Tag Archives: Book Review

Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates

I’ve written before about Richard Yates, a writer with an innate ability to understand his characters’ failings and self-delusions, portraying the bitter cruelty of their dashed dreams with real insight and humanity. In this, his penultimate novel, Yates offers us another riff on this theme by focusing on a young couple, Michael and Lucy Davenport, just starting out on their lives together in 1950s New York.

While Lucy’s family are very wealthy, Michael refuses to live off his wife’s money, preferring instead to pursue his ambitions as a writer, supplementing his income with a mindless job in a publishing house. At the start of the novel, Michael and Lucy seem very much in love with one another, but all too soon the marriage begins to stagnate and sour. Michael generates some interest in his work with an early collection of poems – particularly his best piece ‘Coming Clean’ – however, he struggles to repeat the success. Meanwhile, Lucy is becoming increasingly frustrated with their second-rate living conditions, knowing full well that her fortune could buy them a more comfortable lifestyle. Comparisons with their friends, the Nelsons, only make matters worse for the Davenports, particularly given Tom Nelson’s success as an artist with pieces in some of the leading galleries in New York.

By the end of the first section of this three-part novel, the Davenports’ marriage is over, leaving Michael with little idea of what to do next.

He left the house, slamming the kitchen door, and made his way up past the extravagance of Ben Duane’s flower beds. But once he was at his desk he couldn’t lift a pencil or even see straight. He could only sit with half his fist in his mouth, breathing hard through his nose, trying to comprehend that the bottom had dropped out of everything. It was over.

He was thirty-five, and he was as frightened as a child at the thought of having to live alone. (pp.116-117)

In the second and third sections of the novel, we learn what happens to Lucy and Michael following the split. Lucy fares better than Michael in this respect, pursuing various creative activities in an effort to find herself. As the months slip by, Lucy dabbles in acting, taking the role of Blanche DuBois in a local production of A Streetcar Named Desire; she joins a creative writing class, drawing on some of her own experiences to produce some promising short stories; finally, Lucy tries her hand at painting, but with limited success – in truth, her works are naïve and amateurish. There are various affairs and relationships along the way, most of which are short-lived, just like her passionate liaison with Jack Halloran (aka Casimir), the enigmatic director of the theatre group.

Later still, when she lay on her bed and gave in at last to the kind of crying Tennessee Williams described as “luxurious,” she wished she had allowed him to write down his name. Casimir what? Casimir who? And she knew now her nice little curtain-line about Stanley Kowalski had been worse than cheap and spiteful – oh, worse; worse. It had been a lie, because she would always and always remember him as Jack Halloran. (p. 181)

Michael, for his part, continues to pursue his literary ambitions, but once again with limited success. His early life post-Lucy is characterised by periods of instability and mental illness, culminating in a spell in Bellevue, a specialist psychiatric hospital in New York. In time, Michael finds some solace in the form of a new, much younger wife, Sarah Garvey, a guidance counsellor at his daughter’s school, but he never seems truly contented.

Meanwhile, the Davenports’ daughter, Laura (aged nine at the time of her parents’ separation) is becoming increasingly disconnected from the world, eventually leaving her home with Lucy to join a hippy commune in California.

The novel closes on a more optimistic note with a meeting between the two Davenports. By now, Lucy is in a good place in life, gaining fulfilment from her new role as an ambassador for Amnesty International. There is a sense that she at least has stopped chasing after the pursuit of artistic fulfilment, possibly in the realisation that it might be hopelessly beyond her talents. For Michael, the situation is more ambiguous; his imminent move to a new teaching job in Boston may lead to the break-up of his second marriage; however, he seems relaxed about the future, still harbouring ambitions of another success to rival ‘Coming Clean’. As for his relationship with Sarah, there is a sense of que será, será – whatever will be, will be.

In writing this novel, Yates gives us an insight into the frustrations and disappointments of a suburban existence, of young hopes eroded by the crushing realities of life. The sections focusing on Lucy’s experiences are particularly good, illustrating once more this author’s undoubted skills in portraying complex, flawed women in ways that feel both perceptive and humane.

While the novel lacks the dramatic tension of Revolutionary Road, it is still very much worth reading for the nuanced characterisation alone. Probably one for Yates completists rather than newbies, who might be better starting with The Easter Parade, or possibly the short story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. Irrespective of the changing times, Yates is a writer whose work still stands up today; the emotions he captures in these books are enduring and timeless.

(Revolutionary Road was a pre-blog read for me, hence the lack of review – but you can find Max’s excellent post on the novel here.)

Young Hearts Crying is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

I’ve been saving this collection of stories for a while, ever since my friend, N, picked it up for me during a trip to New York a couple of years ago. The twenty pieces included here span the period from 1891 to 1934, virtually the whole of Edith Wharton’s career as a writer. Several are in the style of Wharton’s great society novels, exploring the tensions between restraint and passion, sincerity and hypocrisy, respectability and disgrace. In short, they are sharp, nuanced and incisive. Here we see life as it was in the upper echelons of New York society with its traditional social mores and codes, frequently stifling freedom of action in favour of compliance and conformity.

The opening story, Mrs Manstey’s View, features a protagonist outside of Wharton’s own social class – a relatively lonely, elderly woman who lives at the back of a New York boarding house, far removed from the wealthy areas of the city. Mrs Manstey is largely confined to her room where she gains pleasure from gazing at the outside world via the view from her window. In spite of the dwelling’s urban location, various flowers and plants are visible and abundant, altering in prominence with the changing of the seasons.

Mrs. Manstey’s real friends were the denziens of the yards, the hyacinths, the magnolia, the green parrot, the maid who fed the cats, the doctor who studied late behind his mustard-colored curtains; and the confidant of her tenderer mustings was the church-spire floating in the sunset. (p. 6)

One day, Mrs Manstey learns that her neighbour, Mrs Black, is planning an extension, a full-sized structure that will block out her view – no longer will she be able to see the proliferation of the natural world, the tangle of shrubs that brighten her days. Mrs Manstey knows that drastic measures are called for, and she acts accordingly – to say any more would spoil the effect. This is a lovely story tinged with poignancy, one that highlights the value of beauty and pleasure over the desire for commercial gain.

In A Journey, one of the standout pieces in the collection, a respectable woman is escorting her husband home to New York following a spell in warmer climes. The husband is chronically ill and unlikely to recover, but for now appears to be well enough to make the trip. With the train journey underway, the wife proceeds to reflect on the past. There is a sense that the couple’s marriage has deteriorated in line with (or possibly even ahead of) the husband’s decline in health, such is the extent of the change in his character.

Tensions increase when the wife realises that her husband has died during the journey, a development that raises the stakes in an already strained situation. Fearing their expulsion from the train if the body is discovered, the wife must try to conceal the death from the other passengers – something that is easier said than done, particularly given the crowded nature of their compartment.

After that many faces seemed to press upon her. The passengers were on their way to the dining-car, and she was conscious that as they passed down the aisle they glanced curiously at the closed curtains. One lantern-jawed man with prominent eyes stood still and tried to shoot his projecting glance through the division between the folds. The freckled child, returning from breakfast, waylaid the passers with a buttery clutch, saying in a loud whisper, “He’s sick”; and once the conductor came by, asking for tickets. She shrank into her corner and looked out of the window at the flying trees and houses, meaningless hieroglyphs of an endlessly unrolled papyrus. (pp. 95-96)

This is a superb story, steeped in mood and emotion, giving it the feel of a nightmare or hallucination. Wharton excels in her portrayal of a woman on the edge, the rhythm of her prose mirroring the relentless momentum of the train as it hurtles onwards to its final destination. A tour de force in miniature with some very memorable imagery.

The Rembrandt is a lovely, beautifully-observed story of opposing principles, one that highlights the importance of human emotions in any financially-based decision. It focuses on a museum art dealer who is called upon to give his opinion on a picture owned by a friend of his cousin’s – a lady by the name of Mrs Fontage. Finding herself in need of money, Mrs Fontage wishes to sell the picture, which she believes to be a Rembrandt. However, on seeing the painting, the dealer can tell it is nothing of the kind. What is he to do? If he tells Mrs Fontage the painting is worthless, he will shatter not only her future but her memories of the past, too – the story behind the acquisition of the picture is clearly very precious. On the other hand, if he says nothing or gives the impression that the painting is valuable, her hopes will be raised under false pretences. In short, there appears to be no easy way out for the dealer, irrespective of the option he chooses.

Looking at that lamentable canvas seemed the surest way of gathering strength to denounce it: but behind me, all the while, I felt Mrs. Fontage’s shuddering pride drawn up in a final effort of self-defense. I hated myself for my sentimental perversion of the situation. Reason argued that it was more cruel to deceive Mrs. Fontage than to tell her the truth; but that merely proved the inferiority of reason to instinct in situations involving any concession to the emotions. (p. 105)

All in all, this is an excellent story, one with a surprise or two up its sleeve.

Autres Temps…, another excellent piece, explores the social scandal surrounding divorce, particularly in the years of the late 19th century. Interestingly, it also illustrates how attitudes were beginning to change, highlighting the contrast between the Old New York and a younger, more liberal society starting to break through.

The story focuses on Mrs Lidcote who, years earlier was condemned by her peers for leaving her husband for another man. When it transpires that her daughter, Leila, is about to get divorced in similar circumstances, Mrs. Lidcote is assured that times have changed. Divorce is no longer considered quite as shameful as it once was, leaving Mrs Lidcote free to return to New York from her self-imposed exile abroad. However, once she is installed in Leila’s new marital home, Mrs Lidcote realises that a re-entry into society will not be quite as simple to achieve. While attitudes have moved on, Mrs Lidcote’s position has not; her time has passed, leaving her tainted for eternity.

“…Probably no one in the house with me stopped to consider that my case and Leila’s were identical. They only remembered that I’d done something which, at the time I did it, was condemned by society. My case has been passed on and classified: I’m the woman who has been cut for nearly twenty years. The older people have half forgotten why, and the younger ones have never really known: it’s simply become a tradition to cut me. And traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest of all to destroy.” (pp. 319-320)

The final story is another standout, quite possibly the best in the collection. In Roman Fever, two lifelong friends and neighbours, Mrs Slade and Mrs Ansley – both middle-aged New Yorkers, both widows – are sitting on a roof-top terrace overlooking Rome where they are holidaying with their adult daughters. As they gaze across the city, the two women recall past times, in particular their previous visit to the capital some twenty-five years earlier. In this wonderful story of bottled-up jealously, rage and long-held resentment, Mrs Slade confronts her friend in a bid to establish her superiority, dredging up old secrets and acts of duplicity in the process.

To reveal much more might spoil the effect; suffice it to say that this story comes with a killer ending, one of the best last lines I can recall in any story, not just those by this author.

This is a sparkling collection of stories with much to recommend it. Wharton’s prose is precise and incisive, frequently shedding light on the complexities of our motivations and behaviours.

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

West by Carys Davies

Book group choices aside, I don’t tend to read very many newly published books these days, mostly because my tastes have been gravitating towards older literature over the last few years. Nevertheless, every now and again, something new and intriguing catches my eye, often by way of a review or recommendation from a trusted source.

This brings me to West, a haunting novel by the Welsh-born writer Carys Davies, published to great acclaim in 2018. I’d already been thinking about picking up a copy when Max’s praise for it on Twitter pushed me over the edge. This taut, finely-honed novel – Davies’ first – packs quite a punch. As you’ll see from my comments below, it shares something with the classic, almost timeless narratives I tend to enjoy.

Set in the American landscape in the early 19th century, the novel revolves around Cy Bellman, a British settler and widower who lives with his ten-year-old daughter, Bess, on their mule ranch in Pennsylvania. Curious and adventurous by nature, Cy is intrigued by newspaper reports of the discovery of huge animal bones in the midst of the Kentucky swamps – so much so that he prepares to embark upon an epic journey through challenging territory in the hopeful belief that these mammoths might still be alive in the West.

While Cy’s forthright sister, Julie, thinks him crazy for abandoning his daughter, Cy is determined to go. He must discover the truth for himself – to see these beasts with his own eyes, complete in their natural habitat. It seems likely he will be away for a year or two, possibly longer – it’s hard to predict. Only Bess is convinced that her father will eventually return home, demonstrating a maturity behind her years in understanding his desire to see something of the world, his sense of curiosity about the great unknown.

Once Cy heads west, the narrative moves back and forth between his travels and the situation back at the ranch. Aunt Julie is now installed at the farm, firstly to take care of young Bess and secondly to oversee the breeding of mules and hinnies which provides the family with their income. In the latter activity, Bess is assisted by Elmer Jackson, a shady neighbouring labourer who harbours designs on Bellman’s estate, not least the women who live there. Like Julie, Jackson is also firmly of the belief that Cy will never be seen alive in Pennsylvania again, his endeavours written off as a foolhardy venture.

Bess, on the other hand, spends her spare time in the local library, keen to learn more of her father’s potential route through the territories. Intuitively, she senses the need to be wary of the librarian, a lecherous man with a penchant for young girls…

Meanwhile, back on the journey, Cy is joined by a Native American, a young Shawnee boy named ‘Old Woman from a Distance’ who is familiar with the local terrain. Even though the two travellers have very little in the way of a common language – they communicate mostly through displays of emotion and physical gestures – the boy helps Cy to navigate the unfamiliar territory, hunting and fishing for food in exchange for various trinkets of interest.

The vast prairie is tough and relentless – as is the climate, particularly in winter, a harsh and unforgiving season in the exposed terrain. Sightings of other individuals are few and far between; but when they come, they never cease to surprise, forming a striking image against the backdrop of the land.

The intermittent appearance of natives now, though he’d come by this time to expect it, amazed him: the presence of people in the vast wilderness around them. Even though he was used to the rhythm of their journey – that he and the boy could travel for a month and see no one, and then without warning encounter a large camp, or a group of savages walking or fishing. Noisy children and men whose bodies gleamed with grease and coal, women loaded like mules with bundles of buffalo meat. A whole mass of them together, undifferentiated and strange, and present suddenly amidst the course grass and the trees, the rocks and the river, beneath the enormous sky. All of them wanting to touch his red hair. Half of them enthralled by his compass, the other half trying to examine his knife and the contents of his tin chest. All of them fearful of his guns and eager to traffic a little raw meat for some of his treasures. (p. 100)

There is some beautiful writing here, demonstrating Davies’ deep appreciation of the land and cultural history of the West. These descriptive passages feel grounded in authenticity, a quality that adds a strong sense of credibility to the narrative.

As the prospect of another winter in the barren landscape looms large on the horizon, Cy finds himself wondering if his journey has been in vain, a fruitless folly in search of some great inexplicable myth.

He began to feel that he might have broken his life on this journey, that he should have stayed at home with the small and the familiar instead of being out here with the large and the unknown. (p. 99)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the story itself, save to say that it is powerful, vivid and beautifully constructed. Along the way we learn a little more of the Shawnee boy’s backstory, how his countrymen were cheated out of their land, their possessions and their ways of doing things – an underhand action brought about by US Government representatives who wanted the Native Americans moved on from their communities, thereby freeing up the Eastern territories for the arrival of new settlers from Europe. In the following passage, the boy recalls the earlier prophecies of an elder member of his community – predictions that largely came to pass in the course of the negotiations.

He prophesised that a time would come when they would know that the whole of the earth had been pulled from beneath the skin of their feet, that they would wake up one morning in the dawn and find that all the forests and all the mountains, all the rivers and the vast sweep of the prairie, had slipped from their grasp like a rope of water, and all they had to show for the bargains they had made was some worthless jewelry, some old clothes, and a few bad guns. Everything they’d bartered – their dogs and their furs, their pounded fish and their root cakes, their good behaviour, their knowledge of the country and the way they’d always done things – they would understand that they had given it all away for a song. (p. 34)

Unsurprisingly, the boy is angry about previous events; but he is also industrious, determined to seek a different, more beneficial future for himself in the fullness of time.

West is a potent, elegantly-constructed book that captures the beauty and brutality of the vast American landscape in equal measure. It is a novel shot through with a strong sense of loss: the loss of communities, possessions and personal dignity – the absence of loved ones is also very keenly felt. Themes of displacement and elimination run through the book, from the movement of the Native Americans to the West, to the dying out of the great mythical creatures that form Cy’s quest.

As the narrative plays out, there is a degree of retribution for some of the injustices and atrocities of the past – reverberations from days gone by ripple through the story, particularly towards the end.

I absolutely loved this spare and compelling novel. Very highly recommended, particularly for fans of fiction with a deep sense of place.

West is published by Granta; personal copy.

After Julius by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I’ve been looking for an opportunity to try again with Elizabeth Jane Howard, ever since my somewhat mixed response to The Long View, her novel of a deeply unhappy marriage told in reverse. While structurally very interesting, TLV felt rather uneven and was ultimately marred by bitterness for me. I just couldn’t engage with or invest enough in the characters to care about them – an issue exacerbated by Howard’s somewhat clinical, dispassionate tone.

So here I am again with EJH – this time, her 1965 novel, After Julius, which also fits nicely with Simon and Karen’s latest ‘Club’ event, running all this week. Happily, this experience was much more positive for me. I’d even go as far as to say that I loved this novel with one very notable caveat – more on that later, as the scene in question comes towards the end.

The Julius of the title is Julius Grace, an affluent publisher who was killed while assisting in the Dunkirk evacuation during WW2. The story takes places over a weekend some twenty years after Julius’ death, as the remaining members of the Grace family, together with a few guests, gather at the family home in Sussex. What starts as well-intentioned, sociable occasion ends in devastation as various revelations connected with Julius’s heroic actions gradually come to light.

Hosting the weekend is Esme, Julius’ fifty-eight-year-old widow who has never remarried following the loss of her husband. Joining Esme for the weekend are her two daughters: the beauty of the family, Cressy (37), a rather reluctant concert pianist; and the more practical, down-to-earth, Emma (27), a reader and editor in the family’s publishing firm.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Emma has brought along a young man, a wayward poet named Dan Brick, whom she met earlier that day while at work. Being essentially working-class, Dan comes from a very different social sphere to the Graces and their friends, and his responses to the events of the weekend are rather interesting to observe. Importantly, he seems to have clicked with Emma, a young woman whose only previous experience with the opposite sex has blighted most of her adult life.

Cressy, on the other hand, has come alone. Following an early, disastrous marriage which promptly ended with her husband’s death in the war, Cressy has subjected herself to a string of unhappy affairs, failing to achieve any sense of comfort or emotional fulfilment despite her desires. In essence, her situation is encapsulated in the following quote.

Had been married; husband killed in the war. No children. Sad, but infinitely intriguing – and convenient. Surely there must be a lover lurking about? Some cynical, selfish fellow who ruined sensitive intelligent girls by spending two evenings a week with them – preying upon their finer feelings with anything from money, the right sexual touch to downright lies about the future? But there never was, for Cressy was passionately monogamous. So whoever it was took possession, spent two evenings a week with her (and sometimes more, but they couldn’t be sure from week to week – they’d telephone anyhow so don’t go out: and, poor fool, she never would), and preyed upon her feelings with whatever equipment they could bring to bear. (p.60)

Cressy has vowed to end her latest hopeless affair, a liaison with the thoroughly self-centred Dick Hammond – a factor made all the more complicated by his unexpected arrival at the house for Saturday night’s dinner party.

Also in attendance for the weekend is Esme’s former lover, forty-four-year-old Felix King. While Julius was still alive, Esme embarked on a passionate affair with Felix, the one great love of her life irrespective of their differences in age. As the novel unravels, it soon becomes clear that Esme had never truly loved Julius, certainly not in a deep, fulfilling sense. His obsession with quoting poetry to her in moments of heightened emotion had put paid to all that, right from the early stages of their marriage.

In all moments of emotion he resorted to poetry; and this included making love to her. She had pleaded ignorance, but this only provoked hours of tender instruction, and every time he reached out for some slim calf-bound volume from a shelf, or threw back his head and half shut his eyes (he knew a fantastic amount of stuff by heart) the same wave of unwilling reverence and irritated incomprehension swept over her. (p. 28)

Emotionally isolated in her relationship with Julius, Esme turned to Felix for a little love and affection – perhaps unsurprisingly so given the nature of her situation.

No son was a private, nagging refrain, and for the rest of her functions she sometimes felt as though she was endlessly laying an elaborate table for a meal to which nobody in the end sat down. (p. 33)

Felix for his part was attracted to Esme, finding her shrewd, sophisticated and wonderfully entertaining. Nevertheless, it was too early in life for him to settle down back then, even once Esme became free following her husband’s untimely death.

Now Felix is keen to see Esme again after a gap of twenty years – the first time the former lovers will have met following a rather abrupt end to their relationship. As she waits for Felix to arrive at the house, Esme wonders why he wishes to see her again. Is out of duty, curiosity, or some other unknown motive? It’s hard to tell.

Esme knows she still loves Felix, possibly even more so now than before. If anything, his reappearance releases an intensity of feeling that has been allowed to accumulate for too long, precipitating a liberation of sorts. What Esme doesn’t know is just how Felix will react…

After Julius is a very carefully constructed novel, elegantly alternating between the perceptions of the five main characters, alongside a few pivotal group scenes. The inner lives of Howard’s women are captured with great precision and accuracy, painfully revealing past traumas and their resultant scars: Esme remains trapped in a kind of time-capsule, continuing to harbour deep feelings for Felix, in spite of his apparent abandonment of her; Emma has repressed all thoughts of love and emotional fulfilment following a horrendous early experience at the hands of a brute; and Cressy has spent most her life trying to fit around her lovers’ plans in the desperate hope of some affection in return.

With the possible exception of Julius, whom we encounter through flashbacks, the leading male characters here are mostly self-centred cads, frequently treating women as love-objects, merely to picked up and dumped at a moment’s notice. In this scene, one of the female characters – I won’t say which one – reveals how she was bullied by a former lover who had learned of her pregnancy.

He was furious! He managed to make me feel squalid and entirely to blame. (…) This man was supposed to have loved me: he wrote books about people and ideology – he was regarded as a pioneer, a humanitarian, someone of great integrity who cared what happened to society – a responsible and courageous man – one in a million. And yet there I was pregnant, honestly because he bullied me about knowing better, and all he wanted to do was to be shot of the situation – never mind what became of me in the process. (pp. 278–279)

As a slight aside, there is an interesting sub-theme running through this novel, that of the tension between a person’s public conscience to serve the good of humanity and their private desire for personal advancement. It’s a dynamic that touches several of the characters here – Julius, Felix and Cressy, in particular.

Returning to the men, even Dan – whose outward appearance is rather amiable – harbours worrying beliefs about the ‘acceptable’ roles and behaviours of women. In this scene, Dan is reflecting on Cressy’s reactions to her mother, especially once it transpires that Felix has returned.

Well, that sister of Emma’s would make an occasion out of a milk shake on a wet Sunday afternoon. She hadn’t seemed to like the doctor either; but then he’d never seen anyone treat their mother as she had done – downright discourtesy if ever he’d seen it: crossed in love, he had no doubt, and nearly on the shelf on top of that. No wonder the poor thing was edgy. Of course, the father had died, and a houseful of women without a man to crack the whip always made them soft and restless. (pp. 118-119)

This a perceptive, beautifully observed novel of secrets, guilt and longstanding resentments. The insights into characters’ perceptions and emotions, particularly those of the emotionally stranded women, are brilliantly judged. There is also some gorgeous deceptive writing here, particularly in the depiction of the interiors and the natural world.

My one reservation relates to a very brutal scene towards the end of the novel in which one of the women submits to a horrific act of violence, virtually accepting it as part-and-parcel of her relationship with the man concerned. It’s tricky to say any more without revealing spoilers, but I found it difficult to accept this character’s reactions in the hours and days following the incident. Maybe it’s merely a reflection of the prevailing attitudes of the period or some of EJH’s own damaging experiences – it’s a little hard to tell. Feel free to comment on it below, especially if you’ve read the book.

Update: Caroline has posted an excellent review of this novel, which you can find here.

After Julius is published by Picador; personal copy.

Recent Reads – Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may know that I’ve been getting through a lot of books lately, more than I’ve had time to write about in detail. So, here are a few thoughts about some of them – a sparkling Evelyn Waugh, and books 2-4 of Anthony Powell’s marvellous series, A Dance to the Music of Time.

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (1934)

I thoroughly enjoyed this sharply executed satire on the debauched society set of the early 1930s, complete with its blend of acerbic humour, unexpected tragedy and undercurrent of savagery. As a novel, it seems to perfectly capture that ‘live for the moment, hang tomorrow’ attitude that existed during the interwar years.

In essence, A Handful of Dust charts the falling apart of a marriage – that between the bored socialite, Brenda Last, and her somewhat less gregarious husband, Tony. The Lasts live at Hetton Abbey, a faded Gothic mansion in need of refurbishment and repair. Unfortunately, the Lasts are rather short of money, and what little they do appear to have goes on various servants, consumables and Brenda’s regular trips to London to see friends.

The rot sets in when Brenda slips into an affair with John Beaver, a somewhat depthless chap who proves an appealing distraction, at least for a time. While Brenda’s sister and friends know of the situation with Beaver, Tony remains ignorant of the relationship, naively believing Brenda’s ridiculous cover story of her enrolment in a London-based economics course – hence the need for a little flat in the city where Brenda can stay during the week. However, things come to a head in the form of an unexpected tragedy, a terrible accident which cleaves the Last family apart.

Waugh uses dialogue to great effect in this novel, frequently moving the narrative along through a series of conversations – sometimes face-face, other times on the phone. The style is pin-sharp and pithy, qualities illustrated by the passage below. In this scene from an early stage in the novel, Tony has just learned that Beaver is coming to Hetton, a discovery that annoys him greatly.

[Tony] ‘What’s he coming here for? Did you ask him to stay?’

[Brenda] ‘I suppose I did in a vague kind of way. I went to Brat’s one evening and he was the only chap there so we had some drinks and he said something about wanting to see the house…’

‘I suppose you were tight.’

‘Not really, but I never thought he’d hold it against me.’

‘Well, it jolly well serves you right. That’s what comes of going up to London on business and leaving me alone here…Who is he anyway?’

‘Just a young man. His mother keeps that shop.’

‘I used to know her. She’s hell. Come to think of it we owe her some money.’

‘Look here, we must put a call through and say we’re ill.’

‘Too late, he’s in the train now, recklessly mixing starch and protein in the Great Western three and sixpenny lunch…Anyway he can go into Galahad. No one who sleeps there ever comes again – the bed’s agony I believe.’ (pp. 27-28)

Basically, if you like that passage, you’ll almost certainly enjoy this book; if you don’t, then it’s probably not for you!

A Handful of Dust is an entertaining yet bittersweet romp, a story shot through with Waugh’s characteristically caustic wit. And yet there is an undercurrent of despair here too, a sense of hopelessness that becomes apparent, particularly towards the end as Tony ventures off into the Amazonian jungle in search of a secluded city. His adventures with a maverick explorer are artfully portrayed.

Reputedly inspired by the disintegration of Waugh’s own marriage coupled with his experiences in South America, this is a tonally sophisticated novel with more to say than might appear at first sight.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, books 2-4

I’ve been making good progress with this series, working my way through the books in between other reads. Rather than commenting on the plot, which would be virtually impossible to do without revealing spoilers, I’m going to highlight a few aspects that have struck me so far.

Firstly, Powell’s undoubted ability to convey a clear picture of a character – their appearance, disposition, even their way of moving around a room – in just a few carefully judged sentences. He does this time and time again, enabling the reader to anchor each character firmly in their mind.

There are numerous passages I could have chosen to illustrate this, but here’s one from the third book in the series, The Acceptance World. The individual in question is Mrs Myra Erdleigh, an acquaintance of Uncle Giles’ whom Jenkins meets during a trip to the Ufford, Giles’ favoured haunt for discussions on his money troubles.

He [Giles] had blown his nose once or twice as a preliminary to financial discussion, when the door of the lounge quietly opened and a lady wearing a large hat and purple dress came silently into the room.

She was between forty and fifty, perhaps nearer fifty, though possibly her full bosom and style of dress, at a period when it was fashionable to be thin, made her seem a year or two older than her age. Dark red hair piled on her head in what seemed to me an outmoded style, and good, curiously blurred features from which looked out immense, misty, hazel eyes, made her appearance striking. Her movements, too, where unusual. She seemed to glide rather than walk across the carpet, giving the impression almost of a phantom, a being from another world; this illusion no doubt heightened by the mysterious, sombre ambience of the Ufford, and the fact that I had scarcely ever before seen anybody but Uncle Giles himself, or an occasional member of the hotel’s staff, inhabit its rooms. (pp. 5-6, book 3)

It is Mrs Erdleigh’s movements that make all the difference here, her way of gliding across the carpet like a ghostly apparition or a creature from another world.

Powell’s attention to detail is pretty impressive too, often revealing little insights into an individual’s persona. At an earlier moment in the same scene, Nick offers the following reflection on Uncle Giles, an observation which discloses something of the latter’s fastidious manner in spite of his lack of funds.

On that particular occasion, the three fish-paste sandwiches and slice of seed cake finished, talk about money was about to begin. Uncle Giles himself never ate tea, though he would usually remove the lid of the teapot on arrival and comment: ‘A good sergeant-major’s brew you’ve got there,’ sometimes sending the tea back to the kitchen if something about the surface of the liquid specially displeased him. (p. 5, book 3)

Finally (for now), I’m also enjoying Powell’s meditations on life itself, his somewhat wistful observations on the nature of the game. Here’s how book two, A Buyer’s Market, draws to a close.

Certain stages of experience might be compared with the game of Russian billiards, played (as I used to play with Jean, when the time came) on those small green tables, within the secret recesses of which, at the termination of a given passage of time–a quarter of an hour, I think–the hidden gate goes down; after the descent of which, the white balls and the red return no longer to the slot to be replayed; and all scoring is doubled. This is perhaps an image of how we live. For reasons not always at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unsuspected, so that, before we really know where we are, life seems to have begun in earnest at last, and we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careering uncontrollably down the slippery avenues of eternity. (p. 274, book 2)

How very apt…

You can read my piece on the first book in the series here: A Question of Upbringing.

A Handful of Dust is published by Penguin Books, A Dance to the Music of Time by Arrow Books; personal copies. (For more info on Stu’s Penguin Classics event, click here.)

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson

First published in 1955, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was the debut novel by the American writer and reporter Sloan Wilson. The novel performed very well on its release and was promptly adapted for the screen with Gregory Peck as the central character, Tom Rath. Even though the book may have fallen out of fashion since then, its title – The Man in the Gray Suit – remains symbolic of certain kind of middle-class conformity in 1950s America, namely the need for a man to submit to the rat race in pursuit of the American Dream. Fans of the series Mad Men and the work of Richard Yates will find much to appreciate in Gray Flannel – and yet Wilson’s protagonist is more humane than Don Draper, more likeable and fairer in his dealings with others.

The novel revolves around Tom Rath, a thirtysomething former paratrooper, who finds himself trapped in a life which seems to hold little meaning for him. With a wife, Betsy, and three children to support, Tom feels the weight of society’s expectations very deeply. The family live in the midst of suburban Connecticut, where they divide their responsibilities along very traditional lines – Betsy remains at home to manage the household, while Tom commutes to his mindless office job in the city.

Betsy in particular dreams of bigger and better things for the family; more money, a larger house and a life of opportunities and rewards. Like many of the residents of Greentree Avenue, she views the family’s current position as temporary, a mere stepping-stone on the way to a more comfortable lifestyle in the future.

Almost all the houses were occupied by couples with young children, and few people considered Greentree Avenue a permanent stop—the place was just a crossroads where families waited until they could afford to move on to something better. The finances of almost every household were an open book. Budgets were frankly discussed, and the public celebration of increases in salary was common. The biggest parties of all were moving-out parties, given by those who finally were able to buy a bigger house. Of course there were a few men in the area who had given up hope of rising in the world, and a few who had moved from worse surroundings and considered Greentree Avenue a desirable end of the road, but they and their families suffered a kind of social ostracism. On Greentree Avenue, contentment was an object of contempt. (p. 109)

Tom, on the other hand, is more troubled, burdened as he is by difficulties from the past as well as those in the present. In essence, Tom remains marked by his experiences in WW2 where he was responsible for the deaths of seventeen men, including that of his closest buddy in the forces, Hank Mahoney – the latter as a result of a terrible accident with a hand grenade. Then there is the memory of the weeks spent with Maria, the sensitive Italian girl Tom encountered while stationed in Rome in 1944. The pair lived together in an innocent dream world of their own, hoping to make the most of their time together before Tom’s departure for the Pacific War – a thread somewhat reminiscent of Alfred Hayes’ striking novella, The Girl on the Via Flaminia.

As far as Tom’s current problems are concerned, there’s the constant pressure to be moving ahead, driven by the aspirations of middle-class suburban life. While Tom is cautious and conservative, Betsy is more optimistic, willing to take risks to keep up with the Joneses. Add to this the difficulties posed by an elderly grandmother and the complexities of her estate, no wonder Tom is finding it challenging to reconcile the various aspects of his life.

There were really four completely unrelated worlds in which he lived, Tom reflected as he drove the old Ford back to Westport. There was the crazy, ghost-ridden world of his grandmother and his dead parents. There was the isolated, best-not-remembered world in which he had been a paratrooper. There was the matter-of-fact, opaque-glass-brick-partitioned world of places like the United Broadcasting Company and the Schanenhauser Foundation. And there was the entirely separate world populated by Betsy and Janey and Barbara and Pete, the only one of the four worlds worth a damn. There must be some way in which the four worlds were related, he thought, but it was easier to think of them as entirely divorced from one another. (p. 22)

Things start looking up for Tom when he is offered a new job, assisting the head of the United Broadcasting Company with a new committee on the importance of mental health. While Tom dithers over the pros and cons of risky job move, Betsy views the role as a major opportunity, encouraging her husband to make the leap. For a start, it will mean additional money in their pockets, and the project itself may lead to other more lucrative things.

Once in the role, Tom finds the internal politics of UBC rather wearying to deal with. The scenes in which Tom is driven mad by the conflicting views of his two bosses – the firm’s President, Mr Hopkins, and his right-hand man, Mr Ogden – are wonderfully amusing. While Hopkins praises draft and draft of a speech Tom has penned for him, Ogden tears each one to pieces, much to Tom’s frustration. The whole episode ends with Ogden drafting his own version of the speech, a laborious and repetitive missive containing nothing but statements of motherhood.

The first half of the novel is undoubtedly the strongest, peppered as it is with flashbacks to Tom’s time as a member of the US forces in WW2 – the scenes of military action are tense and vivid, almost certainly inspired by Wilson’s own experiences of the war. The tenderness and fragility of the relationship between Tom and Maria are also beautifully conveyed – feelings heightened by Tom’s belief that he might die at the hands of the Japanese during the next phase of the campaign. With Betsy far and away in Connecticut, Tom’s home life seems very remote, a mere memory from the dim and distant past – so he seizes the opportunity of the weeks with Maria, a little warmth and affection amidst ravages of war.

By contrast, the second half feels looser as Betsy’s and Hopkins’ backstories are explored in some detail. Hopkins himself has his own troubles, a failing marriage and a wayward daughter, almost certainly exacerbated by his workaholic nature. While interesting to a certain extent, these diversions prove to be somewhat distracting, diluting the central focus on Tom and his angst-ridden existence.

As the novel reaches its denouement, Tom’s past finally threatens to catch up with him. In a conclusion that could easily have gone in one of two ways, Tom and Betsy manage to bridge the gulf in their lives, successfully addressing the inherent difficulties of the past few years. At long last, Betsy gains an insight into the pain and suffering Tom experienced during the war, things he has never spoken about before. Tom, for his part, seems more at ease with himself – a man content to be true to his own values, no longer a slave to the whims of others. While some readers might find the ending a little too sentimental or neatly resolved, it does give a sense of closure in a way that feels heartening and uplifting. A little Hollywood in style, perhaps, but I’m not going to quibble over that.

I’ll finish with a final quote from Tom, one that seems to capture something of the essence of this hugely enjoyable book, which still feels pretty relevant to the pressures of today.

“…I was my own disappointment, I really don’t know what I was looking for when I got back from the war, but it seemed as though all I could see was a lot of bright young men in gray flannel suits rushing around New York in a frantic parade to nowhere. They seemed to me to be pursuing neither ideals nor happiness—they were pursuing a routine…” (p. 272)

This is my first contribution to Stu’s Penguin Classics month, which started yesterday – I’m hoping this Modern Classic will qualify!

Symposium by Muriel Spark

I’ve been working my way through a little VMC set of Spark’s novels, slowly but surely over the past few years, trying to read them in order of publication – you can find my other posts here.

Symposium is the last of the bunch, and I’m a little sad to have finished it as there are no more left on the shelves for me to read. Maybe I’ll go back and revisit The Comforters at some point, a novel I didn’t quite connect with on the first reading, hence the lack of a review. Anyway, returning to the main subject of this post, Symposium, this is a clever and provocative novel, shot through with a devilish streak of dark humour – I enjoyed it very much indeed.

The novel revolves around a dinner party hosted by a sophisticated, well-connected couple, Hurley Reed and his partner, Chris Donovan, at their home in Islington. Hurley, an American painter in his early fifties, and Chris, a rich Australian widow in her late forties, have been together for seventeen years. They are not married, and happily so, never having felt the need to cement their relationship by formal ties. Very quickly, we are introduced to the other four couples attending the party which takes place during the course of the novel.

Based mainly in Brussels, Ernst Untzinger represents the EU on an international commission for finance, while his wife, Ella – a geographer and cartologist by training – has just landed a role teaching at a London University. The Untzingers are in the early forties, and their marriage seems quite relaxed, possibly open, as there are hints of other relationships in the mix.

The Suzys are an interesting couple, fairly recently married. While Lord Brian Suzy is approaching fifty, his current wife, Helen, is just twenty-two, possibly viewing her partner as a kind of surrogate father figure. Seizing the opportunity of a captive audience, Lord Suzy is intent on telling everyone about the recent burglary at his home which happened while the Suzys were asleep – an incident that only came to light when a passing policeman discovered the front door wide open in the middle of the night. Lord Suzy considers the whole episode to be a violation of his privacy, especially as the thieves peed all over the internal walls of the house.

Also in attendance are two cousins, Roland Sykes and Annabel Treece, both in their late twenties/early thirties. Roland is a genealogist who specialises in tracing ancestry, while Annabel works as a TV producer – her interests lie in psychology and philosophy. While Roland and Annabel are not a couple as such, they are very close, almost akin to a brother and sister.

Finally, we have William and Margaret Damien, a young couple who have just returned from their honeymoon in Italy. William’s mother, the very wealthy Hilda Damien, is a close friend of Chris Donovan’s, hence the connection between the Damiens and their hosts. Margaret, with her striking dark red hair and pre-Raphaelite looks, is the source of much speculation throughout the novel. In this scene – a flashback to a time well before the party – Hurley is telling Chris about his early impressions of Margaret.

He told her what he thought she really wanted to know. ‘Quite nice looking, but terrible teeth, they quite spoil her. I think she’s shy or something. There’s something funny. Her get-up wasn’t natural for a young girl at six-thirty on a normal evening. She had green velvet, a wonderful green, and a massive background of red and gold leaves all arranged in pots.’

‘Maybe, knowing you’re an artist, she thought you might want to paint her?’

‘Do you think so?’ Hurley pondered this seriously for a while. People do have crazy ideas about artists. But surely not… (p.25)

As the novel unfolds, alternating between the party itself and a series of carefully constructed flashbacks, we learn more about these couples, particularly the Damiens who had met in the fruit section of Marks & Spencer’s just four months before their marriage took place. Hilda – William Damien’s mother – is particularly suspicious about Margaret’s motives, sensing something sinister afoot. What in heavens name was William doing in the fruit section of M&S, and how did Margaret just happen to encounter him? Something about the whole episode really doesn’t feel right.

She [Hilda] had met Margaret in London. She didn’t think the marriage would last. That goody-goody type of girl, how could she be real?

Hilda had sat good-humouredly in their too-small flat and chatted as she noticed.

‘Marks & Spencer‘s fruit section. What on earth were you doing there, William?’

‘Buying fruit,’ he said ‘I always went there, it was convenient.’

‘And you,’ she said to Margaret in her best Sandringham-type manner, ‘was that your favourite fruit shop?’

‘No, I was just there by chance.’ She gave a little smile, put her head on one side. ‘Lucky chance,’ she said.

William sat there goggling at his bride-to-be as if she were a Miss Universe who had taken a double first at Cambridge, or some such marvel. (pp. 39-40)

Hilda’s suspicions are further aroused when she meets Margaret’s family, the Murchies, in advance of the wedding. During a visit to the Murchie residence – a strange, turreted edifice near St Andrews – Hilda is convinced that something is decidedly off. In some respects, everything appears normal on the surface, almost too normal, so much so that she struggles to put her finger on what feels wrong. In spite of these doubts, the marriage goes ahead as planned, and Hilda gives the young couple a Hampstead flat to mark the occasion. As an extra surprise, she has also purchased a Monet for their home, a piece she plans to install while the newlyweds are out at the dinner party.

In addition to Hilda, some of the other characters have also been speculating about Margaret’s past – most notably Chris and Roland. The name ‘Murchie’ rings a bell with these two, both of whom have vague recollections of there being a scandal in the family’s history. Rumours of various suspicious deaths, contested claims on an inheritance, and the taint of madness in the blood all surround Margaret and the Murchies, elements that are gradually revealed and slotted into place as the story unfolds.

As ever, Spark manages to pack so much into such a slim novel, and in this instance, it never feels crowded or cramped. During the course of the narrative, there are burglaries, murders, family feuds, and all manner of other underhand behaviours. We meet suspicious servants, mad uncles, and a convent of eclectic nuns, one of whom is very sweary. Everything is handled with an assurance characteristic of a writer in full control of her material.

This is a typically sharp and spiky novel from Muriel Spark, one that highlights how people may not be quite as innocent as they appear at first sight. A delicious, multilayered delight.

Symposium is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.