Author Archives: JacquiWine

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

Back in 1960, John Williams published Butcher’s Crossing; ostensibly a Western, it is the story of a young man’s journey into the dark heart of the American wilderness, a trip that leads to death and destruction. Five years later Williams moved on to a very different type of book with Stoner, a sensitive character study set within the world of academia. While the success of recent reissues of Stoner has generated a renewal of interest in Williams’ work, it is probably fair to say that Butcher’s Crossing remains less widely read. A shame really as this is a very intelligent novel, full of insights into the darker side of humanity and the consequences that can occur if this remains unchecked.

The central protagonist in Butcher’s Crossing is Will Andrews, an open and imaginative young man keen to see something more of the country he calls his home. As the novel begins, Andrews is travelling to Butcher’s Crossing, a small Kansas settlement in the heart of the Midwest – the year is 1873. Having left his studies in Harvard, he hopes to find some greater meaning in life by getting closer to the freedom of the land. In essence, Andrews is embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, one he trusts will give him a greater insight into his own character and future direction in life.

On his arrival in the rough and ready town, Andrews gains an introduction to Miller, a seasoned yet maverick buffalo hunter with several years’ experience of working the prairies. Before long, Miller entices Andrews into financing a hunting expedition to a hidden valley deep in the midst of the Colorado mountains, supposedly home to more than three thousand buffalo complete with prime hides. The location of the valley is known only to Miller who last visited the area some ten years earlier while trapping for beavers. There is a sense that Miller might be spinning a tall tale about this mythical herd of buffalo, large groupings being something of a rarity these days – with the market for buffalo skins in the ascendancy, the animals have been hunted with a vengeance, a development which has resulted in a significant thinning out of the herds. Nevertheless, Andrews, in his hunger for a taste of the West, is willing to take his chances with the persuasive hunter. As a consequence, the party is completed by Miller’s trusty sidekick, Charley Hoge, a one-handed, alcoholic, Bible-reading camp man/cook, and Schneider, an experienced skinner of hides. It will be Miller’s role to lead the group, a position that creates considerable tension amongst the men especially when the trip gets underway.

Once their preparations are complete, the group sets off for Colorado, accompanied by horses and a team of oxen to draw the wagon. Williams is particularly adept at capturing the gruelling nature of the journey across the prairies: the physical exhaustion and soreness from riding over the hard terrain; the extreme thirst from a lack of fresh water; the monotonous routine of performing the same tasks time and time again as the days merge together into one long continuum. Nevertheless, Andrews clearly feels the undeniable pull of the land; it is almost as if his whole life has been leading up to this point, his previous existence fading into insignificance by comparison.

Andrews felt that the mountains drew them onward, and drew them with increasing intensity as they came nearer, as if they were a giant lodestone whose influence increased to the degree that it was more nearly approached. As they came nearer he had again the feeling that he was being absorbed, included in something with which he had had no relation before; but unlike the feeling of absorption he had experienced on the anonymous prairie, this feeling was one which promised, however vaguely, a richness and a fulfilment for which he had no name. (p. 106)

In his determination to find the valley, Miller pushes the team onwards by the most direct route possible even when it means risking the lives of his companions and their animals. Much to the annoyance of Schneider, the group has to survive without fresh supplies of water for a couple of days, a move that ends up putting the whole expedition in jeopardy.

Eventually, Miller finds the entrance to the secluded valley – as promised, the buffalo are there in abundance, maybe three or four thousand in total. It is here that Andrews’ initiation into the true nature of the hunt really begins as Miller wastes no time in embarking upon a frenzied cull of these noble and dignified mammals. Once he has identified and taken out the leader of the pack, Miller falls into a swift, steady rhythm, firing and reloading systematically until the ground is littered with buffalo corpses. Unsurprisingly, Andrews is shocked and horrified by this senseless savagery, to the extent that he begins to question his own character, values and identity.

During the last hour of the stand he came to see Miller as a mechanism, an automaton, moved by the moving herd; and he came to see Miller’s destruction of the buffalo, not as a lust for blood or a lust for the hides or a lust for what the hides would bring, or even at last the blind lust of fury that tolled darkly within him—he came to see the destruction as a cold, mindless response to the life in which Miller had immersed himself. And he looked upon himself, crawling dumbly after Miller upon the flat bed of the valley, picking up the empty cartridges that he spent, tugging the water keg, husbanding the rifle, cleaning it, offering it to Miller when he needed it—he looked upon himself, and did not know who he was, or where he went. (p. 137)

After the first day’s haul of more than one hundred buffalo, it soon becomes clear that Miller is intent on decimating the whole herd. Schneider and Andrews can barely keep up with their leader as they struggle to skin the carcasses before rigor mortis sets in, a process that leaves them exhausted and bruised, mentally as well as physically.

Schneider and Andrews had to work more and more swiftly to skin the animals Miller left strewn upon the ground; almost never were they able to finish rather skinning before sundown, so that nearly every morning they were up before dawn hacking tough skins from stiff buffalo. And during the day, as they sweated and hacked and pulled in a desperate effort to keep up with Miller, they could hear the sound of his rifle steadily and monotonously and insistently pounding at the silence, and pounding at their nerves until they were raw and bruised. (p. 159)

Where this novel really excels is in the characterisation of the four men, each one distinctive and fully painted on the page. As the hunt continues, further tensions emerge within the group, especially between Miller and the rather stubborn yet practical Schneider. Once again Miller’s dogmatic behaviour threatens the very safety of the men and their animals as they are forced to camp out in the mountains over the winter months, trapped by the snow following a sudden heavy blizzard. They cling to a precarious existence, taking shelter in a makeshift lean-to fashioned out of foraged materials and buffalo hides from the cull. There are moments when Andrews wonders if they will ever make it out of there alive – and if so, what life will mean to him in the months and years that follow.

Butcher’s Crossing is a truly excellent novel, one that highlights the sheer futility of the obsessive pursuit of power, wealth and the Great American Dream – the closing section of the story plays a particularly important role in underscoring the senselessness and stupidity of everything that has gone before. Moreover, Williams doesn’t hold back on the brutality of life in the wilderness. There is an honesty in his portrayal of the darker side of humanity, especially in relation to Miller, a man who takes certain things to the extreme in his mindless determination to destroy. The descriptions of hunting and skinning buffalo are highly graphic too, possibly not for the sensitive or fainthearted. Nevertheless, there is great beauty here as well, not least in Williams’ well-judged prose and his lyrical descriptions of the land. I’ll finish with a brief passage from the middle of the novel as Andrews first catches sight of Miller’s hidden valley, a vision of paradise just there for the taking.

For perhaps three hundred yards, the trail cut down between the pines; but at that point, abruptly, the land leveled. A long narrow valley, flat as the top of a table, wound among the mountains. Lush grass grew on the bed of the valley and waved gently in the breeze as far as the eye could see. A quietness seemed to rise from the valley; it was the quietness, the stillness, the absolute calm of a land where no human foot had touched. (p. 117)

Butcher’s Crossing is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Oh my goodness, what an enchanting novel this turned out to be! I read it over that beautifully sunny weekend just before Easter, and I couldn’t have chosen a better time – it matched the glorious weather to perfection.

First published in 1922, The Enchanted April, tells the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. The rather shy and mousey Mrs Wilkins proves to be a somewhat unlikely catalyst for the trip when she sees an advertisement in The Times appealing to those who appreciate ‘wisteria and sunshine’ to take a small castle on the shores of the Mediterranean, furnishings and servants provided – a prospect that captures her imagination on a dark and dreary afternoon in February. Before long Mrs Wilkins is joined in her quest by Mrs Arbuthnot – a woman previously known to her only by sight – who also appears to be transfixed by the very same ad and the idea of a break from her dismal routine.

As it turns out, both of these women are unhappy with their current lives, albeit in rather different ways. Lotty Wilkins feels trapped and belittled in a stifling marriage; her husband, Mellersh-Wilkins, is a stuffed shirt and a bully, someone who demands prudence and thrift in every department of their home life except the one that relates to his food. In this respect he is highly critical, dismissing any shortfalls in standards as poor housekeeping on Lotty’s part. Rose Arbuthnot, on the other hand, has all but abandoned any chance of ever being noticed by her husband, Frederick, a highly successful writer of rather salacious memoirs of the mistresses of kings. In the early days of their marriage, the Arbuthnots were very much in love; but all too soon the situation changed as Frederick began to throw himself into his work. As a consequence, Rose has filled her life with other things to occupy her time, mostly self-sacrificing charitable work in support of the poor and needy, primarily as a means of easing her conscience about the somewhat grubby nature of the source of Frederick’s income. In short, Lotty and Rose feel constrained by their respective circumstances, worn down over the years by a lack of love and affection – even though they are only in their early thirties, both of these women seem old before their time.

Why couldn’t two unhappy people refresh each other on their way through this dusty business of life by a little talk – real natural talk, about what they felt, what they would have liked, what they still tried to hope? And she could not help thinking that Mrs Arbuthnot, too, was reading that very same advertisement. Her eyes were on the very part of the paper. Was she, too, picturing what it would be like – the colour, the fragrance, the light, the soft lapping of the sea among little hot rocks? Colour, fragrance, light, sea; instead of Shaftesbury Avenue, and the wet omnibuses, and the fish department at Schoolbred’s, and the Tube to Hampstead, and dinner, and tomorrow the same and the day after the same and always the same… (p. 7)

Having overcome their initial reluctance to do something so daring, these two ladies from Hampstead decide they will reply to the ad and take the castle in Italy. The only real obstacle that remains is finding a means of funding the cost of the trip from their respective nest eggs, a task that would prove particularly challenging for Lotty given her personal circumstances. So, as a solution to their dilemma, Lotty and Rose decide to place their own advertisement in the paper in the hope of finding two suitable companions for the trip. Thus they are joined by Lady Caroline Dester, a glamorous young socialite who is seeking refuge from all the charming men who want a piece of her back in London, and Mrs Fisher, a rather crabby old lady who seems determined to live in the past, forever lamenting the loss of old friends and acquaintances from her beloved literary world.

On their arrival at the San Salvatore castle, these four very different ladies begin to connect and interact with one another, often with the most amusing consequences. There are some priceless scenes, especially at mealtimes, as the different personalities start to emerge, frequently clashing over the smallest and most telling of details. In this early scene, the elderly Mrs Fisher has adopted the role of grande dame at the breakfast table, almost as if she were the hostess or chief facilitator of the trip. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Rose Arbuthnot is more than a little put out by this development, and so she tries to establish her own standing as joint hostess with Lotty Wilkins, a move which doesn’t quite go according to plan! The indomitable Mrs Fisher is the first to speak here.

She turned more markedly than ever to Mrs Arbuthnot. ‘Do let me give you a little more coffee,’ she said.

‘No, thank you. But won’t you have some more?’

‘No indeed. I never have more than two cups at breakfast. Would you like an orange? ‘

‘No, thank you. Would you?’

‘No, I don’t eat fruit at breakfast. It is an American fashion which I am too old now to adopt. Have you had all you want?’

‘Quite. Have you?’

Mrs Fisher paused before replying. Was this a habit, this trick of answering a simple question with the same question? If so it must be curbed, for no one could live four weeks in any real comfort with somebody who had a habit. (pp. 66-67)

Gradually over time, the castle begins to work its magic on the occupants, often in profound and surprising ways. Lotty Wilkins is the first to experience its bewitching effects, transformed as she is by the abundance of beauty and resplendent atmosphere at San Salvatore (the descriptions of the gardens are magnificently lush). And how could she fail to be when she opens her curtains for the first time in the morning, only to be greeted by the following sight?

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword. (p. 50)

Almost immediately upon her arrival at the retreat, Lotty Wilkins comes right out of her shell, becoming bolder, more impetuous, more enthusiastic about life and all the possibilities it has to offer. As a consequence, she makes an audacious decision, one that she hopes will lead to the promise of greater happiness in the future. To reveal any more might spoil things for the reader. Suffice it to say that Lotty’s enthusiasm is infectious, so much so that it catches the attention of the previously reclusive Lady Caroline. As a consequence, these two women strike up an unlikely friendship, one that looks all set to last beyond the duration of the trip. Lady Caroline, for her part, also begins to question the value of her life to date and what may lie ahead for her in the months and years to come. Even the disagreeable Mrs Fisher starts to soften as she realises that the members of the younger generation are not all as shallow and as frivolous as she had previously assumed.  

Nevertheless, perhaps the one person who is most affected by Lotty’s optimism and enthusiasm is Rose Arbuthnot. As she reflects on the transformation in her new friend, the rather lonely and sensitive Rose longs to experience something similar. If only her life with Frederick were different, if only they could recapture the early days of their marriage, the first flushes of love and affection for one another, the feeling of being cared for and valued by an attentive partner.

[…] and once again Rose wondered at Lotty, at her balance, her sweet and equable temper – she who in England had been such a thing of gusts. From the moment they got into Italy it was Lotty who seemed the elder. She certainly was very happy; blissful, in fact. Did happiness so completely protect one? Did it make one so untouchable, so wise? Rose was happy herself, but not anything like so happy. Evidently not, for not only did she want to fight Mrs Fisher but she wanted something else, something more than this lovely place, something to complete it; she wanted Frederick. For the first time in her life she was surrounded by perfect beauty, and her one thought was to show it to him, to share it with him. She wanted Frederick. She yearned for Frederick, Ah, if only, only Frederick… (p.103)

Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming novel has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. At times, I was reminded of Winifred Watson’s equally adorable book, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a story that also captures a sense of joie de vivre and escapism from the constraints of an unfulfilled life.

Von Armin takes great care in portraying each of her central characters with enough subtlety and depth, thereby encouraging the reader to invest in these women from an early stage in the story. Lotty Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot are particularly well developed, especially in the fleshing out of their marriages and the different challenges they face with their respective husbands. Lady Caroline is also painted in a nuanced fashion. At first, it would be tempting to assume that she is simply selfish, spoilt and rather ungrateful for the attention others lavish upon her; but as the novel progresses, a different side to her personality starts to emerge, one that is more thoughtful and vulnerable. Even the fusty Mrs Fisher is portrayed in a manner which ultimately encourages the reader’s sympathies as it becomes clear that she too is rather lonely and isolated in her restricted life.

All in all, this is a most delightful novel with much to commend it – another strong contender for my end-of-year list.

The Enchanted April is published by Penguin Classics and Vintage Books.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

All this week, Simon and Karen are hosting one of their themed readalongs: the 1951 Club, a celebration of books first published in this notable year. My choice for the event is Olivia Manning’s School for Love, a highly compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Second World War. It’s a brilliant novel, one that features a most distinctive character quite unlike any other I’ve encountered either in literature or in life itself. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

Recently orphaned following the death of his mother from typhoid, young Felix Latimer is sent from Baghdad to Jerusalem to live with his father’s adopted sister, Miss Bohun – at least until the war is over and he can return to his homeland of England. (His father, a British official of some sort, was killed by the Iraqis during a disturbance one year earlier.) As the novel opens, Felix is feeling apprehensive about meeting his adopted aunt, a woman his kind-hearted mother had never wanted to visit when she was alive.

Whenever his father had suggested a trip to Jerusalem, his mother had said: ‘Oh no, dear one, not there. We’d have to see Ethel Bohun. I couldn’t bear it.’ (pp. 7-8)

On his arrival in Jerusalem, Felix finds the formidable Miss Bohun rather brusque and unwelcoming, preoccupied as she is with running the household and preparing the front room for an unspecified guest. (As it turns out, Miss Bohun spends much of her spare time running the city’s branch of the ‘Ever-Readies’ , a religious group that believes in the Second Coming of Christ. Her endeavours to prepare the spare room are closely connected to these activities, a point that becomes apparent as the story unfolds.)

Desperately craving some much-needed love and affection, Felix is terribly lonely and unsettled by his new surroundings. The environment in which he finds himself is cold and spartan in more ways than one. There is very little in the way of comfort here; even the meals are scant and tasteless, Miss Bohun refusing to buy anything on the black market in her quest to save money at every given opportunity.

Miss Bohun said: ‘I know no one can take the place of your mother, Felix, but I’m a sort of relative – the only relative of any sort that you have out here – and I want to do what I can for you. It’s my duty, anyway.’

Felix said: ‘Thank you,’ and tried out of gratitude to feel responsive, but the space between them seemed to echo with emptiness. Miss Bohun was so unlike his mother, and, for some reason, he felt sure that when she had raised her eyes and looked at him she had somehow expressed disappointment in him. Perhaps she had imagined he would be older, or younger, or better-looking, or a more unusual sort of boy. Anyway she retired now into her own thoughts, eyes hidden, and he gave his attention to the meal of grey, gritty bread and tasteless tea. (pp. 15-16)

It soon becomes clear – to the reader at least – that Miss Bohun is a manipulative monster, a rather absurd and disillusioned creature who considers herself a paragon of virtue when in fact she is anything but. She appears to have taken over the running of the house from its former occupant, the Polish refugee, Frau Leszno – the latter now relegated to the position of cook/housekeeper to Miss Bohun, and shunted out to reside in the servants’ quarters, a reversal of fortunes Frau Leszno deeply resents. In this scene, Miss Bohun tells Felix how she came to live at the house, clearly implying that she was doing Frau Leszno a huge favour by taking control of the situation. Or, if one looks at it another way, Miss Bohun saw an opportunity for personal gain which she seized without a moment’s hesitation.

I happened to knock on this gate and Frau Leszno opened it – a poor, bedraggled, starved thing that started to cry before she’d said half-a-dozen words. They’d already sold part of the furniture at a loss to keep going. Well, I came in and took charge at once. I’m always looking for some way to be of use in the world and here was my chance – the sick old man, and Frau Leszno wailing and lamenting and wringing her hands. She showed me over the house – well, really, I showed her over it – and there were these simply splendid rooms, empty, just what I wanted. I told her I’d take two of two of the bedrooms. “Now,” I said, “you’re not to worry. I’ll look after you.” (p. 31)

Also living in the house are Frau Leszno’s grown-up son, Nikky – a young man whom Felix initially misjudges as being somewhat surly and uninformed – and an impoverished elderly gentleman, Mr Jewel, who camps out in the attic.

In his naivety and innocence, Felix initially finds himself coming down on the side of Miss Bohun in her running battles with Frau Leszno over the various arrangements in the house. After all, his adopted aunt has been charitable in offering him a home. Nevertheless, it would appear that Miss Bohun is profiting out of Felix’s presence by overcharging him for his board and lodgings. She scrimps on everything in the house – food, heating, lighting – basically any kind of warmth or compassion is in short supply. Felix’s only friend is Faro, Miss Bohun’s adorable Siamese cat. But then one day, everything changes…

Into the mix comes a recently widowed young woman, the rather sophisticated Mrs Ellis, who joins the household on the understanding that she will be able to rent the whole house from Miss Bohun at the end of the summer. Naturally, Felix is captivated by Mrs Ellis, particularly as she treats him more like a grown-up than a young boy, taking him out in the evenings and opening his eyes to the wider aspects of life. Moreover, Mrs Ellis is no fool, and she quickly gets the measure of Miss Bohun and her modus operandi. As a consequence, tensions emerge in the household, particularly once it becomes clear that Mrs Ellis is expecting a baby. In this scene, Miss Bohun is talking to Felix following a run-in with her new lodger.

‘I don’t want to discuss it, Felix, if you don’t mind. I was quite ready to do Mrs Ellis a kindness if I could – but, dear me, it isn’t everyone nowadays that’s willing to have a baby in their house. I feel sorry for the poor thing – a widow and going to be a mother, it’s very sad – but I have to consider myself, as well, and you, too, my dear boy. I offered you a home. I know young mothers think the world should revolve round themselves and their offspring, but she can hardly expect to deprive you of your home.’

‘She said I could live here with her,’ said Felix eagerly.

‘She did, did she?’ Miss Bohun smiled a sour little smile. ‘So it’s all arranged! I’m afraid you don’t know this town, my dear boy. You are under my protection and I certainly could not let you involve yourself in a situation that might lead to gossip.’

Felix was not clear what Miss Bohun meant by this remark, so did not contest it, […] (p. 121)

As the story moves towards its dramatic conclusion, young Felix discovers that our first impressions of others may not always be entirely representative of their true values. He learns to look beyond the surface, to question the motives and behaviours of those around him, especially when the individuals concerned appear to lack any sense of humanity and compassion. As his eyes are opened and the veil of innocence falls away, Felix begins to see another side to Miss Bohun, one that is captured in the following quote.

Felix, paused by the table, turned on her a mystified face. He could feel no reassurance in her change of tone: he was fearful and filled with distrust. For a moment, seeing her sitting there calmly and running at will through the gamut of her tones of command, exasperation, self-pity and disapproval, he was suddenly certain of her falsity. His faith in her as a human being had gone and he could believe her to be capable of anything – perhaps even of cruelty to Faro or indifference were Faro suffering. (pp. 221-222)

School for Love is a really terrific book, by turns sad, humorous, insightful and surprising. In its focus on a young boy’s loss of innocence, the novel shares something with Alberto Moravia’s Agostino and Stefan Zweig’s Burning Secret, both of which are excellent reads. I couldn’t help but feel for Felix as he tries to fill the yawning gap left by the loss of his beloved mother, a woman who wanted to shelter him from the harsh realities of life for as long as possible. (Felix’s age is never confirmed, but I had him at around thirteen or fourteen). In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating character, one that is sure to generate strong opinions either way. Is she a manipulative hypocrite, determined to seize any opportunity and exploit it for her own personal gain? (At several points in the novel, Miss Bohun appears to be manoeuvring people in and out of various rooms in the house as a means of protecting her own interests.) Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? The former, I think, although it’s hard to discount an element of the latter. (This would make a terrific choice for a book group discussion.)

The minor characters are beautifully realised too, especially the kind-hearted Mr Jewel with whom Felix strikes up an unlikely friendship in the latter stages of the book. Then there is Nikky who reveals himself as a rather perceptive intellectual with hidden depths. Before finishing up, I should also mention the Jerusalem setting. Manning spent time in this region and it clearly shows; the night-time scenes in the café bars are particularly atmospheric. There is a real sense of displacement here in a city where resources are scare and accommodation hard to come by.

All in all, this is a wonderful read with much to commend it – very highly recommended.

School for Love is published by NYRB Clasics; personal copy.

Pitch Dark by Renata Adler

Back in the summer of 2014, I read Renata Adler’s critically acclaimed debut novel, Speedboat (1976), a book that narrowly missed out on a place in my highlights at the end of that year. Pitch Dark was her follow-up to Speedboat, published some seven years later in 1983.

Just like its predecessor, Pitch Dark features a first-person narrative relayed in a fragmentary, non-linear style. The narrator, Kate Ennis – a journalist by profession – is in the process of breaking up with her lover of eight years, a non-committal married man named Jake. At various points during their affair, Kate has expressed a desire to go away with Jake for a few days, a weekend of rest and relaxation; Jake, for his part, always seemed somewhat reluctant to commit.

Sometimes, you said, I will, we’ll do that. Once or twice, you said, We’ll see. It became a sort of joke between us, that weekend. Sometimes it was reduced to just dinner at a restaurant in Pennsylvania, not far from the place where you sometimes spend a few days fishing; but we never went there, either. Other dinners, not that one. And it began to matter. I don’t know why. A child’s thing. On the other hand, I’m not sure you can say, as a not inconsiderable man to a grown woman, We’ll see. (pp. 38-39)

The book is divided into the three sections, the first and third of which are fairly similar in style, both featuring vignettes from various points in Kate’s life intercut with reflections on the nature of her relationship with Jake. In this respect, she adopts an analytical, self-reflective approach, frequently questioning herself about their time together.

Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away? (p. 15)

You are, you know, you were the nearest thing to a real story to happen in my life. (p. 22)

Was there something I did, you think, or might have done. I ask you that, some thing I did not do, and might have done, that would have kept you with me yet a while? (p. 44)

I wonder whether he will ever ask himself, say to himself, Well, she wasn’t asking all the earth, why did I let her go? (p. 28)

The first two quotes (along with a couple of others) recur throughout these sections of the novel creating a sort of loop, returning to and building on earlier conversations as the narrative unfolds. The vignettes are wide-ranging and diverse, featuring stories of friends and acquaintances, musings on various subjects from American football to the finer points of law, and most affecting of all, the tale of a sick raccoon that takes shelter in Kate’s barn.

The middle section is perhaps the most compelling – a relatively self-contained account of Kate’s brief trip to Ireland, an experience shot through with a strong sense of foreboding, paranoia and fear. While en route to a remote castle in the Irish countryside, Kate grazes a truck with her car, a hired vehicle from a rental agency. On noticing the car rental sticker, the truck driver decides to confer in private with a local policeman who then proceeds to tell Kate that everything has been taken care of. Kate, quite correctly as it turns out, suspects that some kind of scam is afoot, especially when the other driver is reluctant to exchange licence numbers. Nevertheless, she continues on her way to the castle where the welcome she receives is rather brusque, to say the least. The retreat’s owner, an ambassador, has assured Kate that his staff will take care of her. ‘Talk to them, the ambassador had said, they are a friendly people.’  As it turns out, they are anything but. On her arrival, Kate is virtually ignored by the cook and the housekeeper – the latter is particularly obtuse in her treatment of this guest, particularly when asked for directions to a nearby house.

The strained visit ends with an anxious drive through the night as Kate attempts to get to Dublin to catch a morning flight out of the country. In her lack of familiarity with the Irish roads, Kate takes a wrong turn somewhere, a diversion that leaves her perilously short of petrol. As a consequence, she must rely on the assistance of an unfamiliar lorry driver (‘her teamster’) in finding her way to the capital. Haunted by the incident with the earlier truck driver, Kate is convinced that the authorities must be on her trail – every light and every vehicle seems to pose a potential threat to her safety.

Then, when I had stopped and turned around, there were those headlights coming toward me, the first car I had seen in more than twenty minutes; and I thought, Could the police have alerted one another, in every little town along the way, ever since I set out from the castle, dropping my key in the intense dark at Cihrbradàn, and could this be another of their agents, sent to follow me out of the station at Castlebar? Not so paranoid a thought as that, for many reasons; not least, because the police in this country must be accustomed to following nightriders of all descriptions, Protestants, Catholics, gunrunners, suppliers, enemies, members, betrayers of the IRA. And then, of course, I was following my teamster. But what grounds to trust him after all? (p. 51)

Pitch Dark is a book about love and longing, about what is left and what might have been. In some ways, Kate seems to be reaching out to Jake, communicating on paper some of the thoughts and feelings she has been unable to express in person. At one point in the story, there is a blurring of the margins between the author and the narrator, a move that left me wondering how much of Kate Ennis was based on Adler’s own personal experiences. Either way, it is a difficult book to capture in a review, one that is almost certainly best to experience in person. While the style of Pitch Dark might not appeal to everyone, it does serve as an intriguing companion piece to Adler’s earlier novel, Speedboat. This is another perceptive, erudite piece of work by Renata Adler – all credit to NYRB Classics for publishing it.

Red Lights by Georges Simenon (tr. Norman Denny)

What prompts a seemingly ordinary conventional man to embark upon a path of self-destruction, to the exclusion of those closest to him, until his actions end in near-inevitable catastrophe? This is the theme Simenon mines in his 1955 novella Red Lights. Like Three Bedrooms in Manhattan and The Widow (which I read last year), Red Lights is another of this author’s romans durs, the ‘hard’ novels of which he was particularly proud. It is a tight, claustrophobic read, one that would suit lovers of vintage noir or crime fiction with a strong psychological edge.

The book opens on the Friday evening of the Labor Day weekend; the time is the early 1950s. Steve Hogan and his wife, Nancy, are preparing to drive from their home in Long Island to Maine, New England to pick up their children from summer camp. It is clear from the outset that there are tensions in this marriage, some of which are bubbling just under the surface while others remain repressed somewhere in Steve’s psyche. Before the couple leave for Maine, Steve sneaks out for a quick drink under the pretext of filling up the car with gas. There is a sense that Nancy knows what he is getting up to, but she declines to say anything before they set off on their trip. On the road, the couple get caught in a storm and heavy traffic, the latter an inevitable development given the forty-five million motorists predicted to be driving at some point over the holiday weekend. Consequently, the tension starts to build…

He was not shaken by the accident reports, not alarmed. What got on his nerves was the incessant hum of wheels on either side of him, the headlights rushing to meet him every hundred yards, and also the sensation of being caught in a tide, with no way of escaping either to right or to left, or even of driving more slowly, because his mirror showed a triple string of lights following bumper-to-bumper behind him. (p. 13)

Desperate for another drink, Steve pulls over at a roadside bar under the guise of needing the men’s room while Nancy stays in the car. Back at the wheel after a swift double, Steve takes a wrong turn, gets frustrated as a result and seems keen to start a quarrel. Nancy, for her part, remains calm and composed. She is a practical, level-headed woman, self-confident and efficient; but as far as Steve sees it, Nancy has to be right about everything.

She didn’t order him about, actually, but she arranged their life in her own way, as though it were the natural thing to do. He was wrong. He knew he was wrong. Whenever he had had a drink or two he saw her differently, becoming annoyed by things that ordinarily he took for granted. (p. 10)

Things take a turn for the worse when Steve decides to stop at another bar, leaving Nancy by herself in the car for the second time – this despite the fact that she has threatened to continue the journey to Maine without him if he goes in. As a consequence, Steve takes the ignition key with him just to spite her. When he returns to the car some fifteen minutes later, Steve finds a note from Nancy to say she is going on ahead by bus. After a frantic attempt to intercept his wife on the Greyhound heading toward Providence, he gets lost again, thereby abandoning all plans to catch up with the bus in the process.

By now, Steve is tanked and very annoyed with Nancy, sick of having to play by her rules all the time. In this heightened state of mind, he goes ‘into the tunnel’, an intense mental fugue he experiences every now and again, a mood characterised by feelings of solitude, frustration and alienation.

He called it “going into the tunnel,” an expression of his own, for his private use, which he never used in talking to anyone else, least of all to his wife. He knew exactly what it meant, and what it was like to be in the tunnel; yet, curiously, when he was there he never allowed himself to admit the fact, except for occasional brief instants, and always too late. As for determining the precise moment when he entered it, he had often tried to do this afterwards, but never with success. (p. 5)

Stopping at yet another bar, Steve latches on to a solitary drinker, offloading to him about Nancy and women in general. In the midst of his drunken fugue state, Steve is keen to demonstrate that he is a real man, someone who know how to live life ‘off the tracks’, unconstrained by the woman of the household and the conventions of society. Unfortunately for Steve, his uncommunicative drinking partner turns out to be Sid Halligan, a dangerous criminal on the run following a breakout from Sing Sing Penitentiary. Somehow or other, Halligan ends up in Steve’s car, a development which leads our protagonist into very dangerous territory. I’ll leave it there with the plot, save to say that Halligan’s appearance on the scene has lasting consequences for both Steve and Nancy.

Red Lights is a very gripping piece of noir, harrowing and brutal in its sensibility. Simenon maintains an atmosphere of simmering tension throughout, which gives the story the feel of a white-knuckle ride as Steve attempts to deal with his demons both internal and external. In many respects, it reads like a cross between a classic James M. Cain noir (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and a Richard Yates novel – something like Disturbing the Peace, a book which features an alcoholic protagonist, a rather tragic figure who seems powerless to prevent his own descent into a self-destructive state of despair. As the narrative of Red Lights unfolds, we learn a little more about the nature of Steve’s day-to-day life with Nancy. As the one left to take care of the children for an hour or two after work, Steve clearly feels somewhat inferior to Nancy, particularly considering her importance to her prestigious employers. It is this underlying sense of frustration, together with an annoyance at having to constantly win his wife’s approval, which catalyses Steve’s abusive behaviour on this fateful night.

Because when Bonnie and Dan weren’t in camp, that is to say, during the greater part of the year, it was not Nancy who got home early to look after them; it was he. Because in her office she was a person of importance, the right hand of Mr. Schwartz, head of the firm of Schwartz & Taylor, who came between ten and eleven in the morning and had a business lunch nearly every day, after which he worked till six or seven in the evening.

[…]

On the stroke of five he, Steve, was free. He could make a dash for the Lexington Avenue subway station, get wedged in the crush, and at Brooklyn, sprint for the bus that stopped at the end of their lot.

Altogether it didn’t take more than three quarters of an hour, and he would find Ida, the coloured girl who minded the children when they got back from school, with her hat on already. Her time must be valuable too. Everybody’s time was valuable. Everybody’s except his own… (pp. 29-30)

The more I think about this novella, the more compelling it feels in spite of the brutality – this is not a book for the sensitive or fainthearted. My only hesitation relates to the plausibility of the path to redemption sketched out towards the end of the story, something which is difficult to discuss without revealing spoilers. Nevertheless, this is a fairly minor reservation. There is a depth/intensity to the various emotions explored here – not only during the night itself but in the hours that follow. The sense of place feels incredibly authentic too. Simenon perfectly captures the seedy atmosphere and sense of agitation in the roadside bars, the way the regulars remain watchful, sizing up any outsiders in the process.

All in all, this is a very affecting noir. Not always a comfortable read, but a gripping one for sure.

Red Lights is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

It’s been a while since I last read anything by Edith Wharton – more than two years in fact since I reviewed The House of Mirth, a novel I loved for its central character, the fascinating Miss Lily Bart. I suppose I’ve been trying to save Wharton for the right time. Having just finished The Age of Innocence (another of her critically-acclaimed society novels), I can see it has the potential to become one of my all-time favourite books – such a beautiful and compelling portrayal of forbidden love, I longed for the times when I could return to these characters and their expertly-realised world.

Set within the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s, The Age of Innocence centres on Newland Archer, a highly respected young lawyer from a wealthy, privileged and traditional family. On the surface, everything in Newland’s life appears to be perfect. In spite of an earlier dalliance with a married woman, Newland recognises the importance of adhering to the established codes and behaviours of his natural social set. As a consequence, he is looking forward to the announcement of his forthcoming engagement to one of the prettiest girls in New York, the sweet-natured and equally privileged May Welland, a young woman who seems to embody everything that is decent and pure and virtuous in life.

Into this perfectly ordered and balanced world comes May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, recently returned from Europe following the breakdown of her marriage to a Polish Count. Much to the disapproval of New York society – a culture that condemns social scandal above all else – Countess Olenska has taken the drastic step of fleeing her abusive husband, reputedly with the aid of another man, the Count’s secretary. As the novel opens, Newland catches sight of the Countess for the first time during a visit to the New York Opera where the lady’s appearance in public has created a bit of a stir.

As for the cause of the commotion, she sat gracefully in her corner of the box, her eyes fixed on the stage, and revealing, as she leaned forward, a little more shoulder and bosom than New York was accustomed to seeing, at least in ladies who had reasons for wishing to pass unnoticed. (pp. 12-13)  

On seeing the Countess, Newland’s first thoughts are for May, and he urges his sweetheart to bring forward the announcement of their engagement in the hope that the support of two influential New York families – the Wellands and the Archers – will bolster Countess Olenska’s social standing. (This is a watchful, judgemental world, one where everyone seems to know everyone else’s movements and intentions before the day is out.)

Initially, Newland considers the exotic Countess Olena rather mysterious with her curious European ways and interests; but the more time he spends in this lady’s company, the more fascinating he finds her. Deep down, in spite of his placid, conventional nature, Newland longs for a richer, more stimulating cultural and emotional life. In many respects, Countess Olenska is the natural embodiment of these desires – she is imaginative, unconventional, passionate and artistic. As a consequence, Newland finds himself becoming increasing attracted to the Countess, a development that also leads to questions about the nature of his potential future with May.

What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a ‘decent’ fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal? What if, for some one of the subtler reasons that would tell with both of them, they should tire of each other, misunderstand or irritate each other? He reviewed his friends’ marriages – the supposedly happy ones – and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgement, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other. (p. 37)

I love that quote – it’s so typical of Wharton and her ability to highlight the duplicity at play in this closed and censorious society.

In spite of receiving the initial support of various influential members of the New York set, Countess Olenska comes under considerable pressure to return to her brutish husband, thereby conforming to established conventions. Ideally, the Countess wishes to press for a divorce, an action considered socially unacceptable by the traditional American society of the day – while the city’s legal system permits divorce, its social customs do not. As a lawyer with a close connection to the Welland family, Newland is enlisted to persuade Countess Olenska that filing for divorce would be utterly foolish, a view he is in agreement with once it becomes clear that the Countess would likely be ruined if the circumstances of her departure from the Count ever came to light. However, by advising the Countess against a divorce, Newland must effectively let go of any hope of ever marrying the Countess himself – for if she remains tied to the Count, she cannot possibly be free to marry again.

In time, Newland ties the knot with May and settles down to the rituals of married life, an existence he finds increasingly bland and stifling. After a gap of about eighteen months, he sees Countess Olenska again, and all his old feelings for her (and hers for him) are rekindled.  Nevertheless, Countess Olenska is unflinchingly realistic in her outlook on life. She seems to understand the true nature of their circumstances more clearly than Newland, at least at first. If they are ever to see one another now that Newland is married, they must do so discreetly. It would not do to destroy the lives of those around them, especially not May’s and those of the members of their respective families. All of a sudden, the reality of situation dawns on Newland, and he sees the delicate balance he must try to maintain.

It was clear to him, and it grew more clear under close scrutiny, that if she should finally decide on returning to Europe – returning to her husband – it would not be because her old life tempted her, even on the new terms offered. No: she would go only if she felt herself becoming a temptation to Archer, a temptation to fall away from the standard they had both set up. Her choice would be to stay near him as long as he did not ask her to come nearer; and it depended on himself to keep her just there, safe but secluded. (p. 210)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the story, save to say that it gripped me to the very end. Instead, I’m going to touch on some of the things I love about this novel as they fall into three broad areas.

First, there is the subtlety and depth of the characterisation. The three main players are so beautifully realised, so fully painted on the page that it’s hard not to get completely draw into their world. Naturally, Newland and Countess Olenska are the centre of attention, and the complexity of their emotions are clearly felt. Both of these characters are torn between opposing forces: on the one hand, a powerful desire to give in to their true feelings by spending time with one another; on the other, a necessary duty to preserve the happiness of those around them by trying to remain apart. Nevertheless, in spite of the shades that are visible in the portrayal of Newland and the Countess, it would be unfair to dismiss May as the innocent, childlike creature that her husband perceives her to be. As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that May sees and understands much more than Newland appreciates. She appears to have moments of great insight, observing the nuances of the situation around her in ways that Newland simply does not realise – well, not until the game is almost over. (There is a brilliant quote that I would have loved to include here, but I fear it’s too much of a spoiler to share.)

Then there is Wharton’s ability to expose the underhand workings of this repressive society, a culture that seems so refined on the surface, and yet so terribly brutal, hypocritical and intolerant when the protective veneer of respectability is stripped away. It is only then that the real machinations are exposed in all their blatant cruelty.

It was the old New York way, of taking life ‘without effusion of blood’; the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than ‘scenes’, except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them. (p. 286)

Finally, there is the quality of the writing. The Age of Innocence contains some of the most glorious, perfectly crafted prose I have read for quite a while. This is a novel shot through with a deep sense of yearning for a more fulfilling life, a longing for a love that seemed ill-fated and condemned from the start. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that stayed with me to the end. As Newland sits in his library with May, he reflects on the true nature of his marriage some two years down the line.

As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion. She had spent her poetry and romance on their short courting: the function was exhausted because the need was past. Now she was simply ripening into a copy of her mother, and mysteriously, by the very process, trying to turn him into a Mr Welland. He laid down his book and stood up impatiently; and at once she raised her head. (p. 251)

The Age of Innocence is published by Vintage Books; personal copy

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Set largely in the seedy bars and boarding houses of London’s Earl’s Court, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square centres on the tortured existence of George Harvey Bone, a thirty-four-year-old man who is obsessed with a beautiful yet vindictive young woman named Netta Longdon. It is an utterly brilliant portrait of a man on the edge, perfectly capturing the sudden changes in mood and mindset of a lonely and tormented soul, driven to distraction by the heartless woman he so deeply desires.

Somehow or other, Bone – a large, heavyset man, a little slow on the uptake but fundamentally a decent person at heart – has got himself mixed up with a thoroughly rotten crowd. More specifically, he has fallen under the spell of the magnetic Netta, a half-hearted wannabe actress whose only redeeming quality appears to be her striking beauty.

He dropped his voice as he greeted Netta, and caught her eye shyly, and looked away again. When meeting her after a parting of any length he never dared to look at her fully, to take her in, all at once. He was too afraid of her loveliness – of being made to feel miserable by some new weapon from the arsenal of her beauty – something she wore, some fresh look, or attitude, or way of doing her hair, some tone in her voice or light in her eye – some fresh ‘horror’ in fact. (p. 36)

Bone idolises Netta, creating an illusion in his mind of the type of relationship he wishes to have with her – a quiet, idyllic life in the countryside, complete with a little farm or cottage to match. In reality, Bone knows this is unattainable; nevertheless, he longs to spend time alone with Netta, hoping to prise her away from her vile friends, the fascist bully, Peter, and other associated hangers-on. Netta, for her part, largely rejects Bone’s advances, treating him with scorn and contempt; but she is also sharp enough to draw on his resources whenever it suits her. At heart, Netta is a cruel, manipulative woman, a schemer who knows exactly how to play Bone to perfection, taking advantage of his unbridled generosity and intense feelings towards her without a second thought for his well-being. In the following scene, Netta has agreed that Bone can take her out for the evening as long as their destination is Perrier’s, a well-to-do restaurant in the heart of the West End. At first, Bone is delighted at the prospect of a quiet, intimate dinner with Netta, if only for a few hours; but then it dawns on him that she may well have an ulterior motive for wanting to go there and that he is simply being used as a convenient vehicle to facilitate this trip.

But he was not happy because she was not paying the slightest attention to him; and he was not even now participating in her life. He noticed how every now and again she glanced at herself surreptitiously in the glass. She did not often look into the glass at herself like that, and it told him everything. It told him that this evening she had given him was for a definite purpose, and that purpose was, for some extraordinary reason, Perrier’s. He was of no more importance, had no more significance, than the taxi which would take them there. (p. 69)

By the end of the dinner, Bone’s fears are confirmed, a realisation that leaves him feeling more lonely and miserable than ever.

There was a pause in which he looked at her. He had a sudden feeling of tiredness – a feeling that the evening was at an end. Her loveliness and inaccessibility came over him in a fresh wave of misery. He had been a fool to take her out. He had had too much to drink: he would feel awful in the morning: he had again beaten his head against the brick wall of her imperturbability. He had exhausted his nervous system, and it would take him days to get over it. (p. 78)

Running through the novel are Bone’s ‘dead moods’, periodic episodes when something goes ‘click’ inside his head and he slips into a different mode, one where another, more sinister side to his personality comes to the fore. It is as if the familiar ‘regular’ world has suddenly fallen away, only to be replaced by a muffled and mysterious one.

It was as though a shutter had fallen. It had fallen noiselessly, but the thing had been so quick that he could only think of it as a crack or a snap. […] It was as though he had been watching a talking film, and all at once the sound-track had failed. The figures on the screen continued to move, to behave more or less logically; but they were figures in a new, silent, indescribably eerie world. Life, in fact, which had been for him a moment ago a ‘talkie’, had all at once become a silent film. And there was no music. (p. 15)

Quite soon after falling into one of his dead moods, Bone remembers that he has a job to do: he must kill Netta Longdon and go to Maidenhead where he will be happy, and everything will be all right. This business with Netta has been going on long enough, so he must put a stop to it once and for all – and he must plan everything carefully to avoid getting caught. (This isn’t a spoiler, by the way, as the novel opens with one of these episodes during which Bone’s homicidal tendencies are made abundantly clear right from the start. Moreover, Bone associates Maidenhead with a brighter, more peaceful time in his life – a splendid fortnight he spent there with his sister, Ellen, some years earlier when she was still alive – hence his fixation with returning to the town to recapture these elusive feelings.) Fuelled by his heavy drinking and the emotional strain of dealing with Netta, Bone begins to experience these dead periods on a more frequent, more intense basis. In spite of this, Bone has absolutely no recollection of what he has been doing or thinking during these episodes – they can last from a few hours to a day or more – once he returns to ‘normal’ mode.  This makes the storyline all the more gripping as we follow Bone and his shifting mindset from one day to the next.

Hamilton uses repetition to great effect in this novel, both in the depiction of Bone’s dead periods and in the portrayal of his feelings towards Netta. For the most part, Bone is besotted with Netta, even though he knows she remains largely out of his reach. Nevertheless, there are times when he comes close to waking up to the fact that she is simply playing him for a fool. In this scene, Netta has agreed to come away with Bone to Brighton for the night, if he will pay her way and give her fifteen pounds to clear her outstanding rent and other bills.

What in God’s name did it all mean? Was this a change? Had her feelings somehow changed, had his persistence somehow prevailed, so that in future she was going to be kinder to him, so that in future he might, even, have a chance with her?

And if there was a change – why? Had she just changed because she had changed, or had she some motive? Was she just getting something out of him? Yes, fifteen pounds. But Netta, the shrewd, cruel Netta who scorned him, could never resort to so vulgar and obvious a ruse as that – she would be too proud. Or would she not be too proud? Was she, perhaps, just a common little schemer playing him up just to get some money out of him? (p. 139)

Hangover Square is an utterly compelling character study of a lonely, desolate man driven to distraction by a terrible femme fatale. Hamilton perfectly captures the inner solitude and isolation of Bone’s existence as he slopes from one bar to the next, waiting for an opportunity to call or visit Netta for a few moments each day. There is great attention to detail here, particularly in the depiction of the pubs in Earl’s Court: the thick smoke; the infernal noise; the damp, claustrophobic atmosphere inside, especially during winter. In other words, the book excels in its depiction of the nightmarish world of the habitual drinker and the hopelessness of his solitary existence.

The time period in which the story is set feels very significant too. The year is 1939, with Britain poised on the cusp of WWII. Fascism is on the rise, a development which is echoed through Hamilton’s portrayal of Netta’s friend, Peter, and his equally nasty acquaintances. Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, there is a growing sense unease in more ways than one as the story moves towards its somewhat inevitable conclusion.

All in all, this is a really tremendous book, one that is sure to make my reading highlights at the end of the year. In many ways, it feels like the ideal companion piece to Hamilton’s later novel, The Slaves of Solitude, which I also adored – you can read my review of it here.

Hangover Square is published by Penguin Modern Classics; personal copy.