Tag Archives: NYRB Classics

Two Recent Reads – Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler and The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

Something a little different from me today – a few thoughts on a couple of recent reads, both of which could be loosely classified as crime fiction.

Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler (1938)

I really enjoyed this old-school spy mystery by the respected British writer Eric Ambler. (You can find my review of another of his books, the hugely entertaining crime caper Topkapi/The Light of Day, here).

Like some of Ambler’s other novels, Epitaph for a Spy features a relatively ordinary if somewhat naïve man who, through no real fault of his own, finds himself caught up in a mysterious network of intrigue and illegal activities. The man in question here is Josef Vadassy, a languages teacher and Hungarian refugee of uncertain status, who gets into trouble while taking pictures during his holiday in the South of France.

As it turns out, the reel of film that Vadassy has been using to test various photographic techniques also happens to contain images of covert naval defences in a nearby town – something our protagonist is completely unaware of as he submits the reel for development. When the chemist who develops the film sees nature of these pictures, he alerts the police and Vadassy is promptly picked up for questioning. (Importantly, the novel was published in 1938 when Europe was poised on the brink of war, hence the seriousness of the situation.)

Luckily (or maybe unluckily) for our protagonist, the police soon come to the conclusion that Vadassy almost certainly didn’t take the incriminating photographs himself – he’s far too gauche for that. Instead, it seems likely that someone else has been spying on the naval defences, someone with an identical camera to Vadassy’s as the two pieces of equipment must have been switched at some point (probably by accident) – the most obvious cause of the issue being some kind of mix-up between cameras at Vadassy’s place of residence, the local hotel. So, Vadassy is sent back to the Réserve with strict instructions to follow the authorities’ orders in the hope of uncovering the real spy. Should he fail to do so, the outcome almost certainly means deportation for our protagonist, effectively destroying his whole world.

Vadassy is supplied with a list of the hotel’s occupants to ‘investigate’ with a particular view to establishing details of any cameras in their possession – but the fun really starts when Vadassy decides to use his own somewhat misguided initiative to root out the culprit without arousing their suspicions.

Among the guests at the hotel we have a typically British major and his mysterious wife, an idiosyncratic Frenchman who proves to be very indiscreet, and a young brother and sister combo from America who seem to have something to hide – I found this couple’s backstory rather hard to believe, but that’s a fairly minor quibble in the scheme of things. There are more potential suspects too, of varying European nationalities – twelve in total including the Swiss hotel manager and his wife.

For the most part, the characters are interesting and well-drawn – I particularly liked Herr Schimler, a man who turns out to have had a very eventful past. There are a few red herrings along the way as Vadassy’s suspicions flit from one character to the next, all of which help to maintain engagement.

The moon had risen and I could see the outlines of the clumps of bamboo canes below. A little to the right of them there was a patch of beach. As I watched, the shadows moved and I heard a woman’s laugh. It was a soft, agreeable sound, half-amused, half-tender. A couple came up into the patch of light. I saw the man stop and pull the woman towards him. Then he took her head in his hands and kissed her eyes and mouth. It was the unshaven Frenchman and his blonde. (p. 47)

All in all, this is a very enjoyable mystery with a clear resolution at the finish. In a sense, it becomes a race against time for Vadassy as he strives to flush out the spy before he is due back at work – both his job and his right to remain in France are at risk.

In his review of this novel, Max describes the story as being akin to a classic country house crime novel, which seems like a very apt description to me.

I read this novel over the sunny Bank Holiday weekend at the beginning of May, and it proved to be a fine choice. A nice match for the gorgeous weather.

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes (1963)

This is the third novel I’ve read by Hughes, a somewhat underrated American crime writer from the mid-20th century. My reviews of the other two are here – In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse – both of which I would strongly recommend, the former in particular.

My comments on The Expendable Man are going to be fairly concise. Not because of any concerns about the quality of the novel – far from it, it’s actually extremely good! Rather, the less you know about it the better, especially if you think you might read it.

In brief, the initial set-up is as follows. Hugh Densmore, a young doctor, has borrowed his mother’s Cadillac to drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix for a family wedding. En route, he spots a rather dishevelled teenage girl waiting alone on a deserted section of the highway. Densmore wouldn’t usually stop for hitchhikers – but in his concern for the girl’s safety, he offers her a ride which she accepts.

From the word go, it’s clear that these two individuals come from very different social spheres; he is well-bred, educated and polite, while she is rough, brazen and resentful.

After a tense and uncomfortable journey, Densmore drops the girl at a bus station and assumes he will never hear from or see her again. But then things go drastically wrong for our protagonist, and his previously ordered world comes crashing down around him.

This is a brilliant story, one that may well cause you to question your own assumptions – and maybe expose some of your subconscious prejudices too. It’s also very gripping and beautifully written. Hughes has such a wonderful style; it’s a joy to read. Here’s how it opens.

Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the colour of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of dark horizon were discerned only by conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading bronze of the sun. (p. 3)

The Expendable Man was my choice for our May book group, and I’m happy to say that it went down very well. (We take turns to pick the book which makes for a fairly diverse selection across the year.) It’s very difficult to go into any details here without revealing spoilers, but suffice it to say that we had plenty to discuss — particularly about the social context at that time. (Some of the issues raised by the novel remain painfully relevant today.)

All in all, this is highly recommended – not just for lovers of crime fiction but for other readers too.

Epitaph for a Spy is published by Penguin, The Expendable Man is published by NYRB Classics – personal copies.

A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor

First published in 1947, A View of the Harbour was Elizabeth Taylor’s third novel, a beautifully-crafted story of the complications of life, love and family relationships, all set within a small, close-knit community. The setting is Newby, a sleepy, down-at-heel harbour town on the English coast a year or so after the end of WW2. In some ways, Newby reminds me of Hardborough, the fictional town in Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Bookshop, as it’s the sort of place where everyone – with one or two notable exceptions – knows everyone else’s business.

The town’s inhabitants are an interesting bunch. As ever with Elizabeth Taylor, each character is drawn with great care and attention to detail irrespective of whether they are likeable or not.

There is Beth Cabazon, the rather self-absorbed but amiable novelist, her husband, Robert, the local doctor, and the couple’s two children, twenty-year-old Prudence and five-year-old Stevie. Living next door to the Cazabons is Beth’s closest friend, Tory Foyle, a sophisticated and glamorous divorcee who finds life in Newby a little dull without her husband, Teddy. Then there is old Mrs Bracey, the longstanding proprietor of the town’s second-hand clothes shop, and her two daughters, Iris and Maisie. And finally (at least for now) there is Lily Wilson, the desperately lonely widow who lives above the local Waxworks Museum which she also runs for a living. This early picture of Lily goes a long way towards capturing the emptiness of her life, the feeling of fear and desolation as she contemplates yet another solitary night ahead.

When she saw the light swinging over the water she felt terror and desolation, the approach of the long evening through which she must coax herself with cups of tea, a letter to her brother in Canada or this piece of knitting she had dropped to the floor as she leant to the pane to watch Bertram, the harsh lace curtain against her cheek, the cottony, dusty smell of it setting her teeth on edge. (p. 13)

Into this mix comes Bertram Hemingway, a retired Naval Officer who intends to spend his time capturing the local scenery in a painting – ideally a magnificent view of the harbour which he hopes to leave behind as a memento of his visit. Bertram is lodging at The Anchor, the local pub where Iris Bracey works as a barmaid. Lily Wilson can be found there too, as she has started going to the pub just to avoid being home alone every evening – the eerie atmosphere created by the waxworks only adds to her anxiety.

Slowly but surely, Bertram comes into contact with virtually all of the town’s inhabitants, affecting their lives in subtle and not so subtle ways. At first, Lily Wilson wonders whether Bertram could be the answer to her loneliness, especially when he buys her drinks and offers to escort her home from the pub at closing time. However, while he may appear gallant on the outside, Bertram is most certainly not quite as caring on the inside. He has a selfish or self-centred streak – something Taylor carefully reveals to us as catches Bertram in a private moment.

He walked back to the pub, feeling very pleased with himself. Very tactfully he had done a great kindness. When he was kind to people he had to love them; but when he had loved them for a little while he wished only to be rid of them and so that he might free himself would not hesitate to inflict all the cruelties which his sensibility knew they could not endure. (p. 54)

Bertram, for his part, is more taken with Tory, whom he views as a bright and attractive woman – and, in time, as a possible future partner. With a view to settling down to a life of mutual understanding and companionship, Bertram proposes marriage to Tory, albeit in a fairly light-hearted but presumptuous way. Little does he know, at least at the beginning, that Tory is involved with Robert Cazabon, a furtive little affair that has been developing for some time – mostly in moments snatched here and there, supposedly away from the prying eyes of the town’s inhabitants. For the rather brisk and unappreciative Robert, Tory represents an escape from the crushing dullness and monotony of his life, the daily routine of patients, mealtimes and family responsibilities.

Luckily for Robert and Tory, Beth Cazabon is too wrapped up in the process of writing her novel to notice what is going on under her nose – the trials and tribulations of her fictional characters are of greater interest to Beth than those of her own husband and children. Prudence, however, is another matter. Considered slow or a little ‘touched’ by some of the locals, Prudence is actually much more perceptive than most people realise. She has seen Robert and Tory arriving home together, overheard snatches of conversation here and there – and naturally it doesn’t take long for her to put two and two together. Quite correctly as it turns out.

Also watching and absorbing the various goings-on in Newby is Mrs Bracey, a bawdy, gossipy woman who remains confined to her bed by a combination of disabilities and illnesses. With the arrival of spring, Mrs B asks to be moved to the upstairs bedroom where she can view the town from a suitable vantage point, supplementing the titbits of news she extracts from Iris on her return from the pub. Mrs Bracey is also wise to the true nature of Tory’s relationship with Robert, observing the situation with all its inherent deceit and secrecy.

So she watched them curtly greeting one another as they did this evening – Robert driving up in the car just as Tory rounded the corner – watched them exchange a few words, and Robert running his eye over Tory’s London clothes as if in disapproval; and she knew, as surely as if she could hear their words, how briefly, how cunningly, they laid their plans, their lives whittled down to those few moments when they could be together, a few words passing swiftly between them or their finger-tips contriving to brush together as if by accident, a glance, a touch, an innuendo in the presence of others – the rest darkness. (pp. 218-219)

As the story plays out, we wonder how far Tory will go in risking her friendship with Beth. Will her love (if it really is love) for Robert win out? Or will she make a clean break of it, choosing instead to save the feelings of her closest friend? You’ll have to read the novel to find out.

As I mentioned earlier, the characterisation is uniformly excellent here – not only the main players but several of the minor characters too. Prudence is spot on, mooning around all day with her two Siamese cats, equally disapproving of her father and Tory alike. Stevie, the Cazabons’ youngest daughter, is in a world of her own, forever speaking her mind or engaging in mild tantrums, much to Robert’s annoyance.

I also enjoyed the banter between the Braceys, especially the two daughters, Iris and Maisie, who have to share not only a room but a bed too. Iris, the daydreamer, longs for someone famous to come to Newby to liven up the place – Laurence Olivier, for example – while the more down-to-earth Maisie just wishes her mother would fade away and die. The need to care for old Mrs Bracey is stopping Maisie from having any kind of life of her own – she can’t even nip out to the cinema with one of the local lads for fear of her mother having a turn.

While the novel’s tone is quite dark at times, there are several moments of lightness too. Stevie’s outbursts are a delight, gloriously refreshing and unfiltered. Then there are the letters Tory receives from her young son, Edward, who is away at boarding school – little comic gems in their own right. Not to mention Mrs Bracey’s tendency towards indiscretion, especially when passing judgement on one of her neighbours.

I’ll finish with an example of one of the many things I loved about this novel – Taylor’s ability to rove around the town, capturing little sketches of various scenes as she goes. Here’s one of my favourites.

Lily ate fish and chips at the Mimosa Cafê, her book propped against a bottle of sauce. The fleet had come in and up at the market the floor was deep with fish, blue and black-barred, a mass of dinted silver, crimson-eyed. At the Anchor Iris was busy for once, with not a minute to wipe down the wet counter or to collect glasses. All over the harbour waters was a frenzied screaming of gulls. Mrs Bracey waited with impatience for her dinner and for her daughter to return at closing-time. Smells of stew crept round the kitchen. She trembled with exasperation, imagining the greyish meat slipping off the bone, the rings of onions, the pearl-barley, the golden sequins of fat glinting on the surface. And she thought too of the jug of draught stout Iris would bring back and her hands plucked peevishly at the bed covers. (p.43)

Several other bloggers have reviewed this novel. You can find links to some of them in this post about Simon and Karen’s 1947 Club.

A View of the Harbour is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Burning of the World by Béla Zombory-Moldován

This compelling memoir by Béla Zombory-Moldován, a Hungarian artist and illustrator, is at once both historically insightful and deeply personal. It spans the eight months from the outbreak of WW1 at the end of July 1914 to the spring of the following year, a period that resulted in sustained losses to the Austro-Hungarian forces, the nature of which left an indelible mark on Hungary in the years and decades that followed. It’s a remarkable piece of work, very moving in its depiction of the experiences of the war through the reflections of one man. Highly recommended reading, especially for anyone with an interest in the Great War or the Austro-Hungarian Empire in general.

As the memoir opens, Béla, a member of the Hungarian privileged classes, is holidaying with friends at the Adriatic resort of Novi Vinodolski. He is twenty-nine years old at this point, enjoying life and everything it has to offer.

All too soon Béla’s carefree existence is dramatically interrupted when word reaches the group that war has broken out between Austria-Hungary and Serbia (with Russia swiftly following in support). While some of Béla’s immediate friends are of the belief that the war will be swift and not too serious, Béla himself remains somewhat unconvinced. Rather presciently, our protagonist senses a broader threat to society, a feeling that socialism has been creating significant unrest and anxiety for a number of years. As a consequence, Béla fears a long and complex period of conflict ahead.

After a brief visit home to say goodbye to his parents, Béla reports for duty at Veszprém where he is assigned the rank of Ensign in the Royal Hungarian Army – he is also given the role of platoon leader. To Béla, the prospect of war is terrifying – a totally unknown quantity he must face with little in the way of experience or understanding.

I had no experience to fall back on. Anything I had heard of war had fallen on deaf ears; an anachronism, it had held no meaning for me. No one in my family since my grandfather had been in a war. They knew even less about it than I did, and had no experience on which I might draw. Until it confronted us, everyone had regarded war as an absurdity. Now it was a reality. If it was any consolation, the enemy must be having the same problem. Except that they had learned to handle firearms up there in the mountains of Serbia. We might pay a price for the blithe and vacuous existence we had led here. (p. 13)

This is a challenging work to summarise as it really needs to be experienced in person rather than second-hand through a review. There is a cumulative effect here – the sense that Béla’s reflections build in power with each chapter, thereby giving the memoir a greater sense of weight and importance.

It is especially strong on the sheer foolishness of some of the decisions that were made by those in command – in particular, the drive to conform to certain principles of honour or ceremony at the expense of soldiers’ lives. For example, Béla’s regiment is ordered to march the seventy-five kilometres from Veszprém to the point of deployment near the front. However, by the time they reach their destination, half the troops in the group are unfit for battle due to damage incurred to their feet and general exhaustion. The lack of any clear sense of foresight is completely galling. Then, in the thick of the action at Rava Ruska, it is rumoured that the Colonel in command plans to outlaw any digging of foxholes for protection as it would be considered cowardly and ill-disciplined on the part of the troops. Luckily for Béla, this veto doesn’t quite come to pass and the instinct to survive soon kicks in.

As one might expect, the memoir is also fairly explicit on the horrors of war, the physical and emotional effects of being trapped at the front with death and destruction everywhere. The scenes Béla describes are urgent, chaotic and utterly terrifying.

The continuous deafening explosions, the howling of the flying shell fragments have practically stupefied me. Beside me, between salvos, Miklósik frantically digs himself deeper into his hole. I don’t think he’d respond to any order now. Then a blast quite close to me; something has hit my knapsack and I’m almost suffocated under falling sand. My sole thought now, like an animal, is to save myself. Utterly helpless, I give myself up to my fate and, with no emotion, wait for the end to come. (pp. 53-54)

Having sustained a head wound in one of these early battles, Béla is dispatched back to Budapest for further treatment and a period of recovery. There is an anxious scene in which Béla only just manages to make it out of the battle zone on one of the last railway wagons to leave the territory before the Russian Army moves in – a fortuitous break for our protagonist, particularly given the nature of his injuries. As Béla travels back to the capital, he is incensed by newspaper reports of the conflict, clearly penned by fêted writers cocooned in the relative safety of the city’s coffeehouses, far away from the harsh realities of life at the front.

Report from the battlefield! Glorious weather! Battle-readiness of our troops unbreakable! They await the Russian attack from new positions, etcetera. It had evidently been composed by the armchair generals of the Pest coffeehouses. I leafed through the paper, looking mostly at the headlines. How alien it was! How far removed these people were from the agonies, the mortal fear as shells exploding around you, the marches that exhaust to the limits of consciousness, the mangled dead, their open eyes staring into oblivion. Yes, far away, and with no conception of the reality of war. (p. 72)

Back at home, Béla tries hard to reconnect with his former life, his family, his friends and, of course, his love of painting. However, the trauma he has experienced on the battlefield makes this very difficult to achieve. It is as if something inside him has ruptured, possibly forever.

It was impossible. All that I had thought, imagined, or conceived felt alien, incapable of development. […] Something had been broken inside me; or perhaps in the whole order of the world. Or in everything. For now, there was no way out. (p. 114)

Béla is declared unfit for military service for a period of three months, after which time he will be assessed again. Unsurprisingly, given what he has been through at the front, he is experiencing what is now commonly recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD).

As the memoir draws to a close, Béla finally finds some solace in the form of a trip to the coastal town of Lovrana where he stays with the Mausers, a generous and caring family who support his recuperation. It is here, in the spring of 1915, that Béla reconnects with nature and the enduring beauty of the world. His love of painting returns as he strives to capture the energy and subtleties of the waves in glorious watercolours. This is the most touching section of the memoir, a period of relative peace and calm which ends with Béla travelling back to Budapest to see what the future might hold for him.

This striking book comes with an excellent introduction from Béla’s grandson, Peter Zombory-Moldován, who also translated the manuscript. It offers an invaluable insight into the political context of the time and the extent of the losses endured by Austria-Hungary during this devastating war.

While it is never easy to read about these experiences, it is almost always rewarding in some way, and that’s certainly the case here. This is an absorbing memoir, written in a natural, unaffected style, shot through with moments of beauty amidst the traumas of war. I’ll finish with a passage that illustrates Béla’s painterly talents, his eye for a beautiful scene. At this point, he is on his way to Rava Ruska, marching to the front and the decimation which lies ahead.

We were passing through a wood. The beauty of nature in August reigned everywhere. The boughs were a deep green, but the sprigs of barberry, the wild rose hips and the leaves of the sumac were already glowing in flaming colors of carmine, cinnabar, minium, and orange. Beauty before death, for autumn and decay were coming. In the meadows and fields, nothing but stubble and fine ploughed soil, the stalks of maize left tied into bundles. Subjects for landscapes: the colors from burnt sienna and ochre to gray umber. Marvelous colors in the shadows. (p. 29)

Guy has also reviewed this book here.

The Burning of the World is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

My books of the year, 2017 – favourites from a year of reading

As I’ve been off the grid for most of last few months, I didn’t get a chance to post a list of my favourite books from 2017. So, in the spirit of better late than never, here it is. Enjoy!

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Like its predecessor, 2017 turned out to be another strong reading year for me. I read fewer books than usual this time (around 70 books, mostly older/blacklisted titles) but the majority were very good. Once again, it proved very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, so I’ve gone overboard with a top fifteen – that’s two more than the baker’s dozen I usually aim for. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

It’s getting to the point where I need to reserve a permanent spot for Barbara Pym, such is the quality of her writing. This year’s slot goes to Crampton Hodnet, a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s (Some Tame Gazelle came a very close second). What a joy it was to return to this author’s territory, a familiar world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

A series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by Isherwood’s time in the city during the early 1930s. I really loved this book with its striking cast of characters and wealth of engaging vignettes. As one might expect, the author’s portrayal of a Berlin in flux is truly wonderful, capturing the atmosphere of everything from the seedy underground bars and nightlife to the magnificence and glory of the glamorous side of the city. A most evocative read.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

Here’s another author worthy of a permanent place my end-of-year lists, Elizabeth Taylor – I just can’t seem to get enough of her work. The storyline in this book revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her best intentions often causing more harm than good. A novel full of little insights into various aspects of human behaviour – lovers of character-driven novels should enjoy this one.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

My favourite of the collections of short stories I read in 2017 (Saki’s Improper Stories came a close second). Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness. Once again, this will appeal to lovers of character-driven fiction. A superb set of stories, quite varied in style in spite of the overriding theme.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Set largely in the seedy bars and boarding houses of London’s Earl’s Court, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square centres on the tortured existence of George Harvey Bone, a thirty-four-year-old man who is obsessed with a beautiful yet vindictive young woman named Netta Longdon. It is an utterly brilliant portrait of a man on the edge, perfectly capturing the sudden changes in mood and mindset of a lonely and tormented soul, driven to distraction by the heartless woman he so deeply desires. This might just be my favourite book of the year.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

A beautiful and compelling portrayal of forbidden love, characterised by Wharton’s trademark ability to expose the underhand workings of a repressive world. Set within the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s, a culture that seems so refined on the surface, and yet so terribly brutal, hypocritical and intolerant underneath once the protective veneer of respectability is stripped away. There is a real sense of depth and subtlety in the characterisation here – classic literature doesn’t get much better than this.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

A highly compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Second World War. It’s a brilliant novel, one that features a most distinctive character quite unlike any other I’ve encountered either in literature or in life itself. In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating individual, one that is sure to generate strong opinions either way. Is she a manipulative hypocrite, determined to seize any opportunity and exploit it for her own personal gain? Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? You’ll have to read the book yourself to take a view.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

One of several reads featuring a highly distinctive female narrator – in this case, Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience. It is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heart-warming.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Enchanted indeed! What a delightful novel this turned out to be – telling, as it does, the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming story has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. A truly magical read, guaranteed to lift the spirits.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

In this beautifully written novel, we follow a day in the life of the Marshalls, an upper-middle-class family struggling to find a new way to live in an England irrevocably altered by the Second World War. Several threads and encounters come together to form a vivid picture of a nation, a country trying to come to terms with new ways of life and the accompanying changes to its social fabric. A little like a cross between Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and an Elizabeth Taylor novel, this was a wonderful discovery for me.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

This novel was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, thereby creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult. A thoroughly delicious read.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I read this in advance of Halloween, and it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite humorous in a darkly comic way. What really sets this book apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of the narrator’s voice, that of young Merricat Blackwood. A novella with 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. The sense of being an outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a prominent theme.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Several of the books in translation I chose to read in 2017 were disappointing, but this one really stood out for the distinctiveness of its central character, Doris. A striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start, particularly in the way it reflected her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin. Another very evocative read for me.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party provides a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. Essentially a tale of ‘upstairs and downstairs’, this is a wonderful ensemble piece with a sting in its tail. Fans of L. P Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy this one.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes made my 2016 highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. And here she is again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse is a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there – only things don’t quite go to plan. It’s probably my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I read last year.

So there we are – a pretty satisfying year of reading all told.

After Claude by Iris Owens

Ever since I read Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding back in the autumn of 2014, I’ve been searching for something similar, another hidden gem of a book with a spiky (anti-)heroine in the central role. While Iris Owens’ striking novel After Claude – first published in 1973 – doesn’t quite reach the same heights as Cassandra, for the majority of its 200 pages it comes pretty close. The story centres on a trainwreck of a woman, so outrageously forthright in her interactions with those around her that there are times when she makes Cassandra seem like a relatively normal, well-adjusted human being.

The character in question is Harriet, a fiercely intelligent lady with a razor-sharp line in cutting one-liners. The trouble is, she also displays a terrible lack of self-awareness and understanding of her impact on others. In her own mind, Harriet is a smart, considerate, lively companion; but in reality, the situation couldn’t be more different. She is lazy, rude, bitchy and relentlessly argumentative, always believing herself to be in the right whatever the circumstances or topic under discussion.

When we first meet Harriet, she is in the throes of reflecting on her very recent break-up with Claude, ‘the French rat,’ the man she has been living with for the past six months. The story is told through a series of flashbacks covering various timepoints in Harriet’s recent life – more specifically, the days leading up to her split with Claude, one or two interactions with her best friend, Maxine, and a disastrous evening spent with Claude and his friend, a French playboy names Charles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the acrimonious nature of their break-up, Harriet paints a rather scathing picture of Claude. As far as she sees it, Claude – an assistant director of a French television news crew based in the US – is the somewhat uncommunicative, artistic type, often conveying his responses via facial expressions instead of words, especially where women are concerned.

He could talk for hours, days, but only on carefully selected topics, such as every disappointing course of his most recent meal. But discourse? Converse? Exchange ideas? Never, and certainly not with that brain-damaged segment of the population called women. (p.10)

The problem is, Harriet’s innate tendency to respond to virtually every comment with a counter-argument or snide remark has succeeded in alienating Claude to the point of no return. (The novel opens with an extended quarrel between Harriet and Claude on the artistic merits or not of a movie they’ve just seen, ‘a sort of Communist version of Christ’s life,’ as Harriet puts it. Naturally, she hated the film, and she outlines her objections with great gusto. The whole exchange is both painfully funny and sharply acerbic, a combination that sets the tone for the book itself.) Here’s a brief excerpt from one of their exchanges shortly before the split – Harriet is the first to speak.

“Are you hungry?” The creep still didn’t answer. The fact is that Claude, not having been raised by kidnappers, was habituated to regular meals, not scavenging.

“I’m not hungry.” It walked! It talked! It went to the kitchen and got itself a can of beer.

“I can’t find the opener,” he complained in that same hurt voice I’d been tolerating for two full weeks.

“Why don’t you telephone Paul Newman? I read he always wears a can opener around his neck, like a cross. Maybe he’ll lend you his.” (p. 19)

Shortly afterwards, Claude hits Harriet with the sucker punch. He wants her out of his flat by the following Monday, belongings and all; she has simply become far too difficult to live with.

“Me a bore?” I laughed, amazed that the rat would resort to such a bizarre accusation. I have since learned never to be amazed at what men will resort to when cornered by a woman’s intelligence.

“When you get an idea in your head, when you have an opinion, which is always, you’ve got to make a speech about it, not once, but ten times. If anyone manages to break in, you bury them; you grind them into little pieces with your big mouth. I’ve had it, Harriet. I want you out.” (p. 22)

The weekend ultimately ends with Harriet being driven to the Chelsea Hotel by Charles and Claude, but not before she has had an opportunity to change the locks on Claude’s apartment and been tackled by the police for trespassing on her (former) boyfriend’s property. Quite an eventful few days all in all.

Interspersed with the recollections of the dying days with Claude are passages on the only other significant relationships in Harriet’s life – those with her friends (or in the first case, ex-friend) Rhoda-Regina and Maxine. Here’s Harriet on Rhoda-Regina, her former friend from school, the girl she went travelling with some five years ago.

Rhoda-Regina had been my oldest and best friend. I’d known her almost as long as I’d known myself. We’d gone through school together, except that she, being insecure as a female, had gone on to collecting degrees. We’d sailed to Europe together, me to stay for five crucial years, during which I’d grown out of my Brooklyn chrysalis into a creature of indeterminate origins, while Rhoda-Regina had barely lasted through the summer, rushing back to her beloved highway-robber analyst like Dracula making dawn tracks to his coffin. (pp. 67-68)

Back in the story’s present day, Harriet has now succeeded in destroying any relationship she ever had with Rhoda-Regina as a result of her unreasonable behaviour as a tenant. After returning from Europe following a crisis some months earlier, Harriet turned to her old pal R-R, who agreed to take her in for a little while. Unfortunately, after another outrageous and terribly misjudged incident (this one designed to encourage the perennially uptight and stingy R-R to chill out a little), Harriet found herself out on the streets. It was at this point that she met Claude for the first time as his apartment just happened to be in the same block as Rhoda-Regina’s. So, for the last six months, Harriet has been running the gauntlet on entering and exiting the premises, desperately trying to avoid any unpleasant confrontations with R-R, her bête noire on the ground floor.

Harriet also bitches about her current best friend (quite possibly her only friend), the wealthy and pampered Maxine – both behind her back and directly to her face. Here’s a typical example – Maxine is the first to speak.

 “You’re lucky to have such a wonderful skin,” she crooned, but since she didn’t look up from her gold compact, I couldn’t tell which of us was supposed to be so lucky. She glanced up. “Not a wrinkle or a blemish. What do you use?”

“Sperm,” I said, damned if I’d let her drag me into one of her beauty commercials that begin with compliments and finish with her imploring me to consider plastic surgery. (p. 46)

And here’s one of Harriet’s personal observations on Maxine, so typical of Iris Owens’ ability to pepper her writing with pointed one-liners.

There was a sufficiency of rhinestones in her thong platforms to refinance the purchase of Manhattan. (p. 45)

In essence, After Claude is a character study, a portrait of a complex woman who says what she thinks without filtering anything or sparing anyone else’s feelings. She is uber-demanding, sarcastic and combative – and yet, underneath it all, there is a vulnerable, insecure woman, someone who is terrified of being on her own, especially if it means having to survive without a man. (There are several points in the novel when Harriet tries desperately to cling on to Claude, even though she knows in her heart of hearts that their relationship is over.)

As the story proceeded to unfold, I found myself growing increasingly fond of Harriet in spite of her many flaws and annoying habits. Yes, she is a car crash on legs, but she’s also very sharp and witty with it. During the novel, she turns her irreverent gaze on a number of stereotypes – the fussy and pretentious playboy, the self-satisfied domestic goddess, the bimbo air stewardess (who really does come across as a name-dropping airhead) – all to very good effect. While I wasn’t entirely convinced by the final section of the book, in which Harriet gets involved with the members of a drugged-up hippie sex cult (very 1960s/early ‘70s), I loved the rest of it.

To finish, I’ll leave the last word to Harriet. Here she is responding to a taxi driver’s comments on her resemblance to Anne Bancroft (I guess he must have had the character of Mrs. Robinson in mind here).

“I bet a lot of people have told you, you look like Anne Bancroft,” he said, gazing into his crystal ball.

“Why? Has she been complaining to you lately?” (p. 91)

After Claude was published by NYRB Classics; personal copy

#WITMonth is coming – some suggestions of books by women in translation

As in previous years, Meytal at the Biblibio blog will be hosting Women in Translation (#WITMonth) throughout the month of August. It’s a celebration of translated literature by women writers – you can find out more about it here. I’ve reviewed quite a few books in this category over the years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read next month, here are a few of my favourites.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

A quintessential summer read, Bonjour Tristesse is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions, all set against the blistering heat of the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel – I’ll be reading Sagan again this year, this time in an Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these individuals as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. All in all, this is a delightfully entertaining read.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was just twenty-three when her debut novel, Nada, was published. It’s an excellent book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. Here we see the portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. This is a wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. Truly deserving of its status as a Spanish classic.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940, Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. This was a standout read for me.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson)

By turns satirical, insightful, artful and poignant, this is a fascinating collection of short stories and sketches, notable for the sheer variety in tone. What makes these stories particularly intriguing is their connection to various aspects of Teffi’s own life and experience, from her time in Russia prior the Revolution to the years she spent as an émigré in Paris. Her first-hand account of Rasputin – a highly perceptive piece – is worth the entry price alone.

La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

When Elisa realises her husband, Gilles, has become entangled with Victorine, her attractive younger sister, she is devastated. Beautifully written in a sensual, intimate style, this is a very compelling novel with a powerful ending. The writing is spare but very emotive – Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to Elisa’s point of view giving us near-complete access to her inner thoughts and feelings. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of writers like Simenon and Jean Rhys.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the stories in this volume of forty-two stories drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of her pieces point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. An unusual and poetic collection of stories that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. A good one for dipping into, especially if you’re in the mood for something different.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

More short fiction, this time from Japan, Revenge comprises eleven interlinked short stories, elegantly connected via a set of recurring images and motifs threaded through the individual narratives. Characters flow from one story to the next; we revisit specific locations and scenes from earlier tales, only to see things from a different viewpoint as our perspective changes. It’s all very cleverly constructed. In Revenge, we meet characters who seem isolated or detached from society in some way; many live alone, their lives infused with sadness and loneliness. Ogawa has a real talent for exploring some of the disquieting parts of the human psyche, the acts of darkness that can lurk just beneath the surface of the everyday. An excellent collection of unsettling stories.

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

To be honest, highly autobiographical books aren’t my usual my cup of tea, but NHBtN is so good that it warrants inclusion here. Virtually impossible to summarise in a couple of sentences, this remarkable story focuses on a woman’s quest to gain a deeper understanding of her mother following the latter’s death by suicide. A genuinely absorbing and compelling book, beautifully written in a sensitive style – de Vigan’s prose is simply luminous.

And finally, a special mention for a fairly recent read:

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal (tr. Jessica Moore)

In this highly unusual, utterly compelling novel, we follow Simon Limbeau’s heart for twenty-four hours – from the young man’s death in a freak accident one morning, to the delicate discussions on organ donation with his parents, to the transfer of his heart to an anxious recipient in another city later that evening. De Kerangel explores the clinical, ethical and the emotional issues at play with great sensitivity. Superbly written in a fluid, lyrical style, this is a novel that will stay with you long after the final page has been turned. (A cliché, I know – but in this case, it’s actually very apt.)

This book has already been widely reviewed across the blogosphere, so I’m not planning to cover it in more detail here. Instead, I can point you towards a couple of thoughtful posts that I recall seeing – this one by Grant at 1streading and this one by Marina Sofia. It’s definitely worth considering.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading one or two of them next month. Maybe you have plans of your own – if so, what do you have in mind? Or perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? Please feel free to mention it here.

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

First published in 1953, Black Wings Has My Angel is now regarded as something of a noir fiction classic, aided no doubt by the publication of the NYRB Classics edition at the beginning of 2016. As a novel, it has all the hallmarks of a top-flight noir: a damaged soul driven by lust, desire, frustration and greed; a manipulative femme fatale who turns out to be more rapacious and unhinged than the protagonist himself; and an unstable situation that proves a catalyst for their ultimate self-destruction.

Chaze’s novel is narrated by a man who calls himself Tim Sunblade, a small-time con on the run following a breakout from Parchman Penitentiary, Mississippi. Having amassed some ready cash by roughnecking it on a drilling rig in the Atchafalaya River for a few months, Tim is just about set to hit the road for Denver where he hopes to make a big killing. His ultimate aim is to carry out a heist on an armoured vehicle full of cash, a plan originally hatched by Jeepie, a fellow inmate at Parchman who was shot during the escape.

As the novel opens, Tim is relaxing in the bath in some two-bit hotel in Louisiana when the bellhop brings him a ten-dollar prostitute for the night, a shapely number by the name of Virginia. But, as we soon discover, Virginia is no ordinary small-town hooker; she’s a classy lady, leggy and beautiful – ‘a slender, poised thing with skin the colour of pearls melted in honey’. It’s pretty clear that Virginia is somewhat out of place in this joint. There are hints of money about her person – good clothes, expensive-looking luggage, and a general desire for the high life. If truth be told, Virginia is actually a five-hundred-dollar-a-night call girl on the run from a messy situation in New York, something involving the city’s District Attorney – a revelation that emerges a little later in the story. At this stage in the game, Tim knows that something is up; he just doesn’t know what exactly. Nevertheless, after a few days of wild sex, he finds himself attracted to Virginia, so he decides to take her on the road with him, at least for a while.

Going across the Red River bridge, I sailed my Mississippi tags over the iron railing and saw them hit the water with a splash, forty feet below. She watched me, leaning back in her padded-leather corner, smoking quietly. Nothing seemed to surprise her: the car, the tags, the business of taking an unchartered trip with an unknown man. The wind whipped her bright hair the way it does in the soft-drink advertisements, co-operatively, beautifully. The cross-stripes of tar on the white highway thumped faster and faster beneath the wheels until the thumping became a buzzing. The air was soft, yet not dead. And over all of it lay the very good feeling of going somewhere. (p. 13)

At first, Tim convinces himself that he’s going to dump Virginia at a filling station on the way to Denver – a woman like her is always going to attract a lot of attention, and that’s the last thing he needs if he’s going to get away with the heist. But the robbery is a two-person job, and he needs an accomplice to pull it off. So, after a few cat fights along the way, Tim decides that Virginia is cool enough and tough enough to help him out with the raid. Plus, by this point, he’s fallen for her, which means there’s more than one reason to keep her around.

On their arrival in Colorado, the pair begin to make plans. They rent a house in a decent neighbourhood in Denver where they pose as newlyweds, just an ordinary, respectable couple going about their business like any other. Tim gets a job in a sheet metal plant, a role that gives him access to the tools and other resources he needs to prepare for the heist. On his days off work, he follows the bank’s armoured car, monitoring its movements in detail to establish the driver’s routine when making the pickups. By doing so, Tim uncovers a habit that the driver’s sidekick has fallen into, something that will give him an ‘in’ when it comes to pulling the heist.

Meanwhile, back at the house, Virginia is getting impatient, eager as she is to get her hands on the money with the aim of hightailing out of Denver, away from the monotony of a life posing as a contented housewife. As a consequence, she begins to turn up the heat on Tim…

All of a sudden I was mad and sick. I loathed the sound of the knife on the oilstone. I wanted to throw it in her face and get out of the car and start running, anywhere, just running. […] I was going downtown to kill a man who hadn’t done a damned thing to me, to kill an old guy whose only fault as far as I knew was throwing chewing gum wrappers in the street. I was going to kill him because I wanted money more than I wanted him to live and I was going to kill him filthily. Or maybe I wasn’t. Maybe he was going to kill me and go on the rest of his life with the gum wrappers. I know now that I would have probably backed out of it if it hadn’t been for Virginia and the desire to remain a big bad lad in her eyes. Anyway, I didn’t want any mushy farewell business with Virginia, no sentimental sendoff. Not for a thing like this. (p. 115)

I’ll leave it there with the plot, save to say that Tim and Virginia’s story doesn’t end with the heist. In a gripping denouement, two cruel twists of fate come together, developments that ultimately prove to be the couple’s undoing. It’s as if Tim and Virginia are chasing a dream that will never bring them any real happiness or sense of satisfaction in life, a dream as hollow and empty as Virginia’s lavender-grey eyes.

Black Wings Has My Angel is a very good noir, a highly compelling story powered by strong emotions of desire, greed, suspicion and general debauchery. The characterisation is excellent, both credible and convincing. The love-hate relationship between Tim and Virginia is very well drawn; at times the sense of repulsion they exhibit for one another is as strong as the feeling of mutual attraction. Virginia is painted as a rather hard, voracious and impulsive woman, someone who is prepared to stop at nothing to get what she wants. Tim, on the other hand, has a little more depth to his personality. He is a veteran of the Second World War, irrevocably damaged by the brutality of conflict and the soul-destroying experience of life in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp where he was held for almost three years.

I told her how it’d been spending thirty-four months in the Japanese prison camp on the Island of Luzon, clamped there in the heat and filth with ten thousand others, and how they buried the weak ones alive, some of them who were too weak to work, too weak even to throw off the dirt and sit up in their graves. I told about getting my honourable discharge button and going home and selling office supplies until I blew my cork and landed in Parchman [jail] with Jeepie and Thompson and the others, and how at Parchman I’d decided I was through with being locked up and through being poor. (p. 55)

As a consequence of these experiences, Tim is frustrated by the mind-numbing nature of civilian life in post-war America; the prospect of sweating it out in a dead-end job seems utterly pointless to him.

This novel has been compared to the work of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, classics like The Postman Only Rings Twice and The Getaway. If you enjoy this style of noir fiction, chances are you’ll take to this. The writing isn’t quite in the same league as Cain’s or Thompson’s, but the storyline definitely stands up to the comparison.

I’ll finish with a final quote on Virginia, one that captures something of her presence and something of Chaze’s style. It’s textbook noir.

I wanted Virginia. She was a creature of moonlight, crazy as moonlight, all upthrusting radiance and hard silver dimples and hollows, built for one thing and only one thing and perfectly for that. (p. 177)

Guy has also reviewed this book here.

Black Wings Has My Angel is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.