Category Archives: Fiction

‘Afternoon Men’ by Anthony Powell

Afternoon Men was Anthony Powell’s first novel and was published in 1931 when Powell was only 26 years old. I found this copy in a secondhand bookshop when I was reading his twelve-volume series of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time. It’s a fun book and will certainly be of interest to anyone that has read Dance as the style and structure of the book is so similar to his later work. The book has little plot and instead concentrates on characters and the dialogue between the many characters, who are all from the same jaded semi-aristocratic, intellectual milieu as in Dance.

The main character is William Atwater who has an unsatisfying job at a museum. The book opens with Atwater in a bar discussing with his friend, Pringle, Pringle’s current medication regime. We are then introduced to several other characters who enter the bar and are known to Atwater. As is typical with Powell we get to know the characters from dialogue and short little character descriptions. Here, for example, is his description of Atwater early on in the book.

He was a weedy-looking young man with straw-coloured hair and rather long legs, who had failed twice for the Foreign Office. He sometimes wore tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles to correct a slight squint, and through influence he had recently got a job in a museum. His father was a retired civil servant who lived in Essex, where he and his wife kept a chicken farm.

The group from the bar decide to go to a party where we are introduced to even more characters. Powell does a great job of showing a party in full swing with random conversations with random people, the constant flux of partygoers and the general chaos involved with people getting drunk, some passing out in the bathroom, drinks getting spilt and so on. Atwater meets a girl, called Lola (‘She had the look of a gnome or prematurely vicious child.’) whom he unsuccessfully tries to get to go home with him, that is until he is obviously entranced with the appearance of the beautiful Susan Nunnery, then Lola is eager to get Atwater away from the party.

Although most of the humour is in the dialogue and the character descriptions Powell occasionally gives us a bit of slapstick. Mr. Scheigan is an American publisher who was with Atwater at the party; he was drunk at the bar and then fell asleep on the floor at the party. When they decide to leave they try to get Scheigan home in a taxi.

   They all went downstairs and lent a hand in getting Mr. Scheigan into his taxi. He got out once, but they put him back in again, and as the taxi drove off they saw him leaning through the window talking to the driver. The taxi door came open as it turned the corner at the end of the street, but as long as the vehicle remained in sight Mr. Scheigan had still not fallen out. Barlow said:
   “He seemed quite unused to getting into taxis.”

The first section also contains a chapter where we see Atwater at work in the museum. He’s visited by an annoying member of the public called Dr. Crutch who tries to get private access to some of the exhibits, presumably exhibits of a sexual nature. There’s also an amusing paragraph where Atwater lists all the things he could, and should, do but instead he ‘sat and thought about existence and its difficulties.’

We get to eavesdrop on more lunches, parties and chance meetings; the characters develop more as we find out more background information and gossip. As Atwater pursues Susan, Lola pursues Atwater. Powell describes Atwater’s seduction of Lola as ‘mechanical’ and can only lead to an anti-climax but he appears to be making progress with Susan.

   Susan poured herself out some more wine. She said:
   “You’re nice. You must come and see me some time. I live miles away from anywhere with my father. You’ll like him.”
   “Tell me about him.”
   “He’s a curious little man with a walrus moustache.”
   “What does he do?”
   “He’s a failure.”
   “Where does he fail?”
   “Oh, he doesn’t any longer,” she said. “He’s a retired failure, you see. You must meet him.”
   “I’d like to.”

Atwater takes Susan to see some boxing but she warns him that she won’t fall in love with him, and she doesn’t, instead she plans to go away from London for an unspecified period of time.

In the final third of the book Atwater visits his friend, Pringle, in the country with some of his other friends. Just when we think the novel is not going to go anywhere Powell threatens to give us a bit of drama, only to pull back at the final moment—it works really well and is quite amusing. And there’s some more great dialogue, such as this:

   The barman came to the other side of the counter.
   “Time please,” he said.
   Harriet said: “You mustn’t hurry a lady drinking a pint of beer. The effects might be fatal.”

As a side note I was watching the BBC documentary on John Betjeman, which was originally broadcast in 2014, called Return to Betjemanland when the presenter, A.N. Wilson, quoted an Anthony ‘Pole’ making a comment about Betjeman. From the context I guess he meant Powell and just assumed that it sounded a bit odd because of the plum in Wilson’s mouth. But it turns out that that is how Powell’s name should be pronounced: ‘Pole’, not ‘Pow-all’ – see this article by Anthony Powell’s granddaughter on the family name. Was everyone else aware of the correct pronunciation of his name?

A new biography of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling, who wrote the Handbook to A Dance to the Music of Time, is coming out in October—see here.

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‘Jean Santeuil’ by Marcel Proust (Part 2 – an Exceptional Excerpt)

Image source: scan of personal copy

Having written a review of Jean Santeuil at the half-way mark I had intended also writing a review of the second-half but time got the better of me and it’s now nearly a month since I finished it—I usually have to write a review soon after reading a book or it will never happen. But I would like to mention that the second-half was just as good as the first-half and continued in much the same way; the book lacks focus and ends up being a series of fragmented events but the writing is still impressive and I’d certainly suggest that readers of In Search of Lost Time (ISOLT) should give it a go.

Although Proust’s style of writing in Jean Santeuil is much more straightforward than ISOLT I realised at one point that I was reading a long page-long sentence that readers of ISOLT will be familiar with. It was fun to see that Proust was playing around here and experimenting with style. I thought that I’d include it in a post as it is interesting as a stand-alone quote but it should be remembered that this is not typical of the style in Jean Santeuil.

Winter was come indeed bringing with it those pleasures of which the summer dreamer knows nothing — the delight when the fine and glittering day shows in the window, though one knows how cold it is outside; the delight of getting as close as possible to the blazing range which in the shadowy kitchen throws reflections very different from the pale gleams of sunlight in the yard, the range we cannot take with us on our walk, busy with its own activity, growling and grumbling as it sets to work, for in three hours time luncheon must be ready; the delight of filling one’s bowl with steaming café-au-lait — for it is only eight o’clock — and swallowing it in boiling gulps while servants at their tasks come in and out with a, ‘Good morning: up early, aren’t you?’ and a kindly, ‘It’s snug enough in here, but cold outside,’ accompanying the words with that smile which is to be seen only on the faces of those who for the moment are thinking of others and not of themselves, whose expressions, entirely freed from egotism, take on a quality of vacillating goodness, a smile which completes that earlier smile of the bright golden sky touching the window-panes, and crowns our every pleasure as we stand there with the lovely heat of the range at our backs, the hot and limpid flavour of the café-au-lait in our mouths; the delight of night-time when, having had to get up to go shiveringly to the icy lavatory in the tower, into which the air creeps through the ill-fitting window, we later return deliciously to our room, feeling a smile of happiness distend our lips, finding it hard not to jump for sheer joy at the thought of the big bed already warm with our warmth, of the still burning fire, the hot-water bottle, the coverlets and blankets which have imparted their heat to the bed into which we are about to slip, walled in, embattled, hiding ourselves to the chin as against enemies thundering at the gates, who will not (and the thought brings gaiety) get the better of us, since they do not even know where we have so snugly gone to earth, laughing at the wind which is roaring outside, climbing up all the chimneys to every floor of the great house, conducting a search on each landing, trying all the locks: the delight of rolling ourselves in the blankets when we feel its icy breath approaching, sliding a little farther down the bed, gripping the hot-water bottle between our feet, working it up too high, and when we push it down again feeling the place where it has been still hot, pulling up the bedclothes to our faces, rolling ourselves into a ball, turning over, thinking — ‘How good life is!’ too gay even to feel melancholy at the thought of the triviality of all this pleasure.

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‘Jean Santeuil’ by Marcel Proust (Part 1)

Image source: scan of personal copy

Marcel Proust started to write Jean Santeuil around 1896 and finally abandoned it by the end of 1899 before embarking on a completely different project of translating some of John Ruskin’s works into French. Jean Santeuil was not published until 1952, thirty years after Proust’s death, it was translated into English by Gerard Hopkins and published in 1956. Proust started writing it after the completion of his collection of short stories, Pleasures and Days (Les plaisirs et les jours), and it’s unclear exactly what sort of novel he had planned. The confusion over his aims is best described by Proust himself at the beginning of the introduction (though I would imagine that this excerpt was added near the end of the project):

Should I call this book a novel? It is something less, perhaps, and yet much more, the very essence of my life, with nothing exraneous added, as it developed through a long period of wretchedness. This book of mine has not been manufactured: it has been garnered.

It is fair to consider Jean Santeuil as a forerunner to his later book In Search of Lost Time (ISOLT) (a.k.a. Remembrances of Things Past). Many of the themes from ISOLT are contained within this book, as well as many of the episodes but there are of course many differences as well. Jean Santeuil is much more clearly biographical than ISOLT with many of the characters, especially Jean’s parents, obviously based on people that Proust knew. Once the introduction is out of the way Jean Santeuil starts off in a similar way to ISOLT with Jean unable to sleep unless he gets a goodnight kiss from his mother. Jean Santeuil is written in the third person and, unlike ISOLT, we get to know some of the other characters’ thoughts and views. I found this of interest right from the start of my reading of Jean Santeuil as it is quite a different approach to that taken in the later novel where we are basically stuck in the narrator’s head and point of view. When I was reading ISOLT I often wondered what the other characters were thinking. The writing style of Jean Santeuil is also more succinct than ISOLT, lacking Proust’s more labyrinthine sentences that can be both a joy and a nuisance, giving it a much more direct and punchy effect but maybe missing some of the mystery of ISOLT. Because it’s more straightforwardly autobiographical we get more facts: for example, it’s stated that Jean is seven years old during the ‘night-time kiss’ episode: it was never quite clear how old the narrator was during the episode when reading ISOLT and many of us (I read it along with a GoodReads group) believed he was older.

We are warned by André Maurois, in the preface, that:

Jean Santeuil is an entirely different book from Remembrances of Things Past, not only because it is unfinished, but because it lacks the master theme of the later work (the metamorphosis of a weak and nervous child into an artist); the continuity of the leading characters (Odette, Swann, Charlus, Legrandin, Norpois, Vinteuil, and many others are not yet born); the decision to write in the first person, and the courage to plunge into the sulphurous abyss of Sodom.

Which is all true and is what makes Jean Santeuil the weaker book, but for those of us who have read ISOLT it is very interesting to see the early manifestations of the characters and scenarios and to experience Proust trying to work out what to do with his characters. In Jean Santeuil Jean becomes obsessed with a girl, Marie Kossichef, as well as her parents; they play together on the Champs-Elysées and becomes distraught when she does not turn up. Whilst on holiday in Etreuilles (cf. Combray) Jean becomes overwhelmed by the beauty of the hawthorn blossom; his aunt is confined to her bed and views the village events from her window; later on Jean befriends a young aristocrat, Bertrand de Réveillon (cf. Saint-Loup), and recounts an episode where he clambers over the tables and chairs in order to speak to Jean; and there are involuntary memory episodes and artistic musings, which will all sound faimiliar to readers of ISOLT.

One of my favourite epsiodes in ISOLT is when the narrator sobs over having to leave the hawthorn blossom in Combray as he has to return to Paris. Well, in Jean Santeuil there is a similar episode, not quite as histrionic, but great nonetheless.

When Jean and his mother left Etreuilles, Monsieur Sureau had gathered for them great boxfuls of hawthorn and of snowballs which Madame Santeuil had not the courage to refuse. But, as soon as Jean’s uncle had gone home, she threw them away, saying that they already had more than enough in the way of luggage. And then Jean cried because he had been separated from the darling creatures which he would have liked to take with him to Paris, and because of his mother’s naughtiness.

It’s worth comparing it to the episode in ISOLT:

“Oh, my poor little hawthorns,” I was assuring them through my sobs, “it isn’t you who want me to be unhappy, to force me to leave you. You, you’ve never done me any harm. So I shall always love you.” And, drying my eyes, I promised them that, when I grew up, I would never copy the foolish example of other men, but that even in Paris, on fine spring days, instead of paying calls and listening to silly talk, I would set off for the country to see the first hawthorn-trees in bloom.

In the Jean Santeuil version I imagine little Jean stamping his feet a bit and shedding a tear, whereas in the ISOLT verison I sense something close to psychological trauma. I have to admit that I like both versions.

There is also an example of one of Proust’s ‘involuntary memory’ episodes. I found it very striking and more powerful than the episodes in the later work. I think this is partly because it involves smells rather than taste or other sensory stimuli as the trigger, as I find smells are the most likely, for me, to have such an effect and this event also comes at a point when Jean is already emotionally unstable. It occurs after the teenage Jean has just had an argument with his parents who have told him that he can’t see his friend, Henri, as they believe him to be a bad influence. He calls his parents ‘mad’ and stomps out of the room to his bedroom, slamming doors along the way and smashing a vase in his fury. After he’s calmed down a little and feeling a little cold he goes to his wardrobe and pulls out a coat roughly and tears it. It’s one of his mother’s old coats that has been stored in his wardrobe.

This happened to be a black velvet coat, trimmed with braid, and lined with cherry-coloured satin and ermine, which, mauled by the violence of his attack, he pulled into the room like a young maiden whom a conqueror has seized and dragged behind him by the hair. In just such a way did Jean now brandish it, but even before his eyes had sent their message to his brain, he was aware of an indefinable fragrance in the velvet, a fragrance that had greeted him when, at ten years old, he had run to kiss his mother—in those days still young, still brilliant and still happy—when she was all dressed up and ready to go out, and flung his arms about her waist, the velvet crushed within his hand, the braid tickling his cheeks, while his lips, pressed to her forehead, breathed in the glittering sense of all the happiness she seemed to hold in keeping for him.

The whole scene is brilliant and I wonder why it didn’t make it into ISOLT in this form. Jean Santeuil also contains scenes and events that don’t appear in ISOLT. For example Jean’s father seems to be more prominent than in ISOLT. There are some schoolday scenes as well as character studies of fellow schoolchildren, teachers and work colleagues of his father. There is also a chapter on various scandals that were topical at the time, especially the Dreyfus Affair.

I am only half-way through this long book but it is certainly worthwhile reading. It is always going to be mainly of interest to people that have read ISOLT but the good thing is that it’s not just an early version of that novel but different enough to have some novelty. I suspect that the second half may not be as good as the first half, which may indicate why Proust gave up on it but it is surprising that he just abandoned it so abruptly. I have re-read the relevant chapters in the William Carter biography to try to see why Proust gave up on the book but there is little to help us; although Proust experienced some personal problems during this period I think it was mostly weariness that caused him to stop as he’d been working on it for several years. It is surprising though that he didn’t try to work some short stories from his efforts or show it to a potential publisher as I’m sure some would have seen the potential in it. Or maybe he didn’t because he knew that he would return to it later, refreshed.

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The Reviews That Escaped Me – July ’17

A little while ago I had the idea of reading the four most recent novels/novellas by Milan Kundera one after the other and reviewing them. Although I had read at least one of them before I wasn’t sure whether I had read the others or not. After the publication of Immortality in 1990, which is possibly my favourite of his novels, Kundera’s output dwindled significantly; his output in this period consisted of Slowness (La Lenteur) (1995), Identity (L’Identité) (1998), Ignorance (L’Ignorance) (2000), The Festival of Insignificance (La fête de l’insignifiance) (2014). Kundera was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 but moved to France in 1975 and these post-Immortality books were all written in French rather than Czech. Of course as I read them in English translation it doesn’t really make much difference but it was interesting to notice that the style was still recognisably Kundera, the only difference with his older books was that they were shorter and his style was a bit more sparse.

So, I had intended to review each book separately but it’s now been over a month since I read them and I have to accept that I’m not going to do it, mainly because they’re starting to blur together in my mind and I usually find that I have to write a review soon after finishing the book or I lose the impetus to do so. Although shorter than his early works I still enjoyed reading them. As always Kundera analyses his characters’ motivations, thought processes, their conversations and interactions with other characters as well as highlighting any misunderstandings between them. All his characters analyse and philosophise about their lives and the world generally, which may annoy some readers, but I find that Kundera is not doing this for effect or as a gimmick but out of genuine inquisitiveness and playfulness as he places his characters in certain situations and wonders what will happen to them.

Instead of any reviews I thought I would share a few of my favourite quotes from the books.

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: a man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.
—From Slowness

For love is by definition an unmerited gift; being loved without meriting it is the very proof of real love. If a woman tells me: I love you because you’re intelligent, because you’re decent, because you buy me gifts, because you don’t chase women, because you do the dishes, then I’m disappointed; such love seems a rather self-interested business. How much finer it is to hear: I’m crazy about you even though you’re neither intelligent nor decent, even though you’re a liar, an egotist, a bastard.
—From Slowness

Remembering our past, carrying it around with us always, may be the necessary requirement for maintaining, as they say, the wholeness of the self. To ensure that the self doesn’t shrink, to see that it holds on to its volume, memories have to be watered like potted flowers, and the watering calls for regular contact with the witnesses of the past, that is to say, with friends. They are our mirror; our memory; we ask nothing of them but that they polish the mirror from time to time so we can look at ourselves in it.
—From Identity

To die; to decide to die; that’s much easier for an adolescent than for an adult. What? Doesn’t death strip an adolescent of a far larger portion of future? Certainly it does, but for a young person, the future is a remote, abstract, unreal thing he doesn’t really believe in.
—From Ignorance

Overall, Slowness was my favourite of the four and is comparable to his other works. There was a scenario near the end of the book where all the characters were brought together into a scene by the side of a pool in a hotel; we know a little bit about each character but the characters themselves know nothing of each other and their actions are quite confusing for each to comprehend. Kundera even brings together two characters from different time periods, the eighteenth and twentieth century, to highlight how modern life forces us to experience pleasures differently than in the past.

The other novellas were enjoyable to read but were not quite as good as Slowness. My enjoyment of Identity was spoiled for me as Kundera relies on an ‘it was all a dream’ ending. In Ignorance Kundera concentrates on the experience of being in exile, returning to your homeland and how our memory can play tricks on us. I didn’t quite get the ending but I think that was my fault. The most recent, and shortest, of the four is The Festival of Insignificance and it shows that Kundera can still produce an entertaining and intelligent work; here Kundera considers navels, apologisers and Kalinin’s bladder; there’s a superb scene describing a woman’s unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Image source: scan of personal copy

I also read another volume of short stories by Arthur Schnitzler called Selected Short Fiction which was published in 1999 and translated by J.M.Q. Davies. It includes two of Schnitzler’s early stream-of-consciousness works, Lieutenant Gustl and Fräulein Else, the first of which is rather funny, whereas the second is more dramatic, even melodramatic, but seen from a single viewpoint. The stories span Schnitzler’s whole literary career from 1888 to 1931 and are in a variety of styles. I found Success quite amusing; a policeman is ridiculed by other officers as well as his fiancée for not being able to make an arrest. When his fiancée flaunts the fact that she is spending the day with another man and doesn’t much care for him she calls him ‘a surly ape’. The policeman ends up dragging her and her friend in to the station as his first arrest. From then on he has no trouble making more arrests. Schnitzler has quite a wicked sense of humour; in The Duellist’s Second he recounts the problems of a second who ends up sleeping with the wife of the dead duellist when he visits her to tell her of her husband’s death. It’s worth tracking down a copy as some of the translations are unavailable elsewhere.

I don’t often go on a book-buying spree as my reluctance to part with money usually takes over but I couldn’t resist buying these three books by H.E. Bates on the British countryside. They are Through the Woods (1936), In the Heart of the Country (1942) and The Happy Countryman (1943); all three books contain loads of illustrations.

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‘Clochemerle-Babylon’ by Gabriel Chevallier

Image source: scan of personal copy

Last year I read Clochemerle by Gabriel Chevallier and wished to continue my reading about the inhabitants of that village in Beaujolais. Clochemerle was published in 1934 and the events in the novel took place in the early ’20s, whereas the sequel, Clochemerle-Babylon was written twenty years later and the events take place in the early ’30s. So, it’s ten years since the ‘scandals’ in Clochemerle—how has it changed? Well, first of all we’re informed that the curé Ponosse, a central figure in the first book, has died. Ponosse was well-loved by his parishioners, partly due to his love of wine.

The death of the Curé Ponosse occurred in the vintage month, when his beloved Clochemerle was impregnated with the odour of new wine, in the golden glory of a brilliant, hot September. The old priest died in the apotheosis of a great year, famous for its wine, one of those years whose fragrant soul is destined to be poured, later, from bottles, to rejoice the heart of man, to celebrate earth’s abundance, the memories of happy days, and perfect summers.

It’s a good year for Clochemerle wine and Ponosse’s name is forever linked to such a great wine year, which would have pleased him immensely. Ponosse died peacefully in his garden after a frugal meal and a glass of wine, muttering ‘Clochemerle…dear Clochemerle.’ After he is laid to rest the question is, who will replace him?

In Clochemerle-Babylon there is little plot, as such, even less than in the first book, instead Chevallier concentrates on characters and allows them to develop throughout the novel. Chevallier is also determined to show how much has changed in the ten years or so since the end of the First World War, even if outwardly it seems to be much the same. The title of the book refers to how some of the older, more prudish, characters see the ways of the modern world and how Clochemerle is on a slippery slope into decadence and immorality. But even those that aren’t so critical are still taken aback by the pace of change.

It was true that the elders found everything changing all about them with a precipitation which was leaving them stripped of authority. The girls (kids they remembered no bigger than that) suddenly flowered and married. The lads returned from their military service with blasé airs and a new vocabulary. A horde of new brats was born, making their disprespectful uproar in Clochemerle.

So, in this age of jazz, electricity, aeroplanes and motor cars who is Ponosse’s replacement? The Curé Noive who is the complete opposite of Ponosse:

He was a tall, heavy fellow, this priest, his face bloodless and sinister, in his forties, sombre as the ace of spades, all bones, hands, and feet. His profile was aggressive, his chin like a fender, his whole person seemed black, including the sombre eyes glittering with the light of fanatical piety.

And his sister, who serves as his housekeeper, is even more severe. Even worse than his intense piety, in this region of winemakers, is Noive’s dislike of wine. Chevallier humours us with a few chapters illustrating just how incompatibe the new curé is with Clochemerle before getting rid of him after nearly all of the villagers, including the Baroness, plead with the Archbishop to get rid of him. The Archbishop is soon convinced of the mistake in imposing such a pious curé on the village—the case of Clochemerle 1929 also helps him decide that the villagers are best left to doing what they do best, making wine, and not concerning themselves with religious ideas.

The Clochemerle 1929 was a magnificent wine. Drinking it in small sips, his grace the Archbishop felt himself well disposed towards the Clochemerlins. It takes all sorts to make a world and a Church, to people Heaven and Hell. But there was no denying that it took capable vignerons to make a wine like this, men whose minds must on no account be distracted by excessive metaphysical cares.

So Curé Noive leaves Clochemerle and is replaced with a more suitable man, the Curé Patard, an ex-military man who declares that God ‘knows you’re a sinful lot of swine. He’ll put up with you as you are.’ He likes his wine too, which is good.

With Patard taking up his new position Chevallier switches his focus with Part Two. Clochemerle is now being affected by the U.S. stock market crash of 1929. There is less demand for their wine and the good times now seem to be over. Clochemerle even has its first registered unemployed, Tistin la Quille. In an amusing chapter titled Tistin has himself Registered, Tistin convinces the council of Clochemerle to register him as unemployed, something that had never happened before in Clochemerle. The council is happy to do so as it shows them in a benevolent light and highlights their democratic principles. Tistin becomes a bit of a local clebrity due to his unemployed status and ends up getting two young widows pregnant; he doesn’t want to marry either as this may jeopardise his unemployed status. Chevallier’s satirical eye passes over much of the politics, religion, sexual differences of Clochemerle society; much of which is amusing though a lot of his views may seem outdated, or sexist, these days.

Clochemerle-Babylon is an amusing book and one that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. It’s got even less of a plot than the first one but it’s fun catching up with some of the old characters from the first book as well as being introduced to new characters. There’s a lot more characters than the ones introduced in this review. The next, and last, book in the series is Clochemerle-les-Bains which I hope to read soon.

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‘Quartet in Autumn’ by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977 Barbara Pym’s novel, Quartet in Autumn focuses on the lives of four work colleagues, Norman, Edwin, Letty and Marcia, who are all single and approaching retirement. They work in the same office; we never find out what it is they do but it seems as if their jobs are pretty superfluous as none of them will be replaced when they retire. They seem to spend most of their time making cups of tea and eating jelly babies. All four characters live alone, have no immediate family and very few friends. Norman lives in a bedsit, likes fried food and complaining; Edwin is a widower who is interested in attending church functions and likes making holiday plans, though he rarely goes on holiday; Letty also lives in a bedsit and plans to move to the country on retirement to be close to her friend, Marjorie, whom she has known since childhood; Marcia lives in her deceased parents’ house. Since her parents and her cat died she has largely withdrawn from the world around her. She collects milk bottles and tinned food and likes cataloguing things. She’s not a big eater.

Although there’s a lot of humour in this novel I was glad that Pym is not too hard on these characters. Each character is aware, to different degrees, that they are out of sync with the world around them and that their impending retirement is only going to exacerbate this. At first it’s difficult distinguishing between the two male characters and equally between the two female characters but their differences soon emerge. For example it soon becomes clear that Marcia is a bit odder and more reclusive than Letty. Marcia has recently had a mastectomy and has formed a kind of crush on the surgeon who performed on her; she looks forward to her hospital appointments and occasionally takes the bus to the surgeon’s house in the hope of seeing him. Marcia had vaguely thought of Norman in a romantic role but now Mr Strong, the surgeon, has replaced Norman in her thoughts. She buys mostly tinned food but barely works up the enthusiasm to use their contents, usually making do with a biscuit and a cup of tea. As the novel continues she gets thinner and thinner, her appearance becomes stranger and her garden is wilder. She has aroused the interest of the social services, in particular Janice Brabner who sees it as her duty to help Marcia whether she wants it or not.

Letty lives in a bedsit; she was the daughter of middle-class parents and had moved to London in the late twenties where she met her friend Marjorie. Letty often meditates on the strangeness of life and wonders how it could have been different.

Like most girls of her generation and upbringing she had expected to marry, and when the war came there were great opportunities for girls to get a man or form an attachment, even with a married man, but Marjorie had been the one to marry, leaving Letty in her usual position of trailing behind her friend. By the end of the war Letty was over thirty and Marjorie had given up hope for her. Letty had never had much hope anyway.

Although they chat throughout the day the four colleagues rarely enquire about each others’ lives outside the office. Even their lunchtimes are spent in different ways. Norman, for example, likes to go to the British Museum or, when the weather is nice, a visit to the park. The problem is that nearly everything about modern life is a source of irritation to Norman such as long hair, semi-nudity in public, litter, abandoned cars or just cars in general, etc. It’s slightly worrying that I can identify with Norman. Edwin, however, is more satisfied, though a bit duller, filling his days attending church services and functions and reading the Church Times.

Letty’s plans for retirement become derailed when it turns out that her friend Marjorie is going to remarry. About the same time her landlady sells her house to an exuberant Nigerian Christian family who aren’t really to Letty’s liking. With her prospects looking grim her thoughts often turn to her approaching retirement, equating it with death.

Letty allowed her to ramble on while she looked around the wood, remembering its autumn carpet of beech leaves and wondering if it could be the kind of place to lie down in and prepare for death when life became too much to be endured.

But there is a positive side to the novel and that is that, despite their awkwardness, the characters do try to reach out to each other. For example, Norman helps to find some lodging for Letty, after their retirement they organise a lunch and all three characters try to reach out to Marcia even if Marcia is largely beyond help. Letty adjusts to her new lodgings and landlady and starts trying some new things, such as helping out with the church as well as watching television and sharing meals with her landlady. She comes to realise that she has slightly more control over her life than she had thought before.

So, the humour has a dark edge, very often commenting on death. As Marcia clears away some plastic bags she ponders:

So many things seemed to come in plastic bags now that it was difficult to keep track of them. The main thing was not to throw it away carelessly, better still to put it away in a safe place, because there was a note printed on it which read ‘To avoid danger of suffocation keep this wrapper away from babies and children’. They could have said from middle-aged and elderly persons too, who might well have an irresistible urge to suffocate themselves.

Or this quote as Letty sits down to chat with her new landlady following a funeral:

‘I think just a cup of tea…’ There was something to be said for tea and a comfortable chat about crematoria.

If this sort of thing upsets you then you may wish to give this book a miss, but you’d be missing out on a funny, compassionate story of four awkward but endearing characters. The end is very uplifting.

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Filed under Fiction, Pym, Barbara

‘Paris’ by Émile Zola

Image source: scan of personal copy

Paris is the last volume in the Three Cities trilogy and was first published in 1898. After the struggle I had with the previous volume, Rome, (see here and here) I did wonder if I would ever finish the trilogy; but I have. Even the first volume in the series, Lourdes, was a bit of a struggle. The main character throughout the series is the Abbé Pierre Froment, a priest who no longer retains his faith, and although Zola makes us sympathise with Froment’s predicament we know right from the start that he will end up leaving the church; it just takes so bloody long for it to happen. The whole series is seriously flawed, in my opinion, Lourdes would have worked better as a piece of journalism, Rome should have been abandoned completely, although a short story could possibly have been salvaged from it, and Paris, which was the best of the three, would still have worked better without Pierre’s struggle with his faith.

Paris opens with Pierre agreeing to take some alms from Abbé Rose to a former house painter, called Laveuve, who is on the verge of starving to death. Abbé Rose is being watched by his superiors as his persistent alms-giving is starting to annoy the church hierarchy. Pierre agrees to take the few francs to the man and visits Laveuve in his working-class slum. Pierre witnesses many scenes of poverty which Zola describes ruthlessly. Pierre enquires with a family as to the whereabouts of Laveuve, whom they know as ‘The Philosopher’. Pierre eventually locates him in a nearby hovel.

Here, on a human face, appeared all the ruin following upon hopeless labour. Laveuve’s unkempt beard straggled over his features, suggesting an old horse that is no longer cropped; his toothless jaws were quite askew, his eyes were vitreous, and his nose seemed to plunge into his mouth. But above all else one noticed his resemblance to some beast of burden, deformed by hard toil, lamed, worn to death, and now only good for the knackers.

Pierre not only delivers the alms from Rose but he also spends the rest of the day trying to get Laveuve admitted into the Asylum of the Invalids of Labour by using his connections with the wealthy people on the board of the organisation. Zola here presents the high-society of Paris, particularly the Duvillard’s family and friends; the Baron Duvillard is a banker involved in an African Railway scheme and his wife, Eve, does at least want to help Pierre. But he’s passed around from person to person, none of whom are willing to help him directly. In the end all his efforts are in vain as Leveuve dies before any decision can be made. He is disgusted with himself that he had allowed his hopes to rise once again, to hope that he could actually help people with charity, and as a result his doubts return.

He had ceased to believe in the efficacy of alms; it was not sufficient that one should be charitable, henceforth one must be just. Given justice, indeed, horrid misery would disappear, and no such thing as charity would be needed.

Pierre is then witness to an act of terrorism as he notices a man, Salvat, whom he had seen when visiting Laveuve, meet Pierre’s brother, Guillaume. Salvat walks away to the Duvillard’s mansion, followed by Guillaume, who is followed by Pierre. Pierre watches Salvat enter a doorway and is soon seen running from the building; Guillaume enters the building and there follows an explosion. Pierre helps his injured brother get away and lets him stay at his house to recuperate. The only casualty of the bomb is a young servant girl.

Pierre and Guillaume, who had been estranged, now become better acquainted and Pierre gets to know both Guillaume’s family and his revolutionary friends. Guillaume is a chemist who had been working on a new explosive and Salvat had managed to pilfer some of this when he was working briefly for Guillaume. The rest of the novel now concentrates on Pierre’s complete disassociation with the church and his appreciation of Guillaume’s scientific and atheistic outlook on life. Pierre is completely astonished and then smitten by Guillaume’s fiancée, Marie, who seems to embody the best of this new, more open, outlook to life. Now that Pierre has lost his faith in God he seems to find a new faith in some sort of scientific positivism, whereby all the problems of the world are going to be solved by socialism, science and work. This was no doubt close to Zola’s personal views but it certainly seems to be highly unrealistic to a modern reader. I wonder how the contemporary reader would have found these arguments? It is strange that all the political talk about socialism and anarchism concentrates on Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon et al. rather than Marx, Engels, Bakunin et al.; it’s almost as if a hundred years of political thought meant nothing to Zola.

There is a lot more in this novel as well; there’s the manhunt of Salvat as well as his public execution; the threat of terrorism; there’s Zola’s look at bourgeois society and its decadence at the end of the nineteenth century by portraying political, financial and moral corruption; there’s the joys of cycling (for men AND women); the joys of marriage and fatherhood. Unusually for Zola this novel has a very positive, almost utopian, ending, predicting the downfall of Catholicism and the rise of Science and Justice.

Therein lies the new hope—Justice, after eighteen hundred years of impotent Charity. Ah! in a thousand years from now, when Catholicism will be naught but a very ancient superstition of the past, how amazed men will be to think that their ancestors were able to endure that religion of torture and nihility!

I wonder what Zola would have made of the world today?

The novel ends with the whole family looking out over a Paris bathed in golden light from the setting sun. Marie holds up her son, Jean, to look at the sight, promising him that he’s going to reap the benefits that Science and Justice are going to bring. Jean would be aged sixteen in 1914.

This was cross-posted on the Reading Zola blog.

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Filed under Fiction, Zola, Émile