Category Archives: Fiction

‘Fat City’ by Leonard Gardner

gardner_fat-cityFat City was first published in 1969 and is the only novel by Leonard Gardner. It has recently been republished by New York Review of Books in the U.S. and by Pushkin Press in the U.K. It was made into a film in 1972 which was directed by John Huston and starred Stacy Keach & Jeff Bridges; the screenplay was written by Leonard Gardner himself. I saw the film years ago and though I liked it I remember being a little underwhelmed by it. I would like to watch the film again to see what I make of it now but seeing that the book was published in January this year by Pushkin Press I thought I’d read it as part of Stu’s Pushkin Press Fortnight. It gets labeled as a ‘boxing novel’ which could be enough to put me off a book but it’s not about boxing but about the boxers themselves.

The novel takes place mostly in Stockton, California; I’m not sure about the time period but the Wikipedia article suggest the late ’50s; in a way it doesn’t really matter too much as it’s all quite timeless which is something that I like about a lot of good American literature. The two main characters are Billy Tully, a man nearing his thirtieth birthday, whose wife left him a few years before and with whom he is still in love and Ernie Munger, a young kid who works at a late night petrol station. Tully hasn’t boxed for years but is looking to get back into it while Munger is a young kid just starting out. Tully is not only past his prime but he has a drink problem as well. His life consists of low-wage jobs, cheap bars and cheap hotels. But he’s trying to get back into boxing as he believes he still has a few good years in him and so he heads to a gym to have a workout and meets the eighteen year old Ernie Munger whom he spars with. Tully is impressed with Ernie and encourages him to see his old manager, Ruben, at the Lido Gym. Tully realises how out of shape he is and heads for his local bar where he meets the regulars Earl and Oma. All the main characters are introduced in this first chapter and it’s interesting how the subsequent chapters follow the individuals in their separate lives only for them to interact further on. It’s not a groundbreaking technique but it’s expertly done and suits the story that Gardner is telling.

Most of the characters are living on the edge in some way but none are completely broken and they still have dreams. Tully for example is trying to revive his boxing career, but he can’t help looking back, back to when he was with his wife and his boxing career was on the way up.

That period had been the peak of his life, though he had not realized it then. It had gone by without time for reflection, ending while he was still thinking things were going to get better. He had not realized the ability and local fame he had then was all he was going to have.

But as he tried to advance his career he found he wasn’t up to it and he began to lose bouts and then his wife. The quote continues…

Nor had his manager realized it when he moved him up to opponents of national importance. That knowledge had been mercilessly pounded into Tully in a half dozen bouts as he swung and missed and staggered, eyes closed to slits. Then he had looked to his wife for some indefinable endorsement, some solicitous comprehension of the pain and sacrifice he felt he endured for her sake, some always withheld recognition of the rites of virilty. Waiting, he drank.

When Ernie goes to the Lido Gym Ruben Luna, Tully’s old manager, is impressed with him and believes he shows promise and manages to get a bout arranged for him. Ernie starts going out with Faye Murdock and when she becomes pregnant they marry. Tully, meanwhile, is moving from hotel to hotel when he either can’t pay or just feels like moving on. He works as a fruit picker, carries on drinking heavily and training at the gym. Getting to the hotel one night at midnight with the intention of getting up at four in the morning to go to work he broods:

And was this where he was going to grow old? Would it all end in a room like this?[…]Then the abeyant melancholy of the evening came over him. He sat with his shoulders slumped under the oppression of the room, under the impasse that was himself, the utter, hopeless thwarting that was his blood and bones and flesh. Afraid of a crisis beyond his capacity, he held himself in, his body absolutely still in the passing and fading whine and rumble of a truck.

Despite the quotes used it isn’t unremittently bleak or depressing. The characters are all expertly drawn by Gardner. When Tully shacks up with Oma we can tell that they’re just going to be with each other for a short while; Oma only needs Tully whilst Earl is in prison and Tully only needs Oma to bolster his spirits for a while and besides it’s cheaper renting together. Gardner handles the fight scenes excellently; I was glad he didn’t spend too much time on the details and that he avoided making it dramatic, instead the boxing matches are quite mundane in a way. I won’t reveal much more about the story but a match is arranged for Tully, one he should win and needs to win. The novel ends rather abruptly, leaving us to wonder what would happen to both Tully and Ernie, but the ending works well as we’ve just caught sight of one character near the end of his career and another at the beginning of his. We have the sense though that Ernie’s life will be similar to Tully’s.

gardner_fat-city-nyrbAlthough I read the Pushkin Press version I don’t particularly like the cover as it seems to imply that it’s a tale of childhood, something similar to the film Cinema Paradiso, which it isn’t, it’s more along the lines of a Charles Bukowski story. I much prefer the NYRB cover with its photograph of a grim urban street with the kind of gym that I envisaged when reading the book.

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‘Late Fame’ by Arthur Schnitzler

schnitzler_latefamefront2Late Fame was first published by Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) in 2014…eh…what? Yes, Late Fame is a ‘discovered’ book by Schnitzler, although even that’s complicated, I mean it was discovered but people sort of knew it existed. I’ll start again. Late Fame was completed in 1895 and submitted for publication in the periodical Die Zeit but wasn’t published due to the difficulties of serialising it. Why it wasn’t then published in another format or as a book is unclear but it was then largely forgotten about. After Schnitzler’s death and the occupation of the Nazis his archives were smuggled out of Vienna to Cambridge University by the co-operation of the British Consulate and a visiting PhD student Eric Blackall who was writing his doctorate on Adalbert Stifter. Although other works from the archives were published, Late Fame was not. If you want to know more then the afterword is very informative as well as this page on the Pushkin Press website.

I read this as part of Stu’s ‘Pushkin Press Fortnight’ at Winston’s Dad Blog.

I would like to thank Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat for sending me a copy as a giveaway prize back in November last year.

The novella begins with the elderly civil servant Herr Eduard Saxberger returning home after an uneventful day from work. Rather surprisingly he has a visitor, a young man called Wolfgang Meier, who reveals that he and his friends are huge fans of Saxberger’s book of poetry, Wanderings, written thirty years previously. Wanderings was Saxberger’s only published work and he had nearly forgotten it had existed until his visit from Meier. Meier is a writer who he belongs to a group of young artists called “Enthusiasm” and he invites Saxberger to attend one of their meetings. When he is sent Meier’s book of poetry the following day Saxberger finds it difficult reading the poetry of this young man, he just doesn’t understand it. He then refers back to his own poems and although he’s initially unfamiliar with them they soon evoke his earlier life.

So these—these were the Wanderings for which the youth of Vienna had yesterday sent him their thanks. Had he deserved them? He would not have been able to say. The whole sorry life that he had led now passed through his mind. Never had he felt so deeply that he was an old man, that not only the hopes, but also the disappointments lay far behind him. A dull hurt rose up in him. He put the book aside, he could not read on. He had the feeling that he had long since forgotten about himself.

Saxberger is introduced to Meier’s group and is treated reverently as the esteemed author of the Wanderings. Some of the artists of the “Enthusiasm” group, it is explained in the afterword, are based on real people known by Schnitzler but it is not necessary to know any details as the characters are outlined perfectly by Schnitzler. There’s Blink the cynical critic, Christian who writes historical plays, young Winder who ends up being most besotted by Saxberger and amongst others there is also the ageing actress Fräulein Gasteiner. Saxberger’s life is changed by being introduced to this group of admirers, for the first time he is treated respectfully and as a man of importance.

The group decides that they want to put on a poetry event and they want Saxberger to contribute a new poem. But this is where the problems begin because Saxberger has not written anything for over thirty years. He sits at his desk, goes for walks along the canal but he has no inspiration and instead prefers spending time with his old friends watching billiards. In the end it is agreed that Gasteiner will read a couple of his poems from Wanderings at the event. As the book proceeds we experience subtle shifts of Saxberger’s mental state and in how he fits in with this new group. As the other characters become more familiar Saxberger feels that he is respected less but reflects that this is not necessarily a bad thing as it means that he has been accepted by them.

Schnitzler handles the poetry event brilliantly; there are no major disasters but the level of public interest is pretty low. But Saxberger realises that the applause he receives is rather meaningless as the audience applauds every act. An event occurs that only he notices when he is onstage being applauded as the author of the poems:

The ovation roared around him. He felt nothing in particular, hardly even the embarrassment he had feared. He had to go up again—this time without Fräulein Gasteiner, and it was a little peculiar to him to hear the noise of clapping hands and the loud shouts of “Bravo”. He bowed several times, turned to the door and then, just as the clapping was getting weaker, he heard a voice from slightly behind him, or to the side—he couldn’t quite tell—but the words were perfectly distinct, no matter how quietly they had been said: “Poor devil!” He wanted to look around, but he felt that that would seem absurd.

Who said this and what, exactly, did they mean? Saxberger can’t understand it.

This is a brilliant little novella and it’s surprising that Schnitzler didn’t push for its publication in some form or other. I’ve already revealed too much of the story but the ending is expertly handled; in keeping with the rest of the story it’s subtle, effective and, dare I say, heartwarming.

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‘Femme Fatale’ (La Femme de Paul) by Guy de Maupassant

Femme Fatale (a.k.a. ‘Paul’s Mistress’) was first published in 1881 as La Femme de Paul. This story is one of my favourite of Maupassant’s stories; it includes many of his favourite motifs, i.e. boats and the water, cruelty, sexuality. The story takes place mostly on and around La Grenouillère (‘the frog pond’), a popular bathing spot on the Seine near Chatou, which may be familiar to us via the paintings by Renoir and Monet.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Image source: www.Wikiart.org

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Image source: http://www.Wikiart.org

The story opens with some brilliantly descriptive writing; ‘strapping great fellows’ and ‘women in light spring frocks’ are getting into their skiffs making for La Grenouillère, watched, enviously perhaps, by a crowd of suburbanites, boatmen and working men. The only ones left behind are Paul and Madeleine, a young couple apparently very much in love. They are on their way to La Grenouillère as well but they’re not in so much of a rush as they have only eyes for each other.

Paul and Madeleine finally make it to La Grenouillère; it’s three p.m., and it’s crowded.

On the land adjoining La Grenouillère strollers were sauntering under the gigantic trees which help to make this part of the island one of the most delightful parks imaginable. Busty women with peroxided hair and nipped-in waists could be seen, made up to the nines with blood red lips and black-kohled eyes. Tightly laced into their garish dresses they trailed in all their vulgar glory over the fresh green grass. They were accompanied by men whose fashion-plate accessories, light gloves, patent-leather boots, canes as slender as threads and absurd monocles made them look like complete idiots.

The crowd arrive at the floating restaurant, they’re noisy, singing away and occasionally brawling, most are drunk and there’s someone banging away at the piano with his feet as well as his hands.

The place reeked of vice and corruption and the dregs of Parisian society in all its rottenness gathered there: cheats, conmen and cheap hacks rubbed shoulders with under-age dandies, old roués and rogues, sleazy underworld types once notorious for things best forgotten mingled with other small-time crooks and speculators, dabblers in dubious ventures, frauds, pimps, and racketeers. Cheap sex, both male and female, was on offer in this tawdry meat-market of a place where petty rivalries were exploited, and quarrels picked over nothing in an atmosphere of fake gallantry where swords or pistols at dawn settled matters of highly questionable honour in the first place.

The weather is hot and many are bathing in the waters. Everyone is looking out to see who the next arrivals are. When a boat containing four women approaches, two in men’s clothing and smoking cigarettes, a shout rises up ‘Aye-aye! Lesbos!’ and they’re cheered as they come onto the island. The narrative now returns to Paul and Madeleine, and just as Paul is declaring his disapproval of the women and their lifestyle Madeleine recognises them and leaves him to join their party. It becomes apparent that Paul is besotted with Madeleine but Madeleine, it would seem, is just after a good time and enjoys Paul’s attention and money when there is nothing better to do.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Image source: www.Wikiart.org

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Image source: http://www.Wikiart.org

Paul goes off on his own and mopes about a bit but eventually they reconcile and go off for a walk in the country where they can be alone. But Madeleine has arranged to meet the Lesbos crowd later in the evening, much to Paul’s disgust, and she’s not going to let Paul stop her from having some fun. Paul realises that Madeleine is shallow but that doesn’t stop him from loving her. Madeleine doesn’t understand his intensity of feeling and feels suffocated by it. They both attend the evening’s revelries.
People were dancing. Couples faced each other and capered about madly, kicking their legs as high as their partners’ noses. The women, who appeared to have double-jointed legs and hips, leapt about in a frou-frou of lifted skirts, flashing their knickers and kicking their legs up over their heads with amazing agility. They wriggled their bellies and shook their bosoms, spreading about them the powerful smell of female flesh in sweat. The males squatted like toads in front of them making faces and obscene gestures.

Paul, the Romantic, appears to be out of place in this riotous palace of pleasure whereas Madeleine is quite at home here. I won’t reveal how the story ends but Maupassant rarely fails in giving us a satisfying ending to a story. But, as with many of his stories, it’s not just about the ending, the descriptive elements of the story are beautiful and Maupassant sketches out characters with only a few words; he chooses a few elements of their character to show us and it’s enough for us to feel that we know them.

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Image source: www.Wikiart.org

La Grenouillère (1869) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Image source: http://www.Wikiart.org

Although I’ve been reading the collection 88 More Stories (1950), in which this story appears as Paul’s Mistress, the quotes above are from the Penguin collection, A Parisian Affair and Other Stories (2004) which was translated by Siân Miles. Although there is nothing wrong with the older translation I think that Miles’s more modern style suits this story.

This was cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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Extraordinary Excerpts: ‘A Family’

I have started reading the second volume of Maupassant’s stories that I bought over a year ago, titled 88 More Stories, which was published by Cassell & Co. Ltd in 1950 with translations by Ernest Boyd and Storm Jameson. One story contained in this volume, called A Family, 88-Stories02-X-700pxis a short piece where the narrator visits a friend he hasn’t seen since the friend married, fifteen years before. He barely recognises the friend, who is now quite fat, and the description of the friend’s wife is brilliantly dismissive and also a bit nasty; I won’t include it here but she is called, amongst other things, ‘a procreating machine made of flesh’, due no doubt to her five children. The husband is also dismissed in a similar fashion as ‘a reproductive animal who spent his nights generating children between a sleep and a sleep, in his provincial house, like a rabbit in a hutch.’

After being introduced to all the children the narrator is also introduced to the wife’s eighty-seven year old grandfather who is hard of hearing. The narrator is told that the old man keeps the children amused especially at meal times as he is very greedy. And so, that leads me to this excerpt:

    Dinner was begun.
    “Look,” murmured Simon. Grandpapa did not like the soup, and refused to eat it. He was forced to do so, for the sake of his health; the servant forcibly thrust a spoonful into his mouth, while he blew violently to keep from swallowing the broth; it spurted out like a fountain, all over the table and over those sitting nearest him.
    The children shrieked with laughter, while their father, highly pleased, repeated: “Funny old man, isn’t he?”
    Throughout the meal he monopolised the attention of the whole family. His eyes devoured the dishes on the table, and his frantically trembling hands tried to snatch them and pull them to him. Sometimes they were placed almost in his reach, so that the company might see his desperate efforts, his palsied clutches, the heart-broken appeal manifested in his whole body, his eyes, his mouth, his nose, which sniffed them. His mouth watered so that he dribbled all over his napkin, uttering inarticulate whines. And the entire family was de­lighted by this odious and grotesque torture.
    Then a very small piece would be put on his plate, and he would eat it with feverish voracity, so that he might have some­thing else the sooner.
    When the sweet rice came, he almost had a fit. He moaned with longing.
    “You have eaten too much; you shan’t have any,” shouted Gontran, and they made as though he were not to be given any.
    Then he began to cry. And as he wept he trembled still more violently, while all the children roared with laughter.
    At last his portion, a very small one, was given him; and, as he ate the first mouthful of the sweet, he made a comically gluttonous noise in his throat, and a movement of the neck like that of a duck swallowing too large a morsel of food.
    When he had finished, he began to stamp his feet for more.
    Seized with pity at the heart-rending spectacle of the tortures inflicted on this ridiculous Tantalus, I implored my friend on his behalf:
    “Do give him a little more rice.”
    “Oh! no, my dear chap,” replied Simon; “if he ate too much at his age, it might be bad for him.”
    I was silent, musing on this speech. O Morality, O Logic, O Wisdom! At his age! So, they deprived him of the only pleasure he could still enjoy, out of care for his health! His health! What was that inert and palsied wreck to do with his health if he had it? Were they husbanding his days? His days? How many: ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred? And why? For his own sake? Or was it in order to preserve to the family the spectacle of his impotent greed?
    He had nothing to do in this life, nothing. Only one desire, one pleasure, remained to him; why not give him full measure of that last pleasure, give it him until he died of it?
    At last, after a long game of cards, I went up to my room to bed; I was sad, very, very sad.

I think the narrator’s thoughts on the family’s cruel treatment of the old man reflects our own feelings on the subject but the family seem oblivious of their cruelty. Haven’t we all found ourselves in a similar situation, maybe not so extreme, where we witness something like this but are unsure whether to intervene? This is a brilliant story by Maupassant; one of his stories that is just a short episode, a snapshot of contemporary life that he did so well.

This post is cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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Bits & Pieces (Dec 2016)

Well first I would like to wish a Happy New Year to everyone! I hope that everyone is looking forward to some fun reading in 2017. I don’t feel like writing a retrospective of the books I read in 2016 but I thought that I would have a bit of a roundup of those I read in December. Since finishing German Literature Month (GLM) in November I haven’t posted too often but I have been reading, honest.

My Big Reading Task of 2016 was Anthony Powell’s twelve volume Dance to the Music of Time which I sort of ‘fell into’ really at the last minute as I read along with a GoodReads group; even when I started I wasn’t too sure if I’d stay to the end as I had intended in being free of any ‘Big Read Challenges’ for the year but I was soon hooked. I didn’t blog too much on the series as I found it a bit awkward to write Powell_Dance-04posts for separate books in the series where a knowledge of the characters’ antics in the previous volumes was really necessary. Each review would only have been of interest, I felt, to someone who was reading the same volumes at the same time as me. So, at one volume a month I got to the last volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies, in December; I was a little wary of this volume as I’d read quite a few negative comments on it but I found it to be one of my favourites of the series. It jumped forward to the early 1970s and almost brought events up to date as it was written in 1975. One of the joys of reading ‘Dance’ was that there were a whole host of characters, some of which appeared throughout the series, whilst others appeared and faded away. In later volumes we had X Trapnel who was based on the novelist Julian MacLaren-Ross and in this last volume we get the Manson-like hippy leader, Scorpio Murtlock, and the bizarre scenario of Widmerpool trying to join and take over the cult. It did seem a bit of an odd direction to take but I felt that Powell handled it brilliantly. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t read ‘Dance’ to consider reading it, although it’s twelve volumes it’s not as daunting as that sounds and each volume was a breeze to read.

After my reading for GLM I felt like reading something a bit ‘lighter’ and turned to an old favourite author of mine from the late ’80s, Martin Millar. He had a new book out called Kink Me Honey and where his previous book called The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies which was set in Ancient millar_kink-me-honey_amazonGreece hadn’t really appealed to me that much, this one did. Most of Millar’s books that I’d read had an urban setting and usually revolved around some kind of subculture, such as punks, travellers, etc. Kink Me Honey centres around an S&M club in London and whilst it is funny it is pretty raunchy as well. The book contains what are supposed to be posts and comments to the club’s website and through these we get a lot of subplots and diversions from the main plot; initially I thought that this part of the novel was a bit of a gimmick but I soon realised that Millar was using it to good effect by enabling him to poke fun at the way our online lives play out. Part of the humour is in the way that the cast of characters act just as they would in any other organisation or club and so there are feuds, bitching, funding problems, organisational problems, character clashes etc. Even though I finished it a month ago I still hope to write a longer review on it so I’ll not comment any further for now.

Theodor Storm is an author I only discovered from being a part of GLM and I had hoped to read another volume of his short stories/novellas for this year’s GLM but I ran out of time. Paul the Puppeteer and other Short Fiction consists of the three novellas all translated by Denis Jackson: The Village on the Moor, Paul the storm_paul-puppeteer-fcx-700pxPuppeteer and Renate. The title story is the best of the three as it is more immediate than the others; the main story is told to the narrator by the elderly Paul Paulsen and is basically a love story, even though it’s not really apparent until late on in the story. Paul is destined to become a master craftsman but he is fascinated with the puppetry of a travelling puppeteer and his daughter, Lisei. The puppeteers have to move on and Paul loses contact with them only to be reacquainted with them when he is older at a time when the elderly puppeteer has been falsely imprisoned for theft. The puppeteers are hounded by the authorities as if they’re vagrants and their form of entertainment is now falling out of fashion. It’s a sad, beautiful and uplifting story told in Storm’s unsentimental way. Renate takes place in the early eighteenth century and centres around the love of a Lutheran pastor for a girl who is subsequently accused of being a witch. As is usual with Storm the story is revealed from several incomplete sources. I feel that this one would benefit from another read.

I felt that overall my reading went quite well in 2016. Along with Powell’s ‘Dance’ I tackled Orlando Figes’s book on the Russian revolution, A People’s Tragedy. My GoodReads summary of the year (which can be viewed here if you’re interested in the details) shows that I read 45 books or 14,949 pages, which is paltry compared to some people but I’m quite happy with it. If I worried about such things I may mention that the Powell books only counted as four, rather than twelve, as I read them in the omnibus editions.

And so on to 2017! I have few plans for this year other than to read as many books as I can that I already own as the number of physical books that I now own is starting to be unmanageable. I’m not going to try to quantify what I intend to get through as I will undoubtedly be diverted from this task throughout the year but I shall chip away at the pile. Here is a photo of what I have to get through…and there are quite a few on my kindle as well…

Physical TBR pile as of January 2017

Physical TBR pile as of January 2017

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‘So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood’ by Patrick Modiano

modiano-isbn9780857054951So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood is my first experience of Modiano; it was originally published in 2014 as Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier. It is Modiano’s most recent book so it may not be the best place to begin with an author’s work but there was something about the beginning of the book that appealed to me; it begins with an ageing author, Jean Daragane, receiving a phonecall from a stranger who claims to have found Daragane’s address book. Straight away this reminds me of the first story in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, called City of Glass, a favourite story of mine by a favourite author. Both stories are quite similar at first but Modiano has a different approach than Auster and a different type of story unfolds.

The phonecall is from Gilles Ottolini, who claims to work at an advertising agency. He not only wants to return the address book but he wants to meet Daragane and quiz him about one of the names in the book, Guy Torstel. Daragane, who is a bit of a recluse, is apprehensive from the start; his first impression of Ottolini is that he has ‘a dreary and threatening voice’ and ‘the tone of a blackmailer’. When he meets Ottolini, and his girlfriend Chantal Grippay, nothing dispels this feeling that he is going to be blackmailed. Gilles has a ‘dossier’ on Jean that he claims to have obtained from the police. He also claims to be writing a piece on the murder of Colette Laurent in 1952 and believes that information about Torstel may help with his enquiries. At this point the story starts to change into a different story than was originally intimated. Gilles no longer appears directly in the story as Jean is now approached by Chantal, who photocopies Gilles’s dossier and warns Jean that she is scared of Gilles and that Jean should be scared too. The noirish aspect now dissolves away partly as the story concentrates on Jean trying to remember Guy Torstel and other events from his past. The novel now flips between three time periods: a period when Jean was about seven years old, a period when Jean had published his first novel, Le Noir de l’été, and the present-day (2012).

n.b. although there isn’t much of a plot to give away, if you’re planning on reading this then you may wish to skip the next few paragraphs and rejoin with last paragraph.

Both Gilles and Chantal appear as stereotypical low-level hoodlums out on the hustle. We can’t really believe what they tell Jean and neither does Jean, but he doesn’t know quite what they’re after other than information about a person he can’t remember. But the novel now concentrates on Jean’s attempts to remember events from his past. He now remembers meeting Guy Torstel and he eventually recognises a passport photograph of a seven year-old boy in the ‘dossier’ as himself which sparks more memories of when the photograph was taken and how he included this rather insignificant event into his first novel. Slowly he pieces bits of his past together and he remembers living with a woman, Annie Astrand, when he was seven and that the passport photographs were needed as they were going to go to Rome. He had included a section in his novel about this in order to reach out to Annie whom he had lost contact with.

He had written this book only in the hope that she might get in touch with him. Writing a book, for him, was also a way of beaming a searchlight or sending out coded signals to certain people with whom he had lost touch. It was enough to scatter their names at random through the pages and wait until they finally produced news of themselves.

Annie did get in touch but, in keeping with the rest of the novel, only little bits of information are revealed. We discover that Annie was friends with Colette and that Annie spent time in prison but this is all vague information dredged up from unreliable memories and uncooperative people.

This was an interesting read although it was also quite frustrating at times. I don’t mind the fact that it begins as a bit of a noir detective novel and changes tack halfway through; in fact I quite liked this aspect of the novella where we think it’s going to be about Gilles’s and Chantals’s blackmailing of Jean, or worse. There were a few coincidences, such as Gilles living in the same building as Jean had and possibly even in the same room; there were identity issues, such as Jean not recognising photographs of himself, Chantal and Annie both changed their names—these are topics that are common in Auster’s novels and I find that they can be annoying if overdone but can be intriguing as they add an eerie quality to the text. But it was the vagueness of Jean’s memory that was a little annoying, I mean, it’s understandable that we forget things but when he won’t even look in his own novel to verify what he wrote or look into a suitcase that contains personal documents or ask people direct questions then I begin to find the character quite frustrating and the author is being obstinately obfuscating. The end of the novel cuts off sharply with very little resolved and will be a source of frustration for a lot of readers but as long as you’re not expecting everything to be wrapped up neatly at the end then you may be able to cope with it. So I do feel that Modiano was just a little too vague about details; he slowly drips little bits of information and clues, as Jean rediscovers them, but in the end just too much is left hanging, too much is left ambiguous. Surely Jean would know and be able to share a few details which would help us such as why he was with Annie rather than his parents, where he lived afterwards, when his parents died etc.

My initial reading of this novella was quite fractured as I read it over a couple of days commuting to and from work. I skimmed through the whole book before writing this post which I found useful as I started to see more in it than I did in my first read, unfortunately these were more questions than answers, but it made me appreciate it more. I would suggest that it is best read in one or two sittings. I’m looking forward to reading some more by Modiano though I’m not sure which one will be my next read.

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Filed under Fiction, Modiano, Patrick

‘Malina’ by Ingeborg Bachmann

bachmann_malina-fcx-700pxI first read Ingeborg Bachmann for GLMIII with her short-story collection, Three Paths to the Lake, which contained a good mix of stories and was an interesting read. Since then I had been meaning to read some more, especially her only novel, Malina. Malina was published in 1971, two years before her death, and is a modernistic, experimental novel which is often compared to the novels of Virgina Woolf and Samuel Beckett et. al. The techniques adopted with this novel consists of stream-of-consciousness, letters, dialogue, fables and music; and although these techniques were not in themselves overwhelming, I have to say that I didn’t really like this book and it has been a hard slog to get to the end. Please be aware that I will reveal details from the novel that you may wish to remain ignorant of if you are intending to read the book yourself.

The book had really appealed to me; from short descriptions and others’ reviews on GoodReads etc. it looked like it would be a great, if intense, read. Just take a look at the blurb on the back of the book:

Malina is a work of sharp, unforgettable images and an irresistible narrative. Here is the story of lives painfully intertwined: the unnamed narrator, haunted by nightmarish memories of her father, lives with the androgynous Malina, an initially remote and dispassionate man who ultimately becomes an ominous influence. Plunging toward its riveting finale, Malina brutally lays bare the struggle for love and the limits of discourse between men and women.

So, ok, it’s the job of the blurb-writer to make the book sound interesting but I find it amusing reading this having read the book as I barely recognise the book from the blurb. So, it is true that the story is told from the point of view of the female, unnamed writer, and this is often fragmentary and opaque. We are drip-fed bits of information but at such a slow rate that it soon becomes extremely frustrating to read. The narrator shares an apartment in Vienna with the somewhat nebulous Malina and appears to have a relationship with the Hungarian man, Ivan. It transpires that Malina and the narrator have known each other since they were young but it is unclear whether they are lovers, brother and sister or just roommates. Malina is a steadying force on the narrator as he offers advice and generally helps out around the flat. In the second part of the novel, in which the narrator describes her harrowing experiences of her father via her nightmares, Malina acts as a confidant, watching over her as she sleeps and he is there as a friend when she wakes. The relationship between Malina and the narrator is alluded to in the text quite early on:

There are people who think that Malina and I are married. We never considered that we might be married, that such a possibility could exist, nor even the idea that other people might think that we were married. For the longest time it never crossed our minds that, like other people, we appear as man and wife wherever we go. This was a complete surprise for us, but we had no idea what to make of it. We laughed a lot.

This is helpful but it still doesn’t clarify their relationship. By the third part of the novel Malina takes on a more active role and by the end of the novel it seems that he is in fact a manifestation of a part of the narrator; as the narrator descends into madness and disappears into a crack in the wall it is only Malina that’s left in the flat. Early on in the novel the narrator had cryptically stated the following:

Ivan and I: the world converging.
Malina and I, since we are one: the world diverging.

The narrator has a relationship with Ivan, who is divorced and has two children, Béla and András, they meet at the flat for coffee and cigarettes and they are constantly on the phone to each other when separated. As the novel progresses it becomes apparent that, although Ivan visits the narrator’s flat, he never has any interactions with Malina and this is made clear at the end of the novel when Malina answers the phone to Ivan who is unaware of Malina’s existence. Where Malina is a shadowy character, Ivan is tangible if a little dull. The telephone conversations between the narrator and Ivan are often inconsequential such as this one.

How was it? Very interesting.
Oh right, so-so, and you
Nothing much, it was interesting
You be sure and go to bed early
You’re the one who’s yawning, you should go to sleep
I’m not going to, I don’t know yet
No, but tomorrow I have to
Do you really have to tomorrow?

Ivan mildly reprimands the narrator for dwelling on the darker aspects of life and at times Ivan’s positive mood affects the narrator, such as when driving through Vienna or when they go on outings with Ivan’s children. But by the end it is the narrator’s negative moods that affects Ivan’s rather than the other way round. In the third part of the book Ivan and the narrator have the following incredibly vague conversation whilst lying on the bed.

Ivan begins: I have to talk to you. Do you remember? I once said there are some things I won’t tell you. But if I…what would you, if I?
If you? I ask. It can hardly be heard.
And if you? I repeat.
Ivan says: I think I have to tell it to you now.
I don’t ask: What do you have to tell me? Because otherwise he might go on talking. But even if I stay silent a little longer he might ask: What would you…

And nothing is asked; nothing is resolved. Which is what makes this novel very frustrating at times, but it is probably what happens in reality more often than not. By the end of the novel it is Malina who appears to be more tangible and Ivan who is a more shadowy character. It is with Malina that the narrator can have meaningful conversations but it is with Ivan that she can have fun.

As previously mentioned I found this incredibly frustrating to read, especially the first part which consisted of 116 pages and contains a lot of pointless telephone conversations with Ivan, letters written to a Herr Schöntal and a fairy tale called The Mysteries of the Princess of Kagran. Part Two was a lot more impressive as it consists of the narrator’s memories of her brutal, sadistic father. Her recollections of her father become increasingly surreal as her father becomes almost like a demonic being and he even subsumes other men’s personalities as well as the narrator’s mother’s physical appearance. I felt that this second part would have been a great short-story. The third part of the book follows on from the first but was generally better, especially the last few pages. But again I felt that the first and third parts would have worked better as a single short-story, especially if the first part had been heavily edited. But reading over these sections now whilst writing this review I am wondering if it is a book that would benefit greatly from a second-read. I think part of the problem was that it was quite different from the book that I was expecting it to be, and though I don’t think it will ever be one of my favourites I think it is probably better than I feel it is at this moment in time. In the Afterword Mark Anderson says that the book was originally criticised for being ‘overly fragmented’ or ‘subjective’ but has since become more appreciated. He also suggests that there is a lot more going on in the novel than I have mentioned, for example he says that it is ‘composed like a musical score’, that the characters reflect the structure of postwar Vienna, that sections allude to the Holocaust or Dante’s Hell etc. but such interpretations are beyond me. Have you read Malina?

I read Malina as part of German Literature Month VI.
german-literature-month-vi

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Filed under Bachmann, Ingeborg, Fiction