Tag Archives: US

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

First published in 1946 (and now back in print courtesy of NYRB Classics), More Was Lost is a remarkable memoir by the American-born writer, editor and keen gardener, Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

Eleanor Stone is just nineteen years of age when she is captivated by Zsiga, an unconventional, liberal man with a keen interest in people. At thirty-seven, Zsiga is somewhat older than Eleanor, but personality-wise he is a good match; so, following a short courtship and engagement, the pair marry and ultimately make their way to Zsiga’s Ruthenian estate at the edge of the Carpathian Mountains.

It was no Eastern European Versailles. It was small, and infinitely lovable. It had a sort of touching elegance. And there were little barbaric bits here and there that were particularly pleasing in a building meant to be so classic. For instance, the water spouts, which were fierce little mermaids wearing crowns. (p. 121)

While the Perényis have little money to speak of, their assets are substantial as the estate comprises 750 acres of gardens and farmland, a vineyard, a distillery and a sizeable forest. The baroque property itself is characterful but dilapidated and in significant need of repair – there is much work to be done to make the dwelling comfortable for the newlyweds.

While the Stones are fearful for their daughter’s future in an unfamiliar land, Eleanor herself is much more optimistic, buoyed by the richness of her new life with Zsiga. Money is of little importance to her, particularly compared to the pleasures of the estate.

We walked over the fields toward an acacia-shaded road. The earth was fine and crumbly under our feet. I had not expected to feel very much about the land. It was the house and the garden that I had thought of. But I was wrong. The land was the reason for everything. And standing there, we felt rich. We wondered what everyone had meant by saying we had no money, and no future, and should not marry. Nonsense! At that moment, we felt we had everything. (p. 45)

The first two-thirds of the memoir focuses on Eleanor’s adjustment to her new world, situated as it is on the shifting borders between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. At the time of her arrival, the area surrounding the estate is under the auspices of the Czechs; however, as Zsiga speaks Hungarian, this is the language she decides to learn, aided by the trusty Györffy, a long-standing employee of the Perényi family and manager of the estate.

Alongside her lessons, Eleanor must also get to grips with managing the household, the gardens and ultimately the orchard, all of which need regular care and attention. There is little time for her to feel bored, especially as there are several renovations and refurbishments to be made around the house. With her flair for colour and interior design, Eleanor sets about rearranging and furnishing the rooms, rescuing past glories including paintings, maps and a collection of old books, many of which belonged to Zsiga’s grandfather, Alexei. With most of the ground floor given over to the kitchen, office and storerooms, the Perényis establish their living quarters in the upstairs rooms of the house, complete with a new library furnished by Eleanor.

There were the books and the maps; and this room, too, was frescoed. On the vaulted ceiling there were four panels, representing the seasons of the year. In the firelight, with the red brocade curtains drawn, this room seemed to vibrate with faint motion. Everything moved and looked alive, the gleaming backs of the books, the shadowy little figures on the ceiling, and the old Turk over the fireplace. (p. 130)

This section of the memoir reads like a sequence of vignettes – snapshots of the Perényis’ lives as they lovingly restore the estate. There are local dignitaries to visit, traditional festivities to host, and strange customs to uphold, all of which Eleanor handles beautifully – she doesn’t seem phased by any of it. In one particularly evocative episode, the couple cross the border into Hungary to stay with Zsiga’s cousin Laci, a larger-than-life character with an enormous bushy beard. Eleanor is captivated by Laci and his dashing friend, Bottka, with their enduring stamina and thirst for enjoyment.

All too soon, however, developments in the outside world begin to impinge on the Perényis’ existence, and their position in the liminal zone between borders becomes all too perilous. Eleanor is acutely aware that if Czechoslovakia were to enter the war against Germany, Zsiga’s status as a Hungarian national would lead to his internment as a foreign subject. The situation in Europe is changing fast; too fast for Zsiga to arrange for Czech citizenship to secure his position. So, after much soul-searching, the couple make a dash for the border in the hope of making it into Hungary and back to Budapest.

We left. All the frontiers were closed, except for one spot about a hundred miles away. We had managed to keep the car, and we drove it to this place. Our exit was very melodramatic, considering that Chamberlain was already on his way to Munich. We didn’t know this, however, and neither apparently did the Czechs. The roads were clogged with military vehicles, and with soldiers. (p. 168)

They make it, but only just – crossing the border at the last barrier where the frontline defences are in the process of being established.

Back in Hungary, the Perényis find themselves caught up in the schizophrenic, illogical nature of Hungarian politics. As the disputes over the Czech territories rumble on, the couple dearly hope that their area will be returned to Hungary. (While a continuation of life under the Czechs would be perfectly acceptable, all hopes for the nation’s survival are rapidly ebbing away; it seems merely a matter of time before the capitulation occurs.) Alternatively, the prospect of being ruled by the Ruthenians is unthinkable, a situation that would leave the Perényis exposed to the whims of barbarians.

We would have been quite happy to go on living under the Czechs, but if in this nearly final partition of Czechoslovakia we were left to the Ruthenians, we knew it would be very bad news indeed. There was all the difference in the world between the enlightened civilized Czechs and the savage Ruthenians. If that happened to us, we would be left without any competent authority, lost in a remote province. For there was no doubt that the Ruthenians were going to demand and, with the Czechs reduced to complete impotence by this latest blow, get complete autonomy. (p. 178)

I won’t reveal how the decision on these territories works out for Eleanor and Zsiga; you’ll have to read the memoir yourselves to discover the outcome. Suffice it to say that there are testing times ahead for this couple as they try to navigate the turmoil of war.

More Was Lost found its way onto my radar when Dorian wrote so enthusiastically about it back in 2016 (do take a look at his posts which you can find here). It is by turns beautiful, illuminating, poignant and sad; one of those rare books that feel expansive in scope yet intimate in detail all at once. There is a sense of lives being swept up in the devastating impact of broader events as the uncertainty of the political situation begins to escalate. The pivotal decisions that Eleanor and Zsiga must take are conveyed with clarity and openness, qualities that make their story all the more moving to read.

Perényi is a wonderful writer, describing her life on the estate and the changing of the seasons with great attention to detail. There are some beautiful descriptive passages in the book, from the snowy landscapes of the surrounding areas to the grand portraits and photographs of Zsiga’s ancestors – the last remnants of an idyllic vanished world.

The book comes with a lovely introduction from J. D. McClatchy, an author and close friend of   Perényi, which outlines what happened to Eleanor and Zsiga both during and after the war. Like many introductions, it is probably best left to the end to avoid any spoilers.

All in all, this is a superb memoir written in a thoroughly engaging, straightforward style. Very highly recommended, particularly for readers with an interest in the period.

More Was Lost is published by NYRB Classics. Huge thanks to Dorian for kindly gifting me a copy of the book.

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Set in a small town in Michigan in the midst of a snowy winter, Vanish in an Instant (1952) is a tightly plotted murder mystery in the classic hardboiled style. Its author, Margaret Millar, was a Canadian-American crime writer, best known for her 1955 novel Beast in View, winner of the Edgar Allen Poe award for best novel. If Vanish is anything to go by then that award was fully justified; it’s a very compelling mystery, full of twists and turns with plenty to keep the reader guessing right up to the very end.

As the novel opens, Mrs Hamilton, a wealthy and rather bossy matriarch, has just arrived in town accompanied by her paid companion, Alice Dwyer. Mrs Hamilton is on a mission, namely to do whatever it takes to get her daughter, Virginia, out of jail following her alleged involvement in the murder of a local married man, Claude Margolis. As far as the police are concerned, Virginia – Margolis’ mistress – is the prime suspect, especially as she was found wandering about near her lover’s cottage shortly after the stabbing.

However…Virginia was blind drunk at the time of the incident, and her recollections of the evening’s events are hazy at best. Even though she was discovered covered in blood, Virginia has no idea whether she actually killed Margolis or not – she may have done it, but she isn’t sure. Neither is Meecham, the bright lawyer Virginia’s husband, Paul, has hired to help.

Virginia was sitting on her narrow cot reading, or pretending to read, a magazine. She was wearing the yellow wool dress and brown sandals that Meecham had brought to her the previous afternoon, and her black hair was brushed carefully back from her high forehead. She had used Miss Jennings’ lipstick to advantage, painting her mouth fuller and wider than it actually was. In the light of the single overhead bulb her flesh looked smooth and cold as marble. Meecham found it impossible to imagine what emotions she was feeling, or what was going on behind her remote and beautiful eyes. (p. 30)

To complicate matters further, a local man named Earl Loftus appears on the scene and confesses to committing the murder. On the surface, Loftus seems to have no apparent connections to Margolis, but his account of the crime is convincing enough to persuade the police of his involvement. Virginia is released and reunited with her family, leaving the police to tie up the case against the mysterious Loftus. Meecham, however, remains unconvinced of Loftus’ guilt, fearing that Mrs Hamilton has paid the loner to take the rap. As it turns out, Loftus is dying from leukaemia, so he has little to lose by standing in for the killer – quite the contrary in fact as his family would stand to gain financially from Mrs Hamilton’s payout.

As he continues to investigate Loftus and the various connections to the case, Meecham becomes increasingly convinced that things are not as clear-cut as they might appear. Inch by inch, the view widens to include other individuals connected to Loftus: namely his devoted landlady, Mrs Hearst, and her husband, Jim; his alcoholic mother, Clara Loftus, a genuinely tragic figure; and his ex-wife, Birdie, no longer on the scene. Each character is drawn with care and attention, from the major influencers to the seemingly peripheral players in the mix.

To reveal any more of the plot would almost certainly spoil some elements of the story, but suffice it to say that it remains suitably gripping and intriguing to the end. However, what really sets this mystery apart from others in the genre is the character development, aided by the attention to detail Millar brings to this aspect of the novel. Very few of these individuals are as straightforward or as ‘black-and-white’ as they might seem on the surface; instead, their personalities are nuanced with shades of grey and degrees of ambiguity that reflect a degree of reality.

There’s a great deal of hard work and diligence in Meecham’s quest for the truth, qualities that reward his persistence in following up the loose ends. Millar also brings a strong sense of humanity to the lawyer’s character, an understanding of the harsh realities of life for some of the individuals involved. Moreover, there’s a lovely dynamic between Meecham and Alice Dwyer, Mrs Hamilton’s desirable young companion, almost reminiscent of a screwball comedy-romance at times, such is the nature of their pitch-perfect dialogue.

The small-town atmosphere is nicely captured too, adding a sense of unease and darkness to the story, somethings that help to reflect the ‘feel’ of the place.

In the summer the red bricks of the courthouse were covered with dirty ivy and in the winter with dirty snow. The building had been constructed on a large square in what was originally the center of town. But the town had moved westward, abandoned the courthouse like an ugly stepchild, leaving it in the east end to fend for itself among the furniture warehouses and service stations and beer-and-sandwich cafés. (p. 26)

In summary, this is a sharply plotted, absorbing mystery – ideal reading for the winter months.

He walked out the door and down the hall. He didn’t look back but he knew she was watching him. He could feel her eyes on the back of her neck, cold and painful as the touch of ice. (p. 222)

My thanks to John, who has been encouraging me to read this author for a while.

Final note: As some of you may know, Margaret Millar was married to Kenneth Millar, aka Ross Macdonald, whose Lew Archer mysteries are amongst my favourite novels in the genre – I’ve written about some of them here.

Vanish in an Instant is published by Pushkin Press; personal copy.

The Girl on the Via Flaminia by Alfred Hayes

After serving in the US army in the Second World War, the British-born writer Alfred Hayes stayed on in Rome at the end of the conflict where he worked with some of the leading lights in the Italian neo-realist film movement, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. This talent for scriptwriting shows in Hayes’ 1949 novel, The Girl on the Via Flaminia, a slim work which zooms in on a microcosm of a society irreparably damaged by the ravages of war. It’s a brilliant, bleak yet beautifully written book, shot through with an aching sense of pain and sadness. Here’s how it opens:

The wind blew through Europe. It was a cold wind, and there were no lights in the city. (p.3)

Set in Rome in 1944, the novel focuses on Robert, a desperately lonely American soldier who finds himself stationed in the capital following the liberation of Italy from the Germans.

Having grown tired of boarding at the barracks with the rest of his unit, Robert longs for the company of a woman on a regular basis – not one of the prostitutes who ply their trade by the River Tiber, but someone more modest and above board. So, he makes an arrangement to share a private room with Lisa, a local Italian girl, at a house in the city. The lodgings are owned by Adele, a middle-aged Italian woman who has converted her dining room into a simple bar and eating place for the soldiers stationed in the vicinity. Also living in the house are Ugo, Adele’s mournful husband, and Antonio, their grown-up son, a bitter ex-soldier who resents the presence of the Allied forces in his country.

As far as Robert sees things, this is to be a simple arrangement, one that benefits both parties. Robert will have a little warmth and female company at night, while in return Lisa will receive some much sought-after supplies: coffee, sugar, chocolate, maybe even a little fruitcake on the side. It isn’t a question of just sex; Robert knows he could avail himself of one of the local prostitutes for that (not that he wants to – the prospect really doesn’t appeal). Rather, it’s more a case of desiring something decent and comfortable, albeit with no long-term strings attached.

On their first evening together in the room, Lisa is pretty antagonist towards Robert, whom she views as symbolic of American soldiers in general, a group characterised by their loudness, arrogance and stupidity. Robert, in his naivety, struggles to truly understand the anger and hostility being directed towards him, particularly from Lisa whom he believes he is helping through the provision of goods. Gradually, however, and with the help of a well-timed power cut, Lisa’s mood begins to soften, thereby enabling Robert to get a little closer to her – an experience exquisitely conveyed through Hayes’ beautiful prose.

Touching her, then, that first time, there had been no words at all to express the overwhelming sense of a woman being with him, in a clean place, in a clean bed, just being there, in a room, alone feeling the warmth even though it was not a given and voluntary and loving warmth, only the inevitable warmth of someone’s body. There were no words at all for the enormous charity that having a woman, in a room with a closed door, in a bed that was one’s own, meant. (p. 46)

Sadly, even the simplest of arrangements can run into complications, especially in a time of unrest and uncertainty. In order to rent the room from Adele, Robert has created the impression that he and Lisa are married. So, when their status is called into question, Lisa and Robert find themselves caught in a perilous situation, one that has long-term consequences for those involved.

I absolutely loved this slim yet stunning novel, my third by Hayes. (You can read my thoughts on In Love here, a book I probably need to read again as I couldn’t make up my mind about it at the time.)

Hayes is particularly good at conveying the nuances of human emotion in a nuanced and non-judgemental way, allowing us to see the situation from two very different perspectives: Robert’s and Lisa’s. The portrayal of complex and conflicting feelings – often in a state of fluidity – is beautifully done. Desire, longing, resentment and anger all come together to illustrate the difficulty of these characters’ situations. The haunting ending, with its air of uncertainty, feels very fitting, highlighting as it does the tragedy of the protagonists’ plight.

The novel also highlights the terrible effects of war, the damage and trauma inflicted not only on the soldiers and forces but also on the ordinary people left behind – women like Lisa who have few options open to them other than compromising their dignity to survive. By focusing on this relatively small group of individuals, Hayes paints a portrait of a country torn apart by the fallout from conflict, where victory and freedom are not what they were promised to be. Instead, the mood is characterised by feelings of frustration, anguish and suffocation.

On the walls of the small villages in the south, they had painted slogans during the other regime: to obey, to fight, to win. Obedience was done, fighting was over, there had been no victory. Agony was left, and a sense of suffocation. (p.74)

Bitterness and resentment are widespread, emotions typified by Antonio’s reactions to Robert and his compatriots as tensions escalate.

‘When we go into the street,’ he said, leaning forward, accusing them, because of the uniform, ‘what do we see? Your colonels, in their big cars, driving with women whose reputations were made in the bedrooms of fascist bureaucrats! With my country’s enemies! Or your soldiers, drunk in our gutters. Or your officers, pushing us off our own sidewalks! Oh, the magnificent promises the radio made us! Oh, the paradise we’d have! Wait, wait – there will be bread, peace, freedom when the allies come! But where is this paradise? Where is it, signori –?’ (pp. 76-77)

We also gain an insight into Antonio’s experiences of the war, the physical and emotional wounds he must deal with as a consequence of the bloodshed.

Finally, a few words about the writing: Hayes’ prose is spare, precise and evocative, qualities that help to convey the deep-rooted mood and atmosphere that underpin the story. As the cold wind sweeps through Rome, there is a sense of darkness and desolation in the city, feelings that mirror the mood of the country as a whole, trapped as it is in a seemingly never-ending war.

The city had no beauty now. The river had no history. When you stood on one of the bridges and looked at the city, you thought of home, and were depressed, and it seemed, because if the grayness over everything, that this war had been going on forever, and it would never end. (p.112)

The Girl on the Via Flaminia is published by Penguin; personal copy.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

Back in October, I spent a week or so gadding about the London Film Festival, trying to make the most of the chance to catch previews of various forthcoming releases and a few curios that may never find a distributor here in the UK. One of the most eagerly anticipated films (for me at least) was Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, a story of love, injustice and the fight for freedom.

While I wasn’t quite as bowled over by Jenkins’ previous film, the Oscar-winning Moonlight, as everyone else seemed to be, I loved the look of the Beale Street trailer. So, with this in mind, I decided to take a chance on it – luckily for me, it turned out to be one of my highlights of the fest, definitely up there in my final top five. (If you’re interested, you can read my thread of Film Festival tweets here.)

With just under a week to go to the Beale Street screening, I picked up a copy of the novel on the spur of the moment to read on the train journeys in and out of the city (just about manageable given the book’s length). It’s a really remarkable piece of writing, so powerful, passionate and lyrical, that it’s going to be hard to do it any kind of justice in a review.

The novel is narrated by Tish, a nineteen-year-old black girl who lives with her parents and sister in Harlem in the early 1970s. Tish is deeply in love with Fonny, just a regular young black guy except for the fact that he happens to be in jail, accused of a crime he clearly did not commit. As the story opens, Tish is visiting Fonny in prison to tell him she is having his baby, a development she believes will offer them a glimmer of hope, for Fonny loves Tish just as much as she loves him.

You see: I know him. He’s very proud, and he worries a lot, and, when I think about it, I know – he doesn’t – that that’s the biggest reason he’s in jail. He worries too much already, I don’t want him to worry about me. In fact, I didn’t want to say what I had to say. But I knew I had to say it. He had to know.

And I thought, too, that when he got over being worried, when he was lying by himself at night, when he was all by himself, in the very deepest part of himself, maybe, when he thought about it, he’d be glad. And that might help him. (p. 12)

In creating this story, Baldwin has seamlessly woven together two closely-related strands: firstly, the families’ efforts to discredit the case against Fonny in an attempt to secure his release; and secondly, a series of flashbacks from the young lovers’ courtship before Fonny’s imprisonment. Here’s an excerpt from a scene where Fonny is declaring his love for Tish, essentially asking her to be his life partner, for better or for worse.

‘So, all I’m trying to tell you, Tish, is I ain’t offering you much, I ain’t got no money and I work at odd jobs – just for bread, because I ain’t about to go for none of their jive-ass okey-doke – and that means that you going to have to work, too, and when you come home most likely I’ll just grunt and keep on with my chisels and shit and maybe sometime you’ll think I don’t even know you’re there. But don’t ever think that, ever. You’re with me all the time, all the time, without you I don’t know if I could make it at all, baby, and when I put down the chisel, I’ll always come to you. I’ll always come to you. I need you. I love you.’ He smiled. Is that all right, Tish?’

‘Of course it’s all right with me,’ I said. I had more to say, but my throat wouldn’t open. (pp. 94-95)

Alongside the story of Tish and Fonny’s relationship, the novel also conveys the power of familial love and familial tensions in fairly equal measure. Fonny’s mother, in particular, is dead set against her son’s involvement with Tish (as are his rather stuck-up sisters), while his father, Frank, is much more supportive of the couple.

Somewhat sadly, Fonny’s fight for justice is one that remains all too relevant today, over forty years since the novel’s original publication. As might be expected, Baldwin is very adept at highlighting the injustice meted out to people of colour in a society that harbours blatant misconceptions and prejudices against certain individuals; nevertheless, these elements never feel preachy or heavy-handed, just clear-sighted, well-judged and impactful. In this flashback scene, Fonny meets up with an old friend, Daniel, who has just been released from jail – another miscarriage or distortion of justice for the sake of convenience. (Daniel is the character who is speaking here.)

‘They said – they still say – I stole a car. Man, I can’t even drive a car, and I tried to make my lawyer – but he was really their lawyer, dig, he worked for the city – prove that, but he didn’t. And, anyway, I wasn’t in no car when they picked me up. But I had a little grass on me. I was on my stoop. And so they come and picked me up, like that, you know, it was about midnight, and they locked me up and then the next morning they put me in the line-up and somebody said it was me stole the car – that car I ain’t seen yet. And so – you know – since I had that weed on me, they had me anyhow and so they said if I would plead guilty they’d give me a lighter sentence. If I didn’t plead guilty, they’d throw me the book. Well’ – he sips his beer again – ‘I was alone, baby, wasn’t nobody, and so I entered the guilty plea. Two years!’ He leans forward, staring at Fonny. ‘But, then, it sounded a whole lot better than the marijuana charge.’ He leans back and laughs and sips his beer and looks up at Fonny. ‘It wasn’t. I let them fuck over me because I was scared and dumb and I’m sorry now.’ (pp. 122-123)

If Beale Street Could Talk is a book shot through with a powerful sense of loss, of missed chances and opportunities, of lost time and happiness for Tish and Fonny, maybe even other losses for those trying to support the young lovers in their quest for a better future. It’s also a beautiful portrayal of two people who are clearly devoted to one another, united by the kind of bond that seems strong enough to endure the greatest of hardships.

And what of the film? Well, as I alluded to earlier, it’s terrific. Barry Jenkins has done a superb job of capturing the lyricism and beauty of Baldwin’s prose, transferring these qualities to the screen. From a visual perspective, the film looks gorgeous, invested as it is with a sense of emotional warmth and sensitivity that really shines through. I think it’s one of those rare examples where seeing the movie actually enhances the experience of reading of the book.

As far as I can tell, the film is due to open in the US on 30th November and in the UK on 18th January. If you like the sound of the story, please do consider going to see it when it comes out. I very much doubt you’ll regret it.

If Beale Street Could Talk is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Recent Reads – Joan Didion and Edith Wharton, two of my favourite writers

Time for another couple of mini reviews from me – in this instance focusing on books by two of my favourite writers, Joan Didion and Edith Wharton. (It’s the turn of the Americans today.)

The White Album by Joan Didion (1979)

In many ways, this reads like a companion piece to (or a continuation of) Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of Didion’s essays published in 1968. Here we have another volume of non-fiction pieces exploring various events and reflections in the author’s life during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, all expressed in Didion’s effortlessly cool and erudite style. Like the essays in Slouching, most of these pieces had previously appeared in journals/magazines before being collected together in one volume.

As I’ve already written at length about Didion’s non-fiction in my review of Slouching, I’m not planning to go into a lot of detail about the twenty essays in The White Album; instead my aim is to give you a brief flavour of the book, mainly by way of a couple of quotes that I noted while I was reading the collection.

The essays included here cover a fairly diverse range of topics from Georgia O’Keeffe’s artworks to Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s former home in California to a recording session with The Doors. Running through many of these snapshots is a sense of social fragmentation and disintegration, a deep-rooted feeling of unease that seems to have characterised Didion’s life, reflecting both her own state of mind and her view of the broader cultural environment in California at the time. In the following passage – taken from the opening piece, The White Album – Didion is reflecting on the mood in LA in the summer of 1969, just before the brutal murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive.

I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going around town. There were rumours. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of “sin”—this sense that it was possible to go “too far,” and that many people were doing it—was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. (pp. 41-42)

While Didion is always clear-eyes and insightful, in some respects she is at her best and most affecting when her reflections touch on the personal, the events and circumstances which have had a profound impact on her own life and ability to function. She writes openly about her relationship with migraine, a debilitating condition she has learned to accept and cope with in spite of its intensity and frequency. There is also the time when she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a moment that pulls into focus her own vulnerability and sense of mortality.

In a few lines of dialogue in a neurologist’s office in Beverley Hills, the improbable had become the probable, the norm: things which happened only to other people could in fact happen to me. I could be struck by lightning, could dare to eat a peach and be poisoned by the cyanide in the stone. The startling fact was this: my body was offering a precise physiological equivalent to what had been going on in my mind. “Lead a simple life,” the neurologist advised. “Not that it makes any difference we know about.” In other words it was another story without a narrative. (p. 47)

Through these highly compelling essays, Didion seems to be saying that there is little use in us trying to look for too much reason or narrative in our lives as reality simply doesn’t operate that way – sometimes we just have to accept the randomness of events or developments however unsettling that may be.

Summer by Edith Wharton (1917)

Described by some as a companion piece to Ethan Frome (reviewed here by Max of Pechorin’s Journal), Edith Wharton’s Summer is a powerful novel set in North Dormer, a small, insular village in the New England region of America. While I didn’t love it quite as much as Ethan, I did like it a lot.

The story focuses on Charity Royall, an impulsive and independently-minded young woman who lives with her guardian and widower, the dour and surly Lawyer Royall. As a young child, Charity was rescued from a bleak life with a group of outcasts from the nearby Mountain, a structure whose ominous presence looms large over North Dormer and Charity’s existence there. Charity feels little affection or gratitude towards Lawyer Royall for his earlier actions; if anything, she resents being constantly reminded of the need to be grateful to her guardian for the lifestyle he has provided, away from the feral nature of the Mountain community. Even her name is a reflection of her questionable status in society, a signal of her reliance on the benevolence of other, more ‘rightful’ citizens in the village.

Yet Charity Royall had always been told that she ought to consider it a privilege that her lot had been cast in North Dormer. She knew that, compared to the place she had come from, North Dormer represented all the blessings of the most refined civilisation. Everyone in the place had told her so ever since she had been brought there as a child. (p. 5)

Thankfully, Charity has already managed to thwart a sexual advance and proposal of marriage from Lawyer Royall, thereby asserting herself as a strong presence in the red house, the home they share in North Dormer.

Charity longs to escape from the boredom and constraints of her drab life in the watchful village, her only respite being a part-time job in the deathly quiet memorial library where she hopes to earn enough money to strike out on her own. So, when the handsome and kindly architect, Lucius Harney comes to town to make a study of the local buildings, young Charity’s passions and restless nature are promptly aroused.

What follows is a sequence of encounters in which Charity wrestles with her feelings for Lucius, an educated man who belongs to a completely different social class from her own. There is a sense of blossoming and awakening in Charity as her relationship with Lucius develops and deepens with each additional meeting, particularly once it is agreed that she will act as his guide.

In addition to the sense of emotional growth described above, the novel also touches on themes of identity, belonging, society’s expectations of women, and the difficulties of bridging a class divide – especially given the relevant period and setting. While I don’t want to say too much about the plot, there is a certain inevitability to the novel’s narrative arc as the story reaches its poignant conclusion. Nevertheless, there are a few glimmers of hope towards the end, particularly once Lawyer Royall is revealed as being somewhat more sympathetic and compassionate than might appear at first sight.

The novel also contains some beautiful descriptive passages, fragments that act as reflections of Charity’s fondness for the open landscape and natural world. I’ll finish up with one of these, but there are many more to be found in the book itself.

The air was cool and clear, with the autumnal sparkle that a north wind brings to the hills in early summer, and the night had been so still that the dew hung on everything, not as a lingering moisture, but in beads that glittered like diamonds on the ferns and grasses. (p. 40)

The White Album is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Summer by Oxford World’s Classics; my thanks to the publisher for the copy of Summer.

Ali and Simon have also reviewed Summer – just follow the links if you’d like to read their reviews.

Recent Reads – Philip Larkin and Richard Yates

As quite a few of you seemed to enjoy my last round-up of ‘recent reads’ back in August, I’ve decided to do another one – this time focusing on novels by Philip Larkin and Richard Yates.

Jill by Philip Larkin (1946)

A couple of years ago, I read and really loved Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter. While Jill – his debut novel – isn’t quite as good as Winter, it still makes for very interesting reading, particularly given its depiction of student life in the early years of WW2.

In essence, the novel focuses on John Kemp, a socially awkward young man from a Northern, working-class background who wins a scholarship to Oxford University to study English in 1940. Struggling to fit in with his rather arrogant upper-class roommate, Christopher, and the public-school set who surround him, John invents an imaginary sister, Jill, in order to embellish his own life in the face of others. However, things get complicated for John when he meets, Gillian, the fifteen-year-old cousin of one of Christopher’s friends, and the boundaries between the imaginary Jill and the real-life Gillian begin to blur.

While Jill starts very strongly, it loses a bit of momentum in the middle and then fizzles out a little towards the end leaving one of two questions hanging in the air. Nevertheless, these are relatively minor criticisms in the scheme of things – the novel is beautifully written and very sensitively conveyed. Where it really excels is in the portrayal of a shy, isolated young man who finds himself in a totally unfamiliar environment, one in which all his peers seem so confident, socially comfortable and self-assured.

A dismal melancholy was beginning to expand inside him, a great loneliness. It was the knowledge that he had nowhere to go more friendly, more intimate than this room that depressed him so, and particularly because the room was not his alone. He could not fortify himself inside it against the rest of the strangeness, for at any moment Christopher Warner and Patrick might come in and make coffee in his coffee-pot or break one of his plates through trying some balancing trick. He had hoped that at least there would always be his own room, with a fire and the curtains drawn, where he could arrange his few books neatly, fill a drawer with his notes and essays (in black ink with red corrections, held together by brass pins), and live undisturbed through the autumn into the winter. This was apparently not to be. (p. 17)

There is some excellent characterisation here, particularly in the creation of the rowdy, egotistical Christopher and his snobbish friends. Moreover, the novel is full of marvellous details and observations about the minutiae of student life in Oxford at the time: the inevitable tensions that arise when mismatched boys have to room together; the cribbing and last-minute preparations that ensue when essays are due; and the pilfering of items from other boys’ cupboards, especially when there is cake to be sourced for afternoon tea. (The scene where John arrives at his room in Oxford features a terrific set piece.) While the War remains mostly in the background, there is one major interruption which serves to demonstrate that the horrors of death and destruction are never far away.

Overall, this is a moving, sympathetic novel of a boy for whom certain aspects of life remain largely out of reach. Definitely recommended.

A Special Providence by Richard Yates (1969)

No other writer captures the pain of loneliness and disillusionment quite like Richard Yates. It seems to me that he understands his characters’ self-delusions, portraying the cruelty of their false hopes and dashed dreams with real insight and humanity.

In this, his second novel, Yates explores the lives of a single mother, Alice Prentice, and her only son, Bobby, as they try to eke out some kind of existence for themselves in 1930-40s America. The book itself is split into three main sections, the middle one focusing on Alice, a rather sad, delusional woman who toils away needlessly at her sculptures in the hope of becoming a famous artist, perpetually just a few months away from having sufficient material for a one-woman show or a something good enough for submission to the Witney. As the years slip by, Alice and Bobby continue to live hopelessly beyond their means, desperately moving from one place to another as the unpaid bills threaten to catch up with them.

Natalie Crawford was her neighbour on Charles Street, a twice-divorced, childless woman who had some sort of job with an advertising agency, who burned incense in her apartment and believed in her Ouija board and liked to use words like “simpatico,” and who habitually found respite from her own state of single blessedness with any man she could get her hands on. Alice didn’t like her very much, or at least didn’t wholly approve of her, but for lack of other friends she had come to rely on her – to spend excessive amounts of time with her and attend her frantic parties, and even to borrow money from her at times when she couldn’t make her income stretch through the month. (pp. 129-130)

Alice’s rather tragic story is bookended by two sections which together give an account of Bobby’s time as a soldier at the end of WW2. As an unworldly, inexperienced eighteen-year-old, Bobby is somewhat lost in the midst of his platoon as he makes his way across the battlefields of Europe, trying as best he can to survive the various challenges of war. However, there are precious few chances for heroics or atonement for Bobby as the campaign plays out somewhat differently to his expectations. Meanwhile, Alice waits patiently in New York, hoping for a fresh start once her beloved son returns home – convinced as she is that ‘a special providence’ will always shine on them.

There are almost certainly autobiographical influences in this beautifully-written novel: the somewhat tragic sculptor mother who relies heavily on drink; the young boy who sees his mother for everything she really is; the absent father who has a strained relationship with his family; and the young man who is thrown into the realities of war.

While A Special Providence isn’t my favourite Yates, it is still very much worth reading, particularly for its portrayal of the complexities of the relationship between mother and son as the balance of reliance between these two individuals begins to shift. Moreover, there is the novel’s quietly devastating ending, a poignant coda which feels like quintessential Yates.

You can read my other posts on Richard Yates’ work here:

The Easter Parade

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness

A Good School

Disturbing the Peace

Liars in Love

Jill is published by Faber & Faber, A Special Providence by Vintage Books; personal copies.

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I have been trying to read from my shelves over the past year or so, limiting the acquisition of ‘new’ books in favour of reading older titles from my TBR. Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights has been sitting there for some time, patiently waiting for its moment in the sun (or maybe I should say ‘the glow of autumn’ as we are in October now).

It’s a difficult book to describe – part fiction, part memoir, Sleepless Nights blurs the boundaries between the real and the imaginary. In terms of style and form, the closest comparison I can think of is Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a wonderful book that blew me away with its shimmering vignettes and episodes from the narrator’s life.

Like Speedboat, Hardwick’s book doesn’t follow a conventional narrative arc; nor does it possess a noticeable plot as such. Instead, we are presented with a series of fragments from a woman’s life, the recollections of journeys undertaken, of people encountered and situations observed. The writing has a poetic quality, rich with vivid images with the ability to linger in the mind.

When you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist. The phlox bloomed in its faded purples; on the hillside, phallic pines. Foreigners under the arcades, in the basket shops. A steamy haze blurred the lines of the hills. A dirty, exhausting sky. Already the summer seemed to be passing away. Soon the boats would be gathered in, ferries roped to the dock. (p. 5)

While at first, the individual fragments may seem somewhat unconnected, there is a sort of framing device at work here. As the narrative opens, a ‘broken old woman’ – also named Elizabeth – living in a shabby nursing home is looking back over the years that have gone before.

Over the course of her life, Elizabeth travels from her home in Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, and then to Europe. Unsurprisingly, there are various relationships with men along the way. We learn of Elizabeth’s first lover at the age of eighteen, a casual, romantic figure twelve years her senior. There are other affairs too, perhaps most notably with Alex, a rather vain man in possession of a certain charm. Following the break-up of a long-term relationship with a different lover, Elizabeth reflects on the nature of their bond – in essence, what it can mean for a man and a woman to be joined together in this way.

I am alone here in New York, no longer a we. Years, decades even, passed. Then one is out of the commonest of plurals, out of the strange partnership that begins as a flat, empty plain and soon turns into a town of rooms and garages, little grocery stores in the pantry, dress shops in the closets, and a bank with your names printed together for the transaction of business. (p. 51)

One of the most evocative sections of the book captures Elizabeth’s memories of her time in New York: the sleazy atmosphere of the Hotel Schuyler where she shared rooms with a friend; the smoky jazz clubs of the city, often characterised by their rapidly changing owners; and the magnetic presence of Billie Holliday, a woman drawn to self-destruction like a moth to a flame.

The creamy lips, the oily eyelids, the violent perfume—and in her voice the tropical l’s and r’s. Her presence, her singing created a large, swelling anxiety. Long red fingernails and the sound of electrified guitars. Here was a woman who had never been a Christian. (p. 31)

There are other memories too, reflections on Elizabeth’s father and mother, their values and characteristics. Stories of friends, acquaintances and lovers light up the pages, all coming together to form an intriguing collage or scrapbook of the protagonist’s life.

In the following passage, Elizabeth recalls her former neighbour, Miss Cramer, an old music teacher who has fallen on hard times. Once elegant and self-assured, Miss Cramer is now a dishevelled and sorry presence in her torn canvas shoes and thin dress – following the death of her elderly mother, the advent of poverty was swift and destructive.

Poverty for the autocrat came like a bulldozer, gouging out her pretentions, her musical education, her trips to Bayreuth. The mother died, summers vanished, the voices were silent. Out of the apartment went the piano and the trash of two and a half decades., brilliant American, English, and European trash. Miss Cramer moved down the street, and the move was a descent on the roller coaster, hair flying, trinkets ripped off the ears and the fingers, heart pounding and head filled with a strange gust of air, which was never again released and seemed to be still blowing about behind the brow, rippling the dark eyelashes. (pp. 46-47)

The narrative is also laced with a number of perceptions and insights, particularly those on the status of women and their standing relative to men. There are observations on the ease with which society can define a woman by her relationship with a man, almost as if she has little identity or agency of her own. In this fragment, Elizabeth considers the nature of life for spinsters, reflecting that a form of spinsterhood may even exist within marriage – for some women at least.

The paradox of the woman who reaches her true spinsterhood only after she is at last married and settled. She takes command and reaches a state of dominating dependency to which only she has the clue. How confident her reign, how skillful the solitary diplomacy, the ordering of the future and control of the present. She gathers in revenues and makes dispensations, carefully, never forgetting that she is alone. (p. 20)

Like Adler’s book, Sleepless Nights was first published in the late 1970s, and its slightly detached tone leaves me wondering whether this was some kind of reflection of the sense of unease in the US at the time. It’s difficult to tell. Nevertheless, there is a fluidity and luminosity to Hardwick’s prose that makes her novel a real pleasure to read. There is a dreamlike quality to the overall feel of the book, akin to the way in which seemingly unconnected fragments or shards of memories seem to emerge from nowhere to flow through the mind. All in all, this is a beautiful, elegant read to stimulate the senses.

I’ve posted this review today to coincide with Lizzy’s NYRB Classics fortnight which is running from 1st– 14th October. You can find out more about it via the link.

Sleepless Nights is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.