Tag Archives: NYRB Classics

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Another of my reads for the Classics Club, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is narrated by Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles Fairclough. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience – it is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heartwarming.

When young Sophia meets fellow artist, Charles, on a train, she soon falls for him against the backdrop of a glorious English summer. In spite of opposition from virtually everyone in Charles’s family, the couple marry very quickly and find a flat in North London which they furnish with secondhand pieces, all painted a beautiful duck-egg green. Their lifestyle is rather bohemian to say the least.

Right from the start, money is in very short supply. While Sophia has a regular job at a commercial studio, Charles considers himself to be a more ‘serious’ artist, reliant on the occasional commission or ad-hoc sale for income. In reality, he contributes next to nothing to the household finances – and when he does, it is quickly frittered away on luxuries such as paint, new brushes and restaurant dinners. For all her charms and initial optimism about married life, Sophia is rather naïve, and the first half of the novel is peppered with humorous moments as she tries to get to grips with marriage and running the house as well as being the main breadwinner in the family. Impractical advice from various members of Charles’s interfering family does little to help matters, especially when it’s delivered in a rather condescending fashion – here’s a typical example.

Although most of Charles’s relations came from Wiltshire they used to come to London very frequently. They all talked and asked questions about our financial position and took the line of “I hope you are looking after dear Charles properly”, or “What a lucky girl you are to have married into our family.” In those days I was too timid to say much, but I used to resent it all the more and sometimes, after they left, I would be nervy and resentful with Charles. Also they would keep suggesting impractical ways we could earn extra money. They sent cuttings from the Daily Mail about how I could make sweets or gloves at home and make a fortune, or complicated rackets for Charles to sell note-cases to our friends on commission. As none of our friends had any notes, he wouldn’t have done very well from it. (pp. 20-21)

Things take a distinct turn for the worse when Sophia finally discovers she is expecting a baby (cue some amusing scenes as she wonders why she has been feeling poorly all the time). Charles is pretty horrified by the prospect of becoming a father, and Sophia herself has no real understanding of the practicalities of motherhood. In short, they are both completely unprepared for what lies ahead. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel for Sophia when I read the following passage.

Before I married Charles I used to hope I would have masses of children. I thought it would be nice always to have at least one baby and quite a number of older children all developing in their individual ways, but before we were married Charles told me he never wanted to have any children, and I saw they would not fit in with the kind of life we would lead, so I just hoped none would come to such unsuitable parents—anyway, not for years. I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said “I won’t have any babies” very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control, but by this time I knew that idea was quite wrong. (p. 26)

When Sophia informs her boss that she is pregnant, he responds by telling her she might as well leave at the next holiday. We are in the early 1930s here, many years before the introduction of maternity pay and employment protection for expectant mothers. With Sophia out of a job and Charles swanning about all day nurturing his artistic tendencies, the couple’s prospects are very poor indeed.

Much to Charles’s dismay, Sophia has a little boy which they name Sandro. He is a fragile little thing, very quiet and gentle and almost certainly malnourished. In spite of all this, Charles doesn’t warm to the child. Not for the first time, Comyns pulled me up short with one of Sophia’s revelations about life with her husband with all his blatant insensitivity.

Charles still disliked him [Sandro], but in spite of this made some drawings of us together, so I hoped eventually he would get used to him. At the moment I felt I had most unreasonably brought some awful animal home, and that I was in disgrace for not taking it back to the shop where it came from. (p. 64)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the plot. It might spoil things, I think. Suffice it to say that the situation gradually deteriorates over the course of the next couple of years. While there are occasional periods of brightness – an inheritance from Sophia’s aunt and the occasional commission for Charles provide brief respites from poverty – they are sporadic and relatively short-lived.  All too soon Sophia finds herself desperately scrabbling around for money again, a situation which leads to the re-emergence of tensions in the marriage. She is forced to find another job to support the family as Charles won’t (or can’t) hack it in a commercial studio. As the story moves towards a somewhat inevitable crisis point, the mood darkens considerably, and the humour that characterises the first half of the novel gradually falls away. In this scene, Sophia reflects on her first day back at work as a commercial artist. Once again, Charles’s selfishness is all too apparent…

The first day there, I had to walk to work because we had no money in the house. Charles promised he would bring some in time for lunch, but, of course, didn’t, and I was too shy of the other girls to borrow any, so I became rather hungry and when it was time to leave I waited to see if he would come to fetch me, but again he failed me, so I had to walk home, getting more and more hungry on the way, and angry, too. When I arrived home I saw Charles through the uncurtained window. He was sitting reading with a tray of tea-things beside him. He looked so comfortable, I became even more angry, and dashed in like a whirlwind and picked up a chair and hit him with it. He did look startled. It was the first time I had done anything like that, and he was disgusted with me. I was ashamed of myself, too, but felt too tired to apologise, so just went to bed and wished I was dead. (pp. 100-101)

Hooray for Sophia! I think I would have sideswiped him with that chair, too.

This is an excellent novel, one that I enjoyed a lot more than I had expected to. For some reason, I had got it into my head that Comyns would be too left-field or eclectic for my tastes. How wrong could I be! I found Sophia a rather endearing narrator – yes, she is gullible and naïve, but she is also sympathetic and good-natured at heart. I couldn’t help but warm to her matter-of-fact, childlike narrative, a style that makes her revelations all the more shocking and impactful when they come, like little bolts out of the blue.

One of the things I like most about this novel is the way Comyns weaves various points of social commentary into Sophia’s story, all grounded in personal experience no doubt. There are some truly shocking and degrading scenes depicting Sophia’s treatment in the maternity wards following her admission to give birth. Several of the nurses are cruel and insensitive to her condition, and she is forced to carry her own suitcase from one room to another during a seemingly endless sequence of transfers through the hospital. The lack of proper care doesn’t end there either; this next passage highlights the lack of support and information available to young mothers following the birth.

We had no money at all and the milkman wouldn’t leave any milk because we hadn’t given him any money lately. He was quite nice about it and said we could have some free milk every day if we applied to the council. Mothers with new babies were allowed one pint a day if they had no money. The council went up in my estimation when I heard about this. Up till now I had thought it was almost a criminal offence to have a baby. All the same I did not apply for the free milk, because I was afraid they would take the baby away and put it in a home on the grounds of its parents having no visible means of support. (p. 65)

I’ve probably made this novel sound terribly grim, but it isn’t at all. There are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments here, especially in the first half of the book. More importantly, perhaps, we know from the opening page that there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Sophia. By the end of the novel, she is in a happier place having learnt some important lessons along the way. I guess that’s as much as any of us can hope for in life.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (tr. Stephen Twilley)

Shortly before his death in 1957, the Sicilian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote The Professor and the Siren, a beguiling short story published here alongside two additional pieces: a brief sketch entitled Joy and the Law, and the opening chapter of an unfinished novel, The Blind Kittens. Lampedusa is best known for his landmark historical novel, The Leopard, a book I have yet to read (it’s on my list for the Classics Club). In the meantime, I’m treating this slim collection as an appetiser, a little taste of things to come.

The titular piece, The Professor and the Siren, is the star of the show here, an enigmatic story of great elegance and beauty. Set in Turin in 1938, it is narrated by Paolo Corbera, a young journalist and a bit of a womaniser who is now seeking a brief respite from the fairer sex; unfortunately for the journalist, his attempts to maintain two separate lovers at the same time have recently come to the attention of the ladies concerned. In search of a retreat from his usual lifestyle, Corbera starts to visit a café in the heart of Turin, a traditional place frequented by members of the city’s old guard – colonels, magistrates, academics and suchlike. One evening, he notices a man at the next table, and his interest is immediately piqued.

On my right sat an elderly man wrapped in an old overcoat with a worn astrakhan collar. He read foreign magazines one after another, smoked Tuscan cigars and frequently spat. Every so often he would close his magazine and appear to be pursuing some memory in the spirals of smoke; then he would go back to reading and spitting. […] Once, however, he when he came across a photograph in a magazine of an archaic Greek statue, the kind with widespread eyes and an ambiguous smile, I was surprised to see his disfigured fingers caress the image with positively regal delicacy. (p. 3)

The two men strike up a conversation with one another, a dialogue that continues to develop over the course of a few weeks as the pair return to the café on a nightly basis. Corbera’s new friend is Senator Rosario La Ciura, an eminent professor in the field of Hellenic Studies, a somewhat grumpy and insolent man who eschews pretty much everything to do with the modern world and the permissive society therein. In many ways, the two men are complete opposites: one is young, the other old; one is liberal in his views, the other scathing, particularly when it comes to the young women of the day. And yet they have one vital thing in common: both men hail from the beautiful, mythical island of Sicily.

So we spoke about eternal Sicily, the Sicily of the natural world; about the scent of rosemary on the Nebrodi Mountains and the taste of Melilli honey; about the swaying cornfields seen from Etna on a windy day in May, some secluded spots near Syracuse, and the fragrant gusts from the citrus plantations known to sweep down on Palermo during sunset in June. We spoke of those magical summer nights, looking out over the gulf of Castellammare, when the stars are mirrored in the sleeping sea, and how, lying on your back among the mastic trees, your spirit is lost on the whirling heavens, while the body braces itself, fearing the approach of demons. (pp. 10-11)

One evening, the professor decides to tell Corbera the story of an idyllic summer he spent in Augusta, Syracuse, many years earlier in his youth – a story he hopes will explain some of the reasons behind his rather idiosyncratic behaviour and philosophy towards life. While in Augusta, the young La Ciura spent many hours studying on a boat, gently rocking to and fro on the peaceful waters. One morning, ‘the smooth face of a sixteen-year-old emerged from the sea’, a movement that was accompanied by a pull on the side of the craft as the youngster gripped the gunwale. Naturally, the budding professor was transfixed by this image, one he describes to Corbera in intimate detail.

This, however, was not a smile like those to be seen among your sort, always debased with an accessory expression of benevolence or irony, of compassion, cruelty, or whatever the case may be; it expressed nothing but itself: an almost bestial delight in existing, a joy almost divine. This smile was the first of her charms that would affect me, revealing paradises of forgotten serenity. From her disordered hair, which was the colour of the sun, seawater dripped into her exceedingly open green eyes, over features of infantile purity. (p. 29)

What followed was an intensely passionate encounter between the pair, one that undoubtedly left its mark on the professor for the rest of his life.

This is a very sensual story of eternal love, yearning and loss in which Lampedusa’s use of language perfectly matches both the subject matter and the setting. It ends with a slight twist, finishing on a bittersweet note which leaves the reader with much to ponder, particularly about the intensity of certain moments in life. At times, I was reminded of some of the scenes from Michelangelo Antonioni’s beautiful film L’Avventura. It has a similar tone, I think. There are nods to classical Greek mythology too. Either way, this is an excellent story, worth the entry price of the collection alone.

The next piece in the collection, Joy and the Law, is a brief tale with a moral message at the centre. It features a hard-up accountant, struggling to keep himself and his family afloat in the face of mounting debts. Luckily, as it’s Christmas, our protagonist has just received his annual bonus, something that will keep the wolf from the door at least for the immediate future.

Contained in the wallet was 37,245 lire, the year-end bonus he’d received an hour earlier, amounting to the removal of several thorns from his family’s side: his landlord, to whom he owed two quarters’ rent, growing more insistent the longer he was thwarted; the exceedingly punctual collector of installment payments on his wife’s veste de lapin (“It suits you much better than a long coat, my dear, it’s slimming”); the black looks of the fishmonger and greengrocer. (p. 40)

In spite of this, the accountant seems more chuffed with his fifteen-pound panettone, a gift he has received for being the most deserving employee in the business. Nevertheless, our protagonist’s joy is somewhat short-lived. When he arrives home with his bounty, the accountant is reminded by his wife that there are also other debts to pay, those of a slightly different nature but equally important. This is an enjoyable little sketch, ironic in tone, a pleasant interlude between the other two stories in this volume.

The final piece in this collection, The Blind Kittens, was originally intended to form the opening chapter of a follow-up novel to The Leopard. Consequently, it is best viewed in this context – as an introduction that was to lay the groundwork for an epic story to follow. Sadly, Lampedusa never had the opportunity to develop the narrative any further due to his untimely death (he was just 60 years old when he died). Nevertheless, The Blind Kittens is well worth reading in its own right. As an opening passage, it sows the seeds of a tale of intrigue set within the context of the Ibba dynasty, an influential Sicilian family headed up by the rather formidable and unscrupulous virtual baron, Don Batassano. In the first few pages of the story, we learn that Don Batassano has just acquired another property to add to his empire. As Batassano’s lawyer, Ferrara, peruses a map of the Ibba family holdings, he reflects on the underhand means behind the various acquisitions over the years.

Ferrara stood up to take a closer look. From his professional experience, from countless indiscretions overheard, he knew well how that enormous mass of property had been assembled: an epic tale of cunning, of lack of scruples, of defiance of the laws, of implacability and also of luck, of daring as well. (p. 52)

Once again, this piece is very different in tone from the preceding two. It is sharper, more cutting in style, rich in both detail and texture. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s wonderful classic, The House of Ulloa, a novel I reviewed last year. What a shame Lampedusa never got the opportunity to finish this work – it could have been another masterpiece.

Guy and Karen have posted interesting reviews of this collection, just click on the relevant links to read them.

The Professor and the Siren is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

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)

morel-2

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.