‘The Odd Couple’ by Neil Simon (1965 Club)


I had intended to read at least a couple of books for The 1965 Club but it didn’t quite work out. Unfortunately work seems to have taken over my life at the moment and, although I have carried on reading (and enjoying my reading) I have found it difficult to find the time or enthusiasm to blog much. I have been trying to read as many of other people’s posts over the last week though.

I never really decide what to read for our Year Clubs until it comes to the crunch but I was considering the following: The Drought by J. G. Ballard; The Wedding Party by H. E. Bates; Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick; The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick; Closely Observed Trains By Bohumil Hrabal; I was also considering re-reading one of my favourite books, The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski. Other books from 1965 that I had read before were God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut; Stoner by John Williams; Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor; Ariel by Sylvia Plath and The Boarding-House by William Trevor. It certainly was an interesting year for books. However, in the end I noticed that The Odd Couple by Neil Simon was first published and performed in that year as well and so decided to read that for the ’65 Club.

I’m sure just about everyone of a certain age is familiar with The Odd Couple—it was initially a play, then there was a film version, then a TV-series that ran for five seasons in the ’70s, a film sequel, a ‘Female Odd Couple’, some cartoons and apparently another TV series starring Matthew Perry from Friends. It was quite successful.

My main experience was with the film version starring Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon but I’m sure I also saw some of the TV episodes when I was younger. I really enjoyed the film when I last saw it and I also enjoyed the film sequel from 1998, also starring Matthau and Lemmon, but I did wonder how much I would enjoy just reading the play. It was no problem as Neil Simon is a brilliant writer of dialogue. For those of us in the U.K. I would imagine that much of our view of New York comes from Simon….and Woody Allen…and Friends…So, it’s probably not very realistic but Simon’s play is a funny read.

The Odd Couple takes place in a single New York apartment owned by Oscar Madison (Matthau). Oscar is a bit of a slob, especially since his wife left him; he’s a wise-cracking, cynical, fun-loving kind of a guy who just wants to drink and play poker with his friends every Friday night. Felix Ungar (Lemmon) is a neurotic, obsessive cleaner who, as we discover at the beginning of the play, hasn’t turned up as he’s been thrown out by his wife. Here’s a bit of dialogue from the beginning of Act I; Oscar has just had a phone-call from Frances, Felix’s wife, and Oscar has let the others know that Felix and Frances have split up. Vinnie et al. are the other poker players.

VINNIE. They were such a happy couple.
MURRAY. Twelve years doesn’t mean you’re a happy couple. It just means you’re a long couple.
SPEED. Go figure it. Felix and Frances.
ROY. What are you surprised at? He used to sit there every Friday night and tell us how they were fighting.
SPEED. I know. But who believes Felix?
VINNIE. What happened?
OSCAR. She wants out, that’s all.
MURRAY. He’ll go to pieces. I know Felix. He’s going to try something crazy.
SPEED. That’s all he ever used to talk about. “My beautiful wife. My wonderful wife.” What happened?
OSCAR. His beautiful, wonderful wife can’t stand him, that’s what happened.
MURRAY. He’ll kill himself. You hear what I’m saying? He’s going to go out and try to kill himself.
SPEED. (To MURRAY.) Will you shut up, Murray? Stop being a cop for two minutes. (To OSCAR.) Where’d he go, Oscar?
OSCAR. He went out to kill himself.

Of course Felix soon turns up. His friends are concerned for him but Felix is not really the type of person to commit suicide—it’s too messy. When the other friends leave, Oscar and Felix talk. They’re completely opposite personalities but they’re still friends. Here’s some more dialogue:

FELIX. I can’t help myself. I drive everyone crazy. A marriage counselor once kicked me out of his office. He wrote on my chart, Lunatic!…I don’t blame her. It’s impossible to be married to me.
OSCAR. It takes two to make a rotten marriage. (Lies back down on the couch.)
FELIX. You don’t know what I was like at home. I bought her a book and made her write down every penny we spent. Thirty-eight cents for cigarettes, ten cents for a paper. Everything had to go in the book. And then we had a big fight because I said she forgot to write down how much the book was…Who could live with anyone like that?

And so the easygoing Oscar invites Felix to stay. When Act II starts the whole apartment is clean and tidy and Felix is serving drinks and nibbles to the poker players. Much of the humour is in watching these two completely incompatible people trying to live together and fail as they get on each others nerves. Oscar just wants a good time whilst Felix is content acting like a ’50s housewife. When Gwendolyn and Cecily, a.k.a. the Pigeon Sisters, make an appearance tempers realy start to flare. Here’s some dialogue where they’re arguing.

OSCAR. (With a pointing finger.) I’m warning you. You want to live here, I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to hear you and I don’t want to smell your cooking. Now get this spaghetti off my poker table.
FELIX. Ha! Haha!
OSCAR. What the hell’s so funny?
FELIX. It’s not spaghetti. It’s linguini!
(OSCAR picks up the plate of linguini, crosses to the doorway, and hurls it into the kitchen.)
OSCAR. Now it’s garbage!

Well, they argue and Oscar throws Felix out but it works out alright in the end as Felix is taken in by the Pigeon Sisters. I should read more of Simon’s plays and watch his films again.

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The Radetzky March Readalong: Part One


When Caroline, at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, and Lizzy, at Lizzy’s Literary Life, announced that they were hosting a ‘Radetzy March Readalong’ I knew I’d have to join in. The Radetzky March is comprised of three parts and Caroline and Lizzy have asked those of us taking part to consider questions related to each part. Here are my answers to the questions on Part One.

What enticed you to readalong with us?
I have read a few books by Joseph Roth and have enjoyed them all but I hadn’t read his most famous novel, The Radetzky March, which is the only book by Roth to be included in Boxall’s list 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. The books by Roth that I have read are Hotel Savoy, The String of Pearls, The Hundred Days and, one of my favourite books, The Legend of the Holy Drinker. I’ll admit that The Radetzky March had never really appealed to me as much as Roth’s other books but when Caroline & Lizzy first made public their intentions I was reading Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson which was about the First World War from Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s perspective and so I thought that it would be a good time to read a novel about the Austria-Hungaria military set prior to WWI.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?
I am reading a Kindle version of the Granta edition translated by Michael Hofmann. I bought it back in 2014 from Amazon when they were selling it off cheap. I have no issues with the translation.

Is the novel living up to your expectations?
Well, yes and no. It hadn’t appealed to me before as I’m usually reluctant to read military books; though in the past I have ended up enjoying some books, or sections of books, that have a military setting. The first chapter I really enjoyed but I felt that it read more like a self-contained short story than the opening chapter of a novel. I felt the next few chapters were a bit confusing as Roth jumps a generation to concentrate on Carl Joseph. I have now re-read parts of the book including the whole of chapters seven and eight and I’m enjoying it a lot more now. I’m now looking forward to Parts Two and Three a lot more than I was.

How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family. Their founder had been enobled following the battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title. Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)
The opening lines almost summarise the whole of the first chapter but hides enough to make the reader intrigued to find out more. I always like opening lines that draw the reader in. I thought they were effective.

Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness”. That doesn’t mean that we as readers need to be the same! How do you feel about the hero of Solferino’s crusade to return to obscurity? What are the ramifications of this for his descendants?
When the elder von Trotta discovers that the story of him saving the Emperor’s life has been used for propaganda purposes he feels as if he has been cheated of the truth. No-one he talks to can understand his level of indignation over this but it is enough for him to leave the military and move away. When he objects to this mythologising of this part of his life he just receives more honours. His faith in Emperor and Empire appears to be broken. His descendants, however, appear to accept their place amongst the aristocracy without question but this places a burden on them, and especially on Carl Joseph as he embarks on a military career, to constantly live up to the example set by the Hero of Solferino.

Carl Josef von Trotta follows his grandfather into the military. Is his life there honourable and meaningful? Is his fateful relationship with Dr Demant’s wife innocent?
Carl Joseph doesn’t seem to know quite how to behave. He doesn’t know how to talk to his servant, as he suspects his grandfather would have. He doesn’t feel comfortable with the other officers as he doesn’t share their enjoyment of drinking, womanising and playing cards. The military life in peacetime seems meaningless as he is denied the possibility of matching his grandfather’s achievement.

It is not clear whether Carl Joseph was romantically involved with Frau Demant: Demant’s father-in-law tells Demant that Carl Joseph was with his wife but Demant wants to believe that nothing is going on— Demant does not want to know the truth, whereas Baron von Trotta insists the truth should be told. Early on in the narrative everything suggests that Carl Joseph and Frau Demant’s relationship is not platonic. But once the duel has been declared Carl Joseph states that he was just escorting Frau Demant home on the night in question. This could be true but that does not mean that there was nothing going on between them before, or Carl Joseph could be dissembling. It is not clear why Demant left his wife at the theatre during the Second Act.

Strauss’s Radetzky March is heard almost as a refrain throughout this section. What is the significance of that?
As Strauss’s Radetzky March is jubilant and triumphant I can only assume that its appearance throughout the novel is ironic. As it has a military history it is relevant to Roth’s story.

Roth may not judge his characters, but his sights are aimed at other targets: the social order and the military code of honour, for instance. How does Roth critique these?
None of the Trotta men seem to be in control of their lives. When the Lt Trotta is enobled his old life is extinguished and he feels separated from his father whom he respects and loves. He forces his son, Franz, into a bureaucratic career whilst Franz forces his son, Carl Joseph, into a military career. Sons obey their fathers and subjects obey their Emperor. As aristocrats they have certain rights or privileges such as Carl Joseph’s apparent right to sleep with Sergeant Slama’s wife but they also have certain duties such as fighting duels to defend their honour—there is an excellent passage at the beginning of chapter eight which highlights this tension between rights and duties:

The officers went about like the baffling followers of some remote and cruel godhead, which simultaneously cast them as its colourfully disguised and magnificently decked sacrificial animals. People looked at them and shook their heads. They even felt sorry for them. They have many advantages, so people said. They can walk around with swords, women fall in love with them, and the Emperor looks after them in person, as if they were his own sons. But then, in a trice, before you’ve noticed anything, one of them has managed to offend another, and the offence needs to be washed away with red blood!…

Set in what was very much a man’s world, what do you think of the way Roth portrays the female characters?
Female characters are noticeable by their absence. A novel about the military is going to be mostly about men but the wives and mothers of the three von Trotta men are barely mentioned at all and there is no mention of sisters, aunts etc. I don’t think Carl Joseph’s mother is even mentioned; it’s as if male begets male. Carl falls in love with Frau Slama at an early love and doesn’t seem to get over her but one wonders if that is because she is the only female he has any contact with. Frau Demant is probably the most prominent female character in the first part.

Do you have any further comments on this section?
I initially struggled a little with my reading of The Radetzky March but I’m coming round to suspect that the trouble is with me. I sometimes find it difficult jumping from one author to another especially when their styles differ which is what happened here as I went straight from reading L. P. Hartley to Joseph Roth. I was also expecting the novel to progress slowly through the generations but instead it jumped from grandfather to grandson which was unexpected. I have sometimes found the narrative to be deliberately misleading but I’m getting used to Roth’s style—I don’t recall his other books being difficult in this way.

In writing this post I have re-read several sections and the whole of chapters seven and eight and realise there was a lot that I missed which I put down to reading large portions of the book under ‘hostile reading conditions’, i.e. noisy and disjointed. I’m looking forward to advancing to Part Two. I loved the beginning of Chapter Eight where Roth compares the years before and after WWI—Vishy quotes the whole section in his post.

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‘The Shrimp and the Anemone’ by L. P. Hartley

Eustace and Hilda by L. P. Hartley is a single-volume edition of three novels: The Shrimp and the Anemone (pub. 1944), The Sixth Heaven (1946) and Eustace and Hilda (1947). This collection also includes and additional forty page story called Hilda’s Letter which, as far as I can ascertain, was first published in this collected edition in 1958. My copy is a Faber and Faber edition published in 1979 with a cover showing the two young actors from a BBC adaption of the whole trilogy. As far as I can tell this edition is out of print in the U.K. but there is an attractive looking U.S. edition (NYRB) available. The single volume edition of The Shrimp and the Anemone may also still be relatively easy to obtain.

The Shrimp and the Anemone begins with Eustace and Hilda playing on a Norfolk beach; Eustace is a rather sickly (he has a weak heart) ten-year old boy, who is afraid of almost everything, whilst Hilda, his fourteen year-old sister, is completely different—she has almost taken over the role of their mother who died whilst giving birth to their younger sister, Barbara. Hilda is more sure of herself and used to being in control. She also likes bossing Eustace about and sometimes takes a sort of sadistic pleasure in watching him squirm. However there is a strong bond between the two siblings and they both love each other very much. The book begins with Eustace calling his sister over to a rockpool, in which Eustace can see a sea anemone in the process of eating a shrimp. Eustace, who is concerned for the shrimp, convinces his sister to try to save it. She manages to pull the shrimp away from the anemone but not in time to save the shrimp and also results in disembowelling the anemone, thereby saving neither. The sensitive Eustace sobs whilst Hilda is less concerned. As the novel proceeds we can see that the two children’s relationship is similar to that of the shrimp and the anemone with Eustace as the shrimp and Hilda as the anemone. Eustace often feels subservient to his sister, as if he has no will of his own. When he does exert his will he feels guilty and becomes sick. In the novel a couple of events occur which result in Eustace and Hilda being separated and both experience this separation as painful and like a death.

L. P. Hartley portrays the children brilliantly, both their manners of speech and their thought processes. Although the concentration is on Eustace we also get to see things occasionally from Hilda’s point of view. Eustace is meek and is overly concerned with pleasing others. He is also scared of trying anything new. Eustace has been told that if he meets Miss Fothergill, an elderly wheelchair-bound rheumatic lady who is often to be seen on the footpaths near the beach, then he must speak to her but Eustace is utterly scared of her. Here’s a bit of dialogue between Eustace and Hilda as Hilda spots Miss Fothergill approaching on a footpath.

Someone was walking alongside it [the cliff edge], perhaps two people. But Hilda had better eyes than he and cried at once, “There’s Miss Fothergill and her companion.”
   “Oh!” cried Eustace; “let’s turn back.”
   But the light of battle was in Hilda’s eye.
   “Why should we turn back? It’s just the opportunity we’ve been looking for.”
   “Perhaps you have,” said Eustace. “I haven’t.”
   He had already turned away from the approaching bath-chair and was tugging at Hilda’s hand.
   “The Bible says, ‘Sick and in prison and I visited you’,” Hilda quoted with considerable effect. “You’ve always been naughty about this, Eustace: it’s the chief failing I’ve never been able to cure you of.”
   “But she’s so ugly,” protested Eustace.
   “What difference does that make?”
   “And she frightens me.”
   “A big boy like you!”
   “Her face is all crooked.”
   “You haven’t seen it—you always run away.”
   “And her hands are all black.”
   “Silly, that’s only her gloves.”
   “Yes, but they aren’t proper hands, that’s why she wears gloves. Annie told me.”
   Annie was the Cherrington’s daily ‘help’.

Eustace’s protestations continue whilst Hilda makes sure he doesn’t escape. Eustace ends up talking to Miss Fothergill and then, as he gets more bold, pushing her in her bath-chair. Although some of his fear has abated it returns when Miss Fothergill asks Eustace and Hilda to tea. This fear of visiting Miss Fothergill grows over the next few days, especially when Hilda reveals that she won’t be accompanying him so he’ll have to go on his own. Meanwhile Eustace is asked by Nancy, a girl he is besotted with, to go on a paper-chase on the day of the tea invitation. Uncharacteristically he exerts his own will, disobeys his parents, and goes on the paper-chase with Nancy—but he pays the price as he gets caught in a thunderstorm, falls ill, and is in bed for weeks. Eustace eventually has tea with Miss Fothergill and once he gets to know her, and gets used to her ‘deformities’, he becomes a regular visitor.

That afternoon marked more than one change in Eustace’s attitude towards life. Physical ugliness ceased to repel him and conversely physical beauty lost some of its appeal.

There is not much of a plot to The Shrimp and the Anemone, instead it is an exquisitely executed character study of the two children—how they interact with each other, with other children, with adults and how they change over time. There is however an event that happens which changes the course of their lives and as I will reveal details of this event below, you may wish to skip to the last two paragraph if you are planning to read this book. During one of Eustace’s visits Miss Fothergill dies and later it is revealed that she bequeathed a large sum of money to Eustace which will enable him to attend a public school and then university. Eustace is not told of this but he soon notices that his father and aunt, and others, have begun to treat him differently. The differences are subtle, but they now show him more respect, ask his views and defer to his wishes on occasions. His father makes plans for Eustace to attend a good school but when Eustace is told by a local coach-driver that he will soon be ‘going away’ he assumes, because of his weak heart, that he is about to die. Over the following days he becomes morose and listless and talks to Hilda of writing his will. Whilst playing on the beach Eustace tries to tell Hilda of his fears and when she realises what he means she explodes in anger and fear. She feels that he’s trying to escape from them. Part of Hilda’s identity is in taking care of Eustace and she feels threatened and rejected with his talk of dying.

“How dare you talk like that? I see how it is—you want to go away—you want to leave us! You tried before, the time of the paper-chase, but you had to come back. You had to come back from Miss Fothergill too. You think you’ll be with someone who loves you more than we do—that’s why you talk about dying! But I won’t allow it! I’ll stop you! I’ll see you don’t slip away!”

It is a highly charged scene which is then quickly defused when some friends arrive congratulating Eustace on his inheritance and praising him for his foresight in getting to know Miss Fothergill. Left alone again, Eustace and Hilda discuss the money without really understanding the importance of it and then run back home care-free.

I originally read The Shrimp and the Anemone for the 1944 Club last year but didn’t have time to write anything about it—Harriet Devine and Simon (Stuck in a Book) did post reviews though. It is an astonishingly good book and I’m impressed with Hartley’s lucid writing style and sensitive portrayal of all the characters in it. The children’s dialogue, their thoughts and fears is amazingly realistic. I had originally planned to continue with the other volumes shortly after but have only got round to doing so now—I decided to re-read The Shrimp and the Anemone before the other volumes and feel that it’s a book that I could re-read many more times. I am currently on the last volume, Eustace and Hilda, and hope to post reviews of the other two volumes as well.

My beaten-up, well-worn, well-read, secondhand copy is a joy to read and hold; its heft is reassuring and the clear white (o.k. they’re yellowing very slightly) pages make it even more enjoyable to read—these things shouldn’t make a difference, but they do.

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‘The Mabinogion: How Culhwch Won Olwen’ (Dewithon19)

The Mabinogion is a collection of eleven stories that were originally written in Middle Welsh, possibly in the 12th-13th centuries. The oldest manuscripts are however from around the end of the 14th century. It is unclear how much the authors of the stories were influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain or Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian tales. In the introduction of my Penguin edition, translated by Jeffrey Gantz, it is suggested that Chrétien could have been influenced by early versions of the Welsh tales and that the modern versions could be Welsh versions of these French re-workings. No doubt scholars write papers and books on these sorts of things but I’m going to look at one of the stories in the collection called How Culhwch Won Olwen as it was one of my favourites from the collection. The title for the collection, The Mabinogion was provided by the first English translator, Lady Charlotte Guest, in 1849. Gantz suggests that a better title might be The Mabinogi and Other Early Welsh Tales but The Mabinogion, though incorrect, is now the established name for the collection of stories.

One of his [Kilydd, Culhwch’s father] advisers said, ‘I know a good woman who would suit you: the wife of King Doged.’ They decided to go and seek her; they killed Doged and brought back the woman, with her only daughter, and seized her husband’s land.

How Culhwch Won Olwen begins by telling us of Culhwch’s parents; his mother’s death when he was young and how his father eventually ‘took’ (see above) another wife. When the king’s new wife discovers that Kilydd has a son she suggests that Culhwch should marry her daughter. When Culhwch protests that he’s too young she puts a curse on him that he will never sleep with a woman until he has won Olwen, daughter of Chief Giant Ysbaddaden. As King Arthur is Culhwch’s first cousin he sets off to ask for Arthur’s help in this quest.

Culhwch set off on a steed with a glossy grey head, four years old; it was firmly crotch-jointed, hollow-hoofed and had a tubular gold bridle bit in its mouth. The lad sat in a precious gold saddle, holding two sharpened silver spears and a battle axe half a yard across from ridge to edge, an axe which would draw blood from the wind, and which was swifter from stalk to ground than the swiftest dewdrop in the month of June, when the dew is heaviest.

The narrative continues with an exquisite description of Culhwch’s clothes and sword and ends with: ‘So smooth was his steed’s gait that not a hair on his head stirred as he journeyed to Arthur’s court.’

Culhwch eventually gets to see Arthur and asks for his help in finding Olwen, daughter of Chief Giant Ysbaddaden. Culhwch then invokes her in the name of Arthur’s warriors and for the next nine pages there is a list of these warriors. It’s tempting to start skimming over this list of names as we get ‘Gwynn son of Esni, Gwynn son of Nwyvre, Gwynn son of Nudd, Edern son of Nudd, Cadwy son of Gereint’ etc., but the author of the tale starts to have some fun as we get people like ‘Drwst Iron Fist, Glewlwyd Strong Grip, Llwch Windy Hand’ et al. At one point we get a list of about twenty ‘sons of Caw’. We then get long descriptions of the attributes of others such as Sgilti Light Foot who ‘never took the road so long as he knew his way, but if there was a forest he travelled along the tree tops, and if there was a mountain he travelled on the tips of the reeds, and never did a reed bend, much less break, so light of foot was he…’ I would have liked to quote the whole list but will instead restrict myself to a few more of the more humorous examples.

Drem son of Dremidydd (who from Kelli Wig in Cornwall could see a gnat rise with the sun at Penn Blathaon in Scotland)…Gwrvan Shaggy Hair…Erwm the Tall and Atrwm the Tall (the day they came to a feast they would seize three cantrevs for their wants and they would eat until noon and drink until night; when they went to sleep they would devour the heads of insects out of hunger, as if they had never eaten; when they went to a feast they left neither fat nor lean, hot nor cold, pure nor fresh, green nor salted)…Gwrhyr Interpreter of Languages, who knew all tongues, Kethtrwm the Priest, Clust son of Clustveinydd (were he buried seven fathoms in the earth he would hear an ant stirring from its bed in the morning fifty miles away), Gwiawn Cat Eye (who could cut a corner from a gnat’s eye without harming the eye)…

And my favourite of them all:

Gwevyl son of Gwastad (when he was sad he would let one lip droop to his navel and raise the other until it was a hood over his head).

These are so inventive and so funny; the cumulative effect makes it even more amusing and is best read in full. What is funnier still is that when Culhwch has finished the list of warriors Arthur replies that he knows nothing of Olwen. He promises to discover where she lives but this takes over a year. Eventually Culhwch reaches Ysbaddaden’s castle and Culhwch can ask for Olwen’s hand in marriage. Ysbaddaden agrees but lists off a catalogue of increasingly difficult, sometimes silly and sometimes impossible tasks in an attempt to deter Culhwch; his attempts to thwart Culwhch are no doubt due to the fact that it has been foretold that Ysbaddaden will die when Olwen marries. Here are a couple of examples together with Culhwch’s replies:

‘…I must untangle my beard before I can shave it, and it will never straighten out until you get the blood of the Black Hag, daughter of the White Hag, from the headland of the Valley of Distress in the highlands of Hell.’ ‘It will be easy for me to get that, though you think otherwise.’
‘Though you get that, there are things you will not get. The blood you get will not be effective unless you get it while it is still warm, and no vessel anywhere will keep liquid warm save the bottles of Gwydolwyn the Dwarf: these retain the heat of what is poured in the east until one reaches the west. He will not give them to you of his own will, nor can you compel him.’ ‘It will be easy for me to get that, though you think otherwise.’

Culhwch then sets off on a series of adventures in Britain and Ireland which are largely unrelated to those set by Ysbaddaden. But don’t worry, there is a happy ending as Culhwch and Olwen marry and Ysbaddaden ends up with his head on a stake.

I read this as part of Paula’s Wales Readathon 2019 (aka Dewithon) at Book Jotter.

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‘A Woman’s Life’ (Une Vie) by Guy de Maupassant

A Woman’s Life was first published as Une Vie in 1883. Maupassant began working on it in 1877 when he was only twenty-seven and it was to be his first novel. The translation I read was from 1965 by H. N. P. Sloman for Penguin Books.

The book covers the adult life of Jeanne and begins with her returning home after five years in a convent. She is aged seventeen and is happy to be returning to the Poplars, the home of her loving parents. Her parents are reasonably wealthy, owning several farms, but they are slowly selling these off to raise money. Jeanne’s father, the Baron, is trying to move with the times by introducing new farming methods on his farms. Jeanne’s mother, once beautiful, now suffers from various ailments which leaves her exhausted and short of breath. A frequent visitor to the house is Jeanne’s Aunt Lison; she is in her forties, timid and unobtrusive. Here is Maupassant’s description of her:

She was a short, silent, unobtrusive woman, only appearing at meal-times and then retiring to her room, where she remained closeted all day. She had a friendly manner and was beginning to feel her age, though she was only forty-two. Her eyes were soft and sad and she had never counted for anything in the family. As a child no one had ever kissed her, for she was neither pretty nor noisy; she was like a shadow or some familiar object, a living piece of furniture that one sees every day without noticing it.

Aunt Lison appears at different parts of the story but is hardly noticed by any of the other characters at all.

Although not particularly religious the family attends church regularly out of respect for the abbé. One day at church they are introduced to their new neighbour, the young Vicomte de Lamare, who has inherited the property following his father’s recent death. Jeanne and Julien, the Vicomte, soon begin courting and decide to marry. This is, for Jeanne, a blissful period of her life. The wedding is planned for six weeks time followed by a honeymoon in Corsica. There is a wonderful scene where the two lovers go off for an evening walk in the gardens. The Baron and Baroness go to bed and ask Aunt Lison to wait up for the young couple. Coming back Julien notices that Jeanne’s shoes are wet and asks ‘Aren’t your darling little feet cold?’ Lison, hearing this, begins to tremble, then sob. When asked why she says ‘No one has ever asked me a question like that…never…never.’ She then runs off to her room much to the amusement of the young couple. Jeanne mutters ‘Poor Auntie!’ Jeanne is amused at the thought of any man making love to Aunt Lison but Jeanne is just as unprepared for her wedding night and married life. Maupassant is quite explicit, for a nineteenth century writer, in his depiction of their wedding night. Jeanne gets used to married life but does not enjoy the physical side.

After the misery of the first night Jeanne had got used to Julien’s touch, his kisses and tender embraces, though her revulsion from their more intimate relations remained. She found him attractive and loved him, and her light-heartedness and gaiety returned.

During their honeymoon in Corsica Jeanne continues to feel embarrassed about Julien’s sexual appetite. However, one day finding themselves alone whilst trekking up a mountain path she becomes more playful with Julien and she experiences physical sexual pleasure for the first time. The remainder of the honeymoon is like a dream for her.

Well, what with this being a nineteenth century novel we know that things will slowly get worse from hereon. Once they return to the Poplars the everyday realities of life become clearer. It becomes apparent that Julien is extremely miserly, even resenting spending money on food and heating, and he seems to have quickly lost interest in his wife. Jeanne, meanwhile, realises that she has nothing to occupy her time as Julien takes complete control of the finances and the running of the property. It turns out that Julien’s lack of sexual interest in his wife is because he is chasing other women; first there is the maid, Rosalie and then a local Countess, Gilberte. As the novel progresses Jeanne is let down by everyone, one by one. Her husband has affairs; even her parents, it turns out had lovers in the past; her son becomes a dissolute young man who, through his gambling debts and reckless business deals, drains Jeanne’s whole inherited wealth. When a new, puritanical, abbé arrives Jeanne becomes momentarily drawn towards religion but in the end she can’t accept his vengeful, vindictive God.

As Jeanne is introduced to the miseries of life Maupassant portrays her compassionately, he does not ridicule her for her naivety, instead he shows how she copes with it and adapts to the new situations. She is naturally optimistic even if events are sometimes overwhelming. By the end of the book Rosalie has returned and helps to organise the day-to-day running of Jeanne’s life and they become friends. The novel ends with her son, Paul, wishing to return, having already delivered his newly born daughter into her care, whom she instantly dotes on. Rosalie sums it up: ‘You see, life is never as good or as bad as one thinks.’ Maupassant has convinced us to hope for the best for Jeanne.

This was cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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‘Collected Stories’ by Richard Yates

As I was in the mood for some American realism I turned to a copy of Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, a 1962 short story collection by Richard Yates; when I had finished it I wanted to read more. Yates’ second volume of short-stories, Liars in Love, was published in 1981; all the stories from both of these publications are included in the Collected Stories as well as nine more that had only appeared in magazines. Annoyingly the Vintage version gives us a list of copyright dates and a list of the magazines they originally appeared in but they do not clarify which story was published when or where. A short introduction with a bit of info would have been nice but these Vintage editions do have some cracking 1950s style covers (see below) which partially compensates for this.

Reading all of Yates’s stories in one go highlights the similarity of the stories. Most of them are set in the ’50s or ’60s and seem to be based on autobiographical elements of his life as the characters are always of the same age as Yates, they are sometimes about writers, or younger men working in offices, or stories from a childhood in the ’30s. They often portray marriages that are on the verge of falling apart with couples arguing, separating and cheating on each other. There are a few stories set in a T.B. clinic and some concerning WWII veterans. But he also occasionally writes from a child’s perspective or from a woman’s perspective and he does this amazingly well. Some readers may find Yates a bit bleak but I don’t find his fiction bleak, just a bit ‘grubby’ at times.

In A Glutton for Punishment we learn about Walter Henderson’s childhood love of playing dead, or rather the dramatic act of dying after being shot by other boys. Walter wasn’t very good at sports but he was a master of dying. Twenty-five years later Walter is at work in his office, he’s anxious as he’s certain he’s about to be sacked as he has underperformed since taking on his current role.

There was nothing to do now but let the thing happen and try to take it as gracefully as possible.
   That was when the childhood memory began to prey on his mind, for it suddenly struck him—and the force of it sent his thumbnail biting deep into the secret matchbook—that letting things happen and taking them gracefully had been, in a way, the pattern of his life. There was certainly no denying that the role of good loser had always held an inordinate appeal for him.

Sure enough he’s called into the office to be fired. But this is where Walter ‘shines’ as he says goodbye to his colleagues, thanking them for their help over the years, he collects his possessions and confidently exits the building—it’s a perfect performance. He thinks about trying to keep it a secret from his wife until he can find another job but later on that evening the temptation to ‘perform’ again gets the better of him.

“Well, darling—” he began. His right hand came up and touched the middle button of his shirt, as if to unfasten it, and then with a great deflating sigh he collapsed backward into the chair, one foot sliding out on the carpet and the other curled beneath him. It was the most graceful thing he had done all day. “They got me,” he said.

In Builders the narrator tells us how he had a low-paid job on the financial news desk of a paper back in 1948. He was a young writer who dreamt of being the next Hemingway but he ended up getting involved with ghost-writing a series of stories for a cab-driver, Bernie Silver, who tricks him into writing up some of his notes as stories. Bernie dreams of his book selling well and eventually a film being made from it. He claims to know people in the movie business who will help and dangles the promise of future royalties in front of the writer. Bernie is not quite a conman but he has a dream to ‘build’ his book and he intends to do it any way he can, even if that means duping young writers into writing up his stories for him for next to nothing. It’s an entertaining story.

Fun with a Stranger is about the narrator’s childhood experience of his third grade teacher, Miss Snell. She had a reputation amongst the schoolchildren as a bit of an old dragon. As I love a good literary character description here is a description of Miss Snell:

She was probably sixty, a big rawboned woman with a man’s face, and her clothes, if not her very pores, seemed always to exude that dry essence of pencil shavings and chalk dust that is the smell of school. She was strict and humorless, preoccupied with rooting out the things she held intolerable: mumbling, slumping, daydreaming, frequent trips to the bathroom, and, the worst of all, “coming to school without proper supplies.”

The story leads up to a suitably grim ‘Christmas party’ organised by Miss Snell on the last day of school before Christmas.

If anything the seven stories in Liars in Love are even better than those in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness; they’re a bit longer, a bit more polished and there is more variety. A Natural Girl begins with Susan Andrews, a university student, telling her father that she doesn’t love him anymore. Susan ends up marrying one of the lecturers and the story covers the resulting ups and downs of this strange marriage. As usual with Yates’ couples they end up separating; Susan tells David, as she did with her dad, that she no longer loves him. When asked why, she replies:

“There is no why,” she said. “There’s no more why to not loving than there is to loving. Isn’t that something most intelligent people understand?”

Trying Out for the Race is about the headstrong unmotherly single mother of Nancy and her friend Lucy. They decide to live together as a way of pooling their resources. Elizabeth doesn’t get on with Lucy or her children, Nancy doesn’t get on with Lucy’s children or her mother. It’s a chaotic household and gets more chaotic when one of Elizabeth’s ex’s shows up. In the title story Warren Matthews moves to London with his wife and child. When she leaves him and returns to America he gets hitched up with a friendly prostitute and finds it difficult disentangling himself from this arrangement. Saying Goodbye to Sally is about a New York writer, Jack Fields, who has just finished his first novel and upon getting a job to write a screenplay moves temporarily to Los Angeles. He hooks up with his agent’s secretary, Sally, an attractive slightly older woman. She introduces him to her unusual friends and housemates.

“It’s beginning to sound like you live in a pretty fucked-up household.”
   “Oh, I know,” she said. “Somebody else I knew called it ‘degenerate.’ That seemed too strong a word, but later I could see what he meant.”

It’s a fun story with loads of crazy characters. Ok, I’ve raced through the Liars in Love stories a bit but I should also mention that the nine extra ‘Uncollected Stories’ are well worth reading as well. I want to read even more Yates now.

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Brexit is Dreyfus

I recently read a book on Émile Zola called The Life and Times of Emile Zola by F.W.J. Hemmings which was published by Elek Books in 1977. There was, of course, a chapter on the Dreyfus Affair which had this cartoon which humorously shows the divisions within French society at the time. For some strange reason it made me think of the current situation in the UK over Brexit.

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Filed under Non-fiction, Zola, Émile