Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.

Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald

First published in 1980, Human Voices was Penelope Fitzgerald’s fourth novel, a story set largely within the confines of the BBC during the London Blitz. Like both its predecessors (The Bookshop and Offshore), Human Voices was inspired by experiences from Fitzgerald’s own life as she worked for the Corporation while WWII was underway.

fitz

Over the course of this novel, Fitzgerald paints a vivid picture of life at the BBC, complete with all its foibles and idiosyncrasies. She is particularly adept at capturing the atmosphere within the walls of Broadcasting House, highlighting the dynamics between various employees and departments along the way. In its infinite wisdom, The BBC has decided that ‘truth is more important than consolation’, especially in the long run; and so its role, as far as possible, must be to inform the nation about important developments in the world, irrespective of the views of other authorities. By the spring of 1940, the organisation is beginning to feel the effects of the war, the mood turning to one of urgency and mild anxiety. There is a fair amount of making do and getting on with the job as best one can.

Since March the lifts below the third floor had been halted as an economy measure, so that the first three staircases became yet another meeting place. Few nowadays were ever to be found in their offices. An instinct, or perhaps a rapidly acquired characteristic, told the employees how to find each other. On the other hand, in this constant circulation much was lost. The corridors were full of talks producers without speakers, speakers without scripts, scripts which by a clerical error contained the wrong words or no words at all. The air seemed alive with urgency and worry. (pp. 6-7)

Human Voices contains very little in the way of conventional plot. Instead, Fitzgerald focuses on her characters, capturing their hopes and anxieties as they go about their day-to-day activities in the production of radio programmes for the BBC. The two central characters are Sam Brooks, the Director of Recorded Programmes, and Jeff Haggard, the Director of Programme Planning. Both are referred to by their job title initials, RPD and DPP respectively.

RPD (Sam) is a rather needy, self-indulgent chap, keen to surround himself with attentive young girls as far as humanly possible – a trait that has given rise to an alternative name for his department as ‘the Seraglio’. In spite of his vast technical knowledge of sound recordings and apparent competence in his role, RPD frequently feels the need to confide his personal troubles in one of the female RPAs (Recorded Programmes Assistants) from his division – someone like Vi (the most experienced of the group) or the new girl, Lise. RPD’s wife has effectively left him, possibly because he never seems to spend much time at home, hence his requirement for a little moral support at work. By contrast, PPD (Jeff) is more level-headed and relatively self-sufficient in his role, so much so that he is often called on to help RPD whenever some minor crisis comes to light. Here’s a brief extract from a telephone conversation between the two Directors.

RPD was put through.

‘Jeff, I want you to hear my case.’

DPP had been hearing it for more than ten years. But, to do his friend justice, it was never the same twice running. The world seemed new created every day for Sam Brooks, who felt no resentment and, indeed, very little recollection of what he had suffered the day before.

‘Jeff, Establishment have hinted that I’m putting in for too many girls.’

‘How can that be?’

‘They know I like to have them around, they know I need that. I’ve drafted a reply, saying nothing, mind you, about the five thousand discs a week, or the fact that we provide a service to every other department of the Corporation. See what you think of the way I’ve put it – (p. 15)

What follows is an extended dialogue which highlights the internal politics at play within the organisation as RPD is frequently sidelined or excluded from discussions concerning his own department due to his tendency to take things too personally.

Much of the novel’s action (if one can call it that) revolves around the activities involved in producing the radio programmes: recording sounds, finding and sequencing recordings, managing the schedules, and overseeing the broadcasts themselves – sometimes pulling the plug if things get too hairy.

There is much dry humour running through this book, with some choice exchanges between employees at different levels within the organisation. RPD’s first meeting with the new girl, Lise, gives rise to a very humorous conversation between the Director and the staff canteen about the nature of the cheese in their sandwiches. There are also some priceless scenes involving Dr Vogel, a rather eccentric expert who seems hell bent on capturing the most obscure sounds through field recordings – several hours’ worth of material featuring church doors squeaking and creaking are presented as just one example of his work. Conversations between RPD’s secretary, Mrs Milne, and her chief crony, a fellow secretary from Establishment, also result in some wonderfully comic moments, especially when the former decides on a new strategy for finding a replacement RPA for Lise when the girl leaves rather suddenly. The plan is to focus on sensible middle-aged women as they are ‘less prone to tears and hysteria’ than their younger counterparts. (Mrs Milne and her colleague are both ‘Old Servants’, long-standing members of the Corporation – part of the BBC old school, so to speak.)

Alongside the dry humour, there are melancholy moments too. I love this passage about one of the male RPAs, Teddy, at the end of a conversation he has been having with fellow RPA, Vi – she is expecting her fella to arrive home on leave fairly soon.

‘I hope he keeps strong for you,’ said Teddy gloomily, a spectator of experience, always on the wrong side of the windowpane. Sometimes he went down to the BH typing pool to see if any of the girls would like to come out, say to the pictures, or for a cup of tea at Lyons. Their heads, dark and fair, rose expectantly as he came in, then, although he was quite nice-looking, sank down again over their work. Nor was Teddy very popular with the Old Servant who supervised the pool. (p. 81)

The novel also touches on the personal lives of several of the main characters: RPD and his myriad of troubles; Lise and her search for boyfriend Frédé, a soldier in the French army; Vi and her efforts to support Lise in various ways; and, perhaps most notably of all, Annie (the second new girl) and her developing feelings for RPD. We even gain an insight into DPP’s inner life. There is a sense that some of these people – certainly RPD, Vi, Annie and Teddy – find a form of solace in their activities at the BBC as a means of distraction from the various stresses and strains of war. Fitzgerald is particularly good at capturing the mood in London during the Blitz: people seeking shelter in the underground at night; snapshots of streets following the bombing raids. It’s all here.

After the first week in September London became every morning a somewhat stranger place. The early morning sound was always of glass being scraped off the pavement. The brush hissed and scraped, the glass chattered, tinkled, and fell. Lyons handed out cold baked potatoes through one hole in their windows and took in the money through another. (p. 143)

Human Voices is another excellent novel from Penelope Fitzgerald, strong on characterisation, attention to detail and the conveyance of mood. It is perhaps closer in style to Offshore than to The Bookshop, but there are some similarities with both. By focusing on the personal experiences and feelings of her characters, Fitzgerald finds a means of putting the broader developments of the war into a more human context. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that gets to the heart of the matter at the BBC.

The subject of the meeting was the familiar one of how to carry on. Engineering had skilfully ensured that the BBC, switching from one transmitter to another, need never go off the air. Maintenance was probably at work already on the broken pipes. Catering brewed away remorselessly in the basement, but the problem remained: what should the voices say? (p. 188)

Human Voices is published by Flamingo/HarperCollins; personal copy.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

Back in 2015, Richard Yates made my end-of-year highlights with The Easter Parade, a beautiful yet sad novel about the Grimes sisters and the different paths they take in life. There’s a good chance he’ll be on my list again in 2017, this time with Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962), a peerless collection of stories as good as any I’ve read in recent years. Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness (there are other reasons too, which I’ll try to touch on later). As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to try to cover each story in turn. My aim instead is to give a flavour of the themes and a little of what I thought of the volume as a whole.

yates-lonely

In The Best of Everything, one of my favourite pieces in the collection, we meet Grace, a young woman on the brink of marrying her fiancé, Ralph. As she finishes up her work on the Friday before the wedding, Grace reflects on her situation as the doubts begin to run through her mind. Maybe her roommate, Martha, was right after all; maybe she is settling for second best.

She had been calling him “darling” for only a short time—since it had become irrevocably clear that she was, after all, going to marry him—and the word still had an alien sound. As she straightened the stacks of stationary in her desk (because there was nothing else to do), a familiar little panic gripped her: she couldn’t marry him—she hardly even knew him. Sometimes it occurred to her differently, that she couldn’t marry him because she knew him too well, and either way it left her badly shaken, vulnerable to all the things that Martha, her roommate, had said from the very beginning. (p. 23)

When she discovers that her roommate is going away for the night, Grace plans a surprise for Ralph, a pre-marital treat that doesn’t quite go to plan. Instead, Grace gets a glimpse of what life may hold for her once she is married: the need to carefully manage the dynamic between husband and wife.

A Glutton for Punishment features a classic Yates protagonist, Walter Henderson, a rather unassuming young man who works in a Manhattan office in the heart of NYC. Walter, a graceful and gracious loser all his life, is convinced he is about to be fired from his job. In spite of his wife’s best efforts to make their home life as bearable as possible, the weight of this expectation hangs over Walter on a permanent basis.

And lately, when he started coming home with a beaten look and announcing darkly that he doubted if he could hold on much longer, she would enjoin the children not to bother him (“Daddy’s very tired tonight”), bring him a drink and soothe him with careful, wifely reassurance, doing her best to conceal her fear, never guessing, or at least never showing, that she was dealing with a chronic, compulsive failure, a strange little boy in love with the attitudes of collapse. (pp. 73-4)

This is a wonderful story, one that touches on the anxieties of life, the sense of pride and respect we all crave from those around us. Moreover, it also highlights the different roles a wife and mother was expected to play back in the late 1950s/early ‘60s, the various modes she had to adopt, irrespective of how taxing or frustrating they proved to be.

This bright cocktail mood was a carefully studied effect, he knew. So was her motherly sternness over the children’s supper; so was the brisk, no-nonsense efficiency with which, earlier today, she had attacked the supermarket; and so, later tonight, would be the tenderness of her surrender in his arms. The orderly rotation of many careful moods was her life, or rather, was what her life had become. She managed it well, and it was only rarely, looking very closely at her face, that he could see how much the effort was costing her. (p. 85)

Yates is particularly good when it comes to depicting the loneliness one often experiences in childhood, the challenges and difficulties associated with our schooldays. In Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern, we meet Vincent Sabella, a somewhat coarse boy who also happens to be the new kid in class.

The girls decided that he wasn’t very nice and turned away, but the boys lingered in their scrutiny, looking him up and down with faint smiles. This was the kind of kid they were accustomed to thinking of as “tough,” the kind whose stares had made all of them uncomfortable at one time or another in unfamiliar neighborhoods; here was a unique chance for retaliation. (p. 2)

While Miss Price, the fourth-grade teacher, does her best to make Vincent feel welcome, none of the children in the class seem willing to make an effort. As a consequence, Vincent spends virtually all of his breaks alone, desperately trying to kill time. When Miss Pryce tries to befriend Vincent, things don’t go as smoothly as expected. What follows is a sequence of events that highlights how loneliness can come about as a direct consequence of our own behaviour towards others, the actions we take when our frustrations bubble up to the surface.

Fun with a Stranger explores a different type of experience at school – that of being saddled with a ghastly teacher, in this case, a ‘big rawboned woman’ named Miss Snell. In direct contrast to her counterpart, the warm and engaging Mrs Cleary (the teacher who takes the other half of third grade), Miss Snell is strict and lacking in humour, forever pulling up the children for mumbling, daydreaming, frequent trips to the toilet, and, worst of all, for ‘coming to school without proper supplies’.

She never seemed to lose her temper, but it would almost have been better if she did, for it was the flat, dry, passionless redundance of her scolding that got everybody down. When Miss Snell singled someone out for a special upbraiding it was an ordeal by talk. She would come up to within a foot of her victim’s face, her eyes would stare unblinkingly into his, and the wrinkled gray flesh of her mouth would labor to pronounce his guilt, grimly and deliberately, until all the color faded from the day. (p. 107)

As this story unfolds, we see the impact of Miss Snell’s approach on the morale of her half of the intake – and how this compares to Mrs Cleary’s. There are times when the children are embarrassed by Miss Snell’s failure to show any enthusiasm or inspiration, especially when the two classes come together for a field trip. As Christmas approaches, the children hope that Miss Snell won’t let them down. Will she be able to match her colleague’s plans for a festive party? You’ll have to read this excellent story for yourselves to find out.

Two of the stories are set in hospitals, in TB wards to be precise. No Pain Whatsoever gives us a glimpse into the life of Myra, a woman who has been visiting her husband in hospital every Sunday for the past four years. This is a poignant story of an individual trapped in a stagnant marriage, isolated from her spouse both physically and emotionally. However, unbeknownst to her husband, Myra has found comfort in the form of another man.

Continuing the theme of illness, Out With the Old takes place in a Veterans hospital on New Year’s Eve, just a few days after most of the TB patients have returned to their ward after being allowed home for Christmas. Yates really captures the loneliness and loss of identity experienced by some of these patients when they come back to the hospital, a place where they must all dress alike in standard issue pyjamas. Here is Harold’s experience. (Even his name changes when he arrives back at the ward. Nobody calls him Harold here – instead, he is known as ‘Tiny’ on account of his imposing height.)

He remained Harold until the pass was over and he strode away from a clinging family farewell, shrugging the great overcoat around his shoulders and squaring the hat. He was Harold all the way to the bus terminal and all the way back to the hospital, and the other men still looked at him oddly and greeted him a little shyly when he pounded back into C Ward. He went to his bed and put down his several packages (one of which contained the new robe), then headed for the latrine to get undressed. That was the beginning of the end, for when he came out in the old faded pajamas and scuffed slippers there was only a trace of importance left in his softening face, and even that disappeared in the next hour of two, while he lay on his bed and listened to the radio. (p. 165)

Others feel like strangers in their own homes when they go back to ‘the outside’. Things have moved on; children have grown older, more distant. Consequently, patients feel rather out of touch with their own families.

Some of Yates’ stories hark back to the days of WWII, including a piece featuring a strict and vindictive drill sergeant in charge of a platoon of young troops. There is a common theme which runs through a few of the pieces here, a sense of frustration and lack of power felt by the men who fought in the war, their current, fairly stagnant lives falling some way short of the heady expectations of their glory days. This feeling of rage comes out in The B.A.R. Man when a dispirited ex-serviceman finds himself caught up in a protest at the end of an exasperating night.

The final story, Builders, is one of the highlights here, a piece featuring a talented yet struggling writer who finds himself working as a ghostwriter for a somewhat delusional but sharp-witted taxi driver. It’s impossible to do it justice in a few sentences, but Yates paints an intriguing picture, full of insight. It left me wondering if this sketch was based on a real-life encounter with the cabbie, a man who dreams of building stories as a way of injecting some meaning into his somewhat shallow life.

All in all, this is a truly brilliant collection, one that gets right to the heart of certain aspects of human nature. These are stories to linger over, to savour and absorb – very highly recommended.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

A Start in Life by Anita Brookner

Back in September last year, I read an early Anita Brookner, Providence (1982), a novel I loved for its central characterisation and sensitive portrayal of life’s disappointments both large and small. By rights, I should have begun with her debut novel, A Start in Life (1981), but it wasn’t available at the time – hence the decision to go with Providence instead. Having just finished A Start in Life, I would have no hesitation in recommending it as an excellent introduction to Brookner’s style and themes. In some ways, it is a richer novel than Providence, more rounded and fleshed out. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

brookner-start

As A Start in Life opens, Ruth Weiss, a forty-year-old academic and expert on the women in Balzac’s novels, is looking back on her life, the striking opening lines setting the tone for the story that follows.

Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.

In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education which dictated, through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit. (p. 7)

Interestingly, the balance between the relative merits of pursuing a path of virtue vs. one of vice is a central theme in the novel – more on this point a little later in the review.

Winding back to Ruth’s childhood at the family home in West London, the picture is somewhat unconventional and chaotic. Ruth’s mother, Helen, a relatively successful actress (at least at first) is beautiful, spoilt, lazy and self-centred, a high-spirited woman who spares little thought for the future. By contrast, Ruth’s father, George, a dealer in rare books, devotes much of his time and energy to keeping his wife happy, enacting his role as Helen’s charming and attentive husband. Neither of them seems to have much time for Ruth whose care is largely entrusted to George’s mother, the elderly Mrs Weiss, who also shares the family home. Mrs Weiss is under no illusions about the rather feckless nature of her son’s wife. Moreover, she is concerned that Helen and George’s childlike behaviour and ‘facile love-play’ will damage Ruth in some way. As such, she does her best to maintain the household, looking out for the young girl wherever possible.

Unfortunately for Ruth, the situation deteriorates when Mrs Weiss dies, a development that prompts Helen to ‘get a woman in’ to look after the house. The housekeeper in question is Mrs Cutler, ‘a wry, spry widow, quick to take offence’. Mrs Cutler is a wonderful gossipy creation, and there are some priceless scenes as she begins to insert herself into the lives of Helen and George, always mindful of how to play the situation to her full advantage. Ruth, for her part, is pretty much left to her own devices as the household rapidly goes to pot.

As the years slip by, Helen starts to go downhill fairly dramatically. No longer in work, her looks begin to fade along with her previous zest for life, points that become abundantly clear to George when he catches Helen in one of her private moments.

The bones of her shoulders were sharply outlined. Her wedding ring was loose and sometimes she took it off. Her red hair was now a secret between herself and her hairdresser, and on the days when she was due to have it done she found the atmosphere in the streets threatening. Eventually, Mrs Cutler, the Hoover abandoned in the middle of the floor, would take her, leaving George to finish whatever work she had or had not been doing. On their return, both women would pronounce themselves exhausted, and Helen would retire to bed, where she knew she looked her best. George, harassed, would join her for a drink. Helen’s blue eyes, more prominent now in their pronounced sockets, would gaze out of the window with a wistful and ardent expression, her thoughts winging to past triumphs, part travels, past love affairs. George, looking at her in these unguarded moments, would be shocked to see how quickly she had aged. (p. 36)

George, for his part, finds solace in the company of Sally Jacobs, the widow who buys his book business, as a growing dependency develops between the two.

Meanwhile, Ruth begins to carve out a daily routine for herself. By now she is studying literature at one of the London Universities, living at home again after a brief and somewhat disastrous attempt to break away on her own in a room near the King’s Road – her dedicated attempt to woo an attractive fellow student, Richard, with a romantic dinner for two having ended in crushing disappointment. There are lectures in the morning, tutorials in the afternoon, library work in the evenings. In some ways, the relative safety/security of the University environment feels like more of a home to Ruth than her family residence in Oakwood Court. It’s a lonely existence, but it could be worse. Nevertheless, as Ruth reflects on her studies of Balzac, she begins to question whether there is more to life. Is the pursuit of a life of goodness and virtue the best path to the discovery of true love? Surely a little Balzacian opportunism wouldn’t go amiss for Ruth too?

She knew that she was capable of being alone and doing her work – that that might in fact be her true path in life, or perhaps the one for which she was best fitted – but was she not allowed to have a little more? Must she only do one thing and do it all the time? Or was the random factor, the chance disposition, so often enjoyed by Balzac, nearer to reality? She was aware that writing her dissertation on vice and virtue was an easier proposition than working it out in real life. Such matters can more easily be appraised when they are dead and gone. (p. 136)

Once again, Ruth attempts to add a little freedom, romance and excitement to her days. She secures a scholarship for a year in Paris to further her studies in Balzac, with the ultimate intention of visiting some of the places depicted in his novels. During her time in the capital, Ruth begins to live a little, albeit relatively briefly. She meets a bohemian English couple who take her under their wing, encouraging her to improve her image with a smart new haircut and fashionable clothes. Before long, Ruth falls for a literature professor, a married man who treats her kindly, even though their time together is somewhat limited. She longs for an opportunity to be alone with him in a private place, almost a hope against hope given her previous attempt at romance as a student in London. (I love this next quote; it feels like vintage Brooker.)

If only she could sit with him in a room, quietly, talking. If only she could wait for him in some place of her own, hear his footsteps approaching. If she could cook for him, make him comfortable, make him laugh. More than that, she knew, she could not expect. Can anyone? She still measured her efforts and her experience against her disastrous failure with Richard, remembering her expectations and the reality that had destroyed them. That reality had made her wary. Disappointment was now built into any hope she might have had left. But so far Duplessis had not disappointed her. (p. 130)

I’ll leave it there with the plot, save to say that Ruth never quite manages to break free from the demands of her parents as a mercy call from home cuts short her time in Paris.

A Start in Life is a really terrific debut, beautifully written and brilliantly observed. The characterisation is superb – not just in the creation of Ruth, but the other leading players too. In many ways, the novel explores the classic Anita Brookner territory of fading hopes and dashed dreams as happiness and fulfilment remain somewhat out of reach. I strongly suspect there is a lot of Brookner herself in the character of Ruth Weiss, a rather fragile woman who seems destined to experience significant loneliness and disappointment in her life. In many respects, Ruth is constrained by the demands of those around her, frequently bending to the will of others to the detriment of her own desires. There appear to be some parallels between Ruth’s situation and that of Balzac’s heroine, Eugénie Grandet, so much so that I am sure a familiarity with Balzac’s work (and this book in particular) would bring another dimension to the experience of reading of A Start in Life.

Before I finish, a few words on the novel’s tone. While Ruth’s story is shot through with a delicate sense of sadness, this is beautifully balanced by Brookner’s dry wit and keen eye for a humorous situation. (In this respect, I was reminded of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, particularly The Soul of Kindness which I reviewed back in January.) There are some marvellous scenes involving Helen, George and their housekeeper Mrs Cutler, a woman who always seems to have a cigarette on the go. I’ll finish with a quote which I hope captures something of this tone. Mrs Cutler is imagining her future life running a care home with Leslie Dunlop, a man she has met through a dating agency.

She saw herself in the Lurex two-piece she had bought in the sales, being absolutely charming to some old dear while her husband hovered cheerily in the background. ‘My husband will take care of it,’ she would say. ‘You will have to speak to my husband about that.’ They would make an ideal pair. After all, if she could look after Helen, she could look after a few more. And they had nurses, didn’t they? She sent Leslie back to Folkestone with instructions to make enquiries at all likely establishments along the coast. Then she nipped back to the Black Lion and had two gins to steady her nerves after her momentous afternoon. (p. 114)

A Start in Life is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (tr. Ruth L.C. Simms)

When I put together my list for the Classics Club back in December 2015, I included a few translations just to mix things up a bit. The Invention of Morel (first published in 1940), was one such book. It’s an early novel by the Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, whose joint novella with his wife, Silvina Ocampo, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate – a thoroughly entertaining take on the traditional detective story – made my end-of-year highlights in 2014. While I didn’t love Morel as much as the Casares-Ocampo co-production, I did enjoy it. It’s an intriguing story, one that keeps the reader guessing until certain revelations come to light.

morel-1

The story centres on the fate of an unnamed narrator, a fugitive who is hiding out on a supposedly uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere in the hope of evading the authorities following his conviction for a serious crime. It is said that the island is home to a mysterious, fatal disease, one that attacks the human body from outside in. Nevertheless, the narrator is prepared to take his chances; it’s either that or run the risk of recapture by the police.

When we join the story, the narrator has been on the island for a few months, typically taking shelter in a museum, one of two buildings constructed by the previous inhabitants. One day his peace is disturbed by the sudden appearance of a crowd of people – it is almost as if they have come out of nowhere.

When I was finally able to sleep, it was very late. The music and the shouting woke me up a few hours later. I have not slept soundly since my escape; I am sure that if a ship, a plane, or any other form of transportation had arrived, I would have heard it. And yet suddenly, unaccountably, on this oppressive summerlike night, the grassy hillside has become crowded with people who dance, stroll up and down, and swim in the pool, as if this were a summer resort like Los Teques or Marienbad. (pp. 10-11)

Fearing for his safety, the narrator moves to the least habitable area of the island where he can observe the strangers from a suitable distance. As it turns out, the interlopers spend much of their time dancing to the same two records which they play on a phonograph, irrespective of the weather. The arrival of these figures raises various questions in the narrator’s mind (and in that of the reader). Is this a strange hallucination, the consequence of exposure to extreme heat perhaps or the after-effects of eating a poisonous plant? Is it all an elaborate a ruse by the authorities to lure the narrator into submission – and if so, why go to such lengths? Or are these images ghosts, no longer living but returned from the dead?

The narrator seems no nearer to solving the mystery when he tries to make contact with one of the strangers, a beautiful woman named Faustine who sits on a rock observing the sunset on a daily basis. The narrator is fascinated by Faustine and her gypsy-like sensuality; to him, she represents a kind of hope where before there was none. However, when the narrator tries to make contact with Faustine, all his dreams are dashed; either she cannot see his figure or she is ignoring him, defying his presence as she sits by his side.

It has been, again, as if she did not see me. This time I made the mistake of not speaking to her at all.

When the woman came down to the rocks, I was watching the sunset. She stood there for a moment without moving, looking for a place to spread out her blanket. Then she walked toward me. If I had put out my hand, I would have touched her. This possibility horrified me (as if I had almost touched a ghost). There was something frightening in her complete detachment. But when she sat down at my side it seemed she was defying me, trying to show that she no longer ignored my presence. (p. 29)

morel-2

There are also occasions during the story when the author ratchets up the tension, the narrator fearing for his safety and freedom in this strange, unfathomable environment.

I started to walk down the hall, feeling that a door would open suddenly and a pair of rough hands would reach out and grab me, a mocking voice would taunt me. The strange world I had been living in, my conjectures and anxieties, Faustine – they all seemed like an invisible path that was leading me straight to prison and death. (pp. 48-49)

Casares plants clues throughout the story as to what is happening on the island, but there comes a point when all is revealed. I don’t want to say a lot more about it here, other than it’s a very clever explanation with nods to both science and art. Morel is a novel which explores ideas around mortality, the pursuit of immortality, the nature of happiness and the enduring power of love. As long as the narrator can stay close to Faustine, in whatever form this may take, then there is hope for the future; but without this, what is there to live for?

Several other bloggers have reviewed this book as Richard and Stu hosted a readalong a couple of years ago. Here’s a link to Grant’s excellent review which I recall seeing in the past. I’m sure there are many others too.

The Invention of Morel is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov (tr. Jodi Daynard)

Back in 2013, I was captivated by Gaito Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf (1947), an existential novel that explored questions of coincidence, fate, love and death. I read it pre-blog, but it’s been widely reviewed elsewhere. Originally published in 1930, An Evening with Claire was Gazdanov’s first novel, written during his time as a Russian émigré in Paris. It was an instant success, resonating strongly with the displaced population across Europe as a whole. In writing this novel, Gazdanov drew heavily on his own life via a series of memories covering his childhood, his time in the Russian Civil War and his impressions of an enigmatic young woman named Claire, the figure captured in the book’s title.

claire

As the novel opens, the narrator – a young man named Sosedov, but referred to as Kolya throughout – has recently reconnected with Claire, a French woman he first met some ten years earlier in 1917. Kolya has been spending his evenings with Claire at her home in Paris, the lady’s husband being away on an extended trip to Ceylon. While Claire sleeps, Kolya reflects on the time he has spent desiring her over the years, the woman who has occupied his mind for the past decade.

Surrendering to the power of sleep, or sadness, or yet another emotion, no matter how strong the emotion was she never ceased being herself; and it seemed that the mightiest tremors were powerless to alert this perfectly completed body, could never destroy this final invincible charm which had induced me to waste ten years of my life in pursuit of Claire, and which had made it impossible for me to get her out of my mind at any time, any place. (p. 28)

This process triggers a series of memories for Kolya as he gradually comes to remember everything that has happened in his life, particularly the events of his first eighteen years. While the difficulty of understanding and articulating everything seems immense, Kolya proceeds to explore his childhood and adolescence through a stream of associations, moving seamlessly from one recollection to another over the course of the novel. We hear of the young boy’s close relationship with his father, a man obsessed with fires and hunting, a man whom Kolya loved very dearly at the time. By contrast, Kolya’s mother is portrayed as a relatively cold and controlled woman, someone who showed little warmth and affection in her dealings with the children. Nevertheless, Kolya respected her a great deal.

From a relatively early age, Kolya’s life was marked by the shadow of death. He was just eight years old when his father died, and by the time of the Great War both of his sisters had followed suit.      

Death was never far away, and the abyss into which my imagination plunged me seemed to belong to it. I think this feeling was hereditary: It was not for nothing that my father so violently detested everything that reminded him of the inevitable end; this fearless man felt his weakness here. It was as though my mother’s unconscious, cold indifference reflected someone’s final stillness, and the ravenous memories which my sisters possessed absorbed everything into themselves so quickly because, somewhere in their distant foreboding, death already existed. (p. 60)

As a consequence, Kolya was left alone with his mother, a woman who struggled to come to terms with the losses that had touched her family.

At various times during his childhood, Kolya felt as though he was turning in on himself, a process which left him somewhat immune to the external events that were happening around him. This feeling emerged once again when Kolya was sent to military school, a place he disliked a great deal. Given that the other cadets seemed so different, Kolya kept his distance from the rest of the pack, a move that also caused him to develop an instinct for self-preservation when dealing with his tutors.

The novel touches on various stories and anecdotes from Kolya’s time at both the military school and the gymnasium that followed, too many to capture here. While several of these memories are melancholy in tone, there are recollections of happier times as well: the summers Kolya spent at his grandfather’s house in Caucasus where many of his father’s relatives also lived; memories of Claire too, especially Kolya’s first encounter with her at the tennis courts of the gymnastics society (Kolya was around fourteen at the time). From the moment he first set eyes on eighteen-year-old Claire, Kolya was captivated by her presence. A native of Paris, Claire had travelled to Russia with her family; her father, a merchant, had a base in Ukraine which he visited every now and again. Kolya and the coquettish Claire spent much of the summer together, laughing and joking at Claire’s house. Even so, Kolya was acutely aware of Claire’s blossoming sexuality, something he did not fully understand at the time despite being able to feel it. By late autumn that year, Claire had all but disappeared from Kolya’s life, a development which left the young boy feeling rather bereft.

The final third of the novel focuses on the time Kolya spent with the White Army in the Russian Civil War, a somewhat arbitrary move motivated by the desire to know what war was like, to experience the new and unknown. (Kolya readily admits that his decision was not driven by any political beliefs or ideals; he could have just as easily joined the Reds had they been in possession of his part of the country at the time.) The memories of his departure for the front at the age of sixteen are imbued with a tender sense of melancholy, a tone which is so characteristic of this haunting novel.

It was late autumn, and in the cold air I could feel the sorrow and the regret characteristic of every departure. I was never able to accustom myself to this feeling; for me, every departure marked the beginning of a new existence and consequently, the necessity of living once again by groping, of finding once more among the people and things surrounding me, a more or less intimate environment in which to recapture my former tranquillity, so needed to make space for those inner oscillations and shocks with which I was so greatly preoccupied. (p. 105)

Kolya’s time in the war gave him a deep insight into the psychology of human behaviour; while stationed at the front he witnessed several instances of bravery, cowardice and fear. This section is packed with stories, anecdotes and memories of Kolya’s comrades, including tales of some of the scoundrels he encountered during this period. By the summer of 1920, Kolya had made his way to Sevastopol where he witnessed some of the emotional fallout from the war. The atmosphere in this desperate city seemed to reflect all the eternal sorrow and melancholy of provincial Russia, a feeling that is captured in this next passage.

I saw tears in the eyes of usually unsentimental people. Having deprived them of their homes, families and dinner parties, the Revolution had suddenly given them the ability to feel deep regret, and for an instant liberated from their coarse, warlike casing their long-forgotten, long-lost emotional sensitivity. It was as if these people were taking part in a minor-keyed symphony of the theater hall; they saw for the first time that there was a biography and a history to their lives, and a lost happiness which they had only read about in books, (p. 133)

An Evening with Claire is a deeply introspective novel, one that offers a rare insight into a vanished world. Kolya’s memories are shot through with a gentle sense of sadness and regret coupled with a noticeable yearning for Claire. Perhaps this reunion in Paris represents a new beginning for Kolya, an element of hope for the future? I’d like to think so.

Guy and Karen have also reviewed this book – just click on the links to read their reviews.

An Evening with Claire is published by Overlook Duckworth / Ardis; personal copy.