Tag Archives: Vintage Books

A Good School by Richard Yates

First published in 1978, A Good School is perhaps the most autobiographical of Richard Yates’ novels. The setting is Dorset Academy, a private, all-male prep school in northern Connecticut – a somewhat odd yet well-intentioned institution which, unbeknownst to the parents who send their boys there, turns out to be on the brink of financial collapse. It soon becomes clear that there is something a little funny about Dorset; while the head likes to think of it as ‘a good school’, there is something decidedly off or second-rate here, a notion that is typified by the following quote.

Dorset Academy had a wide reputation for accepting boys who, for any number of reasons, no other school would touch. (p. 5)

Here we meet William Grove, a hesitant, socially awkward teenager whose experiences at the school are conveyed during the novel, forming a sort of spine or focal point for the vignettes presented throughout.

The kid was a mess. His tweed suit hung greasy with lack of cleaning, his necktie was a twisted rag, his long fingernails were blue, and he needed a haircut. He seemed in danger of stumbling over his own legs as he made his way to a chair, and he sat so awkwardly as to suggest it might be impossible for his body to find composure. What an advertisement for Dorset Academy! (p. 16)

We are quickly introduced to a large cast of additional characters, mostly other boarders at the school and the masters that teach there. (As the Dorset campus is somewhat isolated and enclosed, the various teachers and their families also live within its grounds.) There is Pierre Van Loon, a fellow boarder and social outcast who latches onto Grove as a sort of last resort; Terry Flynn, a popular, good-looking boy with ‘face of an angel and the body of a perfect athlete’; and Steve McKenzie, the second-floor dorm inspector who always seems to be spoiling for a fight. Several other boys feature at various points – too many to cover in detail in this review – but each one feels recognisable and authentic even when relatively briefly sketched.

Yates is particularly good at capturing the many anxieties of a teenage boy, the day-to-day experiences that Grove and others like him must navigate if they are to survive in this difficult environment. Namely, the numerous fights and instances of petty bullying that break out, often over nothing; the inevitable comparisons of body parts in the showers, both overt and covert; and the angst of trying to form and maintain friendships, especially once the boys reach an age when they are allowed to room together in pairs. In this scene, Richard Edward Thomas Lear, an English boy with a somewhat supercilious manner, is itching for a fight. Anyone will do – in other words, whoever happens to get in his way at the appointed time.

Sometimes, though, and particularly at this hour of the day, an unaccountable melancholy settled on him. He wanted to punch and wrestle and shout; those were the only activities that could make him feel fit again. With his shower completed and his clothes changed for dinner, he went out into the hall and found Art Jennings intently flicking specks of lint off his black jacket. Jennings was a hulking, amiable nearsighted boy; he was bigger than Lear, but that would only make it more stimulating. (p. 12)

In his early months at the school, Grove finds himself on the receiving end of a number of unpleasant schoolboy rituals – various fights, a wrestling match and a potentially humiliating incident of an overtly sexual nature. Nevertheless, Grove refuses to let the bullies get the better of him (well, if not physically, then at the very least mentally). He tries to stand his ground, refusing to give them the satisfaction of cowing or crying in their presence.

In time, Grove finds his niche in the production of the fortnightly school newspaper, the well-respected Dorset Chronicle, joining the editorial team as a prize for his essay on America at War. Although he struggles to cut it in Maths, French, and Chemistry, Grove performs well in English, demonstrating a natural talent for writing, a skill he hones and puts to good use during his time on the paper. Eventually the position of editor-in-chief beckons, a role that boosts Grove’s confidence, giving him a new sense of purpose and self-respect at the school.

Most of the time he moved around the campus with a new sense of freedom – and even, occasionally, with a sense of his own importance. There was only one school newspaper, after all, and he was its editor-in-chief. Little kids shyly asked him questions, and boys of his own age and older seemed never to find him ridiculous. (p. 81)

The Chronicle also presents an opportunity for friendships to be forged and developed. When new boy Bucky Ward shows an interest in the paper, Grove gives him a chance, and the two boys soon become good friends. In time, Grove also wins the respect and comradeship of Hugh Britt, a talented but somewhat distant intellectual and former editor of the Chronicle who still plays a key role in the editorial team. But the pleasures of friendship do not come without their own complications, a point that Grove discovers in due course…

Alongside the boys’ experiences and exploits, we are also privy to the trials and tribulations of the teaching staff and their families. There are the headmaster’s desperate attempts to get the masters to accept a pay cut following strained discussions with the Trustees; the fading stages of an affair between Jean-Paul La Prade, the French master, and Alice Draper, the wife of the polio-stricken Chemistry master, Jack Draper; not to mention the crushing atmosphere in the Drapers’ household once La Prade leaves the school for a commission in the Army. In this scene – one that feels so characteristic of Yates’ signature theme of the sham-like nature of marriage – Jack Draper is reflecting on his situation with Alice. The gulf that hangs between them looms large.

“I have to think,” she had explained. “I have to take stock. I have to work a few things out in my mind.”

Well, okay, but what exactly did all that mean? Think about what? Take stock of what? Work what things out in her mind?

And now it was spring. In the evenings, after dinner and before the children’s bedtime, the four of them would sit around the living room in simulation of what real families might be expected to do. He had to admit he was stiff with drink on most of those occasions: he would usually start drinking in the lab in the afternoon and keep it going with heavy shots of bourbon in the kitchen before dinner, and more afterwards. (p. 95)

There is real poignancy and tragedy is Yates’ depiction of the Drapers, a point that is difficult to discuss in more detail without revealing spoilers.

As the book draws to a close and the boys’ thoughts turn to the future, two somewhat connected themes begin to emerge. Firstly, there is the prospect of relationships with girls, something that Grove eagerly anticipates when he hears that the Seniors will be sitting their final exams at Miss Blair’s, the neighbouring girls’ school.

This was a vaguely thrilling prospect. Apart from Gus Gerhardt, who was wholly familiar with the place but wasn’t talking, nobody knew anything about Miss Blair’s except that Edith Stone had graduated from it last year; but didn’t it stand to reason there’d be other girls like her? They’d have long, clean hair and they’d stroll their campus in light flannel skirts and light cardigan sweaters, with their school-books hugged close to their young breasts, and they’d say wonderfully engaging things like “Hi, my name’s Susan”. (p. 139)

Ironically, the boys’ hopes are dashed when they arrive at Miss Blair’s, only to be taunted by the girls’ disparaging chants – rhymes that serve to highlight the external perception of Dorset Academy as a ‘funny school’.

Secondly, there is the shadow of war and its consequences for Grove and his peers. The book is set during the early 1940s, with World War II featuring strongly in the background, a fact that adds a real sense of poignancy and gravity to the narrative, especially towards the end. Immediately following their graduation, the boys will be heading for the forces, uncertain as to what the future will hold for them. All this adds weight to their day-to-day experiences at the school, giving them a sort of grounding for the weeks and months ahead – they can look no further forward than that.

The novel is bookended by a forward and an afterword, both narrated by the adult Grove – a thinly veiled version of Yates himself – which explain how he had come to find himself at Dorset Academy in the first place and what happened to his classmates once they had graduated. The forward in particular is excellent, a deeply personal piece which touches on the younger Grove’s rather distant relationship with his father and the sadness he now feels for him looking back.

This is a book that touches on many themes: the angst of a boy’s teenage years and the pain of growing up; the gulf and disconnect between fathers and sons; the inevitable loss of innocence that will come with the war. There are many more.

From a technical perspective, A Good School may not be Yates’ most accomplished or dramatic book, but it’s still a terrific read. You can read Max’s excellent review of this novel here.

A Good School is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

My books of the year, 2017 – favourites from a year of reading

As I’ve been off the grid for most of last few months, I didn’t get a chance to post a list of my favourite books from 2017. So, in the spirit of better late than never, here it is. Enjoy!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like its predecessor, 2017 turned out to be another strong reading year for me. I read fewer books than usual this time (around 70 books, mostly older/blacklisted titles) but the majority were very good. Once again, it proved very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, so I’ve gone overboard with a top fifteen – that’s two more than the baker’s dozen I usually aim for. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

It’s getting to the point where I need to reserve a permanent spot for Barbara Pym, such is the quality of her writing. This year’s slot goes to Crampton Hodnet, a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s (Some Tame Gazelle came a very close second). What a joy it was to return to this author’s territory, a familiar world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

A series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by Isherwood’s time in the city during the early 1930s. I really loved this book with its striking cast of characters and wealth of engaging vignettes. As one might expect, the author’s portrayal of a Berlin in flux is truly wonderful, capturing the atmosphere of everything from the seedy underground bars and nightlife to the magnificence and glory of the glamorous side of the city. A most evocative read.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

Here’s another author worthy of a permanent place my end-of-year lists, Elizabeth Taylor – I just can’t seem to get enough of her work. The storyline in this book revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her best intentions often causing more harm than good. A novel full of little insights into various aspects of human behaviour – lovers of character-driven novels should enjoy this one.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

My favourite of the collections of short stories I read in 2017 (Saki’s Improper Stories came a close second). Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness. Once again, this will appeal to lovers of character-driven fiction. A superb set of stories, quite varied in style in spite of the overriding theme.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Set largely in the seedy bars and boarding houses of London’s Earl’s Court, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square centres on the tortured existence of George Harvey Bone, a thirty-four-year-old man who is obsessed with a beautiful yet vindictive young woman named Netta Longdon. It is an utterly brilliant portrait of a man on the edge, perfectly capturing the sudden changes in mood and mindset of a lonely and tormented soul, driven to distraction by the heartless woman he so deeply desires. This might just be my favourite book of the year.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

A beautiful and compelling portrayal of forbidden love, characterised by Wharton’s trademark ability to expose the underhand workings of a repressive world. Set within the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s, a culture that seems so refined on the surface, and yet so terribly brutal, hypocritical and intolerant underneath once the protective veneer of respectability is stripped away. There is a real sense of depth and subtlety in the characterisation here – classic literature doesn’t get much better than this.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

A highly compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Second World War. It’s a brilliant novel, one that features a most distinctive character quite unlike any other I’ve encountered either in literature or in life itself. In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating individual, one that is sure to generate strong opinions either way. Is she a manipulative hypocrite, determined to seize any opportunity and exploit it for her own personal gain? Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? You’ll have to read the book yourself to take a view.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

One of several reads featuring a highly distinctive female narrator – in this case, Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience. It is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heart-warming.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Enchanted indeed! What a delightful novel this turned out to be – telling, as it does, the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming story has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. A truly magical read, guaranteed to lift the spirits.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

In this beautifully written novel, we follow a day in the life of the Marshalls, an upper-middle-class family struggling to find a new way to live in an England irrevocably altered by the Second World War. Several threads and encounters come together to form a vivid picture of a nation, a country trying to come to terms with new ways of life and the accompanying changes to its social fabric. A little like a cross between Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and an Elizabeth Taylor novel, this was a wonderful discovery for me.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

This novel was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, thereby creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult. A thoroughly delicious read.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I read this in advance of Halloween, and it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite humorous in a darkly comic way. What really sets this book apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of the narrator’s voice, that of young Merricat Blackwood. A novella with much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. The sense of being an outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a prominent theme.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Several of the books in translation I chose to read in 2017 were disappointing, but this one really stood out for the distinctiveness of its central character, Doris. A striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start, particularly in the way it reflected her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin. Another very evocative read for me.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party provides a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. Essentially a tale of ‘upstairs and downstairs’, this is a wonderful ensemble piece with a sting in its tail. Fans of L. P Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy this one.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes made my 2016 highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. And here she is again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse is a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there – only things don’t quite go to plan. It’s probably my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I read last year.

So there we are – a pretty satisfying year of reading all told.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

In this utterly charming, quintessentially English novel, we follow the highs and lows of six months in the life of seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, one of the most delightful narrators you are ever likely to encounter in literature. As an aspiring writer, Cassandra shares her story by way of a series of highly detailed journal entries through which she hopes to figure out and capture her feelings – the strange mix of emotions she finds herself experiencing during this pivotal time in her life. In essence, the novel is a coming-of-age story, complete with plenty of agonising over various romantic entanglements along the way. For some reason, I thought I might struggle to engage with this book and its ‘consciously naïve’ narrator, but nothing could have been further from the truth. This turned out be a great read for me – unashamedly cosy and indulgent with some moments of poignancy along the way to counterbalance the sweetness.

The novel is set in the midst of the Suffolk countryside in the mid-1930s. Cassandra lives with her rather eccentric family in a dilapidated castle which they have leased from their nearby neighbour, the elderly Mr Cotton. The household is notionally headed up by Cassandra’s rather frustrating father, Mortmain, a once-promising writer who hasn’t produced any new work in the past ten years, a point that only serves to exacerbate the family’s woeful financial situation. These days, the reclusive Mortmain spends most of his time camped out in the castle’s gatehouse reading detective novels and trying to solve crossword puzzles. Then there is Cassandra’s ethereal stepmother, Topaz, a former artists’ model with a penchant for nudity and communing with nature. (Cassandra adores Topaz in spite of all her idiosyncrasies.) Finally, completing the family unit, we have Cassandra’s pretty older sister, Rose, her younger brother, Thomas, and their odd-job boy, Stephen, son of the Mortmains’ former maid, back in the days when they could afford one. Stephen is covertly in love with Cassandra – a fact that she is fully conscious of but doesn’t quite know how to handle without hurting his feelings.

In spite of their residing in such formerly grand surroundings, the Mortmains have virtually no money to speak of. For years they have been living off the ever-dwindling royalties from Mortmain’s only book, the proceeds from Topaz’s modelling days (no longer in evidence), and little bits of money they have managed to borrow here and there. The rent on the castle has not be paid for quite some time. Moreover, all the family’s good furniture has been sold and replaced by the bare essentials, mostly cheap items acquired from local thrift shops.

Our room is spacious and remarkably empty. With the exception of the four-poster, which is in very bad condition, all the good furniture has gradually been sold and replaced by minimum requirements bought in junk shops. Thus we have a wardrobe without a door and bamboo dressing-table which I take to be a rare piece. I keep my bedside candlestick on a battered tin trunk that cost one shilling; Rose has hers on a chest of drawers painted to imitate marble, but looking more like bacon. (p. 16)

There is little heating or food to speak of at the castle – on a good day, there might be an egg or two to accompany the usual tea of bread and margarine. As a consequence, the girls, Rose in particular, long for some kind of escape. There is a very amusing scene near the beginning of the book where Rose threatens, albeit somewhat petulantly, to go ‘on the streets’ to earn some money, only to be reminded by Cassandra that it would be impossible for anyone to do so in the depths of Suffolk; it’s simply not that sort of place! In reality, Rose believes her best chance of a brighter future would come from marrying a wealthy man, someone who could sweep her off her feet and take her away from the crumbling castle forever. The trouble is, the chances of meeting any eligible young men, irrespective of their looks and relative standing, are practically non-existent, especially given the castle’s isolated location and the Mortmains’ limited resources. Nevertheless, Rose is determined to find someone, even if it means marrying a man she does not love, just to pull herself out of a life of poverty.

Then, just when the Mortmains appear to be at their lowest ebb, into their lives sweep two dashing young Americans: Simon Cotton, the wealthy new owner of nearby Scoatney Hall, and his younger brother, Neil. (In effect, Simon is the Mortmains’ new landlord, old Mr Cotton having just passed away.) Naturally, all this happens in typical fairy-tale fashion as the Cottons arrive at the castle just in time to see the Mortmain family at their most eccentric: Topaz has already been spotted on the nearby mound communing with nature; young Cassandra is taking a bath in the kitchen surrounded by a makeshift screen of clothes horses; and to top it all off, Rose appears at the top of the stairs dressed in a freshly-dyed tea dress, just as her recently returned stepmother starts playing the lute. It all makes for the most bizarre scene, but luckily the Cottons find the whole thing rather fascinating.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rose immediately sets her cap at Simon, seeing him as a potential future husband – this in spite of his beard which both girls find rather off-putting.

It is a pity that Simon is the heir, because Rose thinks the beard is disgusting; but perhaps we can get it off. Am I really admitting that my sister is determined to marry a man she has only seen once and doesn’t much like the look of? Is it half real and half pretence – and I have an idea that it is a game most girls play when they meet any eligible young men. They just…wonder. And if any family ever had need of wondering, it is ours. But only as regards Rose. I have asked myself if I am doing any personal wondering and in my deepest heart I am not. I would rather die than marry either of those quite nice men. (p. 66)

At first, the brothers consider Rose somewhat too forward and obvious, viewing her manner as more affected than alluring. Nevertheless, both Cassandra and Topaz are determined to aid Rose in her quest to get close to Simon. After one or two false starts, an invitation to dine at Scoatney is finally extended, an opportunity which Rose is determined to seize. In this scene, Cassandra is discussing Rose’s chances with Topaz.

I closed the kitchen door and said: ‘What did you think of her manner today?’

‘At least it was quieter, though she was still making eyes. But, anyway, it doesn’t matter now.’

I looked at her in astonishment and she went on:

‘Simon Cotton’s attracted – really attracted – couldn’t you see? Once that happens, a girl can be as silly as she likes – the man’ll probably think the silliness is fetching.’

‘Is Neil attracted, too?’

‘I doubt it,’ said Topaz. ‘I’ve an idea that Neil sees through her – I saw him give her a very shrewd look. Oh, how are we going to dress her, Cassandra? There’s a chance for her with Simon, really there is – I know the signs.’ (p. 122)

All too quickly Simon finds himself falling in love with Rose, and when he proposes marriage she naturally accepts. Cassandra, Topaz and Mortmain are all delighted at the news; Neil, however, is furious, a fact he reveals only to Cassandra, urging her to keep his outburst private. It would appear that Neil sees Rose as a gold-digger, someone who seems intent on marrying his brother for the money alone, irrespective of any genuine feelings of love.

As preparations for Rose’s wedding get underway – she is promptly whisked off to London by Simon’s erudite mother who insists on buying her a glamorous wardrobe and trousseau – Cassandra continues to chart the various developments in her journal. She is decidedly more grounded, more perceptive than her rather materialistic and foolish sister, a fact that becomes increasingly apparent as the narrative progresses.

Alongside Rose’s romance with Simon, Cassandra’s own feelings have also been thrown up in the air – not only by Stephen, who declares his love for her, but by Neil and Simon too. As far as Cassandra sees things, Neil is the more approachable of the Cotton brothers, more easy-going and open; and yet there is also something very attractive about Simon, especially once he dispenses with his beard. Much to her initial surprise, Cassandra also finds herself falling in love. Once again, the journal entries help Cassandra to make sense of her feelings. In effect, they provide an outlet for the experience of first love, marked as it so often is by that blend of exquisite pleasure and undeniable pain.

After that I talked easily enough, making him laugh quite a bit – I could see he was liking me again. But it wasn’t my present self talking at all; I was giving an imitation of myself as I used to be. I was very ‘consciously naïve’. Never, never was I that with him before; however I may have sounded, I always felt perfectly natural. But I knew, as I sat there amusing him while the band played ‘Lover’, that many things which had felt natural to me before I first heard it would never feel natural again. It wasn’t only the black dress that had made me grow up. (p. 323)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the way in which the story finally plays out, save to say that there are one or two twists along the way (especially toward the end). Dodie Smith wrote the book while she was living in America, homesick as she was for her native England. As a consequence, the story is shot through with a touching sense of nostalgia, a reverence for the eccentricities of the nation she loved.

This is a captivating, slightly bittersweet novel, one that appears frothy on the surface but is actually deeper and more insightful than its initial levity suggests – I have barely scratched the surface of it here.

I Capture the Castle is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

#WITMonth is coming – some suggestions of books by women in translation

As in previous years, Meytal at the Biblibio blog will be hosting Women in Translation (#WITMonth) throughout the month of August. It’s a celebration of translated literature by women writers – you can find out more about it here. I’ve reviewed quite a few books in this category over the years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read next month, here are a few of my favourites.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

A quintessential summer read, Bonjour Tristesse is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions, all set against the blistering heat of the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel – I’ll be reading Sagan again this year, this time in an Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these individuals as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. All in all, this is a delightfully entertaining read.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was just twenty-three when her debut novel, Nada, was published. It’s an excellent book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. Here we see the portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. This is a wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. Truly deserving of its status as a Spanish classic.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940, Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. This was a standout read for me.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson)

By turns satirical, insightful, artful and poignant, this is a fascinating collection of short stories and sketches, notable for the sheer variety in tone. What makes these stories particularly intriguing is their connection to various aspects of Teffi’s own life and experience, from her time in Russia prior the Revolution to the years she spent as an émigré in Paris. Her first-hand account of Rasputin – a highly perceptive piece – is worth the entry price alone.

La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

When Elisa realises her husband, Gilles, has become entangled with Victorine, her attractive younger sister, she is devastated. Beautifully written in a sensual, intimate style, this is a very compelling novel with a powerful ending. The writing is spare but very emotive – Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to Elisa’s point of view giving us near-complete access to her inner thoughts and feelings. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of writers like Simenon and Jean Rhys.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the stories in this volume of forty-two stories drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of her pieces point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. An unusual and poetic collection of stories that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. A good one for dipping into, especially if you’re in the mood for something different.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

More short fiction, this time from Japan, Revenge comprises eleven interlinked short stories, elegantly connected via a set of recurring images and motifs threaded through the individual narratives. Characters flow from one story to the next; we revisit specific locations and scenes from earlier tales, only to see things from a different viewpoint as our perspective changes. It’s all very cleverly constructed. In Revenge, we meet characters who seem isolated or detached from society in some way; many live alone, their lives infused with sadness and loneliness. Ogawa has a real talent for exploring some of the disquieting parts of the human psyche, the acts of darkness that can lurk just beneath the surface of the everyday. An excellent collection of unsettling stories.

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

To be honest, highly autobiographical books aren’t my usual my cup of tea, but NHBtN is so good that it warrants inclusion here. Virtually impossible to summarise in a couple of sentences, this remarkable story focuses on a woman’s quest to gain a deeper understanding of her mother following the latter’s death by suicide. A genuinely absorbing and compelling book, beautifully written in a sensitive style – de Vigan’s prose is simply luminous.

And finally, a special mention for a fairly recent read:

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal (tr. Jessica Moore)

In this highly unusual, utterly compelling novel, we follow Simon Limbeau’s heart for twenty-four hours – from the young man’s death in a freak accident one morning, to the delicate discussions on organ donation with his parents, to the transfer of his heart to an anxious recipient in another city later that evening. De Kerangel explores the clinical, ethical and the emotional issues at play with great sensitivity. Superbly written in a fluid, lyrical style, this is a novel that will stay with you long after the final page has been turned. (A cliché, I know – but in this case, it’s actually very apt.)

This book has already been widely reviewed across the blogosphere, so I’m not planning to cover it in more detail here. Instead, I can point you towards a couple of thoughtful posts that I recall seeing – this one by Grant at 1streading and this one by Marina Sofia. It’s definitely worth considering.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading one or two of them next month. Maybe you have plans of your own – if so, what do you have in mind? Or perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? Please feel free to mention it here.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Oh my goodness, what an enchanting novel this turned out to be! I read it over that beautifully sunny weekend just before Easter, and I couldn’t have chosen a better time – it matched the glorious weather to perfection.

First published in 1922, The Enchanted April, tells the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. The rather shy and mousey Mrs Wilkins proves to be a somewhat unlikely catalyst for the trip when she sees an advertisement in The Times appealing to those who appreciate ‘wisteria and sunshine’ to take a small castle on the shores of the Mediterranean, furnishings and servants provided – a prospect that captures her imagination on a dark and dreary afternoon in February. Before long Mrs Wilkins is joined in her quest by Mrs Arbuthnot – a woman previously known to her only by sight – who also appears to be transfixed by the very same ad and the idea of a break from her dismal routine.

As it turns out, both of these women are unhappy with their current lives, albeit in rather different ways. Lotty Wilkins feels trapped and belittled in a stifling marriage; her husband, Mellersh-Wilkins, is a stuffed shirt and a bully, someone who demands prudence and thrift in every department of their home life except the one that relates to his food. In this respect he is highly critical, dismissing any shortfalls in standards as poor housekeeping on Lotty’s part. Rose Arbuthnot, on the other hand, has all but abandoned any chance of ever being noticed by her husband, Frederick, a highly successful writer of rather salacious memoirs of the mistresses of kings. In the early days of their marriage, the Arbuthnots were very much in love; but all too soon the situation changed as Frederick began to throw himself into his work. As a consequence, Rose has filled her life with other things to occupy her time, mostly self-sacrificing charitable work in support of the poor and needy, primarily as a means of easing her conscience about the somewhat grubby nature of the source of Frederick’s income. In short, Lotty and Rose feel constrained by their respective circumstances, worn down over the years by a lack of love and affection – even though they are only in their early thirties, both of these women seem old before their time.

Why couldn’t two unhappy people refresh each other on their way through this dusty business of life by a little talk – real natural talk, about what they felt, what they would have liked, what they still tried to hope? And she could not help thinking that Mrs Arbuthnot, too, was reading that very same advertisement. Her eyes were on the very part of the paper. Was she, too, picturing what it would be like – the colour, the fragrance, the light, the soft lapping of the sea among little hot rocks? Colour, fragrance, light, sea; instead of Shaftesbury Avenue, and the wet omnibuses, and the fish department at Schoolbred’s, and the Tube to Hampstead, and dinner, and tomorrow the same and the day after the same and always the same… (p. 7)

Having overcome their initial reluctance to do something so daring, these two ladies from Hampstead decide they will reply to the ad and take the castle in Italy. The only real obstacle that remains is finding a means of funding the cost of the trip from their respective nest eggs, a task that would prove particularly challenging for Lotty given her personal circumstances. So, as a solution to their dilemma, Lotty and Rose decide to place their own advertisement in the paper in the hope of finding two suitable companions for the trip. Thus they are joined by Lady Caroline Dester, a glamorous young socialite who is seeking refuge from all the charming men who want a piece of her back in London, and Mrs Fisher, a rather crabby old lady who seems determined to live in the past, forever lamenting the loss of old friends and acquaintances from her beloved literary world.

On their arrival at the San Salvatore castle, these four very different ladies begin to connect and interact with one another, often with the most amusing consequences. There are some priceless scenes, especially at mealtimes, as the different personalities start to emerge, frequently clashing over the smallest and most telling of details. In this early scene, the elderly Mrs Fisher has adopted the role of grande dame at the breakfast table, almost as if she were the hostess or chief facilitator of the trip. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Rose Arbuthnot is more than a little put out by this development, and so she tries to establish her own standing as joint hostess with Lotty Wilkins, a move which doesn’t quite go according to plan! The indomitable Mrs Fisher is the first to speak here.

She turned more markedly than ever to Mrs Arbuthnot. ‘Do let me give you a little more coffee,’ she said.

‘No, thank you. But won’t you have some more?’

‘No indeed. I never have more than two cups at breakfast. Would you like an orange? ‘

‘No, thank you. Would you?’

‘No, I don’t eat fruit at breakfast. It is an American fashion which I am too old now to adopt. Have you had all you want?’

‘Quite. Have you?’

Mrs Fisher paused before replying. Was this a habit, this trick of answering a simple question with the same question? If so it must be curbed, for no one could live four weeks in any real comfort with somebody who had a habit. (pp. 66-67)

Gradually over time, the castle begins to work its magic on the occupants, often in profound and surprising ways. Lotty Wilkins is the first to experience its bewitching effects, transformed as she is by the abundance of beauty and resplendent atmosphere at San Salvatore (the descriptions of the gardens are magnificently lush). And how could she fail to be when she opens her curtains for the first time in the morning, only to be greeted by the following sight?

All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword. (p. 50)

Almost immediately upon her arrival at the retreat, Lotty Wilkins comes right out of her shell, becoming bolder, more impetuous, more enthusiastic about life and all the possibilities it has to offer. As a consequence, she makes an audacious decision, one that she hopes will lead to the promise of greater happiness in the future. To reveal any more might spoil things for the reader. Suffice it to say that Lotty’s enthusiasm is infectious, so much so that it catches the attention of the previously reclusive Lady Caroline. As a consequence, these two women strike up an unlikely friendship, one that looks all set to last beyond the duration of the trip. Lady Caroline, for her part, also begins to question the value of her life to date and what may lie ahead for her in the months and years to come. Even the disagreeable Mrs Fisher starts to soften as she realises that the members of the younger generation are not all as shallow and as frivolous as she had previously assumed.  

Nevertheless, perhaps the one person who is most affected by Lotty’s optimism and enthusiasm is Rose Arbuthnot. As she reflects on the transformation in her new friend, the rather lonely and sensitive Rose longs to experience something similar. If only her life with Frederick were different, if only they could recapture the early days of their marriage, the first flushes of love and affection for one another, the feeling of being cared for and valued by an attentive partner.

[…] and once again Rose wondered at Lotty, at her balance, her sweet and equable temper – she who in England had been such a thing of gusts. From the moment they got into Italy it was Lotty who seemed the elder. She certainly was very happy; blissful, in fact. Did happiness so completely protect one? Did it make one so untouchable, so wise? Rose was happy herself, but not anything like so happy. Evidently not, for not only did she want to fight Mrs Fisher but she wanted something else, something more than this lovely place, something to complete it; she wanted Frederick. For the first time in her life she was surrounded by perfect beauty, and her one thought was to show it to him, to share it with him. She wanted Frederick. She yearned for Frederick, Ah, if only, only Frederick… (p.103)

Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming novel has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. At times, I was reminded of Winifred Watson’s equally adorable book, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a story that also captures a sense of joie de vivre and escapism from the constraints of an unfulfilled life.

Von Armin takes great care in portraying each of her central characters with enough subtlety and depth, thereby encouraging the reader to invest in these women from an early stage in the story. Lotty Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot are particularly well developed, especially in the fleshing out of their marriages and the different challenges they face with their respective husbands. Lady Caroline is also painted in a nuanced fashion. At first, it would be tempting to assume that she is simply selfish, spoilt and rather ungrateful for the attention others lavish upon her; but as the novel progresses, a different side to her personality starts to emerge, one that is more thoughtful and vulnerable. Even the fusty Mrs Fisher is portrayed in a manner which ultimately encourages the reader’s sympathies as it becomes clear that she too is rather lonely and isolated in her restricted life.

All in all, this is a most delightful novel with much to commend it – another strong contender for my end-of-year list.

The Enchanted April is published by Penguin Classics and Vintage Books.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

It’s been a while since I last read anything by Edith Wharton – more than two years in fact since I reviewed The House of Mirth, a novel I loved for its central character, the fascinating Miss Lily Bart. I suppose I’ve been trying to save Wharton for the right time. Having just finished The Age of Innocence (another of her critically-acclaimed society novels), I can see it has the potential to become one of my all-time favourite books – such a beautiful and compelling portrayal of forbidden love, I longed for the times when I could return to these characters and their expertly-realised world.

Set within the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s, The Age of Innocence centres on Newland Archer, a highly respected young lawyer from a wealthy, privileged and traditional family. On the surface, everything in Newland’s life appears to be perfect. In spite of an earlier dalliance with a married woman, Newland recognises the importance of adhering to the established codes and behaviours of his natural social set. As a consequence, he is looking forward to the announcement of his forthcoming engagement to one of the prettiest girls in New York, the sweet-natured and equally privileged May Welland, a young woman who seems to embody everything that is decent and pure and virtuous in life.

Into this perfectly ordered and balanced world comes May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, recently returned from Europe following the breakdown of her marriage to a Polish Count. Much to the disapproval of New York society – a culture that condemns social scandal above all else – Countess Olenska has taken the drastic step of fleeing her abusive husband, reputedly with the aid of another man, the Count’s secretary. As the novel opens, Newland catches sight of the Countess for the first time during a visit to the New York Opera where the lady’s appearance in public has created a bit of a stir.

As for the cause of the commotion, she sat gracefully in her corner of the box, her eyes fixed on the stage, and revealing, as she leaned forward, a little more shoulder and bosom than New York was accustomed to seeing, at least in ladies who had reasons for wishing to pass unnoticed. (pp. 12-13)  

On seeing the Countess, Newland’s first thoughts are for May, and he urges his sweetheart to bring forward the announcement of their engagement in the hope that the support of two influential New York families – the Wellands and the Archers – will bolster Countess Olenska’s social standing. (This is a watchful, judgemental world, one where everyone seems to know everyone else’s movements and intentions before the day is out.)

Initially, Newland considers the exotic Countess Olena rather mysterious with her curious European ways and interests; but the more time he spends in this lady’s company, the more fascinating he finds her. Deep down, in spite of his placid, conventional nature, Newland longs for a richer, more stimulating cultural and emotional life. In many respects, Countess Olenska is the natural embodiment of these desires – she is imaginative, unconventional, passionate and artistic. As a consequence, Newland finds himself becoming increasing attracted to the Countess, a development that also leads to questions about the nature of his potential future with May.

What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a ‘decent’ fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal? What if, for some one of the subtler reasons that would tell with both of them, they should tire of each other, misunderstand or irritate each other? He reviewed his friends’ marriages – the supposedly happy ones – and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgement, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other. (p. 37)

I love that quote – it’s so typical of Wharton and her ability to highlight the duplicity at play in this closed and censorious society.

In spite of receiving the initial support of various influential members of the New York set, Countess Olenska comes under considerable pressure to return to her brutish husband, thereby conforming to established conventions. Ideally, the Countess wishes to press for a divorce, an action considered socially unacceptable by the traditional American society of the day – while the city’s legal system permits divorce, its social customs do not. As a lawyer with a close connection to the Welland family, Newland is enlisted to persuade Countess Olenska that filing for divorce would be utterly foolish, a view he is in agreement with once it becomes clear that the Countess would likely be ruined if the circumstances of her departure from the Count ever came to light. However, by advising the Countess against a divorce, Newland must effectively let go of any hope of ever marrying the Countess himself – for if she remains tied to the Count, she cannot possibly be free to marry again.

In time, Newland ties the knot with May and settles down to the rituals of married life, an existence he finds increasingly bland and stifling. After a gap of about eighteen months, he sees Countess Olenska again, and all his old feelings for her (and hers for him) are rekindled.  Nevertheless, Countess Olenska is unflinchingly realistic in her outlook on life. She seems to understand the true nature of their circumstances more clearly than Newland, at least at first. If they are ever to see one another now that Newland is married, they must do so discreetly. It would not do to destroy the lives of those around them, especially not May’s and those of the members of their respective families. All of a sudden, the reality of situation dawns on Newland, and he sees the delicate balance he must try to maintain.

It was clear to him, and it grew more clear under close scrutiny, that if she should finally decide on returning to Europe – returning to her husband – it would not be because her old life tempted her, even on the new terms offered. No: she would go only if she felt herself becoming a temptation to Archer, a temptation to fall away from the standard they had both set up. Her choice would be to stay near him as long as he did not ask her to come nearer; and it depended on himself to keep her just there, safe but secluded. (p. 210)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the story, save to say that it gripped me to the very end. Instead, I’m going to touch on some of the things I love about this novel as they fall into three broad areas.

First, there is the subtlety and depth of the characterisation. The three main players are so beautifully realised, so fully painted on the page that it’s hard not to get completely draw into their world. Naturally, Newland and Countess Olenska are the centre of attention, and the complexity of their emotions are clearly felt. Both of these characters are torn between opposing forces: on the one hand, a powerful desire to give in to their true feelings by spending time with one another; on the other, a necessary duty to preserve the happiness of those around them by trying to remain apart. Nevertheless, in spite of the shades that are visible in the portrayal of Newland and the Countess, it would be unfair to dismiss May as the innocent, childlike creature that her husband perceives her to be. As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that May sees and understands much more than Newland appreciates. She appears to have moments of great insight, observing the nuances of the situation around her in ways that Newland simply does not realise – well, not until the game is almost over. (There is a brilliant quote that I would have loved to include here, but I fear it’s too much of a spoiler to share.)

Then there is Wharton’s ability to expose the underhand workings of this repressive society, a culture that seems so refined on the surface, and yet so terribly brutal, hypocritical and intolerant when the protective veneer of respectability is stripped away. It is only then that the real machinations are exposed in all their blatant cruelty.

It was the old New York way, of taking life ‘without effusion of blood’; the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than ‘scenes’, except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them. (p. 286)

Finally, there is the quality of the writing. The Age of Innocence contains some of the most glorious, perfectly crafted prose I have read for quite a while. This is a novel shot through with a deep sense of yearning for a more fulfilling life, a longing for a love that seemed ill-fated and condemned from the start. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that stayed with me to the end. As Newland sits in his library with May, he reflects on the true nature of his marriage some two years down the line.

As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion. She had spent her poetry and romance on their short courting: the function was exhausted because the need was past. Now she was simply ripening into a copy of her mother, and mysteriously, by the very process, trying to turn him into a Mr Welland. He laid down his book and stood up impatiently; and at once she raised her head. (p. 251)

The Age of Innocence is published by Vintage Books; personal copy

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

Back in 2015, Richard Yates made my end-of-year highlights with The Easter Parade, a beautiful yet sad novel about the Grimes sisters and the different paths they take in life. There’s a good chance he’ll be on my list again in 2017, this time with Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962), a peerless collection of stories as good as any I’ve read in recent years. Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness (there are other reasons too, which I’ll try to touch on later). As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to try to cover each story in turn. My aim instead is to give a flavour of the themes and a little of what I thought of the volume as a whole.

yates-lonely

In The Best of Everything, one of my favourite pieces in the collection, we meet Grace, a young woman on the brink of marrying her fiancé, Ralph. As she finishes up her work on the Friday before the wedding, Grace reflects on her situation as the doubts begin to run through her mind. Maybe her roommate, Martha, was right after all; maybe she is settling for second best.

She had been calling him “darling” for only a short time—since it had become irrevocably clear that she was, after all, going to marry him—and the word still had an alien sound. As she straightened the stacks of stationary in her desk (because there was nothing else to do), a familiar little panic gripped her: she couldn’t marry him—she hardly even knew him. Sometimes it occurred to her differently, that she couldn’t marry him because she knew him too well, and either way it left her badly shaken, vulnerable to all the things that Martha, her roommate, had said from the very beginning. (p. 23)

When she discovers that her roommate is going away for the night, Grace plans a surprise for Ralph, a pre-marital treat that doesn’t quite go to plan. Instead, Grace gets a glimpse of what life may hold for her once she is married: the need to carefully manage the dynamic between husband and wife.

A Glutton for Punishment features a classic Yates protagonist, Walter Henderson, a rather unassuming young man who works in a Manhattan office in the heart of NYC. Walter, a graceful and gracious loser all his life, is convinced he is about to be fired from his job. In spite of his wife’s best efforts to make their home life as bearable as possible, the weight of this expectation hangs over Walter on a permanent basis.

And lately, when he started coming home with a beaten look and announcing darkly that he doubted if he could hold on much longer, she would enjoin the children not to bother him (“Daddy’s very tired tonight”), bring him a drink and soothe him with careful, wifely reassurance, doing her best to conceal her fear, never guessing, or at least never showing, that she was dealing with a chronic, compulsive failure, a strange little boy in love with the attitudes of collapse. (pp. 73-4)

This is a wonderful story, one that touches on the anxieties of life, the sense of pride and respect we all crave from those around us. Moreover, it also highlights the different roles a wife and mother was expected to play back in the late 1950s/early ‘60s, the various modes she had to adopt, irrespective of how taxing or frustrating they proved to be.

This bright cocktail mood was a carefully studied effect, he knew. So was her motherly sternness over the children’s supper; so was the brisk, no-nonsense efficiency with which, earlier today, she had attacked the supermarket; and so, later tonight, would be the tenderness of her surrender in his arms. The orderly rotation of many careful moods was her life, or rather, was what her life had become. She managed it well, and it was only rarely, looking very closely at her face, that he could see how much the effort was costing her. (p. 85)

Yates is particularly good when it comes to depicting the loneliness one often experiences in childhood, the challenges and difficulties associated with our schooldays. In Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern, we meet Vincent Sabella, a somewhat coarse boy who also happens to be the new kid in class.

The girls decided that he wasn’t very nice and turned away, but the boys lingered in their scrutiny, looking him up and down with faint smiles. This was the kind of kid they were accustomed to thinking of as “tough,” the kind whose stares had made all of them uncomfortable at one time or another in unfamiliar neighborhoods; here was a unique chance for retaliation. (p. 2)

While Miss Price, the fourth-grade teacher, does her best to make Vincent feel welcome, none of the children in the class seem willing to make an effort. As a consequence, Vincent spends virtually all of his breaks alone, desperately trying to kill time. When Miss Pryce tries to befriend Vincent, things don’t go as smoothly as expected. What follows is a sequence of events that highlights how loneliness can come about as a direct consequence of our own behaviour towards others, the actions we take when our frustrations bubble up to the surface.

Fun with a Stranger explores a different type of experience at school – that of being saddled with a ghastly teacher, in this case, a ‘big rawboned woman’ named Miss Snell. In direct contrast to her counterpart, the warm and engaging Mrs Cleary (the teacher who takes the other half of third grade), Miss Snell is strict and lacking in humour, forever pulling up the children for mumbling, daydreaming, frequent trips to the toilet, and, worst of all, for ‘coming to school without proper supplies’.

She never seemed to lose her temper, but it would almost have been better if she did, for it was the flat, dry, passionless redundance of her scolding that got everybody down. When Miss Snell singled someone out for a special upbraiding it was an ordeal by talk. She would come up to within a foot of her victim’s face, her eyes would stare unblinkingly into his, and the wrinkled gray flesh of her mouth would labor to pronounce his guilt, grimly and deliberately, until all the color faded from the day. (p. 107)

As this story unfolds, we see the impact of Miss Snell’s approach on the morale of her half of the intake – and how this compares to Mrs Cleary’s. There are times when the children are embarrassed by Miss Snell’s failure to show any enthusiasm or inspiration, especially when the two classes come together for a field trip. As Christmas approaches, the children hope that Miss Snell won’t let them down. Will she be able to match her colleague’s plans for a festive party? You’ll have to read this excellent story for yourselves to find out.

Two of the stories are set in hospitals, in TB wards to be precise. No Pain Whatsoever gives us a glimpse into the life of Myra, a woman who has been visiting her husband in hospital every Sunday for the past four years. This is a poignant story of an individual trapped in a stagnant marriage, isolated from her spouse both physically and emotionally. However, unbeknownst to her husband, Myra has found comfort in the form of another man.

Continuing the theme of illness, Out With the Old takes place in a Veterans hospital on New Year’s Eve, just a few days after most of the TB patients have returned to their ward after being allowed home for Christmas. Yates really captures the loneliness and loss of identity experienced by some of these patients when they come back to the hospital, a place where they must all dress alike in standard issue pyjamas. Here is Harold’s experience. (Even his name changes when he arrives back at the ward. Nobody calls him Harold here – instead, he is known as ‘Tiny’ on account of his imposing height.)

He remained Harold until the pass was over and he strode away from a clinging family farewell, shrugging the great overcoat around his shoulders and squaring the hat. He was Harold all the way to the bus terminal and all the way back to the hospital, and the other men still looked at him oddly and greeted him a little shyly when he pounded back into C Ward. He went to his bed and put down his several packages (one of which contained the new robe), then headed for the latrine to get undressed. That was the beginning of the end, for when he came out in the old faded pajamas and scuffed slippers there was only a trace of importance left in his softening face, and even that disappeared in the next hour of two, while he lay on his bed and listened to the radio. (p. 165)

Others feel like strangers in their own homes when they go back to ‘the outside’. Things have moved on; children have grown older, more distant. Consequently, patients feel rather out of touch with their own families.

Some of Yates’ stories hark back to the days of WWII, including a piece featuring a strict and vindictive drill sergeant in charge of a platoon of young troops. There is a common theme which runs through a few of the pieces here, a sense of frustration and lack of power felt by the men who fought in the war, their current, fairly stagnant lives falling some way short of the heady expectations of their glory days. This feeling of rage comes out in The B.A.R. Man when a dispirited ex-serviceman finds himself caught up in a protest at the end of an exasperating night.

The final story, Builders, is one of the highlights here, a piece featuring a talented yet struggling writer who finds himself working as a ghostwriter for a somewhat delusional but sharp-witted taxi driver. It’s impossible to do it justice in a few sentences, but Yates paints an intriguing picture, full of insight. It left me wondering if this sketch was based on a real-life encounter with the cabbie, a man who dreams of building stories as a way of injecting some meaning into his somewhat shallow life.

All in all, this is a truly brilliant collection, one that gets right to the heart of certain aspects of human nature. These are stories to linger over, to savour and absorb – very highly recommended.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.