Tag Archives: US

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

First published in 1949, The Sheltering Sky is a powerful, visceral novel set in the squalid towns and desert landscapes of North Africa in the years following the end of the Second World War. The narrative has a somewhat fractured feel, reflecting the emotional state of its main protagonists, Port and Kit Moresby, an American couple of the like found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction, particularly Tender is the Night.

The Moresbys are unmoored, both physically and emotionally, travelling south through North Africa with little purpose or ultimate destination in mind. Eschewing America and Europe in the aftermath of the war, the couple have come to Africa as an escape, hoping to find some kind of meaning in an ever-changing world.

There is a sense that Port views himself as an intrepid traveller, keen to explore the mysteries and remoteness of an unfamiliar land. He is perpetually restless, continually searching for something, although quite what that something is remains rather unclear.

Kit, for her part, is acutely aware of the emotional distance between herself and Port, their marriage having crumbled to dust in the preceding years. Brittle and highly strung by nature, Kit lives a life governed by superstitions, a series of omens that dictate her mood and ability to function. There are times when the feeling of doom surrounding Kit becomes so strong that it results in a form of stasis, almost as if she is experiencing a strange kind of paralysis.

While the Moresbys share much in the way of feelings and emotions, they are divided by their outlooks on life, a situation typified by the following passage.

It made her [Kit] sad to realize that in spite of their so often having the same reactions, the same feelings, they never would reach the same conclusions, because their respective aims in life were almost diametrically opposed. […]

And now for so long there had been no love, no possibility of it. But in spite of her willingness to become whatever he wanted her to become, she could not change that much: the terror was always there inside her ready to take command. It was useless to pretend otherwise. And just as she was unable to shake off the dread that was always with her, he was unable to break out of the cage into which he had shut himself, the cage he had built to long ago to save himself from love. (p. 98-99)

Accompanying the Moresbys on this trip is their friend, Tunner, a somewhat opportunistic chap who appears to be tagging along for the ride. While Tunner has designs on Kit, his motives are ultimately shallow and devoid of any meaningful emotion. In truth, Tunner’s advances are driven predominantly by vanity and a sense of pity for the beautiful Kit. During the course of the journey, both of the Moresbys are unfaithful in rather casual and ultimately unfulfilling ways.

As the party travels south, the unrelenting heat of the desert and rather basic living conditions begin to take their toll, particularly on Port and Kit. There are long, uncomfortable train journeys and equally gruelling bus rides through barren landscapes and rough terrain. The hotels become dirtier and increasingly rancid and with each successive move. Consequently, the sense of unease becomes more palpable by the day, adding to the brooding atmosphere at play. There are disagreements between the couple with Port disappearing into the night, wandering the streets and alleyways of the shadowy towns where he encounters prostitutes and their handlers, both eager to exploit a foreign traveller. Meanwhile Kit longs for the culture and civilisation of the Mediterranean, an environment where her suitcase full of evening gowns might actually get an airing. Instead, she must submit to weevil-infested soup and rabbit stew with added fur, just two of the many hazards to be navigated by the Moresbys during their stay.

While all this might sound rather bleak, there are some moments of light relief here and there – for the reader, at least. Turning up again and again during the journey – much to the Moresbys’ annoyance – are the Lyles, a middle-aged Australian woman and her grown-up son, Eric. While Mrs Lyle is snobbish, obnoxious and insufferable, her son, Eric, is possibly even more unpleasant – a spoiled, untrustworthy brat, intent on tapping Port for some sort of loan. Their presence in the narrative adds an element of farce, accentuating the rather desperate nature of the Moresbys’ plight.

The Sheltering Sky is a potent, terrifying book, one that leads the reader into the heart of darkness, an existential journey in which any form of reconciliation or atonement remains tantalisingly out of reach.

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way Bowles vividly captures the inner lives of his central characters as the unforgiving nature of the environment permeates their souls. The hallucinatory feel of Port’s night-time ramblings, as he lies ill with a virulent fever, is brilliantly portrayed – as is Kit’s own terrifying descent into darkness in the days and weeks that follow, an experience that leaves her utterly broken and shell-shocked, possibly for good.

Before her eyes was the violent blue sky – nothing else. For an endless moment she looked into it. Like a great overpowering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralysed her. Someone once had said to her that the sky hides the night behind, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above. Unblinking, she fixed the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her. At any moment the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed. (p. 336)

Bowles’ prose is stunning, both lucid and evocative. I love this description of Kit from the beginning of the book, one that captures something of her disturbed mindset through the intensity of her eyes.

Small, with blonde hair and an olive complexion, she was saved from prettiness by the intensity of her gaze. Once one had seen her eyes, the rest of the face grew vague, and when one tried to recall her image afterwards, only the piercing, questioning violence of the wide eyes remained. (p. 6-7)

The sense of place and suffocating atmosphere are also powerfully imagined, rich in authenticity and detail, qualities that undoubtedly reflect Bowles’ own experiences of travelling through Morocco and Algeria during the period in question.

Boussif was a completely modern town, laid out in large square blocks, with the market in the middle. The unpaved streets, lined for the most part with box-shaped one-storey buildings, were filled with a rich red mud. A steady procession of men and sheep moved through the principal thoroughfare towards the market, the men walking with the hoods of their burnouses drawn up over their heads against the sun’s fierce attack. There was not a tree to be seen anywhere. At the ends of the transversal streets the bare waste-land sloped slowly upward to the base of the mountains, which were raw, savage rock without vegetation. (p. 89-90)

This is a fateful story of fractured souls, a couple who cannot meaningfully connect with one another, failing to realise the depth of their feelings until it is far too late. It is a tense, emotionally-draining read, brilliantly rendered by an imaginative writer. I can understand why it is considered a 20th-century classic.

The Sheltering Sky is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

The Beguiled by Thomas Cullinan

Along with many other readers, I came to this book – first published in 1966 – via the recent film adaptation by Sofia Coppola. (There’s a good review of it here by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.) The novel itself is a brooding, tempestuous slice of Southern Gothic, a mood that is mirrored in Coppola’s adaptation, complete with its evocative Virginia setting. Even though the film had already shaped much of the visual imagery in my mind, it was still interesting to read Cullinan’s source novel to gain a greater insight into the characters. If the narrative is of interest, I would recommend both – although you might want to read the book first before watching the film.

Beguiled 1

For those of you unfamiliar with the premise, the story is set in a girls’ boarding school in Virginia in the midst of the American Civil War. As a consequence of the unrest, only five pupils remain at the school, along with the forthright headmistress, Miss Martha Farnsworth, her somewhat submissive sister, Harriet, and their perceptive cook/‘help’, Mattie. Miss Martha runs a tight, morally upstanding ship, aiming to educate her young ladies in both mind and spirit before they are released into the wider world.

As the novel opens, the school’s sheltered routine is interrupted when one of its pupils, Amelia Dabney, discovers a wounded Union soldier – Corporal John McBurney – while out picking mushrooms in the woods. In an effort to assist Corporal McBurney, Amelia helps him back to the school where he is taken in and treated by Miss Martha and the girls. At first, there is much discussion amongst the residents as to whether McBurney should be handed over to the Confederates; however, it is soon agreed that he should stay there covertly, at least until his severely injured leg has had time to heal. In essence, this seems to be the most charitable thing to do.

Corporal McBurney is a fascinating character, full of tall tales and Irish blarney which he uses to charm his carers, many of whom are beguiled by their charge. Almost immediately, his presence triggers a range of different sensations amongst the residents, unleashing points of conflict, sexual tensions and long-repressed emotions within the claustrophobic environment of the school. McBurney is clearly an unsettling presence in the house, one who delights in spreading his affections far and wide as he proceeds to play off one resident against another.

[Martha:] It was hard to dislike him. He had such an open and friendly look about him, that even when you knew for a positive fact that there was guile behind his innocence, it was difficult to think of it as anything but a boyish trick.

And the guile was there, no doubt about it. Whatever Corporal John McBurney said, you had to ask yourself – is this the way Corporal McBurney really feels? – or is this the way he wants you to think he feels? – or is he even more clever than you suppose and is allowing the edges of the trick to show, hoping that when you see it, it will make you feel superior to him in cleverness. And you’re really not. Or at least he thinks you’re not. Because what he really wants is your misjudgement of him.

How deep to the layers of deception go, I wondered one day but not that second day. (pp.80-81)

The story is told in retrospective from the point of view of each female character in the book, with the chapters alternating from one person’s perspective to the next. While this might sound a little confusing or repetitive, Cullinan handles it very well, moving the action forward a little with each change of the baton, also adding new dimensions and interpretations along the way. (Interestingly, we never hear directly from McBurney himself, although his dialogue and interactions with the residents are relayed through the other narratives.)

Miss Martha is particularly clearly defined as a character, clashing with McBurney on several occasions as her position of authority in the house is destabilised by his presence. It soon becomes clear that McBurney is in no hurry to leave his place of shelter, fearing reprisals from both sides in the ongoing war. Most of the girls are well differentiated from one another too, particularly the rather troubled Edwina Morrow, the provocative Alicia Simms, and the reclusive, nature-loving Amelia.

Right from the start there are hints of significant trouble to come following McBurney’s arrival; however, it would be unfair of me to reveal anything more about the plot at this stage, save to say that it becomes steadily more compelling as the narrative unfolds. (Some readers might find the pacing a little slow, so if you prefer fast-moving plots this probably isn’t the book for you.)

[Edwina:] I felt that he was attracted to me. […]

I can’t deny that I was flattered by it. I also can’t deny that I was attracted to him. […]

I felt at first that he had understood, as no one else around here ever had, the rather troubled and perhaps troublesome person that I am. I am not always the easiest person in the world to get along with, but I did feel that Corporal McBurney might possibly be someone who – even if he did not know all the reasons for my bitterness – would accept me the way I am with maybe the hope that affection might improve me. It might well have, you know. It really might have done so. (p.159)

The Beguiled is a thoroughly absorbing novel of deceits, secrets, sexuality and power. There’s plenty of dark melodrama here, the psychological nuances of which are nicely captured through Cullinan’s expressive prose. Definitely recommended, even if you’ve already seen the recent film. In fact, there’s a whole interracial dynamic going on in the novel which doesn’t appear to feature in Coppola’s adaptation – so it might be of interest for that alone.

[Note: The novel was also filmed in 1971 with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page in the leading roles. Coppola’s version (made in 2017) stars Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst. Both are worth watching, although my vote goes to the more recent female-centric adaptation for its evocative mood.]

The Beguiled is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Literary Beginnings – Monday Morning by Patrick Hamilton and Summer Crossing by Truman Capote

Something a little different from me today. It can be interesting to follow the development of a favourite writer to track how their work evolves over the years. In this post I’m looking at the debut novels of two masters of their craft, Patrick Hamilton and Truman Capote, delving into their literary beginnings to see how they started their careers.

Monday Morning by Patrick Hamilton (1925)

A fascinating insight into how Hamilton’s work was set to develop over the years, this debut novel offers early glimpses of many of the writer’s trademark tropes – more specifically, men who become infatuated with unsuitable women; forthright comic characters complete with various eccentricities; the challenges of writing, acting and other artistic pursuits; the seedy atmosphere of Earl’s Court with its smoky bars and pubs; the lure of prostitutes and heavy drinking: and of course, the loneliness of tawdry boarding-houses and hotels. It’s a lovable little novel – rather amusing and optimistic compared to Hamilton’s other work, but characteristically strong on dialogue too.

Central to the story is eighteen-year-old Anthony Forster, a romantic, idealistic young man embarking on the first phase of his adult life in London. (Everything up to this point has merely been a prologue to this ‘true’ beginning, a curtain raiser to the main event.) With his aspirations of becoming a successful writer and poet, Anthony is in danger of daydreaming his time away, forever resolving to make a proper start on *Life* next Monday Morning.

Anthony was quite sure, really, that he would be successful in obtaining a very good journalistic position. Also he had a certain fear in the obtaining of a good journalistic position. Wemyss had frightened him with stories of frantic interviewing, reporting, and putting papers to bed. There seemed in journalism a quite unfamous, distressfully energetic note of competition. Not that Anthony did not relish a bitter fight for fame. But he did not like this way of setting about it. A far nicer way of doing it would be to starve somewhere, in a garret, writing immortal things, and being free. Even been found dead one morning in the red, new sunlight. (pp.70-71)

Very little happens in the way of plot in this novel; instead, the story focuses on experiences as Anthony searches for a meaningful purpose in life. Naturally, there is love along the way, especially when our protagonist meets Diane, a rather shallow, impetuous young girl who happens to be staying at the same Kensington hotel (the Fauconberg). Amid the heady emotions of youth, Anthony’s mood fluctuates from rushes of wild passion to periods of abject disillusionment, particularly as Diane is so capricious in nature.

In time, Anthony gets a small part in a touring play via a fellow boarder at the Fauconberg, the forthright Mr Brayne. The production takes Anthony to a range of different locations including Sheffield, Manchester and Torquay, highlighting the isolated nature of a life lived in temporary accommodation complete with all its drab associations.

Anthony had lunch at his combined room. Steak piping hot, hot plate, greasy potatoes and cabbage. And after this he lay on his bed and slept. Not sleep exactly. A worried, giddy, dim consciousness of his own cold legs, the warm pillow, the milkman’s cart outside, an occasional little shriek from an opening gate, the rapping of quick heels on the pavement, coming from afar and fading abruptly around a corner… (p.158)

While the hopeful ending might feel a little sentimental for some Hamilton enthusiasts, I loved it for its warmth and idealism.

In summary, this is a charming novel for fans of this writer’s work. Probably not the best one to try if you’re a newbie – The Slaves of Solitude or Hangover Square would be my recommendations there.

Summer Crossing by Truman Capote (written in the 1940s, published posthumously in 2005)

This vivid, eloquent novel – Capote’s first – revolves around seventeen-year-old Grady, the beautiful, headstrong daughter of the privileged McNeil family. In many ways, it is a coming-of-age story as Grady’s sexuality is exposed in the blistering heat of a New York summer.

Her everyway hair was like a rusty chrysanthemum, petals of it loosely falling on her forehead, and her eyes, so startlingly set in her fine unpolished face, caught with wit and green aliveness all atmosphere. (p. 51)

When the McNeils set sail for France, Grady is left alone in her parents’ luxurious apartment for the season, determined to make the most of her new-found freedom. The tensions between Grady and her mother, Lucy, are apparent from the start. While Lucy has plans for her daughter’s future introduction to society, Grady herself has other ideas, preferring instead to throw herself into an impassioned love affair with Clyde, a Jewish parking attendant from Brooklyn.

With his rough background and lack of prospects, Clyde is most definitely not the type of man the McNeils would approve of, in spite of his earlier stint in the forces. Closer to their social circle is Peter Bell, a charming, sophisticated young chap who has known Grady since childhood. To complicate matters further, Peter is in love with Grady, a notion that has only just begun to dawn on the young girl herself.

As one might expect, the story plays out in striking fashion, building to a startling denouement that leaves an indelible mark. The contrast between the social classes is a key theme here, as is the impetuous nature of youth, a time when everything seems carefree, untethered and lacking in permanence. For a debut novel, it’s very impressive, hinting at the greatness of Capote’s output in the years to follow. The prose, in particular, is beautiful and lyrical, perfectly capturing the passion of Grady’s emotions alongside a vivid sense of place.

She would stay all afternoon and sometimes until it was dark. But it was never dark there: the lights that had been running all day grew yellow at dusk, white at night, and the faces, those dream-trapped faces, revealed their most to her then. Anonymity was part of the pleasure, but while she was no longer Grady McNeil, she did not know who it was that replaced her, and the tallest fires of her excitement burned with a fuel she could not name. (pp. 24-25)

I thoroughly enjoyed this early glimpse into Capote’s world, a novel that elegantly explores how the choices we make in the inexperience of adolescence may have profoundly damaging consequences in the weeks and months that follow.

Summer Crossing is published by Penguin, Monday Morning by Abacus; personal copies.

The Barbarous Coast by Ross Macdonald

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Ross Macdonald – now acknowledged to be one of the leading proponents of the hardboiled novel alongside Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Many of Macdonald’s best books feature the world-weary Lew Archer, a private eye with a conscience – a fundamentally decent man who doggedly pursues the truth, even though he knows he’s likely to get roughed-up along the way.

Book #6 in the Lew Archer series is The Barbarous Coast (1956), a compelling and intricate mystery featuring many of the elements I’ve come to know and love in Macdonald’s novels. More specifically: twisted, dysfunctional families with dark secrets to hide; damaged individuals with complex, psychological issues; elements of desire, murder and betrayal, all set within the privileged social circle of 1950s LA.

As the novel opens, Archer is arriving at The Channel Club, a high-end leisure club for the rich and famous, where he is to meet the establishment’s owner, Clarence Bassett. On his way into the club, Archer runs into a man who appears to be creating a disturbance, arguing with the security guard in an attempt to confront Bassett. The agitator in question is George Wall, a sportswriter from a Toronto newspaper – a fact Archer discovers during his subsequent meeting with Bassett. In short, Bassett wants Archer to get Wall off his back, proposing to pay the detective to nip the harassment in the bud. Usually, this would be a matter for the police, but Bassett is reluctant to involve them in any way, fearing the potential for a scandal which could damage the club.

Wall, for his part, believes Bassett is hiding his wife – a twenty-one-year girl named Hester Campbell, who appears to be caught up in some serious trouble. Wall hasn’t seen Hester since she left him in Toronto a few months ago, but a recent phone call from her suggests she is in danger. The connection to Clarence Bassett is longstanding one, Hester Campbell having known Bassett for many years, ever since she began diving at the club as a young girl. While Bassett knows of Hester’s return from Toronto to California, he claims not to have seen the girl for around three months – in all probability Hester is running around with some man she met through the club following her split from George Wall.

In the end, Archer agrees to try and find Hester, albeit somewhat reluctantly – like the seasoned detective that he is, our detective knows when something isn’t right, and that’s almost certainly the case here. While Bassett offers to pay for Archer’s services, just to get the nuisance off his back, Wall insists on paying the fees himself – a move that leaves Archer playing babysitter to his client as they set off in search of the missing girl.

“It’s right down your alley, isn’t it?” Bassett said smoothly. “What’s your objection?”

I had none, except that there was trouble in the air and it was the end of a rough year and I was a little tired. I looked at George Wall’s pink, rebellious head. He was a natural-born troublemaker, dangerous to himself and probably to other people. Perhaps if I tagged along with him, I could head off the trouble he was looking for. I was a dreamer. (p. 24)

As more information about Hester and her whereabouts comes to light, it transpires that the girl has links to a Hollywood studio – a dubious operation run by a group of powerful bigwigs. Perhaps more significantly, Hester appears to have come into a large sum of money in the last month or so, enough to buy back the upmarket property that used to belong to her family. According to the girl’s mother, Hester claims that the money came from her late husband’s estate, but this is clearly a lie – George Wall is neither wealthy nor dead. So, given his experience of these situations, Archer suspects the money may be the proceeds of some form of blackmail. Nevertheless, two key questions remain: who is Hester bribing, and what kind of hold does she have over them?

The unravelling of the web of deceit surrounding Hester brings Archer into contact with a variety of nefarious individuals, from the washed-up-boxer-turned-actor, Lance Leonard (aka Miguel Torres), to the womanising head of the film studios, Simon Graff, to the corrupt mobster, Carl Stern. What starts as just another missing person case soon morphs into something much darker, taking in multiple murders, blackmail, cover-ups and the use of a ‘cat’s paw’ to accomplish at least one dirty deed.

In his quest to uncover the truth, Archer finds himself in the midst of Hollywood, a world he finds shallow and meaningless, populated by individuals caught up in a superficial dream.

There were actresses with that numb and varnished look, and would-be actresses with that waiting look; junior-executive types hacking diligently at each other with their profiles; their wives watching each other through smiles; (p. 140)

It’s a wealthy, privileged sphere of society, indelibly tainted by the lure of corruption.

As ever, Macdonald’s descriptions of the Californian environment are lucid and evocative, effectively portraying the shadowy ‘feel’ of the place. For this novel, we’re in Malibu and Beverley Hills, locations where some of the houses have delusions of grandeur.

Manor Crescent Drive was one of those quiet palm-lined avenues which had been laid out just before the twenties went into their final convulsions. The houses weren’t huge and fantastic like some of the rococo palaces in the surrounding hills, but they had pretensions. Some were baronial pseudo-Tudor with faked half-timbered façades. Others were imitation Mizener Spanish, thick-walled and narrow-windowed like stucco fortresses built to resist imaginary Moors. The street was good. but a little disappointed-looking, as though maybe the Moors had already been and gone. (p.78)

As the novel draws to a close, there is a sense that Archer is at once both wired and weary, despairing of the darkness in the underbelly of LA.

Time was running through me, harsh on my nerve-ends, hot in my arteries, impalpable as breath in my mouth. I had the sleepless feeling you sometimes get in the final hours of a bad case, that you can see around corners, if you want to, and down into the darkness in human beings. (p. 226)

Overall, The Barbarous Coast is another thoroughly enjoyable entry in the Lew Archer series. While the plot feels a little convoluted and tricky to follow at times, everything slots into place relatively smoothly in the final chapters, with an additional, unforeseen twist right at the end.

Once again, Macdonald demonstrates his skill in moving the narrative forward through dialogue underscored with the ring of truth and authenticity. While Lew Archer is the most well-developed character here, the other players are nicely sketched – particularly the secondary characters who frequently add some interesting dashes of colour. Of particular note are Hester’s former landlady, Mrs Lamb, a straight-talking woman with ‘an air of calm eccentricity’; and the girl’s mother, Mrs Campbell, who naively believes Hester’s lies about her fortuitous inheritance.

There is some beautiful writing in this novel, from Macdonald’s nicely judged metaphors and observations to his poetic descriptions of the landscape. In this scene, Archer is driving into the Canyon, on his way to Lance Leonard’s house in the darkness of the night.

I left the house the way I had entered, and drove up into the Canyon. A few sparse stars peered between the streamers of cloud drifting along the ridge. Houselights on the slopes islanded the darkness through which the road ran white under my headlight beam. Rounding a high curve, I could see the glow of the beach cities far below to my left, phosphorescence washed up on the shore. (p. 108)

You can find my reviews of other novels in the Lew Archer series listed below. Each one can be read as a standalone – but to follow Macdonald’s development as a writer, it would be worth starting with an early entrant, probably The Drowning Pool.

The Drowning Pool [#2); The Way Some People Die [#3]; The Ivory Grin [#4]; Find a Victim [#5].

Max and Radhika have also written about their experiences of the series. You can find their latest posts here and here.

The Barbarous Coast is published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; personal copy.

Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates

I’ve written before about Richard Yates, a writer with an innate ability to understand his characters’ failings and self-delusions, portraying the bitter cruelty of their dashed dreams with real insight and humanity. In this, his penultimate novel, Yates offers us another riff on this theme by focusing on a young couple, Michael and Lucy Davenport, just starting out on their lives together in 1950s New York.

While Lucy’s family are very wealthy, Michael refuses to live off his wife’s money, preferring instead to pursue his ambitions as a writer, supplementing his income with a mindless job in a publishing house. At the start of the novel, Michael and Lucy seem very much in love with one another, but all too soon the marriage begins to stagnate and sour. Michael generates some interest in his work with an early collection of poems – particularly his best piece ‘Coming Clean’ – however, he struggles to repeat the success. Meanwhile, Lucy is becoming increasingly frustrated with their second-rate living conditions, knowing full well that her fortune could buy them a more comfortable lifestyle. Comparisons with their friends, the Nelsons, only make matters worse for the Davenports, particularly given Tom Nelson’s success as an artist with pieces in some of the leading galleries in New York.

By the end of the first section of this three-part novel, the Davenports’ marriage is over, leaving Michael with little idea of what to do next.

He left the house, slamming the kitchen door, and made his way up past the extravagance of Ben Duane’s flower beds. But once he was at his desk he couldn’t lift a pencil or even see straight. He could only sit with half his fist in his mouth, breathing hard through his nose, trying to comprehend that the bottom had dropped out of everything. It was over.

He was thirty-five, and he was as frightened as a child at the thought of having to live alone. (pp.116-117)

In the second and third sections of the novel, we learn what happens to Lucy and Michael following the split. Lucy fares better than Michael in this respect, pursuing various creative activities in an effort to find herself. As the months slip by, Lucy dabbles in acting, taking the role of Blanche DuBois in a local production of A Streetcar Named Desire; she joins a creative writing class, drawing on some of her own experiences to produce some promising short stories; finally, Lucy tries her hand at painting, but with limited success – in truth, her works are naïve and amateurish. There are various affairs and relationships along the way, most of which are short-lived, just like her passionate liaison with Jack Halloran (aka Casimir), the enigmatic director of the theatre group.

Later still, when she lay on her bed and gave in at last to the kind of crying Tennessee Williams described as “luxurious,” she wished she had allowed him to write down his name. Casimir what? Casimir who? And she knew now her nice little curtain-line about Stanley Kowalski had been worse than cheap and spiteful – oh, worse; worse. It had been a lie, because she would always and always remember him as Jack Halloran. (p. 181)

Michael, for his part, continues to pursue his literary ambitions, but once again with limited success. His early life post-Lucy is characterised by periods of instability and mental illness, culminating in a spell in Bellevue, a specialist psychiatric hospital in New York. In time, Michael finds some solace in the form of a new, much younger wife, Sarah Garvey, a guidance counsellor at his daughter’s school, but he never seems truly contented.

Meanwhile, the Davenports’ daughter, Laura (aged nine at the time of her parents’ separation) is becoming increasingly disconnected from the world, eventually leaving her home with Lucy to join a hippy commune in California.

The novel closes on a more optimistic note with a meeting between the two Davenports. By now, Lucy is in a good place in life, gaining fulfilment from her new role as an ambassador for Amnesty International. There is a sense that she at least has stopped chasing after the pursuit of artistic fulfilment, possibly in the realisation that it might be hopelessly beyond her talents. For Michael, the situation is more ambiguous; his imminent move to a new teaching job in Boston may lead to the break-up of his second marriage; however, he seems relaxed about the future, still harbouring ambitions of another success to rival ‘Coming Clean’. As for his relationship with Sarah, there is a sense of que será, será – whatever will be, will be.

In writing this novel, Yates gives us an insight into the frustrations and disappointments of a suburban existence, of young hopes eroded by the crushing realities of life. The sections focusing on Lucy’s experiences are particularly good, illustrating once more this author’s undoubted skills in portraying complex, flawed women in ways that feel both perceptive and humane.

While the novel lacks the dramatic tension of Revolutionary Road, it is still very much worth reading for the nuanced characterisation alone. Probably one for Yates completists rather than newbies, who might be better starting with The Easter Parade, or possibly the short story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. Irrespective of the changing times, Yates is a writer whose work still stands up today; the emotions he captures in these books are enduring and timeless.

(Revolutionary Road was a pre-blog read for me, hence the lack of review – but you can find Max’s excellent post on the novel here.)

Young Hearts Crying is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

I’ve been saving this collection of stories for a while, ever since my friend, N, picked it up for me during a trip to New York a couple of years ago. The twenty pieces included here span the period from 1891 to 1934, virtually the whole of Edith Wharton’s career as a writer. Several are in the style of Wharton’s great society novels, exploring the tensions between restraint and passion, sincerity and hypocrisy, respectability and disgrace. In short, they are sharp, nuanced and incisive. Here we see life as it was in the upper echelons of New York society with its traditional social mores and codes, frequently stifling freedom of action in favour of compliance and conformity.

The opening story, Mrs Manstey’s View, features a protagonist outside of Wharton’s own social class – a relatively lonely, elderly woman who lives at the back of a New York boarding house, far removed from the wealthy areas of the city. Mrs Manstey is largely confined to her room where she gains pleasure from gazing at the outside world via the view from her window. In spite of the dwelling’s urban location, various flowers and plants are visible and abundant, altering in prominence with the changing of the seasons.

Mrs. Manstey’s real friends were the denziens of the yards, the hyacinths, the magnolia, the green parrot, the maid who fed the cats, the doctor who studied late behind his mustard-colored curtains; and the confidant of her tenderer mustings was the church-spire floating in the sunset. (p. 6)

One day, Mrs Manstey learns that her neighbour, Mrs Black, is planning an extension, a full-sized structure that will block out her view – no longer will she be able to see the proliferation of the natural world, the tangle of shrubs that brighten her days. Mrs Manstey knows that drastic measures are called for, and she acts accordingly – to say any more would spoil the effect. This is a lovely story tinged with poignancy, one that highlights the value of beauty and pleasure over the desire for commercial gain.

In A Journey, one of the standout pieces in the collection, a respectable woman is escorting her husband home to New York following a spell in warmer climes. The husband is chronically ill and unlikely to recover, but for now appears to be well enough to make the trip. With the train journey underway, the wife proceeds to reflect on the past. There is a sense that the couple’s marriage has deteriorated in line with (or possibly even ahead of) the husband’s decline in health, such is the extent of the change in his character.

Tensions increase when the wife realises that her husband has died during the journey, a development that raises the stakes in an already strained situation. Fearing their expulsion from the train if the body is discovered, the wife must try to conceal the death from the other passengers – something that is easier said than done, particularly given the crowded nature of their compartment.

After that many faces seemed to press upon her. The passengers were on their way to the dining-car, and she was conscious that as they passed down the aisle they glanced curiously at the closed curtains. One lantern-jawed man with prominent eyes stood still and tried to shoot his projecting glance through the division between the folds. The freckled child, returning from breakfast, waylaid the passers with a buttery clutch, saying in a loud whisper, “He’s sick”; and once the conductor came by, asking for tickets. She shrank into her corner and looked out of the window at the flying trees and houses, meaningless hieroglyphs of an endlessly unrolled papyrus. (pp. 95-96)

This is a superb story, steeped in mood and emotion, giving it the feel of a nightmare or hallucination. Wharton excels in her portrayal of a woman on the edge, the rhythm of her prose mirroring the relentless momentum of the train as it hurtles onwards to its final destination. A tour de force in miniature with some very memorable imagery.

The Rembrandt is a lovely, beautifully-observed story of opposing principles, one that highlights the importance of human emotions in any financially-based decision. It focuses on a museum art dealer who is called upon to give his opinion on a picture owned by a friend of his cousin’s – a lady by the name of Mrs Fontage. Finding herself in need of money, Mrs Fontage wishes to sell the picture, which she believes to be a Rembrandt. However, on seeing the painting, the dealer can tell it is nothing of the kind. What is he to do? If he tells Mrs Fontage the painting is worthless, he will shatter not only her future but her memories of the past, too – the story behind the acquisition of the picture is clearly very precious. On the other hand, if he says nothing or gives the impression that the painting is valuable, her hopes will be raised under false pretences. In short, there appears to be no easy way out for the dealer, irrespective of the option he chooses.

Looking at that lamentable canvas seemed the surest way of gathering strength to denounce it: but behind me, all the while, I felt Mrs. Fontage’s shuddering pride drawn up in a final effort of self-defense. I hated myself for my sentimental perversion of the situation. Reason argued that it was more cruel to deceive Mrs. Fontage than to tell her the truth; but that merely proved the inferiority of reason to instinct in situations involving any concession to the emotions. (p. 105)

All in all, this is an excellent story, one with a surprise or two up its sleeve.

Autres Temps…, another excellent piece, explores the social scandal surrounding divorce, particularly in the years of the late 19th century. Interestingly, it also illustrates how attitudes were beginning to change, highlighting the contrast between the Old New York and a younger, more liberal society starting to break through.

The story focuses on Mrs Lidcote who, years earlier was condemned by her peers for leaving her husband for another man. When it transpires that her daughter, Leila, is about to get divorced in similar circumstances, Mrs. Lidcote is assured that times have changed. Divorce is no longer considered quite as shameful as it once was, leaving Mrs Lidcote free to return to New York from her self-imposed exile abroad. However, once she is installed in Leila’s new marital home, Mrs Lidcote realises that a re-entry into society will not be quite as simple to achieve. While attitudes have moved on, Mrs Lidcote’s position has not; her time has passed, leaving her tainted for eternity.

“…Probably no one in the house with me stopped to consider that my case and Leila’s were identical. They only remembered that I’d done something which, at the time I did it, was condemned by society. My case has been passed on and classified: I’m the woman who has been cut for nearly twenty years. The older people have half forgotten why, and the younger ones have never really known: it’s simply become a tradition to cut me. And traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest of all to destroy.” (pp. 319-320)

The final story is another standout, quite possibly the best in the collection. In Roman Fever, two lifelong friends and neighbours, Mrs Slade and Mrs Ansley – both middle-aged New Yorkers, both widows – are sitting on a roof-top terrace overlooking Rome where they are holidaying with their adult daughters. As they gaze across the city, the two women recall past times, in particular their previous visit to the capital some twenty-five years earlier. In this wonderful story of bottled-up jealously, rage and long-held resentment, Mrs Slade confronts her friend in a bid to establish her superiority, dredging up old secrets and acts of duplicity in the process.

To reveal much more might spoil the effect; suffice it to say that this story comes with a killer ending, one of the best last lines I can recall in any story, not just those by this author.

This is a sparkling collection of stories with much to recommend it. Wharton’s prose is precise and incisive, frequently shedding light on the complexities of our motivations and behaviours.

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

West by Carys Davies

Book group choices aside, I don’t tend to read very many newly published books these days, mostly because my tastes have been gravitating towards older literature over the last few years. Nevertheless, every now and again, something new and intriguing catches my eye, often by way of a review or recommendation from a trusted source.

This brings me to West, a haunting novel by the Welsh-born writer Carys Davies, published to great acclaim in 2018. I’d already been thinking about picking up a copy when Max’s praise for it on Twitter pushed me over the edge. This taut, finely-honed novel – Davies’ first – packs quite a punch. As you’ll see from my comments below, it shares something with the classic, almost timeless narratives I tend to enjoy.

Set in the American landscape in the early 19th century, the novel revolves around Cy Bellman, a British settler and widower who lives with his ten-year-old daughter, Bess, on their mule ranch in Pennsylvania. Curious and adventurous by nature, Cy is intrigued by newspaper reports of the discovery of huge animal bones in the midst of the Kentucky swamps – so much so that he prepares to embark upon an epic journey through challenging territory in the hopeful belief that these mammoths might still be alive in the West.

While Cy’s forthright sister, Julie, thinks him crazy for abandoning his daughter, Cy is determined to go. He must discover the truth for himself – to see these beasts with his own eyes, complete in their natural habitat. It seems likely he will be away for a year or two, possibly longer – it’s hard to predict. Only Bess is convinced that her father will eventually return home, demonstrating a maturity behind her years in understanding his desire to see something of the world, his sense of curiosity about the great unknown.

Once Cy heads west, the narrative moves back and forth between his travels and the situation back at the ranch. Aunt Julie is now installed at the farm, firstly to take care of young Bess and secondly to oversee the breeding of mules and hinnies which provides the family with their income. In the latter activity, Bess is assisted by Elmer Jackson, a shady neighbouring labourer who harbours designs on Bellman’s estate, not least the women who live there. Like Julie, Jackson is also firmly of the belief that Cy will never be seen alive in Pennsylvania again, his endeavours written off as a foolhardy venture.

Bess, on the other hand, spends her spare time in the local library, keen to learn more of her father’s potential route through the territories. Intuitively, she senses the need to be wary of the librarian, a lecherous man with a penchant for young girls…

Meanwhile, back on the journey, Cy is joined by a Native American, a young Shawnee boy named ‘Old Woman from a Distance’ who is familiar with the local terrain. Even though the two travellers have very little in the way of a common language – they communicate mostly through displays of emotion and physical gestures – the boy helps Cy to navigate the unfamiliar territory, hunting and fishing for food in exchange for various trinkets of interest.

The vast prairie is tough and relentless – as is the climate, particularly in winter, a harsh and unforgiving season in the exposed terrain. Sightings of other individuals are few and far between; but when they come, they never cease to surprise, forming a striking image against the backdrop of the land.

The intermittent appearance of natives now, though he’d come by this time to expect it, amazed him: the presence of people in the vast wilderness around them. Even though he was used to the rhythm of their journey – that he and the boy could travel for a month and see no one, and then without warning encounter a large camp, or a group of savages walking or fishing. Noisy children and men whose bodies gleamed with grease and coal, women loaded like mules with bundles of buffalo meat. A whole mass of them together, undifferentiated and strange, and present suddenly amidst the course grass and the trees, the rocks and the river, beneath the enormous sky. All of them wanting to touch his red hair. Half of them enthralled by his compass, the other half trying to examine his knife and the contents of his tin chest. All of them fearful of his guns and eager to traffic a little raw meat for some of his treasures. (p. 100)

There is some beautiful writing here, demonstrating Davies’ deep appreciation of the land and cultural history of the West. These descriptive passages feel grounded in authenticity, a quality that adds a strong sense of credibility to the narrative.

As the prospect of another winter in the barren landscape looms large on the horizon, Cy finds himself wondering if his journey has been in vain, a fruitless folly in search of some great inexplicable myth.

He began to feel that he might have broken his life on this journey, that he should have stayed at home with the small and the familiar instead of being out here with the large and the unknown. (p. 99)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the story itself, save to say that it is powerful, vivid and beautifully constructed. Along the way we learn a little more of the Shawnee boy’s backstory, how his countrymen were cheated out of their land, their possessions and their ways of doing things – an underhand action brought about by US Government representatives who wanted the Native Americans moved on from their communities, thereby freeing up the Eastern territories for the arrival of new settlers from Europe. In the following passage, the boy recalls the earlier prophecies of an elder member of his community – predictions that largely came to pass in the course of the negotiations.

He prophesised that a time would come when they would know that the whole of the earth had been pulled from beneath the skin of their feet, that they would wake up one morning in the dawn and find that all the forests and all the mountains, all the rivers and the vast sweep of the prairie, had slipped from their grasp like a rope of water, and all they had to show for the bargains they had made was some worthless jewelry, some old clothes, and a few bad guns. Everything they’d bartered – their dogs and their furs, their pounded fish and their root cakes, their good behaviour, their knowledge of the country and the way they’d always done things – they would understand that they had given it all away for a song. (p. 34)

Unsurprisingly, the boy is angry about previous events; but he is also industrious, determined to seek a different, more beneficial future for himself in the fullness of time.

West is a potent, elegantly-constructed book that captures the beauty and brutality of the vast American landscape in equal measure. It is a novel shot through with a strong sense of loss: the loss of communities, possessions and personal dignity – the absence of loved ones is also very keenly felt. Themes of displacement and elimination run through the book, from the movement of the Native Americans to the West, to the dying out of the great mythical creatures that form Cy’s quest.

As the narrative plays out, there is a degree of retribution for some of the injustices and atrocities of the past – reverberations from days gone by ripple through the story, particularly towards the end.

I absolutely loved this spare and compelling novel. Very highly recommended, particularly for fans of fiction with a deep sense of place.

West is published by Granta; personal copy.