The Ivory Grin, The Barbarous Coast & The Doomsters – Ross Macdonald

I can easily say that I have become something of a Ross Macdonald addict. The first book in the Lew Archer series that I read and was impressed by was The Way Some People Die (the third in the Lew Archer series). That novel was great in terms of plot, superb characterization, and in the evocation of California.

It was my intention to stick to the order in the series, although that is strictly not necessary. However, on a short trip to London some years ago, I bought Archer #13 called Black Money and couldn’t resist delving right into it. I learnt that it Macdonald considered that book his finest achievement, and I agree that Black Money was brilliant. I also learnt later that in some way it was a retelling of The Great Gatsby, a novel Macdonald had a high opinion of, although that was a connect I did not make at the time.

I needed some comfort reads for the month and Macdonald fit the bill perfectly. I ended up reading three this time, and stuck more or less to the order.

Here, I have decided to post short write-ups for each in a single post rather than go in for a lengthy review of the three separately.

So here goes…

Macdonald

The Ivory Grin

This is the fourth novel in the Lew Archer series.

In The Ivory Grin, private detective Lew Archer is paid a visit by a tough woman who calls herself Una Larkin. Una wants Archer to trace her maid Lucy who used to work at her place.

Archer’s immediate instincts are that he is being taken for a ride as Una concocts a cock-and-bull story of why she wants Lucy tailed.

Una refuses to divulge her motives but eventually Archer becomes curious enough to accept the assignment.

Archer follows Lucy into Bella City, a run-down place filled with desolate houses, ramshackle factories, restaurants and cheap motels. It is a place with a clear divide between the affluent and the low income groups.

Main Street was loud and shiny with noon traffic moving bumper to bumper. I turned left on East Hidalgo Street and found a parking space in the first block. Housewives black, brown, and sallow were hugging parcels and pushing shopping carts on the sidewalk. Above them a ramshackle house, with paired front windows like eyes demented by earthquake memories, advertised Rooms for Transients on one side, Palm Reading on the other. A couple of Mexican children, boy and girl, strolled by hand in hand in a timeless noon on their way to an early marriage.

Archer tails Lucy but she is murdered and Archer finds a newspaper clip in her motel room announcing a US$ 5,000 reward for any person who comes forward with information on the whereabouts of a wealthy widow’s son Charles Singleton.

Clearly, these two cases are connected and Lew Archer makes it his mission to find out how.

Meanwhile, Lucy’s boyfriend Alex is arrested for her murder although Archer is not fully convinced.

There are also many characters enter the fray, but one of the most notable is Inspector Brake who is all too keen to arrest Alex and has many sharp exchanges with Archer.

The Ivory Grin is superbly plotted. It is a tale of fear and money and is tightly woven. The dialogue crackles.

Macdonald is also great in his descriptions and evocation of a small time town such as Bella City – the physical and wretched character or lack of character of such places and the pronounced divide between the people based on money and social standing. And the various characters peppered throughout the novel are also richly drawn.

Plus, Lew Archer is a wonderful creation as a detective. What is fascinating is that we don’t know much about him but enough to gauge that he is world weary but compassionate and a man who listens. He is the lens through whom the other characters, who occupy the centrestage, are filtered.

The Barbarous Coast

This is the sixth novel in the Lew Archer series.

Once again, Macdonald has written a complex plot and this time the spotlight is on Hollywood.

Archer is summoned by Clarence Bassett, the manager of an exclusive country club for the wealthy. While he is entering the club he notices a young and hot-tempered man having an altercation with the guard Tony Torres.

Bassett wants Archer to locate the whereabouts of Hester Campbell, a star diver at the club, who is now missing. The hotheaded young man, in the meanwhile, is Hester’s husband from Canada who accuses Bassett of having an affair with her.

Archer subsequently learns that Hester is somehow mixed up with the ‘mob’ and is with Lance Leonard – Tony Torres’ nephew. Tony Torres, a retired boxer, had taken Lance under his wing and trained him as a boxer, before Lance gives him the boot.

The deeper Archer investigates, he realizes that a lot of the developments are somehow tied up to the murder of another young woman Gabrielle Torres a couple of years – a case which never got solved. Gabrielle was also Hester’s good friend.

In addition to this characters, we are introduced to many more – Simon Graff who is a successful filmmaker and a resident of the country club, his wife Isobel Graff, and some mobsters Leroy Frost and Carl Stern.

That’s the basic outline of the plot.

In typical Macdonald style, there are various threads that are woven together to form a complex story. Having said that, while this is still a solid novel, it was not as strong as The Ivory Grin. At one point it felt that there were too many characters and the story sagged a bit especially in the middle. But all in all this was a worthwhile read and I have yet to come across a Macdonald that hasn’t worked.

The writing remains as sharp as ever though…Here is Archer describing Isobel Graff…

A taste of whiskey had changed her mood, as a touch of acid will change the color of blue litmus paper.

And then sometime later, here’s an exchange…

“You are joking. You must want money. You work for money, don’t you?”

“I want it very badly,” I said. “But I can’t take this money. It wouldn’t belong to me, I would belong to it. It would expect me to do things, and I would have to do them.” 

The Doomsters

The Doomsters is the seventh novel in the Lew Archer series and in a way significant because it is this novel where Macdonald departs from the influence of Chandler and Hammett. In terms of the themes and psychological depth, it certainly felt different from The Ivory Grin and The Barbarous Coast.

One morning Archer gets a visit from Carl Hallman, a man in his thirties. We soon learn that Carl has escaped from a mental asylum where he claims he was committed by his family against his wishes. Carl is not the only one who has escaped though. The other man to flee with him is heroin addict Tom Rica, whom Archer had mentored many years ago.

Carl’s mother committed suicide many years ago, and soon after his father dies of a heart attack the same evening that he had a vicious quarrel with him, his brother Jerry also being present at the time.

His behaviour is what convinces Jerry to confine him in an asylum and he forces Carl’s wife Mildred to sign the papers.

The beginning of this Hallman family history is narrated to us through Carl while in conversation with Archer. Meanwhile, Archer is of the view that Carl needs to go back to the hospital first, and he would carry out the investigation on his behalf outside. Archer even drives him to the hospital but before that Carl manages to hoodwink Archer, steal his car and flee.

We learn that Carl has been spotted on the Hallman family ranch with a gun. It’s the same ranch where his brother Jerry and his wife Zinnie reside. Since, the parents are dead, Jerry and Zinnie stand to gain from the estate.

We also learn that Carl’s wife Mildred is the only one who believes in him and ready to defend him no matter what.

Soon another Hallman is murdered, and the blame for it falls on Carl who is still in hiding.

Archer is convinced that Carl is not the suspect, and sets out to find out how the recent murder is linked to Carl’s parents’ death many years ago. In the process, many skeletons in the Hallman closet begin to tumble out.

That is the bare outline of the story.

It is this novel where Archer’s role also evolves. He is not only a private investigator but also akin to a therapist, always listening but not immediately ready to judge. He understands that there is never a stark black and while, but in fact several shades of grey when it comes to a person’s personality.

In that sense, it is probably more Freudian in tone and plot as compared to his earlier novels, and marks the turning point, as I understand it, in terms of psychological depth, insight and the notion of deep family secrets – themes that recur in the later novels as well.

I was an ex-cop, and the words came hard. I had to say them, though, if I didn’t want to be stuck for the rest of my life with the old black-and-white picture, the idea that there were just good people and bad people, and everything would be hunky-dory if the good people locked up the bad ones or wiped them out with small personalized nuclear weapons.

I’ll end with another quote…

We passed a small-boat harbor, gleaming white on blue, and a long pier draped with fishermen. Everything was as pretty as a postcard. The trouble with you, I said to myself: you’re always turning over the postcards and reading the messages on the underside. Written in invisible ink, in blood, in tears, with a black border around them, with postage due, unsigned, or signed with a thumbprint.

The Doomsters was another excellent novel in the Lew Archer series and I look forward to the next one in line – The Galton Case – which has touted as one of his best.

 

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Bottled Goods – Sophie van Llewyn

Bottled Goods first came to my attention when it was shortlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize, which has been set up to reward books published by small, independent publishers. Subsequently, it has been longlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for fiction.

The author Sophie van Llewyn was born in Romania and now lives in Germany. And this is her debut long fiction work.

The book had already garnered a lot of positive reviews. Wondering what the fuss was all about, and intrigued by the premise of flash fiction, I decided to try it out.

Bottled Goods

This is how the Novella-in-Flash is described on the author’s blog:

A novella-in-flash is a novella that consists of independent flash fictions (that is, self-contained stories ranging from 5 to 1,000 words), that function as ‘chapters.’ They are linked, forming a longer story. Think of them as brushstrokes, each of them a touch of colour in themselves — but all in all forming a ‘bigger picture’.

It’s a technique that has worked brilliantly for Bottled Goods.

The book is set in Bucharest in Romania in the 1970s when it was under Soviet rule. The central character is Alina, a teacher in a city school. Alina comes from a wealthy family, and her aunt (her mother’s sister) is married to a top government official, allowing her certain privileges.

Here is how it opens…

When Aunt Theresa calls, I’m doing my homework on the History of Socialism.

‘Alina? Is your mother at home?’ she asks.

‘No,’ I say. ‘She’s working the late shift this week. She won’t be home until eight.’

‘Good. I’ll pick you up in half an hour. Wear something black and sturdy shoes.’ And she hangs up before I have the chance to argue.

From the outset it is clear that the relationship between mother and aunt are strained. However, Alina gets along very well with her aunt and many a time turns to her for help.

Meanwhile, Alina goes on to marry Liviu, a man below her when it comes to class. It’s something that Alina’s mother greatly resents and provides the first hint of a discord between mother and daughter.

I mentioned at the beginning that Alina is a central character in these flash fictions, but the same could also be said about the city of Bucharest.

Little by little the terrors of living under Soviet rule become apparent to us – how it has created an environment of distrust, suspicion and aloofness. Ratting out on your neighbours and acquaintances to the authorities is common, perpetuating a constant state of fear and anxiety.

A certain incident in the school involving a couple of girls also puts the spotlight on Alina, and consequently she begins to get hounded by the authorities on this.

Things reach such a head that it begins to take a toll on Alina and Liviu’s marriage. To save it, they begin to hatch a plan of escaping Bucharest altogether.

There is one section related to this that is particularly harrowing – when both are detained at the Border by the Soviet authorities.

‘No! No! I wasn’t praying! I was just tired.’

The man grinds his teeth, then pushes me into the metal table. It screeches as I collide with it. There’s a sharp pain in my hip.

‘Body search,’ he says.

He turns me around, pushes me harder into the table with his knee. Its corner pierces my stomach. I wail. He catches the nape of my neck, squeezes hard. ‘Shut up!’

His hands move up and down my body, tear my shirt open. The callused tips of his fingers are on my waist, on my breasts, on my legs. He rips my nylon pantyhose.

‘You’re tired, hey? I’ll show you tired!’

Alina does have Aunt Theresa to turn to. Of course Alina is banking on her aunt’s elevated position to help her in her troubles, but the aunt is also a great believer in superstitions, magic and Romanian folklore preferring to rely on them when attempting to advise Alina.

You’d think that the rain has come, a fearful storm, if you listened to the claps of the hands, the snap of fingers, the wooden spoons drumming into cauldrons, but the dust, this dry dust rises to my thighs, barely licking my belly, an indecent lover aroused by the fact that the entire village is watching us, singing:

Paparuda, ruda,

Vino de na uda-

And they sing faster, faster, faster, and my feet are spinning, and I have no power over them as I leap and jump…

Besides the relationship between Alina and Liviu, the other central focus of the novel is Alina’s relationship with her mother.

It’s a difficult relationship that causes great turmoil to Alina. The mother jumps at whatever chance she gets to berate Alina, and yet cannot do without her company. As the novel progresses, certain events develop which set Alina completely against her mother. And yet, when she decides to deal with the situation in a certain way, she is racked by feelings of tremendous guilt.

Will Alina and Liviu’s relationship survive these trials and tribulations? Will Alina and her mother make amends?

Bottled Goods is a wonderful story told in a unique style. The flash fiction format works very well and the author has used this medium to tell her tale in myriad ways. Sometimes, the narrative is in the first person – told by Alina, in other pieces the tale is told in the third person. Some other flash pieces comprise diary entries, lists, tables and Romanian folklore making for a wonderful reading experience.

The impact of folklore in the lives of Rumanian people is also dominant in the novel. Romanians are great believers – the older generation especially – in superstitions, and rituals, and even in the mysterious figure called Saint Friday.

There are a dozen of them in the clearing, ghostly silhouettes in their white skirts and shirts, with their embroidered vests and necklaces made of golden coins, or at least so it seems from the bush where Alina is hiding.

Forgotten are their dances, the hops, the swings in their hips, the circles they draw with their toes, their twirls and whirls. They gather in a circle and begin spinning, faster, faster, faster, until their very contours fade and the clearing seems an impressionistic picture of itself with the ghostly essence of the Sanziene slipping from them and imbibing the woods, the grass, the creek.

This suffuses the novel with an enchanting, fairy-tale like feel. In fact, in a major plot development, elements of magical realism are introduced but because of the force of the narrative and doses of folklore already sprinkled upon us earlier, it does not seem jarring, in fact it becomes quite believable.

In a way, all of this – the folklore, the magic realism – in their own way help in blunting the horror of Communism and Soviet rule, which probably in a straightforward narrative would have been hard to digest.

Disoriental – Négar Djavadi (tr. Tina Kover)

My parents lived the first couple of years of their married life in Iran, when my father bagged a plum posting there. They led a vibrant and dynamic life, fond memories of which they cherish even today. That posting and their life would have continued had it not been for the dramatic change of plans that Fate had in store for them.

As the winds of the Iranian Revolution began blowing harder, my parents like the rest of the ‘outsiders’ in the country were compelled to flee. Things came to such a head that when plans for the actual departure were put into action, my parents realized that the demand for airtickets had increased dramatically…meaning they had to grab whatever tickets they were able to lay their hands on.

That meant my parents would have to settle for tickets in different planes. In other words, they could not travel together, but had to do so separately. To add to the drama and the overall state of anxiety, my mother was pregnant with me at the time.

Having no choice, my parents went ahead with the plan. It was a wise decision. The next day, the airport in the country shut down.

My parents, travelling in different planes, landed safely and a few months later I was born.

Now, typically children are always interested in their parents’ story, and this particular one continues to fascinate me even today. It has consequently piqued my interest in literature which has been set in the country around that time.

Disoriental by the Iranian-French author Négar Djavadi fit the bill perfectly.

(Meanwhile, the author replied to me…Scroll down to the end of this post to see her response to my personal story…)

Disoriental
Europa Editions

Disoriental is an enthralling tale of an Iranian family spanning generations, touching on themes such as the consequences of revolution, adapting to a life in exile, and being comfortable with how different you are.

Our narrator is a young woman called Kimia Sadr, and in the first few pages itself we realize that she is in an unusual place, a fact which is not lost on her either. Kimia is in a fertility clinic in Paris carrying a tube containing sperms. But unlike the other people in the waiting room who are couples, Kimia is alone.

The time spent waiting in the clinic gives Kimia time to reflect on her past, a past that is rich and multilayered. Kimia’s roots are Iranian and she goes on to give an absorbing account of her sprawling, multidimensional family across generations based in Iran, her parents Darius and Sara and their revolutionary fervor, various political upheavals in Iran at the time, how Darius and Sara along with Kimia and her elder sisters migrated to Paris, and their life there trying to adjust.

When describing her family roots, Kimia goes back as far as her paternal great grandfather Montazemolmolk and his harem of 52 wives based in Mazandaran, Iran. His last wife dies in childbirth but not before giving birth to his daughter Nour, a child with blue eyes. The obsession with blue eyes is a feature that is carried on down the generations.

Nour has six sons, one of whom is Darius, Kimia’s father. We are then given glimpses of each of these sons, referred to as Uncles but numerically. Uncle Number Two features more often than not, a tragic figure who is very close to his mother Nour, and harbours a deep secret, which cannot come to the fore in Iranian society.

But the main focal points are Kimia’s parents Darius and Sara. Darius is a well-respected journalist, not afraid of putting forth his views against Iran’s political system. He is shown to be a rebel right at the outset. Unlike his brothers who believe in living a traditional life that involves marriage and children, Darius is the bookish, intelligent child, preferring a life that revolves around writing and reading. That is until he meets Sara, marrying her and going on to have three daughters – Leili, Mina and Kimia.

Iran is as much a character in this story as are the Sadrs. We know that Mossaddegh, the Prime Minister of Iran in the Fifties was deposed by the British and Americans to pave the way for the Shah, who proclaimed himself King. The atrocities against the Iranian people continued, sparking the flames of the Iranian revolution, and the ascent of the Ayatollah Khomeini. In some instances, the author Djavadi provides the historical and political accounts in footnotes, a strategy that works very well.

Darius is strongly opposed to both the political regimes – that of the Shah earlier, and Khomeini later – and Kimia highlights the consequences this has on the family. Darius is not alone in his rebellion though. Sara, a teacher while in Iran, proves to be an equal partner in their marriage, fiercely supporting her husband in his endeavors as well as writing her own account of that time.

If he, the black sheep of two horrendously rich families, raised among people who cared nothing for the future, crammed with book-learning, a doctor of philosophy from the Sorbonne, didn’t do it – didn’t tear down the Empire’s insolent red curtain to reveal the nauseating infection beneath – then who would?

In the midst of all this, Kimia gives a perspective on her own life – growing up in the Sadr family, her relationship with her sisters, her attempts to understand and bond with Darius, and her struggle trying understand her true self, trying to find a balance between her familial roots In Iran and the modern life she is now leading in Paris.

Coming from a traditional Iranian family, Kimia realizes she is different in an environment where uniqueness is not necessarily appreciated. She is trying to figure out who she is – her identity, her sexuality – whilst immersing herself at first in a lifestyle revolving around punk rock, drugs and junkies. All before she finds her partner with whom she wants to spend her life and also raise a child.

While Disoriental is a tale about family and rebellion, it is also a tale about exile. In their new life in Paris, Darius and Sara struggle to blend in with its people, finding it difficult to completely cut off ties with Iran, while Kimia’s sisters learn to adapt to a Parisian way of living in their own ways.

She (Sara) doubtlessly didn’t know who we were anymore, or what she had a right to expect from us, now that our promised land had turned out to be a road to nowhere. Our uprooting had turned us into strangers, not only to other people, but to one another. People always think hard times bring you closer together, but that’s not the case with exile. Survival is a very personal matter.

Disoriental, then, is a wonderfully and intelligently rendered tale. There is so much going on this novel…it’s a story about Iranian culture and a way of life simmering with rich flavours. In Kimia, the author Djavadi has created a strong raconteur whose voice is engaging and chatty immediately drawing the reader in. Her storytelling is not linear because Kimia chooses to go back and forth across time focusing on a particular topic rather than sticking strictly to a timeline…all building up to THE EVENT which is alluded to earlier on in the novel, but revealed only much later. But at no point did the narration feel loose or baggy, Kimia is well in command of the story she wants to tell.

All I know is that these pages won’t be linear.  Talking about the present means I have to go deep into the past, to cross borders and scale mountains and go back to that lake so enormous they call it a sea.  I have to let myself be guided by the flow of images and free associations, the natural fits and starts, the hollows and bumps carved into my memories by time. 

In terms of the writing, Djavadi’s prose is lush, passionate and immersive enabling the reader to get completely caught up in Kimia’s high-spirited personality and her heartbreaking and sensitive portrayal of her family and the slew of upheavals they have to grapple with.

Indeed, the novel raises the basic question of the challenges of displacement. In countries embroiled in war, immigrants flee to safer places looking to escape death and persecution and hope for a better standard of living. Those who manage to secure asylum have certainly crossed the first hurdle – they don’t have to worry about the possibility of death every day. But then steadily, the next hurdle has to be crossed – how to assimilate themselves in the society of the new country where they have sought refuge. It’s not always easy. Change is tough and challenging, and not everyone can successfully manage it.

In fact, Disoriental is an apt title for the novel signifying a clever play of words. It is a tale based in Iran, which is in the East, a region otherwise known as the Orient. But it also means how refugees or people in exile are disoriented by the displacement and the challenges of starting life afresh in a new country with a completely different culture. Dis-oriental could also mean shedding off your Eastern origins and embracing the Western way of living.

All in all, Disoriental is a vivid, pulsating novel and one I am unlikely to forget anytime soon. Highly recommended!

Translation credits from the French go to Tina Kover.

P.S.: This is one of those posts which has a personal touch – a story about my parents in a country they would have settled in (and where I would have been born) had Fate not decided otherwise.

I put this post up on Twitter, and here’s how the author Négar Djavadi responded…

Djavadi reply

Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys

I was first introduced to Jean Rhys’ writing when I read Wide Sargasso Sea, in college probably. The fact that it was marketed as a prequel to Jane Eyre (a novel I rate highly), greatly piqued my interest. To be honest, I don’t remember much about the book now other than the central premise it’s based on. I remember liking it at the time.

I had absolutely no clue then that she had a much stronger body of work published earlier. Those four novels – all stylistically similar – didn’t do well all those years ago, after which she fell into long spell of obscurity before Wide Sargasso Sea was published in her later life.

I don’t really recollect what got me started reading her earlier work a few years ago. It could be that her name always cropped up whenever Patrick Hamilton’s work was discussed. They do have the same type of protagonists – lonely characters seeking companionship in bars and drinks, although the writing styles are as different as chalk and cheese.

I had loved Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude and Hangover Square. And seeing that Jean Rhys’ earlier novels were more often than not clubbed with Patrick Hamilton’s work, that was probably the starting point of my foray into her earlier oeuvre.

Anyway, Jean Rhys has been a great find. And Good Morning, Midnight (title taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson) is a strong piece of work.

Good Morning Midnight 1

This is how the book opens…

‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’

There are two beds, a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for monsieur. It is a large room, the smell of cheap hotels faint, almost imperceptible. The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.

I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.

The narrator Sophia Jansen has come to Paris in what is her second stint in the city.

Sophia spends her days drinking in bars and cafes across the city. But she is afraid that if she drinks too much, will start crying, and that will not do.

She is paranoid about people judging her and talking behind her back. Maybe she is also imagining things?

These people all fling themselves at me. Because I am uneasy and sad they all fling themselves at me larger than life. But I can put my arm up to avoid the impact and they slide gently to the ground. Individualists, completely wrapped up in themselves, thank God. It’s the extrovert, prancing around, dying for a bit of fun – that’s the person you’ve got to be wary of.

At the very start of the novel is it apparent that Sophia is suffering from depression, but we don’t know why. One gets the feeling that she is at the end of her tether.

The hotel rooms she stays in are the same, nothing really to differentiate one from the other. And the days are also marked by a debilitating sameness, the tedium of which she tries to break by steadily drinking.

My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafes where they like me and cafes where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms I never shall be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.

Gradually, we are offered a glimpse into her past – her first stay in Paris, her marriage to a Dutchman called Enno, her brief return to London, only to visit Paris again.

As the focus shifts to her past, her fear of people, of being judged wrongly is present right from her youth as she flits between various jobs, which include being displayed as a mannequin. There is one extended scene in a clothing store where she is an assistant that is particularly heartbreaking – a conversation that she has with her superior’s boss Mr Blank, and her inability to perform a task given to her.

Mr Blank tells her to hand over an envelope to ‘the kis.’ But she is unable to find this person. She approaches Mr Blank again.

He takes the note from my hand. He looks at me as if I were a dog which had presented him with a very, very old bone, (Say something, say something…)

‘I couldn’t find him.’

‘But how do you mean you couldn’t find him? He must be there.’

‘I’m very sorry. I didn’t know where to find him.’

‘You don’t know where to find the cashier – the counting house?’

‘La caisse,’ Salvatini says – helpfully, but too late.

But if I tell him that it was the way he pronounced it thsat confused him, it will seem rude. Better not say anything…

There are some brief moments of happiness that she does find when she marries Enno, despite their day to day hurdles of eking out a life together in some European cities and eventually Paris.

As soon as I see him I know from his face that he’s got some money.

We go next door to a place called La Napolitaine and eat ravioli. Warming me. Eat slowly, make it last a long time.

I’ve never been so happy in my life. I’m alive, eating ravioli and drinking wine. I’ve escaped. A door has opened and let me out into the sun. What more do I want? Anything might happen.

But we also feel the inevitability of this marriage ending. Indeed, it is the break-up of her marriage and another tragedy related to it that nearly push Sophia over the edge.

Meanwhile, in the present, in the hours spent away drinking and harking back to memories, Sophia also seeks out the company of men (a couple of Russians and a gigolo). The men are of a certain type – they look to sidle up to her thinking she is moneyed.

Sophia is not ignorant. She is aware of this reality, of why these men put up with her. And yet she does not put an end to seeking their company.

As is the case with most of the Rhys books I have read, there is no plot. The writing feels very impressionistic, stream of consciousness style, as most of the time we are inside Sophia’s head or in and out of flashbacks.

There is also nothing linear about the narrative, her train of thought or her journeys into the past. The timeline does not play a role here, rather it is Sophia’s emotional state that does.

When describing this novel, I can’t help but draw parallels to any Impressionist painting. The brushstrokes are vivid but the picture as a whole at first is hazy. Until you move back a little, and it all becomes clear. Good Morning, Midnight felt the same way. It started off as a series of impressions of Sophia’s drinking and her fragile state of mind. But as we moved back a little and got a peek into her past, the whole picture started becoming clearer.

Interestingly, while Sophia’s existence is bleak, as a narrator she is not always so. She refuses to be pitied, and there is some sense of detachment when she looks back to her past, as if she is watching her journey to ruin from a distance. There are also some tragically funny passages where she chides herself for not keeping up appearances.

The keeping up of appearances in public is ironic. Earlier in her life, Sophia had already done a stint as a mannequin in a department store. That was just a job, but now she believes she must play that role in real life too. Basically, wear a mask (metaphorically speaking), so people can’t gauge her real emotions.

I watch my face gradually breaking up – cheeks puffing out, eyes getting smaller. Never mind.

Besides, it isn’t my face, this tortured and tormented mask. I can take it off whenever I like and hang it up on a nail. Or shall I place on it a tall hat with a green feather, hang a veil over the lot, and walk about the dark streets so merrily? Singing defiantly ‘You don’t like me, but I don’t like you either.’

How will it all end? Will Sophia’s endurance finally break or will things carry on as before?

Good Morning, Midnight is another strong offering from Jean Rhys’ oeuvre. Here is an excerpt from A.L. Kennedy’s excellent introduction to this novel:

Vivid fragments of sensory information swoop and lunge at the reader, establishing the rhythms of a bad drinking bout: one moment all docile clarity, the next a crush of sickened self-awareness, a lurch into the past, or a dreamscape, or a helpless re-examination of realities too dull and terrible to seem anything other than the products of a sick imagination.

Having now read most of her novels, I still rate Voyage in the Dark as her best, followed by this one. After Leaving Mr Mackenzie would be third. I still have Quartet to read but I don’t see it toppling the first two. Plus, I have an edition of her Collected Stories to get to.

But all of that will be after some time has passed by. Rhys is intense and can only be taken in small doses!

Good Morning Midnight 2
Penguin Modern Classics Edition

 

 

 

The German Room – Carla Maliandi (tr. Frances Riddle)

Last year, I read the rather brilliant Die, My Love, written by Ariana Harwicz and published by Charco Press, which specializes in releasing translated literature from Latin America. Die, My Love easily made it to my Top Books of 2018 list, and also made Charco Press, a publishing house to watch out for.

As a subscriber to Charco Press, I can’t wait to get my hands on Harwicz’ new novel – Feebleminded.

However, I still had a lot of Charco Press’ backlist to explore and a recent trip to Nice seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. Carla Maliandi’s The German Room is what I finally settled for and packed in my suitcase.

The German Room

If your current life – in a particular city with your friends and family – is giving you much heartache and cause for discontent, will moving to another city and starting afresh give you the peace of mind you so crave for?

This is the central theme at the heart of The German Room.

When the book opens our unnamed narrator is a woman who has suddenly run away from her life and personal troubles in Buenos Aires and taken the plane to Heidelberg, Germany.

Years earlier, looking for a safe haven, her parents had fled to Heidelberg to escape the crippling impact of dictatorship in Argentina, only to return home later.

To our narrator, therefore, Heidelberg – where she was born – seems like the natural choice to begin life anew.

On the plane I was dizzy with anxiety again. But this time I wasn’t afraid of it falling, I was afraid of landing safe and sound, not knowing what to do or why I was there. Going down with the plane would’ve have been easier than landing in Germany with my life in shambles, without having told anyone in Buenos Aires what I was doing.

However, it is not as easy as it seems.

Our narrator initially worries that language will be a hurdle. Subsequent events, however, will highlight that to be the least of her problems.

Despite not being a student, our narrator manages to secure a room in a hostel, although this is a temporary arrangement and she will eventually have to provide proof that she is studying for a course.

Feeling out of place in the hostel, our narrator manages to befriend a fellow Argentinian Miguel Javier who is from Tucuman, and later a Japanese woman called Shanice.

In the first few pages itself, it is revealed that our narrator is pregnant, a fact that Miguel Javier had already gauged from her symptoms of morning sickness.

Learning of her pregnancy, she seems ambivalent at best, her first choice being to terminate it. But not wanting to be judged by the doctor she visits, she decides not to abort. Although she has no clear plan of her prospects in the new city and how she intends to raise her child.

Meanwhile, our narrator has to grapple with a new acquaintance Mrs Takahashi, who visits the city with her husband, when her daughter Shanice commits suicide.

Mrs Takahashi is a strange, melancholic woman who is at odds with what is happening around her and insists on spending time with our narrator. In fact, the sections in the novel, which focus on Mrs Takahashi, are quite disconcerting and eerie. Did some part of Mrs Takahashi’s personality insinuate itself in her daughter Shanice pushing her to end her life?

Earlier, in a dream, Shanice warns our narrator:

‘Ask Feli.’

‘What? About my pregnancy?’

‘No, ask her about my mother…so she can warn you.’

‘Warn me about what?’

‘Warn you that my mother is full of a very dark sadness…and, ya know, that she can get inside you.’

And later the same point is conveyed to her by Feli through Miguel’s sister, Marta Paula…

‘The girl is dead but the mother is alive. The girl knew that the mother was dangerous.’

Post the tragedy surrounding her daughter, Mrs Takahashi refuses to go back to Japan and resume her life there, to move on. Instead, she prefers to stay put in Heidelberg seeking newer experiences.

We are also introduced to some more characters:

  • Mario, a professor at the university and also an acquaintance from her childhood in Heidelberg
  • Joseph, possibly Mario’s lover with whom our narrator has an affair, further complicating the situation, and
  • Miguel’s sister Marta Paula based in Buenos Aires, who our narrator has never met. However, through correspondence and telephone calls our narrator confides in Marta Paula, who in turn looks to give advice by consulting a clairvoyant Feli, much to Miguel’s chagrin.

All of these characters and strands come together to form a very compelling and gripping narrative.

Where the author Maliandi clearly excels is in creating an unsettling atmosphere, as well as in conveying the narrator’s sense of displacement and a deep urge to belong. We feel our narrator’s up-rootedness, making us uneasy as we watch her move forward with no direction. It is as if she is struggling to find her identity or herself, which also explains why she is not named throughout the novel.

Even if I course the whole world looking or a place to feel at home, I wouldn’t belong anywhere.

Even in her new relationships, she seems to take people for granted. Then, at one point in the novel, desperately looking to cut off ties with Mrs Takahashi, our narrator urges her to go back to her old life in Japan, which is ironic given that she, in a similar situation, is not willing to do the same.

And yet, it is difficult not to sympathize with our narrator, a testimony to Maliandi’s strong writing.

In a nutshell, The German Room touches upon the themes of escape, family, independence and belonging.

The blurb at the back of the novel reads:

This is a book for anyone who has ever dreamed of running away from it all, but wondered what they might do when they get there.

Does our narrator finally find her peace?

I thought this was a wonderful novel and another strong offering from Charco Press.

Translation credits go to Frances Riddle.

Vertigo & Ghost – Fiona Benson

My reading in all these years has always veered towards prose – be it novels, short stories, or memoirs. Poetry, somehow, has always seemed daunting. But in recent times, I have been taking a greater interest in poetry although I must admit, I am still testing waters here, and there is much to explore.

Fiona Benson’s newly released collection ‘Vertigo & Ghost’ caught my attention for a couple of reasons – it was receiving strong reviews, and well, I loved the cover (the image is of Aphrodite crying).

And I thought the collection lived up to all the hype; it was brutal and bracing all at once. I loved it.

Vertigo Ghost

Vertigo & Ghost begins with the first poem ‘Ace of Bass’ and it is one of the most beautiful evocations of sexual awakening that I have read…

That was the summer

hormones poured into me

like an incredible chemical cocktail

into a tall iced glass, my teenage heart

a glossy, maraschino cherry

bobbing on top as that rainbow

shimmered through me, lighting me up

like a fish, and I was drunk,

obsessed, desperate to be touched,

colour streaming from my iridescent body

But little does it prepare you for what is about to come next. From a summer where teenage girls are hopeful for love, we are suddenly transported to a prison cell, where a woman is separated from her abuser by a glass partition.

days I talked with Zeus

I ate only ice

felt the blood trouble and burn

under my skin

 

found blisters

on the soft parts

of my body

 

bullet-proof glass

and a speaker-phone between us

and still I wasn’t safe

The abuser is none other than the god of gods in Greek mythology – Zeus.

This is Part One of the poetry collection, and Benson’s writing is furious, raw, visceral and unlike anything I have ever read. The poems surge along at a frenetic pace, terrifying but gorgeously expressed.

Zeus here is a serial rapist, unable to control his urges, wanting to exert his power over women and little girls.

The women that Zeus terrorizes take on many forms – they are either nymphs or goddesses or mortals.

Out beyond the pale there’s no straight course,

just waterlogged fields and Daphne’s hectic

blurts of speed. She’s at the edge of her wits,

retching with fear, and he is everywhere,

stumbling her up

Not all the poems are from the point of view of the women. Sometimes, Zeus also does the talking, about his conquests and his incarceration. Benson displays this in CAPS, possibly because of how Zeus perceives himself – the ruler of gods and men, egoistic and important.

NO FUN

THIS ANKLEBAND

TAZERS ME

EVERY TIME

I BRUSH THE BOUNDS

AND YET IT IS

SHALL WE SAY

EROTIC?

ITS SUDDEN CURSE

ITS THRILL

Ultimately, the poems in this section convey the fear as well as the anger and rage of women – of being objects for men, who think they can control and abuse them.

I came to understand

rape is cultural,

pervasive;

that in this world

 

the woman is blamed

These are themes that are very prevalent in today’s times and Benson’s form of expression in this regard is unique.

If Part One of this poetry collection was literally ‘fast and furious’, in Part Two, the pace considerably slows down and is more reflective and meditative. But without losing any power.

This second section deals with the themes of depression, nature and the first stages of motherhood – especially the fear and anxiety of being a new mother.

There is a flow to how the poems are presented. The first few poems are about nature, birds and insects, the elements of the earth. And then, they ease into the phenomenon of giving birth, into motherhood.

The poem ‘Ruins’ is about the physical changes that a women’s body goes through post childbirth.

Here’s my body

in the bath, all the skin’s

inflamed trenches

and lost dominions,

‘Daughter Drowning’ explores the fear that grips a mother when she has a newborn baby to look after, how the elder child longs for her mother’s attention, which of late has been diverted increasingly towards the newly born child.

I plunged through the shallows and caught her up;

she was spouting like a gargoyle,

spluttering and weeping, clinging to my neck.

Now she’s trying to get me to look,

and I almost can’t do it, some weird switch flipped

that means I watch the new-born like a hawk

afraid she’ll forget to breathe…

There is a considerable difference in the tone and pacing of the poems in both the sections…In Part One, the poems are shorter, like staccato beats, the urgency leaping off the pages. In Part Two, the poems are longer, the lines are flowing, and the nature of these pieces is more inward-looking and contemplative.

But ultimately, there is a common thread that runs through both these sets of poems – the fears and anxieties that most women have to grapple with in today’s modern world.

Fiona Benson is definitely a poet to watch out for.

 

Good Behaviour – Molly Keane

My fascination with early 20th century women writers continues.

Just last week, I wrote about The Great Fortune, the first book in Olivia Manning’s stellar The Balkan Trilogy.

Earlier this year, I had also loved The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark, The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer and The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter.

And now Molly Keane joins this strong list as another wonderful discovery with her novel Good Behaviour.

Good Behaviour frontispiece
Frontispiece in the Folio Society Edition

Good Behaviour is narrated in the first person by Aroon St Charles, the main protagonist in the novel. When the book opens, Aroon is fifty seven and is living with her aged mother and their housemaid cum cook Rose in Gulls’ Cry, a gothic house built on the edge of a cliff.

In the starting chapter, it is hinted that Aroon has been dominating over the household – especially her mother and Rose – making life difficult for them. Or so Rose implies. And then a dramatic event happens but in such an understated way that it sets the tone for the events leading up to this moment.

After the first chapter, the rest of the novel goes back several years when Aroon is a child living in the estate called Temple Alice in the Irish countryside with her younger brother Hubert and her parents.

Aroon’s father is a gentleman, extroverted, who loves horses and manages the affairs of the estate. That said, despite the affection he has for his wife, he is prone to drinking and having extra-marital affairs, which Aroon’s mother strangely does not mind too much.

Aroon’s mother is just the opposite. She cherishes the intimate moments with her husband, but does not care much for running the household or looking after her children. She is largely withdrawn, preferring to lose herself in her hobbies – painting, gardening and even collecting antique furniture.

It is no surprise then that Aroon grows to love her father more, as her mother remains cold and indifferent towards her.

This brings us to Aroon herself. Throughout the novel Aroon is always at the fringes, longing to belong, to be included, to be loved. With no hope for affection from her mother, Aroon becomes greatly attached to her brother Hubert and their father, who, in fragmentary moments, does display kindness towards her.

It is a family that prides itself on manners and insists on ‘good behaviour’, where feelings and emotions are hidden, and not explicitly stated. As a result, when it comes to relationships, all of them in some form or the other come across as emotionally stunted.

Our good behaviour went on and on, endless as the days. No one spoke of the pain we were sharing. Our discretion was almost complete. Although they feared to speak, Papa and Mummie spent more time together; but, far from comforting, they seemed to freeze each other deeper in misery.

We are also, earlier, introduced to Mrs Brock, governess for Aroon and Hubert when they were children. Mrs Brock is more generous and expressive and naturally Aroon comes to love her as well. Through Mrs Brock, the details of her earlier stint as a governess are revealed to us. This is at the home of Captain Massingham and his wife Lady Grizel, where we are also introduced to their eldest son Richard.

Many years later, at one time, Richard comes to stay with the St Charles family during the holidays, and Aroon falls in love with him. But it becomes obvious that Richard mostly does not harbor the same feelings towards her.

This is just the broader outline of the novel.

What makes the novel so brilliant is that it is such a multi-layered work. Desire and secrets abound in the St Charles family, but its members do not believe in openness and frank discussion. This is conveyed by Keane in prose that is subtle, elegant and understated – much in line with how the family believes things should be; that keeping up appearances is what matters at all costs.

Major events such as suicide, death, which take place over the years and over the course of the novel, are brushed under the carpet, as there’s too much awkwardness in openly discussing these episodes and coming to terms with them.

The family also lives in a world of its own, choosing to eschew reality when it comes to finances and other household matters. The world of aristocrats and country estates is slowly fading away across Ireland and England, but the St Charles family pretends it has nothing to do with them. Their decadent household rots, the debts keep piling up, but all of this seems too much of an inconvenience to deal with.

Good Behaviour illustration
An Illustration from the FS Edition…Aroon and Her Father Having Tea with the Crowhurst Girls

In the midst of all this, Aroon stands out as a woman who is incredibly naïve and yet strangely compelling. Her physical attributes – she is big and ungainly – only amplifies her awkwardness.

Her naiveté becomes all the more apparent in her inability to grasp any deeper meaning in the way her dysfunctional family behaves. Hints or the significance of things she has seen pass her by. She is largely consumed by loneliness and it’s her desperation to be loved that takes the centrestage for her.

I stood for a moment waiting for Papa to say a word in my praise or favour. I stood there stupidly, betrayed in his silence. I saw her looking up at him, with something else to say.

I turned away, my loneliness walking with me, taller than my own height as a shadow is tall – and irremediable as my height was.

There are some brilliant set pieces that are peppered throughout the novel, and there is one towards the end, when Aroon is invited to a ball, that is particularly poignant. Here, Aroon’s isolation in the midst of company is so pronounced that it’s heartbreaking.

All of this makes Good Behaviour akin to a dark, delicious cake – it is rich, intriguing, wonderfully spiced and layered with dollops of hidden meanings. Molly Keane’s writing is superb and the narrative never sags. It had me riveted throughout.

Jane Gardam, in her introduction to this novel, writes that Good Behaviour is considered to be Molly Keane’s tour de force, and was written in 1981 when she was 77 years old.

Here’s another fact that Gardam throws light on…

What is so interesting is that Good Behaviour was turned down flat by two publishers because it was ‘too dark’ even in a time when ‘darkness’ was in fashion. In other words it was contemporarily realistic and had stepped away from the notion of romantic, lovely, comical Ireland. It is a hunting, shooting and fishing book but the great houses are crumbling and there is every kind of physical and moral decay. 

All in all, Molly Keane has turned out to be another terrific writer whose back catalogue I certainly intend to sample and savour in the coming months.

Good Behaviour cover
Folio Society Hardcover Edition

 

Slow Days, Fast Company – Eve Babitz

It’s always great to discover a superb author whom you have never heard of before, let alone read his/her work, and thanks to NYRB Classics, Eve Babitz is one of them.

While I did have her book Eve’s Hollywood, I never got around to reading her…and in a busy month when I was scouring my shelves for something shorter, Slow Days, Fast Company seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

What a stellar read it turned out to be.

Slow Days Fast Company
NYRB Classics Edition

Slow Days, Fast Company is a wonderful collection of pieces in which Eve Babitz makes L.A. and Hollywood come alive in a writing style that is conversational and witty.

I can’t get a thread to go through to the end and make a straightforward novel. I can’t keep everything in my lap, or stop rising flurries of sudden blind meaning,. But perhaps if the details are all put together, a certain pulse and sense of place will emerge, and the integrity of empty space with occasional figures in the landscape can be understood at leisure and in full, no matter how fast the company.

Eve Babitz was a firm fixture in the L.A. circuit. But her flamboyant lifestyle, her string of lovers and the fact that she played chess nude with Marcel Duchamp lent her a notoriety that unfortunately overshadowed her work as a strong writer. As a result, her books probably remained relatively unknown for the most part of her life, although the recent reissue of her work has led to a revival of sorts.

The book begins with Babitz’ musings on L.A, a city she clearly loves and which has gotten under her skin.

Los Angeles isn’t a city. It’s a gigantic, sprawling, ongoing studio. Everything is off the record.

From thereon, Babitz touches upon topics as wide ranging as her one trip to Bakersfield, her relationships with both men and women, the price of success that women have to deal with, the complexities of Californian weather – the rain and the Santa Ana wind, and a weekend in Palm Springs gone wrong.

In ‘Bakersfield’, Babitz tastes food that is hearty and wholesome so different from the diets and food fads that dominate Hollywood.

There are three main Basque restaurants in Bakersfield that I’ve heard of: The Nyreaga, The White Bear, and The Pyrenees.

The forty of us from the party went to The White Bear and thirty-nine of us were prepared for what happened next. I was not.

In ‘The Flimsies’, her wit shines when she starts going around with an actor who seems perfect until he reads the outline of a future script and realizes he is going to be permanently disabled.

I don’t really know if it was the flimsies or the dinner but I’ve often noticed that there is a moment when a man develops enough confidence and ease in a relationship to bore you to death.

I have found that what usually brings this lethargy on is if the woman displays some special kindness. Like making dinner.

In one of my favourite chapters ‘Heroine’, Babitz dwells on the success of women and how they are not prepared for it. Janis Joplin is a perfect example of a successful artist who made her mark in music only to overdose on drugs later. What is it that made her so disillusioned?

Women are prepared to suffer for love; it’s written into their birth certificates. Women are not prepared to have ‘everything’, not success-type ‘everything.’ I mean not when the ‘everything’ isn’t about living happily ever after with the prince.

Babitz is also at the height of her descriptive powers when it comes to the brutal Santa Ana wind. She states that Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion both regarded the Santa Anas as some powerful evil, while on the other hand, Babitz ‘put on her dancing spirits.’

From earliest childhood I have rejoiced over the Santa Ana winds. My sister and I used to run outside and dance under the stars on our cool front lawn and laugh manically and sing…imagining we could be taken up into the sky on broomsticks.

Once, when I was fifteen, I walked for an entire afternoon along the empty cement in 110 degrees of hot dry winds just to get the feel of them, alone. Everyone else was hiding inside.

I know those winds the way Eskimos know their snows.

In some of the later chapters, the character Shawn becomes a regular feature whom Babitz begins to love. Shawn is bisexual and in one particular chapter called ‘Sirocco’ when L.A is blazing and badly in need of rain, Babitz falls into Shawn’s arms when a relationship with her former lover goes sour.

The thing is now that when I’m with Shawn I don’t even care if there’s some grandiose carnival in the sky I might be missing. Just think, if we didn’t have Santa Anas, how straight we’d all be. Like the patterns of those searchlights outside the Blue Champagne. 

Babitz also excels at describing people especially when bringing to the fore how shallow they are.

In a chapter called ‘Emerald Bay’, here’s how she paints the personality of a hostess Beth Nanville…

She had the same untouchable hair, the same bright-pink lipstick, the same terrible vague look around her eyes that got more confused when she was told that not only was I Shawn’s girlfriend (she knew Shawn was gay, and how could he be with me if he was gay?) but I was also a writer.

Slow Days, Fast Company is fabulous and simmers with hedonistic qualities. It would have been easy to dismiss this book as another vapid attempt at writing from a personality in the show business but that would have been doing Babitz a great disservice.

While there is an easy going, gossipy feel to the book, Babitz comes across as spunky, witty and worldly, a woman who understands the trappings of her milieu, and is frank about it.

There’s a perceptive trait in Babitz’ writing – it’s a book filled with astute observations and immensely quotable lines and paragraphs – that reminded me a lot of Lucia Berlin who I rate very highly.

I absolutely loved this work and definitely intend to explore more of her books.

The Great Fortune (Vol. 1 of The Balkan Trilogy) – Olivia Manning

I began this year reading novels by British women writers of the early 20th century. Olivia Manning was an author I had been meaning to read for some time. I dithered over whether I should commit to her two trilogies (Balkan and Levant) or opt for her standalone novels. Since her trilogies have gotten such rave reviews, it finally seemed like a no-brainer, and what a tremendous decision that turned out to be.

Balkkan Trilogy
NYRB Classics Edition

The blurb of the NYRB Classics edition states thus:

The Balkan Trilogy is the story of a marriage and of a war, a vast, teeming and complex masterpiece in which Olivia manning brings the uncertainty and adventure of civilian existence under political and military siege to vibrant life.

And what an incredible story it is.

The focus of this review is on the first book in the trilogy – The Great Fortune.

When the book opens, it is 1939, a few weeks after Germany has invaded Poland and England has declared war on Germany. Guy Pringle and his wife Harriet are on their way to Bucharest in Romania, where Guy is to resume his position as a lecturer in the university.

Guy and Harriet are newlyweds but could not be more different. Guy is gregarious, loves being surrounded by people and can easily befriend anyone. Harriet is introverted and does not crave company as much as Guy does.

As it was, she had, in all innocence, been prepared to possess him and to be possessed, to envelop and to be enveloped, in a relationship that excluded the enemy world. She soon discovered that Guy was not playing his part. Through him, the world was not only admitted, it was welcomed; and, somehow, when he approached it, the enmity was no longer there.

Once in Romania, we are introduced to more characters in the English expat community. There is Professor Inchcape to whom Guy reports. Another one is Clarence Lawson who has been sent there by the British Council, and who takes an interest in Harriet.

And then there’s Prince Yakimov, a faded aristocrat, who having been part of a wealthy and elite social circle in those glory days, is now reduced to near poverty.

That’s the first thing that you notice in The Great Fortune. It’s a book that teems with people, some important like the ones mentioned above, others not so.

There are essentially two elements in this first novel that Olivia Manning expertly brings to life.

The first is the city of Bucharest in an environment where invasion and impending war always seems close at hand and yet far.

There is a superb set piece in the novel where Guy and Harriet are invited for lunch to the sumptuous home of a wealthy Jewish family headed by Emanuel Drucker, a banker. Drucker’s son Sasha is Guy’s pupil.

It’s particularly striking for the misguided sense of security that Drucker and his family feel; the certainty with which they convey that war will not touch them, when the very nature of war means heightened uncertainty. Large part of this false hope comes from the belief that wealth and important connections will protect them.

In a conciliatory way, Guy said: “They say there will be financial collapse in Germany soon. That might shorten the war.” He looked round for applause and met only shocked alarm.

Doamna Flohr, moving anxiously in her seat, cried: “It would be terrible, such a collapse! It would ruin us.”

Drucker, lifting his head tortoise-fashion out of his silence, said: “That is a rumour put around by the British. There will be no collapse.” This firm assurance brought immediate calm.

Drucker, noticing her (Harriet’s) look, said quietly: “It is true our business is much dependent on German prosperity. But we made our connections long ago. We do not love the Germans any more than you, but we did not cause the war. We must live.”

Doamna Hassolel broke in aggressively. “A banker,” she said, “upholds the existing order. He is an important man. He has the country behind him.”

“Supposing the order ceases to exist?” said Harriet. “Supposing the Nazis come here?”

It’s not just the Druckers.

The people of Romania are aware of Germany’s advance as it captures territories in Europe but somehow feel it has nothing to do with them, that they will be spared.

The citizens of Bucharest, cooped up in cafes, watching the downpour, passed round rumours of invasion. A reconnaissance plane was said to have sighted troops crossing the Dniester. Refugees were streaming towards the Pruth. Detailed descriptions were given of atrocities committed by Russian troops on Rumanian and German minorities. People went fearful to bed and rose to find everything much as they had left it. The rumours of yesterday were denied, but repeated the day after.

The second element that Manning wonderfully conveys is the story of Guy and Harriet’s marriage.

Guy’s readiness to befriend anyone and constantly seek company shocks and unsettles Harriet as she struggles to adapt to her new life. She also has other challenges to deal with. There’s the Romanian beauty Sophie, who has designs on marrying Guy and securing a British passport, and thus resents Harriet. And then there is Clarence, Guy’s colleague, who is interested in Harriet, and whose expectations Harriet must manage.

Because of the estrangement, she saw him (Guy) newly again: a comfortable-looking man of an unharming largeness of body and mind. His size gave her an illusion of security – for it was, she was coming to believe, no more than an illusion. He was one of those harbours that prove to be too shallow: there was no getting into it. For him, personal relationships were incidental. His fulfillment came from the outside world.

Clarence, meanwhile, had been talking to her….As he stared at her, resentful of her inattention, she knew he was one who, given a chance, would shut her off into a private world. What was it they both wanted? Exclusive attention, no doubt: the attention each had missed in childhood. Perversely, she did not want it now it was offered. She was drawn to Guy’s gregarious good humour and the open world about him.

To this reader, Harriet came across as an intelligent, spiky woman capable of standing up on her own with flaws that seemed acceptable considering what she had to put up with.

Guy, on the other hand, came across as infuriating most of the time. While he is shown to be a generous man with principles and a ready willingness to help anyone who asks for it, he fails as a husband to Harriet, taking the marriage for granted, and not really making an attempt to understand her needs, and being there for her when she wants him to.

Manning has also created a wonderful and original character in Prince Yakimov. After a wealthy and easy life pre-war teeming with soirees and friends, he is now reduced to a state where his sole expensive possession – his sable coat – is gradually wearing and fading just as his fortunes are. Yakimov is also constantly in need of money to whet his craving for rich food. He thinks nothing of borrowing money from whoever is willing to lend it to him and not repaying it in time, citing delay in getting his remittance.

Meanwhile, there is a lot that happens in the novel – the Romanian Prime Minister is assassinated, the fate of the Drucker family is sealed, Bucharest struggles in an unusually freezing winter, and Guy Pringle stages a play in the finale of this book.

In the winter section of the novel, Manning’s language brims with lush imagery and the sleigh-ride that Harriet takes with Guy and Clarence over the icy landscape particularly stands out.

They slid down the bank to the lake, that was a plate of ice sunk into the billowing fields, and the wind howled over their heads.

“Lovely, lovely,” Harriet tried to shout, but she was scarcely able to breathe. Her ears sang, her eyes streamed, her hands and her feet ached. Her cheeks were turned to ice.

Overall, The Great Fortune (the first volume in The Balkan Trilogy) is a rich, riveting and absorbing story of everyday life as the likelihood of invasion looms large. Manning’s creation of atmosphere – the growing uncertainty and dread – in a country on the brink of war is spot on.

She also does a wonderful job evoking café life where both the local Romanians and the well-to-do British expat community gather to discuss politics and the possibility of war reaching them and to dissect rumours, denying or accepting them. It particularly reminded me of my parents’ stories, of the life they led in Tehran, Iran as newlyweds among similar expats, and how they frequently gathered in cafes to discuss the political situation in Iran and the ever present threat of the Iranian Revolution.

As I write this piece, I have already read the next two volumes in The Balkan Trilogy and I can tell you that it only gets better.

The Great Fortune
Random House Edition

The Driver’s Seat – Muriel Spark

It’s only January and I have already devoured three Muriel Spark novels. I had already posted my thoughts on the rather wonderful Memento Mori, and I have yet to write about The Girls of Slender Means, which was brilliant and lived up to all the hype.

The Driver’s Seat is my third Spark novel this month.

the driver's seat

Of the three, The Driver’s Seat is the weirdest, strangest and the most riveting.

When the book opens, the main character Lise is at a department store trying on a new dress that she is looking to purchase for her vacation. Within a few lines on the opening page itself, we are made aware of Lise’s bizarre behavior when she starts tearing at the dress, impatient to get it off her body.

What sets off this reaction is a comment by the salesgirl that it is an outfit made from a fabric that cannot be stained. Lise is insulted that the salesgirl should even try to sell such a dress to her.

Why is Lise interested in a dress on which stains are easily seen?

Lise’s intention to not conform is once again on display in another shop where she finally purchases a dress with bright, garish colours and a coat which does not go with it at all.

Subsequently, some hints about Lise are doled out to us.

Lise is thin. Her height is about five-foot-six. Her hair is pale brown, probably tinted, a very light streaked lock sweeping from the middle of her hair-line to the top of her crown; her hair is cut short at the sides and back, and is styled high. She might be as young as twenty-nine or as old as thirty-six, but hardly younger, hardly older.

That’s about it. Also, we learn that she has been working at an accountant’s office ‘continually, except for the months of illness, since she was eighteen, that is to say, for sixteen years and some months.’

When her immediate supervisor urges her to go on a much needed vacation, Lise’s reaction once again gives an inkling that all is not possibly well with her from a psychological point of view.

Then she began to laugh hysterically. She finished laughing and started crying all in a flood, while a flurry at the other desks, the jerky backward movements of her little fat supervisor, conveyed to her that she had done again what she had not done for five years.

Lise dons on her brightly coloured and highly mismatched outfit and goes for her vacation to the South, which is never explicitly stated but could possibly be Italy.

Those bright colours ensure that she is never unnoticed as people stare at her wherever she goes. Maybe, that was her intention, that she leaves a mark on people’s minds?

More of Lise’s odd traits start spilling out. We never learn about her nationality and her claim that she can speak four languages seems dubious. Clearly, she is prone to lying.

We now come to that part of the novel (and this is pretty early on actually), where I believe the less said the better.

Indeed, in the first paragraph of Chapter 3, Lise’s fate is revealed to us, but because I delved into this novel having no clue what to expect, I was quite taken aback.

The next paragraph is also significant because it gives an idea of how Spark has turned everything on its head, a development that gives much food for thought after one has completed the book.

Crossing the tarmac to the plane Lise follows, with her quite long stride, closely on the heels of the fellow-passenger whom she appears finally to have chosen to adhere to. This is a rosy-faced, sturdy young man of about thirty; he is dressed in a dark business suit and carries a black brief-case. She follows him purposefully, careful to block the path of any other traveller whose aimless hurry might intervene between Lise and this man.

Why has Lise chosen to adhere to this man? Does she know him?

The development in Chapter 3 pretty much influences how you perceive the rest of the novel because we know what happens, but not the ‘how’ or more importantly, the ‘why?’

Meanwhile, Lise’s contrary and indefinable actions continue even when she reaches her vacation destination.

For starters, she appears to be on some sort of a quest to find her ‘boyfriend’. When she is asked whether there is a young man in her life, Lise responds thus:

‘Yes, I have my boy-friend!’

‘He’s not with you, then?’

‘No. I’m going to find him. He’s waiting for me.’

The response is a strange one. She is not trying to convey that she hopes to find a man at some point in her life, but that she is literally looking to find the man by the end of the day possibly. However, whatever men she meets, she writes them off as ‘not my type’, a refrain that is peppered throughout the novel.

What ‘type’ is she exactly searching for?

All of this clearly shows that Lise’s mind is unhinged. But is it? Because Spark also gives us hints along the way that Lise seems to have planned it all.

It is in this aspect that Spark refuses to pander to the reader’s expectations. We are constantly wondering why is Lise doing what she does, what is her motive? Spark doesn’t provide any.

Spark, sometimes, meticulously describes Lise’s actions – there is one section in the novel where Lise is in the hotel bathroom, taking out her purchases from her zipper bag, examining them and putting them back in – but Spark does not attempt to examine or even explain what exactly is going on in Lise’s head.

This is also where once again the ingenuity of Spark’s title for the novel is on display.

Who really is in the driver’s seat here? Is it Lise, who despite her heightened oddity, plots how she wants her fate to pan out? Is it Muriel Spark who controls the narrative and refuses to stick to the convention of the genre? Or, is it a literal meaning where Lise is actually in the driver’s seat as the novel reaches its conclusion?

In my new Polygon edition, The Driver’s Seat is a short novel at barely 90 pages, which can be read in a single afternoon. It is a lean, sharp, precise, brilliantly written book with not a single word wasted – all trademarks of a good Muriel Spark novel. Spark has painted a world that is alienated and only amplifies Lise’s heightened sense of isolation making her seem ‘unreal’ but in a compelling way.

It is very difficult to use the word ‘love’ when describing one’s response to the book because it just does not come across as an apt word.

It would be more appropriate to say that this is a superb and ultimately rather unforgettable novel that will be hard to dislodge from the mind.

Andrew O’ Hagan, in the introduction, writes:

The Driver’s Seat is a brilliant manipulation of our expectations, a glass of malt whisky in the middle of a fever, a hallucinogenic journey into moral doubt.

It’s hardly surprising then that Spark labeled it as her favourite of the 22 novels she wrote.