Category Archives: Fiction

‘Night Games’ by Arthur Schnitzler (GLM)

Night Games is the first story in the collection Night Games and Other Stories and Novellas. The collection was published in 2002 by Ivan R. Dee and was translated by Margret Schaefer. The short story was originally published in 1926 as Spiel im Morgengrauen. It begins with Lieutenant Wilhelm Kasda being awoken one Sunday morning by his orderly to announce that Wilhelm (or Willi as he is known throughout the story) has a visitor. His visitor is an old acquaintance, Otto von Bogner, a man who had once been an officer as well but who had to resign after running up some debts at a casino that he couldn’t honour. Von Bogner now works as a cashier in the office of an electrical installation company and has ‘borrowed’ some money from the company only to discover that on Monday the office is due to be audited by the company headquarters; he needs some money fast, about a thousand gulden. But Willi is living in straitened circumstances and only has about a hundred gulden himself. Bogner suggests that Willa approach his uncle Robert but he dismisses the idea as he no longer has any contact with him. Bogner suggests some other people that Willa could approach but he is uneasy about asking anyone for money. Instead he suggests that as he was intending to visit Baden that evening to indulge in a game of baccarat that he would use his hundred gulden to see if he could win the money for his old friend. Meanwhile Bogner still has a few gulden of his own and he intends to go to the races to see if he can win the money himself.

Well, I guess we half-know how the story is going to proceed from this point; Willa arrives at Baden and although he feels like being distracted by the Kessner sisters he ends up at the gaming table. He’s cautious at first and then becomes bolder. Before long he has a thousand gulden and exits from the table with the intention of visiting the Kressners for dinner only to discover that they have left already. He’s now at a loose end.

The Kessners might have left word for him with the housemaid! Well, he had no intention of forcing himself on them. He really didn’t need to do that. But what to do? Return to Vienna right away? That would perhaps be best. How would it be just to leave the decision to fate?

Willa goes for a walk in the evening air, but as we suspected he finds himself drawn back to the café and the gaming table. And he loses his money, right? Well, yes and no, he wins, then has a losing streak, then a winning streak, so that when he is due to catch the last train back to Vienna he has over two thousand gulden in his pocket.

Although there is a certain inevitability about the story, Schnitzler has a lot of fun playing with us; we’re expecting things to go badly but things keep turning out fine for Willa. This story reminded me of one of my favourite short stories, stickman’s laughter by Nelson Algren. In both stories the protagonist is initially reluctant to gamble their money, they’re cautious but end up with sizeable winnings, they walk away with the knowledge that they could end the evening in the black; but circumstances draw them back, they don’t want to, but fate seems to draw them back to the table, their winnings increase but as the evening proceeds they get sucked in so that they can no longer escape.

Willi is lent the use of a coach so that he can get to the railway station.

Still, the horses maintained a good clip, and in five minutes they were at the station. But at precisely the same moment the train, which had arrived just a minute earlier, began to move from the gate in the station above. Willi leaped from the carriage, started after the brightly lit coaches as they moved slowly and heavily forward across the viaduct, heard the whistle of the locomotive fade into the night air, shook his head, and didn’t quite know whether he was angry or pleased.

Oh well, back to the baccarat table.

I won’t divulge any more of the story—at this point we’re about a third of the way through it. Although it’s a bit predictable at times I found that Schnitzler took us to places we weren’t expecting. In the end it’s a fun story, rather in the style of Maupassant, and one well worth reading. I shall look forward to the rest of the stories in this collection, although some I have read previously.

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‘Caspar Hauser: Inertia of the Heart (Part One) by Jakob Wassermann (GLM)

I first heard of Caspar Hauser from the 1974 Werner Herzog film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, which I probably first watched in the early 1990s. I would imagine that for many of us this was our first encounter with the story. Jakob Wasserman’s novel, Caspar Hauser: Inertia of the Heart, which was first published in 1908, did a similar job as the Herzog film in popularising the story of Caspar, which is based on real events. It’s worth checking out the Wikipedia page if you are interested in discovering the historical facts of the case. I always find it difficult with fictionalised versions of real events because it’s always tempting to check the fiction against the historical events, which I have done whilst reading this novel, but with this review I will try to stick to what is solely contained within the novel. I shall also use the spelling used within the novel, i.e. ‘Caspar’ rather than the more commonly used ‘Kaspar’ but I shall avoid using the spelling of ‘Nürnberg’ for ‘Nuremberg’ that is used in the book except when I’m quoting from the book. The edition I am reading was published in 2012 by Floris Books and is a reprint of a translation by Caroline Newton from 1928.

The story begins with a description of Caspar, a seventeen year-old boy, entering Nuremberg on foot one day in May 1928; he can barely talk and barely walk and seems to be surprised even by the movement of his own body. He has with him a letter bearing the address of Cavalry Captain Wessenig. He is taken to the police office where he is unable to answer any questions but is just able to scrawl his name on a piece of paper. He refuses all food except bread and water. Although he is dressed like a peasant it is noted that he has a fine white skin and looks ‘more like a young lady of aristocratic birth than a peasant.’ A doctor examines Caspar and also notes the lack of callouses on his feet.

“One thing is evident,” his testimony concludes, “we are dealing with a person who has no conception of his fellow men, does not eat, does not drink, does not feel, does not speak like others, does not know anything of yesterday or to-morrow, does not grasp time, does not know he is alive.”

The story of the boy attracts a lot of attention from the populace who wish to see this curiosity; some believe him to be a wild man reared by wolves whilst others believe that he’s deceiving them. The unsigned letter that Caspar had on him was apparently written by his guardian who claims to have taken in him as a baby in 1815—his mother is unknown. He claims to have kept Caspar hidden away indoors so that no-one in the village knew of his existence and that he brought Caspar to Nuremberg in the night. Caspar knows neither the name of his guardian nor the name of the village whence he came. He says that ‘if you don’t want to keep him you will have to kill him and hang him up the chimney.’

The local teacher, Professor Daumer, becomes increasingly interested in Caspar and he tries to help him learn to talk. Surprisingly Caspar is quick to learn and he eventually tells Daumer what he can of his life so far.

So far as Caspar could remember he had always been in the same dark space, never anywhere else, always in the same space. Never had he seen a man, never had he heard his step, never had he heard his voice, never the song of a bird, never the cry of an animal; he had never seen the rays of the sun, nor the gleam of moonlight. He had never been aware of anything except himself, and yet he had known nothing of himself, never becoming conscious of loneliness.

In the mornings he had had fresh bread and a pitcher of water by his bed. On occasions the water tasted strange and caused him to fall asleep, when he awoke he would find his hair cut, his nails clipped and fresh straw on his bed. He had a wooden horse as his only toy. One day a man entered his room and for three days taught Caspar how to write his name. On subsequent nights the man led Caspar outside and taught him how to walk and then one night the man led him to Nuremberg and handed Caspar a note.

As the story of Caspar becomes known more widely it is not long before stories emerge of him being of noble blood, that he was kept in a dungeon to keep him out of the way so that an illegitimate heir could claim Caspar’s rightful place. Before long Caspar is moved from his cell to live with Professor Daumer but is ultimately under the protection of von Feuerbach, the president of the court of appeals. And so Caspar begins to learn about the world; the sun is especially fascinating to him, at one point he asks Daumer ‘is the sun God?’

But Daumer is in a bit of a quandary as he sees Caspar as an innocent and regrets that he has the task of exposing him to the cruel world. Daumer has to protect Caspar from the talk about his supposed noble lineage or the other claims of him being a swindler and yet at the same time he is compelled to parade him in front of his guests. During this period characteristics of Caspar’s personality emerge that will persist throughout the novel: he is fascinated with learning the identity of his mother, he is accused of lying by others, he refuses to let others read his diary. These all seem quite natural, especially as everyone seems to feel that they have a claim on him, that Caspar is there for their benefit and that he has no right to a personal life; his lying, his ‘secrecy’ just seem to me to be attempts to get away from this public life that everyone is intent on inflicting on him.

Events take a more sinister turn when one day he is attacked. In the garden one day he hears a voice from behind him say ‘Caspar, you must die’ and he is struck on the forehead with a knife. He made his way into the house and is later found in the cellar bleeding. Caspar recovers and it is during this period that an English lord first appears on the scene making enquiries about Caspar and offering a reward for anyone with information of Caspar’s attacker. Daumer, by this point, has become weary of looking after Caspar and it is agreed that he will go to live with the Beholds. Frau Behold is particularly obnoxious and domineering, Herr Behold is mostly absent. She bosses Caspar about and is only interested in him as a toy doll to parade around with at gatherings. She discourages his studies and teases him when he shows compassion towards slaughtered animals.

No, Caspar did not feel in the least at home. Frau Behold was utterly incomprehensible to him; her glance, her speech, her manner, all repelled him greatly. It cost him much thought and artifice not to show his dislike, although he was sick and miserable when he had spent only an hour in her company.

Relations deteriorate quickly between Caspar and Frau Behold. One morning he wakes to discover his caged blackbird dead on the dressing-table with its heart next to it on a plate. Caspar moves in with Herr von Tucher after Frau Behold locks Caspar out of her house.

At 467 pages this is quite a long novel, and as I have had to spend quite a while on the preliminary events I shall cover the rest of the novel in a second post.

The novel, so far, gives a pretty straightforward account of events, we could almost say that it’s Caspar’s version. But later on we get to see glimpses of others’ views and opinions.

Have you read the Wassermann novel? or seen the Herzog film?

I am reading this as part of German Literature Month VII.

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‘Demian’ by Hermann Hesse (GLM VII)

Demian was first published in 1919. My Picador edition made use of a translation from 1958 by W. J. Strachan. Demian was originally published under the pseudonym, Emil Sinclair, who is the narrator of the story. The narrator begins the story by describing ‘two worlds’, the first is the comfortable, clean, friendly world of his parents’ house and the other world is, well, basically the world outside of the first world, which is noisy, scary, violent and chaotic but also exciting, fun and lively. At the beginning of the story Emil is ten years old and he describes an event that has repercussions throughout the whole narrative. Emil gets to know an older, burly, rough boy called Franz Kromer who likes to boss and bully the younger boys. One day the boys sit around telling stories of their misdeeds in order to impress Kromer and each other. Emil can’t think of any bad things that he’s done so he makes up an incident where he stole some apples from a garden. Kromer suspects that Emil is lying but starts to blackmail him threatening to tell the owner of the apple tree if Emil doesn’t pay him two marks. Emil’s life becomes miserable as he ends up stealing small amounts from his parents in order to pay Kromer.

And then along comes a new boy, Max Demian, who saves Emil from Kromer’s bullying. How he actually gets Kromer to stop is never made explicit but Demian seems to Emil and the other boys to possess hidden powers over other people. A year or two pass and then Emil begins to encounter Demian more frequently. One time Emil sees Demian in a street crowd surrounding a dead horse and gets to observe him closely.

I saw Demian’s face and remarked that it was not a boy’s face but a man’s and then I saw, or rather became aware, that it was not really the face of a man either; it had something different about it, almost a feminine element. And for the time being his face seemed neither masculine nor childish, neither old nor young but a hundred years old, almost timeless and bearing the mark of other periods of history than our own.[…]Perhaps he was handsome, perhaps I found him attractive, perhaps he repelled me too, I could not even be sure of that. All I saw was that he was different from the rest of us, that he was like an animal, a spirit or an image. I cannot describe him except to say that he was different, unimaginably different from the rest of us.

Emil and Demian soon become close friends. Demian seems to have powers over other people, he seems to be able to bend them to his will, which impresses Emil. Demian believes that we should not just honour the ‘good’ things ascribed to God but we should also honour the ‘bad’ things ascribed to the Devil; this line of thinking is in tune with Emil’s thinking of the ‘two worlds’.

Emil ends up going to another school and is separated from Demian. At this school he ends up drinking a lot and leading a dissolute life for a while. This period comes to an end when he becomes obsessed with a woman called Beatrice. Rather than try to meet her he takes up painting in order to paint her portrait, but the portrait, Emil realises, actually resembles Demian. Emil meets Demian during this period and after a chat Demian says, enigmatically:

It is good to know that we have within us one who knows everything about us, wills everything, does everything better than we can ourselves.

The novel begins to take on a more spiritual tone at this point as Emil embarks on a spiritual journey to ‘find himself’. In his studies he comes across the god Abraxas, the god who was both God and Devil. He meets a new friend, Pistorius, an organist who also knows about Abraxas and who reminds Emil of Demian. Pistorius helps Emil to discover more about himself and his own life.

And at this point I felt the truth burning within me like a sharp flame, that there was some rôle for everybody but it was not one which he himself could choose, re-cast and regulate to his own liking. One had no right to want new gods, no right at all to want to give the world anything of that sort! There was but one duty for a grown man; it was to seek the way to himself, to become resolute within, to grope his way forward wherever that might lead him. The discovery shook me profoundly; it was the fruit of this experience.

Emil then goes to university and once again comes across Demian and also gets to meet Demian’s mother, Frau Eva, who is even more enigmatic than her son and whom Emil, of course, falls in love with. But as Emil’s spiritual journey continues the world is hurtling towards a world war.

Hesse tells a fascinating story, his style is compelling and although I cannot really identify with the spiritual, metaphysical nature of Emil’s journey it is an interesting journey to follow.

This post was my contribution to the German Literature Month challenge.

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The 1968 Club: Come and Gone

Well, The 1968 Club has come and gone in a flash. I got to read and review two books for it but there were so many more that I could have chosen. Although it seems quite a short time, only a week, I think it works well being such a short time-span as it’s meant to be a snapshot of a particular year not a comprehensive review of all the books published. It also means that we leave open the possibility of revisiting a year again if we feel like it. Anyway, thanks to Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book for hosting this challenge once again.

I thought I would have a quick look at those I read, those I wanted to read, those I’d read before and so on. During 2017 I have been trying to read as many books from my TBR pile as possible; I even joined a GoodReads group to keep me on track. However I didn’t have a single unread book from 1968 on my TBR list and I didn’t fancy re-reading anything as there were enough unread books from 1968 that I wanted to read—I just didn’t own them. So the two books that I read and reviewed were:

I also wanted to read Bukowski’s Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window but copies of it are expensive and I couldn’t even find a list of the contents of it so I wasn’t sure if any of the poems were contained in the collections that I had.

I only reviewed two books but I also started Paul Bowles’ collection of short stories, Pages from Cold Point, which I had intended to include but which I only finished today. I’m certain I’d read it before, years ago, but couldn’t remember much about it. But it was nothing special, the stories are all set in North Africa and are a mixture of realism and fable but they didn’t really do anything for me. I think Bowles was a better novelist than short story writer.

When I was trying to decide on books for this challenge I noticed that there were quite a few from 1968 that I had read before. They are:

  • The Wild Cherry Tree by H.E. Bates
  • Pages from Cold Point and Other Stories by Pul Bowles
  • In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  • Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Chocky by John Wyndham

In some of the previous year challenges I had included reviews of comics or children’s books, such as Krazy Kat (for The 1924 Club) and Dr. Seuss (for the The 1938 Club). Well 1968 was the year that underground comix really took off, especially with Zap Comix, and I was going to include a review of as many underground comix from 1968 as possible, but it would have meant hunting down my copies and re-reading them, scanning relevant parts and in the end I just didn’t have the time to do it. But, I am already regretting not doing so.

There were many books that I considered reading before making the final decision. I was always going to include some Bukowski as he had been a favourite author of mine from years back and besides I thought I’d include him to bring the tone down a little.:-) I decided on Brian Moore’s book because he’s quite a new writer for me and I only needed the smallest excuse to try another book by him. But here are some of the others that I thought of reading:

  • A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines
  • Come Along With Me by Shirley Jackson
  • La Place de l’étoile by Patrick Modiano
  • Tigers are Better-Looking by Jean Rhys
  • I Used to Believe I Had Forever Now I’m Not Sure by William Saroyan
  • My Youth in Vienna by Arthur Schnitzler
  • The Public Image by Muriel Spark
  • Couples by John Updike
  • Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal
  • The Quest for Christa T by Christa Wolf

I was glad to see that some of these were reviewed by others in the challenge.

What books did you consider for ‘The 1968 Club’ but didn’t make it to the final cut?

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‘I am Mary Dunne’ by Brian Moore

I am Mary Dunne covers a single day in the life of Mary Lavery, née Dunne, ex-Mary Bell, ex-Mary Phelan. She’s currently married to her third husband but can’t help remembering events from the past even though she has trouble with her memory. Brian Moore is a new favourite author of mine but I was a little wary of this one at the beginning as he adopts a first-person narrative where we are dropped straight in to the confusion that is Mary’s life; but Moore handles it really well and although it takes a little while to work out which husband is which and who all the other people are in Mary’s life Moore slowly reveals the details so that we can begin to make sense of her life. Within the first few pages of the book Mary recounts her morning visit to a beauty salon where the receptionist forgot Mary’s name but when she asked Mary for it Mary’s mind went blank until she gave her name as Mrs Phelan, her name from her first marriage. Then upon leaving the salon she was stopped in the street by a smiling man, a stranger, who said ‘I’d like to fuck you, baby’ and then walked off leaving Mary stunned then angry. It’s not a great start to the day.

Mary is currently living in New York but she’s originally from Montreal, Canada. Her current husband is Terence Lavery, a British playwright, and as the novel unfolds it seems that she’s finally settled on a man whom she truly loves and who loves her. But she always feels that she’s playing a part; with each husband she has had to act differently.

I play an ingénue role, with special shadings demanded by each suitor. For Jimmy I had to be a tomboy; for Hat, I must look like a model; he admired elegance. Terence wants to see me as Irish: sulky, laughing, wild. And me, how do I see me, who is that me I create in mirrors, the dressing-table me, the self I cannot put a name to in the Golden Door Beauty Salon?

She doesn’t quite know who she is. With each husband she feels that she has to be different. Even when she changes jobs she feels that her identify has to be detroyed and re-created. She feels that she is split into three Selfs: Sensible Self, My Buddy and Mad Twin. On the day of the novel she is mostly possessed by her Mad Twin self. And she’s a bit of a blabbermouth, she says things before thinking through the consequences.

I am, always have been, a fool who rushes in, a blurter-out of awkward truths, a speaker-up at parties who, the morning after, filled with guilt, vows that never again, no matter what, but who, faced at the very next encounter with someone whose opinions strike me as unfair, rushes in again, blurting out, breaking all vows.

This confession comes when she’s relating a visit from an old gent who is looking to rent the flat while she and her husband are going to be away. She notices that his clothes are a little shabby and recognises him vaguely from somewhere and more or less accuses him of casing the joint. Emabarrased, he tries to leave, but Mary (Mad Twin Mary), realises that she’s made a mistake, chases after him to try to apologise even though it’s too late. It turns out that he’s lonely and just likes looking around rich people’s flats and meeting people.

During the novel we find out more about Mary’s past, her family and her previous jobs but the stand-out scenes for me are the two times throughout the day when she meets up with old friends. First she meets up with her old friend from Montreal, Janice Sloane, who’s in New York for a few days. This lunch scene is very amusing, right from the start there’s a mix up over the restaurant they’re going to. Throughout the lunch they end up revealing things about each other that are surprising and hurtful. They talk, then argue then make up. The second scene is at the end when she gets a phone-call from an old friend, or rather an old friend of her second husband, who wants to meet up with her. His name is Ernest Truelove (is Moore trying to signal something here?) and he has dinner at the Lavery’s apartment, gets increasingly drunk, makes some startling revelations and makes a complete ass of himself. Moore’s characterisation is brilliant here as although Ernest appears at first to be an obnoxious caricature, introduced for comic effect, he gradually becomes more realistic and, although he’s still a ridiculous character at the end, we begin to empathise with him. Here’s a quote from a section from the end of the novel, after Ernest has told his story.

    There, in the dining-room, amid the wreck of dinner glasses, dishes, wine bottles, there settled on all three of us an instant of total immobility, as though the film of our lives had jammed. We sat, frozen in stop frame, until, suddenly, Ernie’s head jerked forward and he turned to me, his face screwed up in a painful parody of a boy’s embarrassed grin. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I guess I have finished. Eh, Maria? Golly, I’ve gone and done it again. Made a fool of myself, imposed on people’s kindness, irritated the people I most want to be friends with. You and Terence. Golly.’
    Having castigated himself, he, like all those people who are quick to apologize, considered himself at once forgiven. He grinned again and said, ‘What a horse’s ass I am. I’ll bet that’s what you’re thinking?’

I am Mary Dunne is another great novel by Moore. I have also read The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal which were both excellent novels.

This was read as part of the 1968Club challenge.

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Messrs. Chips & Polly et al.

The film of Goodbye, Mr Chips was always on TV when I was a child but I don’t think I ever got round to watching it; even so, I knew it was about a teacher at a public school. I just happened to see this book in the library yesterday and picked it up with the intention of reading it if I felt the urge for such a book; well, I had the urge today and I was glad that I read this charming little book. We get to hear Mr Chipping’s (the children call him Mr Chips) reminiscences about his forty or so years of teaching from about 1870 to his retirement in 1913 and beyond. At first he is unsure of himself and tends to be quite stern with the students but over the years as he gains experience he allows himself to relax a little. His marriage, at forty-eight, to a beautiful and modern twenty-five year old, called Katherine, is a short but enlightening experience for Mr Chips; naturally conservative Mr Chips is not so close-minded that he can’t learn from his younger and more adventurous wife. He is a mild man who realises before long that he isn’t going to achieve ‘great things’ or make a name for himself so instead he dedicates his time to the school and the boys that pass through from year to year. As he ages he gets a reputation for having a sense of humour which makes him beloved by his students, past and present. Of course, the First World War is looming and many of his old boys go off to fight, not to return. Goodbye, Mr Chips is a rather quaint, sweet, story of a mild-mannered teacher; I would probably have disliked it when I was younger but these days, well, I can find room for these more gentle books. I dread to think what a modern version of this book would be like.

The History of Mr Polly, a 1910 novel by H.G. Wells, is a book that I’ve been meaning to read since I was at school and so, as I’m trying to read books that I’ve been meaning to read for ages and books that I physically own, I felt that it was high time I got round to reading it. I knew that it was about a man that becomes so tired with life that he decides to set fire to his shop and kill himself. But I’d thought that that happened near the beginning of the book, instead it appears quite late in the novel. Mr Polly is a brilliantly humorous character by Wells, a character who blunders through life, with no real aim or ambition. He has a limited education, but he enjoys reading even if he feels he doesn’t grasp everything but he enjoys playing with words and ends up making up words of his own, much to the confusion of others. There are some great comic moments, my favourite is probably where he accidently marries the wrong girl but is too timid to extricate himself from the mistake. Standing at the altar he ponders matters:

At the back of his mind he was speculating whether flight at this eleventh hour would be criminal or merely reprehensible bad taste. A murmur from the nudgers announced the arrival of the bridal party.

Needless to say that his marriage is not a happy one. He is unsatisfied with his little haberdashery shop and ends up making enemies of all his neighbours. This is when he decides to burn down his shop with himself inside, but even this he bungles and instead becomes a bit of a local hero. I won’t say much about the end but I was impressed with how the story developed from this point, Wells really surprised me with how he continued this story. Near the end of the book Mr Polly becomes quite reflective and tries to explain his life to another character:

“I often wonder about life,” he said weakly.
   He tried again. “One seems to start in life,” he said, “expecting something. And it doesn’t happen. And it doesn’t matter. One starts with ideas that things are good and things are bad—and it hasn’t much relation to what is good and what is bad. I’ve always been the skeptaceous sort, and it’s always seemed rot to me to pretend we know good from evil. It’s just what I’ve never done. No Adam’s apple stuck in my throat, ma’am. I don’t own to it.”
   He reflected.
   “I set fire to a house—once.”

Image source: scan of personal copy

I have had an excellent run of great books just lately and one of the best of this group of books is William Trevor’s The Children of Dynmouth. This is another one of the books off of my TBR pile that I’ve decided to attack this year. It is also my first book by William Trevor, although I have seen the excellent film (and no doubt the book is just as good) of Trevor’s Felicia’s Journey. I still hope to write a lengthier post on this book but as time drifts away I realise that I may never get round to it. But it was an astounding novel right from the first page. The main character is a fifteen year-old boy called Timothy Gedge, who is, well, a little strange. He’s mostly given up on school, preferring to watch TV instead, and he’s left on his own as his mother and sister are out at work during the day and socialising during the evening—his father left home years ago. He spends most of his time ‘observing’ the inhabitants of the small seaside town and as such he knows all their secrets. He likes making jokes, jokes that most people don’t ‘get’, and so he gets it into his head to participate in an upcoming talent contest with a rather macabre comedy skit based on a serial killer. The only problem is that he has no money and he needs some props; he then embarks on a series of blackmail attempts to get what he wants. Gedge is at times quite a menacing character but also rather pathetic as he doesn’t really know the ramifications of his actions—he just wants his props for his amazing comedy skit. I loved Trevor’s ending of this novel; it wasn’t what I was expecting.

Image source: GoodReads

Michael Frayn’s book Headlong is about an academic (a philosopher called Martin Clay) who, when visiting his country retreat, believes that his neighbour has an unknown Bruegel painting, amongst others, that he is intending to sell. He believes it is the sixth painting in Bruegel’s ‘Months of the Year’ cycle of paintings, a series which includes the famous The Hunters in the Snow. Much of the novel is taken up with his research on Bruegel’s life and times and the rest of the novel consists in Martin trying to get access to the painting to verify whether it is a Bruegel or not. Martin offers to help to sell his neighbour’s paintings with the intention of getting the Bruegel for himself. In trying to get to see the painting again he inadvertently gets mixed up with the neighbour’s wife. The novel is part art history and part farce and didn’t quite work for me though it was an ok read overall. I see that some reviewers call it a comedy, which I can sort of see, but it’s not a label I would automatically pin on it. The only other book I’ve read by Frayn is Spies which I much preferred to this one.

I’m trying to decide what to read next. It may be time for some more non-fiction, maybe some more books on the Russian Revolution, especially as it’s the centenary year.

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Filed under Fiction, Frayn, Michael, Hilton, James, Trevor, William, Wells, H.G.

‘Seven by Five’ by H.E. Bates

This collection consists of stories from 1926, when Bates was only twenty-one, to 1961. There are thirty-five stories in total, hence the title, and I’m assuming that they appear in chronological order though little information is given about the publication date of the stories, which is annoying. I have only read short stories by Bates so far but he is quickly becoming a favourite author of mine and one who, in my opinion, ranks with the great short story writers from around the world. Bates is most famous for the The Darling Buds of May and Uncle Silas books (and TV adaptions), which I still haven’t read, but he wrote so much more, as I’m slowly finding out. His work seems to fit my reading requirements at the moment as I’m finding myself being increasingly drawn towards straightforwad realism; whether this is just a temporary situation or a more permanent one I’m not sure at the moment.

This collection has a good variety of stories; some are set in Larkin-land but others are set on the continent, at the seaside, or amongst the provincial middle-classes. What makes Bates so refreshing for me is that his stories concentrate on workers, farmers and the lower middle-classes, in an age when so much of the fiction from the U.K. was by, and about, the upper-classes or intellectuals. One of Bates’s earlier stories, and another one that was adapted for T.V. (in 1972), is The Mill and is amazingly frank for a story that was written in 1935 (for further info see the H.E. Bates Companion website). Alice is a rather vague emotionless girl, the daughter of a greengrocer/florist, and a girl who has low expectations in life. When her father announces that she is to start work at the Holland’s mill to help around the house she doesn’t question him and starts the following Monday.

It was about five miles to the mill, and she walked as though in obedience to the echo of her father’s command. She had a constant feeling of sharp expectancy, not quite apprehension, every time she looked up and saw the mill. But the feeling never resolved itself into thought. She felt also a slight relief. She had never been, by herself, so far from home.

Alice soon gets used to her chores which mostly consist of cooking Mr Holland’s meals and talking to Mrs Holland, who is mostly bedridden. Not much happens for a while as the three characters get to know each other. Used to obeying orders and with Mrs Holland’s request for her ‘to do all you can for Mr Holland’ she soon ends up submitting to Mr Holland’s sexual advances. Mr Holland is not violent or mean, rather he cajoles Alice into having sex with him. Of course, Alice becomes pregnant but seems oblivious to what’s happening to her and instead believes she’s caught Mrs Holland’s illness. When the Hollands’ son, Albert, returns she is initially ignored, she misses reading to Mrs Holland and the attention from Mr Holland, but Albert acts kindly towards her and takes her into town occasionally. It’s only when Albert realises that she’s pregnant and points it out to her that she understands what’s happening to her body. Albert then sends her home and it’s only when she returns that she begins to show some emotion and cry. This is a tale, simply told, but powerful in its portrayal of an emotionless and passive young girl.

Another story is The Evolution of Saxby, an amusing tale set during and after wartime. The narrator befriends Saxby at a railway station and after they get to know each other Saxby seems envious of the narrator living in the country with a garden. When he next meets Saxby the narrator discovers that Saxby now house a house with a garden and he is invited to visit. But when he does he notices that the garden is like a jungle and that Saxby’s wife, whom Saxby had described as an invalid close to death, is obsessed with renovating houses and selling them before moving on to the next one. Saxby just wants to settle down and to the narrator it looks like Saxby’s the one who looks more ill though he persists in the idea that his wife is ill.

One of my favourite stories in the collection was The Major of Hussars. The narrator is on holiday in the Swiss Alps, staying in the same hotel is the major:

The major was very interested in the mountains, and we in turn were very interested in the major, a spare spruce man of nearly sixty who wore light shantung summer suits and was very studious of his appearance generally, and very specially of his smooth grey hair. He also had three sets of false teeth, of which he was very proud: one for mornings, one for evenings, and one for afternoons.

The narrator and his wife see the major everywhere and soon befriend him. The major mentions several times that his wife, Mrs Martineau, should be arriving on the next steamer only for her to not arrive and so they start to believe that his wife is a fiction. The major, meanwhile, is very charming and easily befriends people, especially young attractive women, which is noted by the couple. But one day the major’s wife does indeed arrive and surprisingly she is about twenty-five years old; it is soon apparent that she is an overbearing argumentative woman who bullies and argues with her husband. On a trip up a mountain she complains and moans non-stop and the narrator and his wife decide to avoid them in future. But they can’t avoid hearing a huge row they have one day with pot plants, books and shoes being thrown about by Mrs Martineau, but she also throws anything else that is to hand.

   Back in the room Mrs Martineau began throwing things. ‘You’re always fussing!’ I heard her shout, and then there was the enraged dull noise of things like books and shoes being thrown.
   ‘Please, darling, don’t do that,’ the major said. ‘Don’t do it please.’
   ‘Oh! shut up!’ she said. ‘And these damn things too!’
   I heard the most shattering crash as if a glass tumbler had been thrown.
   ‘Oh! not my teeth!’ the major said. ‘Please, darling. Not my teeth! For God’s sake, not both sets, please!’

The next day the couple are seen leaving; the major, with his wrong teeth in, can only give a strange sort of smile to the narrator.

I’m not sure what my next H.E. Bates book may be; it could well be more short stories as I’m really enjoying those I’ve read so far but at some point I will try a novel by him. I also have the Darling Buds books to read as well as some non-fiction books that I purchased recently—see below.

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Filed under Bates, H.E., Fiction