Tag Archives: Novella

Pitch Dark by Renata Adler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Villa Triste by Patrick Modiano (tr. John Cullen)

There are some mysterious persons – always the same ones – who stand like sentinels at every crossroads in your life.’ (p. 47)

First published in 1975, Patrick Modiano’s Villa Triste is a short, hypnotic novel steeped in a sense of nostalgia for an all but vanished milieu.

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As the story opens, a man is revisiting a summer he spent as an eighteen-year-old in a town in the Haute-Savoie region of France. Winding back to those days in the early ‘60s with the Algerian war rumbling away in the background, our narrator flees Paris where he feels unsafe, an uneasy, police-heavy atmosphere being firmly in evidence. Going by the name of Victor Chmara, the narrator installs himself in a sleepy boarding house, avoiding all news reports and communications from the wider world. Instead, he spends his evenings observing the young people around town, taking in a movie where possible and whiling away the hours at one of the local bars. The nights are long and languid, a mood which Modiano perfectly captures in his evocative prose.

I’ve never known nights so lovely, so crystal clear as those were. The sparkling lights of the lakeside villas dazzled me, and I sensed something musical in them, like a saxophone or trumpet solo. I could also perceive the very soft, immaterial rustling of the plane trees on the avenue. I’d wait for the last cable car, sitting on the iron bench in the chalet. The room was lit only by a night-light, and I’d let myself slip into that purplish semidarkness with a feeling of total confidence. What was there for me to fear? The noise of war, the din of the world would have had to pass through a wall of cotton wool to reach this holiday oasis. And who would have ever thought of coming to look for me among these distinguished summer vacationers? (pp. 16-17)

With the summer season in full swing, it isn’t long before Victor meets a mysterious couple in one of the town’s hotels, the glamorous, auburn-haired Yvonne and her close friend, the somewhat affected Dr René Meinthe. Right from the start there is something shadowy about these people. While they treat Victor as an old friend, taking him to lunch and various social events around the town, both Yvonne and René are somewhat evasive about their lives. René makes frequent trips to and from Geneva, although what he does there remains something of a mystery. Yvonne for her part is trying to fashion a career as an actress having just made a film with a director in the local area. The source of her money is never entirely clear, especially when it emerges that she hails from a fairly modest family still living in the neighbourhood.

Nevertheless, Victor is captivated by his new friends, Yvonne in particular, and the two of them soon become lovers. In the shelter of Yvonne’s room at the Hermitage hotel, there is a sense that Victor is muffled from events in the broader world; as long as the band continues to play, the world must still be turning.

Downstairs the orchestra would be starting to play and people began arriving for dinner. Between two numbers, we’d hear the babble of conversations. A voice would rise above the hubbub – a woman’s voice – or a burst of laughter. And the orchestra would start up again. I’d leave the French window open so that the commotion and the music could reach up to us. They were our protection. And they began at the same time every day, hence the world was still going around. For how long? (p. 100)

During the course of the novel, Victor – now aged thirty – tries to piece together the fragments of that long lost summer in Haute-Savoie. There are many unanswered questions from this time, a few of which I’ve alluded to already. By the end of the novel, some of these elements are a little clearer, in particular, the nature of René’s business in Geneva, a hub for transit activities at the time. Others, however, remain a mystery.

All in all, I found Villa Triste to be an intriguing novel, an intimate exploration of memory, identity, loss and our desire to understand the past. The place, period and cultural milieu are all beautifully evoked. Modiano conveys a society that values beauty and elegance, qualities that are typified in one of the novel’s best set-pieces, a thrilling recreation of the Houligant Cup, a contest for the most glamorous presentation of a classic car by a couple. With their eyes on the prize, René and Yvonne are all set to put on an impressive display for judges.

As the novel draws to a close, these people continue to haunt Victor’s memories. I’ll finish with a favourite quote, one that seems to capture something of the elegiac mood of this story.

Already in those days – soon to be thirteen years ago – they gave me the impression that they’d long since burned out their lives. I watched them. I listened to them talking under the Chinese lanterns that dappled their faces and the women’s shoulders. I assigned each of them a past that dovetailed with those of the others, and I wished they’d tell me everything: […] So many enigmas presupposed an infinity of combinations, a spider’s web they’d been spinning for ten or twenty years. (p. 32)

Guy has also reviewed this book – there’s a link to his excellent post here.

Villa Triste is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.

You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames (Pushkin Vertigo)

I love the Pushkin Vertigo series, a collection of classic, mind-bending crime novels by a variety of different authors from around the world. (My review of Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo, the novel behind the Hitchcock film, is here.) While most of the books in the series were written in the early-to-mid 20th century, one or two are more contemporary. You Were Never Really Here (2013) by Jonathan Ames is one such book, a taut and compelling noir that packs quite a punch.

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The book centres on Joe, an ex-Marine and former FBI agent who now earns a living as an off-the-books operative in his home city of New York. By way of his middleman, an ex-State Trooper and PI named McCleary, Joe specialises in rescuing people, mostly teenage girls who have been lured into the sex trade through no real fault of their own. In spite of the fact that he lives with his ageing mother, Joe is to all intents and purposes a lone wolf. Living and operating undercover comes as second nature to Joe. He keeps his cards close to his chest, eschewing any unnecessary contact with those around him for fear of leaving any traceable marks. His body is a lethal weapon, primed and ready for action.

So his hands were weapons, his whole body was a weapon, cruel like a baseball bat. Six-two, one-ninety, no fat. He was forty-eight, but his olive-colored skin was still smooth, which made him appear younger than he was. His jet-black hair had receded at the temples, leaving a little wedge, like the point of a knife, at the front. He kept his hair at the length of a Marine on leave. (p.11)

As the story gets underway, Joe is tasked with a new assignment. Some six months earlier, Lisa, the thirteen-year-old daughter of a prominent State Senator, went missing from the family home in Albany. Now the Senator is in New York with a fresh lead on the case, but he doesn’t want the police involved; instead he wants Joe to follow it up with a view to finding and rescuing his daughter, ideally discovering the identity of her abductor along the way. The lead takes Joe to a Manhattan brownstone, the location of a high-end brothel where Lisa is thought to be working. Here’s an excerpt from the stakeout scene, a passage which should give you a feel for Ames’ pared-back yet atmospheric style. Paul, the brothel’s ‘towel boy’ has just left the house.

So Joe loped down the north side of the street and then crossed, five yards ahead of his target. He looked about. No immediate witnesses. It was a cold October night. Not too many people were out. He stepped from between two cars and right into the path of the towel boy—a thirty-two-year-old white man, a failed blackjack dealer from Atlantic City named Paul, who didn’t have much talent for anything. He was startled by Joe’s sudden appearance, and Joe shot out his right hand unerringly and grabbed Paul by the throat, the way a man might grab a woman’s wrist. Paul didn’t even have time to be scared. He was already half-dead. Everything Joe did was to establish immediate and complete dominance. (pp. 42-43)

At 88 pages, this is a short read, so I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, save to say that the case is more complex than appears at first sight. Power, corruption and dirty cops all play a role in this gripping story of cat-and-mouse in the underbelly of NYC.  What’s interesting here is the character of Joe. At various points in the book, Ames reveals a little more of Joe’s backstory, in particular the abusive childhood that has shaped his outlook on life.

What Joe didn’t grasp was that his sense of self had been carved, like a totem, by his father’s beatings. The only way for Joe to have survived his father’s sadism was to believe that he deserved it, that it was justified, and that belief was still with him and could never be undone. In essence, he had been waiting nearly fifty years to finish the job that his father had started. (p. 23)

Joe’s father, also a US Marine, was destroyed by the experience of fighting in the Korean War. Having entered the fray as a human being, Joseph Sr. ultimately emerged as a bitter and twisted creature, a ’subhuman’ of sorts. In many ways, the nature of Joe’s tortured relationship with his now deceased father has left him with a deep need to gain some kind of vengeance on the evils of the world. There is a sense that Joe remains mindful of the requirement to keep himself in check, to maintain the vigilance and control he must demonstrate in order to preserve his current existence.

This is an impressive slice of noir fiction; quite dark and brutal at times, but that’s all part of the territory with this genre – Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer, and he knows how to use it. On the surface, Joe is slick, tough and merciless in the face of the enemy, but underneath it all he is rather damaged too. There is something mournful and a little bit vulnerable lurking beneath that hard exterior, these qualities coming to the fore on a couple of occasions during the story. Ames also adds one or two touches of compassion to his portrayal of Joe. There’s a very gentle scene near the beginning of the book where Joe’s mother makes him some eggs for breakfast, the pair communicating with one another without any need for words.

While the book ends at a particular point, it feels as if there is scope for another chapter in Joe’s story, a further instalment so to speak. If that happens at some stage in the future, I will gladly read it.

Ames has also written a novel in a very different style to this one – Wake Up, Sir!, a satire which sounds like a modern-day riff on the Jeeves and Wooster story. You can read Gert Loveday’s enlightening review of it here.

My thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy of You Were Never Really Here.

#ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts

Well, what a busy week it’s been for #ReadingRhys! When I canvassed interest in the concept of a Jean Rhys Reading Week earlier this year, I had no idea that it would gather quite so much momentum in such a short space of time. It’s been truly wonderful to see the level of interest in reading Rhys’ work both amongst new readers and those already familiar with her unique style.

Firstly, I’d like to thank Eric at Lonesome Reader for being such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable co-host for the week – his insights into Jean Rhys and her work have been truly enlightening. Thanks also to Poppy at poppy peacock pens and Margaret at New Edition for taking a lead in reviewing and contributing to the discussions on a few of Rhys’ books as part of the week. Do visit their blogs if you haven’t done so already as they’re definitely worth a look. Thanks to Andy Miller (author of The Year of Reading Dangerously and co-host of the Backlisted podcast) for kindly speaking to me about Rhys – I couldn’t have wished for a more enthusiastic advocate of her work. Finally, and most importantly, a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who has participated in the Reading Week, either by posting a review, sharing thoughts via Twitter, contributing to the discussions on blogs, GoodReads or social media, or simply by reading one of her books – the level of engagement has been terrific. Just for a bit of fun, I’ve collated together a selection of tweets from the week, mainly pictures, quotes and responses from various readers – you can view them here via Storify.

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By way of a wrap-up, here’s a list of all the new reviews/articles posted as part of the JR Reading Week – if I’ve missed any posts, do let me know in the comments and I’ll add a link. Plenty to explore here, so do take a look if you’re interested. (I haven’t collated links to the various archive reviews as I fear this would take me until Christmas!)

The Left Bank and Other Stories – 1927

Quartet (originally published as Postures) – 1928

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie 1930

Voyage in the Dark – 1934

Good Morning, Midnight – 1939

Wide Sargasso Sea – 1966

Tigers Are Better-Looking – 1968 

Sleep It Off, Lady – 1976

Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography – 1979

Jean Rhys: Letters 1931-66 – 1984

Other posts

A number of things struck me during the week, especially in relation to After Leaving Mr Mackenzie and the short stories, my main areas of focus for the event. Firstly, Rhys’ wonderful use of imagery as a way of creating mood and emotion. Several people commented on this during the week, and it was interesting to see the following passage cropping up more than once in reviews of Mr Mackenzie:

But really she hated the picture. It shared, with the colour of the plush sofa, a certain depressing quality. The picture and the sofa were linked in her mind. The picture was the more alarming in its perversion and the sofa the more dismal. The picture stood for the idea, the spirit, and the sofa stood for the act.

Secondly, there is Rhys’ ability to create and convey character. Much has been said about Julia Martin, a figure who elicited mixed opinions among the various readers of this book. While some people saw her as vulnerable women with limited options in life, others viewed her as rather feckless and self-centred – a woman with a strong sense of entitlement for want of a better phrase. To me she seems like a woman deserving of our understanding and compassion, another of Rhys’ women trapped by circumstances and the cruelty of life. I particularly liked Grant’s comments on Julia. Here’s a brief passage from his review.

Julia leads a precarious existence from man to man. Rhys brilliantly exposes her inner anxieties via outer discomforts – tiredness, cold. More than once she is described as a ghost. (Grant on After Leaving Mr Mackenzie)

While it is natural to view Rhys’ fiction as bleak and melancholy, a number of people picked up on the undercurrent of wry humour in her work, not just in the novels, but in the stories too. Staying with Rhys’ short fiction, other readers highlighted some of the parallels between these pieces and certain elements of the writer’s own life. In some ways, her stories read like little vignettes, dealing as they do with the marginalisation of women and the perpetual fragility of lives lived on the edge. As Marina put it, where Rhys succeeds so brilliantly is in her ability to take a certain experience from her own world and heighten it, “polishing it until it catches the light of universality.” Maybe that’s one of the reasons why her work remains so relevant today; the emotions are timeless. All the elements of Rhys’ fiction are here in miniature: the feeling of being the perpetual outsider; the fear of poverty and the constant scrabble for money; the importance of clothes in these women’s lives; the near constant dependence on men. There are many more.

Finally, I couldn’t finish without mentioning a few of the descriptions of Rhys’ work which stayed with me throughout the week. A couple of people quite rightly described Rhys as a poet, someone who gave a voice to the sole woman, the lonely outsider whose very existence hangs by a thread. All three succeeded in capturing something of the essence of this unique writer.

Jean Rhys’ writing represents the poetry of the downtrodden and vanquished, who nevertheless display an obstinate pride from time to time and an occasional wild streak, like the black cat in the story ‘Kikimora’. (Marina on Smile Please & Sleep It Off, Lady)

Rhys is the poet of hypocrisy and unspoken disapproval. (Max on Voyage in the Dark)

Here is the world of the dispossessed, the powerless, the damaged and those who damage. (Ali on Good Morning Midnight)

Eric, Poppy and Margaret have also posted few closing thoughts on Rhys’ other works as part of their wrap-ups for the week, so please do take a look at their blogs. (Note: Poppy’s summary to follow.)

All that remains is for us to reveal the winner of our prize for making a significant contribution to the week. We’re delighted to announce that the winner is Dorian of the Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau blog for his brilliant post on Teaching Rhys. Congratulations Dorian – a special bundle of Rhys’ books will be on its way to you shortly. Many thanks to Penguin for their generosity and support of the reading week – it is very much appreciated.

Welcome to Jean Rhys Reading Week + After Leaving Mr Mackenzie revisited

Welcome to #ReadingRhys, a week centred on reading and discussing the work of Jean Rhys, now considered one the greatest writers of the 20th century. You can read a little more about her here in these articles from The Guardian and The Paris Review.

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As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this week Eric (of the Lonesome Reader blog) and I have teamed up to coordinate discussions about Jean Rhys’ writing and life. As a latecomer to Rhys’ work, I’m still working my way through her books which are distinct for their unique style and brutal honesty. Eric, Poppy Peacock (who writes about books at poppy peacock pens), Margaret Reardon (a long-standing Rhys fan) and I will be posting about all of Jean Rhys’ major books over the course of the week. During her lifetime, Rhys published five novels: Quartet (1929); After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930); Voyage in the Dark (1934); Good Morning, Midnight (1939); and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). She also wrote several short stories – a number of collections have been issued and are still available to buy secondhand if you’re willing to hunt around. There’s a series of letters too, plus Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

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How to join in

Ideally we’d love you to read something by Rhys (or a book connected to her work) and then to share your thoughts about it via one or more of the following routes:

  • If you have a blog, you could write your own review or article about the book
  • Alternatively, share your thoughts on GoodReads. We’ve set up a Jean Rhys Reading Week Group on GoodReads with a discussion topic for each book and her life
  • Tweet about it on Twitter using the hashtag #ReadingRhys
  • Add your comments to other readers’/bloggers’ reviews/posts which will be going up throughout the week (see the below schedule)

You can post your reviews and comments at any time from 12th-18th September, it’s entirely up to you. Plus, we’ll be happy to continue to discuss all things Rhys in the weeks that follow the event, particularly if you run short of time over the next few days.

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What we’ll post about this week

To give you an idea of what each of us will be focusing on, here’s a schedule for the reviews/posts we are planning to issue during the week. These are the books we’ll be taking a lead on.

I’ll be focusing on After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (coming up later in this post) and Rhys’ stories, plus I have a very exciting interview lined up for later in the week – all will be revealed in due course!

Monday 12th September

  • Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + After Leaving Mr Mackenzie – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)
  • Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + Good Morning, Midnight – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Tuesday 13th

  • Voyage in the Dark – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Wednesday 14th

  • Tigers are Better-Looking (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Thursday 15th

  • Wide Sargasso Sea – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
  • Quartet – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)

Friday 16th

  • An interview with a special guest – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Saturday 17th

  • Good Morning, Midnight – Margaret (at newedition.ca)
  • Smile Please – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)

Sunday 18th

  • Rhys’ Letters: 1931-66 – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)
  • The Left Bank (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)

Between the four of us, we’ll be taking responsibility for visiting your blogs, the relevant GoodReads threads and reading comments on Twitter etc. At the end of the week, we’ll pull together some brief summaries of everyone’s responses to the books with a view to posting these on our blogs and the GoodReads group area during w/c 19th September.

So that’s the plan for the week. You can post your reviews and comments at any time, and we’ll visit when we can. Do add the banner (near the top of this piece) to your own posts as and when they go up and feel free to add it your blog if you’re planning to participate. Please use the #ReadingRhys hashtag in any Twitter comms about the event.

We’re really looking forward to discussing Rhys’ work and we hope you will join us during the week. Please feel free to add a link to your post(s) in the comments below. In the meantime, if you have any particular thoughts or plans for the week, just let us know. You can also get in touch with us via Twitter. We tweet at @JacquiWine, @lonesomereader, @poppypeacock and @2daffylou.

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Win a special Jean Rhys Prize Bundle!

As luck would have it, Penguin have recently reissued Rhys’ novel Good Morning, Midnight as part of their brightly-coloured Pocket Penguins series. You can read the first chapter of this brilliant novel here. As a special incentive to join in #ReadingRhys week, Eric and I will select one lucky person who makes a significant contribution to our discussions over the week to win a special Jean Rhys Package (courtesy of Penguin)!

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Revisiting ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’

In preparation for the event, I went back to After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, a novella I reviewed last year – you can read my initial post here.

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Revisiting this book again, I was struck by a few additional things – firstly the author’s use of imagery to convey the harshness of the environment in which Julia, the central character, finds herself. Here’s a short quote from the Paris section of the story.

The lights of the cafés were hard and cold, like ice. (p. 16)

Similarly, London is portrayed as a cold and terrifying place offering little comfort to Julia, in her hours of greatest need.

It was the darkness that got you. It was heavy darkness, greasy and compelling. It made walls round you, and shut you in so that you felt you could not breathe. You wanted to beat at the darkness and shriek to be let out. And after a while you got used to it. Of course. And then you stopped believing that there was anything else anywhere. (p. 62)

There are lots of references to animals too. One gets the sense that the Rhys protagonist considers animals to be rather more dignified than many of the people she is forced to deal with. What you see is what you get, so to speak – with these creatures there is no pretence.

Julia said: ‘Animals are better than we are, aren’t they? They’re not all the time pretending and lying and sneering, like loathsome human beings.’ (p. 97)

Once again, the cruelty of society at the time comes through loud and clear. In effect, Julia is considered an outsider. Marginalised by her former lovers and family members alike, she is virtually forced into begging for assistance, an experience she knows will almost certainly end in utter humiliation.

Her face was red. She went on talking in an angry voice: ‘They force you to ask – and then they refuse you. And then they tell you all about why they refuse you. I suppose they get a subtle pleasure out of it, or something.’

Mr Horsfield said: ‘Subtle pleasure? Not at all. A very simple and primitive pleasure.’

‘It’s so easy to make a person who hasn’t got anything seem wrong.’ (pp. 64-65)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what really struck me was the precision of Rhys’ prose style. There are no superfluous words or descriptions here; everything is pared back to the bone to focus on the characters’ emotions. The use of descriptive passages is limited to those instances where the provision of some element of context is deemed vital to the story. As a consequence, the full effect is incredibly striking.

The members of my book group read this novel with me. As I had expected, opinions were fairly mixed with around half of the group feeling very little empathy or sympathy for Julia while others felt more understanding of the vulnerability of her position. This post is already on the long side, so I can say a little more about the various responses in the comments if people are interested. Everyone found something different in the book, especially in relation to Julia, which is an interesting finding in itself. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this novel if you’ve read it.

I hope to see you here again on Wednesday when I’ll be covering an excellent collection of Rhys’ stories, Tigers are Better-Looking. In the meantime, enjoy the week!

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

Last year I wrote about La Femme de Gilles (1937), an early novella by the Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe. It’s an intensely powerful story of desire, pain and selfless love, all conveyed in the author’s spare yet beautiful prose. When Daunt Books announced they would be reissuing Marie (first published in 1943), Bourdouxhe’s follow-up to Gilles, I knew I wanted to read it. Luckily this book came along at just the right time for me; moreover, it turned out to be a great choice for Women in Translation month which is running throughout August.

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Like its predecessor, Marie focuses on the inner life of a young married woman. As the novella opens, thirty-year-old Marie is on holiday in the Cote d’Azur with her husband of six years, Jean, the man whom she loves with a profound sense of tenderness. One afternoon, while Jean is swimming in the sea, Marie notices a young man on the beach, most probably another holidaymaker; he is lean, tanned and muscular, and Marie is instantly attracted to him. The sight of this youth in his early twenties awakens something in Marie, more specifically ‘the realm of the possible; the fascination and excitement of a new world.’

A day or so later Marie heads out for a walk on her own with the intention of finding the attractive stranger again; it’s not long before she spots him on the beach. Even though the man strikes up a conversation with Marie, words are barely needed; they have already formed a deep connection.

They sit on the sand. They might have gone on talking; about the distant hills that unfold towards the sea, about a white villa the outline of which is visible among the cypresses. But what would have been the point? They know that there is nothing to say. They mutually accept this great silence, and the richness, the sincerity that lies within it. They also know that in that moment they are seeing everything from the same point of view and that, for both of them, that red sail on the sea stands out as clearly, as harshly, as cruelly, as the thing that is deep inside them. (pg. 17-18)

As they prepare to part, the young man gives Marie his phone number back in Paris, the city which is also home to Jean and Marie. As she watches him go, Marie feels completely alone, stranded between two opposing worlds: the safety and security of her life with Jean vs the possibility of new and uncertain experiences ahead.

Back in Paris, life continues as normal for Marie (at least at first) as she occupies her time with housework and the occasional session as a private tutor. Nevertheless, the young man from the beach remains in her thoughts. When Jean goes away on a business trip for a few days, Marie contacts the man. They meet up in a café, walk the streets of Paris for a while and take a room for the night.

To dwell any further on the plot probably isn’t necessary at this stage, plus it might spoil some of the experience of reading the novella itself. While things happen in the story, this isn’t an action-driven narrative; instead the focus is on experience, memories and introspection. As with La Femme de Gilles, Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to her female protagonist’s point of view. This is another richly realised portrait of the inner life of a woman at a pivotal moment in her life. To her friends, family and husband, Marie appears to be content in her marriage. At an early point in the novella, a female friend observes: ‘Marie, you love your husband very deeply; you’ve managed to find complete fulfilment in your love; you are the only one amongst us who really knows what happiness is.’ Internally, however, Marie is far from at ease with herself, as illustrated by the following passage, one that appears later in the book. (Claudine is Marie’s rather melancholy and irresponsible older sister, a very different creature from the intelligent and capable Marie.)

And she’d stay there until the blue light of dawn came through the window. Thrown back on herself, she’d feel quite alone at the heart of a well-worn past – even though she had created such fine things. Jean, Claudine: links that did not want to expire, that tightened their hold in a final struggle as others tried to replace them.

‘Please, please leave me!’ She’d have liked to shout this in all the space around her. How she longed to have neither past nor future! And yet – on the one hand there were these still burning ashes and on the other there was this new thing, this thing that did not yet have a name. Like a warm beast that moved inside her, making its nest. (pg. 85-86)

As Marie reflects on the nature of her position, her mood varies quite significantly. There are instances when she seems lost and dissatisfied with her situation, most notably when a change in Jean’s job forces the couple to move away from Paris for a while. At other times, a brighter Marie emerges, one in tune with her own her solitude and desires in life.

Like its predecessor, Marie is written in an emotive, intense and intimate style. It is a more optimistic novella than La Femme de Gilles, more hopeful but every bit as compelling. In his review in The Guardian, Nicholas Lezard describes Marie as one of the most French novels he has ever read, and I can see what he means. To quote Lezard: ‘the book’s concerns are, to put it broadly, existentialist’.

I really loved this novel; it’s in the running for one of my books of the year. This wonderful story of a young woman’s awakening is played out among the busy streets, cafés and train stations of Paris, a city beautifully evoked by Bourdouxhe’s prose. I’ll finish with a favourite quote, one that captures the rather dreamlike mood of certain passages in the narrative.

They went up in a very narrow elevator where there was only room for two bodies face to face. Young maids in canvas pinafores, organdie bows in their hair, bright red lips in inscrutable faces, slip like spirits through the deserted corridors, respecting the anonymity, the secrets of every soul, and folding up quilts with vestal movements. Muffled sounds, orders given in low voices, words that turn into mysteries, doors that shut without a sound. The peace and safety of a temple, with all the solemn, human poetry of a lodging house. (pg. 33)

Marie is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

 

The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

One of the things I enjoy about following other bloggers and reading their reviews is the discovery of ‘new’ things, interesting books that I might not have heard of otherwise. A case in point is The Incident Report (2009), an excellent novella by the Canadian author, Martha Baillie, which I bought after reading Max’s review. I very much doubt that I would have stumbled across this book had it not been for Max’s blog, and that would have been a shame as it’s a little gem.

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In some respects, Baillie’s book could be described as a fragmentary novella. The central figure here is Miriam Gordon, a thirty-five-year-old single woman who works as a Public Service Assistant at the one of the branches of Toronto’s Public Library. The book is written as a series of library incident reports. Whenever an incident occurs at library, the librarian in charge is required to complete the necessary forms detailing a description of the episode, the perpetrator, any witnesses, actions taken, etc. (There’s a template at the beginning of the book.)

The reports themselves cover quite a variety of different incidents ranging from minor offences (squabbles over the use of a computer) to health-related issues (a man who experiences recurring fainting episodes) to the downright bizarre (a guy who spends hours stripping the plastic covering from electrical wire with the aid of a pocket knife – it’s his own length of wire, not the library’s). Some reports are fairly innocuous, others more threatening and abusive. Here are a few to give you a flavour – all three are quoted in full.

Incident Report 61

A young patron, suspected of previous thefts, was caught at 10:30 this morning in the act of stealing a brand new Mad magazine. He was warned that his behaviour was ill-advised. The magazine, though slightly torn, was reinstated in the collection. (pg. 100)

Incident Report 9

At 11:20 this morning, a patron entered the library to report that a man outside, who was embracing a tree, appeared to be experiencing some distress.

By the time the ambulance arrived the man had lost hold of the tree and lay unconscious. He was lifted from the ground into the ambulance, which drove away without event. (pg 31)

Incident Report 67

At precisely 2:00 this afternoon, I received a telephone call from a patron who complained that the library ought not to hire librarians who “look like terrorists.” I thanked the caller for his advice and assured him that his concerns would be taken into consideration. He suggested that if all our librarians were dressed in cheerful uniforms, the public would feel less threatened by the severe demeanour and foreign physique of certain librarians. As soon as I’d hung up I reported his suggestion to our Branch Head, Irene Frenkel, thereby carrying out my end of the bargain. I remained uncertain as to what constituted his end of the bargain. (pg. 108)

As the book progresses, more details about Miriam herself start to emerge. Some incident reports have little to do with the library; instead they reveal something about Miriam’s life, her current situation and certain significant episodes from her past. In particular, Miriam reflects on her relationship with her father, a gentle, outwardly cheerful man who suffered terribly from an inner sense of despair.

It was all a performance, one he badly wanted to believe in, while inside his head he was whistling a private tune of grave self-deprecation and despair. A master of distractions, light on his feet for such a heavy man, and quick with his hands, he would have made a fine magician or boxer. Instead he wrote poems in rhyming verse that nobody would publish, and earned his living by selling insurance of various kinds.

I wanted to save him from humiliation. (pg. 34)

When Miriam was eleven, her father disappeared for three days. Even though she knew her husband was probably wandering around somewhere (almost certainly visiting bookstores), Miriam’s mother had a hard time accepting this, especially on his return. In time, her initial resentment turned to fear, a worry that almost certainly transferred to Miriam herself. There are more details of Miriam’s backstory in the book – in particular, the quiet tragedy of her father’s life – but I’ll leave you to discover them for yourselves should you decide to read the book. These experiences have left their mark on Miriam, and she is reminded of her father during another incident at the library – it’s one of the most poignant episodes in the novel (quoted here in part).

Incident Report 44

At precisely 11 AM this morning, when the library was not yet full of urgency, John B, a regular, sat down and looked at me through his watery blue eyes. His long stiff legs stuck out in front of him. His bony hands rested on the Reference Desk. He asked that I locate the Web site of a small publishing house, Raccoon Jaw Press, and write down their address for him. I did so. He explained that the press was on the brink of publishing a collection of his poems.

“Very soon my book will be out. I’ll bring you a copy.”

I thanked him and handed him the address, the same address I’d copied out for him the week before and the week before that. Once a week he requested this address. (pg. 76)

The fallout from past events has left Miriam reluctant to form any lasting relationships with men. She is wary of getting too involved, fearful of exposing herself to the possibility of more suffering in the future. Even so, Miriam finds herself attracted to a man she meets in the nearby park where she likes to go for lunch. His name is Janko, a taxi driver from Slovenia. He is kind, gentle and sensitive, an avid reader and a talented artist. Maybe, just maybe, Miriam has found a soulmate.

Incident Report 55

Again I arrived at Janko’s apartment. His skin, and under his skin. What his left toe knew. The smell of him. The orbital smell of him. That our knees spoke willingly. Inexplicably, the taste of raspberries filled my mouth. (pg. 90)

In another book, I might have found that last passage a little annoying, but not here; it works perfectly within the context of Baillie’s story as snapshots of Miriam’s new life with Janko are threaded through the second half of the novella.

Certain other threads also recur: stories of some of the library regulars, typically those who come with their own habits and idiosyncrasies; incidents involving one of Miriam’s co-workers, an annoying woman named Nila who seems to delight in sounding off about the most trivial things at every opportunity; and perhaps most worryingly, details of a series of very creepy notes left in various places around the library, notes that appear to be targeted at Miriam herself.

In spite of its fragmentary nature, Baillie’s novella hangs together quite beautifully. For such a short work it’s surprisingly layered and satisfying. Everything comes together to build a picture of Miriam’s life, and when the ending comes it packs quite a punch.

One aspect that works so well here is the juxtaposition of different tones. Some of the reports concerning ‘true’ incidents at the library – numbers 61 and 9, for example – are, on the whole, factual and objective; others – the excerpts from Miriam’s life and even some of the episodes at the library itself – are more emotive, often embellished with subjective details which bring them to life. They are by turns, amusing, touching, melancholy and unsettling.

I enjoyed this book very much. In some ways, it reminded me a little of Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation, a novella I quite liked in parts but not as a whole. To my mind, the Baillie is the more successful of the two, or maybe it’s just more my kind of book. Either way, it’s definitely worth checking out.

The Incident Report is published by Pedlar Press.