Archive for January, 2013

Madame Solario, by Anonymous

January 28, 2013

Purchased from Alibris

Purchased from Alibris

I am cheating with the author attribution in the headline here, but it seems in keeping with the tone and atmosphere of Madame Solario. The novel, set at a fashionable Italian resort on Lake Como in September 1906, first appeared in 1956 without an author attribution but soaring sales in both the U.S. and U.K. soon provoked journalistic curiosity. Within a year, the author was revealed as Gladys Parrish Huntington — American-born, but at the time of publication “an elderly literary gentlewoman…living in the backwater of Kensington”, according to a 1957 Life magazine article. The original “anonymous” authorship had sparked speculation that the novel, with its undercurrent of scandal and intrigue, was autobiographical. Huntington was quick to dismiss that notion: while she had spent summers at Lake Como in her youth, Madame Solario was entirely the product of her imagination, she said.

Both imagination and literary precedent, I would conclude. You don’t have to get far into the novel with its presentation of Cadenabbia on Lake Como (“a fashionable resort for the month of September”) and its cast of characters before you start hearing echoes of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain or the works of Edith Wharton and Henry James, two other American emigrés who were fascinated by the privileges and excesses of fading European aristocracy and wealth:

In the gay scene that met the eye during the season, women’s clothes were the dominant note. And in the year 1906 women wore long skirts that moulded the hips and just escaped the ground; waists were small and tightly belted; busts were full and bodices much trimmed. Voluminous chiffon veils were the summer fashion. A veil would be thrown over a large hat and float over the shoulders, down to the waist or below it. So much clothing and embellishment turned each woman into a sort of shrine and where there is a shrine there is a cult. The social atmosphere of that epoch was particularly loaded with femininity.

That kind of fashion, carried over from England’s Victorian age which had ended only five years earlier, both provides protection and invites speculation from prying eyes. It is the perfect metaphor for what “life” is like at Cadenabbia: ornately formal and controlled on the surface, bubbling with gossip, rumor and intrigue underneath. In an unconventional structure, the author divides her story into three very different parts — I’ll respect that here, because the different points of view that she uses are vital to fully appreciating the book.

Part one presents the resort and its inhabitants through the eyes of a recent, out-of-place arrival who serves as a surrogate for the reader in first experiencing this very self-contained world:

A young Englishman called Bernard Middleton, who had just arrived in Cadenabbia, was responding to the atmosphere, prepared to admire and to enjoy himself. He had expected to be joined there by a friend and was met by a telegram that instead told him his friend had been taken ill at St. Mortitz and could not come yet. Bernard was a little lonely at first, but by the second day he could see patterns emerging out of the first bright impressions of the crowd, and was hoping that he might be included in a pattern — which one, he could not yet say. Looking on, he was amused and interested also by the cosmopolitan character of the company. He was still alive to the interest of being abroad, and indeed much was novel to him, for he had little experience of the world.

Indeed, Bernard is far from having acquaintance with that world. A recent Oxford graduate, his family is well-off enough to finance a European summer for him and have plans for his future — a gross disappointment to him since they have decided that he will return to England to become a clerk in his uncle’s bank rather than take up a post in the Foreign Office, his preferred option. Even that latter career would have left him scrambling to find a place in one of the Como “patterns” (“clique” or perhaps the less judgmental “set” would be the more modern term). Basically, they come down to three: an Italian group of Roman semi-aristocrats, a younger group of rich Americans featuring party-loving daughters on the lookout for continental husbands and “everybody else”, a mix of wandering East Europeans, Russians and English, particularly one Colonel Ross, distantly related to Bernard but more importantly for the novel the social rover who helps him move from set to set.

In the opening part of the novel, Bernard (mainly on the strength of his fashionable dress) punches above his social weight — far enough above, that he feels somewhat shakily secure in developing an attraction to Ilona, the daughter of the Hungarian Countess Zapponyi. It is through this attraction that he becomes aware of the Russian, Kovanski, a foreboding character who seems to inspire both love and fear in Ilona — perhaps an affair gone wrong? — that soon has Bernard preoccupied with worry.

This romantic speculation involving various resort guests is spinning along just fine with frequent boat trips, lunches and cotillions offering excuses for love-making (in the traditional sense) but both energy and complexity are added one night when the steamer pulls in with a new guest (the nightly arrival of the steamer delivering new guests is a high point of the spa day — it’s like a shot of adrenaline). Here’s how Bernard and the reader are introduced to Madame Solario at dinner that evening:

The table that had been assigned to him was by the wall, not far from the door, and two columns hid part of the dining room from his view. At a table at this end of the room — just beside a column — was Madame Solario, also dining alone. He saw her after he had sat down, and he wondered what was the correct thing for him to do. Should he bow first? It was impossible always to look away, and the moment came when he met her look. She inclined her head with a slight smile, and he felt relieved. That was over. But it was astonishing that she should be sitting alone. She must have been the only woman in the room to be by herself, and it gave her singularity in more senses than one. Nearly all the other tables were like dinner parties — he could hear, if he couldn’t see them all — and why was she not at one of them?

Madame Solario soon becomes the vortex around which all the other “patterns” and their activities will swirl — attached to none, but an influence on them all. Hapless Bernard, equally unattached in his own way, finds himself hopelessly dragged into aspects of them all, since he is only dimly aware of the “rules” of resort society. It is a convenient device for the author: by the end of Part One, the reader is beset by almost as much confusion of high society detail as Bernard.

And then Bernard virtually disappears from the novel. Part One ends with the arrival of Madame Solario’s brother, Eugene Harden, someone she has not seen for 12 years. If Bernard’s confusion was the focus of Part One, Part Two centres on the back story — and present challenges — of Madame Solario and her brother. That contrast in names (Solario and Harden, sister and brother?) offers the first hint of the complexity of both past and present, one that takes the author more than 150 pages to fully explore. It has a global geogaphic range from Cincinnatti to South America to Paris, before arriving at Lake Como. We never get full concrete details but a scandalous affair, an arranged marriage and a duel are only a few of the elements that are included in it (rest assured, the disturbing Kovanski plays a major part). If the intricate layers of spa society in Part One are confusing (and they continue to become more densely involving in Part Two), the mess of the past of Madame Solario and her brother — and what they each propose for the future — takes the plot to a whole new plateau.

All of that sets up Part Three — conveniently described as departure from Lake Como, but that is hardly adequate. Bernard does re-enter the story as Madame Solario’s “escape” accomplice — the author takes the escape spinning from Milan to Florence and back again. The conflicts in Madame Solario’s life (and Bernard’s confusion) don’t so much get resolved as they do further muddied. Those who like tidy resolutions are bound to be disappointed, but it is a realistic continuation of the tension between surface and undertow that were integral to life at the Lake Como resort.

Despite it’s original sales success, the novel has been out of print for some time, although used copies are readily available. I have an affection for “spa” novels (Mann, James and Wharton are all personal favorites) and when Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations reviewed Madame Solario I tracked down a copy immediately, although it has taken me some months to get to it. For many readers, the formality and intrigue of the spa society of declining European aristocrats (and arriviste rich Americans) are inherently phoney and frustrating — for those of us who appreciate an occasional escape into that unreal world, Madame Solario deserves to be read.

If you do like the genre, you’ll find a number of suggestions for other “resort” novels in the comments sparked by Guy’s review. And Madame Solario has finally been made into a movie, with a French-language production released in September, 2012, although reviews suggest the film does not hold much promise: “a gorgeous backdrop for an otherwise yawn-inducing portrait of the rich and decadent” was the Hollywood Reporter’s capsule assessment. That negative judgment doesn’t surprise me: you can’t make Lake Como anything but gorgeous, but I am afraid the characters of the novel are simply too complex to make the transition to film.


Dear Life, by Alice Munro

January 24, 2013

Review copy courtesy McClelland and Stewart

Review copy courtesy McClelland and Stewart

Dear Life is the fourteenth original short story collection from 81-year-old Alice Munro (and that total doesn’t include five other compilation volumes that have appeared along the way), so I am virtually certain that you have heard of her. The first, Dance of the Happy Shades, was published in 1968 — every few years since, as regular as clockwork, a new volume has appeared. The awards have been almost as regular — three Governor-Generals (1968, 1978, 1986); two Gillers (1998, 2004); and the Man Booker International Prize (2009) are just the most prestigious in what is a long list.

The dates of those awards are proof positive that there has been a consistency of quality in that extensive publishing history. And, truth be told, there has been a certain consistency of tone as well; one captured for me more than a decade back by a fellow Shadow Giller juror (herself a well-known Canadian novelist and critic whose identity I won’t reveal since I haven’t asked her permission to repeat it). It was 1998, we were considering The Love of a Good Woman (which did end up winning that year’s Real Giller, although not the Shadow) and my fellow juror said “every time I read an Alice Munro story, it is like looking at the world through sepia-toned glasses”. That metaphor works both ways. If you like Munro, those sepia-toned glasses serve to soften the harsh, often cruel, twists and realism that lie beneath the surface of every Munro story. And if you don’t like Munro generally, or even a particular story, it also works — if I can mix the metaphor, sometimes there seems to be too much treacle in the tart to make it worth the effort to appreciate the savory nuggets that are embedded in the custard.

Dear Life continues to show that consistency, in both quality and approach, but, like other recent Munro volumes, it is complemented by a surprise. In her last collection, Too Much Happiness, for example, the title story departs Munro country and moves into Dostoevsky terrority. Dear Life has a similar departure from the norm for the dedicated Munro reader: the volume contains 14 stories but the author (and her longtime editor, the legendary Douglas Gibson) have deliberately separated it into two parts.

All Munro stories seem to spring from some observation made in her real life — the first ten in this book start with those kind of observations and then soar off into fiction. The last four pieces reverse the process: an introductory note (ominously titled “Finale”) says they are:

…not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last — and the closest — things I have to say about my own life.

I’ll get to those last four memory pieces later, but let’s look at an example of the “conventional” stories first (I put those quotes in because Munro is exceptional enough that no story is really “conventional”.)

Dear Life’s opening story, “To Reach Japan”, illustrates many of the traits of a Munro story and I would like to consider them in some detail. We meet Greta and her young daughter Katy as they board a train in Vancouver, destined for a month in Toronto. Husband and father Peter, an engineer who is headed north on an assignment that has provided the excuse for the trip, is bidding them goodbye from the platform, “uneasy that the train should start to move” — note how the author uses just a phrase to introduce uncertainty into an otherwise mundane scene.

Peter was born in Soviet Czechoslovakia — his mother had carried him to the West as a baby. When Greta hears the story, she says that kind usually ends with the baby crying and then being strangled so the whole escaping party would not be endangered. Peter said his mother would never have done that — but this excerpt illustrates how Munro has her own way of creating tension inside seemingly routine history:

What she did do was get to British Columbia, where she improved her English and got a job teaching what was then called Business Practice to high school students. She brought up Peter on her own and sent him to university, and now he was an engineer. When she came to their apartment, and later to their house, she always sat in the front room, never coming into the kitchen unless Greta invited her. That was her way. She carried not noticing to an extreme. Not noticing, not intruding, not suggesting, though in every single household skill or art she left her daughter-in-law far behind.

That will be Peter’s mother’s last appearance in the story — but it tells us a lot about Greta. As well, while the “action” in Munro stories takes place on the personal level, the author never neglects to supply a much broader context. In this story, that comes quickly when (with the train still in the station) we learn that Greta, apparently “just” an ordinary mother and housewife, is also a poet, a “peculiarity” that she has not revealed to her own relatives or friends:

It would become hard to explain, later on in her life, just what was okay in that time and what was not. You might say, well, feminism was not. But then you would have to explain that feminism was not even a word people used. Then you would get all tied up saying that having any serious idea, let alone ambition, or maybe even reading a real book, could be seen as suspect, having something to do with your child’s getting pneumonia, and a political remark at an office party might have cost your husband his promotion. It was a woman’s shooting off her mouth that did it.

In fact, it was Greta’s role as a poet– coupled with her inate insecurity — that sowed the seeds for this train trip. A few years earlier she had been invited to a party for the editor of a Toronto-based magazine that had published two of her poems. She feels out of place from the start and drinks far too many Pimm’s No. 1 and pink grapefruit juice far too quickly — she ended up being rescued and driven home by a visiting journalist from Toronto, who thinks about kissing her before dropping her off. This train trip east is her own hesitant way of seeing whether she can again make contact with him.

All that takes place in the first ten pages of a 28-page story. Munro stories almost always take unexpected turns — in this one it comes early in the train journey when Greta and Katy are joined by a couple of actors in the dome car of the train. Without giving too much away, that interior story-in-a-story will end with Greta desparately searching for a missing Katy on the train and discovering her huddled on those moving plates at the join between two cars. And, also true to Munro form, we will not discover until the final few sentences whether the obscure note that Greta has sent the Toronto journalist has produced results. (A lot of Munro stories end with a separated few sentences or paragraphs that invite the reader to soldier on and build their own continuing story.)

I feel somewhat guilty only addressing one of the 10 conventional stories in this review, but felt that looking at one in depth (sort of a “how-to” in terms of how KfC reads Munro stories) was the best approach. My fellow Shadow Giller juror, Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes, faced a similar challenge with this collection and responded by doing separate posts on each story — you can find links to them here if you want to explore what each is about.

Which brings us to the four “not quite stories”, titled “The Eye”, “Night”, “Voices” and “Dear Life”. If all Munro stories are inspired by a memory, in these four pieces memory has proved stronger than imagination. For me, they offer intriguing sketches of how a story begins to take shape in the author’s mind. All of them involve innocent, but disturbing, childhood experiences that remain lodged in the author’s memory. Now that she is in the final stages of a long and rewarding life (and I don’t mean to imply that it will be ending soon), the reality of what they meant has acquired an even sharper focus, so strong that they can’t be turned into fiction. I was reminded when reading them of similar persistent memories that are developed in the childhood section of Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet, although Judt was only too painfully aware that his life was only months from ending.

If you aren’t familiar with Alice Munro’s work, I certainly would not recommend starting with those recollections — if you are, I suspect you will find them as intriguing as I did, although as “literary” pieces they don’t quite measure up to her normal standard. In fact, if you haven’t read Munro, I would not suggest starting with this volume — go back to the start with either Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) or Lives of Girls and Women (1971), because I am sure you will want to read more and it is wise to join the writer at the start of her creative journey. For those of us who have been reading her throughout a career that is approaching the half-century mark, Dear Life is proof positive that an extraordinary story-teller continues to produce work of outstanding quality, sepia-toned though some of it might be.

Hawthorn & Child, by Keith Ridgway

January 19, 2013

Purchased from the Book Depository

Purchased from the Book Depository

It doesn’t happen often, but it occurs sometimes. I finish a novel, close the cover for the last time, and have only one conclusion: “Well, I sure didn’t get that one.” Hawthorn & Child is the latest to join that thankfully quite short list.

Keith Ridgway’s 2012 novel attracted very positive attention from bloggers whom I respect — John Self at The Asylum and Will Rycroft at Just William’s Luck both had it on their end-of-year best lists. As did Booker Prize chairman Peter Stothard, although it failed to make the Booker longlist. So it obviously has substantial appeal to some.

I started it during the summer but set it aside after a few score pages — the experience was more frustrating than anything else and I put it down to my reading mood. Now that I have read the entire novel, I have much the same response. It is a novel that is told in semi-linked episodes, with both characters and events that occasionally overlap. And while the episodes are just fine in the way they establish a story, none of them have much of an ending — and for this reader the parts never came together as a whole.

The novel opens with a promising first chapter. Hawthorn and Child are North London policemen and they are on their way to an incident. The radio is feeding them short, calm bursts of information — this excerpt illustrates the mix of dialogue and narrative that will permeate the book:

Their pattern [the radio bursts] indicated some sort of emergency, declared, somewhere or other.

— What? he asked the radio.

Child said something that he couldn’t hear. The streets were deserted. What time was it? There was next to no traffic. Why was the siren on? He switched it off.

— Someone needs to do bad before we can do good.

— Shot fired. That it?

— One male injured. Local unit just arrived. Ambulance arrived. Shot fired from car. Armed response imminent. Rivers raised from his bed. All hands on deck! Scramble! Scramble!

Child was cackling at the footpaths, leering at the kerbs.

— Finally, we get to do something other than sit on our arses.

The two head from the scene to the hospital to interview the victim. He thinks he remembers being shot from an old car, “vintage” not “old banger”, perhaps even a Rolls. This episode is one of the longest in the book, at 57 pages, and by the end we still don’t know if the car is real or imagined — that perplexity is the resolution.

There is a reference to Helen Mirren (of Prime Suspect fame) in the chapter and perhaps that is what set my reading off on the wrong course. While I am not a reader of British crime fiction, Mrs. KfC and I love the television versions. And, as Hawthorn & Child moved on to other incidents, I couldn’t help thinking: this is like loading a Rebus DVD, watching the first few scenes that set up the crime and quandary, and then pulling it out, loading a disc of Frost, doing the same thing and then moving on to some opening scenes from a Morse. Okay, I’m spoiled: as much as I appreciate the construction of a good crime story, I’ve come to expect some sort of resolution. Ridgway resolutely refuses to supply any, which is perhaps the purpose of the book.

The two cops feature in most of the stories, sometimes as central characters, but often on the periphery. The author’s interest is the confusing, baffling, incomplete world that might — or might not — involve crime in North London. Given that there are a lot of crimes that don’t get solved, in one sense that makes this high realism. Perhaps mystery novelists and video crime series creators have created an unreal world where the overwhelming majority get resolved.

“Rothko Eggs” was my favorite chapter and offers a useful metaphor for my ambivalent response to the book. Cath is a student who likes art (Frida Kahlo, Francis Bacon and Jackson Pollock, yes; Damien Hirst, no). She has a grid of art postcards (thirty eight in seven rows of five, a row-in-progress of three), most sent to her by her dad. The “mystery” thrust of this chapter is tension between Cath’s parents, but that lies below the surface — the bulk of the story concerns Cath’s interest in art and her boyfriend Stuart, who might be gay although she and he have had “sort-of-sex”.

Two paintings in the Tate Rothko Room

Two paintings in the Tate Rothko Room

Ridgway sets up the art story very well:

There were some artists that she couldn’t really understand. She could see that they had left her lots of space, but she didn’t know what to fill it with. Sometimes, if they were not very well known or respected artists she decided that they just weren’t very good — that they were faking it and they didn’t know what they were doing really. But if they were famous and supposed to be amazing then they just made her feel stupid.

Stuart is more into film than art (his room features posters from Watchmen, Superbad and Finding Nemo), but he does make clumsy attempts to keep up with Cath’s art interests. She persuades him to come with her to the Rothko Room at Tate Modern because:

She didn’t know what to do about Rothko. She didn’t understand Rothko. Everything about Rothko made her want to like him. All the things people who liked him said and wrote made her want to like him.

I love the Tate Rothko collection, which I first saw at the gallery that is now Tate Britain and have visited several times since it was moved to Tate Modern. I could sit for hours looking at the nine mural paintings that were commissioned for the Seagram Four Seasons in New York, but ended up at the Tate because they obviously were simply too good for a dining room, however classy. Here’s how Ridgway captures Cath and Stuart’s experience:

She had told Stuart about Rothko, a little. How he did not move her. And he had wanted to see. He said he knew a song about Rothko by an American singer that he liked. She rolled her eyes. The only things he knew about were things he’d heard in songs. He laughed at her.

They looked at the paintings. The room was almost empty. Large flat blocks of colour frayed at the edges, set against the dark. It was gloomy in there. Why was it so gloomy? It was cool, at least. Cath sat on a bench and tried again with Rothko. Stuart stood at first. Then he sat beside her for a while. They didn’t say anything. She wanted to let him decide for himself. He stood up again and walked around the room. Then he stopped in front of one of them and his head dropped to his chest. Then she saw him wipe his eyes and look up again. She thought he was bored. He didn’t get it either. She stood and went to him and took his hand, meaning to lead him out of the room so they could look at some other stuff or get a coffee. He turned to her. He was crying. Not sobbing. But there were a couple of tears running down the side of his nose, and his eyes were red. She stared at him.

I’ve sat immersed for extended periods in the Tate Rothko Room as people circled it in 90 seconds or so and quickly left, undoubtedly thinking “anyone could do that”, and understood why paintings that hold so much appeal to me simply do not affect others. I’ll have to admit, therefore, that Ridgway is my version of Cath’s Rothko — as much as I know that others like him for good reason and as much as I want to like him, I just don’t get him. Better that I should move on to the next gallery (or, in this case, book) and hope for a more satisfying result.

KfC’s 2013 Project: Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies

January 15, 2013

Fifth Business … Definition

Those roles which, being neither those of Hero or Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organised according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.
— Tho. Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads

Available at

Available at

That’s the epigraph to Robertson Davies Fifth Business (1970) and, unlike many epigraphs, it tells us a lot about what is to come. Most obviously, given the novel’s title, the central character will be one whose purpose is to bring the story along (rather than being a hero or villain). More subtly, this will be an “old style” story, the kind that is a staple for drama and opera companies — particularly those specializing in visiting out-of-the-way towns where they don’t want to pose too much challenge to the audience.

The novel is told in the first person by the Fifth Business himself, Dunstable Ramsay, and author Davies, in admirable touring company fashion, introduces all the major characters in an incident that takes less than two pages to recount. First we meet the hero (or perhaps villain?) of the story, Percy Boyd Staunton. He’s the son of a well-off doctor (whose wealth comes mainly from shrewd land purchases) and he and 10-year-old Dunny have been out testing Percy’s “fine new Christmas sled” — alas, Dunny’s old-fashioned, well-used one has out-performed Percy’s new acquisition:

The afternoon had been humiliating for him, and when Percy was humiliated he was vindictive. His parents were rich, his clothes were fine, and his mittens were of skin and came from a store in the city, whereas mine were knitted by my mother; it was manifestly wrong, therefore, that his splended sled should not go faster than mine, and when such injustice showed itself Percy became cranky. He slighted my sled, scoffed at my mittens, and at last came right out and said that his father was better than my father. Instead of hitting him, which might have started a fight that could have ended in a draw or even a defeat for me, I said, all right, then, I would go home and he could have the field to himself. This was crafty of me, for I knew it was getting on for suppertime, and one of our home rules was that nobody, under any circumstances, was to be late for a meal. So I was keeping the home rule, while at the same time leaving Percy to himself.

KfC's 2013 Project

KfC’s 2013 Project

Deptford is a small village and getting home will not take long. Having efficiently sketched his two main characters on page one, Davies sets the plot in motion on page two. As Dunny hurries home, the Reverend Amasa Dempster and his pregnant wife, Mary, are taking their nightly walk on the street ahead of him, a walk that has attracted some critical town attention since pregnant women, especially minister’s wives, are expected to keep themselves in confinement.

Percy had been throwing snowballs at me, from time to time, and I had ducked them all; I had a boy’s sense of when a snowball was coming, and I knew Percy. I was sure that he would try to land one last, insulting snowball between my shoulders before I ducked into our house. I stepped briskly — not running, but not dawdling — in front of the Demptsers just as Percy threw, and the snowball hit Mrs. Dempster on the back of the head. She gave a cry and, clinging to her husband, slipped to the ground; he might have caught her if he had not turned at once to see who had thrown the snowball.

The incident puts Mrs. Dempster into labor — a son, Paul, is born weeks premature later that night. He will survive, as will Dunny’s guilt for his “role” in the incident. Mary Dempster and Paul will join Percy as the active characters in the drama/opera — Dunny will always be there, in the role of Fifth Business.

With the key cast in place and readers already alerted that there will be a lot of plot to the novel, author Davies steps back and supplies context. What we are reading is a document prepared by Dunstan Ramsay (he’s changed his first name for reasons we’ll discover later) upon his retirement at age 71 after forty-five years teaching at a Toronto private school. He was deeply offended by the “idiotic piece” on his retirement that appeared in the quarterly school magazine and is submitting this account of his life to the Headmaster to set the record straight.

Without giving anything away, here are some of the elements of that life that are relevant not just to Fifth Business but to the following volumes of the Deptford Trilogy, The Manticore and World of Wonders:

  • Dunny won a Victoria Cross for an action in France in the Great War; for months he was believed killed in the incident. Even in this heroic act, he was the Fifth Business, he tells us, merely reacting to circumstances. While recovering in England, he enters a relationship that supplies a depth to his life that simply was not possible to experience in rural Deptford.
  • The alternating friendship/enmity between Dunny and Boy Staunton (Percy too will change his name) will be lifelong. Since Boy goes on to become one of Canada’s richest men (his speciality is foodstuffs, especially sugary ones), a personal friend (he thinks) of the dashing Prince of Wales (he is devastated by the Abdication) and is touted as a candidate for Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor (the Queen’s representative), the relationship is a “rich” one in both material results and story.
  • Not only does Dunny’s guilt over the incident with Mrs. Dempster remain, it becomes an obsession. As his life unfolds, Ramsay becomes a world-recognized hagiologist (expert on the saints), an author of 10 books on mythic history which have sold more than three-quarters of a million copies. This interest is a flip-side of the coin of his obsession with Mrs. Dempster: he is convinced that he has personally witnessed three miracles for which she was responsible, which he feels makes her a candidate for sainthood herself.
  • He also picks up an interest in psychology and develops an expertise in both Freud and Jung, particularly the latter. While elements of that are more important in the later volumes of the trilogy, both play out here.
  • I’ve offered enough teases about what Boy gets up to (it is worth noting that he never loses the vindictiveness noted in the first excerpt here), but there is an added dimension to his role in the novel. It is fair to say that Robertson Davies had a personal reputation as a snob (he is as close as Canada can come to being the caricature of an Oxbridge don) but he was an academic one — Boy’s success in the world of of commerce and politics supplies the platform for some wonderful comic insights that only an academic snob could produce.

    And finally there is Paul Dempster. In his early teens, Dunny gets interested in the world of magic — Paul is both his audience and student. In fact, at the age of five, Paul can perform card and coin manipulation tricks better than Dunny can. Paul will also change his name (I told you Freud and Jung are present here) several times, eventually settling on Magnus Eisengrim, one of the world’s leading illusionists.

    All of that is only the infrastructure that supports a wealth of incidents and set pieces along the way. Suffice to say that Fifth Business is one of those very rare novels that not only has a continually unfurling series of well-executed plot(s), they are carried out by an equally outstanding cast of exceptionally well-drawn characters.

    I first read this novel shortly after its release and, like most readers then, was very impressed. I think this was my fourth read of the book and, like a fine wine, it has matured and acquired more depth with each reading (and perhaps that is more a measure of my own maturing and appreciation of the subtleties that passed me by on earlier readings). Dunstan Ramsay is one of those rare characters who stays in a reader’s mind forever. If you haven’t met him, find a copy now.

    There is no doubt that Fifth Business sells more copies than the two following Deptford trilogy volumes but it is worth providing a thumbnail sketch of each. In The Manticore, Davies explores his interest in psychology — Boy Staunton’s son, David, is in Switzerland undergoing Jungian psychoanalysis; Dunstan Ramsay is there recovering from a heart attack. World of Wonders is the life story of Magnus Eisengrim, who ran away to join a circus and became the world’s leading illusionist — Dunny is present in many parts of the story. While Fifth Business deserves its reputation as the best of the three that in no way is a critical comment on the other two; rather it is a testimony to how good this first volume is.

    That concludes Part 1 of KfC’s 2013 Project, revisiting 12 Canadian works of fiction that influenced me. Next up in early February is Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries (1993) which ranks as the English language’s most global-award-winning novel of the modern era — it won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle award in the U.S., the Governor-General’s Award for fiction in Canada and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the U.K.

    Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

    January 12, 2013

    Purchased at

    Purchased at

    There are a few cities in the world — London, Paris and New York come readily to mind — that serve as never-waning magnets in their power to attract certain types of aspiring writers who grew up in the hinterlands, be those hinterlands the Prairies of Canada, cornfields of Iowa or dales of Yorkshire. And many of those writers who become successful choose to write an homage that attempts to capture their version of city of their dreams.

    For readers who have had the chance to visit those cities, however infrequently, that means there is a body of literature, set across the decades if not centuries, that portrays the London or New York or Paris that we know only from our travels. I’m partial to those novels — there’s nothing better for a cold winter day than settling in with a book that brings back to life the locale of past vacations or explorations, even if the timing of the book is decades before my visits.

    Author Amor Towles doesn’t quite fit that model completely. He was born and raised just outside Boston, graduated from Yale and Stanford and is the principal in a Manhattan investment firm — no Iowa cornfields in that CV. Rules of Civility, his first book, does deserve a place in the ranks of “New York novels”, however — and for this reader, a prominent one. Towles’ New York is not the gritty, steamy one of Philip Roth or Martin Amis (in Money) — it is much more the society New York of Edith Wharton, perhaps closest of all to the New York of Truman Capote in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Answered Prayers.

    I was already making those comparisons when I came upon the following passage on page 206 of Towles novel. This is a very long excerpt for a review, but I’ve repeated it for a reason — if it strikes a chord with you, I’m pretty certain you’ll like Rules of Civility and, if it doesn’t, you might want to move on to something else immediately:

    Autumn in New York,
    Why does it seem so inviting?
    Autumn in New York,
    It spells the thrill of first-nighting.

    Written by a Belarussian immigrant named Vernon Duke, “Autumn in New York” practically debuted as a jazz standard. Within fifteen years of its first being played, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald had all explored its sentimental bounds. Within twenty-five, there would be interpretations of the interpretations by Chet Baker, Sonny Stitt, Frank Sinatra, Bud Powell, and Oscar Peterson. The very question that the song asks of us about autumn, we could ask ourselves of the song: Why does it seem so inviting?

    Presumably, one factor is that each city has its own romantic season. Once a year, a city’s architectural, cultural, and horticultural variables come into alignment with the solar course in such a way that men and women passing each other on the thoroughfares feel an unusual sense of romantic promise. Like Christmastime in Vienna or April in Paris.

    That’s the way New Yorkers feel about fall. Come September, despite the waning hours, despite the leaves succumbing to the weight of gray autumnal rains, there is a certain relief to having the long days of summer behind us; and there’s a paradoxical sense of rejuvenation in the air.

    The reference to Duke’s Autumn in New York is quite appropriate for this novel — the song first appeared in 1934; after a short prologue set in 1966, Towles’ story proper opens on New Year’s Eve, 1937. The tune has had staying power: Wikipedia, in what it acknowledges is an incomplete list, cites over 200 recorded versions, more than 50 since 2000 (KfC’s iPod playlist has six, I should say). And while the New York that Towles portrays may be that of more than 60 years ago, it too has equal staying power — this is a very “uptown” book and present-day visitors to the City will find many recognizable references.

    The author also uses that prologue to alert the reader that his story will be a bittersweet one. Katey Kontent, who will narrate the novel, and her husband are at the opening of a photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art featuring portraits taken on the New York subway, candid camera style, by Walker Evans (several of which feature later in the book to introduce new chapters). Katey recognizes one of the subjects, the then twenty-eight-year-old Tinker Grey, a banker known to both her and her husband at the time, but here “ill shaven, in a threadbare coat”:

    Twenty pounds underweight, he had almost lost the blush on his cheeks, and his face was visibly dirty. But his eyes were bright and alert and trained straight ahead with the slightest hint of a smile on his lips, as if it was he who was studying the photographer. As if it was he who was studying us. Staring across three decades, across a canyon of encounters, looking like a visitation. And looking every bit himself.

    The photo takes Katey back to the last day of 1937 and New Year’s Eve at The Hotspot, “a wishfully named nightclub in Greenwich Village that was four feet underground”. Katey was raised in Brooklyn so her “magnet” New York is Manhattan, just across the river — she’s works in the typing pool at a large law firm. Her roommate (and partner for the evening), Eve Ross, is more typical of the stylish young New Yorkers of the era (and today, for that matter):

    Eve hailed from somewhere at the upper end of Indiana’s economic scale. Her father was driven to the office in a company car and she ate biscuits for breakfast cut in the pantry by a Negro named Sadie. She had gone to a two-year finishing school and had spent a summer in Switzerland pretending to study French. But if you walked into a bar and met her for the first time, you wouldn’t be able to tell if she was a corn-fed fortune hunter or a millionairess on a tear. All you could tell for sure was that she was a bona fide beauty. And that made the getting to know her so much less complicated.

    Katey and Eve may share a room in a rundown boarding house, but that matters little — they are in New York with all its attractions and opportunities. One of which turns out to be banker Tinker Grey, who walks through the door of The Hotspot in his cashmere coat and, drawn by Eve’s flittering eyelashes, joins the two. No boarding house for Tinker — he has an apartment in The Beresford at 211 Central Park West (yes, that building too has its own Wikipedia page). What follows is a year in the ups and downs (more downs than ups, it has to be said) of three young thrill-seekers.

    Through a combination of good fortune and good sense, Katey gets out of the typing pool and finds a job as a publishing assistant at a new lifestyle magazine soon to be launched by Condé Nast, a convenient device that brings New York fixtures like the Plaza, Ritz, Dakota and others into play. Her world starts to spin much, much faster.

    If it is not already obvious, a suspenseful “plot” is not the star of Rules of Civility — well-executed as it is, the action is as predictable as the seasons that supply the timeline of the novel. The “star” is the way Towles captures New York. I’ll offer one more extended example:

    On the Thursday after Wallace left, I wandered over to Fifth Avenue after work to see the windows at Bergdorf’s. A few days before, I’d noticed that they’d been curtained for the installation of the new displays.

    Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, I always looked forward to the unveiling of the new seasons at Bergdorf’s. Standing before the windows, you felt like a tsarina receiving one of those jeweled eggs in which an elaborate scene in miniature has been painstakingly assembled. With one eye closed you spy inside, losing all sense of time as you marvel at every transporting detail.

    And transporting was the right word. For the Bergdorf’s windows weren’t advertising unsold inventory at 30% off. They were designed to change the lives of women up and down the avenue — offering envy to some, self-satisfaction to others, but a glimpse of possibility to all. And for the Fall season of 1938, my Fifth Avenue Fabergé did not disappoint.

    The theme of the windows was fairy tales, drawing on the well-known works of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen; but in each set piece the “princess” had been replaced with the figure of a man, and the “prince” with one of us.

    That excerpt is a teaser, not a spoiler — just to extend the tease a bit, you have to read the book to find which character gets the Schiaperelli and who gets the Chanel.

    A final note: This hardly seems the kind of book that KfC would rate highly. Oprah’s Magazine and People loved it, it was an NYT bestseller and it’s a book club favorite (one entrepreneur actually offers New York tours based on it) — those normally are all serious warning signs, not recommendations, for this reader. All of that hype was offset for me by anokatony at Tony’s Book World who called Rules of Civility “a smart stylish elegant novel” and placed it second on his list of 2011 favorites. Tony’s nod carries a lot of meaning for me: he introduced me to Maile Meloy on a previous best-of-year list and she has become a favorite — he didn’t go wrong with this unlikely choice either. If you have any affection at all for reading about the stylish side of New York (and I acknowledge many people don’t), Towles legitimately joins Wharton and Capote as a worthwhile and highly entertaining source.

    Justice, by Larry Watson

    January 7, 2013

    Purchased at

    Purchased at

    It is impossible to discuss Larry Watson’s Justice without making reference to the novel that preceded it, the outstanding Montana 1948, so let’s start with a brief summary of that volume. (If you do click back to my review, you will find one of the most enthusiastic of the hundreds that are now part of the archives of this blog.)

    In Montana 1948, 52-year-old David Hayden is looking back 40 years to a series of incidents that took place during the summer of his twelfth year. His father, Wesley, is the sheriff of Bentrock in northeast Montana, as was his father before him. David’s Uncle Frank is the town doctor — he’s also a war hero, revered in the community in a way that the prominent Hayden family has come to believe is its due over the generations. David’s family’s maid, a Sioux named Marie, takes sick and Dr. Frank is called in — Marie reacts by going into a panicked withdrawal and refuses to see him. That sets in a motion a process of discovery for Sheriff Wesley that eventually tears apart the bonds that have held the Haydens together.

    The seven “chapters” in Justice all involve various Haydens and friends and all take place in Bentrock prior to the 1948 of Watson’s earlier novel — the earliest (1899) tells the story of the arrival of Julian Hayden in the Montana frontier in 1899, the most recent (1937) features the marriage of Sheriff Wesley and the birth of David, who 52 years later will narrate Montana 1948.

    Readers who come to Justice with no knowledge of Montana, 1948 are likely to read it as a collection of linked short stories that cumulatively pull together the story of a frontier family. Those who have read that novel probably will see it most conveniently as a prequel that offers some sketches of background to the Haydens and other characters who form the cast of the earlier book.

    I am inclined to a somewhat different interpretation, one that I think Watson hints at in his prologue to Montana 1948:

    The events that produced these sights and sounds are so rapid and tumbled together that any chronological sequences seem wrong. Imagine instead a movie screen divided into boxes and panels, each with its own scene, so that one moment can occur simultaneously with another, so no action has to fly off in time, so nothing happens before or after, only during.

    One of the novel’s great strengths is that the author does not waste a single word, let alone scene, in its 169 pages. In his mind, Watson obviously had a wealth of well-developed scenes from the history of the Hayden family — but chose to restrict himself to memories of those that occurred in the summer of 1948. Justice is a collection of scenes from previous years that were important to the author in mentally imagining the family but, in the final analysis, not essential to that story. Referring to them as “rejected scenes” seems unnecessarily harsh; the journalist in me much prefers that old standby of “useful deep background”.

    Consider the first chapter of Justice, titled “Outside the Jurisdiction” and set in 1924 — what follows has spoilers for that chapter, but I will leave the other six alone. Wesley and his older brother Frank (in his senior high school year and due to attend the University of Minnesota) are headed to North Dakota (out of the jurisdiction of their sheriff father, hence the title) for their annual winter hunting trip:

    The plan had been to leave their home in northeast Montana, cross over into North Dakota, and head south. Eventually they would set up camp on the banks of the Little Missouri and from there hunt the red rocky bluffs, the dark wooded draws, and the sagebrush flats of the Dakota Badlands. They had hunted that region for years, and just last year they returned with four deer and over fifty pheasant and partridge. Lester [a friend who is also along on this year’s trip] had even shot a coyote. Of course last year the weather had been much different — three days of sunshine and uncommonly warm temperatures.

    Unfortunately, for Wesley, this year’s trip has much less promise, and not just because it is starting out in a major Prairie snowstorm. Frank and the travelling companions, Lester and the no-good Tommy, are three years older than Wesley so he feels very much the child of the group. Tommy has brought along three bottles of bootleg whiskey and, it turns out, a pistol — degenerate “urban” misbehavior rather than healthy badlands hunting seems to be this year’s agenda.

    That proves to be the case early on when the four get into trouble as Frank and Tom start flirting with two native girls in the cafe in McCoy where the four stop to get out of the storm. The flirting turns dangerous when Tommy responds to rejection by pulling out his pistol — one of the girls falls (or is tripped by Tom) on her way hustling out of the cafe and splits her lip seriously.

    Bad soon turns to much worse when Sheriff Cooke shows up at the McCoy Hotel where the boys have taken a room and started to sample the hootch. He takes them down to the local jail and lets them sit isolated in the cell (there is only one) for a while, before revealing that the father of the girl who fell in the cafe is Iron Hail, a local Sioux hero. The anxiety increases before Cooke and his deputy escort the four out into the snowy alley, clear a patch behind the local liquor store and tell Tommy to drop his drawers:

    “All right,” the sheriff said to Tom, as if someone had finally come up with the right answer. “You came to town looking to stick your pecker somewhere, you can stick it in that snowbank.”

    [Tommy balks for a few paragraphs, amid threats from the sheriff.]

    “Shit!” Tommy said, and more than leap toward the snow, he simply let himself lean and fall forward into it. He kept his arms folded in front of him; the instant his body hit he let out a shout that was half-laugh, half-cry.

    Sheriff Cooke commanded, “You get up when I tell you.” and at the same time the deputy with the rifle moved over and pinned Tommy down by putting his foot on his back.

    “All right, Clarence,” the sheriff said.

    The man with the shovel braced his feet, brought his shovel back like a baseball bat, and swung. The flat back of the shovel’s blade hit Tommy square on the ass, and in the cold air the metal rang like a bell, as if the shovel had met not flesh but iron. Tommy yelped like a dog, as much in surprise as in pain.

    Clarence delivered four more blows, and with each one Wesley could see Tommy’s body arch and spasm with the indecision of whether to press further into the snow or to rise up and meet the shovel.

    Lester is subjected to a similar treatment — Wesley realizes that the two have just been “spanked”, albeit with their peckers in a snowbank and a metal shovel as the disciplinary tool of choice. When he and Frank are spared the punishment, the truth begins to dawn: they may be “outside the jurisdiction” but they aren’t outside the influence of their father. Sheriff Cooke consulted Sheriff Hayden when he heard of the incident at the cafe — the two came up with the “life-learning” experience of the outdoor spanking.

    At 68 pages, that story is close to half the length of Montana 1948 — as good as it is (and it is very good) it would have been more than just another scene in the novel, it would have been a serious, unuseful, distraction. Most of the other chapters in Justice are much shorter but fit that same criteria. All are self-contained “scenes” and quite successful as stories, but they would have added nothing to the novel. That said, it would have been a loss if they were discarded: I for one am very glad that Watson held on to them and produced this separate collection.

    That for me was the most interesting aspect of reading Justice: seeing how complete and well-developed an author’s thoughts were in producing a cast of characters, but also illustrating his wisdom in realizing that some just weren’t necessary — indeed would be a barrier — for the success of the novel. That is the kind of discipline that all too few novelists possess.

    I love Larry Watson’s writing and very much appreciated this book. But if you haven’t read Montana 1948, head to that novel first; if you have, track down a copy of Justice because it adds another dimension to what is in itself an excellent novel.

    Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

    January 3, 2013

    Purchased from the Book Depository

    Purchased from the Book Depository

    Serious readers of literature inevitably find themselves reading at least a sampling of war fiction. Homer probably deserves the title of “founding father” for the genre back in the 8th century B.C.; Kevin Powers (The Yellow Birds) and Ben Fountain (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) were the latest to join the list of practitioners with well-reviewed novels published in 2012 concerning the Iraqi War. It is, alas, part of the sad history of humanity that there has been a rare time in the 29 centuries in between that there hasn’t been a conflict available for fiction writers to explore.

    Given the breadth and depth of war fiction, it is equally inevitable that each reader will have a “best of genre” selection. For this reader, that nod goes to Pat Barker for her Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and the Booker Prize winning Ghost Road). The first novel is the author’s version of the story of anti-war poet Siegfried Sassoon and neurologist/psychoanalyst/anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers’ treatment of his shell shock. While Regeneration is mainly about the upper class men who fought in WWI, Barker discovers some interesting working class characters in that process — Rivers is present in all three volumes of the trilogy, but the plebian officer Billy Prior moves to the centre in the concluding one. Taken together, the three are as good an examination as I have read of the effects of war on the individuals and societies involved (okay, Tolstoy did a pretty fair job on the same themes as well).

    The trilogy was my introduction to Barker (pre-blog, unfortunately, so there are no reviews here) and I have been a reader of both her back catalogue and new works ever since. She struck another responsive chord with KfC in 2007 with Life Class. I have an affection for novels about art and artists — this one focuses on a group of students (like the characters in Regeneration, many drawn from real life) at London’s Slade School of Fine Art in the years leading up to WWI.

    All of which is a long introduction to explain why I was looking forward to Toby’s Room. It returns to many of the characters who featured in Life Class (but you don’t have to have read that one to appreciate this one). They have now graduated, only to find themselves part of the British war effort rather than practising artists, taking us into the world of the Regeneration trilogy.

    All Barker’s novels, characters and plots have their dark sides and in Toby’s Room she wastes little time exposing them. We first meet the narrator, Elinor Brooke, in 1912 on a return home from the Slade for a family weekend — the only thing she is looking forward to about it is seeing her brother Toby, also in London as a medical student but they rarely see each other there. The two take a walk to their childhood hideaway, a disused mill. Childhood memories suddenly give way to present impulses:

    He grabbed her arms and pulled her towards him. Crushed against his chest, hardly able to breathe, she laughed and struggled, taking this for the start of some childish game, but then his lips fastened on to hers with a groping hunger that shocked her into stillness. His tongue thrust between her lips, a strong, muscular presence. She felt his chin rough against her cheek, the breadth of his chest and shoulders, not that round, androgynous, childish softness that had sometimes made them seem like two halves of a single person. She started to struggle again, really struggle, but his hand came up and cupped her breast and she felt herself softening, flowing towards him, as if something hard and impacted in the pit of her stomach had begun to melt.

    Both are shocked by what has happened but that “melting” does not stop: Elinor goes to Toby’s room that night and the two consummate their “affair”.

    Having given us incest in chapter one, Barker does not let up in the next few chapters. Through the combined influence of the Slade’s director, Henry Tonks (one of the real-life characters in the novel), and Toby, Elinor has been allowed to enrol in an anatomy lab at the medical school — Tonks believes that a hands-on knowledge of anatomy will improve her drawing. Here is Elinor meeting her cadaver:

    Mantegna’s Dead Christ. From where Elinor stood at the foot of the slab, the feet appeared huge, out of all proportion to the body. His face was dark, the eyes shuttered; nobody could have mistaken this stillness for sleep. Freed from the apprehension of an answering gaze, she let her eyes slide down, across the soaring chancel arch of his ribcage, along the flat nave of his belly to where his penis lay, a shrivelled seahorse on an outcrop of wrinkled and sagging skin.

    Barker shows no pity for the squeamish reader — several chapters are devoted to the complete dissection of the cadaver. Like the incest she introduced at the start of the book, this supplies context that will prove essential in later sections.

    Not of all that context-setting is quite so gruesome. Barker also introduces two of Elinor’s fellow students at the Slade — the upper-class fop, Kit Neville, and Paul Tarrant, a working class lad lucky to get into the toffy school. When we get to the present-day narrative that forms the bulk of the book five years later in 1917, these three (with a strong supporting role for Tonks) become the driving cast of the novel.

    That present day thread is set in motion with the arrival of a telegram announcing that Toby is “Missing, Believed Killed” in France. It is a telegram that leads to an obsession for Elinor: Is Toby truly dead? And what really happened?

    She first enlists the help of Tarrant, to whom she was briefly engaged, now back from the war because of a serious leg injury, but starting a new career as a government-paid war artist. Kit Neville was part of Toby’s unit when he went missing — Elinor and Paul track him down at Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, Kent where he is having his face re-built as a result of his own war injury. And, just to complete the circle, Tonks is working at the hospital, sketching the faces of patients as they undergo reconstructive surgery (this too is real — you can find some of the sketches online here). Tonks hires Elinor as an assistant portraitist — the process of getting Neville to reveal the story proves to be a long one so she is eager to be on site.

    Did Toby’s Room replace the Regeneration trilogy in my “war genre” ranking? No — it didn’t come close to accomplishing that, but do not take that as a criticism. In the final analysis of this novel, the war experience actually is more background than foreground; this is a novel about how fractured individuals (which we all are) come face-to-face with life-crippling events. Barker is not just a realist writer, she is ruthless in her realism, a trait shared by few novelists. Undoubtedly, that may prove too much for some (and I can understand why); for this reader, it was again proof positive that Barker is an exceptional novelist, one whom I will keep reading as long as she keeps writing.

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