Tag Archives: NYRB Classics

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.

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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.

books-of-the-year

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.

the-gate

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.

Schlump by Hans Herbert Grimm (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

In 1928, German schoolmaster Hans Herbert Grimm anonymously published his first and only book, the semi-autobiographical anti-war novel, Schlump. Despite its obvious literary merits, Schlump was somewhat overshadowed at the time by the success of another WW1 novel, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (somewhat ironically, the two books were issued within weeks of each other). In the early 1930s, Schlump was burned by the Nazis. In an effort to keep his authorship of the book a secret, Grimm concealed the original manuscript of Schlump in the wall of his house in Germany where it remained until its discovery in 2013. Now, thanks to the efforts of Vintage Books, NYRB Classics and the translator Jamie Bulloch, a whole new generation of readers can experience this rediscovered classic for themselves. Given the book’s history, it seemed a fitting choice for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Lit Month which is running throughout November.

schlump

The novel itself focuses on the wartime experiences of Emil Schulz (known to all as ‘Schlump’), a bright and eager young man who volunteers for the German infantry on his seventeenth birthday. In August 1915, Schlump sets off for the barracks in readiness for the adventures ahead. Perhaps like many other young men at that time, he has a rather romanticised vision of life as a soldier, a view which is typified by the following passage.

He could picture himself in a field-grey uniform, the girls eyeing him up and offering him cigarettes. Then he would go to war. He pictured the sun shining, the grey uniforms charging, one man falling the others surging forward further with their cries and cheers, and pair after pair of red trousers vanishing beneath green hedges. In the evenings the soldiers would sit around a campfire and chat about life at home. One would sing a melancholy song. Out in the darkness the double sentries would stand at their posts, leaning on the muzzles of their rifles, dreaming of home and being reunited with loved ones. In the morning they’d break camp and march singing into battle, where some would fall and others be wounded. Eventually the war would be won and they’d return home victorious. Girls would throw flowers from windows and the celebrations would never end. (pp. 6-7)

As luck would have it, Schlump’s first experience of war turns out to be a fairly gentle one. Armed with his school-leaver’s certificate and a grasp of the local language, Schlump is posted to Loffrande in France where he is put in charge of the administration of three villages, a task he soon gets to grips with, overseeing the work of the villagers and intervening in various matters in need of his attention. A good man at heart, Schlump gets on well with the locals, especially the rather high-spirited young girls who see to it that he is not short of female companionship.

Everything is relatively peaceful here in the countryside, so much so that it would be relatively easy for our protagonist to forget his true status as a soldier were it not for the faint rumble of cannons in the background. Sadly though, all good things must come to an end, and after a season in Loffrande, Schlump hears that he is to be sent to the Front. Somewhat understandably, he feels a mixture of anger and disappointment; in some ways, it is almost like leaving home for a second time. As a sergeant from the service corps says before Schlump departs for the battlefield, ‘Only fools end up in the trenches, or those who’ve been in trouble.’

The relative calm of Schlump’s introduction to life as a soldier only serves to accentuate the horrors that follow. Like Remarque, Grimm doesn’t hold back on the true nature of life in the trenches; the physical and mental effects of war are conveyed here in a fair bit of detail. In this scene, Schlump’s regiment is under attack from the British (the Tommies).

One, two! Those were the small shells; now the heavy one would be on its way. Yes, there it was. A terrible explosion, and Schlump was given a sharp jolt by the wall he was leaning against. A loud boom came from the dugout. Schlump teetered forward. The heavy shell had hit the machine-gun nest and the hand grenades had exploded. Two soldiers shot high into the sky; Schlump had a clear view of them, their arms and legs spread-eagled. And around the two bodies innumerable tiny black dots reeled: fragments of stone and dirt. Everything landed on the Tommies’ side. The trench was completely destroyed. There was no trace of the other two machine gunners. Schlump crawled out of the rubble and checked that his legs were still in one piece. (pp.114-115)

Grimm is particularly strong on the gruelling, precarious rhythm of life in the trenches: the constant exhaustion from operating on two hours sleep; the additional discomfort from rampant infestations of lice; the seemingly never-ending periods of standing guard; the perpetual feeling of exposure; the fetching and carrying of food, most of which gets spilled on the battlefield (that’s if it makes it at all – in some instances the carriers will die or suffer severe injuries en route).

Schlump does not escape the war unharmed; there are a couple of occasions when he is hospitalised and sent back to Germany to recuperate, periods which also serve to highlight the debilitating effects of war on those left behind. During a brief visit home, Schlump finds his father a mere shadow of the man he once was, forced to work in a factory as no one is in need of the services of a tailor any more.

In spite of everything the war has to throw at him, Schlump remains, for the most part, optimistic. Only once or twice does his spirit come close to fracturing, most notably when a pregnant girl is killed by a bomb while crossing the marketplace in her village, an act which provokes a sense of outrage and dismay at the cruelty of war. Moreover, Schlump is not blind to the hypocrisy of those in charge of the foot soldiers, the higher-ups who shield themselves from any personal danger or discomfort. The contrast in the following passage is plain to see.

And then that time when they’d been resting, when the first company had returned from the front trenches, those wretched fellows had looked ghastly: emaciated, ashen-faced, grubby chalk worked around the stubble, stooped, utterly worn out, filthy, terribly filthy, lice-ridden and bloody, and only twenty men left of the sixty who’d been positioned on the front line. These men were standing by their quarters when the fat sergeant major came out, who’s spent each one of the twelve nights playing cards and getting drunk. This sergeant major, the mother superior of the company came and ranted at them as if they were common criminals. If that wasn’t contempt, then what was? (pp. 120-121)

The somewhat episodic nature of this novel makes it difficult to capture in a review. In many ways, it reads like a series of vignettes centering on Schlump’s experiences of the war from 1915-18. My Vintage Books edition of Schlump comes with an excellent afterword by the German writer Volker Weidermann – author of Summer Before the Dark, a book set before the start of WW2 – who describes Grimm’s novel as a docu-fable. It’s an apt description, particularly given the nature of the some of the episodes in the book. There is a fable-like quality to several of the tales and stories peppered throughout the narrative. Almost every character Schlump encounters has a story to tell, an anecdote or myth of some sort, a feature which adds to a feeling of the margins being blurred. In certain instances, it is not always easy to distinguish between what is meant to be ‘real’ and what is more likely to be a horrific nightmare or fantasy of some sort.

I’m very glad to have discovered this book via Grant’s excellent review last year. Schlump is a very endearing character, forever the scallywag, the chancer and the dreamer, always looking to sneak away from his place of confinement in search of girls. In spite of the undeniable horrors of war, Grimm brings a great deal of humour to this story, especially the first part of the book when his protagonist is stationed in France. There is a sense of universality about this story, almost as though Schlump could have been any soldier in any regiment in the Great War. It’s one of the things that makes this novel so relevant to readers everywhere, irrespective of their nationality.

Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz (NYRB Classics)

Journalist, photographer, album cover designer and party girl – these are just some of the roles Eve Babitz adopted during her early years in Los Angeles. She describes her first book, Eve’s Hollywood, as a confessional novel. Nevertheless, it reads like a memoir in the form of a series of sketches, snapshots of a bohemian lifestyle, a life lived in the cultural melting pot of LA with all its colour and splendour. Taken in its entirety, it’s quite a ride.

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First published in 1972 when Babitz was 29, Eve’s Hollywood consists of 45 vignettes and a scrapbook of photos. Some pieces are very brief (a sequence of three pitch-perfect lines on Cary Grant); others are more substantial (mini-essays on the allure of young ingénues, the trials and tribulations of adolescence and the author’s early lovers). In some ways, the following quote sets the tone for the book – it’s taken from the second snapshot, a piece entitled Hollywood and Vine.

When I was 14, I began writing a book, my memoirs, entitled I Wouldn’t Raise My Kid in Hollywood. A few weeks earlier I had let a spectacularly handsome man drive me home from a party I wasn’t allowed to go to, and when I told him I was 14, he dropped me off a block from my house and said, paternally, before he gave me an unpaternal and never-to-be-forgotten kiss, “Don’t let guys pick you up like this, kid, you might get hurt.” After that I never saw him again except on the front page of the papers two years later when he was found dead in Lana Turner’s bathroom. He was called Johnny Stompanato, poor guy. I’d been writing that book sort of before that, but afterwards I began writing it for real. After that, I’ve always been writing it. (pg. 14)

Eve Babitz grew up in the midst of a talented family. Her father, Sol Babitz, was a baroque musicologist and violinist with the film studio Twentieth Century Fox. Her mother, Mae, was an artist (a few of her drawings of LA appear in the book). Family friends included the composer Igor Stravinsky (Eve’s godfather), the opera singer Marilyn Horne, and the influential poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth. Here’s one of Eve’s early recollections of Stravinsky.

Stravinsky himself was Stravinsky.

He was tiny and happy and brilliant and drank. He used to slip glasses of scotch to me underneath the coffee table when my mother wasn’t looking when I was 13. At my 16th birthday party, I wore white (very low necked white, of course) and he slipped rose petals down my top when my mother wasn’t looking. (pg. 10)

Several of the vignettes focus on Babitz’s adolescence, the time she spent at Le Conte Junior High and Hollywood High. She writes openly and engagingly about teenage life in the late 1950s, Friday nights at the Polar Palace ice-skating rink and summer days riding the waves at the rather rough beach at Roadside. None of the kids from Eve’s school went there, only the kids from West LA, ‘tough kids with knives, razors, tire irons and lowered cars.’

Babitz is particularly good on the beauty and power of teenage girls. In The Sheik, she highlights the 20 or so girls at Hollywood High who were extraordinarily beautiful, too beautiful for the constraints of the high school environment. The building itself was awash rumours of the girls’ love affairs, their tears and laughter echoed through the corridors. Even the teachers seemed powerless in the face of this overwhelming force of nature.

These were the daughters of people who were beautiful, brave, and foolhardy, who had left their homes and traveled to movie dreams. In the Depression, when most of them came here, people with brains went to New York and people with faces came West. After being born of parents who believed in physical beauty as a fact of power, and being born beautiful themselves, these girls were then raised in California, where statistically the children grow taller, have better teeth and are stronger than anywhere else in the country. When they reach the age of 15 and their beauty arrives, it’s very exciting—like coming into an inheritance and, as with inheritances, it’s fun to be around when they first come into the money and watch how they spend it and on what. (pg. 81)

Babitz develops this theme in Ingenues, Thunderbird Girls and the Neighbouring Belle: A Confusing Tragedy. In this piece we meet Sally, Eve’s best friend in Hollywood High, a beautiful, rich and tragic ingénue. For Eve, it was love at first sight.

It was a romance. Everything to do with Sally was a romance, that was how she was. She wasn’t one of those cheerfully sunny girls who bring spring into a room with them, She was way too Garbo, sullen and tragic. It’s their best friends who flee shrieking from the patio. (pg. 97)

Naturally, several of Babitz’s vignettes capture something of the cultural milieu of Los Angeles. There are the drugs of course, but some of my favourite pieces focus on other aspects of LA life: the sight of a roller skater crossing Sunset Boulevard; the sheer joy of eating taquitos from a roadside stand on Olvera Street, the best taquito place in town; a beautiful mini-essay on the Watts Towers, a set of sculptural structures designed by Sam Rodia. There are many more. This is a book that sparkles with a lively sense of place and time.

Perhaps most importantly, Babitz is keen to put paid to the notion of Los Angeles as a cultural wasteland. She pushes back against the outsiders’ view of LA, those people from the East Coast or abroad who look down on a city they consider to be rather ‘shallow, corrupt and ugly’.

Like talking about uprisings in front of the slaves, people travel to Los Angeles from more civilised spots and cast their insults upon the days, only to see their own reflections sniffing down their noses back. It’s perfectly all right to say, “Los Angeles is so garish and a wasteland,” as they sit beneath the arbors and pour themselves another glass of wine though it’s already 3 p.m. and they should be getting back to the studio to earn their money. (pg. 192)

There are other cultural musings too. Babitz writes of her ultimate love for Lawrence of Arabia, a film she resisted seeing for a year as a result of all the hype and the shower of Academy Awards it attracted. In The Hollywood Branch Library, we hear of the writers Babitz loves and admires, writers such as Isak Dinesen, Virginia Woolf and Joyce Carol Oates. Here she is on Colette whom she discovered at the tender age of 9.

When I travel, there are always certain books that go with me. Colette always is right there. I wouldn’t trust myself anywhere without Earthly Paradise, what if something happened and I didn’t have it? What if the electricity went out and all my friends died? Without Colette, where would I be? For me, Colette is one of those books you open up anywhere and brush up on what to do. (pg. 231)

Colette as a spiritual guide – isn’t that wonderful?

If you haven’t guessed by now, I really loved this book. It’s a difficult one to describe, but I hope I’ve given you a flavour of it here. Babitz’s style is at once both easy going and whip-smart (she is eminently quotable). There is a breezy lightness of touch to her writing that feels so effortless and engaging. The same is true whether Babitz is writing about the deeply personal (the loss of her virginity at the age of 17, ‘it was the Rainier Ale that did it’) or the more surprising (a short piece on her dislike of photocopying is a delight). There are touches of humour threaded through this collection of vignettes too.

In the end, it’s a book you have to experience for yourself. In some ways, I was reminded of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays and Lucia Berlin’s stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women (both of which I rate very highly). I feel as though I’ve found a new friend in Eve Babitz, one I’d like to return to again and again.

Eve’s Hollywood is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

First published in German in 1929, Grand Hotel is Austrian writer Vicki Baum’s best-known work. Following its initial success, this charming novel was quickly adapted for the stage, and subsequently for the cinema screen, with significant input from Baum herself – the film adaptation (which I have yet to see) features Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and the Barrymore brothers, amongst others.

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The setting for the novel is the Grand Hotel in Berlin, an establishment which endeavours to furnish its residents with the best of everything the city has to offer. Baum’s carefully constructed story revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at the hotel. While it doesn’t aim to follow a conventional narrative arc, Grand Hotel has plenty of surprises in store for its readers, many of which are connected with the secrets and inner lives of this diverse group of guests.

The central character in the mix is Otto Kringelein, a down-at-heel bookkeeper who has travelled from the provinces to Berlin to live the high life for a week or two. After enduring many years of bullying and penny pinching both at work and at home, Kringelein has come to the city with the knowledge that he has only a few weeks left to live. Backed by funds from his savings and life insurance policy, Kringelein is intent on experiencing Life and everything it has to offer before his time is up. Here are his first impressions of his new environment, a passage which I hope will give you a feel for the Grand Hotel itself.

He stood there in his old overcoat, and through the lenses of his pince-nez eagerly devoured it all. He was as exhausted as the winner of a race when he breasts the tape, but he saw the marble pillars with stucco ornament, the illuminated fountain, the easy chairs. He saw men in dress coats and dinner jackets, smart cosmopolitan men. Women with bare arms, in wonderful clothes, with jewelry and furs, beautiful, well-dressed women. He heard music in the distance. He smelled coffee, cigarettes, perfume, whiffs of asparagus from the dining room and the flowers that were displayed for sale on the flower stall. He felt the thick carpet beneath his black leather boots, and this perhaps impressed him most of all. (pg. 13)

At first, Kringelein is befriended by another guest, Doctor Otternschlag, a lonely, embittered war veteran who comes to the bookkeeper’s aid when the hotel staff prove rather reluctant to give him a room. Once he realises that Kringelein’s days are numbered, Otternschlag offers to show him something of Berlin with a trip to the ballet and other civilised outings. Nevertheless, Kringelein cannot help but feel that ‘real life,’ whatever that may be, remains out of his reach.

All that changes when Kringelein crosses paths with the dashing Baron Gaigern, a charming young playboy who also happens to be staying at the hotel. I love this description of the Baron, which serves as an excellent introduction to this elegant womaniser.

There was a smell of lavender and expensive cigarettes, immediately followed by a man whose appearance was so striking that many heads turned to look at him. He was unusually tall and extremely well dressed, and his step was as elastic as a cat’s or a tennis champion’s. He wore a dark blue trench coat over his dinner jacket. This was scarcely correct perhaps, but it gave an attractively negligent air to his appearance. (pg. 6)

Everyone at the Grand Hotel is enchanted by the friendly Baron Gaigern, but little do they know that he is in fact a cat burglar on the lookout for rich pickings. Once he realises Kringelein is in the money, Gaigern sees an opportunity, and so he takes this somewhat fusty bookkeeper under his wing. At long last Kringelein begins to experience the thrill and excitement of the life he has been craving. Under the guidance of the worldly Baron, Kringelein is persuaded to invest in the finest of clothes, new silk shirts and beautifully tailored suits that transform him in an instant. Further delights soon follow: the adrenaline rush of a drive in a fast car; the adventure of an aeroplane flight; and the heady atmosphere of a night at a Berlin club. There is a touch of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day about the sense of vitality (not to mention nervousness) that Kringelein experiences in this new and exhilarating world.

Another character whose life is most definitely altered by an encounter with the Baron is Grusinskaya, an aged Russian ballet dancer and fellow guest at the Grand. Following years of success at the top of her game, Grusinskaya’s career is now on the slide as she finds herself playing to half-empty houses of unappreciative onlookers.

Madame sat in the little dressing room staring at the electric bulb that hung in a wire cage over the looking glass and consulted her memory. No, she thought gloomily, it was not such a success as at Brussels. She was tired to death. She stretched out her most limbs. She sat there, like a boxer who lies in his corner after a hard round, and let Suzette rub her down and chafe her and remove the paint. The dressing room was overheated, dirty, and small. It smelt of old dresses, of glue, of grease paint, of a hundred exhausted bodies. (pg. 26)

A little like Doctor Otternschlag, Grusinskaya is another lonely soul. That said, while past events have left the doctor feeling bitter and cynical, Grusinskaya has been dealt a slightly different hand. The lack of warmth and true love in her life has taken in toll, leaving this once great dancer somewhat vulnerable and fragile. Funnily enough, Grusinskaya is the real reason for Baron Gaigern’s visit to the Grand. The lovable young rogue is after the lady’s pearl necklace, an item rumoured to be worth in the region of 500,000 German marks. Nevertheless, when the Baron embarks on the job of stealing Grusinskaya’s jewellery, something rather surprising happens. To reveal anything more might be a step too far, so perhaps I can encourage you to read the book instead.

The final two characters are Preysing, General Manager of a provincial textiles company, and Flämmchen, the attractive young secretary he hires to assist him with some typing (and a little more besides). Somewhat intriguingly, Preysing is of particular interest to Kringelein as he happens to be the bookkeeper’s ultimate boss. While Kringelein has a score to settle with the GM, Preysing doesn’t even recognise him as one of his own employees when the two men come into contact with each other at the hotel. Preysing, a somewhat cold and unadventurous businessman at heart, has pressing troubles of his own. He has come to Berlin to negotiate a key business deal, a precarious merger with another company which he desperately needs to pull off. Flämmchen, on the other hand, is a breath of fresh air. Tired of looking for a permanent job, she knows her own value and longs to be in the movies. Like many of other characters here, Preysing and Flämmchen find their lives irrevocably altered by their time at the prestigious hotel.

Grand Hotel is an utterly delightful novel full of moments of light and significant darkness. Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one character to another with great 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 characters 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. What appears to be chance and the luck of the draw may in fact turn out to be a case of cause and effect. In some ways, the Grand is a metaphor for life itself, complete with the great revolving door which governs our daily existence. I’ll finish with a short quote that hints at this.

These unacknowledged acquaintanceships are always happening in hotel life. You brush against someone in the elevator; you meet again in the dining room, in the cloakroom, and in the bar; or you go in front of him or behind him through the revolving door—the door that never stops shoveling people in and shoveling them out. (pg. 190)

This is my first read for Biblibio’s Women in Translation Month, which is running throughout August. For other perspectives on this novel, here are links to reviews by Guy and Melissa. Update: Caroline has also reviewed it, link here, as has Emma here.

Grand Hotel is published by NYRB. My thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.