Tag Archives: US

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 a little out 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.

The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith

Regular readers may be aware of my fondness for Patricia Highsmith’s particular brand of domestic noir. Last year I read and loved Deep Water (1957), a novel which plays with readers’ responses towards an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. It remains one of the highlights of my 2017 year in reading.

Highsmith’s interest in decency and morality comes to the fore again The Cry of the Owl (published a few years later in 1962), a book that seems to start off in traditional psychological thriller territory only to shift towards something a little more existential by the end. There is an underlying seam of bleakness here, a real sense of destruction and despair as the story edges closer to its denouement. In some ways, it reminded me a little of some of Georges Simenon’s work – his hard/psychological romains durs as opposed to his Maigret books. Either way, it’s an excellent book.

Owl centres on Robert Forester, a twenty-nine-year-old man who has recently moved to a small town in Pennsylvania to escape the clutches of his venomous former partner, Nickie, a woman who continues to harangue him on the phone out of sheer malice. In spite of finding a decent job in the local aeronautics business, Robert has been battling loneliness and depression for some months – to the extent that he has slipped into the rather odd habit of watching an unknown young woman as she goes about her business at home.

As the book opens, we find Robert observing the girl, Jenny, through her kitchen window as she lays the table and prepares an evening meal for two. While at first sight this situation may appear very creepy, Robert is not a stereotypical Peeping Tom. There is nothing sexual about his attraction to the girl; instead, he is merely seeking solace and comfort by watching her running through her domestic routine. It’s as if this picture of normality is giving Robert some kind of hope, a sense of grounding and purpose that he longs to recapture for himself.

Even if nobody ever understood that watching a girl go calmly about her household routine made him feel calm also, made him see that life for some people could have a purpose and a joy, and made him almost believe he might recover that purpose and joy himself. The girl was helping him. (p.7)

Even though Robert knows he is playing a potentially dangerous game here – Jenny clearly has a boyfriend who visits regularly – he finds it difficult to refrain from watching the girl at night. All too swiftly, of course, Jenny discovers Robert; but instead of feeling fearful for her safety, Jenny invites Robert into her home as she finds herself drawn to him in some strange and inexplicable way.

Robert, for his part, feels somewhat embarrassed at being caught snooping around. Furthermore, there is a sense that getting to know the real Jenny would diminish in some way what her image has come to represent for him – a sense of calm and contentment and the absence of any kind of stress. Nevertheless, he continues to see Jenny, primarily at her rather insistent request.

With each subsequent meeting, Jenny’s attachment to Robert seems to intensify. (In an almost reciprocal act to Robert’s earlier snooping, Jenny actually follows Robert to his new home – thereby the watcher effectively becomes the watched, if only momentarily.) As it turns out, Jenny is having significant doubts about the suitability of her fiancé, Greg, whom she does not love enough to marry. Consequently, she breaks off her engagement to Greg and continues to see Robert, who appears to be drifting into a relationship with her in spite of his better judgement.

Meanwhile, the uber-possessive Greg is determined to track Robert down and warn him off Jenny, firm in the belief that he still has a chance to win her back. As he spies on Jenny and Robert at night, Greg’s temper and imagination start to run riot.

Jenny’s car was there, and so was Robert’s. She was blatantly spending nights there. This might be the seventh, the tenth, for all he knew. Lights were blazing in the house now. He imagined them laughing and talking and fixing dinner, Jenny making one of her big salads, and then – Greg couldn’t bear to imagine any more. (p. 78)

Driven by the toxic Nickie, whose malicious opinions on Robert’s unhinged state of mind add fuel to the fire, Greg launches an attack on Robert near the local river, an incident which leads to a violent struggle between the two men. In the end, Robert has to drag Greg out of the water onto the river bank where he leaves him to recover. Unfortunately for our protagonist, Greg goes missing immediately after the fight, and suspicion naturally falls on Robert – seemingly the last person to have seen Greg alive.

What follows is a veritable nightmare for Robert as his relatively ordered world comes crashing down around him. A sequence of increasingly twisted events ensues, acts which involve Robert, Jenny, Greg and Nickie – all of which leave the reader reeling from the catastrophic fallout.

At first, it is natural to think that Robert is the odd character here; after all, his fondness for spying on Jenny is a little creepy. However, it soon becomes apparent that he might be the least imbalanced character in the book. Having lost her brother at a very young age, Jenny is rather preoccupied with the idea of death, a factor that plays a significant role in her response to the terrible events that unfold for Robert.

Nickie is a very spiteful individual, prone to vindictive acts and outbursts, a characteristic typified by Robert’s recollections of the litany of complaints she unleashed on the night of their second anniversary. Her subsequent character assignations of Robert play a significant role in his downfall.

Robert remembered that he had made himself a second drink during her harangue, a good stiff one, since the wisest thing to show under the circumstances was patience, and the liquor acted as a sedative. His patience that evening had so infuriated her, in fact, that she later lurched against him, bumped herself into him in the bedroom when he was undressing for the night, saying, ‘Don’t you want to hit me, darling? Come on, hit me, Bobbie!’ Curiously, that was one of the times he’d felt least like hitting her, so he’d been able to give a quiet ‘No’ in answer. Then she called him abnormal. ‘You’ll do something violent one day. Mark my words.’ (pp. 49-50)

Then there is Greg, a man who seems hell-bent on removing Robert from the equation – not just figuratively but literally too.

In telling this story, Highsmith excels at capturing the rumours and gossip that circulate in a small-town community – the fears and suspicions that can surface as individuals who know some of those involved begin to put their own spin on events. Women like Mrs Van Vleet, Greg’s landlady and firm supporter.

She had asked if Robert was still working at Langley Aeronautics, and when he said yes, she had said, ‘It’s a wonder to me you’ve still got a job. It’s a wonder to me you can hold your head up in the community, it is indeed…. A fine young man like Greg…trifling with his girl…a fine young girl. I hear you don’t even want to marry her. I should hope not! You’re a killer – or the next thing to it! And Robert had stood there answering, ‘Yes…No,’ politely, trying to smile at it and failing, failing to get more than four consecutive words out before he was interrupted. What was the use? But he knew it took only a noisy minority like Mrs Van Vleet in a community to hang a man, literally or figuratively. (p. 124)

Ultimately though, what really makes this novel such a compelling read is the seemingly unstoppable chain of events that Robert’s relatively innocent search for solace kicks off.  We are left with the sense of how powerless a man can feel when he his actions are judged and misinterpreted by the so-called upstanding citizens around him, especially when fate intervenes and plays her part to the full.

Highly recommended for lovers of dark and twisted fiction.

The Cry of the Owl is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

First published in 1934, Appointment in Samarra was the debut novel of the American writer, John O’Hara. In short, it charts the rapid downfall and self-destruction of thirty-year-old Julian English, a successful businessman who lives in the fictionalised town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. As a commentary on the shallowness of a particular stratum of American society, it is very strong, particularly in its depiction of the rather skewed values that drive the main protagonist’s actions and behaviours.

On the surface of things, Julian English appears to have everything going for him. He runs a well-established Cadillac dealership in Gibbsville, has plenty of contacts with the town’s movers and shakers, and is married to a beautiful wife who remains faithful to him. Julian and Caroline English are part of the prestigious Lantenengo Street set who hang out at the local Country Club, a place where the preeminent social milieu is clearly evident.

The smoking room crowd always started out with a small number, always the same people. The Whit Hofmans, the Julian Englishes, the Froggy Ogdens and so on. They were the spenders and drinkers and socially secure, who could thumb their noses and not have to answer to anyone except their own families. There were about twenty persons in this group, and your standing in the younger set of Gibbsville could be judged by the assurance with which you joined the nucleus of the smoking room crowd. By three o’clock everyone who wanted to had been in the smoking room; the figurative bars were let down at about one-thirty, which time coincided with the time at which the Hofmans and Englishes and so on had got drunk enough to welcome anyone, the less eligible the better. (p. 9)

However, underneath that outwardly respectable exterior, Julian harbours a self-destructive streak, something that possibly stems from the nature of his family background – particularly the expectations placed on him by his father during the preceding years. Personality-wise, Julian is impetuous, disillusioned and abrupt.

Over the course of three days at Christmas, the novel follows Julian as he drinks too much, picks arguments with the wrong people and generally makes a complete fool of himself. It all starts when Julian throws a drink in the face of Harry Reilly, a man he has never really liked in spite of his standing in Gibbsville.

By Christmas morning, news of the incident is all around the town – a situation made all the more notorious by the fact that Harry appears to have sustained a black eye, presumably from the ice cubes that were present in the drink when it was thrown. As far as Julian sees it, the whole thing is a storm in a teacup. Surely there have been other, more outrageous ‘crimes’ in the past, episodes with more serious consequences than something like this? And anyway, Harry Reilly had it coming to him.

What the hell had he done? he wondered. He had thrown a drink in a man’s face. An especially terrible guy who should have had a drink thrown in his face a long while ago. It wasn’t as if Harry Reilly were a popularity contest winner or something. If most people told the truth they would agree that Reilly was a terrible person, a climber, a noveau riche even in Gibbsville where fifty thousand dollars was a sizeable fortune. Julian thought back over some other terrible things, really terrible things, that people had done in the club without being made to feel they had committed sacrilege. (p. 90)

The trouble is, with Harry Reilly’s influence spreading far and wide, it doesn’t do well to have him as an enemy. Several of Julian’s friends and business associates already owe Harry money, a fact that seems likely to influence their reactions towards Julian in the days that follow. Moreover, the fact that Harry is Catholic puts him in a strong position to call upon the support of the church and other prominent worshippers in the area. As Julian soon discovers, a lucrative business deal with the local undertaker – currently in the market for a prestige hearse – is already at risk of being scuppered, almost certainly as a consequence of his rash actions.

This seemingly small incident represents the beginning of a chain of events which constitute Julian’s fall from grace. Somewhat ironically, the damage caused by each individual misstep could be contained on its own – in other words, if it were a single violation as opposed to one element of a broader pattern of behaviour. Instead, it is the cumulative effect of the fallout that causes the real damage here.

O’Hara does something very interesting in the way he presents the Harry Reilly incident to the reader. Rather than describing what actually happens when Julian throws the drink at Harry, O’Hara shows Julian thinking about throwing it – not with any serious intentions of doing so, just daydreaming about it at this point. In fact, it is only through the responses of other people after the event that we get to hear about the incident itself. As a consequence, the very act of Julian throwing the drink seems to be magnified, which only adds to its impact and notoriety.

Something similar happens with the second of Julian’s missteps when, once again, the fine details of the episode occur off-camera, a technique that lends a degree of ambiguity to Julian’s actions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, interested observers assume the worst, a situation which leaves Julian feeling the heat from multiple angles – mainly from his wife, Caroline, and the powerful mobster, Ed Charney, whose louche mistress was the target of Julian’s attention that night.

As everything starts to unravel for Julian, we learn more about the early years in his life, particularly the relationship with his father, William Dilworth, a doctor and upstanding member of the Gibbsville community. As he came to young Julian’s rescue after the latter had been caught shoplifting, William English wondered whether the sins of his own father had come home to roost with the old man’s grandson.

William Dilworth English was thinking of his own life, the scrupulous, notebook honesty; the penny-watching, bill-paying, self-sacrificing honesty that had been his religion after his own father’s suicide. And that was his reward: a son who turned out to be like his grandfather, a thief. (p. 164) 

While Julian never stole anything again, he was left feeling a constant disappointment to his father especially as far as his career and the management of money were concerned. There was a time when Dr English wanted his son to join (and ultimately take over) his own prestigious medical practice – but Julian had other ideas back then, preferring instead to take advantage of the boom years of the 1920s.

Appointment in Samarra is an interesting look at the social elite of Pennsylvania in the early 1930s, the sort of people who had become accustomed to a certain standard of living, viewing it as a kind of entitlement as opposed to something that needed to be earned. The novel is full of little observations on the social codes of the Lantenengo Street milieu. While the town’s manual workers are still feeling the pinch from the decline in demand for coal (the local anthracite mining industry has struggled to recover from two lengthy strikes in the ‘20s), there is still plenty of money in evidence amongst the Gibbsville Country Club set.

Tonight’s dinner, as almost every guest was able to tell at a glance, was the club’s two-fifty dinner. This was a club dinner dance, and all members were invited. At a dinner such as the Ammermanns’, the hostess could arrange with the steward for the dollar-fifty (roast chicken), the two-dollar (roast turkey), or the two-fifty (filet mignon), and this had been the filet mignon dinner. The Ammermanns had just that much money, and their position in Gibbsville was just that certain and insecure, that they had to give the best of everything. (pp. 82-83)

The book is full of observations like this, fine details which add a sense of authenticity to the world O’Hara is portraying here.

The novel’s title comes from a brief parable by W. Somerset Maugham, a sort of retelling of an ancient cautionary tale. Maugham’s piece forms the novel’s epigraph – and with the benefit of hindsight, it seems a very fitting scene-setter for the book.

Appointment in Samarra is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

Recent Reads – Elaine Dundy, John Le Carré, Cesare Pavese and Winifred Holtby

There are times when I don’t want or feel the need to write a full review of a book I’ve been reading, when I’d just rather experience it without analysing it too much. Nevertheless, there are still things I might want to say about it, even it’s just to capture an overall feeling or response before it disappears into the ether. So, with this in mind, here are a few brief thoughts on four books I’ve read recently – mainly for my own benefit, but some of you might find them of interest too.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

I really loved this novel of the young, adventurous American innocent abroad. It’s smart, witty and utterly engaging from start to finish, a rare delight.

When we first meet the book’s heroine, the wonderful Sally Jay Gorce, she is walking down a Parisian boulevard on her way to meet her Italian lover when she runs into Larry, an old friend from home in the States. The fact that she’s still wearing last night’s evening dress in the middle of the morning does not go unnoticed by Larry – nor does her hair which has recently been dyed a rather striking shade of pink.

What follows is a series of exploits for Sally Jay as she mixes with the bohemian artists, writers and creative directors of Paris. There are various parties, romantic dilemmas and the occasional encounter with a gendarme or two along the way, all conveyed through Dundy’s sparkling prose.

This is a book which eschews plot in favour of tone and mood. Instead, it’s more about the experience of living, of self-discovery and adventure, of making mistakes and wising up from the consequences. Above all, it’s a pleasure to read. Here are a few of my favourite quotes – the first two are archetypal Sally Jay.

The vehemence of my moral indignation surprised me. Was I beginning to have standards and principles, and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in my way? (p. 180)

It’s amazing how right you can sometimes be about a person you don’t know; it’s only the people you do know who confuse you.

While the whole novel is eminently quotable, I couldn’t resist including this final piece from the closing section of the story when Sally Jay returns to New York. Dundy has a wonderful way of describing things, a skill which I hope you can see from the following passage.

We went into a cocktail bar just off Fifth Avenue on Eighth Street. One of those suave, sexy bars, dead dark, with popcorn and air-conditioning and those divine cheese things.

“What’ll you have?” he asked. “Champagne? Have anything. Money’s no object. Look. Wads of it. Ceylon. Can’t spend it fast enough. We photographers are the New Rich.”

We had dry martinis; great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the early morning air. (p. 244)

Finally, for those of you who might be thinking that The Dud Avocado is too ditzy or sugary, let me try to reassure you that it’s not. There are touches of darkness and jeopardy running underneath the surface of some of Sally Jay’s adventures, especially towards the end. Moreover, Dundy’s writing is so sharp and on the money that it elevates the novel into something with real zing. Highly recommended – in retrospect, I actually preferred it to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Simon has reviewed this book here.

The Spy Who Came into the Cold by John Le Carré (1963)

Another brilliant book that has been languishing on my shelves for far too long.

What can I say about this classic spy novel that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot, other than to reiterate that it’s a masterclass in how to tell a complex, gripping story without having to rely on lots on clunky exposition along the way. While the narrative may appear to be rather confusing at first, everything becomes much clearer by the end. Crucially, Le Carré trusts in the intelligence of his readers, knowing that their perseverance will be rewarded as the action draws to a close.

It’s also a book that seems to perfectly capture the political distrust and uncertainty that must have been prevalent during the Cold War years of the early ‘60s – the tense and gritty atmosphere of Berlin is beautifully conveyed.

There was only one light in the checkpoint, a reading lamp with a green shade, but the glow of the arclights, like artificial moonlight, filled the cabin. Darkness had fallen, and with it silence. They spoke as if they were afraid of being overheard. Leamas went to the window and waited. In front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp. East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war. (pp. 6-7)

While the first two Smiley novels are good, The Spy Came in from the Cold is in a totally different league. A thoroughly engrossing book from start to finish.

The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese (tr. by W.J. Strachan, 1955)

This is a slightly curious one – not entirely successful for me, but an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Set in 1930s Italy in the heady days of summer, this short novel focuses on the life of Ginia, a rather sheltered sixteen-year-old girl on the cusp of adulthood.

When she meets the more sophisticated, self-assured Amelia, Ginia is quickly drawn into an intriguing milieu of bohemian artists and everything this new culture represents, including some brushes with the opposite sex. It’s not long before Ginia falls in love with Guido, an attractive young painter who responds to her innocence and youth while remaining somewhat emotionally detached. What follows is a fairly painful introduction to the fickle nature of human emotions and the duplicities of the adult world, at least as far as Ginia is concerned.

In short, this is a delicate story of a young girl’s loss of innocence and sexual awakening, themes which usually hold a great deal of appeal for me, especially in translated literature. However, while I really liked the overall mood of this novel and Pavese’s depiction of the conflicted emotions of youth, I wasn’t quite as taken with the writing, some of which felt a bit flat or clunky to me. (The following quote is intended to convey something of the novel’s tone and mood as opposed to the quality of the prose.)

Ginia slept little that night; the bed-clothes seemed a dead weight on her. But her mind ran on many things that became more and more fantastic as the time passed by. She imagined herself alone in the unmade bed in that corner of the studio, listening to Guido moving about on the other side of the curtain, living with him, kissing him and cooking for him. She had no idea where Guido had his meals when he was not in the army. (p. 49)

Overall, I was left wishing that Penguin had commissioned a fresh translation of Pavese’s text instead of running with the original from 1955. Others may have a different view on this, so I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has read the book, particularly in the original Italian. Grant and Max have also written about it here and here.

For a sharper, more insightful take on the loss of a teenager’s innocence, albeit from a male character’s perspective, try Alberto Moravia’s Agostino, also set in the heat of an Italian summer – this time in the early 1940s.

The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby (1924)

(Don’t worry, my comments on this last novel are going to be relatively brief!)

While I liked this novel, I didn’t love it. It’s a perfectly enjoyable story of Muriel, a young girl struggling to find her place within the confines of a restrictive Edwardian society in a small Yorkshire village, a world where marriage seems to be the only option available to ladies of her class. That said, it lacks some of the bite of other stories I’ve been reading lately, particularly those by women writers from the mid-20th century, a favourite period of literature for me.

The latter stages of the novel are the most interesting, mainly because the advent of WW1 provides new opportunities for women like Muriel, encouraging them to spread their wings by gaining some much-needed independence.

Holtby’s prose is good but not particularly spectacular. That said, I loved this next passage from the end of the book – it really stood out for me.

I used to think of life as a dance, where the girls had to wait for men to ask them, and if nobody came – they still must wait, smiling and hoping and pretending not to mind.

How tragic is that?

The Dud Avocado is published by NYRB Classics, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Beautiful Summer by Penguin, and The Crowded Street by Virago; personal copies.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

What a marvellous novella this turned out to be. Smart, engaging and uproariously funny – another great summer read for me.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was the debut novel of the American screenwriter and author Anita Loos. (You can read a little more about her career here.) The book was an instant success on its release in 1925 – the individual sections had previously been published in Harper’s Bazaar, so the market was ripe for its appearance as a complete text.

Blondes features Lorelei Lee, a young American girl about town, and her best friend, Dorothy Shaw. Lorelei and Dorothy are very different from one another. At first sight, Lorelei – a blonde – appears rather witless and ditzy, while Dorothy – a brunette – seems sharper, more outspoken and more irreverent in her views. Lorelei likes to think of herself as being very refined, someone who is part of a particular social set along with everything this confers – more of that later…

So Mr Eisman gave me quite a nice string of pearls and he gave Dorothy a diamond pin and we all went to the Colony for dinner and we all went to a show and supper at the Trocadero and we all spent quite a pleasant evening. (p. 18)

The book’s main action really gets going when one of Lorelei’s male friends, Mr Eisman, ‘the Button King’, sends Lorelei to Europe with a view to broadening her horizons – a means of furthering her education if you like. Naturally, Dorothy accompanies our narrator on her trip, and their story is presented as a series of entries from Lorelei’s diary, a sequence of amusing vignettes as the girls make their way from New York to London to Paris and beyond.

It soon becomes clear that Lorelei has little interest in gaining a ‘traditional’ education while abroad. In fact, she seems far more concerned with shopping, drinking champagne and collecting valuable trinkets than taking in the famous sights. The majority of these attractions fail to impress her anyway, especially once she compares them to the buildings back in the US.

In London they make a very, very great fuss over nothing at all. I mean London is really nothing at all. For instants, they make a great fuss over a tower that really is not even as tall as the Hickox building in Little Rock Arkansas and it would only make a chimney on one of our towers in New York. So Sir Francis Beekman wanted us to get out and look at the tower because he said that quite a famous Queen had her head cut off there one morning and Dorothy said “What a fool she was to get up that morning” and that is really the only sensible thing that Dorothy has said in London. So we did not bother to get out. (p. 40)

Money, expensive jewellery and the good things in life are all important to Lorelei – she likes nothing more than a glamorous diamond bracelet and a delightful glass of champagne or two. Men are the main providers of these things with Lorelei attracting a trail of suitable admirers wherever she goes.

That said, Lorelei isn’t particularly interested in getting involved in any amorous romances. Unlike Dorothy, who falls in love relatively easily, Lorelei doesn’t become emotionally attached to any of these men. Instead, she sees them more as forms of light-hearted amusement and entertainment, just as long as they can furnish her with stylish gifts. As soon as Lorelei gets bored with her current beau, she demonstrates her readiness to move on to the next – providing he has enough money to keep her in the manner to which she has become accustomed.

So the French veecount is going to call up in the morning but I am not going to see him again. Because French gentlemen are really quite deceiving. I mean they take you to quite cute places and they make you feel quite good about yourself and you really seem to have a delightful time but when you get home and come to think it all over, all you have got is a fan that only cost 20 francs and a doll that they gave you way for nothing in a restaurant. I mean a girl has to look out in Paris, or she would have such a good time in Paris that she would not get anywhere. So I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever. (p. 55)

By the way, these misspellings and the rather childlike phraseology are all part of Lorelei’s charm; Loos’ prose has a natural rhythm all of its own.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a short book, but the girls’ adventures rattle along at quite a pace. There is a brief encounter with the Prince of Wales, a contretemps over a diamond tiara that Lorelei has her eye on, and plenty of other vignettes aside. We even get a peek at Lorelei’s backstory – an incident involving a shooting, a charge of which our heroine was rather demurely acquitted.

The two women make ideal foils for one another – in many ways, they are complete opposites. Lorelei struggles to understand why Dorothy can fall for a man who has no money, while Dorothy herself is dismayed at Lorelei’s willingness to accept a life without love. However, a man’s monetary wealth and resources are more valuable to Lorelei than any emotional or physical connection. She is very single-minded in her approach.

You might feel you know the story of Lorelei and Dorothy from the 1953 Howard Hawks film – also titled Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – but Loos’ original novel feels like a different creature altogether. There is something rather knowing about the book, something much sharper and more satirical going on underneath the outwardly frothy surface. It’s all very cleverly done. Whatever level you choose to read it on, it’s a real treat.

The Penguin Classics edition comes complete with a series of charming illustrations by Ralph Barton. Here’s an example from the Paris section of the story.

To finish, a brief note about Irmgard Keun’s 1932 novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, a book that would make an interesting partner to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – you can read my post about it here. Reputedly inspired by the Loos, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, something that ultimately illustrated the darker side of life which lay beneath the glamour of the capital city of Berlin. It’s an excellent book, one that features a narrator whose voice I found utterly engaging from the start. Highly recommended reading.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.