Tag Archives: Novella

Les Belles Amours by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. Francis Wyndham)

A couple of summers ago I read Louise de Vilmorin’s Madame de ___ (1951), an exquisite novella that follows the fate of a pair of earrings as they pass from one person to another. (You may be familiar with the story via the Max Ophüls film, The Earrings of Madame de…, widely considered to be a masterpiece of French cinema.) In my eagerness to try another by de Vilmorin, I tracked down a copy of Les Belles Amours (1954), a novel that explores the complexities of romantic liaisons, a subject close to the author’s own heart. As outlined by John Julius Norwich in his afterword to Madame de ___, de Vilmorin’s love life was characterised by a series of intricate romantic entanglements. These included an engagement to the French writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, an affair with Orson Welles (to whom Les Belles Amours was dedicated), and an extended liaison with Duff Cooper, the British Ambassador to France at the time. As Francis Wyndham once commented, ‘You couldn’t say she [de Vilmorin] was beautiful, but there was an aura about her. In some mysterious way, she was tremendously attractive’.

So, back to the novel itself, Les Belles Amours is in a similar style to Madame de ___. In short, it is another beautifully constructed story, by turns elegant, artful, astute and poignant. I hope to find a place for it in my 2017 highlights.

The narrative revolves around the respective fortunes of three central characters: the handsome roué, Monsieur Zaraguirre; the young libertine Louis Duville; and the alluring woman who manages to capture both of their hearts. (Interestingly, we never learn the young woman’s name as her identity throughout the novel is characterised by her attachment to each of the two men in turn.)

At nearly sixty, the distinguished Monsieur Zaraguirre remains irresistible to women – the fact that he now resides in South America only adds to his attraction. Wherever he goes, this successful businessman makes a lasting impression; women fall at his feet, longing to capture his attention and maybe his heart too. While M Zaraguirre clearly enjoys the company of women, he remains somewhat detached from his lovers, avoiding emotional involvement at all costs. When he senses that a woman is getting too close to him or tiring of the uncertainty of the situation, he bids her farewell with a diamond ring, a parting gift to remember him by.

To love him was to regret him, his kiss did not diminish his essential remoteness, liberty could be divined beneath his ardour and independence showed through his fidelity. He inspired and disarmed possessiveness, and as he was inaccessible women longed to own him. ‘Ask me for anything you want, except a promise,’ he told them… (p. 18)

During his frequent business trips to Europe, Monsieur Zaraguirre often spends time with his closest friends, the Duvilles, at their home of Valronce in the French countryside. The Duvilles long to see their thirty-year-old son, Louis, settled with a suitable wife and to this end Mme Duville spends her days inviting a succession of attractive young girls to the house in the hope that her son will fall in love with one of them. Louis, for his part, remains somewhat immune to these beauties, preferring instead to spend his leisure time in Paris where he amuses himself with a succession of casual love affairs. Easily bored, he is a lover of late nights, fast pursuits and glamorous mistresses, all to the mild distress of his parents.

Then, one weekend, Mme Duville’s cousin, a distinguished Colonel, brings his niece, a beautiful young widow, to Valronce where she meets and forms a bond with Louis. The pair are instantly attracted to one another, so much so that they announce their engagement before the day is out.

Carried away by love, he made up his mind from one moment to the next, without thinking it over, so certain was he of his love. It is true that the violence of love makes patience impossible; however, it was not only love, it was doubtless a presentiment which made him wish to be married at once, without waiting. (p. 21)

The Duvilles are delighted by the news, and preparations for the wedding immediately swing into action – the couple are to be married within the month. Naturally, the Duvilles invite their good friend, M Zaraguirre, to their son’s wedding, an invitation the latter is only too keen to accept. Nevertheless, when M Zaraguirre arrives at Valronce only days before the marriage is to take place, he too finds himself falling in love with Louis’ fiancée – and what’s more, the feeling is mutual. During this scene, M Zaraguirre and the young woman in question are alone in the garden. In response to an enquiry about her feelings, Louis’ fiancée opens her heart. In the eyes of the experienced roué, it seems she has mistaken an affectionate form of friendship for one of love.

‘He is charming, he charmed me and I wanted the happiness he offered me. It is understandable that I should be delighted by so simple a prospect, and I loved Louis, yes, I loved him and I love him still with all my heart. Tell me, have I confused love with affectionate friendship, or am I really heartless?’

She was touching, sincere and in great distress.

‘Friendship is often as sudden as love,’ answered M. Zaraguirre. ‘Friendship is a wise form of love that reassures the heart and doesn’t disturb the imagination.’

‘Ah! I don’t want to lie to Louis or deceive him, yet that is what I am doing when I realise that in the future I shall do nothing else. My life was blameless before you came but since you are here everything has changed, even myself.’ (pp. 44-45)

M Zaraguirre and the young woman spend the night together and then elope the following morning (the day of the wedding) thereby leaving poor Louis in the lurch. Naturally, the Duvilles are devastated, and M Duville senior breaks off all relations with M Zaraguirre once the true nature of the situation comes to light. Within a matter of weeks, Louis’ former fiancée has become Mme Zaraguirre, and the couple waste no time in departing for South America where they settle into a rhythm of life together, sheltered by the beauty of M Zaraguirre’s colonial country house, Tijo.

Some five years later, Mme Zaraguirre decides to accompany her husband on one of his business trips to Europe. It will give her an opportunity to visit various members of her family whom she has not seen since her elopement. While in France, Mme Zaraguirre makes a new friend, a rather silly, gossipy woman who encourages her to live a little by spending some time in Paris, a city she has never been interested in visiting until now. As M Zaraguirre has business to attend to elsewhere, Mme Zaraguirre accompanies her friend to the capital where she runs into Louis Duville at a gathering. At first, it would appear as though Louis has forgiven his former fiancée for deserting him, but at heart, the underlying situation is more complex than that. When it transpires that Mme Zaraguirre would like nothing more than to bring about a reconciliation between her husband and his old friend M Duville, Louis sees an opportunity for revenge, thereby setting in motion an elaborate dance, one in which each party hopes to play the other to their own advantage.

They could not escape the past for long. Days at Valronce and in Lorraine emerged one by one from their conversation; they remembered the same moments with the same emotion and yet their thoughts were not alike: while Mme Zaraguirre, slightly committing herself, wished only to obtain from Louis Duville a favour that would add to her husband’s happiness, Louis Duville, still moved by the memory of his beautiful love, hoped to avenge himself on a man who had humiliated him. When the comedy they were acting was over, Mme Zaraguirre thought that she had reconquered a heart free from bitterness and Louis thought that he had re-won a woman who loved easily. Besides, she attracted him. (p. 75)

What follows is a complex sequence of manoeuvres, something that doesn’t quite go according to plan for either player. I won’t go into the details here; I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself should you decide to read the book. Nevertheless, by the end of the story, my sympathies were firmly with Louis – and with M Zaraguirre for that matter. Mme Zaraguirre is a complex character, at times rather selfish and indifferent to the feelings of others. While I loved reading about her, I certainly wouldn’t trust her as a friend or a potential ally. Perhaps the signs were there at an early stage with this description, a reflection on her demeanour as a young widow.

It was doubtless to cheat loneliness and boredom that, apparently ignorant of the passions she aroused, she played a game of promising without compromising herself. There was even a suggestion of distance in the way she held out the flower of illusion like a sceptre. She was mistress of a reserve that made men dream, and women resented that. No one could reproach her for anything, and yet no one trusted her. However she had a heart and was capable of love. (p. 34)

There is something timeless about Les Belles Amours. The story is set in the mid-1920s, but it could easily have been any time in the late 19th century. My Capuchin Classics edition comes with a set of beautiful pen and ink drawings which add a lovely touch, enhancing the mood of particular scenes.

I loved this novel of intrigues, infidelity, and the complexities of the heart – highly recommended for lovers of French fiction and classic literature in general.

Spring Night by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Elizabeth Rokkan)

I first came across Tarjei Vesaas when a wine friend recommended him to me. He’s a Norwegian writer, probably best known for The Ice Place (1963) and The Birds (1957), both of which I can wholeheartedly recommend. The latter was namechecked by Karl Ove Knausgaard as one of the best Norwegian novels ever – but don’t let that put you off, it really is an excellent read. Spring Night (1954) is the third Vesaas I’ve read, and it’s easily my least favourite of the three. Nevertheless, it does contain some interesting elements, particularly in the set-up.

Fourteen-year-old Olaf and his older sister, Sissel, have been left home alone for the day and night while their parents travel to a nearby town to attend their uncle’s funeral. As the book opens, the afternoon is drawing to a close; it is a broiling hot day in late spring, and the atmosphere lies heavy with heat and humidity. It is clear from the start that Olaf is looking forward to the experience. The house though old and familiar feels different in some way, released from the presence and weight of his parents. There is a sense of freedom in his demeanour as he wanders among the nearby glade, exploring the lush and heady plants that grow there in wild abundance. Furthermore, he is fascinated by his sister, Sissel, and her boyfriend Tore, spying on them from a short distance as they engage in a lover’s tiff.

She straightened up. Olaf was ready to run, but she did not move, and he grew quiet again, spellbound by this game that he knew would some day also be his own game. (p.8)

Once the scene has been set, the story gets underway in earnest as the evening descends and preparations for supper begin. Olaf and Sissel are alone in the house, Tore having left some time earlier. All of a sudden there is a sharp knock at the door, urgent and persistent in tone. Olaf runs to the door and opens it, only to be confronted by the following situation.

It hit him hard, and nailed him fast at first – prepared as he was for something unpleasant by that threatening knocking. He saw a small group of people. Four of them. They had come up to the porch. Two men were supporting or carrying a young woman, and a young girl stumbled down the steps; it must have been she who had pounded so heavily and demandingly on the door. Now she was down with the others again and hid in back of them.

One of the men turned the burden over to the other alone, lurched over to the post on the porch and pounded at it, meaninglessly and in confusion. He was a small tousled man with excited eyes and arms he could not hold still. What sort of people were they? The man waved his arms wildly in front of Olaf and shouted:

‘Is there someone here who can help us? Who are you, anyway?’ (pp. 27-28)

A family of five has just descended upon the house in the hope of gaining some help and shelter following the breakdown of their car. The group is notionally headed by Hjalmar, a rather nervous, fidgety man who spends most of his time fluttering around and chattering incessantly. Then there is Hjalmer’s son, Karl, a brusque man whose primary concern is getting urgent medical assistance for his heavily pregnant wife, Grete, who appears to be in the early stages of labour. Accompanying them is Karl’s younger sister, Gudrun, a girl who bears a striking resemblance to an imaginary friend of Olaf’s – she even shares the same name as his make-believe confidante. Last but not least, the group is completed by Kristine – Hjalmer’s second wife – who at first appears to be unable to walk or talk, although later this turns out to be far from the case.

In essence, these deeply flawed, dysfunctional individuals bring all their psychological baggage and troubles into the house, inflicting their problems on Olaf and Sissel in the process. What follows is a series of oblique conversations undercut with family tensions, rash words and brooding silences. Here’s a short excerpt from a typical scene.

Olaf had to look at the two beside the radio again. They sat there as if they were playing some sort of mute game no one else knew. The man flitted around, chattered, picked things up and put them down again. The woman sat motionless in the chair. Olaf was on her side and said:

‘But I guess he wasn’t so awfully nice in the car.’

Gudrun looked at him quickly:

‘What do you know about that?’

‘Just heard about it. That’s the way it was, isn’t it?’

‘No one was nice in the car,’ Gudrun replied curtly. (pp. 48-49)

As Olaf tries to make sense of it all, several questions are raised in his (and the reader’s) mind. Why is Kristine pretending to be mute when she can clearly talk? Why does she appeal to Olaf for help and protection against her husband? Why does Karl remain so agitated, even once a midwife arrives to support Grete? And what exactly went on in the car before it arrived at Olaf and Sissel’s house?

While Vesaas doesn’t provide any easy answers to these questions, he does create an interesting set-up in the house. There is the basis for a terrific noir here – the hot and sultry weather; the unsettling atmosphere of the setting; the two innocent teenagers home alone for the night; and the group of unhinged strangers who pitch up unannounced, brimming with unexplained tensions and secrets – but instead Vesaas takes the narrative in a different direction, one that I found somewhat unsatisfying in the end. I think this story is meant to signify the loss of a young boy’s innocence as Olaf comes face to face with the complexities and confusions of the adult world. (He is certainly affected by the dramatic events of the night, and by each and every one of the visitors he encounters.) Nevertheless, I found it much less successful than several other books I’ve read which explore this timeless theme in different ways – novels like Alberto Moravia’s evocative Agostino; Stefan Zweig’s impressive Burning Secret; L. P. Hartley’s classic The Go-Between; and, a recent favourite, Olivia Manning’s wonderful School for Love. In the end, I found Spring Night rather oblique and ambiguous, too evasive for my tastes.

My other quibble relates to the character of Olaf. While it is suggested at the beginning of the novel that he is fourteen, later on it emerges that he is the same age as Gudrun who is thirteen. Either way, Olaf struck me as being much younger in his thought processes and actions, probably closer to eleven, although I’m willing to accept that he may have led a very sheltered life.

On a more positive note, the simplicity of Vesaas’ pared-back prose works well with the novel’s themes and point-of-view. The story is told mainly from Olaf’s perspective, so the style matches his childlike view of the world. Vesaas also does well in conveying the dark and brooding atmosphere of the surrounding landscape, especially in the opening chapters. There is a sense of something dangerous lurking in the nearby glade, an early sign of things to come. If only the bulk of the book had lived up to the promise of those early chapters, perhaps it would have resulted in a more satisfying reading experience for me.

Spring Night is published by Peter Owen; personal copy.

Pitch Dark by Renata Adler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!