Act of Passion – Georges Simenon (tr. Louise Varese)

Last year, I decided to foray into Georges Simenon’s oeuvre. But rather than dig into the Inspector Maigret novels, which made him famous, I opted for his darker novels or romans durs, which had a psychological edge to them and were therefore richer.

The first one that I read was The Blue Room, which was excellent. Consequently, I made a note of reading more by him.

This time I zeroed in on Act of Passion published by the ever fabulous NYRB Classics. Incidentally, this novel was first published in French in 1947 as Lettre a Mon Juge, the literal translation being Letter to My Judge.

Act of Passion
NYRB Classics Edition

Act of Passion is a dark, psychological tale of buried passions and murder as the protagonist struggles to come to grips with his demons.

The man here is the protagonist Dr Charles Alavoine. The entire novel is in the form of a long letter that Alavoine composes while in prison. At the outset we know that Alavoine has committed a crime – a murder – a trial for which has already taken place.

So this novel is not really a question of who committed the crime, but rather what the motives were for Alavoine to commit the crime in the first place. It is more of a character study.

Act of Passion is narrated in the first person, by Charles Alavoine. When the book opens, Alavoine is writing to the magistrate Monsieur Comeliau. This is the magistrate who was in touch with Alavoine during the questioning sessions before the trial eventually begun. Alavoine chooses to write to him simply because he is quite confident that the magistrate will understand his motives, and somehow find it in himself to forgive Alavoine. Mind you, he does not expect the magistrate to exonerate him, because Alavoine unconditionally accepts his guilt.

You are afraid of yourself, of a certain frenzy which might take possession of you, afraid of the disgust that you feel growing in you with the slow and inexorable growth of a disease.

We are almost identical men, your Honour.

Alavoine also strongly believes that for the magistrate to really understand why he committed the crime, it was essential first for him to know more about Alavoine as a person.

And that is how gradually we begin to get an inkling of Alavoine’s personality.

Charles Alavoine is the son of a reasonably well to do peasant farmer who marries one of the Lanoue girls (Charles’ mother). It gradually emerges that his father drank too much, and getting a glimpse of the emptiness of his life, finally commits suicide.

Charles, meanwhile, grows up to become a doctor (a doctor or a priest are the two professions his mother would have preferred anyway). It becomes apparent that the mother in some way has exerted control over Charles life, and he has felt no reason to contradict her. And yet, her it is not a form of control that is obvious or in your face, it’s rather subtle.

In fact, we are introduced to Charles’ mother at his trial, where she is extremely nervous and embarrassed and worried about disgracing her son.

Here’s how Charles chooses to give some idea of his mother’s status in the overall scheme of things…

With my first wife, who was not a very good housekeeper, who was what they call at home a ‘lump of dough’, my mother remained the mistress of the house.

With Armande, things changed, that was all, because Armande has a stronger personality and very decided tastes of her own. When a woman of sixty is suddenly deprived of her occupations, can no longer give orders to the servants, can no longer fuss over the meals and the children, it is exceedingly painful for her.

Armande is Charles’ second wife. But before that we learn that Charles was married to a young woman Jeanne who bore him two daughters, and died on the birth of her second daughter. It was clearly the union of an inexperienced couple. Charles marries his first wife without really knowing her or even asking himself if he loved her. He marries her because that is what men his age did after they were more or less settled in their careers.

Charles’ marriage to Armande (his second wife) is also neither a product of love, nor any kind of passion. Armande is portrayed as a cool, dignified woman with sufficient presence of mind, who instills herself in the Alavoine household and comes to control it. It becomes inevitable to both Charles and his mother that Armande will become Charles’ wife.

Armande is shown to be a true model wife who efficiently runs the house, looks after Charles’ daughters, and slowly also has a say in Charles’ practice as a doctor. It appears to be a model of the ‘perfect’ family – Charles has a successful career, he and Armande host bridge parties, and they go on vacation with the daughters.

And while Charles through all his life has passively accepted the fate that Life has doled out to him, gradually but surely begins to feel an emptiness creeping upon him. He feels he is losing his sense of self, or maybe he never had a self in the first place.

You walk along the pavement flooded with sunlight and your shadow walks along with you almost at your side; you can see it broken in two by the angle formed by the white-walled houses and the pavement.

All at once, this shadow accompanying you disappears…

It doesn’t change its position. It doesn’t pass behind you because you have changed your direction. I mean, it just disappears.

You begin to feel yourself all over. Your body has the same consistency as on any other day. You take a few quick steps and you stop short, hoping to find your shadow again. You run. Still it is not there.

You are not dreaming. You have no shadow and, seized with anguish…

It is then that on one of his doctor’s trips to Nantes, he meets Martine. Martine is a woman, down on luck, a drifter, prone to sipping cocktails in bars, and then sleeping with men. She is neither sophisticated nor beautiful but is rather quite ordinary, and this is paradoxically what makes her extraordinary to Charles. He realizes that there is an air of innocence about her that she tries hard to mask. They end up having passionate sex in a cheap hotel room.

It is from hereon that things begin to get difficult for Charles. He can’t bear being away from her. And yet, when he is with her, he is tormented by images of the ‘other’ Martine, the one who is at the beck and call of men, and this drives him into a rage. Slowly but surely, Charles’ downfall begins…

Act of Passion then, on one level, is an examination of existential angst, and on another level is a character study of an obsessed man. Charles time and again talks about love in his letter to the judge, his love for Martine and vice versa. But while it is easy to believe that he indeed does love her, it also points out to his inexperience in terms of what healthy, loving relationships are really like.

And while the reader can sympathize with Charles and why this extra marital affair made him feel alive, bringing him out of his dull existence, we are never entirely sure what Martine really feels about it, because this account is ultimately Charles’ point of view.

Roger Ebert in this introduction for the NYRB Classics edition sums up Charles’ personality very well:

Alavoine in turn depicts himself as an ordinary doctor, a man of fixed routines, a man who submits to the supervision and scrutiny of a mother and a second wife who is like a mother, a man to whom no one could object, and in whom few could take an interest. He is a man who has reached middle age having only once done anything which gave him a sharp sense of self.

Georges Simenon can clearly write and while we will never know if the magistrate ever understood Charles’ motives from the letter addressed to him, he did a brilliant job of just about evoking sympathy of this reader, and I stress ‘just about.’

Basically, this is another wonderfully penned and fascinating romans durs from Simenon and ably translated by Louise Varese. On deeper reflection, I preferred Act of Passion to The Blue Room (and The Blue Room is very, very good).

Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz (tr. Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

When it comes to translated literature, independent publisher Charco Press is the new kid on the block. But if the quality output it has churned out so far is anything to go by, one can safely say it is a publishing house worth watching out for.

Charco Press’ mission? To find outstanding contemporary Latin American literature and bring it to new readers in the English-speaking world.

And with this, I decided to try out one of their earlier releases – Die, My Love. This novel has already garnered rave reviews and shortlisted for book prizes and I am only happy to add to the praise.

So here goes…

Die, My Love
Charco Press Edition

Just like the eye-catching title Die, My Love is a raw, visceral tale of a woman struggling to adapt to motherhood and instead yearning for freedom.

But first, if you look at the author profile on the flap of the book, this is what it says:

Compared to Nathalie Sarraute and Virginia Woolf, Ariana Harwicz is one of the most radical figures in contemporary Argentinian literature. Her prose is characterized by its violence, eroticism, irony and criticism of the clichés surrounding the notions of the family and conventional relationships.

It is apparent in this novel too; from the opening lines which hit you right in the gut…

I lay back in the grass among fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular. Behind me, against the backdrop of a house somewhere between dilapidated and homely, I could hear the voices of my son and my husband. Both of them naked. Both of them splashing around in the blue paddling pool…I was a few steps away, hidden in the underbrush. Spying on them. How could a weak, perverse woman like me, someone who dreams of a knife in her hand, be the mother and wife of those two individuals?

Society assumes that every woman wants to be a mother or that motherhood naturally comes to every woman. But that does not necessarily have to be the case.

In the novel, the narrator is unnamed and we learn that becoming a mother was not something that she chose; rather motherhood was thrust upon her. And it is a role she struggles to conform to.

The tale is set in the bucolic French countryside although the exact location is not named. She feels like a foreigner in her surroundings and her erratic behavior only heightens her sense of not exactly fitting in.

Her role as a housewife bores her, and motherhood to her is a chore. Not only does she not want to embrace the responsibilities of being a mother, she also feels she is incapable of it.

She feels trapped and stifled, detesting conventional norms she feels forced to adhere to, dying to break out. But where will she run?

And if I want to leave my baby in the car when it’s forty degrees out with the heat index, I will. And don’t tell me it’s illegal. If I want to opt for illegality, if I want to become one of those women who go around freezing their fetuses, then I will. If I want to spend twenty years in jail or go on the run, then I won’t rule those possibilities out either.

But Harwicz’s protagonist does not withdraw into a shell. Rather, she is filled with rage and directs her violence outside.

They’ve been treating my cuts for several days now. I can’t see my whole body, but I’ve gotten them all over: on my shoulder blades, my chest, my belly, my neck.

Not content in the house, with a feeling of the walls closing in around her, most of the time she is outdoors, the vast expanse brimming with possibilities.

Then there is her husband. She does not have a high opinion of him either and finds faults in his actions. Though interestingly, the husband does not really abandon her despite their fights and puts up with her moods.

We’re one of those couples who mechanise the word ‘love’, who use it even when they despise each other.

And sometimes she wonders why…

So many healthy and beautiful women in the area, and he ended up falling for me. A nutcase. A foreigner. Someone beyond repair.

In all of this chaos, a mysterious motorcyclist emerges on the scene and embarks on an affair with the woman. Is this her way of craving for excitement?

Spellbound by a woman who wears flared skirts and spends her afternoons sprawled out like an amphibian on her lawn. I see her for as long as the slowest speed of my motorcycle allows. Those few fatal seconds. I think about her and heave with desire.

How is all of this going to turn out?

At 122 pages in the Charco Press edition Die, My Love is a short book that packs quite a punch. There is no plot per se and the drama is all internal. And even then, there is no real action in the traditional sense in the woman’s domestic surroundings – the action is all in her head; it’s her mind that’s all over the place.

Therefore, what makes this novel so unique is the narrative voice. It’s angry, violent, intense and scathing. The language is akin to a knife piercing your skin – provocative, and confrontational. And yet there is a poetic and lyrical feel to it too.

On one level, you could interpret this novel as an examination of postpartum depression, although that is just an inference and never explicitly stated.

Overall, Die, My Love is an immersive and rewarding experience, and not a novel one will forget anytime soon.

Indeed, as far as Harwicz’ writing is concerned, the blurb at the back of the book could not have put it better:

In a text that explores the destabilizing effect of passion and its absence, immersed in the psyche of a female protagonist always on the verge of madness, Harwicz moulds language, submitting it to her will in irreverent prose.

And that is why credit must also go Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff for superbly translating it.

Reading Bingo 2017

Although 2017 is long gone and we are well into 2018, I couldn’t resist compiling this list. It’s a great way to summarize what had been an excellent reading year. Besides my Top 12 Books for the Year, this includes many more books that I loved but just missed the Best of the Year list.

So here goes…

Reading Bingo 2017

A Book with More Than 500 Pages

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

At around 800 pages, this is a wonderful novel from Japan about family, class distinction and the rise and fall of Japan’s economy. It has also been billed the Japanese ‘Wuthering Heights’ focusing on the intense relationship between the brooding Taro Azuma and the beautiful Yoko. And yet without the Bronte tag, this rich, layered novel stands well on its own feet.

A Forgotten Classic

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym wrote some excellent novels during her time but probably fell out of fashion later. But she has seen a revival of late in the book blogging world. ‘Excellent Women’ in particular is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people. Mildred Lathbury is a spinster, leads an uneventful life and is quite happy with her circumstances, until a new couple move in as neighbours and wreak havoc.

A Book That Became a Movie

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

The first book released by the Pushkin vertigo crime imprint, but much earlier it was the inspiration for the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. This is classic crime fiction with enough suspense, good characterization and plot twists.

A Book Published This Year

Compass by Mathias Enard

An erudite, mesmerizing novel about the cultural influence that the East has had on the West. Over the course of a single night, the protagonist reminisces on his experiences in Damascus, Aleppo, Tehran and his unrequited love for the fiery and intelligent scholar Sarah.

2017 Bingo 1
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Other Press Boxed Set, Folio Society, Pushkin Vertigo, New Directions Hardback

A Book with a Number in the Title

Madame Zero by Sarah Hall

I love Sarah hall’s novels for her raw, spiky writing and she is particularly a master of the short story. This is another brilliant collection of stories about metamorphosis, sexuality and motherhood, the standouts being ‘Evie’ and ‘Mrs Fox’.

A Book Written by Someone under Thirty

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Waugh penned this novel in 1930, when he was 27. A humorous, witty novel and a satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ – essentially decadent young London society between the two World Wars.

A Book with Non-Human Characters

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami

This is a strange, surreal but highly original collection of three stories. From the blurb on Amazon – In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous moneys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing.

A Funny Book

Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes

The novel’s protagonist is the highly volatile Gloria, now in her middle age, but having lost none of her capacity for rage and outbursts of anger. And yet it is not a gory novel. Infact, it has many moments of humour and compassion; a novel brimming with spunk.

2017 Bingo 2
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Faber & Faber, Folio Society, Pushkin Japanese Novella Series, Feminist Press

A Book by a Female Author

Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith

There were many this year, but I chose one of my favourite female authors, Patricia Highsmith. Edith’s family is breaking apart and she takes to writing a diary. A heartbreaking novel about a woman’s gradual descent into madness told in very subtle prose.

A Book with a Mystery

Black Money by Ross MacDonald

Ross MacDonald wrote the excellent Lew Archer (private detective) series of novels and this is one of them. A solid mystery with wonderful evocation of California, interesting set of characters, and a tightly woven and compelling plot with enough twists and turns.

A Book with a One-Word Title

Sphinx by Anne Garreta

An ingeniously written love story between a dancer and a disc jockey where the gender of the principle characters is never revealed. An even remarkable feat by the translator for ensuring that the essence of the novel (unimportance of gender) is not lost.

A Book of Short Stories

A Circle in the Fire and Other Stories by Flannery O’ Connor

Remarkable collection of stories by the Queen of Southern American gothic. A dash of menace lurks in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans living in the rural regions of the South. The theme of her macabre stories? The painful, necessary salvation that emerges from catastrophic, life-changing, and sometimes life-ending, events. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and ‘Good Country People’ particularly are classics.

2017 Bingo 3
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Virago Modern Classics, Orion Books, Deep Vellum Publishing, Folio Society)

Free Square

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

This is a passionate love story between an eighteen year old drama student and an actor in his thirties written in innovative prose that brings out the intensity of feelings of the young girl. It was the first book I read in 2017; I loved it and it pretty much set the tone for the rest of a wonderful reading year. The novel had also been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.

A Book Set on a Different Continent

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

The continent is Europe and the novel is Solar Bones – a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. It is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.

A Non-Fiction Book

Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart

This is a fabulous book on the history of the iconic bookshop in Paris – Shakespeare and Company. It is the story about its founder George Whitman, his passion for books and how some of the most famous authors of his time frequented the shop. Budding authors were allowed to stay in the bookshop (they were called ‘Tumbleweeds’), provided in return – they helped around in the shop and wrote a bit about themselves. The book is a wonderful collection of stories, anecdotes, pictures and also displays many of the written autobiographies of those Tumbleweeds.

The First Book by a Favourite Author

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

This isn’t exactly his first book but one of his earlier ones. James Salter has a knack of crafting exquisite sentences and conveying a lot in poetic, pared back prose. ‘Light Years’ still remains my favourite one of his, but this title is also good.

2017 Bingo 4
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Faber & Faber, Canongate Books, Shakespeare & Company Paris, Picador

A Book You Heard About Online

Climates by Andre Maurois

Climates is a story of two marriages. The first is between Phillipe Marcenat and the beautiful Odile, and when Odile abandons him, Phillipe marries the devoted Isabelle. It is a superb novel with profound psychological insights, a book I only heard about through one of the reading blogs I regularly frequent.

A Bestselling Book

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Not sure this is a bestselling book, but I can say that it was certainly the most well-known of all that I read last year. I have always balked at the idea of reading a Woolf for fear of her novels being difficult and highbrow. But I decided to take the plunge with the more accessible Mrs Dalloway. And closed the final pages feeling exhilarated. More of Woolf shall be explored – perhaps, To the Lighthouse will be next?

A Book Based on a True Story

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald is a wonderful but underrated writer. The Blue Flower is a compelling novel that centres around the unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his young fiancé Sophie. Novalis was the pen name of Georg von Harden berg who was a poet, author and philosopher of Early German Romanticism in the 18th century.

A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi

This was the first title published by Peirene Press way back in 2011, and on the strength of some solid reviews, had been meaning to read it for a while, only to find it languishing at the back of some shelf. I finally pulled it out and gulped it in a single sitting. It is quite a dark, bleak but poignant tale of a young mother and her two sons and the extreme step she takes to shield them from a cruel world.

2017 Bingo 5
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Other Press, Folio Society, Folio Society again, Peirene Press (‘Female Voice: Inner Realities’ Series Book One)

A Book your Friend Loves

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

First Love had received quite some rave reviews last year and was also shortlisted for a couple of prestigious prizes. It is a story of a woman in an abusive marriage told in sharp, intelligent, lucid prose. Here’s the blurb on Amazon – Catastrophically ill-suited for each other, and forever straddling a line between relative calm and explosive confrontation, Neve and her husband, Edwyn, live together in London. As Neve recalls the decisions that brought her to Edwyn, she describes other loves and other debts–from her bullying father and her self-involved mother, to a musician she struggled to forget. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.

 A Book that Scares You

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

This is a tense, chilling and utterly gripping book that combines elements of the supernatural with the more real matters of agricultural disasters. The tone of storytelling is feverish and urgent; it filled me with dread as I raced towards the ending.

A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel with psychologically complex characters and a narrative style that forces you to keep shifting sympathies with them. And the opening sentence is a corker – This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

The Second Book in a Series

Transit by Rachel Cusk

The first was Outline, which I read at the start of the year. So impressed was I that I read the second in the trilogy – Transit – the same year too. The third one is yet to be published. In both the novels, the protagonist who is a writer meets people while she is away in Greece or in London. They tell her stories about their lives, each one with a different perspective. Paradoxically, the protagonist is in the background as the stories told by her friends, colleagues and new people she meets take centre stage. While the main character’s story is never directly narrated, we learn something about her from the way she interacts with the others. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016. Incidentally, Outline was shortlisted for the same prize in 2014.

A Book with a Blue Cover

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

This one was easy simply because the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions made it so. All their fiction titles have blue covers. The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird and an ode to anachronism. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness.

2017 Bingo 6
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Oneworld Publications, Folio Society, Picador E-Book, Granta Hardback, Fitzcarraldo

The Blue Room – Georges Simenon (tr. Linda Coverdale)

Georges Simenon is an author I had been meaning to try for quite some time. He was a prolific writer well known for his Inspector Maigret series. These were mysteries set in Paris probably akin to Agatha Christie novels. I have read only one Maigret so far and it was an easy, lightweight mystery.

The real meat really is in his non-Maigret novels otherwise called his romans durs or hard novels. These novels are richer, darker with a strong psychological edge.

In other words, the Maigret novels were more commercial and Simenon wrote them as a means of relaxation. The romans durs, however, while short demanded greater focus and had more character.

I was keen to explore his romans durs and began with The Blue Room, which is excellent. Suffice to say that I will be reading more of his work.

The Blue Room
Penguin Modern Classics Edition

There is a lot going on in the first chapter.

We first learn that the protagonist Tony Falcone has been having an affair with Andrée Despierre. They typically meet in a room at the Hotel des Voyageurs owned by Tony’s brother Vincent.

Here’s how the book opens.

‘Did I hurt you?’

‘No.’

‘Are you angry with me?’

‘No.’

It was true. At that time, everything was true, for he was living in the moment, without questioning anything, without trying to understand, without suspecting that one day he would need to understand.

What would Tony need to understand? We do not know either. Not yet.

But during this conversation, Andrée keeps asking what would happen if she becomes free, does Tony love her, so on and so forth. This scene in the hotel room is an important moment because it is from here that the story moves forward and backward in a series of flashbacks touching on how Tony and Andrée became lovers upto events in the future.

Tony’s affair with Andrée is intense and passionate.

At thirty-three, he had known many women. None of them had given as much pleasure as she had, an animal pleasure, complete and wholehearted, untainted afterwards by any disgust, lassitude or regret.

They have a signal wherein they decide to meet every time in the blue room (the book’s title) of the hotel. It is convenient and Tony’s brother Vincent, obviously aware of the affair, would never rat out on him.

The room was blue, ‘washing-blue’ he had thought one day, a blue that reminded him of his childhood, the tiny muslin sachets of blue powder his mother dissolved in the washtub water for the final rinse, right before she went to spread the laundry out on the gleaming grass of the meadow. He must have been five or six years old and often wondered through what miracle the blue colour could turn the laundry white.

The blue of the room was not just washing-blue, but the sky-blue of certain hot, August afternoons as well, shortly before it turns pink, then red, in the setting sun.

During one such meeting, Tony goes to the window and sees d Andrée’s husband Nicolas approaching the hotel. He manages to escape the room but this incident leaves him with a sense of foreboding.

Why did Nicolas come to the hotel? Was he aware of his affair with Andrée? Who called him there?

Tony has no clue. Infact, we come to know that this incident and his affair with Andree is told while he is reminiscing as he tries to make sense of it while talking with his lawyer, the magistrate and his psychiatrist.

Indeed, in the first chapter itself, interspersed with details of Tony’s affair, we are told that he is in a prison relentlessly questioned by the magistrate. Clearly, there is a crime that has taken place and Tony has been implicated. He cannot make head or tail of it.

We learn that Tony is married to Gisele, who is tidy, energetic, unassuming, the perfect housewife. They have a daughter Marianne.

Tony loves Gisele in his own way despite his affair. What about Gisele? Does she know of the affair but given her nature chooses not to question Tony about it?

Nicolas, meanwhile, is shown to be a sickly man prone to bouts of epilepsy. His mother Madame Despierre is a headstrong woman and she and Andrée do not get along too well.

After Nicolas’ sudden appearance at the Hotel des Voyageurs, Tony starts becoming uneasy and decides to end his affair with Andrée. Will Andrée agree?

And then Nicolas dies.

That is the brief outline of the story and saying anything more would be spoiling it. There’s plenty more that happens though.

At 156 pages of the Penguin Modern Classics edition, this is a short, taut psychological thriller. It is a story of lust, passion, what happens when it all goes wrong and how it affects everybody. Simenon’s prose is spare, lean and powerful and there is a lot of depth in this story as well as its characters. He coveys masterfully the air of impending doom permeating throughout. Credit also goes to the translator Linda Coverdale for a very smooth translation from the French.

‘Could you spend your whole life with me?’

He hardly noticed her words; they were like the images and odours all around him. How could he have guessed that this scene was something he would relive ten times, twenty times and more – and every time in a different frame of mind, from a different angle?

 

A Sport and A Pastime – James Salter

James Salter is one of those American authors who would readily find a place in my top 10 authors list should I sit down to compile one. I have been steadily working my way through his oeuvre enjoying gems such as ‘Light Years’, unarguably his masterpiece about an upper middle class married couple, and ‘The Hunters’, a poignant and searing tale of the exhilaration and disappointments of being a fighter pilot.

A significant time had passed since I last read him; now the time felt right to explore some more of his work. So I picked up another of his popular novels, ‘A Sport and a Pastime’.

A Sport and a Pastime
Picador Edition

It begins with our unnamed narrator travelling to a small town in France, Autun.  His friends Billy and Cristina, a well to do couple, have a house there and they have agreed to rent it out to him for a while. Billy and Cristina’s world is one of good food, parties and social gatherings. And it is in one of these soirees that he meets a young man and the principal character in the novel, Phillip Dean.

In the earlier parts of the novel, we learn that Dean is a brilliant student at Yale but decides to drop out as he is too bored. He and our unnamed narrator strike up a close friendship. Dean is everything, the narrator is not; confident, daring, with a remarkable zest for life, which only makes the narrator conscious of his own insecurities.

Dean then meets Anne-Marie and the two embark on a sensual relationship. That’s the plot and nothing much happens otherwise. Dean and Anne-Marie travel to various provincial towns in France in a vintage Delage, a car Dean has borrowed from a friend. They stay at hotels, eat at restaurants, walk around the town and make love.

But the interesting thing – this relationship and the description of all its intimate details are imagined by the narrator. This is no spoiler.

In the earlier pages itself, we get a glimpse of the unreliability of the narrator:

Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future.

In a novel such as this in which there’s not much of a plot to speak of, the language has to be strong enough to carry the weight of the story. This is where James Salter clearly excels. His prose is luminous and he has a way with words unlike any other author.

Here is a para at the start of the novel where the author beautifully evokes the French countryside as it flies by when the narrator is making his way to Autun in a train:

The hills close in and run beside us as we begin slowly to move away from the city. The windows of houses are open to the warm morning air. Hay is stacked in the shape of boxes, coops, loaves of bread. Above us the sudden passage of a church. In its walls, cracks wide enough for birds to nest in. I am going to walk these village roads, follow these brilliant streams.

Rose, umber, camel, tan—these are the colors of the towns. There are long, rising pastures with lines of trees. St Julien du Sault—its hotel seems empty. Shocks of hay now, bundles of it. Great squares of corn. Cezy—the station like scenery in a play that has closed. Pyramids of hay, mansards, barricades. Orchards. Children working in vegetable gardens.

And another one here where he is describing Anne-Marie:

Anne-Marie sits quietly and as Dean talks, becoming drunker, his mouth wetting, I try to watch her, to isolate elements of that stunning sexuality, but it’s like memorizing the reflections of a diamond. The slightest movement and an entirely different brilliance appears.

Another area where Salter is really good is writing about sex. The American author Toni Morrison once wrote Sex is difficult to write about because it’s just not sexy enough. The only way to write about it is not to write much. Let the reader bring his own sexuality into the text.

Salter clearly believes otherwise. There’s a lot of sex in this novel and in some passages more explicitly described than in others. But he carries it off; something not a lot of authors can do successfully.

And yet it’s not a perfect novel. Although Salter writes beautifully, the novel does sag midway and that is my main quibble with the book.

How will Dean and Anne-Marie’s relationship pan out? And will the narrator’s fascination with Dean continue?

One must have heroes, which is to say, one must create them. And they become real through our envy, our devotion. It is we who give them their majesty, their power, which we ourselves could never possess. And in turn they give some back. But they are mortal, these heroes, just as we are. They do not last forever. They fade. They vanish.