Tag Archives: NYRB Classics

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

Back in 1960, John Williams published Butcher’s Crossing; ostensibly a Western, it is the story of a young man’s journey into the dark heart of the American wilderness, a trip that leads to death and destruction. Five years later Williams moved on to a very different type of book with Stoner, a sensitive character study set within the world of academia. While the success of recent reissues of Stoner has generated a renewal of interest in Williams’ work, it is probably fair to say that Butcher’s Crossing remains less widely read. A shame really as this is a very intelligent novel, full of insights into the darker side of humanity and the consequences that can occur if this remains unchecked.

The central protagonist in Butcher’s Crossing is Will Andrews, an open and imaginative young man keen to see something more of the country he calls his home. As the novel begins, Andrews is travelling to Butcher’s Crossing, a small Kansas settlement in the heart of the Midwest – the year is 1873. Having left his studies in Harvard, he hopes to find some greater meaning in life by getting closer to the freedom of the land. In essence, Andrews is embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, one he trusts will give him a greater insight into his own character and future direction in life.

On his arrival in the rough and ready town, Andrews gains an introduction to Miller, a seasoned yet maverick buffalo hunter with several years’ experience of working the prairies. Before long, Miller entices Andrews into financing a hunting expedition to a hidden valley deep in the midst of the Colorado mountains, supposedly home to more than three thousand buffalo complete with prime hides. The location of the valley is known only to Miller who last visited the area some ten years earlier while trapping for beavers. There is a sense that Miller might be spinning a tall tale about this mythical herd of buffalo, large groupings being something of a rarity these days – with the market for buffalo skins in the ascendancy, the animals have been hunted with a vengeance, a development which has resulted in a significant thinning out of the herds. Nevertheless, Andrews, in his hunger for a taste of the West, is willing to take his chances with the persuasive hunter. As a consequence, the party is completed by Miller’s trusty sidekick, Charley Hoge, a one-handed, alcoholic, Bible-reading camp man/cook, and Schneider, an experienced skinner of hides. It will be Miller’s role to lead the group, a position that creates considerable tension amongst the men especially when the trip gets underway.

Once their preparations are complete, the group sets off for Colorado, accompanied by horses and a team of oxen to draw the wagon. Williams is particularly adept at capturing the gruelling nature of the journey across the prairies: the physical exhaustion and soreness from riding over the hard terrain; the extreme thirst from a lack of fresh water; the monotonous routine of performing the same tasks time and time again as the days merge together into one long continuum. Nevertheless, Andrews clearly feels the undeniable pull of the land; it is almost as if his whole life has been leading up to this point, his previous existence fading into insignificance by comparison.

Andrews felt that the mountains drew them onward, and drew them with increasing intensity as they came nearer, as if they were a giant lodestone whose influence increased to the degree that it was more nearly approached. As they came nearer he had again the feeling that he was being absorbed, included in something with which he had had no relation before; but unlike the feeling of absorption he had experienced on the anonymous prairie, this feeling was one which promised, however vaguely, a richness and a fulfilment for which he had no name. (p. 106)

In his determination to find the valley, Miller pushes the team onwards by the most direct route possible even when it means risking the lives of his companions and their animals. Much to the annoyance of Schneider, the group has to survive without fresh supplies of water for a couple of days, a move that ends up putting the whole expedition in jeopardy.

Eventually, Miller finds the entrance to the secluded valley – as promised, the buffalo are there in abundance, maybe three or four thousand in total. It is here that Andrews’ initiation into the true nature of the hunt really begins as Miller wastes no time in embarking upon a frenzied cull of these noble and dignified mammals. Once he has identified and taken out the leader of the pack, Miller falls into a swift, steady rhythm, firing and reloading systematically until the ground is littered with buffalo corpses. Unsurprisingly, Andrews is shocked and horrified by this senseless savagery, to the extent that he begins to question his own character, values and identity.

During the last hour of the stand he came to see Miller as a mechanism, an automaton, moved by the moving herd; and he came to see Miller’s destruction of the buffalo, not as a lust for blood or a lust for the hides or a lust for what the hides would bring, or even at last the blind lust of fury that tolled darkly within him—he came to see the destruction as a cold, mindless response to the life in which Miller had immersed himself. And he looked upon himself, crawling dumbly after Miller upon the flat bed of the valley, picking up the empty cartridges that he spent, tugging the water keg, husbanding the rifle, cleaning it, offering it to Miller when he needed it—he looked upon himself, and did not know who he was, or where he went. (p. 137)

After the first day’s haul of more than one hundred buffalo, it soon becomes clear that Miller is intent on decimating the whole herd. Schneider and Andrews can barely keep up with their leader as they struggle to skin the carcasses before rigor mortis sets in, a process that leaves them exhausted and bruised, mentally as well as physically.

Schneider and Andrews had to work more and more swiftly to skin the animals Miller left strewn upon the ground; almost never were they able to finish rather skinning before sundown, so that nearly every morning they were up before dawn hacking tough skins from stiff buffalo. And during the day, as they sweated and hacked and pulled in a desperate effort to keep up with Miller, they could hear the sound of his rifle steadily and monotonously and insistently pounding at the silence, and pounding at their nerves until they were raw and bruised. (p. 159)

Where this novel really excels is in the characterisation of the four men, each one distinctive and fully painted on the page. As the hunt continues, further tensions emerge within the group, especially between Miller and the rather stubborn yet practical Schneider. Once again Miller’s dogmatic behaviour threatens the very safety of the men and their animals as they are forced to camp out in the mountains over the winter months, trapped by the snow following a sudden heavy blizzard. They cling to a precarious existence, taking shelter in a makeshift lean-to fashioned out of foraged materials and buffalo hides from the cull. There are moments when Andrews wonders if they will ever make it out of there alive – and if so, what life will mean to him in the months and years that follow.

Butcher’s Crossing is a truly excellent novel, one that highlights the sheer futility of the obsessive pursuit of power, wealth and the Great American Dream – the closing section of the story plays a particularly important role in underscoring the senselessness and stupidity of everything that has gone before. Moreover, Williams doesn’t hold back on the brutality of life in the wilderness. There is an honesty in his portrayal of the darker side of humanity, especially in relation to Miller, a man who takes certain things to the extreme in his mindless determination to destroy. The descriptions of hunting and skinning buffalo are highly graphic too, possibly not for the sensitive or fainthearted. Nevertheless, there is great beauty here as well, not least in Williams’ well-judged prose and his lyrical descriptions of the land. I’ll finish with a brief passage from the middle of the novel as Andrews first catches sight of Miller’s hidden valley, a vision of paradise just there for the taking.

For perhaps three hundred yards, the trail cut down between the pines; but at that point, abruptly, the land leveled. A long narrow valley, flat as the top of a table, wound among the mountains. Lush grass grew on the bed of the valley and waved gently in the breeze as far as the eye could see. A quietness seemed to rise from the valley; it was the quietness, the stillness, the absolute calm of a land where no human foot had touched. (p. 117)

Butcher’s Crossing is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

All this week, Simon and Karen are hosting one of their themed readalongs: the 1951 Club, a celebration of books first published in this notable year. My choice for the event is Olivia Manning’s School for Love, 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. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

Recently orphaned following the death of his mother from typhoid, young Felix Latimer is sent from Baghdad to Jerusalem to live with his father’s adopted sister, Miss Bohun – at least until the war is over and he can return to his homeland of England. (His father, a British official of some sort, was killed by the Iraqis during a disturbance one year earlier.) As the novel opens, Felix is feeling apprehensive about meeting his adopted aunt, a woman his kind-hearted mother had never wanted to visit when she was alive.

Whenever his father had suggested a trip to Jerusalem, his mother had said: ‘Oh no, dear one, not there. We’d have to see Ethel Bohun. I couldn’t bear it.’ (pp. 7-8)

On his arrival in Jerusalem, Felix finds the formidable Miss Bohun rather brusque and unwelcoming, preoccupied as she is with running the household and preparing the front room for an unspecified guest. (As it turns out, Miss Bohun spends much of her spare time running the city’s branch of the ‘Ever-Readies’ , a religious group that believes in the Second Coming of Christ. Her endeavours to prepare the spare room are closely connected to these activities, a point that becomes apparent as the story unfolds.)

Desperately craving some much-needed love and affection, Felix is terribly lonely and unsettled by his new surroundings. The environment in which he finds himself is cold and spartan in more ways than one. There is very little in the way of comfort here; even the meals are scant and tasteless, Miss Bohun refusing to buy anything on the black market in her quest to save money at every given opportunity.

Miss Bohun said: ‘I know no one can take the place of your mother, Felix, but I’m a sort of relative – the only relative of any sort that you have out here – and I want to do what I can for you. It’s my duty, anyway.’

Felix said: ‘Thank you,’ and tried out of gratitude to feel responsive, but the space between them seemed to echo with emptiness. Miss Bohun was so unlike his mother, and, for some reason, he felt sure that when she had raised her eyes and looked at him she had somehow expressed disappointment in him. Perhaps she had imagined he would be older, or younger, or better-looking, or a more unusual sort of boy. Anyway she retired now into her own thoughts, eyes hidden, and he gave his attention to the meal of grey, gritty bread and tasteless tea. (pp. 15-16)

It soon becomes clear – to the reader at least – that Miss Bohun is a manipulative monster, a rather absurd and disillusioned creature who considers herself a paragon of virtue when in fact she is anything but. She appears to have taken over the running of the house from its former occupant, the Polish refugee, Frau Leszno – the latter now relegated to the position of cook/housekeeper to Miss Bohun, and shunted out to reside in the servants’ quarters, a reversal of fortunes Frau Leszno deeply resents. In this scene, Miss Bohun tells Felix how she came to live at the house, clearly implying that she was doing Frau Leszno a huge favour by taking control of the situation. Or, if one looks at it another way, Miss Bohun saw an opportunity for personal gain which she seized without a moment’s hesitation.

I happened to knock on this gate and Frau Leszno opened it – a poor, bedraggled, starved thing that started to cry before she’d said half-a-dozen words. They’d already sold part of the furniture at a loss to keep going. Well, I came in and took charge at once. I’m always looking for some way to be of use in the world and here was my chance – the sick old man, and Frau Leszno wailing and lamenting and wringing her hands. She showed me over the house – well, really, I showed her over it – and there were these simply splendid rooms, empty, just what I wanted. I told her I’d take two of two of the bedrooms. “Now,” I said, “you’re not to worry. I’ll look after you.” (p. 31)

Also living in the house are Frau Leszno’s grown-up son, Nikky – a young man whom Felix initially misjudges as being somewhat surly and uninformed – and an impoverished elderly gentleman, Mr Jewel, who camps out in the attic.

In his naivety and innocence, Felix initially finds himself coming down on the side of Miss Bohun in her running battles with Frau Leszno over the various arrangements in the house. After all, his adopted aunt has been charitable in offering him a home. Nevertheless, it would appear that Miss Bohun is profiting out of Felix’s presence by overcharging him for his board and lodgings. She scrimps on everything in the house – food, heating, lighting – basically any kind of warmth or compassion is in short supply. Felix’s only friend is Faro, Miss Bohun’s adorable Siamese cat. But then one day, everything changes…

Into the mix comes a recently widowed young woman, the rather sophisticated Mrs Ellis, who joins the household on the understanding that she will be able to rent the whole house from Miss Bohun at the end of the summer. Naturally, Felix is captivated by Mrs Ellis, particularly as she treats him more like a grown-up than a young boy, taking him out in the evenings and opening his eyes to the wider aspects of life. Moreover, Mrs Ellis is no fool, and she quickly gets the measure of Miss Bohun and her modus operandi. As a consequence, tensions emerge in the household, particularly once it becomes clear that Mrs Ellis is expecting a baby. In this scene, Miss Bohun is talking to Felix following a run-in with her new lodger.

‘I don’t want to discuss it, Felix, if you don’t mind. I was quite ready to do Mrs Ellis a kindness if I could – but, dear me, it isn’t everyone nowadays that’s willing to have a baby in their house. I feel sorry for the poor thing – a widow and going to be a mother, it’s very sad – but I have to consider myself, as well, and you, too, my dear boy. I offered you a home. I know young mothers think the world should revolve round themselves and their offspring, but she can hardly expect to deprive you of your home.’

‘She said I could live here with her,’ said Felix eagerly.

‘She did, did she?’ Miss Bohun smiled a sour little smile. ‘So it’s all arranged! I’m afraid you don’t know this town, my dear boy. You are under my protection and I certainly could not let you involve yourself in a situation that might lead to gossip.’

Felix was not clear what Miss Bohun meant by this remark, so did not contest it, […] (p. 121)

As the story moves towards its dramatic conclusion, young Felix discovers that our first impressions of others may not always be entirely representative of their true values. He learns to look beyond the surface, to question the motives and behaviours of those around him, especially when the individuals concerned appear to lack any sense of humanity and compassion. As his eyes are opened and the veil of innocence falls away, Felix begins to see another side to Miss Bohun, one that is captured in the following quote.

Felix, paused by the table, turned on her a mystified face. He could feel no reassurance in her change of tone: he was fearful and filled with distrust. For a moment, seeing her sitting there calmly and running at will through the gamut of her tones of command, exasperation, self-pity and disapproval, he was suddenly certain of her falsity. His faith in her as a human being had gone and he could believe her to be capable of anything – perhaps even of cruelty to Faro or indifference were Faro suffering. (pp. 221-222)

School for Love is a really terrific book, by turns sad, humorous, insightful and surprising. In its focus on a young boy’s loss of innocence, the novel shares something with Alberto Moravia’s Agostino and Stefan Zweig’s Burning Secret, both of which are excellent reads. I couldn’t help but feel for Felix as he tries to fill the yawning gap left by the loss of his beloved mother, a woman who wanted to shelter him from the harsh realities of life for as long as possible. (Felix’s age is never confirmed, but I had him at around thirteen or fourteen). In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating character, 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? (At several points in the novel, Miss Bohun appears to be manoeuvring people in and out of various rooms in the house as a means of protecting her own interests.) Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? The former, I think, although it’s hard to discount an element of the latter. (This would make a terrific choice for a book group discussion.)

The minor characters are beautifully realised too, especially the kind-hearted Mr Jewel with whom Felix strikes up an unlikely friendship in the latter stages of the book. Then there is Nikky who reveals himself as a rather perceptive intellectual with hidden depths. Before finishing up, I should also mention the Jerusalem setting. Manning spent time in this region and it clearly shows; the night-time scenes in the café bars are particularly atmospheric. There is a real sense of displacement here in a city where resources are scare and accommodation hard to come by.

All in all, this is a wonderful read with much to commend it – very highly recommended.

School for Love is published by NYRB Clasics; personal copy.

Pitch Dark by Renata Adler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red Lights by Georges Simenon (tr. Norman Denny)

What prompts a seemingly ordinary conventional man to embark upon a path of self-destruction, to the exclusion of those closest to him, until his actions end in near-inevitable catastrophe? This is the theme Simenon mines in his 1955 novella Red Lights. Like Three Bedrooms in Manhattan and The Widow (which I read last year), Red Lights is another of this author’s romans durs, the ‘hard’ novels of which he was particularly proud. It is a tight, claustrophobic read, one that would suit lovers of vintage noir or crime fiction with a strong psychological edge.

The book opens on the Friday evening of the Labor Day weekend; the time is the early 1950s. Steve Hogan and his wife, Nancy, are preparing to drive from their home in Long Island to Maine, New England to pick up their children from summer camp. It is clear from the outset that there are tensions in this marriage, some of which are bubbling just under the surface while others remain repressed somewhere in Steve’s psyche. Before the couple leave for Maine, Steve sneaks out for a quick drink under the pretext of filling up the car with gas. There is a sense that Nancy knows what he is getting up to, but she declines to say anything before they set off on their trip. On the road, the couple get caught in a storm and heavy traffic, the latter an inevitable development given the forty-five million motorists predicted to be driving at some point over the holiday weekend. Consequently, the tension starts to build…

He was not shaken by the accident reports, not alarmed. What got on his nerves was the incessant hum of wheels on either side of him, the headlights rushing to meet him every hundred yards, and also the sensation of being caught in a tide, with no way of escaping either to right or to left, or even of driving more slowly, because his mirror showed a triple string of lights following bumper-to-bumper behind him. (p. 13)

Desperate for another drink, Steve pulls over at a roadside bar under the guise of needing the men’s room while Nancy stays in the car. Back at the wheel after a swift double, Steve takes a wrong turn, gets frustrated as a result and seems keen to start a quarrel. Nancy, for her part, remains calm and composed. She is a practical, level-headed woman, self-confident and efficient; but as far as Steve sees it, Nancy has to be right about everything.

She didn’t order him about, actually, but she arranged their life in her own way, as though it were the natural thing to do. He was wrong. He knew he was wrong. Whenever he had had a drink or two he saw her differently, becoming annoyed by things that ordinarily he took for granted. (p. 10)

Things take a turn for the worse when Steve decides to stop at another bar, leaving Nancy by herself in the car for the second time – this despite the fact that she has threatened to continue the journey to Maine without him if he goes in. As a consequence, Steve takes the ignition key with him just to spite her. When he returns to the car some fifteen minutes later, Steve finds a note from Nancy to say she is going on ahead by bus. After a frantic attempt to intercept his wife on the Greyhound heading toward Providence, he gets lost again, thereby abandoning all plans to catch up with the bus in the process.

By now, Steve is tanked and very annoyed with Nancy, sick of having to play by her rules all the time. In this heightened state of mind, he goes ‘into the tunnel’, an intense mental fugue he experiences every now and again, a mood characterised by feelings of solitude, frustration and alienation.

He called it “going into the tunnel,” an expression of his own, for his private use, which he never used in talking to anyone else, least of all to his wife. He knew exactly what it meant, and what it was like to be in the tunnel; yet, curiously, when he was there he never allowed himself to admit the fact, except for occasional brief instants, and always too late. As for determining the precise moment when he entered it, he had often tried to do this afterwards, but never with success. (p. 5)

Stopping at yet another bar, Steve latches on to a solitary drinker, offloading to him about Nancy and women in general. In the midst of his drunken fugue state, Steve is keen to demonstrate that he is a real man, someone who know how to live life ‘off the tracks’, unconstrained by the woman of the household and the conventions of society. Unfortunately for Steve, his uncommunicative drinking partner turns out to be Sid Halligan, a dangerous criminal on the run following a breakout from Sing Sing Penitentiary. Somehow or other, Halligan ends up in Steve’s car, a development which leads our protagonist into very dangerous territory. I’ll leave it there with the plot, save to say that Halligan’s appearance on the scene has lasting consequences for both Steve and Nancy.

Red Lights is a very gripping piece of noir, harrowing and brutal in its sensibility. Simenon maintains an atmosphere of simmering tension throughout, which gives the story the feel of a white-knuckle ride as Steve attempts to deal with his demons both internal and external. In many respects, it reads like a cross between a classic James M. Cain noir (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and a Richard Yates novel – something like Disturbing the Peace, a book which features an alcoholic protagonist, a rather tragic figure who seems powerless to prevent his own descent into a self-destructive state of despair. As the narrative of Red Lights unfolds, we learn a little more about the nature of Steve’s day-to-day life with Nancy. As the one left to take care of the children for an hour or two after work, Steve clearly feels somewhat inferior to Nancy, particularly considering her importance to her prestigious employers. It is this underlying sense of frustration, together with an annoyance at having to constantly win his wife’s approval, which catalyses Steve’s abusive behaviour on this fateful night.

Because when Bonnie and Dan weren’t in camp, that is to say, during the greater part of the year, it was not Nancy who got home early to look after them; it was he. Because in her office she was a person of importance, the right hand of Mr. Schwartz, head of the firm of Schwartz & Taylor, who came between ten and eleven in the morning and had a business lunch nearly every day, after which he worked till six or seven in the evening.

[…]

On the stroke of five he, Steve, was free. He could make a dash for the Lexington Avenue subway station, get wedged in the crush, and at Brooklyn, sprint for the bus that stopped at the end of their lot.

Altogether it didn’t take more than three quarters of an hour, and he would find Ida, the coloured girl who minded the children when they got back from school, with her hat on already. Her time must be valuable too. Everybody’s time was valuable. Everybody’s except his own… (pp. 29-30)

The more I think about this novella, the more compelling it feels in spite of the brutality – this is not a book for the sensitive or fainthearted. My only hesitation relates to the plausibility of the path to redemption sketched out towards the end of the story, something which is difficult to discuss without revealing spoilers. Nevertheless, this is a fairly minor reservation. There is a depth/intensity to the various emotions explored here – not only during the night itself but in the hours that follow. The sense of place feels incredibly authentic too. Simenon perfectly captures the seedy atmosphere and sense of agitation in the roadside bars, the way the regulars remain watchful, sizing up any outsiders in the process.

All in all, this is a very affecting noir. Not always a comfortable read, but a gripping one for sure.

Red Lights is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (tr. Ruth L.C. Simms)

When I put together my list for the Classics Club back in December 2015, I included a few translations just to mix things up a bit. The Invention of Morel (first published in 1940), was one such book. It’s an early novel by the Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, whose joint novella with his wife, Silvina Ocampo, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate – a thoroughly entertaining take on the traditional detective story – made my end-of-year highlights in 2014. While I didn’t love Morel as much as the Casares-Ocampo co-production, I did enjoy it. It’s an intriguing story, one that keeps the reader guessing until certain revelations come to light.

morel-1

The story centres on the fate of an unnamed narrator, a fugitive who is hiding out on a supposedly uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere in the hope of evading the authorities following his conviction for a serious crime. It is said that the island is home to a mysterious, fatal disease, one that attacks the human body from outside in. Nevertheless, the narrator is prepared to take his chances; it’s either that or run the risk of recapture by the police.

When we join the story, the narrator has been on the island for a few months, typically taking shelter in a museum, one of two buildings constructed by the previous inhabitants. One day his peace is disturbed by the sudden appearance of a crowd of people – it is almost as if they have come out of nowhere.

When I was finally able to sleep, it was very late. The music and the shouting woke me up a few hours later. I have not slept soundly since my escape; I am sure that if a ship, a plane, or any other form of transportation had arrived, I would have heard it. And yet suddenly, unaccountably, on this oppressive summerlike night, the grassy hillside has become crowded with people who dance, stroll up and down, and swim in the pool, as if this were a summer resort like Los Teques or Marienbad. (pp. 10-11)

Fearing for his safety, the narrator moves to the least habitable area of the island where he can observe the strangers from a suitable distance. As it turns out, the interlopers spend much of their time dancing to the same two records which they play on a phonograph, irrespective of the weather. The arrival of these figures raises various questions in the narrator’s mind (and in that of the reader). Is this a strange hallucination, the consequence of exposure to extreme heat perhaps or the after-effects of eating a poisonous plant? Is it all an elaborate a ruse by the authorities to lure the narrator into submission – and if so, why go to such lengths? Or are these images ghosts, no longer living but returned from the dead?

The narrator seems no nearer to solving the mystery when he tries to make contact with one of the strangers, a beautiful woman named Faustine who sits on a rock observing the sunset on a daily basis. The narrator is fascinated by Faustine and her gypsy-like sensuality; to him, she represents a kind of hope where before there was none. However, when the narrator tries to make contact with Faustine, all his dreams are dashed; either she cannot see his figure or she is ignoring him, defying his presence as she sits by his side.

It has been, again, as if she did not see me. This time I made the mistake of not speaking to her at all.

When the woman came down to the rocks, I was watching the sunset. She stood there for a moment without moving, looking for a place to spread out her blanket. Then she walked toward me. If I had put out my hand, I would have touched her. This possibility horrified me (as if I had almost touched a ghost). There was something frightening in her complete detachment. But when she sat down at my side it seemed she was defying me, trying to show that she no longer ignored my presence. (p. 29)

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There are also occasions during the story when the author ratchets up the tension, the narrator fearing for his safety and freedom in this strange, unfathomable environment.

I started to walk down the hall, feeling that a door would open suddenly and a pair of rough hands would reach out and grab me, a mocking voice would taunt me. The strange world I had been living in, my conjectures and anxieties, Faustine – they all seemed like an invisible path that was leading me straight to prison and death. (pp. 48-49)

Casares plants clues throughout the story as to what is happening on the island, but there comes a point when all is revealed. I don’t want to say a lot more about it here, other than it’s a very clever explanation with nods to both science and art. Morel is a novel which explores ideas around mortality, the pursuit of immortality, the nature of happiness and the enduring power of love. As long as the narrator can stay close to Faustine, in whatever form this may take, then there is hope for the future; but without this, what is there to live for?

Several other bloggers have reviewed this book as Richard and Stu hosted a readalong a couple of years ago. Here’s a link to Grant’s excellent review which I recall seeing in the past. I’m sure there are many others too.

The Invention of Morel is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

My books of the year 2016 – favourites from a year of reading

Just like its predecessor, 2016 turned out to be another year of great reading for me. I read around 80 books this year (mostly older/backlisted titles) with only a handful of disappointments. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve whittled it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of favourites, plus a few honourable mentions along the way. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each winner in this post, but in each case you can read the full review by clicking on the appropriate link.

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A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

It was a close call between this book and the other Taylor I read this year, At Mrs Lippincote’s – both are excellent. A Game of Hide and Seek is a very poignant story of life’s disappointments, compromises and lost loves, all set against the backdrop of the years preceding and following the Second World War. It is perhaps a more subtle novel than Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (a book that made my 2015 highlights), but every bit as carefully observed. Just thinking about it now leaves me eager to back to this author as soon as possible.

The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

Every bit as dark and disturbing as its wonderful cover suggests (I read the NYRB edition), The Widow is a tense and unsettling noir from one of the masters of psychological fiction, Georges Simenon. Right from the start, there is a palpable sense of foreboding as a young drifter just released from prison washes up at a farmhouse in the Bourbonnais region of France. The Widow is one of the few books by Simenon to feature a strong woman at the heart of the narrative, the tough-as-old-boots widow Tati. This would appeal to fans of James M. Cain’s fiction.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I’m glad to say that my first encounter with Barbara Pym did not disappoint. The novel focuses on Mildred Lathbury, a rather sensible, diplomatic and accommodating woman in her early thirties. In short, Mildred is one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea whenever others are in need of support. In many ways, she finds herself getting drawn into other people’s business, particularly as it is assumed that her status a spinster automatically means she has few commitments of her own. This is a wonderful novel, much more than just a comedy of manners, full of small but significant reflections on life as an unmarried woman in the 1950s. (On another day, I might have picked Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori or Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country for this slot, both are highly recommended.)

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

I really loved Isherwood’s Mr Norris, a warm and engaging story which charts the somewhat peculiar friendship that develops between two men following a chance encounter on a train. Even though it’s abundantly clear that the rather eccentric Mr Norris is something of a swindler, he is hugely likeable with it. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat protective towards him, a little like William Bradshaw does when he meets him on the train. A hugely enjoyable novel and a wonderful evocation of life in Berlin during the early ‘30s.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

Voyage is narrated by an eighteen- year-old girl, Anna Morgan, brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna to survive on her own following the death of the girl’s father. What follows is Anna’s unravelling as she drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort and warmth. A brilliant and devastating book.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

A book that charts Didion’s attempts to make sense of the weeks and months that followed the sudden death of her husband and hospitalisation of her adopted daughter, Quintana – a period that swept away any previous beliefs she had held about illness, death and grief, about probability and luck, about marriage, children and memory, about life itself. It is a deeply personal exploration of these concepts, all written in Didion’s signature style, that of the cool, perceptive, surgically-precise chronicler of our times. She is relentless in her questioning of herself and of others, constantly seeking to understand what was said, what was felt, what might have been. A truly remarkable piece of writing.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Set in London in the 1930s, Watson’s book captures an extraordinary day in the life of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a rather timid, down-at-heel spinster who has fallen on hard times. It’s an utterly enchanting take on the Cinderella story as Miss Pettigrew finds herself drawn into a new world, a place of adventure, excitement and new experiences. This is a charming novel, full of warmth, wit and a certain joie de vivre. One to read or revisit if you’re in need of a treat.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

When both her parents die in fairly quick succession, sixteen-year-old Portia is sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, neither of whom want her there. Left to her own devices for most of the time, Portia falls in with Eddie is a selfish, uncaring young man with no real sense of integrity or responsibility. What follows is a very subtle exploration of the pain and confusion of adolescence, of how easy it is for an adult to toy with the emotions of a teenager, especially someone as vulnerable and as trusting as Portia. A novel I would love to re-read one day.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

An ideal summer read, The Go-Between is a compelling story of secrets, betrayals and the power of persuasion, all set against the heady backdrop of the English countryside in July. Leo Colston (now in his sixties) recalls a fateful summer he spent at a school friend’s house in Norfolk some fifty years earlier, a trip that marked his life forever. The novel captures the pain of a young boy’s initiation into the workings of the adult world as Leo is caught between the innocence and subservience of childhood and the complexities of life as a grown-up. Fully deserving of its status as a modern classic.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

Another quintessential summer read, the Sagan is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions – only in this case the backdrop is 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’d like to read this again in the 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 skilfully 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 people 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. A delightful gem.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

A superb noir which excels in the creation of atmosphere and mood. As a reader you really feel as though you are walking the streets of the city at night, moving through the fog with only the dim and distant lights of LA to guide you. The focus is on the mindset of the central character, the washed -up ex-pilot Dix Steele, a deeply damaged and vulnerable man who finds himself tormented by events from his past. The storyline is too complex to summarise here, but Hughes maintains the suspense throughout. This novel was a HUGE hit with my book group.

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter, concerns itself with the confusing mix of emotions which characterise a critical period in a young girl’s life: her coming of age. It also captures the deep sense of loneliness and isolation that marks its central character, a woman named Katherine Lind. It’s a quiet, contemplative novel, one that explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. Larkin’s prose is sublime, equally impressive in its portrayal of the nostalgic atmosphere of an English summer and its evocation of the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. An understated gem. (It was a toss-up between this and Natsume Söseki’s The Gate, another quiet, thoughtful novel I enjoyed this year.)

So there we are. Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

The Gate by Natsume Söseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

There is something very compelling about Natsume Söseki’s The Gate, the sort of quiet, contemplative novel I find myself increasingly drawn to these days. At first sight, it may seem a relatively uneventful tale of an ordinary Japanese couple trying to get by from one day to the next. Nevertheless, in reality, everything is happening here; we just have to tune in to the author’s style in order to see it.

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First published in Japan in 1910, The Gate revolves around the lives of Sösuke, a lowly clerk in the Japanese civil service, and his wife of six years, Oyone. As the novel opens, Sösuke is relaxing on the veranda of his home in Tokyo; it is Sunday, his one day of rest. Before long Sösuke sets out for a walk on his own, and in the process of this excursion, we learn a little more about his situation, in particular his mindset and outlook on life. It soon becomes clear that the monotonous routine of life as a commuter has left Sösuke mentally paralysed and physically drained. As he strolls around the city, it is as if he has never really noticed his surroundings before. In time, the gaiety and sense of ease he notices in those around him only serve to highlight the dreariness of his existence, and as the afternoon draws to close he is reminded of the inevitable stresses of the week ahead.

Realizing that both this Sunday and the fine weather that had accompanied it had drawn to a close, a certain mood came over him: a sense that such things did not last for long, and that this was a great pity. From tomorrow he would again, as always, be busy at work – the thought brought on pangs of regret for the good life he had tasted for this one afternoon. The mindless activity that filled the other six days of the week seemed utterly dreary. Even now, as he walked along, he could see before his eyes nothing but the outlines of the large, all but windowless office that the sun scarcely penetrated, the faces of his colleagues sitting beside him, the figure of his superior summoning him with a “Nonaka-san, over here, please…” (pp. 14-15)

From the opening pages of the novel, there is a sense of detachment about Sösuke, as if he is merely existing in the world rather than participating in it. As the story unfolds, we start to hear a little more about his backstory and the reasons behind his current demeanour. Although Sösuke and Oyone are still very young (late twenties, I think), they seem stuck in a form of stasis that one usually associates with middle age. Once a quick-witted and lively young man, Sösuke now seems to have accepted his lot in life. In time we learn that some years earlier Sösuke was forced to abandon his studies at university following a scandal that had emerged at the time, a sequence of events that ultimately resulted in strained relations with his family. There is a darkness in Sösuke and Oyone’s shared past, something shameful that seems to have haunted their lives ever since.

Moreover, the novel raises the idea that fate may be punishing this couple for their previous misdemeanours by failing to grant them a child, or at least one that survives for more than a few days. (Three pregnancies have ended in tragedy, a source of much sadness particularly for Oyone as she feels the burden of guilt very deeply.) As a consequence of all this, Sösuke and Oyone have cut themselves off from the wider society, avoiding all unnecessary contact with others wherever possible.

In their effort to avoid the stress that comes with living in a complex society, they eventually cut themselves off from access to diverse experiences that such a society affords, and in so doing came to forfeit, in effect, the prerogatives regularly enjoyed by civilized people. […] That they nonetheless lived out each and every day with the same stoical spirit was not because they had from the outset lost all interest in the wider world. Rather, it was because the wider world, after having isolated the two of them from all else, persisted in turning a cold shoulder. Blocked from extending themselves outward, they began developing more deeply within themselves. What their life together had lost in breadth it gained in depth. (pp. 132-133)

Much of the tension in The Gate centres on a problem relating to the support and education of Sösuke’s younger brother, the rather selfish and impatient Koroku. When Sösuke’s father died some years earlier, he left a house along with significant debts. Not having the mental resources to deal with the situation at the time, Sösuke handed the estate over to his uncle to sort out on the understanding that part of the legacy was to go towards funding Koroku’s school fees. Now the uncle has also died leaving the issue of what, if any, funds are due to Sösuke completely unresolved. What’s more, Sösuke’s aunt claims that she is no longer in a position to be able to continue with the payments for Koroku’s education as the money previously provided by Sösuke has run out – the implication being that Sösuke should step in and assume responsibility for Koroku’s school fees. Needless to say, this is an expense that he and Oyone simply cannot afford. As Sösuke wrestles with this problem, we sense his unwillingness to tackle the issue head on. Rather, he gravitates towards a position of inaction, preferring instead to put off any possible discussion with his aunt for fear of sparking a conflict.

All the same, once every day or so, the figure of Koroku hovered indistinctly at the back of his mind and triggered the reaction, for the moment at least, that he must give serious consideration to his brother’s future. The next moment, however, he invariably stifled the thought on the grounds that there really was no cause for haste. Thus Sösuke passed the days, unable to dispel the nagging sense of indecision lodged in his breast. (pp. 47-48)

Sösuke’s reluctance to resolve this matter proves to be a constant source of frustration to Koroku, a feeling that only continues to burrow away as the weeks and months slip by. In particular, Koroku finds it annoying to see his brother lazing around doing nothing on a Sunday afternoon when instead he could be off visiting his aunt with the aim of resolving the question of funding once and for all. This element of the story also enables Söseki to draw the comparison between the old Japan (as represented by the quiet, traditional and unassuming Sösuke) and the new, emerging economy (typified by Sösuke’s cousin, the bright, dynamic and enterprising Yasunosuke).

The cruelty of fate is a running theme here. At one point, a chance conversation between Sösuke and his kindly landlord threatens to cleave open old wounds from the past, a development which prompts Sösuke to seek spiritual enlightenment in an attempt to ease his anxiety.

For all its quietness and sense of understatement, The Gate is a very powerful novel. There is a feeling of tension and pain running through the narrative, of things unsaid or pushed to one side. Nevertheless, despite all their troubles, Sösuke and Oyone love one another very deeply; they share a warm intimacy, taking comfort and strength from one another in their simple surroundings. While they hold out little hope for a brighter future, at least they have each other.

As was their habit the couple drew near the lamplight. In the whole wide world this spot where they sat together felt like the only source of brightness. In the light that shone from the lamp Sösuke was conscious only of Oyone, Oyone only of Sösuke. They forgot the dark world of human affairs, which lay beyond the lamp’s power to illuminate. It was through spending each evening this way that as time passed they had found their own life together. (pg. 58)

In spite of its beautifully melancholy tone, the novel ends with the arrival of spring and signs of better days ahead for this couple. Nevertheless, Sösuke knows that everything in life in cyclical, and before long it will be winter again – what goes around comes around.

Seamus at Vapour Trails has written a great review of this one, which you can read hereEmma has been reading Söseki’s I Am a Cat – I’ll add a link once her billet is availableUpdate: You can read Emma’s fascinating review here – do take a look.

The Gate is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.