Tag Archives: Picador

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.


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.


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.

Benediction by Kent Haruf

Benediction is the third book in Kent Haruf’s Plainsong trilogy, a series of novels set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. I read the first two (Plainsong and Eventide) a year or so ago, but they have been widely reviewed elsewhere. Each novel can be read independently but what unites them is a strong sense of place and community.


The central character in Benediction is Dad Lewis, owner of the local hardware store for more than fifty years. An honest, reliable, plain-speaking man, Dad is old and dying of cancer. As close friends and workmates come to say their farewells, Dad’s loving wife, Mary, and daughter, Lorraine, try to ease the pain of his final weeks at home.

He sat and drank the beer and held his wife’s hand sitting out on the front porch. So the truth was he was dying. That’s what they were saying. He would be dead before the end of summer. By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was left of him out at the cemetery three miles east of town. Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was. (pg. 5)

As Dad’s story opens up, we learn a little more about his earlier years. Dad is a proud, upstanding man with traditional values; he is somewhat stubborn too, and like most of us he has regrets in life. As he faces his own mortality, it becomes increasingly clear that Dad is haunted by the ghosts of his past. Dad and Mary’s estranged son, Frank, casts the darkest shadow over their lives. Reflections on the years gone by reveal Frank’s homosexuality, a discovery that proves too difficult for Dad to come to terms with at the time. By contrast, Mary appears more willing to accept the situation in the slender hope of maintaining a relationship with her son. There are times when Dad and Mary visit Frank in Denver once he leaves home as a teenager, but the atmosphere is strained to say the least. The following conversation between Mary and Dad gives a feel for the lie of the land – they have just left Frank’s apartment, and the first voice we hear is Mary’s.

I am upset. I’m disappointed that we don’t have anything to do with him. Anything more than this. Than what happened back there. You give me money to give him and I put it in an envelope for Christmas and he hasn’t even thought to have anything to give us in return. We see him working at the café and we follow him up to his dirty little apartment room in a dirty old house and we drink tea and we talk for five minutes, then you go outside to warm up the car and that’s it.

What did you expect?

I wanted it to be nice. I told you that. Something present there between us and our son. We’re going to lose him, she said. Don’t you know that?

We lost him a long time ago.

You lost him. I didn’t. (pgs. 153-4)

Mary still lives in hope of reconciliation with her son especially as the end draws near for Dad.

Alongside Dad and Mary’s narrative, Haruf touches on the lives of other people connected to this couple. We meet Alice, an eight-year-old girl who has recently come to live with her grandmother in the house next door to Dad and Mary’s. Feeling lost and a little bewildered following the death of her mother from breast cancer, Alice welcomes the friendship of Lorraine (Dad and Mary’s daughter). The young girl is also befriended by kindly mother and daughter, Willa and Alene Johnson, friends of the Lewis family. In a touching scene from the book, the women take Alice on a picnic, and they all bathe together in a nearby stock tank. Haruf is especially good when it comes to portraying the lives of these women, their values and principles, their hopes and disappointments.

There is a final strand to the story, that of the town preacher, Lyle, and his family who have recently moved to Holt following a transfer from Denver. Lyle’s character is perhaps more lightly sketched and less convincing than others in the novel. That said, Lyle is clearly struggling to reconcile his own ideals with the prejudices he encounters amongst some of Holt’s more conservative residents.

Benediction is a novel that captures the pain and loss experienced by people in their everyday lives, a quiet, contemplative story of ordinary, plain-speaking folk. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Haruf’s books so special, but he brings a profound sense of compassion and humanity to everything he writes. Haruf’s prose is spare and unshowy, but there is a beauty in its simplicity. His characters feel authentic, their values and failings are clearly portrayed through their thoughts and actions. Small acts of kindness and affection speak volumes.

This is a melancholy, elegiac novel, almost unbearably moving at times especially as Dad’s life draws to a close. Haruf doesn’t hold back on the mental and physical suffering associated with a slow death, but this is balanced by the deep sense of empathy shown by Dad’s family and friends.

Plainsong remains my favourite of the trilogy, but Benediction is a fitting end to the series. I’ll finish with one last quote, a passage from Dad’s final weeks.

They helped him move out to the front porch and stood watching the rain falling on the grass and out in the graveled street. There were already puddles in the low places and the silver poplar trees were dark, streaming with water. Lorraine held her hand out to the rain and patted her face and then cupped both hands and caught the overflow from the gutters and held her hands up to Dad’s face. He stood leaning on his cane, his face dripping. They watched him, he looked straight out across the lawn past the wrought iron fence, past the wet street to the lot beyond, thinking about something.

Doesn’t it smell good, Mary said.

Yeah, he said softly. His eyes were wet, but they couldn’t say if that was from tears or rainwater. (pg. 81)

Benediction is published in the UK by Picador. Source: I won this book in a giveaway – my thanks to Kim at Reading Matters and Picador.