Archive for December, 2009

A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr

December 29, 2009

Purchased from Chapters.ca

I’ll come straight to the point: A Month in the Country is one of those almost-perfect, slim novels that are an absolute delight to a reader searching for an ideal evening’s entertainment. First published by a minor academic press in 1980, it attracted significant word-of-mouth attention, then some serious reviews, leading eventually to a place on that year’s Booker Prize shortlist. It has been reprinted numerous times since — a sign of its appeal was that it was filmed in 1987 with a screenplay by Simon Gray and a cast including Colin Frith, Kenneth Branagh and Natasha Richardson. The London Review of Books critique concluded with a summary that I cannot improve on: “Slight but beautifully done, this book has a quality of its own that will not be easily forgotten.” For a more recent appraisal, you can also check out the Mookse and the Gripes — it made Trevor’s Best of 2009 list. That means my endorsement completes the trifecta.

Tom Birkin is an art restorer who arrives in the North Riding town of Oxgodby with a mission — and a contract. A local Worthy has left the church 1,000 pounds for its Fabric Fund, but on condition that first 25 guineas will be invested in investigating the restoration of a mural in the chancel arch. The minister doesn’t care that much about the mural; he does care about the Fabric Fund. Tom arrives, alone, in the rural church:

Penguin cover


The scaffolding, as I’d been told by letter, was rigged up, filling the chancel’s arch. There even was a ladder roped to it and this I immediately climbed. Much can be said against the Revd. J.G. Keach. Alas, yes. But when he stands at the Judgement Seat, this also must be said in extenuation — he was businesslike, Lord. And, in Englishmen, this is a rare virtue. We could have done with a few depot supply-majors like him in France. He had said that the scaffold would be ready and it was. He had said that, if I arrived on the quarter-past seven train, he would meet me in the church at seven-thirty. And he did.

And that was how I first saw him, his precise business-like letters made flesh, standing in the doorway before me, seeing by wet footprints that I had come. Like a tracker-dog, he looked along their trail to the foot of the ladder and then up it.

“Good evening, Mr. Birkin,” he said and I climbed down. He was four or five years older than me, maybe thirty, a tall but not a strong-looking man, neatly turned out, pale-eyed, a cold, cooped-up look about him and, long after he must have become used to my face-twitch, he still talked to someone behind my left shoulder.

I quote that at some length because it is an excellent — but also typical — example of both the economy and depth of Carr’s style. The reader not only learns something about the church and mural, but also gets a quick character and physical assessment of the not-very-likable Revd. Keach. And we discover Tom was in the trenches and foxholes of France and carries a face-twitch resulting from the experience. Not long after, a similar offhand reference informs us that his wife left him shortly after he returned from the war.

Tom sets up a bed-sit for himself in the belfry of the church. That has many advantages — it is close to his worksite, it fits his tight economic circumstances and it provides the privacy that allows him to contemplate both his demons and his opportunities. The mural is not just a job, it is a chance finally to focus on what the future might hold:

Bringing back that long-dead man’s apocalyptic picture into daylight obsessed me. That great pyramid of folk split by the arch! Because it wasn’t long before I’d made a foray up, down and across it and had a fair idea of the whole — the judge and his bailiff; below them, the three Lords of Luke 16, clad first in finery, then only in furnace glare, and, finally, the multitudes tripping smugly right to Paradise or being tossed screaming over the left-hand fiery brim.

Even when I wasn’t on the job I found myself dwelling on that immense spread of color. Particularly during those first two or three weeks when only Moon interrupted me. But then, inevitably, as happens to most of us, first thru Saturday umpiring [Tom has been drafted to serve in the weekly local cricket match], later Sunday chapel, I was drawn into the changing picture of Oxgodby itself. But, oddly, what happened outside was like a dream. It was inside the still church, before its reappearing picture, that was real. I drifted across the rest. As I have said — like a dream. For a time.

Moon? It turns out there is a second condition in the Fabric Fund bequest — a command to search for the grave of an ancestor of the Worthy whom she believes was buried outside the church graveyard because of religious misbehavior. Moon is an archaeologist far more interested in discovering the ruins of an ancient site, but he’ll turn his mind to the grave search eventually. He is also a veteran of the Great War and has set himself up in a tent on his site, not unlike Tom in his belfry. The two discover they are on similar personal missions that extend beyond their contracts.

“For a time.”? The dream starts to turn to reality when Alice Keach, the young wife of the reverend, visits the chancel:

Frankly, if Keach was as awful as he seemed, living with him didn’t bear thinking about. But mercifully, it wasn’t Baghdad, so he couldn’t drape her in a yashmak and other men could cast an admiring eye on his doe-eyed bride. And, as we sauntered back down the road, first smelling, then seeing the swathes of the hay lying in the dusk, I thought that just looking at Alice Keach was wonder enough, so that I hoped that she would keep her word and call often to see how I was getting on.

I mean to say — the pride of the Uffizi walking abroad in, God help us, Oxgodby!

The mural. The effects of War. Introduction to a small community. A fellow traveller. And an infatuation. That is a large number of story lines for a book of only 135 pages in the NYRB edition that I read. For this reader, Carr developed and explored every one of them with both completeness and sensitivity. This review has more and longer quotes than usual because his prose is hypnotic — you could open this volume at random and find a quotable section (and all those I have used come from the first third, so I am not giving anything away).

There are times — like this time of year, say — when every reader wants a book that he or she can just fall into and trust the author to take you on the way. A Month in the Country is just such a volume. Despite its brevity, it has a complexity of both story and thoughtfulness that is welcome throughout the book. As I hope the quotes illustrate, the prose never falters. The word of mouth that created the reputation of the book was dead on — Carr’s novel deserves that reputation every bit as much today as it did when it was published. A magnificent novel.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

December 25, 2009

Purchased at Chapters.ca

There is a special pleasure in discovering an author whom you have overlooked. Patricia Highsmith has more than 20 novels to her credit — and, due to a personal bias against crime fiction, I had never read any of her work. I’d seen the movie version of The Talented Mr. Ripley and thoroughly enjoyed it, but it was only in trolling around various forums and book blogs (especially John Self at The Asylum on Highsmith) that I realized my bias has prevented me from reading a very sigificant author. A new biography (NY Times review here) was a timely reminder that it was time to remedy that shortcoming. I’m glad that I did.

(Note: This review is going to assume that through the movie or simple gossip visitors here know the plot of the book. If not, you might want to stop here because there will be spoilers.)

Tom Ripley may be one of the most amoral characters in all of fiction — as we discover in the opening pages of the novel. He is in New York and on his way out of the Green Cage, a bar, he becomes convinced that he is being followed. He opts to stop in at Raoul’s, another bar:

Was this the kind of man they would send after him? Was he, wasn’t he, was he? He didn’t look like a policeman or a detective at all. He looked like a businessman, somebody’s father, well-dressed, well-fed, greying at the temples, an air of uncertainty about him. Was that the kind they sent on a job like this, maybe to start chatting with you in a bar, and then bang — the hand on a shoulder, the other hand displaying a policeman’s badge. Tom Ripley, you’re under arrest. Tom watched the door.

Ripley has been running a scam. He scouts out free-lancers — artists, writers — whom he figures (usually correctly) have probably been cheating on their taxes. He sends them a NOTICE OF ERROR IN COMPUTATION on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service, dunning letters which instruct them to make a remittance made out to Collector of Internal Revenue. He has a number of cheques, which of course he cannot cash — the thrill is in the crime, not the result. As I said, Ripley is amoral.

As it turns out, the man who follows Tom into Raoul’s is, in fact, someone’s father and a businessman as well. His name is Herbert Greenleaf, the son is Dickie, whom Tom knows, albeit only vaguely. Dickie has spent the past few months in Mongibello, Italy (a thinly disguised version of a town on the Amalfi coast) and his father wants him back. He is willing to underwrite Ripley’s excursion to Italy to retrieve his son.

If this is starting to sound like Henry James The Ambassadors, Highsmith wastes little time in acknowledging the debt. Herbert asks Tom if he has read James’ book — he hasn’t, but tries to find it in the ship library on the way to Europe. Turns out it is only available in cabin class, an irony that James would certainly appreciate.

Ripley finds Dickie with little trouble. He is one of two Americans in the town; the other is Marge Sherwood and the two have a bit of local notoriety, if not fame. The timing is the mid-1950s and the U.S. dollar goes a long way in post-war Europe. Dickie is persuing his painting (he’s not very good); Marge is writing a novel. Okay, that is another cliche of the time but it is worth noting that Highsmith wrote this novel in 1955 — her observations are creating the cliche, not exploiting it.

Highsmith was, and is, known for her ambiguous sexuality and denial of her own attraction to women. While Ripley is male, he is generally regarded as a representation of herself. If I can borrow a quote from the NY Times review:

Men never fired her imagination, except in her fiction, where her males, especially Tom Ripley, are versions of herself. It was women she wanted, and she found them in bars, on boats, at parties and, best of all, in settled relationships with other people.

Highsmith loved a triangle, and she liked to destroy it, axing the part of the couple she didn’t want, but usually sleeping with her first. Hers was a life jammed with encounters, and it is not by chance that her novels obsessively use the unexpected life-changing/life-threatening encounter as the drive into the narrative — think “Strangers on a Train” or any of the Ripley series.

While we never do find out if Dickie has slept with Marge — most likely not — there is no doubt that Marge is in love with him. And it doesn’t take long for Tom to develop his own crush on Dickie which leads to a deep jealousy. He eventually resolves it by bludgeoning Dickie to death, tying his body to a cement block and dumping block and body into the sea off San Remo. He had envisioned the possibility just days before:

Tom fixed himself an iceless drink. His hands were shaking. Only yesterday Dickie had said, ‘Are you going home for Christmas?’ very casually in the middle of some conversation, but Dickie knew damned well he wasn’t going home for Christmas. He didn’t have a home, and Dickie knew it. He had told Dickie all about Aunt Dottie in Boston. It had simply been a big hint, that was all. Marge was full of plans about Christmas. She had a can of English plum pudding she was saving, and she was going to get a turkey from some contadino. Tom could imagine how she would slop it up with saccharine sentimentality. A Christmas tree, of course, probably cut out of cardboard. ‘Silent Night’. Eggnog. Gooey presents for Dickie. Marge knitted. She took Dickie’s socks home to darn all the time. And they’d both slightly, politely, leave him out. Every friendly thing they would say to him would be a painful effort. Tom couldn’t bear to imagine it. All right, he’d leave. He’d do something rather than endure Christmas with them.

With the crime committed, Tom assumes Dickie’s identity and begins life as Dickie Greenleaf. Most of the novel is devoted to his convoluted efforts to escape detection — since there are five books in the Ripley series and this is the first, it is no secret that he will succeed. Highsmith’s interest is in the components of that story, not its resolution, and she delivers them with panache. The result is a book that is both entertaining and intriguing.

Like Crime and Punishment, or The Ambassadors for that matter, The Talented Mr. Ripley is not actually a crime novel, it is a novel about the aftermath of crime. It is exceedingly well done and in many ways I am very happy that I never got around to reading it until now. I look forward with anticipation to the next two Ripley novels (I am reading the Everyman’s Library edition which has all of the first three — I gather that the final two are not very good). And I am delighted to head into 2010 with a new author — for me, at least — to look forward to. Sometimes these gaps in reading turn out to produce wonderful new opportunities.

Small Wars, by Sadie Jones

December 21, 2009

Review copy from Knopf Canada -- click cover for excerpt

While she has only published two novels, British writer Sadie Jones has already staked her claim in a strangely under-populated section of the literary world. Her books are just a little bit too “literary” to categorize her as a “popular” novelist. Yet, they are just a little bit too popular for her to be included in the literary set. Her first novel, The Outcast (a post-WWII coming of age story), was heavily promoted as a Booker contender, but failed to make the longlist. It did win the Costa first novel award and, more important in sales terms, was a Richard and Judy Summer Read (for those of us in North America, that is about as close to being an Oprah book as they have in the UK). Sales were most impressive.

Small Wars can be planted in the same literary territory. Set in 1956 Cyprus, where the Greeks, Turks and imperial British are engaged in a three-way civil war, the central characters are a young British major and Sandhurst grad, Hal Treherne, and his wife Clara and their young twins. On the literary side, it is an exploration of terrorism, responses to it and the effect those excessive responses have on those directly involved — a topic of immense contemporary relevance. On the popular side, however, it is also the story of a deteriorating marriage. While the global aspects of the book may be driving that deterioration, both the narrative style and focus of the realtionship aspect of the novel are more in the tradition of the popular, rather than literary, novel.

Here’s a representative sample from the opening pages:

Hal had been promoted to major, and transferred from his battalion in Germany to this one, alone, not knowing anybody. Everything had been new to him. He had set about the business of leadership and his new rank with steadfast energy, and was rewarded by a smooth transition. Sleeping alone in that house for a month, as he had, he missed the company of barracks, and the isolation was grating.

The Limassol house was narrow, in a cobbled street, with no outlook to speak of and barely a lock on the door. It made Hal uncomfortable to think of it, the unsettling lack of security, and that you couldn’t see anything from the windows other than the crooked windows of other houses. If someone were to approach, or set a booby-trap, there’d be no stopping them. A few months before, in Famagusta, an EOKA terrorist had lobbed a bomb through the open window of a solider’s house as his wife was putting the children to bed. Hal knew his instinct — his agony of responsibility — must be tempered and that the Housing Officer was doing everything he could to get him married quarters in the garrison.

Those two paragraphs do a good job of summarizing the challenge the author has set herself. The training of career military men, even at Sandhurst, has been for conventional war — this generation of soldiers is dealing with anything but. The Empire is in its final stages of withdrawal and the “enemy” doesn’t wear uniforms. They wander from safe house to cave to the crowded streets of the city; “offensives” involve explosions packed into pipes and ordinary tin cans; targets are not just armed soldiers, but their wives, children and even animals.

That is obviously a highly relevant contemporary theme and Jones deserves full credit for returning to the Cyprus of the mid-1950s to explore it (with the even more useful reminder that the Cyprus conflict has not been resolved in the half-century since). Predictably, the young British soldiers (Hal at 30 is one of the most senior officers) respond with excess and military discipline breaks down, sometimes completely. That increases the danger not only to them, but to all those around them.

Jones develops that part of her story through the experience of Lawrence Davis, a National Service recruit who, because of his classical education, is serving as a translator with the special intelligence unit. Davis gets to translate the opening parts of interrogations — when it comes time to get rough, including a primitive version of water-boarding, he is politely dismissed from the interrogation room. He is fully aware of what happens after he leaves; he is equally aware that this Dick Cheney approach (sorry for the anachronism) represents a rejection of everything that the British side is supposed to represent.

Inevitably, Hal’s experience at the garrison — and the internal conflicts it provokes — start to play out in how he treats his wife. Again, Jones deserves high marks for introducing a very contemporary issue into the novel. We tend to forget that the troops we send off to fight wars on our behalf are very young. They are still trying to figure out how to configure life; facing that challenge in a war zone (let alone a kind of war that one has had absolutely no preparation for) brings unresolvable tensions and conflicts.

I would break Small Wars roughly into thirds: the first introduces and develops the global issues, the second focuses on the pressures that puts on the marriage, the final third concentrates on how Hal responds. Throughout, the narrative is fast-paced and the prose straightforward (Richard and Judy will like that if considering the book for this summer — last year’s Booker jury again left Jones off the longlist).

Alas, for this reader, the resolution is simply too tidy. While I salute Jones for addressing a complex and important issue, I found she only explored levels one and two of a conundrum that probably has at least eight or ten, even with the restrictions she has placed on her plot. She does an excellent job of setting you thinking; but leaves that thinking unsatisfied by wrapping a conclusion around it far too soon, with too many side issues simply not explored.

Having said that, Small Wars does a good enough job of raising and defining the questions that the time invested in reading it was definitely worthwhile. I may not like the author’s resolution; I do appreciate having my thinking set in motion.

The Way of the Kings, by Andre Malraux

December 18, 2009

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Translated by Howard Curtis

The opening sentence of the Wikipedia entry for Andre Malraux says he “was a French author, adventurer and statesman” — a very concise summary of a very broad life. The adventurer part started first — at the age of 21 he headed to Cambodia, removed some temple bas-reliefs and found himself facing three years in prison for stealing the carvings. An impressive array of French intellectuals interceded and his sentence was first reduced and then suspended. The adventurer part of his life continued for some time; he was with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance in World War II. That background led to what eventually became the statesman role. He was Minister of Information for De Gaulle (1945-46) and, perhaps most notably, a controversial Minister of Cultural Affairs for De Gaulle from 1958-69. It should come as no surprise that many leftish intellectuals wondered about that last role: Had the renegade changed sides?

As an author, Malraux is best known for Man’s Fate (the French title is La Condition Humaine), a novel about the unsuccesful Communist uprising in Shanghai in 1927. His bibliography includes a number of other novels (perhaps most notably Man’s Hope), many essays and two major collections published later in his life — The Psychology of Art (1947-49) and The Metamorphis of the Gods (1957, 1974, 1976). Whatever opinion you might have of Malraux’s politics, he is as close to a Renaissance man as the twentieth century had to offer.

I was a young newspaper reporter covering politics when I first read Man’s Fate in 1971 so I was quite aware of Malraux’s most recent career in the DeGaulle cabinet. Those with any knowledge of the Canada of the time will know that DeGaulle was a somewhat disruptive figure in our country — his proclamation “Vive le Quebec libre” in 1967 was one of the more controversial contributions to Canada’s French-English debate. I was intrigued and impressed by the novel and its author — many of the themes and observations seemed pertinent given the American debacle then going on in Viet Nam and Cambodia.

All of this came back to mind last year when Mrs. KfC went to Indo-China with some friends and I decided to visit some of the fiction set there (Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American were two early reads in the program). Man’s Fate was brought up from the basement and added to the pile — but when I discovered that Hesperus Press had published The Way of the Kings, Malraux’s second novel and one I did not know, I figured a detour would not be out of order.

This novel was inspired by Malraux’s bas-relief adventure: Claude is a young French adventurer, on his way to Siam, with the intention of smuggling out some traditional temple sculptures to sell back in Europe at a handsome profit. On the voyage there, he becomes entranced with a fellow passenger recounting his stories:

‘Young men don’t really understand — what shall we call it? — eroticism. Until you turn forty, you get it all wrong, you’re trapped by love: any man who thinks, not of a woman as complementing sex, but of sex as complementing a woman, is ripe for love: too bad for him. But what’s worse, there comes a time when the idea of sex, the idea of youth, comes back to haunt you, stronger than ever. Nourished by all kinds of memories…’

The speaker is Perken, a Dane who is an “old hand” in the area. He is on his way back after an unsuccessful attempt to raise funds for his own shady project. Many on ship know of him, or at least his reputation, but that knowledge comes more in the way of legend than verifiable fact:

Now the legend of Perken was roaming the ship, passing from deckchair to deckchair like the anguish or expectation of arrival, like the malevolent boredom of a long sea passage. It was still an undefined legend, full of mindless mystery rather than hard fact. There were plenty of people eager to confide, knowingly, behind cupped hands, ‘An amazing fellow, you know, amazing,’ but few who knew what they were talking about. He had lived among natives, in territory where many of his predecessors had been killed, and had held sway over them, probably using methods that had not been very legal to begin with.

Perken, in fact, wanted the funds to arm the tribes in the areas he controls, both to ward off other tribes and the colonial masters who are threatening to build a railway through the territory where he has influence. A partnership with Claude has appeal to him because it will raise those funds; for Claude, the partnership will bring access to local knowledge that he simply does not possess. There is another element to the proposed partnership, however — Perken is also in search of another European similar to himself, one Grabut, who has apparently “gone native” in a Perken-like role with one of the tribes in an area neighboring his.

Claude and Perken do strike a deal, establishing the narrative framework that will carry the book. And while that framework is developed, it is not really what The Way of the Kings (the title comes from the traditional path they will follow into the interior) is about. As the novel unfolds, Malraux concentrates more and more on less concrete themes: an exploration of male friendship and dependency, ruminations on sexuality and power and, increasingly, the preoccupation of individuals (especially adventurers) with their own mortality.

That summary invites comparisons with the work of Josef Conrad, both his novels set in the area and, of course, The Heart of Darkness, the search for the brutal African ivory trader, Kurtz. Alas, Malraux is not well-served in the comparison — his youth shows (he was only 32 when he wrote this novel) and Conrad’s exploration of imperial evil in an individual is far more developed. As this novel becomes more and more introspective, the intermingling of complicated plot and internal thoughts becomes increasingly muddled and this reader often wondered just where the author was trying to go.

Despite that, I am glad I took the detour. The progression from Conrad, through Malraux, to Greene and even Echlin (she doesn’t rate with the other three, but still adds detail to the picture) offers a useful, fictional picture of the involvement of Westerners with this very Eastern part of the world — all told from the Western perspective. At a time when global economic power is inexorably moving towards this area, that background is more than appreciated. And it offers some chilling warnings about the after-effects that imperial history and abuse will leave as we move into the future.

His resume shows that Malraux understood both individual and political power and how both thoses kinds of power can be abused. While this short novel (it is only 170 pages) is not an easy read and was written relatively early in his accomplished life, it brings its own set of rewards with it — even if it is better regarded as a “background” read, rather than a primary source.

Blog Tribute #4, dovegreyreader: Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier

December 13, 2009

Purchased from the Folio Society

dovegreyreader requires no introduction to book blog visitors. The map on her site shows visitors from 181 countries; the number of hits her blog gets every day puts the rest of us to shame. While books of all kinds are her main stock in trade (and she is an avid supporter of Canadian works), knitting, quilting and exploring Devon, Cornwall and even occasionally London are often featured. Our tastes don’t always overlap but I am certainly a regular visitor to “dovegreyreader scribbles” — and will admit that those visits in the last year have brought me more information about things like knitting and quilting than I have ever possessed before.

It is the walks and hikes — and the accompanying pictures of the Tamar Valley, Devon and Cornwall — that inspired this particular post however. I have never read Daphne du Maurier and when the Folio Society recently produced a set of four of her Cornish novels, I quickly purchased them. They are shelved in direct view from my reading chair and every time DGR ventures around the west of England I look up and remind myself that it is time to begin the du Maurier read (here is a link to a series of DGR’s posts on the 2008 du Maurier festival). I finally got the project started with Jamaica InnRebecca, Frenchman’s Creek and My Cousin Rachel will follow eventually.

Mary Yellan was raised a farm girl in Helford, in the softer, kinder region of south Cornwall. As a final pledge to her dying mother, she promised to go to live with her Aunt Patience in the much more brutal north of Bodmin Moor where her Uncle Joss is landlord at the Jamaica Inn — while the story is set in the early nineteenth century, the inn survives to this day (and I would be very surprised if DGR has not stopped in for a research visit at some point). We meet Mary on a coach — the last passengers have departed at Bodmin and she is preparing to head on to Jamaica Inn. du Maurier wastes no time in supplying some dramatic foreshadowing:

The woman came down the steps and peered into the coach.

“It’s a wild rough place up there,” she said, “and if it’s work you are looking for, you won’t find it on the farms. They don’t like strangers on the moors. You’d be better down here in Bodmin.”

Mary smiled at her. “I shall be all right,” she said. “I’m going to relatives. My uncle is landlord of Jamaica Inn.”

There was a long silence. In the grey light of the coach Mary could see that the woman and man were staring at her. She felt chilled suddenly, anxious; she wanted some word of reassurance from the woman, but it did not come. Then the woman drew back from the window. “I’m sorry,” she said slowly. “It’s none of my business, of course. Good night.”

The driver began to whistle, rather red in the face, as one who wishes to rid himself of an awkward situation. Mary leant forward impulsively and touched his arm. “Would you tell me?” she said. “I shan’t mind what you say. Is my uncle not liked? Is something the matter?”

Thus prepared, we meet Uncle Joss a few pages later when Mary is unceremoniously dropped at the Jamaica Inn and the coach hurries off across the moor:

He was a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high, with a creased black brow and a skin the colour of a gypsy. His thick dark hair fell over his eyes in a fringe and hung about his ears. He looked as if he had the strength of a horse, with immense, powerful shoulders, long arms that reached almost to his knees, and large fists like hams. His frame was so big that in a sense his head was dwarfed, and sunk between his shoulders, giving that half-stooping impression of a giant gorilla, with his black eyebrows and his mat of hair. But for all his long limbs and mighty frame there was nothing of the ape about his features, for his nose was hooked, curving to a mouth that might have been perfect once but was now sunken and fallen, and there was still something fine about his great dark eyes, in spite of the lines and pouches and the red blood-flecks.

That introduction to her uncle is bad enough for Mary, but the appearance of Aunt Patience is even worse. Mary remembers an outgoing, cheerful woman from when she knew her aunt as a child — what she finds at Jamaica Inn is a cowering, timid creature dominated by fear. Mary knows on her first night that she must escape Jamaica Inn but she feels bound by her pledge to her mother. She will not leave unless she can take her aunt with her.

It does not take long to discover that Uncle Joss is running a quite sophisticated smuggling ring from the Jamaica Inn (with more than 100 participants we eventually learn). They lure cargo ships to the rugged Cornish coast where they wreck — the ring scavenges the goods (and kills off any surviving sailors) and then distributes them from the inn. While Joss seems to be the leader, the possibility exists that he too might be taking orders from someone higher up. He responds to crises with extended benders, when his tongue tends to loosen.

Be forewarned that Jamaica Inn is a melodrama — Raleigh Trevelyan says in his introduction to the volume I read that “Daphne also once hinted to me that when writing Jamaica Inn she had been influenced by Hardy.” I certainly found Hardy influences and didn’t mind them at all — but you have to grant the author a fair bit of licence to allow the book to proceed. Mary falls in love with Joss’s younger brother, Jem, almost at first blush. Given that he’s a horse thief who comes from a family of criminals, that is a bit of stretch, but it is necessary for the book to move along.

I have always found it worth my while to allow Jane Austen and the Brontes some unlikely plot developments and found no reason to deny du Maurier the same forebearance. She needs it to develop all of her characters, the naive Mary in particular. More important, however, is that it creates the environment where she can describe the moor and the tors around Jamaica Inn — I quoted the description of Joss at some length; her desciptions of the landscape are even more powerful. I’ve never been to Bodmin Moor (but did visit Dartmoor once); I certainly feel that I have come to know it through this novel.

All of which means I am looking forward to the remaining three Cornish novels on my shelf even more — Trevelyan’s essay indicates that they are somewhat less desolate than this one. And the next time dovegreyreader posts pictures from one of her exploration trips, I’ll appreciate those with a new sensibility. We don’t get a lot of fog in Alberta — DGR’s pictures and du Maurier’s descriptions supply an excellent counterpoint on what we are missing.

2009 — KfC’s top ten

December 9, 2009

I am fully aware that 2009 still has three weeks to run, so posting a “best” list now is jumping the gun. On the other hand, those of us who love books are also quite aware that at this time of year friends often say “what book do you want for the holidays?” And other friends expect us to give them a great book. Perhaps this list will supply an idea or two on both counts.

And then there is the best gift of all. You find a book that you have not read, but want to — and it fits for a friend. So you buy two copies, one to read, one to give, and promise a holiday book discussion lunch once the reading is done. The perfect present.

Here is KfC’s list of the best 10 books that I have read in 2009, based solely on those that gave me the most pleasure and reward. I hope it both reminds you of a book that you would like to read or one that could be gifted. The list is arranged in alphabetical order by author — there is no way that I am going to try to rank my top 10.

Porcupines and China Dolls, by Robert Arthur Alexie
This incredibly impressive book has been around for almost a decade — the original publisher went bankrupt the week the first version appeared and Alexie’s book pretty much disappeared. It is a study of what Canada’s history of residential schools and their abuse produced. Written from both passion and personal experience, it is a most significant achievement. Full review here.

Ravel, by Jean Echenoz
I am indebted to the IMPAC jury for introducing me to the work of Jean Echenoz in 2009. This novella — reviewed here — is a perfect gem, with nine cameos that chronicle the French composer’s life and decline. As fiction, it also is a wonderful example of how a novelist can provide sketches of moments — and then leave it to the reader to link them. A short work that rewards not just a second read, but a third and a fourth.

The Bandini Quartet, by John Fante
I have read a fair bit of western American fiction, but the four books of the Bandini Quartet (Wait Until Spring, Bandini; The Road to Los Angeles; Ask The Dust and Dreams from Bunker Hill) are something truly special. You need to read all four and you need to read them in order, but it is a worthwhile investment. My review said that this quartet was a bridge between Chandler and Steinbeck — on reflection, that is confirmed. A wonderful reading experience.

The Bishop’s Man, by Linden MacIntyre
The first time I read this book (review here) I missed how good it was. I read it a second time before it won the 2009 Giller Prize and discovered what I had missed the first time around. Perhaps the best character study — and that is a fiction category that I love — that I read this year. MacIntyre’s novel is a most deserving Giller winner.

The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer
My personal favorite for this year’s Man Booker Prize (review here), the central feature of Mawer’s book is a house designed by Mies van der Rohe just outside Brno in the Czech Republic. Like the house, the novel is a study in modernism — there is a formality and discipline that is not to everyone’s taste. But if you can accept that conceit, it is an impressive piece of work. Also, the best book cover of the year.

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro
Is this Alice Munro’s last book? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Whatever, it does showcase the talents of the best short story writer that we know today. Some stories are set in Munro country in Ontario, others on the West Coast and the title story is a bit of historical fiction set in Europe. Munro won the Booker International prize this year — this volume is a perfect example of why Cynthia Ozick calls her “our Chekhov”. Full review here.

Barney’s Version, by Mordecai Richler
This is a book that will be looming on the horizon soon, since it is finally being made into a movie. Please, please read it before the screen version appears — it is one of the best satires that has ever been written. I reread it as part of a project to revisit some of the early Giller Prize winners — I appreciated it even more this time around than I did at first reading (review here). I do promise that there will be more revisits of Richler’s work coming up on KfC in 2010.

That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo
This is probably the most enjoyable read of the year for me — Russo is a personal favorite and his exploration of the academic world (and its foibles) crossed with a Cape Cod atmosphere produced a marvelous volume (review here). This is a very accessible novel and one that I hope will get recognition in the 2010 American book prizes — a very, very good read.

The Moses trilogy, by Sam Selvon
Okay, no one calls it the Moses trilogy, but I do (reviews here) — The Lonely Londoners, Moses Ascending and Moses Migrating. The first book has a justifiable reputation (Selvon introduces a dialect that is both accessible to readers and interests critics) but not that many people read all three works — in fact, finding a copy of Moses Migrating is a bit of a challenge. The trilogy is a perceptive study of London from a half century ago that is even more relevant today. A wonderful achievement.

A Far Cry From Kensington, by Muriel Spark
This is perhaps the biggest surprise on the list — even to me. I’ve known about Spark for some time but never really respected her and picked up this volume as a relief from heavier reading (review here). What I found was a most perceptive study of the London of the 1960s and a most delightful one at that. The Virago Classics edition that is featured here is a most impressive book — I will be reading more Spark in 2010. She is an author who deserves more attention than she has been getting.

So there is the list, chosen totally arbitrarilly from the books that I liked best this past year. Having said that, I’m rather chuffed at the way it turned out. Four of the 10 are older works; six are newer. Four are Canadian, three British, two American, one French. All of which, I would like to think, is a fair reflection of what this blog tries to achieve — an overview of writing in English, both past and present, that doesn’t confine itself to any geographic boundary.

Happy holidays. And I hope somewhere above there is an idea about a book that might fit.

Blog Tribute #3, The Mookse and the Gripes: The Humbling, by Philip Roth

December 4, 2009

Purchased at Chapters.ca

It will come as no surprise to regular visitors here that The Mookse and the Gripes was one of the blogs that inspired me — Trevor Berrett joined this year’s Shadow Giller Jury as our international judge (and has signed up for next as well) and excerpts from his reviews of the Giller shortlist have been featured here in recent weeks. Trevor lives in New Jersey and works in New York and has served as my primary blog source on American literature for the last while. He is also very interested in works in translation — if that fits your style, be sure to check out his blog as he has lined up a number of publishers and regularly features posts on new works which rarely get reviewed in conventional sources.

I owe Trevor a debt of gratitude for re-introducing me to Philip Roth, whom he recently characterized as “one of my favorite writers — he might even be my favorite.” I’ll go out on a limb and say he is the favorite — Trevor has produced reviews on 12 Roth books (including this one, you can find them all here) in 18 months, which would seem to indicate a high level of dedication to the author. I’ve read a fair bit of Roth but in a very undisciplined fashion and some recent bad experiences had soured me on the writer who seems to be on virtually every shortlist of “best living American author”. Trevor’s enthusiastic support convinced me to give Roth another chance and I read two recent titles — Everyman and Indignation — both of which I found more than worthwhile. So I was looking forward to this fall’s release of The Humbling. I was not disappointed; indeed it is an outstanding piece of work.

Roth tends to write novels in bunches (the nine Zuckerman novels, the three Kepesh books, for example) and The Humbling joins Everyman and Indignation in a loosely-connected four book project (Nemesis is due out next fall). The unifying element here is not a character but rather — so far at least — the idea of looking at mortality from different points of view. The books are short, almost novellas (this one is 140 pages of well-spaced, largish type), but for this reader at least that becomes a major strength — Roth doesn’t waste a single word and the need to keep his action focused serves him well.

The Humbling features 65-year-old stage actor Simon Axler, who is coming off disastrous performances as Macbeth and Prospero at the Kennedy Center — performances so bad that even those who didn’t see them are mocking him. “He’d lost his magic”, the book begins:

Of course, if you’ve had it, you always have something unlike anyone else’s. I’ll always be unlike anyone else, Axler told himself, because I am who I am. I carry that with me — that people will always remember. But the aura he’d had, all his mannerisms and eccentricities and personal peculiarities, what had worked for Falstaff and Peer Gynt and Vanya — what had gained Simon Axler his reputation as the last of the best of the classical American stage actors — none of it worked for any role now. All that had worked to make him himself now worked to make him look like a lunatic. He was conscious of every moment he was on stage in the worst possible way. In the past when he was acting he wasn’t thinking about anything. What he did well he did out of instinct. Now he was thinking about everything and everything spontaneous and vital was killed — he tried to control it with thinking and instead he destroyed it.

I’ve hung around the theatre world a bit and that paragraph pretty much summarizes how a stage acting career comes to an end (a very good friend, Eugene Stickland, actually wrote a play (“Queen Lear”) about it that I described in a post here). Roth has never written a play, but he obviously knows the stage world well — this novel, in fact, is structured in three “acts” that make it a virtual play.

Dealing with Axler’s realization that his acting end has arrived is Act One. His career has extended for more than four decades, despite no formal training. He was truly born to be an actor and he knows it:

It had started with people speaking to him. He couldn’t have been more than three or four when he was already mesmerized by speaking and being spoken to. He had felt he was in a play from the outset. He could use intensity of listening, concentration, as lesser actors used fireworks. He had that power offstage, too, particularly, when younger, with women who did not realize they had a story until he revealed to them that they had a story, a voice, and a style belonging to no other. They became actresses with Axler, they became the heroines of their own lives.

If you get the chance to see an outstanding stage actor (not screen), watch for that “intensity of listening”. It is what distinguishes the great from the merely adequate. Alas, there is a flip-side to this natural power: if playing a role is an extension of life behavior, living a life risks becoming the playing of a role. As he contemplates his dilemma, Axler ponders suicide (Roth lists 17 plays that Axler has appeared in that involve suicides and that is only a start). He is still quick-witted enough to check himself into a psychiatric institution and in his 26-day stay there rediscovers his ability to listen. But that too has potential tragic consequences, because he takes to sitting with the group of failed suicides who discuss their “experience” each evening and eventually joins the discussion:

One evening Axler spoke up — to perform, he realized, before his largest audience since he had given up acting. “Suicide is the role you write for yourself,” he told them. “You inhabit it and you enact it. All carefully staged — where they will find you and how they will find you.” Then he added, “But for one performance only.”

In true dramatic tradition, Act Two (“The Transformation”) starts by heading off in what seems to be a completely different direction. Axler returns from his institutional stay to his farm in upstate New York and is visited by Peegan Mike, the 40-year-old daughter of old acting friends. Axler and her parents were in a production of “Playboy of the Western World” when her mother was pregnant — if you don’t know the play, her odd name comes from the female lead in Synge’s play.

Peegan has been a lesbian for 17 years, but the two connect with suspicious immediacy and she makes love with a man for the first time since college on her visit. The two quickly grow closer, she abandons her lesbian lover and they enter a serious relationship despite the risk that the 25 year gap in ages entails. Axler’s re-found ability to listen and only then react is central to making the relationship grow.

It has its challenges. Peegan’s ex-lover is also her boss, the dean at a nearby college, who wants no part of their relationship ending. The dean loses it and eventually phones Peegan’s parents (now working at a theatre in the mid-West) who don’t like the idea of the new relationship at all. While they have at least come to terms with idea of a lesbian daughter, the prospect of one starting up a relationship with a 65-year-old male, recently institutionalized (“crazy”), is beyond them. Axler, for his part, can’t understand the notion of a 40-year-old who is still in thrall to her parents, but he applies his listening skills to Peegan’s concerns. Even worse, it begins to dawn on him that not only is he playing a role, it is merely a supporting one.

I’ve already revealed that The Humbling is a tragedy, so this review will skip details of Part Three. Let’s just say that Roth has sewn a wealth of seeds in the first two “acts” of his book and they all come to maturity in the final act. A quote from Axler’s role as Prospero (which appears on Page 7) is detail enough:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits and / Are melted into air, into thin air.”

The Humbling is an exceptional book — like a good play, it only takes two hours from start to finish, but engages the reader in every minute of those two hours. And, as playgoers know, when you leave a good production of a good play the experience has only started — when you close the cover on this book, the power of Roth’s own accomplishment has only begun.

Blog Tribute #2, The Asylum: Money, by Martin Amis

December 2, 2009

Purchased at Chapters.ca

I first came across book blogger John Self on the 2008 Man Booker forum — I’d only just begun exploring the net for book comments and that was one of my first stops. We seemed to have a significant overlap of common interests, I learned a lot from his perceptive comments and was even more impressed when I started visiting his site, The Asylum. It quickly became a regular stop for me and when I contemplated starting this blog, John’s approach served as a model for what I hoped to accomplish. John is a new father and has put the Asylum on “break” for a while but don’t let that stop you from visiting — there is a wealth of content in the archives and you will soon discover that his reviews provoke some of the most interesting and informative content exchanges that you can find anywhere.

I found out fairly quickly that “John Self” was a nom-de-net, but a gaping hole in my own reading meant that it was some months before I realized that the alias had actually been drawn from Martin Amis’ Money. My relationship with Amis runs hot and cold — we are virtually the same age and I’d read a number of his early novels (The Rachel Papers and London Fields come quickly to mind) but I had somehow missed this 1984 novel. I’ll admit that I have been much less interested in Amis’ more recent non-fiction work and there is a part of me that wonders if he is now not a lot more interested in being Amis the character rather than Amis the novelist. With a new novel (The Pregnant Widow) due out next year (after a couple of years of delays), I marked Money down as a suitable book for a year-end read, both to discover the fictional John Self and remind myself what the 35-year-old Amis was producing.

While I am glad that I made the journey, allow me to jump to my overriding conclusion: Money, for this reader at least, has not aged very well. There are certainly some interesting reminders of 1980s but Amis’ wit and satire (“shocking, funny and on-target portraits of life in the fast lane” is the back cover description) seem dated and overdrawn to the point of being merely crude, at least to this contemporary reader.

The John Self of the book is a 35-year-old London-based producer of edgy television advertising who is about the break into the movie world as a director with his first feature film, to be called either “Bad Money” or “Good Money” — he and his American producer haven’t quite decided yet. Actually all they have is John’s concept and producer Fielding Goodney’s apparent access to investor money. Getting “stars” and a script occupies much of the action in this narrative stream in the novel — it is a tease, not a spoiler, to say that novelist Martin Amis eventually appears in the book as a script rewriter.

John drinks (a lot), eats fast food (a lot) and obsesses about sex (more than a lot). He is in a long-term relationship (well, more than a few months at least) but that doesn’t assuage that last obsession:

Everything was on offer outside. Boylesk, assisted showers, live sex, a we-never-close porn emporium bristling in its static. They even had the real thing out there, in prostitute form. But I wasn’t buying, not tonight. I walked back to the hotel without incident. Nothing happened. It never does, but it will.

It definitely does. John has another obsession, that his girl, Selina Street, is having an ongoing affair, probably produced by the childhood sexual abuse that formed her character:

It must be tiring knowledge, the realization that half the members of the planet, one on one, can do what the hell they like with you.

And it must be extra tough on a girl like Selina, whose appearance, after many hours at the mirror, is a fifty-fifty compromise between the primly juvenile and the grossly provocative. Her tastes are strictly High Street too, with frank promise of brothelly knowhow and top-dollar underwear. I’ve followed Selina down the strip, when we’re shopping, say, and she strolls on ahead, wearing sawn-off jeans and a wash-withered T-shirt, or a frilly frock measuring the brink of her russety thighs, or a transparent coating of gossamer, like a condom, or an abbreviated school uniform…The men wince and watch, wince and watch.

As the title states, the unifying theme to all this is “money” — to make the movie, to finance the booze and travel, to purchase (or help obtain) the sex. John bounces back and forth between London and New York, while also bouncing between all the concerns that his obsessions (including making the movie) produce, but the one constant is the money — at this stage, mainly spending, but with the promise of also obtaining.

All of this creates the opportunity for the novelist of a wealth of set pieces where he can take aim at people with (or without) money, the relationship between money and sex, the consumerism (or lack thereof) that money permits. The jacket calls this a “frightening picture of Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s England” but for me at least that is a major, major stretch — while Prince Charles and Diana figure in the book (the action is set in the summer of their marriage), the political leaders do not. I’d say that if you were looking for an over-arching theme (beyond money and what it, or the lack of it, does) it would be an exploration of what the era of the permissive sixties has produced a decade and a half down the road. As can be expected of Amis, it is not a pretty picture.

I expect this novel would have landed better with me if I had read it when it was published — it might even land better with me now if I had not lived through that era myself. Unfortunately, as it was, John’s excesses become increasingly tiresome and even some clever plot work towards the end fails to brighten the novel up. I couldn’t help but wonder as I read the book that sometimes edgy writing and satire begins the process of shrinking at the same rate and timing as the circumstances that produced it. Perhaps Amis was just too timely in this work. Or the blogging John Self can explain to me how I totally miss the point of novel narrator John Self.

I still intend to read the new novel and, as a result of reading Money, will approach it with even more curiousity. Amis’ frequent ventures into controversy have kept his name and reputation at the centre of attention — I’ll be interested in what the now 60-year-old novelist has to say in this new work.


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