Tag Archives: Picador

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

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

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

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

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

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

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

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

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

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

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

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

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

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

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn

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

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr

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

Love and Summer by William Trevor

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

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

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

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

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

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

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

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

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

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

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

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

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

Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard

A week or so ago, I wrote about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1972 novel, Odd Girl Out, which I mostly enjoyed. The preceding EJH, Something in Disguise (1969) proved to be a less satisfying read for me, a somewhat uneven novel compared to either After Julius (1965) or Odd Girl Out. More about the reasons for this a little later.

Disg

In short, Disguise could be thought of as a family saga, one that delves into the challenging nature of relationships, particularly those between husbands and wives. Central to the family is May, whose first husband was killed many years earlier in the Second World War. May is now married to Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, a pompous, penny-pinching bore who spends most of his spare time in London, dining at his club and visiting a ‘lady friend’ for sexual favours. Meanwhile, May must amuse herself at home, a rather staid old house in Surrey which she finds both cold and unwelcoming.

Both partners have grown-up children from their former marriages. May has two: twenty-four-year old Oliver, a bright, easy-going chap who would much rather find a wealthy young woman to marry than earn a living by getting a job; and twenty-year-old Elizabeth, a caring, idealistic young woman looking to make her own way in life. (As the novel opens, Elizabeth somewhat reluctantly leaves the Surrey home to join Oliver at his flat in London, chiefly as a means of escape from Herbert and his annoyingly boorish ways.)

Completing the ‘family’ is Herbert’s daughter, Alice, a shy, guileless young woman just setting out on married life with her much older husband, Leslie – another conceited bore with little concern for others. (In truth, Alice is so desperate to get away from her father that she accepts a proposal of marriage from the first man who shows an interest in her, almost from fear that there may never be another.) The following quote – taken from a discussion between the couple on their wedding night – captures Leslie’s attitude in a nutshell.

[Leslie] ‘Well – it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect me to be completely inexperienced at my age – now would it?’

[Alice] ‘No.’

‘I’m not – you see. Not at all inexperienced: quite the reverse – you might say. I’ve been – intimate – with quite a number of women. I’ve never known them well,’ he added hastily, ‘you understand what I mean, don’t you Alice?’

‘Yes.’

‘I mean, naturally, they weren’t the sort of women you’d expect me to have known well. That wasn’t their function if you take me. But it does mean that I know a good deal about a certain side of life. That’s necessary for men. For women – of course – it’s different. I don’t suppose – well I wouldn’t expect you to know anything at all about that.’ He finished his brandy and looked at her expectantly. ‘No.’

‘Of course not.’ He seemed at once to be both uplifted and disheartened by this. (p. 38)

Much of the novel’s ‘action’ revolves around Elizabeth and her relationship with John Cole, a wealthy, attentive man whom she meets in the course of her work, cooking dinners for private clients in the upmarket areas of London. In short, John sweeps Elizabeth off her feet, whisking her away to a villa in the South of France, one of his many luxurious properties in exotic places. Their affair is passionate, idyllic and rather unrealistic – to the point where it all begins to feel rather silly. Nevertheless, there are significant challenges for the couple along the way, not least in the form of John’s daughter, Jennifer, a spoilt brat who does her utmost to thwart her father’s new relationship. The fact that Elizabeth is the same age as Jennifer herself makes the situation seem all the more galling.

Meanwhile, back in Surrey, May is starting to feel the strain of life on her own with Herbert, without any of the children present to offer their support. As the days slip by, May begins to feel increasingly unwell, but no specific illness can be identified, the doctors ultimately putting her condition down to age or the stress of Alice’s wedding. A visit from Elizabeth – who is left reeling from Jennifer’s impact on her relationship with John – should prove beneficial to May. However, both women shy away from opening up about what is really going on in their lives, preferring instead to pretend that everything is okay.

In spite of this novel’s flaws – the rather uneven quality, the unrealistic scenarios, the overly romanticised view of certain relationships – there are some real moments of insight here, particularly in the portrayal of May’s relationship with Herbert. The following observation is very telling, hinting at the Colonel’s selfish, duplicitous nature, something that becomes increasingly apparent as the novel progresses. (The novel’s title, Something in Disguise, does feel rather apt.)

Herbert was sitting in his large chair with his head thrown back listening to the cricket news from a small and badly serviced radio resting on the arm of his chair. A whiskey and soda lay within his grasp. When he became aware of Elizabeth, he went through the bizarre and contradictory motions of not getting up out of his chair although he knew he should: or, possibly, seeming to get up out of his chair and then not managing it because he was listening too hard to the radio. Elizabeth took advantage of this pantomime to make signs at the drink and herself, and with the barest flicker of hesitation, he seemed to agree. Luckily for her, the drink was still unlocked… (pp. 180-181)

Some of the secondary characters are particularly well-drawn, most notably Alice, who is utterly miserable in her new life with Leslie, trapped in a pokey bungalow not far from her husband’s family. Rosemary (Leslie’s nosy sister) is utterly believable, in spite of only being glimpsed in brief. Pregnant, lonely and homesick, Alice misses her cat, Claude, terribly, a situation made all the more painful by the gift of a demanding puppy from Leslie’s beloved mother – a well-meaning gesture that completely misses the mark.

Ultimately, the novel builds to a rather dramatic denouement with two shocking incidents playing out virtually simultaneously. Once again, there are credibility issues here with least one of the developments – that involving Elizabeth and John – feeling somewhat brutal and unnecessary.

Having now read a few of this author’s novels, I am coming to the realisation that many of the scenarios created by EJH are deliberately designed to highlight the rather unrealistic, idealised vision of marriage held by society at the time. There is a sense that she is highlighting the foolishness of the women who fall into these traps – particularly those who buy into the highly romanticised vision of love at first sight, many of whom discover that the reality is much less fulfilling than the idealistic vision they were led to believe. Equally, others drift from one doomed relationship to another, hopelessly clinging to unsuitable men in spite of the knowledge that they will almost certainly end up damaged as a result. There are glimpses of hope amidst the pain and oppression of delusion, but these are relatively few and far between.

Something in Disguise is published by Picador; personal copy.

Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I’m a bit hit-or-miss when it comes to Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius being the hit and The Long View the miss. (Getting It Right, which I read earlier this year and never got around to writing up at the time, fell somewhere between the two.) Odd Girl Out (1972) broadly fits into the ‘hit’ category for me, albeit with a few caveats here and there. It’s a novel about sexual attraction and secret relationships, largely played out against the comfortable background of the privileged middle classes in 1970s Berkshire.

Odd 1

Edmund and Anne Cornhill, both in their late thirties/early forties, have been happily married for ten years, content with themselves and one another in their own secluded world. Edmund travels to London each day where he works as an estate agent, a role that often involves the assessment of grand country houses. Meanwhile, Anne amuses herself by pottering in the garden, shopping for treats, and cooking delicious meals for Edmund to enjoy on his return.

As with any longstanding relationship, there are occasional niggles to be smoothed out. Anne wishes Edmund wouldn’t insist in bringing her breakfast in bed every morning (in truth she considers it a waste of valuable time), while Edmund promptly ignores Anne’s suggestions on which shirt-and-tie combination he should wear that day, preferring to select his own clothes instead. Nevertheless, the marriage is a comfortable one, both parties feeling fulfilled and contented.

All this begins to change when Arabella comes to stay, destabilising the Cornhills’ idyllic lifestyle in her own rather naïve and charming way. Arabella is young, beautiful and vulnerable, recovering as she is from the after-effects of a very recent abortion. (No spoilers here as this is made abundantly clear from the start.) The link between Arabella and the Cornhills is a somewhat tenuous one. In essence, she is the daughter of Edmund’s former stepmother, Clara, a frightful, self-centred woman who treats the girl like an unwanted appendage or nuisance to be dealt with, preferably by way of a convenient marriage.

Armed with her youth and progressive outlook, Arabella is more sexually liberated than either Edmund or Anne, a point that leads to the virtually inevitable affair. Edmund is utterly beguiled by Arabella, to the point that he starts behaving like a lovesick teenager in her presence, desperately trying to extend the time they can spend alone together. What is somewhat more surprising is Arabella’s impact on Anne, who also finds herself affected by the young girl’s presence in the house, albeit in a rather different, more unpredictable way.

It was extraordinary how she [Arabella] could stream with tears and go on looking beautiful and not have to blow her nose, Anne thought. She wanted to feel ‘poor little thing’, but there was something about Arabella’s appearance and state that went well beyond that. She put out her hand to stroke Arabella’s hair, and touching it, felt vaguely frightened. (p. 107)

Alongside the main narrative thread, there are some interesting secondary stories, too – perhaps most notably that of Janet, the downtrodden wife of Arabella’s former lover, Henry, an unsuccessful actor and prize brute. While Janet does her best to feed her children on little more than thin air, Henry proceeds to abuse her, making her life a misery at every possible opportunity. If anything, I would have liked a lot more of Janet, but sadly it wasn’t to be – a relatively minor quibble in the scheme of things, but a missed opportunity nonetheless. Anne’s backstory reveals another abusive relationship: a hasty previous marriage with a most unsuitable partner, Waldo, now fortunately out of the picture in Canada.

Overall, this is a very well-written novel about the fickle, complicated nature of love. As far as Arabella sees things, pretty much everything in life is simple – not necessarily easy, but simple. In reality, however, love, desire and sexual relationships are much more complicated than this – a point that Arabella eventually discovers to her peril. (I can’t help but wonder if this is another story that draws on some of EJH’s own rather bruising relationships with abusive, self-absorbed men – it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.)

The period detail is rather wonderful, too. There are some glorious touches from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s here, including martinis, Sancerre, salmon trout, chilled soup, kaftans, pant suits and holidays in Greece – like an upmarket version of Abigail’s Party in certain respects. As ever with EJH, the descriptions of settings, rooms, furnishings and other minutiae are perfectly observed.

In summary, this is an elegant novel with touches of real sadness and poignancy. Recommended to readers of relationship-driven fiction with a domestic setting.

This is the first of two pieces about EJH I’m planning to post over the next few weeks – more about my responses to another of her novels to follow.

Odd Girl Out is published by Picador; personal copy.

The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn – part 2, the individual books

Earlier this week, I posted a piece with some overarching thoughts on Edward St Aubyn’s five-part sequence of books, The Patrick Melrose novels. (If you missed this, do consider going back to read it – you can find the link here.) In short, the series charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. It’s also one of the highlights of my reading year so far.

In this follow-up post, I’m going to touch on the individual novels, just to highlight one or two points about each one. Inevitably, this will include the broad arc of Patrick’s story. However, the traditional notion of plot is not the main driving force here; instead, the series is more about character, personal experience and psychological insight. If you’re thinking of reading the series, hopefully this will give you an idea of what to expect from it.

The first book, Never Mind, explores Patrick’s childhood – in particular, the torturous summer he spends with his sadistic father, David Melrose, and wealthy, alcoholic mother, Eleanor, at the family’s (or rather Eleanor’s) house in the South of France – Patrick is just five years old at this point. It is a shallow, privileged world, one in which disdain, ignorance and abject neglect are allowed to flourish and fester.

There are a number of key incidents in this book, most notably Patrick’s first experience of sexual abuse at the hands of his father – a practice that continues unchallenged for the next three years. Eleanor, on the other hand, is either too week or drunk to intervene. (There is a suggestion in the books that Eleanor is aware of David’s ongoing abuse of her son but is too frightened to do anything to stop it.)

Naturally, on account of the subject matter, this is a difficult book to read, devastating in its emotional intensity and impact. The abuse scene is all the more powerful for its subtlety and understated nature, a technique that leaves it to the reader’s imagination to complete the distressing picture.

Max has already written an excellent review of this book, which I would encourage you to read as it delves into many of the book’s strengths. Before moving on, I’d just like to highlight one aspect of St Aubyn’s style that stood out for me – namely, his ability to convey such astute insights into character through the smallest of actions or details.

…he [David] leaned over and picked up a half-smoked Montecristo cigar. One was ‘supposed’ to remove the paper band from the cigar, and so David left it on. To break even the smallest rules by which others convinced themselves that they were behaving correctly gave him great pleasure. His disdain for vulgarity included the vulgarity of wanting to avoid the appearance of being vulgar. (p. 90, Never Mind)

Book two, Bad News, finds Patrick at twenty-two, flying to New York to collect his father’s ashes whilst in the throes of multiple addictions. Strung out on various cocktails of speed, cocaine, heroin and alcohol, Patrick tries to reconcile his feelings about David’s death, a process that takes him to a nightmarish abyss, characterised by the relentless chorus of voices that haunt his hallucinatory dreams.

There is some brilliant writing about the physical and emotional impact of drug addiction here, particularly given the pernicious demons from Patrick’s past. However, it is the acerbic gallows humour that really stands out for me – passages such as the following in which Patrick discusses his father’s argumentative nature with an old family friend, Anne, following a viewing of the body at the funeral parlour.

‘So you liked being with him in a place he didn’t complain about.’

‘Exactly,’ said Patrick. ‘I couldn’t believe my luck, and for a while I expected him to sit up in his coffin, like a vampire at sunset, and say, “The service here is intolerable.” Then we would have had to go to three or four other funeral parlours. Mind you, the service was intolerable. They sent me to the wrong corpse.’

‘The wrong corpse!’ exclaimed Anne.

‘Yes, I wound up at a jaunty Jewish cocktail party given for a Mr Hermann Newton. I wish I could have stayed; they seemed to be having such fun…’ (p. 41, Bad News)

By book three, Some Hope, thirty-year-old Patrick has experienced some success in conquering his drug addiction, a habit he now recognises as concealing a deeper struggle – the fight to avoid turning into his father.

In many ways, this novel reminds me very much of Anthony Powell’s marvellous series, A Dance to the Music of Time, which I have written about here. Some Hope revolves around a glamorous party hosted by the Melroses’ old acquaintance, Bridget – also present at the house during that fateful summer portrayed in Never Mind.

It is, in one sense, a biting social satire in the style of Powell and Waugh, replete with casual cruelties and cutting remarks. The guest of honour at the party is Princess Margaret, a woman who behaves in the most callously to various guests, particularly the French Ambassador, who comes close to creating a diplomatic incident, and Bridget’s young daughter, Belinda. To accentuate the Powell comparison even further, there is even a scene featuring a painting by Poussin – surely a nod to the title of Dance.

In book four, Mother’s Milk, we find Patrick in his early forties, living with his kind and grounded wife, Mary, and their two young children, Robert and Thomas. It is a book about mothers and the influence they bring to bear on their children. More specifically, Eleanor’s failures of Patrick throughout his life; the negative impact of Patrick’s maternal grandmother on Eleanor herself; and finally, Mary’s very different approach to motherhood, one that reflects her nurturing nature and unbridled capacity for love.

While Patrick knows he has already passed on some of his preoccupations and anxieties to Robert, there may still be time to take a different approach with Thomas, one that prevents the toxic fallout from tainting the life of his youngest son.

He [Patrick] was obsessed, it was true, with stopping the flow of poison from one generation to the next, but he already felt that he had failed. Determined not to inflict the causes of his suffering on his children, he couldn’t protect them from the consequences. Patrick had buried his own father twenty years ago and hardly ever thought about him. At the peak of his kindness David had been rude, cold, sarcastic, easily bored; compulsively raising the hurdle at the last moment to make sure that Patrick cracked his shins. It would have been too flagrant for Patrick to become a disastrous father, or to get a divorce, or to disinherit his children; instead they had to live with the furious, sleepless consequence of those things. (pp. 88-89, Mother’s Milk)

As the series draws to a close with the final book, At Last, there are signs that Patrick may be able to find some kind of way forward, a sense of release from the traumas and frustrations of the past. At the age of forty-five, he is attending his mother’s funeral, an opportunity to let go of longstanding anger and resentment. Surely his mother’s passion for philanthropy, for using her money to try and save the disadvantaged children of the world, stemmed from a subconscious feeling that she had failed to protect her own son. As the full horror of Eleanor’s life with David is finally revealed, Patrick realises that it is not the end of closeness but the end of longing for such feelings of intimacy and protection that he must mourn.

By turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny, this series is a masterpiece of modern fiction. Very highly recommended indeed.

The Patrick Melrose novels are published by Picador; personal copies.

The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn – some overall thoughts

Something a little different from me today. Not a review as such, but some overarching reflections on this exceptional series of novels, which I gobbled up over the course of a week back in April during my recovery from a major fracture. I’d already had a bit of a false start back in February with the first book in the series, Never Mind; but then again, a six-hour session in A&E was probably not the ideal environment in which to read a story as brutal and hard-hitting as this. (Perversely, it was the only book I had with me at the time of my accident; but to be honest, I was grateful for any form of distraction from the pain.)

Anyway, back to the books. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, it charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. Along the way, the novels delve into child abuse, marital rape, drug addiction, alcohol misuse, abject cruelty and neglect, and all manner of other sadistic behaviours. It is a story in which the sins and failures of both fathers and mothers shape the lives of their children in the most destructive of ways. (Sounds great, doesn’t it? I know – I’m really selling it here.)

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Far from it in fact. With the possible exception of book one, Never Mind, the novels are shot through with a wickedly funny, caustic seam of humour, much of which stems from Patrick’s inherent cynicism and fiercely cutting sense of wit.

The books are also superbly written; not a word wasted or out of place. St Aubyn is clearly one of our finest prose stylists, a writer with the ability to convey the sharpest of feelings in just a sentence or two.

The first drink centred him for about twenty minutes and then the rest brought his night mind rushing over the landscape like the dark blade of an eclipse. (p. 225, Mother’s Milk)

When read as a series, the novels are immensely satisfying as they give the reader such a deep insight into Patrick’s inner life, complete with its anxieties, complexities and self-destructive tendencies. There is something very humane and profound about these novels, the sense that by examining the various generations of his family in this way, St Aubyn is attempting to exorcise the ghosts of his past, to banish the demons of his early life and painful existence. (The books are clearly semi-autobiographical.) And yet they are about as far from the conventional misery memoir as you are ever likely to get. The combination of fierce intelligence and sharp, sardonic wit sets them apart from anything as formulaic as this.

In a follow-up post to go out later this week, I’m planning to touch on the individual novels, just to highlight one or two points about each one. Inevitably, this will include the broad arc of Patrick’s story. However, the traditional notion of plot is not the main driving force here; instead, the series is more about character, personal experience and psychological insight.

In the meantime, I’ll wrap up with the following thoughts…

Razor-sharp, fiercely intelligent and emotionally penetrating in its examination of dysfunctional families, this series is a masterpiece of English fiction. I’m so glad I returned to it in a more conducive environment.

Viewed individually, the books are by turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny. Perseverance may well be the key here – if you get past the first two volumes, you’re almost certainly home free. More on the individual instalments in my next post, hopefully later this week…

The Patrick Melrose novels are published by Picador; personal copies.

After Julius by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I’ve been looking for an opportunity to try again with Elizabeth Jane Howard, ever since my somewhat mixed response to The Long View, her novel of a deeply unhappy marriage told in reverse. While structurally very interesting, TLV felt rather uneven and was ultimately marred by bitterness for me. I just couldn’t engage with or invest enough in the characters to care about them – an issue exacerbated by Howard’s somewhat clinical, dispassionate tone.

So here I am again with EJH – this time, her 1965 novel, After Julius, which also fits nicely with Simon and Karen’s latest ‘Club’ event, running all this week. Happily, this experience was much more positive for me. I’d even go as far as to say that I loved this novel with one very notable caveat – more on that later, as the scene in question comes towards the end.

The Julius of the title is Julius Grace, an affluent publisher who was killed while assisting in the Dunkirk evacuation during WW2. The story takes places over a weekend some twenty years after Julius’ death, as the remaining members of the Grace family, together with a few guests, gather at the family home in Sussex. What starts as well-intentioned, sociable occasion ends in devastation as various revelations connected with Julius’s heroic actions gradually come to light.

Hosting the weekend is Esme, Julius’ fifty-eight-year-old widow who has never remarried following the loss of her husband. Joining Esme for the weekend are her two daughters: the beauty of the family, Cressy (37), a rather reluctant concert pianist; and the more practical, down-to-earth, Emma (27), a reader and editor in the family’s publishing firm.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Emma has brought along a young man, a wayward poet named Dan Brick, whom she met earlier that day while at work. Being essentially working-class, Dan comes from a very different social sphere to the Graces and their friends, and his responses to the events of the weekend are rather interesting to observe. Importantly, he seems to have clicked with Emma, a young woman whose only previous experience with the opposite sex has blighted most of her adult life.

Cressy, on the other hand, has come alone. Following an early, disastrous marriage which promptly ended with her husband’s death in the war, Cressy has subjected herself to a string of unhappy affairs, failing to achieve any sense of comfort or emotional fulfilment despite her desires. In essence, her situation is encapsulated in the following quote.

Had been married; husband killed in the war. No children. Sad, but infinitely intriguing – and convenient. Surely there must be a lover lurking about? Some cynical, selfish fellow who ruined sensitive intelligent girls by spending two evenings a week with them – preying upon their finer feelings with anything from money, the right sexual touch to downright lies about the future? But there never was, for Cressy was passionately monogamous. So whoever it was took possession, spent two evenings a week with her (and sometimes more, but they couldn’t be sure from week to week – they’d telephone anyhow so don’t go out: and, poor fool, she never would), and preyed upon her feelings with whatever equipment they could bring to bear. (p.60)

Cressy has vowed to end her latest hopeless affair, a liaison with the thoroughly self-centred Dick Hammond – a factor made all the more complicated by his unexpected arrival at the house for Saturday night’s dinner party.

Also in attendance for the weekend is Esme’s former lover, forty-four-year-old Felix King. While Julius was still alive, Esme embarked on a passionate affair with Felix, the one great love of her life irrespective of their differences in age. As the novel unravels, it soon becomes clear that Esme had never truly loved Julius, certainly not in a deep, fulfilling sense. His obsession with quoting poetry to her in moments of heightened emotion had put paid to all that, right from the early stages of their marriage.

In all moments of emotion he resorted to poetry; and this included making love to her. She had pleaded ignorance, but this only provoked hours of tender instruction, and every time he reached out for some slim calf-bound volume from a shelf, or threw back his head and half shut his eyes (he knew a fantastic amount of stuff by heart) the same wave of unwilling reverence and irritated incomprehension swept over her. (p. 28)

Emotionally isolated in her relationship with Julius, Esme turned to Felix for a little love and affection – perhaps unsurprisingly so given the nature of her situation.

No son was a private, nagging refrain, and for the rest of her functions she sometimes felt as though she was endlessly laying an elaborate table for a meal to which nobody in the end sat down. (p. 33)

Felix for his part was attracted to Esme, finding her shrewd, sophisticated and wonderfully entertaining. Nevertheless, it was too early in life for him to settle down back then, even once Esme became free following her husband’s untimely death.

Now Felix is keen to see Esme again after a gap of twenty years – the first time the former lovers will have met following a rather abrupt end to their relationship. As she waits for Felix to arrive at the house, Esme wonders why he wishes to see her again. Is out of duty, curiosity, or some other unknown motive? It’s hard to tell.

Esme knows she still loves Felix, possibly even more so now than before. If anything, his reappearance releases an intensity of feeling that has been allowed to accumulate for too long, precipitating a liberation of sorts. What Esme doesn’t know is just how Felix will react…

After Julius is a very carefully constructed novel, elegantly alternating between the perceptions of the five main characters, alongside a few pivotal group scenes. The inner lives of Howard’s women are captured with great precision and accuracy, painfully revealing past traumas and their resultant scars: Esme remains trapped in a kind of time-capsule, continuing to harbour deep feelings for Felix, in spite of his apparent abandonment of her; Emma has repressed all thoughts of love and emotional fulfilment following a horrendous early experience at the hands of a brute; and Cressy has spent most her life trying to fit around her lovers’ plans in the desperate hope of some affection in return.

With the possible exception of Julius, whom we encounter through flashbacks, the leading male characters here are mostly self-centred cads, frequently treating women as love-objects, merely to picked up and dumped at a moment’s notice. In this scene, one of the female characters – I won’t say which one – reveals how she was bullied by a former lover who had learned of her pregnancy.

He was furious! He managed to make me feel squalid and entirely to blame. (…) This man was supposed to have loved me: he wrote books about people and ideology – he was regarded as a pioneer, a humanitarian, someone of great integrity who cared what happened to society – a responsible and courageous man – one in a million. And yet there I was pregnant, honestly because he bullied me about knowing better, and all he wanted to do was to be shot of the situation – never mind what became of me in the process. (pp. 278–279)

As a slight aside, there is an interesting sub-theme running through this novel, that of the tension between a person’s public conscience to serve the good of humanity and their private desire for personal advancement. It’s a dynamic that touches several of the characters here – Julius, Felix and Cressy, in particular.

Returning to the men, even Dan – whose outward appearance is rather amiable – harbours worrying beliefs about the ‘acceptable’ roles and behaviours of women. In this scene, Dan is reflecting on Cressy’s reactions to her mother, especially once it transpires that Felix has returned.

Well, that sister of Emma’s would make an occasion out of a milk shake on a wet Sunday afternoon. She hadn’t seemed to like the doctor either; but then he’d never seen anyone treat their mother as she had done – downright discourtesy if ever he’d seen it: crossed in love, he had no doubt, and nearly on the shelf on top of that. No wonder the poor thing was edgy. Of course, the father had died, and a houseful of women without a man to crack the whip always made them soft and restless. (pp. 118-119)

This a perceptive, beautifully observed novel of secrets, guilt and longstanding resentments. The insights into characters’ perceptions and emotions, particularly those of the emotionally stranded women, are brilliantly judged. There is also some gorgeous deceptive writing here, particularly in the depiction of the interiors and the natural world.

My one reservation relates to a very brutal scene towards the end of the novel in which one of the women submits to a horrific act of violence, virtually accepting it as part-and-parcel of her relationship with the man concerned. It’s tricky to say any more without revealing spoilers, but I found it difficult to accept this character’s reactions in the hours and days following the incident. Maybe it’s merely a reflection of the prevailing attitudes of the period or some of EJH’s own damaging experiences – it’s a little hard to tell. Feel free to comment on it below, especially if you’ve read the book.

Update: Caroline has posted an excellent review of this novel, which you can find here.

After Julius is published by Picador; personal copy.

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard

First published in 1956, The Long View offers an insightful view of the different stages of a deeply unhappy marriage, one that ultimately seemed destined for disaster right from the start. The novel has a very interesting structure, beginning in 1950 when the couple in question – Antonia and Conrad Fleming – have been married for twenty-three years, and then winding back in time to 1942, 1937 and 1927, the time of their honeymoon. In this respect, it mirrors the structure of François Ozon’s excellent film, 5×2, which focuses on five key timepoints in the disintegration of a middle-class marriage, presenting them in reverse order. Crucially, Howard’s story finishes in 1926 just before Antonia meets her future husband for the first time. While the story is presented mostly from the perspective of Antonia, there are times when we are given access to Conrad’s thoughts, albeit intermittently.

When the novel opens in 1950, Antonia is preparing for a dinner party to recognise the engagement of her son, Julian, to June Stoker, a rather unexceptional young woman who seems desperate to get away from her insufferable mother. I say recognise as opposed to celebrate as there appears to be nothing joyous or pleasurable about this occasion. If anything, Julian – an advertising executive – looks set to emulate the model of an ill-fated marriage set out by his parents. There is a sense that finding a socially acceptable wife is the next thing on the list for Julian; and June, with her innocence and naivety, seems as suitable a prospect as any. June isn’t sure of her feelings for Julian (or of his for her); she merely hopes that everything will turn out okay in the end. Antonia recognises these doubts all too clearly, a point that only becomes fully apparent once the latter stages of the narrative are revealed. Conrad, for his part, is convinced that the couple’s time together will follow a well-trodden path, one almost certainly destined to create complications for both parties.

He had no doubt that Julian was marrying an exceptionally, even a pathetically, dull young woman, and the only mitigating feature of the affair, Julian’s extreme youth, was not likely, in view of his work and disposition, to count for very much. He would probably attempt to extricate himself at thirty, or thereabouts, by which time he would have two or three brats, and a wife, who, drained of what slender resources had first captivated him, would at the same time be possessed of a destructive knowledge of his behaviour. This would inevitably lead to his leaving her (if indeed he were to achieve it) for entirely the wrong reasons. (p. 16)

You’ve probably got the measure of Conrad by now, a selfish, arrogant and thoroughly obnoxious man who is largely absent from the family home in Holland Park, London. He cares very little for Antonia, a point that becomes abundantly clear from the opening pages of the novel.

He had a heart when he cared to use it. But on the whole, he did not care in the least about other people, and neither expected nor desired them to care about him. He cared simply and overwhelmingly for himself; and he felt now that he was at last a man after his own heart. The only creature in the world who caused him a moment’s disquiet was his wife, and this, he thought, was only because he had at one period in their lives allowed her to see too much of him. (p. 15)

After twenty-three years of marriage, Antonia has been left feeling emotionally drained and worn out. Having long since given up the battle of striving for Conrad’s approval and affection, she now faces the long years ahead, trapped in a stagnant life upon which she must try to carve out some kind of meaningful existence for herself.

It was too late to mourn any private intentions she might once have had towards herself – she had been loved, and touched and fashioned; dominated, protected, and ignored, until even her enjoyment of the wallpaper that her husband despised was coloured by the fact that he despised it. Even the few occasions when she had thought that she had asserted herself were direct results of her association with him. (p. 61)

There are other worries for Antonia too, most notably in the shape of her rather impulsive daughter, Deirdre, a girl who always seems to have two men on the go at any one time. It soon becomes clear that Deirdre also looks set to make a mess of her life – in this case by running off with the fall-back option when it turns out that her preferred lover does not reciprocate her feelings for him.

As the novel moves back in time, Howard peels back the layers of Antonia and Conrad’s marriage, enabling us to see key moments in their relationship and the fault lines therein. With his work taking him all over the country, Conrad sees little of Antonia during WW2, their paths occasionally crossing in London in between missions. The marriage is well and truly dead by this stage, suffocated by Conrad’s controlling personality and the fallout from his earlier affairs.

In 1937 (ten years into the marriage), we find the couple on holiday with friends in St Tropez, with Conrad desperate to get away from the group. In the end, he goes back to London to see his beautiful young lover, Imogen, a girl who shares something of the freshness and innocence of Antonia back in the days of her youth. By this point in the marriage, Antonia has started to realise that some of Conrad’s liaisons run the risk of disrupting the nature of her life with him. In this scene, Antonia recalls the occasion when she spotted her husband at the opera in the company of a ravishing young woman, a point she confronted him with later that night.

He had begun calmly by saying that the whole scene was horribly dated, and that were she to attend the opera more often she would learn that such behaviour as hers invariably led to disastrous consequences; but when these remarks merely elicited from her a flood of ill-considered and conventional allegations he became dangerous: wholeheartedly agreed with her, ignored her tears, and left her on the discouraging note that there were only two kinds of people – those who live different lives with the same partners, and those who live the same life with different partners; a remark, he said, to which she could not possibly object, since she had so perfectly created the situation which provoked it. (p. 124)

Back in 1927, we find the couple on honeymoon in Europe with the warning signs apparent from the start. It soon becomes clear that Conrad simply wants to mould and fashion the malleable Antonia into something to suit his very exacting needs. In essence, he treats Antonia like a decorative pawn in some sort of elaborately designed game.

‘I married you,’ he said slowly and clearly, ‘because you are going to be extremely beautiful, which means for me that you will be a pleasure to see, a delight to be with, and because, possessing you, I shall be envied by others. Knowing this, I wanted you. I married you because you are not a fool, because you have innate good taste, because you have a vast capacity for enjoyment, and because, if I was to marry at all, I wanted at least the possibility of perfection. You will not be perfect: but the amount that you will fall short will be my fault – not yours – and that responsibility is more desirable to me than anything else. (p. 278)

Perhaps most revealing of all is the final section of the novel set in 1926 where we find the nineteen-year-old Antonia – or Toni as she is referred to here – living at home with her parents in Sussex. Toni’s flighty and sociable mother, Araminta, fails her daughter badly, criticising and teasing her at every opportunity. In some ways, Araminta views Toni as a sort of rival, the latter’s innocence and youth representing potential threats to her own allure and beauty.

She was, her mother said, too tall and far too thin; her hair, although positively dark, was too fine to be manageable and she had almost no colour. Her eyes were her only good feature, said her mother, and proceeded to dress her in every shade of inferior blue which detracted from them. (p. 324) 

Toni’s father, on the other hand, is cold and withdrawn, eschewing the social whirl of weekend parties at the house in favour of working on his books. At first, it appears as though Wilfred is blind to his wife’s affairs and other goings on in the house; but when the desperately gauche and naïve Toni finds herself falling for one of her mother’s friends, it transpires that her father has observed and understood the situation all too clearly.

The revelations in this final section of the novel go a long way to explaining why Antonia married Conrad so quickly the following year. Moreover, they also cast a particular light on certain events in the earlier sections of the book – most notably Conrad’s fascination with his young lover, Imogen, and June Stoker’s forthcoming marriage to Julian.

The Long View is an interesting but claustrophobic novel. While I liked the opening and closing sections, I found the middle sections too protracted and drawn out. The writing is good, but it lacks the economy and focus I admire in the work of other writers such as Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Fitzgerald. There are times when the tone is very caustic and bitter, too clinical and critical for my tastes. As the story is told almost exclusively from Antonia’s perspective, it could be argued that the picture we see is rather one-sided. I have no doubt that Conrad is responsible for much of the trouble in the Flemings’ marriage, but Antonia is not without blame either – she too has affairs at certain points in the relationship.

Nevertheless, I’m not unhappy that I read this novel – at least now I can say that I have tried Elizabeth Jane Howard.

The Long View is published by Picador; personal copy.

Last Night by James Salter

Last year I wrote about A Sport and a Pastime, a critically acclaimed novel by the American writer James Salter, a book I liked in parts but didn’t particularly enjoy as a whole. This year I thought I’d try some of Salter’s short fiction – more specifically, Last Night (2006) a set of ten stories, many of which first appeared in various literary journals and magazines in the years leading up to the publication of this collection. Once again, this turned out to be a bit of a mixed experience for me due to the variable quality of the material. There is one standout story here, some very good ones, and a few that seem either less compelling or less memorable. Nevertheless, there is something intriguing about this author’s work, particularly his ability to capture particular moods or scenarios (e.g. the emotional charge between two lovers, the intensity of some of those key moments in life).

The opening story, Comet, features two typical Salter protagonists: a capable, elegant middle-class American man, Philip Ardet, and his beautiful wife, Adele.

She was still young enough to be good-looking, the final blaze of it, though she was too old for children, at least if she had anything to say about it. Summer was coming. Out of the afternoon haze she would appear, in her black bathing suit, limbs all tan, the brilliant sun behind her. She was the strong figure walking up the smooth sand from the sea, her legs, her wet swimmer’s hair, the grace of her, all careless and unhurried. (p. 4)

At first, all seems well in the Ardets’ relationship, their lives appear comfortable and settled; but as the story unfolds a somewhat different picture emerges. A conversation at a dinner party opens up old wounds for Philip and Adele as another woman reveals that her husband has been having a secret affair for the last seven years. As a consequence, we gain an insight into the bitterness that is eating away at Adele, an emotion that threatens the stability of her marriage to Philip.

In My Lord You, one of my favourite pieces in the collection, a drunken poet arrives late to a dinner party where he proceeds to harass, both verbally and sexually, another of the guests – a married woman named Ardis – spouting Oscar Wilde and Ezra Pound in the process. (For his part, Ardis’ husband does nothing to intervene in the incident, a significant factor as it highlights his impotence when faced with the possibility of confrontation.)

In spite of being disturbed by this annoying poet, Ardis remains somewhat fascinated by him, so she goes in search of his poetry and then his house to see how he lives. Ultimately, Ardis is drawn into the poet’s life in a rather unexpected way, especially when his dog follows her home and proceeds to set up watch outside. This is a strange story, unsettling and compelling in relatively equal measure.

Such Fun features three young women at the end of a girls’ night out. Their conversations focus on the men they have been seeing, their recent break-ups, their past and current loves – in other words, the trials of finding the ‘right’ partner in life. But unbeknownst to the other two women there, Jane, the quietest member of the group, is carrying a painful burden, one she only reveals to an unknown taxi driver as he drives her home, the tears streaming down her face.

Several of the most successful stories in this collection feature unexpected twists or revelations towards the end, pieces like Give in which the all-too-familiar ‘comfortable man-having-an-affair-with-another-woman’ scenario is given a different spin. Others are more poignant, stories such as Palm Court, in which a man receives a phone call from a woman from his past, a development that triggers memories of their time together and the opportunities he failed to grasp.

Desire, betrayal, frustration – these are the emotions at the heart of many of these stories. In Platinum, another of my favourites in the collection, a seemingly happily married man is having an affair with a seductive young woman, only to be given away by a pair of his wife’s earrings when his lover insists on borrowing them. While this might sound like another rather clichéd scenario, Salter gives the story a new twist, the sort of development you don’t necessarily anticipate even though the clues are there in the narrative almost right from the very start.

The book ends on a startling note with the titular piece, Last Night, undoubtedly the best story in this collection. Walter’s wife, Marit, is terminally ill with cancer. Unable to tolerate the pain any longer, Marit has asked Walter to hasten her death, a wish we assume he has agreed to carry out even though we are not privy to any of their earlier discussions on this point.

It was in the uterus and had travelled from there to the lungs. In the end, she had accepted it. Above the square neckline of her dress the skin, pallid, seemed to emanate a darkness. She no longer resembled herself. What she had been was gone: it had been taken from her. The change was fearful, especially in her face. She had a face now that was for the afterlife and those she would meet there. It was hard for Walter to remember how she had once been. She was almost a different woman from the one to whom he had made a solemn promise to help when the time came. (p. 123)

It is Marit and Walter’s last night together. Their final supper has ended, the lethal injection lies ready and waiting in the fridge. We think we know how this story will unfold, how both of these individuals deserve our sympathies as they confront Marit’s mortality; but once again, Salter wrongfoots us in the most surprising way, a move that causes us to question our earlier assumptions about values, morals, intentions and motives. This is a highly memorable story, one that is likely to stay with you for quite some time.

In spite of the variability of the stories in this collection (I’ve skipped the lesser ones), the quality of Salter’s writing is never in doubt. As with much of this author’s work, there is a discernible undercurrent of sensuality running through several of these pieces, a mood that is matched by the elegant and graceful nature of the prose – you can probably see it in my first quote, the one on Adele. I’ll finish with a final passage, just because it captures something of Salter’s style, the way he can sketch a lasting image in just a few well-judged sentences.

At six, he somehow made his way home. It was one of those evenings like the beginning of a marvellous performance in which everyone somehow had a role. Lights had come on in the windows, the sidewalk restaurants were filling, children were running home late from playing in the park, the promise of fulfilment was everywhere. In an elevator a pretty woman he did not recognise was carrying a large bunch of flowers somewhere upstairs. She avoided looking at him. (pp. 84-85)

Last Night is published by Picador; personal copy

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

The American short-story writer Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) is currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance. More than seventy of her stories were published during her lifetime, mostly in collections issued in the 1980s and ‘90s from small presses such as Turtle Island and Black Sparrow Press. Now, more than a decade after her death, Berlin and her work are reaching a much wider audience courtesy of this collection of forty-three of her pieces, A Manual for Cleaning Women, brought to us by the team at Picador. This is a wonderful set of short stories, so raw and striking that I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ll read a better collection all year.

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Lucia Berlin seems to have lived many lives during her time, and her work draws heavily on various experiences from her lonely and unhappy childhood right through to her more settled old age. Before the war, Berlin’s father worked in the mining industry; consequently, the family moved around a fair bit, spending time in Idaho, Kentucky and Montana. When her husband went off to the war, Berlin’s mother took Lucia and her younger sister to live with their grandparents in El Paso – Mamie and Grandpa both feature in a number of the stories included here, as do other members of the Berlin family, most notably Lucia’s sister.

Berlin grew up fast. By her early thirties, she had been married and divorced three times and was raising four sons more or less on her own. During her lifetime she worked as a high school teacher, a cleaning woman, a switchboard operator, and a hospital ward clerk. As a young mother, she struggled with alcoholism, finally overcoming her addiction later in life. She lived in Chile, New York and Oakland; then in the early nineties, she spent the best part of two years in Mexico City, caring for her sister who was dying of cancer. (Berlin’s mother died in the mid-eighties, a possible suicide.)

I mention these events because they have a direct bearing on Berlin’s work. Her stories are little slices of life, vignettes drawn from her own remarkable experiences. With more than forty pieces in this collection, it’s going to be impossible for me to cover even half of these stories. My aim instead is to give you a flavour of the collection, primarily Berlin’s style and a few of her key themes.

In the titular story, the narrator, a domestic cleaner, offers a kind of guide to others performing the same role in similar households. It’s a blend of advice to cleaning women – ‘never make friends with cats, don’t let them play with the mop, the rags. The ladies will get jealous.’ – and reflections on the various employers the cleaner encounters. Here’s the narrator on the Blums, both of whom are psychiatrists, marriage counsellors with two adopted pre-school children. (The narrator has already warned us of the perils of young kids: ‘Never work in a house with “preschoolers.” Babies are great. You can spend hours looking at them, holding them. But the older ones…you get shrieks, dried Cheerios, accidents hardened and walked on in the Snoopy pyjama foot.’)

The Blums have a lot of pills, a plethora of pills. She has uppers, he has downers. Mr. Dr. Blum has belladonna pills. I don’t know what they do but I wish it was my name.

One morning I heard him say to her, in the breakfast nook, “Let’s do something spontaneous today, take the kids to go fly a kite!”

My heart went out to him. Part of me wanted to rush in like the maid in the back of Saturday Evening Post. I make great kites, know good places in Tilden for wind. There is no wind in Montclair. The other part of me turned on the vacuum so I couldn’t hear her reply. It was pouring rain outside. (pg. 32)

Alongside these acute observations, the narrator reflects on her lost lover, Ter, a young cowboy from Nebraska. These passages are indicative of the deep sense of loss and loneliness that runs through several of Berlin’s stories.

Once he told me he loved me because I was like San Pablo Avenue.

He was like the Berkeley dump. I wish there was a bus to the dump. We went there when we got homesick for New Mexico. It is stark and windy and gulls soar like nighthawks in the desert. You can see the sky all around you and above you. Garbage trucks thunder through dust-billowing roads. Gray dinosaurs. (pg. 33)

Unsurprisingly, given the background I mentioned earlier, much of Berlin’s work features women trying dealing with the harsh realities of their fractured lives. We meet a bright but lonely young girl struggling to adjust to a new school; a mother so desperate for her next drink that she leaves her children unattended in bed while she goes in search of alcohol; a young addict experiencing her first detox in a hospital; there are many more, several are heartbreaking.

Some of these stories are set in the places we’d rather not think about too often: prisons, backstreet abortion clinics, detox wards and emergency rooms. In Mijito, one of the most haunting pieces in this collection, a ward clerk/nurse describes how she copes with the suffering she encounters in her work.

When I go out there I sort of cross my eyes, and when I call the patient’s name I smile at the mother or grandmother or foster care mom but I look at a third eye in their forehead. I learned this in Emergency. It’s the only way to work here, especially with all the crack babies and AIDS and cancer babies. Or the ones who will never grow up. If you look the parent in the eyes you will share it, confirm it, all the fear and exhaustion and pain. On the other hand once you get to know them, sometimes that’s all you can do, look into their eyes with the hope or sorrow you can’t express. (pg. 335)

By now you’re probably thinking that this all sounds terribly grim. Yes, these stories explore pretty harrowing territory, but the flashes of wry humour in Berlin’s work help to balance the tone often providing some much-needed relief from the bleakness of the protagonist’s situation. In Angel’s Laundromat, the narrator, a woman living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, describes why she goes to Angel’s, a down-at-heel launderette frequented by old women, travelling people, teenage Chicana brides and Pueblo Indians. I loved the final lines in this passage.

I go to Angel’s. I’m not sure why, it’s not just the Indians. It’s across the town from me. Only a block away is the Campus, air-conditioned, soft rock on the Muzak. New Yorker, Ms., and Cosmopolitan. Wives of graduate assistants go there and buy their kids Zero bars and Cokes. The Campus laundry has a sign, like most laundries do, POSITIVELY NO DYEING. I drove all over town with a green bedspread until I came to Angel’s with his yellow sign, YOU CAN DIE HERE ANYTIME. (pgs. 5-6)

There are other moments of brightness, too: stories drawn from Berlin’s time with the men in her life, two of whom were jazz musicians; pieces featuring her cousin, the beautiful Bella Lynn; stories of her reconnection with Sally, the sister she nursed through the final stages of cancer. These pieces are compassionate, graceful and emotionally truthful; the writing is shot through with little insights about life. In Wait a Minute, the narrator is reflecting on what happens to time when a loved one dies. Time stops for the person who has passed away, but for those who are left behind it runs amok, disrupting the normal rhythms of their days and nights.

The bad part is that when you return to your ordinary life all the routines, the marks of the day, seem like senseless lies. All is suspect, a trick to lull us, rock us back into the placid relentlessness of time. (pg. 380)

There are some truly remarkable pieces in this collection, several of which reminded me of the work of Raymond Carver and Joan Didion. Sometimes when I read short stories, I can sense the author’s hand on the tiller, driving the narrative in a certain direction, engineering events and developments towards a pre-determined outcome. There is none of that sense of deliberate construction or artificiality here. Berlin’s stories are natural, free-flowing and fluid; they feel grounded in authenticity and truth.

I’ll finish with one final quote, a passage that illustrates Berlin’s skill in capturing a strong sense of place in her writing. Her descriptions are thick with the sights, smells and sounds of her locations, making it easy for the reader to visualise these scenes in their mind. In this excerpt from Tiger Bites, the narrator is returning to Mexico, a place that hums with activity.

We came to the bridge and the smell of Mexico. Smoke and chili and beer. Carnations and candles and kerosene. Oranges and Delicados and urine. I buzzed the window down and hung my head out, glad to be home. Church bells, ranchera music, bebop jazz, mambos. Christmas carols from the tourist shops. Rattling exhaust pipes, honkings, drunken American soldiers from Fort Bliss. El Paso matrons, serious shoppers, carrying piñatas and jugs of rum. (pg. 75)

For another perspective on this very impressive collection, click here for Gert Loveday’s review.

A Manual for Cleaning Women is published by Picador – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a copy for review.

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

First published in 1967, A Sport and a Pastime is the American writer James Salter’s third novel. Prior to becoming a writer, Salter served as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, and he drew on this experience for his first novel, The Hunters, an absorbing story of a pilot’s desire to deliver a successful mission. Despite a revival of interest in his work in recent years (his final novel, All That Is, was published in 2013), Salter remains largely unknown to many readers, a situation I still find hard to understand given the quality of his writing.

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Set in France in the 1960s, A Sport and a Pastime is the story of an affair between a young American man, Philip Dean, and an eighteen-year-old French girl named Anne-Marie. The novel is narrated by another man, an unnamed narrator in his mid-thirties, who hooks up with Philip while spending some time in Autun, a small town in the Burgundy region of France. As the book opens, the narrator is travelling by train from Paris to Autun, an extended section that immediately draws the reader into the story as a rush of images fly by.

The hills close in and run beside us as we begin slowly to move away from the city. The windows of houses are open to the warm morning air. Hay is stacked in the shape of boxes, coops, loaves of bread. Above us the sudden passage of a church. In its walls, cracks wide enough for birds to nest in. I am going to walk these village roads, follow these brilliant streams.

Rose, umber, camel, tan—these are the colors of the towns. There are long, rising pastures with lines of trees. St Julien du Sault—its hotel seems empty. Shocks of hay now, bundles of it. Great squares of corn. Cezy—the station like scenery in a play that has closed. Pyramids of hay, mansards, barricades. Orchards. Children working in vegetable gardens. JOIGNY is painted in red. (pg. 4)

The house in Autun is owned by two friends of the narrator’s, Billy and Cristina, a couple currently living in Paris. There is a sense that they are the beautiful people, floating around from one long, languorous evening to another. Having been introduced to the narrator at a party, Philip arrives unexpectedly at the house in Autun shortly after the narrator moves in. Even though the two men do not know each other very well, they end up spending time together, driving around the countryside in Philip’s convertible, a 1952 Delage.

One evening when the narrator is out with Philip, he notices a young girl at a dance – it is Anne-Marie. Shortly afterwards, we cut to a scene in a restaurant; the narrator, Philip and Anne-Marie are having a meal together, and the affair between Philip and the girl is just beginning to get underway. The remainder of the novel presents an account of Philip and Anne-Marie’s relationship, as perceived almost entirely through the imagination of the narrator. The young couple spend their days travelling around France, driving from one town to another, staying at hotels and eating out most evenings. Salter’s prose is full of sensual imagery; the descriptions of Philip and Anne-Marie making love are highly erotic, so much so that I wondered how they were received at the time of the novel’s publication. Here’s a quote from the early stages of their relationship – most of the sex scenes are much more graphic than this, but it should give you a feel for the novel’s tone.

He has wrapped her in an enormous towel, soft as a robe, and carried her to the bed. They lie across it diagonally, and he begins to draw the towel apart with care, to remove it as if it were a bandage. Her flesh appears, still smelling a little of soap. His hands float onto her. The sum of small acts begins to unite them, the pure calculus of love. He feels himself enter. Her last breath—it is almost a sigh—leaves her. Her white throat appears. (pg. 56)

From an early stage in the novel, it becomes apparent that the narrator is unreliable. At several points in his narration, he fully admits his lack of reliability. In effect, he is presenting us with a description of what he imagines is happening between Philip and Anne-Marie at the time. (Moreover, he is looking back at his stay in Autun from some point in the future, several years down the line I suspect.)

The narrator’s own situation is of some significance here. During his time in Autun he becomes attracted to a divorcee, Claude Picquet, whom he sees about the town; and yet other than exchanging a few pleasantries with her, he seems hesitant to make a more definite move. By contrast, everything seems so easy for Philip. At twenty-four, he is handsome, self-assured and highly intelligent. Despite his brilliance as a student, he had felt restless at Yale, ultimately dropping out to pursue a different type of education: lessons in the school of life. There is a sense that the narrator is envious of Philip, worships him even. In many ways, he represents the man the narrator wishes he himself could be.

If I had been an underclassman he would have become my hero, the rebel who, if I had only had the courage, I might have also become. Instead I did everything properly. I had good marks. I took care of my books. My clothes were right. Now, looking at him, I am convinced of all I missed. I am envious. Somehow his life seems more truthful than mine, stronger, even able to draw mine to it like the pull of a dark star. (pg. 33)

At one stage I began to wonder if Philip Dean ever existed at all, or whether the narrator had created him out of his own shortcomings, his own insecurities and dreams. After all, at one stage he states ‘I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him.’ Either way, I suspect the narrator may have been in love with Anne-Marie himself, as he fantasises about what might have been.

Could she, I have often wondered over the empty plates in restaurants, in cafés where only the waiters remain, by any rearrangement of events, by any accident could she, I dream, have become mine?…I look in the mirror. Thinning hair. A face marked by lines, cuts they are, almost, that define my expressions. Strong arms. I’m making all of this up. The eyes of a clever and lazy man, a passionate man… (pgs. 96-97)

A Sport and a Pastime is a difficult novel to summarise – it’s a book that feels as though it needs to be experienced for itself. Much of its power stems from the world Salter creates, so much so that it’s hard to capture this feeling in a review.

Very little happens in the way of plot. Philip and Anne-Marie travel around France in Philip’s car, they have dinner, make love, sleep and lie around in bed for much of the time. At one point, they visit the girl’s mother and stepfather. From a relatively early stage, there is a sense that the affair cannot last, particularly as the two lovers come from contrasting backgrounds and have very different aspirations in life. A simple girl at heart, Anne-Marie wants little more than to get married and have a family, whereas Philip is wary of getting too tied down. His feelings towards Anne-Marie oscillate throughout the course of their affair; at times he clearly adores her, but there are other occasions when he seems close to ending the relationship.

While there is much to like in this fluid, dreamlike novel, I didn’t love it quite as much as I’d hoped to. I found myself wondering whether it might be a touch self-indulgent, more so than Salter’s later novel Light Years, which I adored when I read it a few years ago. Perhaps my favourite thing about A Sport and a Pastime is Salter’s shimmering prose, a quality that comes into its own in the wonderful descriptions of the French countryside (like those in the quote near the beginning of my review) and the passages on Autun. He writes beautifully about France, the little shops and cafés, the restaurants and meals, the scenery and landscape.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that gives a sense of the blurring of the margins between reality and the imaginary in this story. Perhaps it will encourage you to read it for yourself.

One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change. In fact, there is the danger that if I continue to try, the whole concert of events will begin to fall apart in my hands like old newspaper. I can’t bear to think of that. The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design. (pg. 48)

For another perspective on this book, do read this excellent review from Max at Pechorin’s Journal.

A Sport and a Pastime is published by Picador. Source: personal copy.