but their marriage is a brief one. Shortly after the birth of her only child, a baby girl named Henrietta, Melanie falls ill with a succession of bronchial conditions which ultimately lead to her death from consumption.

This is just one of a number of tragedies that touch the members of these two families during the course of the novel. As a young man, Julius’ brother Johannes was packed off to Benzheim, a brutal Prussian cadet school, a place where boys were left to spend their formative years in ‘an atmosphere of organized hunger, brutality and spiritual deprivation.’ As someone used to the wide open spaces of the countryside and the gentle company of his family, Johannes could not have been less prepared for the experience; it leaves him a broken man. The fallout from Johannes’ time at the cadet school continues to reverberate for several years affecting both the von Feldens and the Merzes in the process.

One of the most impressive things about A Legacy is the insight it offers into this vanished world, the glimpses into the rather insular lives of the highly privileged Merzes in Berlin coupled with the eccentricities of the von Felden family in the South. Before his marriage to Melanie, Julius’ closest companions were his three chimpanzees, Robert, Léon and Tzara. There are some very amusing scenes when Julius travels to Berlin with his chimps in tow, especially given the mischief the animals get up to during the train journey.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the novel’s title, money plays a prominent role here, and there is much discussion of allowances, gifts, debts and legacies. Everything is portrayed with great care and attention to detail: the conversations, the clothes, the train journeys, even the meals – an extensive second breakfast, a daily event in the Merz household, is described in all its glory. I loved the following passage featuring Melanie’s father, Grandpapa Merz, and his penchant for ladies with shapely legs. (Gottlieb is the Merzes’ butler, the man who manages pretty much everything in their household.)

Grandpapa was far too frail to be allowed out cavorting with the corps de ballet, and members of the corps de ballet at Voss Strasse were unthinkable. Where then could a shapely leg be found, this being literally the one perfection insisted on by the old gentleman. […] The answer was in the Prussian aristocracy. Long well-turned legs were natural to the ladies of that caste, and as a caste they were not well off. Thus a succession of stinted sisters of splendid cavalry brothers and thinly-pensioned widows of line-regiment captains, long-limbed woman of sparse figures and worn, closed, shiny faces, [….] presented themselves at Voss Strasse after the luncheon nap to read the Kreuz Zeitung and to go for drives, clothed in plain, high blouses and long skirts that revealed sometimes the promise of a fine-made ankle. They were styled companions; and Grandmama used to shake her slow head at the turn-over. For none of these stiff women lasted long. The old gentleman had tried to push a bank-note under the garter of Fraülein zu der Hardeneck, and had called Frau von Kummer his little mouse. Gottlieb, who knew everything, saw to the successors. (pgs. 13-14)

While there is much to enjoy in this novel, I couldn’t quite bring myself to love it. Bedford’s prose takes a bit of getting used to with its highly allusive conversations and indirect references to various events. The cast of characters is large, and their lives are complicated. In fact I haven’t even mentioned the third family to feature in the novel, the Bernins, who are linked to the von Feldens by way of another marriage. (A family tree would have been very helpful indeed.) As a consequence of all this, I found myself drifting in and out of this novel as I made my way through it. That said, I’m very glad I read it – as a portrait of a certain milieu, I suspect it’s pretty hard to beat.

For other thoughts on this novel, here are links to reviews by Ali and Guy.

A Legacy is published by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.