I’m sneaking in a couple of quick reviews on the final day to join in with Simon and Karen’s latest reading week, The 1920 Club. Speaking of books that were published a century ago, I happened to review Chéri by Colette as one of my monthly classics last year, and I’m currently reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton in advance of our May book club meeting.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
I don’t think I’ve read an Agatha Christie mystery since I was about … 13? (It was And Then There Were None.) But over the years I’ve watched countless Poirot and Miss Marple cases on TV with my mother. This was Poirot’s first outing, and it’s narrated by Hastings, the slightly dim Watson to the Belgian detective’s Sherlock Holmes.
One July, invalided home from the war at age 30, Hastings goes to visit old family friends at Styles, their Essex manor house: brothers John and Lawrence Cavendish and their elderly stepmother, who has recently (and somewhat shockingly) remarried. When old Mrs. Cavendish is found dead of strychnine poisoning, Poirot is brought in to sort through the potential suspects. Coffee and cocoa cups, a fragment of a charred will, a fake beard, a candle wax stain and a bolted door will be among his major clues.
Like Hastings, we as readers are quick to point to the obvious: hey, that foreigner who happens to be an expert on poisons, it’s him, right?! But as Poirot carefully explains, again and again, “If the fact will not fit the theory, let the theory go. … Real evidence is usually vague and unsatisfactory. It has to be examined, sifted. But here the whole thing is cut and dried.”
I rarely pick up a mystery novel, though when I can get stuck in I do tend to enjoy them. This was a super-quick read and I found myself turning to it more often than to other books on my stack that felt weightier in subject matter. In the end I find crime novels inconsequential, so can’t imagine needing to try another Poirot or Marple for another 20 years or so. But if you’re struggling to read in a time of anxiety, you could certainly do worse than a Christie novel.
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald has long been one of my literary blind spots. The Great Gatsby is a masterpiece, sure: I studied it in school and have read it another couple of times since, as well as lots of background nonfiction and some contemporary novels that riff on the story line. But everything else of his that I’ve tried (Tender Is the Night was the other one) has felt aimless and more stylish than substantive.
Amory Blaine is a wealthy Midwesterner who goes from boarding school to Princeton and has literary ambitions and various love affairs. He’s convinced he’s a “boy marked for glory.” But Monsignor Darcy, his guru, encourages the young man to focus on developing his character more than his dashing personality.
Hugely popular at its first release, this debut novel won Fitzgerald his literary reputation – as well as Zelda Sayre’s hand in marriage. What with the slang (“Oh my Lord, I’m going to cast a kitten”), it felt very much like a period piece to me, most impressive for its experimentation with structure: parts are written like a film script or Q&A, and there are also some poems and lists. This novelty may well be a result of the author cobbling together drafts and unpublished odds and ends, but still struck me as daring.
In a strange way, though, the novel is deliberately ahistorical in that it glosses over world events with a flippancy that I find typical of Fitzgerald. Even though Amory is called up to serve, his general reaction to the First World War is dispatched in a paragraph; Prohibition doesn’t get much more of a look-in.
I understand that the book is fairly autobiographical and in its original form was written in the first person, which I might have preferred if it led to greater sincerity. I could admire some of the witty banter and the general coming-of-age arc, but mostly felt indifferent to this one.
Doing double duty this month as my classics and two of my last few animal-themed summer reading choices are a record of a trek in France and a sleazy novella set in 1930s Hollywood.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)
I think I decided this was a must-read because I so love Christopher Rush’s recreation of the journey in To Travel Hopefully. The problem with the original is that there doesn’t seem to have been any particular reason for walking 120 miles in 12 days with a donkey as one’s pack animal and traveling companion. “I have been after an adventure all my life, a pure dispassionate adventurer, such as befell early and heroic voyagers,” Stevenson writes, but of all the options before him this must surely have been one of the safer choices.
As autumn comes on, Stevenson keeps being mistaken for a peddler and meeting religious extremists of various stripes, from Trappist monks to a Plymouth Brother. He stays in shared inn rooms or sleeps outdoors. He learns about the history of religious wars and martyrdom in the region. It’s the sort of material that might have inspired Guy Stagg in writing The Crossway, his account of a secular pilgrimage from Canterbury to Jerusalem. But it’s, for the most part, awfully boring. Rush at least had a good reason for undertaking his journey: after his wife’s death from breast cancer he needed a quest to take his mind off his grief.
But anyway, the donkey. Stevenson buys Modestine for 65 francs and she quickly proves to be a typical stubborn-as creature. Passersby encourage him to find an effective goad and show the beast who’s in charge.
They told me when I left, and I was ready to believe it, that before a few days I should come to love Modestine like a dog. Three days had passed, we had shared some misadventures, and my heart was still as cold as a potato towards my beast of burden. She was pretty enough to look at; but then she had given proof of dead stupidity
Between the early entries and the final ones, though, she is mostly invisible. And, regretfully, Stevenson then has to sell the poor beast again – and for only 35 francs with her saddle. That represents quite a financial loss after less than two weeks!
Ultimately, I prefer reading about Stevenson to reading his actual work. (Other examples: Nancy Horan’s novel Under the Wide and Starry Sky; the chapter of Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer in which he recreates the Cévennes trek.) My next Stevenson-themed reading will be The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst.
A lovely line: “to love is the great amulet which makes the world a garden”
Wigtown gets a random mention! As he’s musing on the controversial religious history of the area: “If you met a mixed company in the King’s Arms at Wigton, it is not likely that the talk would run on Covenanters.”
(The e-book is available as a free download from Project Gutenberg, though I read a secondhand copy I’d had for ages.)
See also Kaggsy’s review: it’s more positive and includes helpful background information.
The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1939)
Boy oh boy, this is one weird and sordid little book. Like The Great Gatsby, which had been published 14 years before, it shows the seamy underbelly of a glittering American city. Here the setting is Hollywood, where Tod Hackett is a set and costume designer. He’s smitten with his neighbor, Faye Greener, a 17-year-old aspiring actress (“taut and vibrant … shiny as a new spoon”) who’s not above taking a few shifts at the brothel to make ends meet.
Tod is not the only one obsessed with Faye, though; her other suitors include Homer Simpson (so hard to take him seriously because of that name!), a sad sack from Iowa who moved to the California desert for his respiratory health; Earle Shoop the cowboy; and Miguel, a Mexican cock-fighter. Comic relief is provided by Abe Kusich, a gambling dwarf whose slang includes “lard-ass” and “punkola.” The novella opens and ends with mob scenes, but while the first takes place on a studio lot the last is dangerously real.
There are some fairly disturbing elements here. The casual racism is probably to be expected, but the violence of Tod’s fantasies about Faye startled me: “If only he had the courage to wait for her some night and hit her with a bottle and rape her.” But like Daisy Buchanan in Gatsby, Faye is the sort of careless person who will always come out on top – “Nothing could hurt her. She was like a cork.”
West portrays Hollywood as a wasteland of broken dreams: “the dump grew continually, for there wasn’t a dream afloat somewhere which wouldn’t sooner or later turn upon it, having first been made photographic by plaster, canvas, lath, and paint.” This was his final work before he died in a car accident in 1940. I got more out of Miss Lonelyhearts, but I’m still glad I read this Wigtown purchase. I have no idea what the title refers to, though it sounds like it might be a biblical reference.
I’m still plugging away at my last few #20BooksofSummer and plan to write them up for the last day, September 3rd.
Owls and leopards and dogs – oh my! My animal-themed reading project continues. I’m more than halfway through in that I’m in the middle of quite a few more books, but finishing and reviewing them all before the 3rd of September may still prove to be a challenge.
Timbuktu by Paul Auster (1999)
My first from Auster – and not, I take it, representative of his work in general. Never mind, though; I enjoyed it, and it was a good follow-up to Fifteen Dogs. Like the Alexis novel, this gives an intimately imagined dog’s perspective, taking seriously the creature’s whole life story. The canine protagonist is Mr. Bones, who’s accompanied his mentally unstable writer owner, Willy G. Christmas, from New York City down to Baltimore, where, one August Sunday, Willy wants to find his old high school English teacher before he dies.
What took me by surprise is that Auster doesn’t stick with Willy, but has Mr. Bones move on to two more living situations: first he’s the secret friend of 10-year-old Henry Chow, whose parents run a Chinese restaurant, then he’s a family pet in suburban Virginia. Although his English comprehension is advanced, he isn’t able to reproduce its sounds like some of the dogs in Fifteen Dogs can, so he can’t tell these new owners his real name and has to accept being called first “Cal” and then “Sparky.” In dreams he still hears Willy’s voice. He assumes Willy is now in the afterlife (“Timbuktu”), and longs to rejoin him.
The novel is tender as well as playful and funny – I loved the passage where Mr. Bones wakes up to pain but doesn’t realize he’s been castrated:
How was he to know that those missing parts had been responsible for turning him into a father many times over? Except for his ten-day affair with Greta, the malamute from Iowa City, his romances had always been brief—impetuous couplings, impromptu flings, frantic rolls in the hay—and he had never seen any of the pups he had sired. And even if he had, how would he have been able to make the connection? Dick Jones had turned him into a eunuch, but in his own eyes he was still the prince of love, the lord of the canine Romeos, and he would go on courting the ladies until his last, dying breath. For once, the tragic dimension of his own life eluded him.
Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington (2018)
Initially the idea was to see all of Britain’s resident owls, but as often happens, the project expanded until Darlington was also taking trips to Serbia to find a Long-Eared Owl, Finland for a Eurasian Eagle Owl, and France for a Pygmy Owl; and going on a fruitless twitch to see a vagrant Snowy Owl in Cornwall. Each chapter considers a different species and includes information on its anatomy, geographical distribution, conservation status, and any associated myths and anecdotes (The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis-Stempel does much the same thing, but with less richness). She has closer encounters with some than with others: when volunteering with the Barn Owl Trust, she gets to ring chicks and collects pellets for dissection. But even the most fleeting sightings can be magical.
The book also subtly weaves in what was happening in Darlington’s life at the time, especially her son Benji’s struggles. On the autistic spectrum, he suddenly started having physical problems that were eventually explained by non-epileptic seizures. I would have welcomed more personal material, but that just speaks to my love of memoir. This feels slightly hurried and not quite as editorially polished as her master work, Otter Country, but it’s still well worth reading if you have any interest in birds or nature conservation. (I’ve only seen two owls in the wild: Barn and Tawny.)
Fillets of Plaice by Gerald Durrell (1971)
This is a pleasant miscellany of leftover essays that didn’t make it into any of Durrell’s other books. The best is “The Birthday Party,” about an incident from the Corfu years: Larry insisted on taking the fridge along on Mother’s birthday outing to an island, and their boat ran out of petrol. In “A Transport of Terrapins,” teenage Gerry works as a lowly pet shop assistant in London even though he knows twice as much as his boss; and meets other eccentric fellows, such as a bird collector and a retired colonel who has a house full of model figures for war gaming.
“A Question of Promotion” is set on one of the animal-collecting expeditions to Cameroon and turned me off a little with its colonial attitude: Durrell talks to the natives in condescending pidgin as he helps prepare a feast for the District Commissioner’s visit. In “A Question of Degrees” he visits two hospitals for a cataclysmic nosebleed, while “Ursula” is about a girlfriend who couldn’t open her mouth without uttering a malapropism. Entertaining scraps for diehard fans; if you’re new to Durrell, though, start with My Family and Other Animals and Menagerie Manor.
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma (2013)
I’d meant to read Jansma’s debut ever since Why We Came to the City, his terrific novel about five university friends negotiating life in New York City during the recession, came out in 2016. I assumed the leopards of the title would be purely metaphorical – a reference to people not being able to change their inborn nature – and they are, but they’re also surprisingly literal in the one chapter set in Africa.
Jansma’s deliciously unreliable narrator, never named but taking on various aliases in these linked short stories, is a trickster, constantly reworking his life into fiction. He longs to be a successful novelist, but keeps losing his works in progress. We think we know the basics of his identity – he’s the son of a single mother who worked as a flight attendant; he grew up in North Carolina emulating the country club and debutante class; at Berkshire College he met his best friend and rival Julian McGann in creative writing class and fell for Julian’s friend Evelyn, the great unrequited love of his life – but Part II introduces doubt by calling the characters different names. Are these the ‘real’ people, or the narrator’s fictionalized versions?
The characters go on a bizarre odyssey that moves the setting from New York City to Nevada to Dubai to Sri Lanka to Ghana to Iceland to Luxembourg, finally ending up back in the very airport terminal where it started. As I remembered from Why We Came to the City, Jansma interleaves Greek mythology and allusions to other writers, especially F. Scott Fitzgerald. The coy way in which he layers fiction on fiction reminded me of work by John Boyne and Tom Rachman; other recommended readalikes are The Goldfinch and Orchid & the Wasp.
Yesterday was my husband’s birthday. Baking him the world’s most complicated cake on Wednesday evening and taking Thursday off for a birthday outing to Salisbury for the Terry Pratchett exhibit at the town’s museum and the Christmas-decorated rooms at Mompesson House are my collective excuse for not writing up the last of November’s novellas until now.
For the most part I had a great time reading novellas last month. However, there were three I abandoned: Mornings in Mexico by D.H Lawrence (p. 11), whose random, repetitive observations lead to no bigger picture; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (p. 28), which is understated to the point of nothing really happening; and Jaguars and Electric Eels by Alexander von Humboldt (p. 6), which has that dry old style that’s hard to engage with. (I’ll plan to encounter snatches of his writing via Andrea Wulf’s biography instead.)
To my disappointment, I find I can’t make generalizations about the correlation between a book’s page count and its quality: a great book stands out no matter its length. But as Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son) said of his latest work, a set of four short novels, a novella should be “all killer, no filler.” Three of the five I review today definitely meet those criteria, impressing me with the literal and/or emotional ground covered.
Below are the novellas I didn’t manage to get to this past November. Perhaps they’ll hang around until next year, unless I get a burning urge to read one or more of them before then:
The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery
(translated from the French by Alison Anderson)
Pierre Arthens, France’s most formidable food critic, is on his deathbed reliving his most memorable meals and searching for one elusive flavor to experience again before he dies. He’s proud of his accomplishments – “I have covered the entire range of culinary art, for I am an encyclopedic esthete who is always one dish ahead of the game” – and expresses no remorse for his affairs and his coldness as a father. This takes place in the same apartment building as The Elegance of the Hedgehog and is in short first-person chapters narrated by various figures from Arthens’ life. His wife, his children and his doctor are expected, but we also hear from the building’s concierge, a homeless man he passed every day for ten years, and even a sculpture in his study. I liked Arthens’ grandiose style and the descriptions of over-the-top meals but, unlike the somewhat similar The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester, this doesn’t have much of a payoff.
A favorite passage:
“After decades of grub, deluges of wine and alcohol of every sort, after a life spent in butter, cream, sauce, and oil in constant, knowingly orchestrated and meticulously cajoled excess, my trustiest right-hand men, Sir Liver and his associate Stomach, are doing marvelously well and it is my heart that is giving out.”
Silk by Alessandro Baricco
(translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman)
The main action is set between 1861 and 1874, as married French merchant Hervé Joncour makes four journeys to and from Japan to acquire silkworms. “This place, Japan, where precisely is it?” he asks before his first trip. “Just keep going. Right to the end of the world,” Baldabiou, the silk mill owner, replies. On his first journey, Joncour is instantly captivated by his Japanese advisor’s concubine, though they haven’t exchanged a single word, and from that moment on nothing in his life can make up for the lack of her. At first I found the book slightly repetitive and fable-like, but as it went on I grew more impressed with the seeds Baricco has planted that lead to a couple of major surprises. At the end I went back and reread a number of chapters to pick up on the clues. I’d had this book recommended from a variety of quarters, first by Karen Shepard when I interviewed her for Bookkaholic in 2013, so I’m glad I finally found a copy in a charity shop.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
Hardwick’s 1979 work is composed of (autobiographical?) fragments about the people and places that make up a woman’s remembered past. Elizabeth shares a New York City apartment with a gay man; lovers come and go; she mourns for Billie Holiday; there are brief interludes in Amsterdam and other foreign destinations. She sends letters to “Dearest M.” and back home to Kentucky, where her mother raised nine children. (“My mother’s femaleness was absolute, ancient, and there was a peculiar, helpless assertiveness about it. … This fateful fertility kept her for most of her life under the dominion of nature.”) There’s some astonishingly good writing here, but as was the case for me with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, I couldn’t quite see how it was all meant to fit together.
Some favorite passages:
“The stain of place hangs on not as a birthright but as a sort of artifice, a bit of cosmetic.”
“The bright morning sky that day had a rare and blue fluffiness, as if a vacuum cleaner had raced across the heavens as a weekly, clarifying duty.”
“On the battered calendar of the past, the back-glancing flow of numbers, I had imagined there would be felicitous notations of entrapments and escapes, days in the South with their insinuating feline accent, and nights in the East, showing a restlessness as beguiling as the winds of Aeolus. And myself there, marking the day with an I.”
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
West was a contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald; in fact, the story goes that when he died in a car accident at age 37, he had been rushing to Fitzgerald’s wake, and the friends were given adjoining rooms in a Los Angeles funeral home. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a very American tragedy and state-of-the-nation novel. “Miss Lonelyhearts” (never given any other name) is a male advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch. His letters come from a pitiable cross section of humanity: the abused, the downtrodden, the unloved. Not surprisingly, the secondhand woes start to get him down (“his heart remained a congealed lump of icy fat”), and he turns to drink and womanizing for escape. Indeed, I was startled by how explicit the language and sexual situations are; this doesn’t feel like a book from 1933. West’s picture of how beleaguered compassion can turn to indifference really struck me, and the last few chapters, in which a drastic change of life is proffered but then cruelly denied, are masterfully plotted. The 2014 Daunt Books reissue has been given a cartoon cover and a puff from Jonathan Lethem to emphasize how contemporary it feels.
Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner
This was very nearly a one-sitting read for me: Clare gave me a copy at our Sunday Times Young Writer Award shadow panel decision meeting and I read all but a few pages on the train home from London. Famously, Matthew Weiner is the creator of Mad Men, but instead of 1960s stylishness this debut novella is full of all-too-believable creepiness and a crescendo of dubious decisions. Mark and Karen Breakstone have one beloved daughter, Heather. We follow them for years, getting little snapshots of a normal middle-class family. One summer, as their New York City apartment building is being renovated, the teenaged Heather catches the eye of a construction worker who has a criminal past – as we’ve learned through a parallel narrative about his life. I had no idea what I would conclude about this book until the last few pages; it was all going to be a matter of how Weiner brought things together. And he does so really satisfyingly, I think. It’s a subtle, Hitchcockian story, and that title is so sly: We never get the totality of anyone; we only see shards here and there – something the cover portrays very well – and make judgments we later have to rethink.
Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?
I sought this out because Susan Hill hails it as a forgotten classic and it’s included on a list of books to read in your thirties in The Novel Cure.* It’s a gentle and rather melancholy little 1924 novel about Mary, the plain, unmarried 35-year-old daughter of elderly Canon Jocelyn, a clergyman in the undistinguished East Anglian village of Dedmayne. “On the whole she was happy. She did not question the destiny life brought her. People spoke pityingly of her, but she did not feel she required pity.” That is, until she unexpectedly falls in love. We follow Mary for the next four years and see how even a seemingly small life can have an impact.
I expect Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin chose this as a book for one’s thirties because it’s about a late bloomer who hasn’t acquired the expected spouse and children and harbors secret professional ambitions. The struggle to find common ground with an ageing parent is a strong theme, as is the danger of an unequal marriage. Best not to say too much more about the plot itself, but I’d recommend this to readers of Elizabeth Taylor. I was also reminded strongly at points of A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence and Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s a short and surprising classic, one well worth rediscovering.
Some favorite lines:
- “she had written almost as a silkworm weaves a cocoon, with no thought of admiration.”
- “after three years in one place, suburban people, whatever their layer in society, become restless and want to move on.”
- “She had found self-pity a quagmire in which it was difficult not to be submerged.”
Note: Flora Macdonald Mayor (1872–1932) published four novels and a short story collection. Her life story is vaguely similar to Mary Jocelyn’s in that she was the daughter of a Cambridge clergyman.
*I’ve now read six of the 10 titles on their list. The remaining four, which I’ll probably try to read by the end of next year, are London Fields by Martin Amis, The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope. I own the Sinclair in paperback, the Jaffe is on shelf at my local public library, and I can get the Amis and Trollope from the university library any time.
With Valentine’s Day on the way, I’ve been reading a bunch of books with “Love” in the title to round up in a mini-reviews post next week. One of them was What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt – my second taste of her brilliant fiction after The Blazing World. Yet I’ve not tried a one of her husband Paul Auster’s books. There’s no particular reason for that; I’ve even had his New York Trilogy out from the library in the past, but never got around to reading it.
How about some other literary power couples? Here’s some that came to mind, along with an inventory of what I’ve read from each half. It’s pretty even for the first two couples, but in most of the other cases there’s a clear winner.
Zadie Smith: 5
Nick Laird: 5 (= ALL)
I’ve read all of Zadie Smith’s work apart from NW; I only got a few pages into it when it first came out, but I’m determined to try again someday. To my surprise, I’ve read everything her husband Nick Laird has ever published, which includes three poetry collections and two fairly undistinguished ‘lad lit’ novels. I’m pleased to see that his new novel Modern Gods, coming out on June 27th, is about two sisters and looks like a stab at proper literary fiction.
Jonathan Safran Foer: 4 (= ALL)
Nicole Krauss: 3 (= ALL)
Alas, they’re now an ex-couple. In any case, they’re both on the fairly short list of authors I’d read anything by. Foer has published three novels and the nonfiction polemic Eating Animals. Krauss, too, has three novels to her name, but a new one is long overdue after the slight disappointment of 2010’s Great House.
Margaret Drabble: 5
Michael Holroyd: 0
Michael Holroyd is a biographer and general nonfiction dabbler. I have a few of his books on my TBR but don’t feel much compulsion to seek them out. By contrast, I’ve read four novels and a memoir by Margaret Drabble and am likely to devour more of her fiction in the future.
Claire Tomalin: 2
Michael Frayn: 1
Claire Tomalin’s masterful biographies of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy are pillars of my nonfiction collection, and I have her books on Nelly Ternan and Samuel Pepys on the shelf to read as well. From her husband, celebrated playwright Michael Frayn, however, I’ve only read the comic novel Skios. It is very funny indeed, though, about a case of mistaken identity at an academic conference on a Greek island.
Plus a few I only recently found out about:
Ian McEwan: 7 (+ an 8th in progress)
Annalena McAfee: 1 (I’ll be reviewing her novel Hame here on Thursday)
Katie Kitamura: 1 (I just finished A Separation yesterday)
Hari Kunzru: 0
Madeleine Thien: 1 (Do Not Say We Have Nothing)
Rawi Hage: 0
Michael Chabon: 1
Ayelet Waldman: 0
I loved Moonglow and am keen to try Michael Chabon’s other novels, but I also have a couple of his wife Ayelet Waldman’s books on my TBR.
Dave Eggers: 5
Vendela Vida: 0
I’ve read a decent proportion of Dave Eggers’s books, fiction and nonfiction, but don’t know anything by his wife and The Believer co-founder Vendela Vida.
David Foster Wallace: 2
Mary Karr: 1
I didn’t even know they were briefly a couple. From Wallace I’ve read the essay collection Consider the Lobster and the commencement address This Is Water. I’ve definitely got to get hold of Karr’s memoirs, having so far only read her book about memoir (The Art of Memoir).
And some classics:
Ted Hughes: 1 (Crow)
Sylvia Plath: 0
F. Scott Fitzgerald: 2 (The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night)
Zelda Fitzgerald: 0
How have you fared with these or other literary power couples? Do you generally gravitate towards one or the other from a pair?
“Maybe we can see that the animals are like us, or we are like animals.”
Laura Kaye’s impressive debut novel, English Animals, is a fresh take on themes of art, sex, violence and belonging. It has particular resonance in the wake of Brexit, showing the apparent lack of a cohesive English identity in spite of sometimes knee-jerk nationalism.
The novel takes place within roughly a year and is narrated by Mirka Komárova, a 19-year-old Slovakian who left home suddenly after an argument with her parents and arrives in the English countryside to work for thirty-somethings Richard and Sophie Parker. She doesn’t know what to expect from her new employers: “Richard and Sophie sounded like good names for good people. But they could be anything, they could be completely crazy.”
It’s a live-in governess-type arrangement, and yet there are no children – Mirka later learns that Sophie is having trouble getting pregnant. Instead Mirka drives the volatile Parkers to the pub so they can get drunk whenever they want, and also helps with their various money-making ventures: cooking and cleaning for B&B guests and the summer’s wedding parties, serving as a beater for pheasant shoots, and assisting with Richard’s taxidermy business. Her relationship with them remains uncertain: she’s not a servant but not quite an equal either; it’s a careful friendship powered by jokes with Richard and cryptic crossword clues with Sophie.
At first Mirka seems disgusted by Sophie’s shabby family home and the many animals around the place, both living and dead. Initially squeamish about skinning animal corpses, she gets used to it as taxidermy becomes her artistic expression. Taking inspiration from whimsical Victorian portraits of dead animals in costume, she makes intricate modern tableaux with names like Mice Raving, Freelance Squirrels and Rats at the Office Party. When her art catches the eye of a London agent, she starts preparing her pieces for an exhibit and is the subject of a magazine profile. The interviewer writes this about her:
Mirka is someone who understands the philosophical nature of her art. How, in our strange condition of being simultaneously within and outside the animal kingdom, we invest taxidermy with our longing for permanence.
I loved the level of detail about Mirka’s work – it’s rare to encounter such a precise account of handiwork in fiction, as opposed to in nonfiction like Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes and David Esterly’s The Lost Carving; Kaye herself is a potter, which might explain it – and I appreciated the many meanings that dead animals take on in the novel. They’re by turns food, art objects and sacrificial victims. Taxidermy is a perfect juxtaposition of physicality and the higher echelons of art, a canny way of blending death and beauty.
But of course the human residents of this community also fall into the title’s category: Many of them are what you might call ‘beastly’, and the threat of violence is never far away given Richard and Sophie’s argumentativeness. A promiscuous blonde, Sophie reminded me of Daisy in The Great Gatsby, so often described as careless: “You are a dangerous person, Sophie,” Mirka says. “Don’t say that. I didn’t mean to hurt anything.” Mirka replies, “You don’t care about other things. Everything is a game. Everyone is a toy for you to play with.”
The two different blurbs I’ve seen for the book both give too much away, so I will simply say that there’s an air of sexual tension and latent hostility surrounding this semi-isolated home, and it’s intriguing to watch the dynamic shift between Richard, Sophie and Mirka. I felt that I never quite knew what would happen or how far Kaye would take things.
I did have a few minor misgivings, though: sometimes Mirka’s narration reads like a stilted translation into English, rather than a fluent outpouring; there’s a bit too much domestic detail and heavy-handed symbolism; and the themes of xenophobia and homophobia might have been introduced more subtly, rather than using certain characters as overt mouthpieces.
All the same, I read this with great interest and curiosity throughout. It’s a powerful look at assumptions versus reality, how we approach the Other, and the great effort it takes to change; it’s easier to remain trapped in the roles we’ve acquired. I’d recommend this to readers of Polly Samson, Francesca Segal and even Rachel Johnson (the satire Shire Hell). In particular, I was reminded of Shelter by Jung Yun and Little Children by Tom Perrotta: though suburban in setting, they share Kaye’s preoccupations with sex and violence and the ways we try to hide our true selves beneath a façade of conformity.
This is one of the most striking debut novels I’ve encountered in recent years; it’s left me eager to see what Laura Kaye will do next.
English Animals was published by Little, Brown UK on January 12th. My thanks to Hayley Camis for the review copy.
I was delighted to be asked to participate in the blog tour for English Animals. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.
I’ve set just a few modest goals for the coming year’s reading:
- As always, I’d like to focus on reading more of the books I actually own. I went around and did an inventory of unread books in the house and came up with 221. That could easily fill two-thirds or more of next year, yet I know I’m unlikely to cut down on my library borrowing or NetGalley and Edelweiss requests. I think the strategy will be to always have two of my own books on the go at all times, one fiction and one nonfiction, no matter how many other public library or Kindle books I’m reading.
- Some of the books I most want to tackle have 500+ pages. I wonder if I have enough really long books to sustain a Doorstopper of the Month feature? To get a head start on this goal, this past week I started City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg and Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. Also on the shelf are A Suitable Boy, This Thing of Darkness, An Instance of the Fingerpost, Until I Find You, and a few chunky biographies; I’m also sure to get some long books from the library and NetGalley.
I read very few classics in 2016, just a couple short books by Jerome K. Jerome, a Stefan Zweig novella, Tender Is the Night, and two rediscovered 1930s works from the Apollo Classics series. So that’s something to rectify in 2017. Three classics from the list of “Books to Read in Your 30s” in The Novel Cure are calling to me, and it’s also high time I read some more Dickens (maybe I’ll finally return to Dombey and Son?), Trollope (at least The Warden, if not more of the Barsetshire series), Brontë (Anne, in this case) and Woolf (The Voyage Out). Maybe I’ll also start a Classic of the Month feature?
Regarding my career…
I’d like to replace some of my individual book reviewing with longer articles. For instance, this past year Foreword magazine invited me to write three articles surveying new and upcoming books in various genres: young adult, climate change and middle grade. It’s more rewarding (and remunerative) to prioritize full-length articles.
Regarding the blog…
I’d love to get involved in more blog tours and collaborative challenges. I also hope to continue maintaining a balance between straightforward reviews/lists and different stuff, whether that’s travel reports or more introspective pieces. My dream is still to judge a literary prize, even if that’s just as part of a shadow panel.
What are some of your goals for 2017 – reading-related or otherwise?
Tomorrow: Some final statistics on my reading for the year.
Despite being educated through university level in the United States, I’m better acquainted with British literature than American, in part due to my own predilections. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are two of the American authors I’ve most struggled with. For one thing, their novels’ titles are interchangeable, abstract quotations that I can never keep straight. Which is which? The Sun Also Rises is the bullfighting one, right? And is A Farewell to Arms the other one I’ve read? Fitzgerald is an even worse offender as titles go, with The Great Gatsby the only one that actually refers to its contents.
For the record, I recognize The Great Gatsby as a masterpiece, and I absolutely loved A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of life in Paris. I also enjoy reading about the Hemingways (Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Naomi Wood’s Mrs. Hemingway) and the Fitzgeralds (Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and R. Clifton Spargo’s Beautiful Fools). But when I’ve tried to go deeper into the authors’ work, it hasn’t been an unmitigated success. The above two Hemingway novels are just okay for me. The Sun Also Rises struck me as having a thin plot, two-dimensional characters and repetitious dialogue.
When I eagerly approached Tender Is the Night last year – having recently read a novel about the real-life couple who inspired Fitzgerald’s portrait of Dick and Nicole Diver, Gerald and Sara Murphy (Villa America by Liza Klaussmann) – I pulled out a lot of great individual lines but had trouble following the basic plot and only really enjoyed the early chapters of Book Two. Here are some of those pearls of prose:
The delight in Nicole’s face—to be a feather again instead of a plummet, to float and not to drag. She was a carnival to watch—at times primly coy, posing, grimacing and gesturing—sometimes the shadow fell and the dignity of old suffering flowed down into her finger tips.
somehow Dick and Nicole had become one and equal, not apposite and complementary; she was Dick too, the drought in the marrow of his bones. He could not watch her disintegrations without participating in them.
Well, you never knew exactly how much space you occupied in people’s lives.
women marry all their husbands’ talents and naturally, afterwards, are not so impressed with them as they may keep up the pretense of being.
Imagine my surprise when I learned from a note at the end of my Penguin paperback that Fitzgerald made a major revision that rearranged the action into chronological order, thus opening with Book Two. That text, edited by Malcolm Cowley, appeared in 1951 and was printed by Penguin from 1955. However, the version I have – as reprinted from 1982 onwards – goes back to Fitzgerald’s first edition. Would I have had a more favorable reaction to the novel if I’d encountered it in its revised version? Somehow I think so.
Is there a Hemingway or Fitzgerald novel that will change my opinion about these literary lions? Share your favorites.
And the painting, above his head, was the still point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate. There wasn’t a single meaning. There were many meanings. It was a riddle expanding out and out and out.
My pristine paperback copy of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch cost all of £1 at a used bookshop in Henley. Talk about entertainment value for money! Although it took me nearly a month to read, starting with Christmas week, it was more gripping than that timeframe seems to suggest. I read it under a pair of cats in the bitter-cold first week of a Pennsylvania January, then tucked it under my arm for airport queues (no way would it fit in my overstuffed carry-on bag) and finally finished it during my first week of bouncing back from transatlantic jetlag. Somehow Theo Decker’s fictional travels – from New York to Las Vegas and back; to Amsterdam and home again – blended with my sense of having been on a literal journey with the book to make this one of my most memorable reading experiences in years.
That’s not to say that the book was flawless. In fact, I found the first 200 pages or so pretty slow. You almost certainly know the basics of the plot already, but if not, glance away from the rest of this paragraph. Theo, 13, is separated from his mother during a terrorist attack on a New York City museum. Among the dying he encounters an older man – guardian of the pretty red-haired girl Theo had been checking out just moments before – who gives him a ring and tells him to go to Hobart and Blackwell antiques. But this is not the only souvenir Theo takes from his ordeal; he also steals the little Dutch masterpiece by Fabritius that appears on the book’s cover. Stumbling around the streets of New York, the shell-shocked Theo undoubtedly resembles a 9/11 victim. As the years pass, he is moved from guardian to guardian, but a few things remain constant: his memory of his mother, his obsession with the painting, and his love for Pippa, that red-haired girl who, like him, was among the survivors.
The aftermath of the attack was the most tedious section for me. It felt like it took forever for Theo’s future to be set in motion, and I thought if I heard him complain of how his head was killing him one more time I might just scream. It’s when Theo gets to Vegas, and specifically when he meets Boris, that the book really takes off. Boris is simply a terrific character. He’s lived all over and has a mixed-up accent that’s part Australian with heavy Slavic overtones. Like Theo, he has an unreliable father who is often too drunk to care what his kid is doing. This leaves the two young teens free to do whatever they want, usually something classified as illegal. Indeed, there’s a lot of drug use in this book, described in the kind of detail that makes you wonder what Tartt was up to during her years at Bennington.
As a young man Theo, back in New York, joins Hobie (of Hobart and Blackwell) in selling antiques both genuine and ersatz, and reconnects with an old friend’s family in a surprising manner. The story of what becomes of the painting was in danger of turning into a clichéd crime caper, yet Tartt manages to transform it into a richly philosophical interrogation of the nature of fate. Theo’s intimate first-person narration makes him the heir first of Dickensian orphans and later of the kind of tortured antiheroes you’d find in a nineteenth-century Russian novel: “I had the queasy sense of my own life … as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as random as the street lamps flashing past.”
Similar to my experience with Of Human Bondage, I found that the latter part of the novel was the best. The last 200 pages are not only the most addictive plot-wise but also the most introspective; all my Post-It flags congregate here. It’s also full of the best examples of Tartt’s distinctive prose. The best way I can describe it is to say it’s like brush strokes: especially in the scenes set in Amsterdam, she’s creating a still life with words. Often this is through sentences listing images, in phrases separated by commas. Here’s a few examples:
Floodlit window. Mortuary glow from the cold case. Beyond the fog-condensed glass, trickling with water, winged sprays of orchids quivered in the fan’s draft: ghost-white, lunar, angelic.
Out on the street: holiday splendor and delirium. Reflections danced and shimmered on black water: laced arcades above the street, garlands of light on the canal boats.
Medieval city: crooked streets, lights draped on bridges and shining off rain-peppered canals, melting in the drizzle. Infinity of anonymous shops, twinkling window displays, lingerie and garter belts, kitchen utensils arrayed like surgical instruments, foreign words everywhere…
Such sentence construction shouldn’t work, yet it does. I’ve never been one to fawn over Donna Tartt, but this is writing I can really appreciate.
[I did take issue with some of the punctuation in the novel, though whether that’s down to Tartt, her editor or the UK publication team I couldn’t say. Take, for instance, this description of a station clerk: “a broad, fair, middle aged woman, pillowy at the bosom and impersonally genial like a procuress in a second rate genre painting.” Another solid allusion to Dutch art, but missing two hyphens if you ask me.]
The Goldfinch contains multitudes. It’s the Dickensian coming-of-age tale of a hero much like David Copperfield who’s “possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted.” It’s a realist record of criminal escapades. It’s a story of unrequited love. It’s a convincing first-hand picture of anxiety, addiction and regret. It has a great road trip, an endearing small dog, and a last line that rivals The Great Gatsby’s (I’ll leave you to experience it for yourself). It’s a meditation on time, fate and the purpose of art. It’s not perfect, and yet I – even as someone who pretty much never rereads books – can imagine reading this again in the future and gleaning more with hindsight. That makes it worthy of one of my rare 5-star recommendations.
Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?