Category Archives: Fiction

‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951 Club)

The fictional Memoirs of Hadrian was published in 1951 but was first conceived by Marguerite Yourcenar in 1924 when she was only twenty-one years old. In the years inbetween Yourcenar must have done an incredible amount of research in order to write a book which is so convincing at times that I had to remind myself that this is a fictional account. The memoirs are in the form of a very long letter to the young Marcus Aurelius, who has been chosen by Hadrian to succeed to the throne after Antoninus Pius; Antoninus has been chosen to succeed to the throne after Hadrian. In this way Hadrian is attempting to steer the Roman Empire through the rough period ahead with Emperors that he can trust and whom he believes will do a good job. He sees Antoninus Pius as someone who will continue Hadrian’s reforms and Marcus Aurelius as the closest thing to a Platonic philosopher-king.

After a slight preamable Yourcenar describes Hadrian’s early adult life in the army and then the senate. For instance, he recalls being the one to first inform Trajan that he had succeeded Nerva. It is under Trajan’s rule that Hadrian realises that the Roman Empire is over-extending itself. When he becomes Emperor he puts a halt to most expansionist policies with one result being the wall across Britannia that is now known under his name. Hadrian hadn’t been named as successor to Trajan although he was probably the most obvious choice. This made his path to power a little tricky and Yourcenar has Hadrian being a bit equivocal over the details on this matter. Four conspirators from the Senate are killed by his servant Attianus. Hadrian claims to have written to him to ‘act quickly’ but then seems to be shocked that they were all assassinated. Although with most of the memoirs we get to see how reasonable and intelligent he is (after all wouldn’t we all portray ourselves that way?) this episode shows us that he is capable of being just as ruthless as any other would-be Emperor. He also claims that he ‘deserved to wield power’ and that the ends justifies the means.

Hadrian played by his own rules and was prepared to shake things up. He refused honorific titles, he disliked the brutality of the Games but endured them to keep up appearances, he travelled throughout the whole Empire, he relinquished undefendable territories that were won by Trajan and passed many legal reforms. Hadrian, although married, also had a passionate relationship with the young boy Antinous and the pages following his death at twenty demonstrate how much he cared for the boy; his grief over his death is real and lasting.

Hadrian is one of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ starting with Nerva and ending with Marcus Aurelius, these were ‘benevolent dictators’ who stood out in contrast to the other tyrannical Emperors. With the memoirs we get a sense of Hadrian’s idealism; he is in awe of the Greeks and feels that the Romans compare unfavourably with them but his idealism does not blind him to the practical measures that are required to run an Empire. Below is a brilliant, albeit long, quote from the book showing his idealism.

My ideal was contained within the word beauty, so difficult to define despite all the evidence of our senses. I felt responsible for sustaining and increasing the beauty of the world. I wanted the cities to be splendid, spacious and airy, their streets sprayed with clean water, their inhabitants all human beings whose bodies were neither degraded by marks of misery and servitude nor bloated by vulgar riches; I desired that the schoolboys should recite correctly some useful lessons; that the women presiding in their households should move with maternal dignity, expressing both vigor and calm; that the gymnasiums should be used by youths not unversed in arts and in sports; that the orchards should bear the finest fruits and the fields the richest harvests. I desired that the might and majesty of the Roman Peace should extend to all, insensibly present like the music of the revolving skies; that the most humble traveller might wander from one country, or one continent, to another without vexatious formalities, and without danger, assured everywhere of a minimum of legal protection and culture; that our soldiers should continue their eternal pyrrhic dance on the frontiers; that everything should go smoothly, whether workshops or temples; that the sea should be furrowed by brave ships, and the roads resounding to frequent carriages; that, in a world well ordered, the philosophers should have their place, and the dancers also. This ideal, modest on the whole, would be often enough approached if men would devote to it one part of the energy which they expend on stupid or cruel activities; great good fortune has allowed me a partial realization of my aims during the last quarter of a century.

With the planned succession of his power passing to Antoninus Pius and then to Marcus Aurelius Hadrian hopes to secure the dominance of Rome’s power but he is not always so optimistic as is shown with this quote where he envisages the downfall of Rome:

But other hordes would come, and other false prophets. Our feeble efforts to ameliorate man’s lot would be but vaguely continued by our successors; the seeds of error and of ruin contained even in what is good would, on the contrary, increase to monstrous proportions in the course of centuries. A world wearied of us would seek other masters; what had seemed to us wise would be pointless for them, what we had found beautiful they would abominate. Like the initiate to Mithraism the human race has need, perhaps, of a periodical bloodbath and descent into the grave. I could see the return of barbaric codes, of implacable gods, of unquestioned despotism of savage chieftains, a world broken up into enemy states and eternally prey to insecurity. Other sentinels menaced by arrows would patrol the walls of future cities; the stupid, cruel, and obscene game would go on, and the human species in growing older would doubtless add new refinements of horror. Our epoch, the faults and limitations of which I knew better than anyone else would perhaps be considered one day, by contrast, as one of the golden ages of man.

Although I’m glad to have read this book and I’m impressed with what Yourcenar has achieved I didn’t enjoy reading it as much as I thought I would. I have read other fictional accounts, such as Graves’s Count Belisarius or Gore Vidal’s Julian, that were more enjoyable to read. Yourcenar has gone for authenticity rather than readability which isn’t a bad thing but it did make it a bit tedious at times. I’m sure that anyone who knows a lot more than me about the Roman world will get a lot more from it, but still, I’m glad that I read it.

I read this as part of The 1951 Club where contributors all read books from the same year. This was organised by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

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Filed under Fiction, Yourcenar, Marguerite

‘Hangsaman’ by Shirley Jackson (1951 Club)

Whilst looking through my GoodReads shelves for books from 1951 one jumped out at me—Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson. I’ve read a collection of short stories and a few novels by her including her first novel The Road Through the Wall which was an impressive first novel. Hangsaman was her second novel published three years after her first. UK readers may be interested to know that Penguin re-released most of Jackson’s works a few years ago so most are readily available in different formats.

Hangsaman is the story of Natalie Waite which is principally from her viewpoint and covers a period of less than a year as she starts college. Natalie is a seventeen year old living at home with a rather pompous writer father, a neurotic, possibly alcoholic, mother and a younger brother. The novel opens with a breakfast scene where right from the start we experience Arnold Waite declaring ‘I am God’ to the annoyance of his wife and Natalie sits quietly, but critically, observing. She’s about to go to college; a college that her parents have taken time to choose for her and one that is really too expensive for them. Natalie is quite fearful of going there.

In the first section we get to experience how Natalie feels about the rest of her family. There’s an intense bond between Natalie and her father, though this is intellectual rather than emotional. Her father likes setting her writing tests and it appears as if he’s trying to live his life again through Natalie. The Waites are having a Sunday cocktail party which means that Mrs Waite has to spend most of the afternoon in the kitchen preparing the food. Natalie prefers being in her room reading or alone in the garden, whereas Mrs Waite finds the kitchen the only place where she can escape the overbearing presence of her husband. Arnold Waite prefers being in his study and Natalie has no idea what her brother, Bud, gets up to when she’s not around. They all prefer being apart from each other. Throughout this first section Natalie imagines that she is being quizzed over a murder by a policeman. The beauty of Jackson’s work is that she can make the everyday world seem eerie; there’s a sense of foreboding hanging over everything even though the sun is shining, it’s breakfast time, or it’s cocktail hour. Although Natalie seems to get on with her father better than her mother she admits to liking her mother when she is in the kitchen; where she can be herself and talk freely. At the cocktail party while Arnold is socialising and flirting with the women, Mrs Waite is drinking herself into a state in the bedroom. Only Natalie shows any concern and her mother confides to her:

“It isn’t any single thing,” Mrs. Waite repeated earnestly, the tears on her cheeks, “It’s just that—well, look, Natalie. This is the only life I’ve got—you understand? I mean, this is all. And look what’s happening to me. I spend most of my time just thinking about how nice things used to be and wondering if they’ll ever be nice again. If I should go on and on and die someday and nothing was ever nice again—wouldn’t that be a fine thing? I get to feeling like that and then I think I’ll make things be nice, and make him behave, and just make everything all happy and exciting again the way it used to be—but I’m too tired.”

Mrs. Waite continues her drunken monologue and portrays Mr. Waite as a malevolent force from whom she is trying to protect Natalie. The whole cocktail party is written so well that it’s a shame it ends, and it ends in a suitably creepy and disturbing way—I’ll say no more about that.

And so Natalie attends her college. She’s a loner from the start, preferring to stay in her room working rather than attending social events. She’s optimistic at the beginning that this will be a new start for her but the optimisim doesn’t last long. She becomes socially acquainted with her English professor and his wife who seem to be copies of her own parents with Arthur Langdon as a rather pompous, cocktail-loving, English professor and Elizabeth Langdon, an ex-student of Arthur’s, as his neurotic, alcoholic, suicidal wife. The Langdons are also visited by students Anne and Vicki; Arthur is probably having an affair with Anne. Anne and Vicki are friendly to Natalie but there’s no close bond between them as Natalie remains outside all the cliques. Meanwhile events start to happen in the dormitory that become increasingly sinister and weird. There is a middle of the night initiation which ends up farcical rather than menacing; objects start to be stolen; Natalie discovers that some of the keys open some of the other doors and in one of the more frightening episodes Natalie is woken in the middle of the night by someone and is told to follow them. She’s led by another girl through darkened corridors to another room where the girl coaxes Natalie to listen at the walls to hear them. When this finally gets too weird for Natalie she leaves the building but bumps into a girl called Tony, who either is already, or becomes, Natalie’s friend. We learn nothing of Tony, who at this stage of the novel, appears to be a figment of Natalie’s imagination. After an uncomfortable visit to her parents things get even more strange where Natalie and Tony have become best friends, walk hand-in-hand around town laughing at others and talking in a quick-paced, humorous banter. I was going to include a sample of this but I felt it was too long and probably wouldn’t make much sense out of context.

I won’t reveal much more even though there’s little definite to give away as the whole novel is ambiguous. This ambiguity could be annoying in a less accomplished author but Jackson is a master of this form of everyday creepiness. Jackson’s books are similar to David Lynch’s movies in many ways, though less violent. In the end we are unsure just how much is due to Natalie’s fragile and fractured psyche. The great thing about the novel is that Natalie is intelligent enough to reflect on her own feelings and thoughts. At times she doubts her own existence.

Perhaps—and this was her most persistent thought, the thought that stayed with her and came suddenly to trouble her at odd moments, and to comfort her—suppose, actually, she were not Natalie Waite, college girl, daughter to Arnold Waite, a creature of deep lovely destiny; suppose she were someone else?

This was one of those books where I ended up rushing through the ending a little, curious as to how it was going to end. I knew from the start that it wouldn’t have a clean ending but I was not prepared for what actually happened. It’s one of those books that has grown on me since finishing it and while writing this review. If you’ve already read some of Jackson’s more well-known work then I would suggest checking out Hangsaman or The Road Through the Wall. I’ve certainly got a hunger for more work by her.

I read this as part of The 1951 Club where contributors all read books from the same year. This was organised by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

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Filed under Fiction, Jackson, Shirley

Books Read from TBR pile in Q1 2017

At the end of last year I decided to seriously tackle the physical pile of books that I had at home. Some books, such as The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa or The Spire by Wiliam Golding I had been meaning to read for years. These days I also have many similar books on my kindle and then there are many that I have wanted to read for years but don’t actually own. Well, this all sounds familiar to anyone that enjoys reading so I wont bang on about it but I felt it was time to actually do something about it. At the end of my first post of 2017 I included a photo of (most of) the physical books that I currently have at home (I started to discover more after I had taken the photo) and so I thought I’d just have a quick update on my progress. Although I started on this in December last year because I joined the GoodReads Group – Mount TBR 2017 challenge I will only include those books read in 2017. For the record I read Collette’s The Pure and the Impure and Theodor Storm’s Paul the Puppeteer in December which are missing from this list. Anyway here’s a list and photo of those read in the first quarter of 2017:

1. The Immoralist by André Gide
2. Betrayal by Marquis de Sade
3. The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa.
4. 88 More Stories by Guy de Maupassant
5. Something to Declare by Julian Barnes
6. Three Plays by August Strindberg
7. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
8. Late Fame by Arthur Schnitzler
9. Vienna 1900: Games With Love And Death by Arthur Schnitzler
10. Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill
11. Don’t Know Much about History: Everything You Need to Know about American History But Never Learned by Kenneth C. Davis

Physical books read from TBR pile in first quarter of 2017

The pile on the left hand side are those I’m currently reading; the Nigel Slater book is one I’m just going to read as the year progresses as it’s in a diary format. Since taking the photo I have also started reading Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus which I’m enjoying and is from the TBR pile. I have committed to read twenty-four books in the GoodReads group but at this rate I could probably read near forty by the end of the year. But this is one of the issues I have with setting a number on the books I’m going to read, and is why I usually avoid doing so, and that is that the temptation is to concentrate on shorter and/or easier books just to get the numbers up. You can see from the photograph that I have largely concentrated on shorter volumes so far so I’ve probably been a bit guilty of that myself.

My reading in March has been disrupted by an illness followed by an A&E visit which wasn’t much fun and which I’m still partially recovering from. But the book I was reading when I fell ill was Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, a book that I first read about on someone’s blog a year or so ago, and one that I felt I just had to read during this challenge as it is supposedly about Susan Hill’s attempt to read only books that she already owns. Although it was an interesting enough read I thought she veered off most of the time to just talk about the books she owned and the famous authors that she’d bumped into throughout her life. The blurb on the back says that she was to ’embark on a year-long voyage through her books, in order to get to know her own collection again.’ I took that to mean that she was doing what I was doing and reading books from her collection but what she is doing is rummaging through her collection to see what she has and what memories it evokes. This is why I initially found the list at the end of the book a bit confusing as it is not a list of the books that she read throughout the year but are those she would take with her on a desert island—strangely enough most of them are British authors with the occasional American thrown in for good measure; the only translated books were The Bible, The Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Now, I’m not critical of the choice, just surprised as my list (if it existed) would have a lot of French, German, Russian etc. authors.

It’s probably not worth me trying to predict the ones that I will read in the rest of the year as I usually have to go with what I feel like at that moment but I would like to finally read The Spire and I would like to continue my reading of the Clochemerle books by Gabriel Chevallier. I also have more H.E. Bates books to read and I keep picking up, but not starting, Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual.

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‘A Confirmed Bachelor’ by Arthur Schnitzler

A Confirmed Bachelor is a novella included in the collection Vienna 1900: Games with Love and Death. It was originally translated by E.C. Slade in 1924 and published under the title Dr Graesler. The original German version was published in 1917 as Doktor Gräsler, Badearzt.

The story begins with the forty-eight year old Dr Graesler leaving his winter home in Lanzarote following the recent suicide of his sister. To Graesler’s annoyance the manager of the hotel suggests that Graesler should return the following year with a young wife. Graesler briefly visits his house in Berlin before continuing to a health resort elsewhere in the country where he has practised for six years. Before long Graesler attends to an elderly patient, Frau Schleheim, and is drawn into socialising with the Schleheim family. Dr Graesler is especially attracted to the daughter of the family, Sabine. Sabine is twenty-seven, quite serious and has had past experience working as a nurse in Berlin. One evening conversation turns to a local dillapidated sanotorium that is possibly up for sale. It would need renovating but the idea is put into Graesler’s head about running the sanatorium. Sabine is very enthusiastic about this project and is eager to assist Graesler in turning this into reality. She also offers to help with the adminstration of the spa, obviously looking forward to doing something useful and productive with her time. They spend hours together discussing the renovation and Graesler goes to visit the current owner who is eager to sell. After an evening with the Schleheims Graesler takes leave of Sabine:

He held Sabine’s hand a few moments, then raised it to his lips and kissed it fervently. She made no attempt to withdraw it, and when he looked up he thought her expression seemed more contented, even brighter.

Though Sabine and Graesler are both a bit awkward when it comes to matters of love both seem to be falling for each other. The following day, though, Graesler receives a letter from Sabine stating that she would like to marry Graesler if he were to offer. She admits that she doesn’t yet love him but their friendship is close to love. She reveals her past loves and discusses the future of the sanatorium in a cool manner. Graesler is a bit confused by the cool, dispassionate way that she has worked everything out, their marriage, the sanatorium, she even takes time to dissect his character; he notes to himself that she had correctly observed that he was priggish, vain, cold and irresolute. He wonders what else she may think after several years of married life. Graesler doesn’t know how to respond to this so he basically panics. He was already going to leave for Berlin in a few days time so he decides to leave earlier, i.e. straight away; he sends Sabine a letter informing her that he will return in two weeks time with an answer.

Whilst in Berlin Graesler is at a bit of a loose end and so he rummages through his dead sister’s possessions, he visits his lawyer, Böhlinger, and chats up a girl on the tram. The girl, Katharina, agrees to go to the theatre with him that evening and returns to his flat for supper. It’s not long before Katharina, who works in a glove shop, is living with him. Graesler also gets drawn in to attending a neighbour’s daughter who possibly has scarlet fever but who soon recovers. But now Graesler begins to think of Sabine and wonders if he had made a mistake.

More and more it seemed to him that Katharina’s true mission had been to lead him back to Sabine, whose love was to be for him the real meaning of his life. And the more trustingly Katharina—with no ulterior end in view—offered him the treasures of her gay, young heart, the more impatiently and hopefully his deepest yearnings went out to Sabine.

Note I will reveal the whole of the story in the rest of the post so you may wish to skip it if you don’t want to know the ending.

And so Graesler rushes back to the spa town to see Sabine and ask her forgiveness and to close the deal over the sanatorium. But the sanatorium is no longer up for sale and Sabine is no longer interested and wants nothing to do with him. Graesler now decides that Katharina is his soulmate and imagines returning to parade her in front of Sabine. So he heads back to Berlin only to find that Katharina is in bed with scarlet fever, possibly as a result of his contact with the neighbour’s girl. He stays with her until she dies and is upset by her death. After staying with Böhlinger for a few days he returns to his flat and bumps in to Frau Sommer and her child, Fanny, who had recovered from scarlet fever. Within a month Graesler has married Frau Sommer and the story ends with them visiting his hotel in Lanzarote to spend the winter.

This is an excellent story by Schnitzler, the character Dr Graesler is certainly annoying, he’s morally dubious and all the criticisms that Sabine accused him of are correct. But aren’t we all a little bit like Graesler at times? I suspect I am, and it’s not nice seeing such characteristics laid bare for all to see. It’s curious though that for Graesler everything turns out just peachy in the end.

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‘The Spring Sonata’ by Arthur Schnitzler

I recently enjoyed reading Schnitzler’s posthumously published work Late Fame and felt like reading some more. As I had a copy of the collection of four stories, Vienna 1900: Games with Love and Death, I could easily satisfy my hunger for more Schnitzler. He’s an interesting writer as he straddles the 19th and 20th centuries, he’s experimenting a bit with style that would seem quite alien to the 19th century writer and he’s obviously interested in delving deeper into the psychology of his characters.

The longest story, at 160 pages, and the last in the collection is called The Spring Sonata. The notes say that this was a 1914 translation by J.H. Wisdom and Marr Murray and was originally titled Bertha Garlan. The original story was titled Frau Bertha Garlan and was published in 1900. I have been trying to track down what Schnitzler translations are available generally and have collected the information here.

Bertha is a widow and has a young son Fritz. She was twenty-six years old when she married Victor Garlen who had proposed following the deaths of her father and mother. She did not love him. Victor died three years after their marriage. She now lives with her brother-in-law’s family and to earn some money she gives piano lessons to children of the town. Her life is comfortable but a little tedious.

It seemed to her as if it had been an unpleasant day. She went over the actual events in her mind, and was astonished to find that, after all, the day had been like many hundreds before it and many, many more that were yet to come.

One day Bertha sees an advert for a concert by Emil Lindbach. Lindbach had been the only man that she had loved twelve years before when she was still a student.

Bertha is friendly with Herr and Frau Rupius. Herr Rupius is paralysed and enjoys examining engravings. Frau Rupius is still young looking and healthy and enjoys visiting Vienna frequently, possibly to have love affairs. Bertha misses the Vienna of her youth and when Frau Rupius invites her to accompany her the following day to Vienna she accepts.

On arrival in Vienna Bertha is self-conscious of her provincial clothes. After visiting a dressmaker Bertha visits her cousin and arranges to meet up with Frau Rupius for the return train. She spends time walking round some of the places that she and Emil used to frequent.

The following day she looks through some of her old letters including those between her and Emil. There hadn’t been an actual break in their relationship, they had just drifted apart. Upon seeing in a newspaper that Emil had received an award she decides, on an impulse, to send him a congratulatory letter and to Bertha’s delight Emil responds quickly suggesting that they should meet next time she’s in Vienna. She replies to Emil and arranges to stay in Vienna for a couple of days and to meet Emil at a museum. Bertha tries to confide in Frau Rupius but she feels a little intimidated by her.

Before her trip she is propositioned in the street by Klingemann, whom she finds odious, and visits Herr Rupius who suspects that his wife is about to leave him and is in an emotional state.

Bertha is excited about meeting Emil and as she walks about Vienna before their meeting she fantasises about living in Vienna with Emil.

Yes, it would be very nice to live in Vienna and be able to do just as she liked. Well, who could say how everything would turn out, what the next few hours would bring forth, what prospects for her future life that evening would open out before her? What was it then, that really forced her to live in that dreadful little town?

The meeting goes very well, they talk as if there hadn’t been a twelve year break in their relationship, but Emil has to rush off after they arrange to meet later that evening. She then spends the day thinking about the evening and what it means to her.

I won’t reveal any more of the story as it will ruin it for anyone wishing to read it themselves. I was half-dreading some 19th century type of ending where Bertha will be punished for her ‘immoral’ escapades but was relieved to find that Schnitzler was a lot cleverer than that. The beauty of Schnitzler’s writing is his unobtrusive stream-of-consciousness approach where we get to see how Bertha’s thoughts on Emil, her own life, the Rupius’ lives etc. go through subtle changes over the days following her trip to Vienna which are fascinating to read. The story has a dramatic ending, though thankfully not melodramatic, and has a sort of moral or summary of the whole story which I’ll quote below and which surely points towards a 20th century morality.

Bertha divined what an enormous wrong had been wrought against the world in that the longing for pleasure is placed in woman just as in man; and that with women that longing is a sin, demanding expiation, if the yearning for pleasure is not at the same time a yearning for motherhood.

This story is available on Project Gutenberg as Bertha Garlan and looks as if it is the same translation as in my copy.

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‘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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Filed under Fiction, Gardner, Leonard

‘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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Filed under Fiction, Schnitzler, Arthur