Tag Archives: Novella

The Blue Room by Georges Simenon (1964, tr. Linda Coverdale, 2015)

I have written before about Georges Simenon, the prolific Belgian writer with a talent for illuminating the dark side of the human psyche with all its inherent complexities. This is another of his romans durs or ‘hard’, psychological novels. An intoxicating tale of passion and obsession in which the past and present are blended together to great effect – it might just be my favourite Simenon to date.

As the novella opens, we are dropped into a conversation between two lovers, Tony and Andrée, cloistered together in a hotel room in Triant, a small-town community in rural France. It is clear that the couple have just finished making love, a violent, passionate ritual that occurs in secret each month – always at the same hotel (owned by Tony’s brother), always in the blue room of the novella’s title.

Both parties are married but not to one another. Tony – a handsome, virile self-made man who owns an agricultural machinery business – is married to Gisèle, the perfect wife and mother to the couple’s daughter, Marianne. Andrée, on the other hand, is a more complex character than her lover. A passionate, manipulative woman at heart, she is married to Nicolas, a wealthy man of failing health whose formidable mother owns the local grocery store.

As the pair relax after their lovemaking, Andrée begins to ask Tony a series of seemingly innocent questions about his feelings for her, speculating about the future as one might do in this type of situation. However, little does Tony know of the significance of this conversation or the importance Andrée chooses to attach to Tony’s answers in the dreamlike atmosphere of the moment. As we soon learn, it is a scene that Tony must revisit in his mind time and time again as the story unfolds…

[Andrée:] ‘Could you spend your whole life with me?’

He had hardly noticed her words; they were like the images and odours all around him. How could he have guessed that this scene was something he would relive ten times, twenty times and more – and every time in a different frame of mind, from a different angle? (p.5)

[…]

[Andrée] ‘Would you like to spend your whole life with me?’

[Tony] ‘Sure.’

He had said that, he did not deny it. He was the one who had reported that conversation to the magistrate. But the important thing was his tone of voice. He was just talking, without meaning anything by it. It wasn’t real. In the blue room, nothing was real. Or rather, its reality was of a different nature, incomprehensible anywhere else. (p.64)

From a very early stage in the novella (p. 5), it becomes abundantly clear that in the present moment, Tony is being questioned concerning an investigation linked to his liaison with Andrée. The opening scene at the hotel has already happened; it is in the past, and Tony is being forced to revisit it through a series of interrogations by magistrates, psychologists and other members of the judicial team.

One of the most compelling things about this novella is the way Simenon seamlessly blends elements of the present-day investigations and recollections of past events in a way that makes the overall narrative feel so compelling. The focus here is very much on the psychological – in other words, Tony’s sate of mind as he worries away at each development and conversation, repeatedly turning them over in his mind. As a consequence, the interrogations never feel in the least bit dry as they flow naturally within the framework of the story, sketching the details of the characters’ motivations and movements on the days in question.

What starts as a passionate, sensual novella becomes increasingly tense as the narrative unfolds. Simenon is adept at revealing just the right amount of information at each stage – enough to keep the reader guessing about the exact nature of the crime(s) and Tony’s involvement in crucial events virtually to the very end.

This is a very cleverly constructed story with complex, interesting characters at its heart. Andrée is a particularly intriguing individual. Considered aloof and distant by Nicolas in the past – he has known her since childhood – she is, in fact, forceful and manipulative at heart. It was Andrée who initiated the affair with Tony during a chance meeting by the roadside one evening the previous year.

In fact, it was she who had possessed him, and her eyes had gleamed with as much triumph as passion. (p. 22)

In addition to the tension and passion, the atmosphere of village life in rural France is also beautifully evoked; from the sights and landmarks of the countryside to the sounds outside the window during the couple’s illicit trysts at the hotel. There are echoes of another Simenon, too – The Krull House, which focuses on a community’s resentment of immigrants and the havoc this can wreak. Tony is considered something of an outsider in the community; his parents having come from Italy to settle in the region. In his youth, Tony left the village to find employment elsewhere, only to return ten years later to set up his business in the locality. Both of these points work against him in the eyes of the community.

In summary, this is a taut, uncompromising novella on the dangers of seemingly casual affairs. An utterly compelling book that grips the reader from its intriguing opening chapter. I loved it – very highly recommended indeed.

The Blue Room is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

My books of the year, 2019 – favourites from a year of reading

2019 has been the year of the big series for me. I’ve read more books than ever this year, mostly due to being laid up at home for the best part of three months while recovering from a major fracture. Not an experience I wish to repeat, but it did give me the time and mental energy to work through some lengthy sequences of books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.

Regular readers may also recognise one or two familiar names – Penelope Fitzgerald is here again, as is William Trevor. Nevertheless, there are several *new* entrants too – with books by Anita Brookner, J. L. Carr and Laura Cumming, to name but a few. (I’ve been reading more memoirs this year, a trend reflected in the range of choices included here.)

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favourites from 2019 in order of reading – a baker’s dozen of brilliant books. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Perceptive, engrossing and enigmatic, Look at Me – Anita Brookner’s third novel – is something of a minor masterpiece, probing as it does the inner life of a lonely young woman who experiences a brief period of renaissance, only to be scarred by the torrid experience. Frances is drawn into the seductive world of a glamorous, bohemian couple, then cast aside like a discarded toy. Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner, and this novel has to be one of her best, most nuanced explorations of these themes.

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies. Many of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopelessbefuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. Once again, Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences in writing this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question. An excellent novel, both darkly comic and poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

A magnificent twelve-novel sequence exploring the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid 20th century. Impossible to summarise in just a few sentences, Powell’s masterpiece features one of literature’s finest creations, the odious Kenneth Widmerpool. It’s fascinating to follow Widmerpool, Jenkins and many other individuals over time, observing their development as they flit in and out of one another’s lives. The author’s ability to convey a clear picture of a character – their appearance, their disposition, even their way of moving around a room – is second to none. Quite simply the highlight of my reading year.

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

A remarkable memoir by the American-born writer, Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. By turns beautiful, illuminating, elegiac and sad; a rare book that feels expansive in scope yet intimate in detail all at once.

Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

I wasn’t sure about the first book in this trilogy when I read it back at the end of 2018, but after a longish break from the series my perseverance with it paid off. Widely considered as Marias’ masterpiece, Your Face Tomorrow is a tremendous achievement, a thought-provoking treatise on truth, betrayal, coercion and culpability. When viewed as a whole, the narrative raises some key questions about the nature of violence, particularly whether the final outcome can ever justify the means. An intricate series that remains frighteningly relevant today.

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn

Another of my recuperation reads, this sequence charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. It is a story in which the sins and failures of fathers and mothers shape the lives of their children in the most destructive of ways. When read as a series, the novels are bruising yet immensely satisfying as they give the reader such a deep insight into the central character’s inner life, complete with its anxieties, complexities and self-destructive tendencies. By turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny, this is a fiercely intelligent examination of dysfunctional families.

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr

A sublime, deeply affecting book about love, loss and the restorative power of art. Set in small Yorkshire village in the heady summer of 1920, Carr’s novella is narrated by Tom Birkin, a young man still dealing with the effects of shell-shock following the traumas of the First World War. Above all, this is a beautifully written novella imbued with a strong sense of longing – a sense of nostalgia for an idyllic world. Best read in summer to reflect the book’s atmosphere.

Love and Summer by William Trevor

Set in the idyllic countryside of Ireland in the 1950s, Love and Summer is a gentle, contemplative novel of lost love and missed chances. Trevor perfectly captures the rhythm of life in a small farming community, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, where any deviation from the expected norm is noticed and judged. It is a world populated by lonely, damaged individuals, people who expect little from life save for a simple existence with few opportunities or openings. Beautifully written in a simple, unadorned style; fans of Colm Tóibín would likely enjoy this one.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Gillian Harcourt)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind. Originally published as a series of short stories, Tsushima’s novella focuses on a year in the life of a young mother, recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting – an apartment located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

This is a challenging book to summarise in just a few sentences, particularly given the twisted nature of the narrative (I’m not even going to try to describe it.) Once again, Spark has crafted an unforgettable story that disturbs as much as it intrigues, leaving the reader both unsettled and fascinated by her somewhat distorted view of the world. She is a remarkable writer – uncompromising in terms of vision, style and the execution of her art. Utterly brilliant and completely bonkers all at once – a book that will likely divide opinion.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

This absorbing memoir revolves around the story of Cumming’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. What I love about this book is the way Cumming uses her skills as an art critic to shed new light on the unanswered questions surrounding her mother’s childhood. More specifically, the importance of images, details, perspective and context, in addition to hard evidence and facts. A remarkable story exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally, Michael Favala Goldman)

When viewed together, these books form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a striking series of reflections by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen, who grew up in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen in the years following WW1. The books chart Ditlevsen’s lonely childhood, awkward adolescence and troubled adult life in a style that is simple, candid, striking and elegant. There is a frankness to the author’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that feels hard to resist.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Just as good if not better than its predecessor, Olive Kitteridge. Here we find Olive in her mid-seventies to early-eighties, dealing with the challenges of everyday life in her own inimitable way. While there are many things to love and admire about this book, it is Strout’s insight into the fragility of our existence that feels most affecting. There is some brilliant writing here about the loneliness and terror of old age (the anxiety is palpable), the realisation of lost opportunities and past failings; and ultimately the fear of death itself. This is a profoundly moving book – a highly perceptive portrait of a genuine individual and the small-town community in which she lives.

So, another very satisfying year of reading for me. I really have read some excellent books in 2019. (My one regret is not having enough space to include a favourite crime/noir novel of the year – if I had to choose, it would be The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith, a writer whose books never fail to disappoint me.)

All that remains is for me to wish you all the very best for the festive season and the year ahead – may they be filled with plenty of bookish delights!

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Like many other readers, I have been drawn to Muriel Spark and her rather off-kilter view of the world in recent years, partly prompted by Ali’s celebration of her centenary in 2018. The Driver’s Seat is most definitely at the surreal end of the Sparkian spectrum – in fact, positively unhinged might be a more appropriate way of describing it. I can’t quite decide if it’s utterly brilliant or completely bonkers. A bit of both, I suspect, although I’m very much leaning towards the former. As soon as I’d finished this book, I immediately wanted to go back and read it all over again – one of the signs of a great book, I think.

As the novella opens, we encounter Lise – the central character in this twisted story – shopping for new clothes for a forthcoming holiday. Right from the very start, there is an anxious, unsettling tone to the narrative, one that mirrors Lise’s erratic behaviour when a sales assistant tries to identify something suitable for her. In the first shop, Lise tries on a rather garish dress, which she appears to like until the assistant mentions that the material is resistant to stains. On hearing this, Lise becomes extremely agitated (unreasonably so), and she simply cannot get out of the dress quickly enough. The very idea that she should need a garment made from stain-resistant fabric is completely abhorrent to her. At this stage in the game, we don’t know why Lise is reacting in this way, although the significance of this point becomes somewhat clearer towards the end of the story.

Spark’s descriptions of Lise are gloriously off-kilter, portraying her in a manner which suggests a frenetic energy and a buttoned-up quality to her personality all at once. There are mentions of an illness in her past – quite possibly related to her mental well-being as her neurotic behaviour has been noted at work.

She walks along the broad street, scanning the windows for the dress she needs, the necessary dress. Her lips are slightly parted; she, whose lips are usually pressed together with the daily disapprovals of the accountants’ office where she has worked continually, except for the months of illness, since she was eighteen, that is to say, for sixteen years and some months. Her lips, when she does not speak or eat, are normally pressed together like the ruled line of a balance sheet, marked straight with her old-fashioned lipstick, a final and a judging mouth, a precision instrument, a detail-warden of a mouth; (p. 9)

Continuing her frantic search for a suitable outfit, Lise enters another store where she finds the perfect dress – another striking garment in clashing colours and a vivid, asymmetric design.

She swerves in her course at the door of a department store and enters. Resort Department: she has seen the dress. A lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright V’s of orange, mauve and blue. ‘Is it made of that stain-resisting material?’ she asks when she has put it on and is looking at herself in the mirror. ‘Stain-resisting? I don’t know, Madam. It’s a washable cotton, but if I were you I’d have it dry-cleaned. It might shrink.’ Lise laughs, and the girl says, ‘I’m afraid we haven’t anything really stain-resisting. I’ve never heard of anything like that.’ (p. 10 –11)

Not content with buying one eye-catching garment, Lise tops things off with a statement coat in a colour scheme that completely clashes with the dress she has already selected. Naturally, Lise doesn’t see things this way. In her somewhat deranged world, the two items go very well together, the clashing colours proving an intuitive match for her rather peculiar style.

More weird behaviour follows as Lise makes her way to the airport to catch a flight to an unspecified Mediterranean destination – possibly Naples based on various references to the area in the book. There are strange encounters with the check-in staff and other passengers in the terminal – think The League of Gentlemen or Inside No. 9 – a feature that continues during the journey. While boarding, Lise makes a beeline for a particular man, seating herself next to him on the plane. However, something about Lise’s behaviour disturbs the individual in question, and he moves to a different seat just as the plane is about to take off.

Suddenly her other neighbour looks at Lise in alarm. He stares, as if recognizing her, with his brief-case on his lap, and his hand in the position of pulling out a batch of papers. Something about Lise, about her exchange with the man on her left, has caused a kind of paralysis in his act of fetching out some papers from his brief-case. He opens his mouth, gasping and startled, staring at her as if she is someone he has known and forgotten and now sees again. She smiles at him; it is a smile of relief and delight. His hand moves again, hurriedly putting back the papers that he had half-drawn out of his brief-case. He trembles as he unfastens his seat-belt and makes as if to leave his seat, grabbing his brief-case. (p. 27)

I don’t want to say too much about what happens to Lise once she arrives at her destination; I’ll let you discover this for yourself, should you decide to read the book. Certain aspects of her trajectory are made very clear from an early stage in the story, although the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the narrative are revealed more gradually over time. What I will say is that Lise appears to be searching for someone in particular, a boyfriend of sorts. At first, we begin to wonder whether this individual is real or merely a figment of Lise’s imagination, particularly given her erratic behaviour.

Interestingly, we never really get to know Lise as a person, her inner self or emotional feelings – even when she tells another character something about herself, it’s almost certainly a fabrication of sorts. There is an unstable, self-destructive aspect to Lise’s nature, a kinetic energy that propels this woman towards her inevitable destination. In some respects, Lise is a fish-out-of-water in the liberated age of the late 1960s. Sex is of no real interest to her; in fact, she positively rejects the idea when various men start making advances towards her.

The novella’s ending is quite brilliant, casting an entirely new light on Lise’s reasons for the visit and her actions while there. Once again, Spark has crafted an unforgettable story that disturbs as much as it intrigues, leaving the reader both unsettled and fascinated by her somewhat distorted view of the world. She is a remarkable writer – uncompromising in terms of vision, style and the execution of her art.

(Several other bloggers have reviewed this novella including Max, Caroline and Ali. If they’re of interest, you can find my other posts on Spark’s novels here.)

The Driver’s Seat is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Recent Reads – Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss and Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim

Brief thoughts on a couple of relatively recent reads, both of which explore the theme of overbearing, abusive men and the alarming power they exert over impressionable young women.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

Just as good as I expected it to be given the tidal wave of positive reports and reviews. This is a taut, skilfully-crafted novella in which the twin horrors of past and present-day abuse come together to devastating effect.

The story takes place in the midst of a heady summer at some point in the 1970s or ‘80s (I can’t quite recall which). Sixteen-year-old-old Silvie and her parents are participating in a student encampment in the Northumberland countryside, complete with its wild surroundings and natural terrain. The camp is being run by Professor Slade, an archaeologist with an interest in the Iron Age world; more specifically, its way of life, mysterious rituals and ancient beliefs. During their stay, the participants must live their lives as the ancient Britons once did – existing in the wild, hunting for food and observing Iron Age traditions.

I don’t want to say very much about Silvie or what happens to her at the camp – it’s best you discover that for yourself if decide to read the book. (Throughout the narrative, Moss carefully reveals specific information about Silvie and her family in a way that never feels calculated or manipulative.) What I will say is that the final chapters shook me to the core – this is a striking book in more ways than one.

There is some beautiful writing about the natural world here, particularly in the author’s evocative descriptions of the countryside: the feel of the ground underfoot; the wild plants and berries along the way; the images of water breaking up the terrain.

You move differently in moccasins, have a different experience of the relationship between feet and land. You go around and not over rocks, feel the texture, the warmth, of different kinds of reed and grass in your muscles and your skin. The edges of the wooden steps over the stile touch your bones, an unseen pebble catches your breath. You can imagine how a person might learn a landscape with her feet. (p. 27)

All in all, an excellent novella. It has that blend of beauty and brutality which I love, a little like Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome or Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

Dorian has written about this novel in more detail here.

Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim (1921)

A thoroughly chilling tale of the innocence of love and the oppressive nature of tyrannical men. Quite different from her other, lighter books – The Enchanted April in particular.

Devastated by the sudden death of her father, Lucy Entwhistle – young, vulnerable and terribly innocent – comes into contact with Everard Wemyss, a man also recently bereaved and seemingly in need of a kindred spirit for support. At forty-four, Everard is much older and worldly-wise than Lucy, putting him in a position of authority and control. As such, he takes charge of the Entwhistle funeral arrangements, relieving the pressure on Lucy at a traumatic time.

Aside from Lucy, everyone at the funeral assumes Everard is an old family friend, returning to pay his respects to the late Mr Entwhistle. At this point in time, only Lucy knows about Everard and his personal circumstances – more specifically, the recent death of his wife, Vera, following a mysterious fall at the couple’s country home. (A little later it emerges that the incident has created something of a scandal around Everard, a point intensified by the open verdict at the inquest into Vera’s death.)

Dazed by the trauma of grief, Lucy finds herself strongly drawn to Everard with his confident, capable manner and kinship in a shared sense of loss. However, as Everard inveigles his way into the Entwhistles’ company, a more sinister side to his character begins to emerge – something the reader is privy to even if Lucy is not.

She had the trust in him, he felt, of a child; the confidence, and the knowledge that she was safe. He was proud and touched to know it, and it warmed him through and through to see how her face lit up whenever he appeared. Vera’s face hadn’t done that. Vera had never understood him, not with fifteen years to do it in, as this girl had in half a day. (p. 26)

Much to the concern of her benevolent Aunt Dot, Lucy soon agrees to marry Everard, believing him to be a source of comfort, reassurance and love. However, it is only once the couple are married that the true nature of Everard’s merciless personality comes to light. In truth, Everard is unpredictable, cruel and intolerant – even the smallest details are liable to spark a tantrum if they are not in line with his orders or wishes.

At first, Lucy is quick to try and forgive Everard for these outbursts, rationalising them to herself as the consequence of his grief. There soon comes a point, however, when these eruptions prove more challenging to excuse…

She was afraid of him, and she was afraid of herself in relation to him. He seemed outside anything of which she had experience. He appeared not to be – he anyhow had not been that day – generous. There seemed no way, at any point, by which one could reach him. What was he really like? How long was it going to take her really to know him? Years? (p. 168)

To make matters worse, Everard thinks nothing of bringing Lucy to The Willows, the foreboding house in the country where Vera fell to her death. Once firmly ensconced in her new home, Lucy must contend with the shadow of Vera, something that feels virtually impossible to ignore in spite of her best efforts. The house is littered with reminders of the first Mrs Wemyss – from her books in the sitting room, to her portrait in the dining room, to the place where she fell to her death, just outside the library window.

Vera is a very powerful novel, one that highlights the destructive nature of tyrannical men when their behaviour is left unchecked and allowed to run rampant. The tone is chilling and sinister, all the more so when we learn that the story was inspired by von Arnim’s own troublesome marriage to Earl Russell, brother of the philosopher Bertrand Russell. There is a childlike innocence to Lucy, with her trusting nature and wide-eyed view of the world, something that leaves her open to abuse by the autocratic Everard.

At first, I was a little surprised by the novel’s ending, but looking back on it now it all feels sadly inevitable. This is a cautionary tale that still holds some relevance today in spite of the radically different times. Definitely recommended, particularly for fans of character-driven stories with a dark or disturbing edge.

Several others have written about Vera, including Ali and Simon.

My copies of Ghost Wall and Vera were published by Granta Books and Hesperus Press respectively; personal copies.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

With Halloween fast approaching, I thought it would be a good time to try Shirley Jackson’s widely-acclaimed Gothic classic, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), a book that has been sitting on my shelves for quite a while. Fortunately, it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite magical. I think I can see why this book has earned its place in the 20th-century canon.

The novel is narrated by Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood, an eighteen-year-old girl who lives with her gentle older sister, Constance, in a large isolated house on the outskirts of a village in New England. (The location is thought to be loosely based on North Bennington, Vermont, the place where Jackson lived for much of her adult life.)

The vast majority of the local townsfolk will have nothing to do with the Blackwoods as a result of an infamous incident that took place at the house some six years earlier. The girls’ parents, aunt and younger brother all died of arsenic poisoning after the deadly substance had been mixed with the sugar they consumed with their blackberries at dinner. Merricat was not present at the time as she had been sent to bed before the meal commenced. To this day the local villagers remain convinced that Constance – then aged twenty-two – administered the poison, even though she was found not guilty of the charge due to a lack of evidence. Constance did not take sugar on her berries that day, a point which counted against her at the time of the trial.

As a consequence, the Blackwood girls now live a highly secluded life with their Uncle Julian, the only other survivor of the poisoning. In failing health both mentally and physically, Julian continues to be preoccupied with the murders; as such, he spends much of his time obsessing over his notes on the case in the hope of completing a book on the subject.

In order to remain out of public view, Constance prefers to stay within the confines of the Blackwood estate, thereby leaving Merricat in the unenviable position of being the main link between the family and the outside community. Twice a week Merricat ventures into the nearby village to buy groceries and collect books from the library. Here she must run the gauntlet, steeling herself against the taunts, prejudices and slights from the villagers who consider the Blackwood sisters to be nothing less than evil demons.

“The Blackwoods always did set a fine table.” That was Mrs. Donell, speaking clearly from somewhere behind me, and someone giggled and someone else said “Shh.” I never turned; it was enough to feel them all there in back of me without looking into their flat grey faces with the hating eyes. I wish you were all dead, I thought, and longed to say it out loud. Constance said, “Never let them see that you care,” and “If you pay any attention they’ll only get worse,” and probably it was true, but I wished they were dead. (p. 8)

As a character and narrator, Merricat Blackwood is someone you are unlikely to forget in a hurry. There is a childlike quality to her highly distinctive voice; for Merricat, it is as if time has stood still since the poisonings as she speaks and behaves like a young girl, one intent on maintaining the security and stability of her make-believe world. A deeply superstitious individual at heart, Merricat believes she can protect her beloved sister and Uncle Julian from external dangers and evils by relying on magic words, strange rituals and imaginary games. She loves her sister dearly and would like nothing more than to transport Constance and Uncle Julian to the moon – a fantasy world of winged horses, magical plants and eternal sunshine, a place where they could be safe and happy.

“On the moon we have everything. Lettuce, and pumpkin pie and Amanita phalloides. We have cat-furred plants and horses dancing with their wings. All locks are solid and tight, and there are no ghosts. On the moon Uncle Julian would be well and the sun would shine every day. You would wear our mother’s pearls and sing, and the sun would shine all the time.” (p. 75)

Constance for her part indulges her younger sister, playing along with her escapist fantasies and dreams to her heart’s content. Nevertheless, Merricat can sense something disturbing in the air – a change is coming and not for the better. The arrival of the girls’ estranged cousin, Charles, seems set to disrupt the comfortable atmosphere in the household, a dynamic that Merricat is determined to preserve. Now that Charles’ father is dead, a man who cut off all relations with the Blackwoods at the time of the trial, Charles is free to reconnect with his relatives. However, he seems more intent on getting his hands on the Blackwoods’ money – the majority of which is locked away in a safe in the house – than demonstrating any genuine interest in the girls’ welfare.

Naturally, Merricat sees through the formidable Charles in an instant. In particular, she is dismayed by two things: firstly, Charles’ outright intolerance of Julian whom he considers a burden; and secondly, his developing friendship with Constance who, on account of her sweet nature, can only see her cousin in a positive light. Merricat makes no secret of her hostility towards Charles, a point he intuits immediately. If only Charles would go away, then everything would be alright again and the family would be safe.

Constance made shadows up and down the hall when she went to the window to look down on Uncle Julian and outside the leaves moved quickly in the sunlight. Charles had only gotten in because the magic was broken; if I could re-seal the protection around Constance and shut Charles out he would have to leave the house. Every touch he made on the house must be erased. (p. 69)

While this is a slim book, it has much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. From what I can glean about Jackson and her fiction, it would appear that this theme of being the outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a feature in much of her work.

The plot works very well within the framework established by the set-up. For example, we do learn the truth about the fateful poisonings, but that’s not the main point here. What really sets this novel apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of Merricat’s voice. Childlike chants and rhymes are repeated at various points in the story, an effect that adds a strange lyrical quality to the text, albeit a rather unsettling one.

While I was expecting this to be a somewhat unnerving or chilling read (there are times when Merricat is quite disturbing), I wasn’t prepared for the dark humour, a tone that Jackson uses to great effect in certain scenes. Most of these comic moments revolve around Uncle Julian, whose ramblings about the past provide much amusement for the reader. At an early stage in the story, he puts on a great show for Mrs Wright, a rather timid but nosy woman who is fascinated by the mystery of the Blackwood poisonings. Mrs Wright has come to the Blackwoods’ house to accompany her friend, Helen Clarke, one of the few locals who will have anything to do with the Blackwood sisters. In calling on the Blackwoods on a weekly basis, Helen hopes to encourage Constance to reconnect with society, to begin to live her life again.

Much to Helen’s disapproval, Mrs Wright gets swept up by Uncle Julian as he proceeds to show her the dining room where the infamous poisonings occurred. It’s a marvellous scene, too long to quote here. Instead, I’ll finish with a short passage on the ladies’ arrival at the house, one that hints at Jackson’s eye for a humorous incident.

Constance was perfectly composed. She rose and smiled and said she was glad to see them. Because Helen Clarke was ungraceful by nature, she managed to make the simple act of moving into a room and sitting down a complex ballet for three people; before Constance had quite finished speaking Helen Clarke jostled Mrs. Wright and sent Mrs. Wright sideways like a careening croquet ball off into the far corner of the room where she sat abruptly and clearly without intention upon a small and uncomfortable chair. Helen Clarke made for the sofa where Constance sat, nearly upsetting the tea table, and although there were enough chairs in the room and another sofa, she sat uncomfortably close to Constance, who detested having anyone near her but me. “Now,” Helen Clarke said, spreading, “it’s good to see you again.” (pp. 25-6)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

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 a young boy’s loss of 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.