Tag Archives: US fiction

‘Timbuktu’ by Paul Auster

I recently read Paul Auster’s brilliant novel, The Music of Chance, as my contribution to AnnaBookBel’s Paul Auster Reading Week. It was fun reading all the blog posts on Auster’s works, some I’d read, but some I hadn’t. Timbuktu was one of the few of Auster’s earlier novels that I hadn’t read so I was very pleased to find that I won it as part of Annabel’s giveaway at the end of the Auster week. I was between books when it arrived, I read the first line, and as is often the case with Auster’s works, I couldn’t stop.

Mr. Bones knew that Willy wasn’t long for this world. The cough had been inside him for over six months, and by now there wasn’t a chance in hell that he would ever get rid of it.

Mr. Bones is a dog, Willy’s pet and companion. Willy’s full name is Willy G. Christmas and he is on his last legs. They have recently arrived in Baltimore in search of Willy’s old teacher, Bea Swanson, the only problem is that he’s not sure where she lives, or if he can make it there. Willy has two things to accomplish before he dies, firstly he needs to find a new owner for Mr. Bones and secondly he needs to find someone to whom he can bequeath his only valuable possessions, his manuscripts; although Willy has been homeless since the death of his mother, he is also a writer, and Bea is the only person he trusts. That he fails in both of these goals is typical of Willy.

Willy’s sidekick was a hodgepodge of genetic strains – part collie, part Labrador, part spaniel, part canine puzzle – and to make matters worse, there were burrs protruding from his ragged coat, bad smells emanating from his mouth, and a perpetual bloodshot sadness lurking in his eyes.

The story is told from Mr. Bones’ viewpoint; as Willy likes to talk and Mr. Bones likes to listen we find out about Willy’s life. Born in 1947 (the same year as Auster) as William Gurevitch, he was brought up in Brooklyn by his Polish immigrant parents. When his father died just after Willy’s twelfth birthday he was brought up by his mother alone. At university Willy took a lot of drugs and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. After he was released he switched from drugs to alcohol, which stabilised him a little, and he then had the experience that changed his life: one time whilst watching late-night T.V. he had a conversation with an on-screen Santa Claus, who convinced Willy to ‘ask nothing from the world and give it only love in return.’ Willy changed his name and had a tattoo of Santa on his right arm. His relationship with his mother was strained and it was at this point that Willy began to spend the summer months wandering around the country only to return to his mother’s apartment in the winter. He also resumed his writing. But the years went by and Willy felt the need of a dog, both for companion and protection. So he got Mr. Bones. Mr. Bones loved Willy and Willy loved Mr. Bones. Indeed, Willy believed that Mr. Bones’ body contained the soul of an angel.

When the narrative turns back to the present, an exhausted Willy has come to a stop on the steps of a building. Willy enters into a brilliant monologue about his life and then falls asleep. Mr. Bones curls up against Willy and falls asleep, then events get a little confusing.

That was when he dreamed the dream in which he saw Willy die. It began with the two of them waking up, opening their eyes and emerging from the sleep they had just fallen into – which was the sleep they were in now, the same one in which Mr. Bones was dreaming the dream.

Ok, it’s a dream within a dream, which is nothing new, but it’s done well, and when they both wake up events follow a similar course as the dream, with Mr. Bones fleeing from Willy, whom he believes to be dead, and fleeing from some policemen, whom he believes will take him into a ‘shelter’, something which Willy has warned him about. Mr. Bones now has to make his own way in the world and the narrative becomes a bit more of an adventure story.

Spoiler alert: I’m going to reveal the ending in this paragraph.
Mr. Bones has some bad times and some good times but as we get near the end of the book we realise it’s not going to end well for him. After being adopted by a loving family he is then left at a kennel whilst they go on holiday, he escapes, only to find himself out in the snow, ill and exhausted, much like Willy was earlier. He ends up running into oncoming traffic to commit suicide—an ending very similar to the ending of The Music of Chance. It made me think that both novels have similar themes: aimless/lost wandering; characters with a lack of purpose; the death of a close companion or friend; being trapped in an almost inescapable situation; escaping from situation only to commit suicide. This is not meant as criticism of Auster as I often like writers who work away on their obsessions, each time from a slightly different angle, but I probably wouldn’t have noticed the similarity between both books if I hadn’t read them so close together. Timbuktu is another excellent novel by Auster and I’m glad I finally got round to reading it.

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‘The Music of Chance’ by Paul Auster

For one whole year he did nothing but drive, traveling back and forth across America as he waited for the money to run out.

The Music of Chance was originally published in 1990 and it is one of my favourite books by Auster. I had intended to read 4 3 2 1 for Annabookbel’s Paul Auster Reading Week but I didn’t plan ahead, so I thought I’d re-read an old favourite instead.

Paul Auster usually starts his books with a great opening sentence, and The Music of Chance is no different—see quote at top of page. Over the next few pages we discover that Jim Nashe had inherited two hundred thousand dollars from his father, whom he hadn’t seen for over thirty years. This inheritance arrived at a pivotal time in Nashe’s life as his wife, Thérèse, had recently left him and his daughter was now living with his sister. After paying off some debts, he bought a new car and went on the road for two weeks, driving for seven straight hours each day and staying in motels at night.

Every morning he would go to sleep telling himself that he had had enough, that there would be no more of it, and every afternoon he would wake up with the same desire, the same irresistible urge to crawl back into the car. He wanted that solitude again, that nightlong rush through the emptiness, that rumbling of the road along his skin.

He returned to work but soon decided to leave his job, sell all his possessions and go on the road for good. He had no plans but he thought he’d soon get bored with it, only he didn’t, instead he criss-crossed the country, occasionally dropping in to see his daughter, Juliette.

The thought of just disappearing, or running away, from one’s current life must occur to everyone at some point in their life. But, if we had the money to do so, would we act on it? Most, likely not, but the characters in Auster’s books often do act on these impulses and it is what makes them compelling to read.

Then, after just over a year on the road, he meets Jack Pozzi, a twenty-three year old poker player, and this chance encounter knocks his life into another lane. Nashe meets Pozzi hitchhiking, his clothes are all bloody and he looks dazed; it turns out that he’d just escaped from a beating after a poker game turned violent after he was suspected of hustling them. He was trying to raise some money for another poker game with a couple of millionaires, whom he likens to Laurel and Hardy, in just a few days’ time. Nashe gets to know Pozzi, and although he’s brash and cocky, Nashe realises he is a good poker player and makes the proposal to fund Pozzi ten thousand dollars for a fifty-fifty split of the winnings. This is nearly the last of his funds.

Bill Flower and Willie Stone are a strange couple; they won their money on the lottery a few years earlier and now live in the same mansion albeit in separate wings. Stone’s wife had died, whilst Flower’s wife had left him, neither had re-married. They both enjoy playing poker but have other interests, which become significant later on in the novel; Stone is building a scale-model of a city, called ‘The City of the World’, which he intends to spend the rest of his life working on, whilst Flower collects all sorts of objects, especially the stones of a fifteenth-century castle from Ireland which he’d bought, dismantled and shipped to America. The intention is to build a wall with the stones.

Now, halfway through this novel they begin their game of poker. Pozzi is confident as he had beaten Flower and Stone a few years ago. The two millionaires, however, have been coached by a well-known poker player and are confident also.

Things don’t go as well as expected for Nashe and Pozzi and they have to pay off their debt to the millionaires. If you are intending to read this book it may be a good idea to stop reading here as I’m going to reveal some details about the end of the book.

When I first read The Music of Chance many years ago I found it an amazing book, very nearly perfect, except for the ending. I expected that Nashe would never pay off his debt and he’d end up performing a Sisyphean task; if not building, dismantling, rebuilding the wall, then something similar, another task maybe; but Auster just cut the story off with a suicidal car crash. I remember feeling a bit ‘cheated’ by the ending, but now, after a second reading, I’m not so sure, and I think maybe Auster was right in ending it the way he did. Nashe’s year-long driving spree could be seen as a long slow suicide attempt; maybe suicide was an unconscious goal all along and now that he gets control of his car once again he can finish the job.

Pozzi had been beaten up, possibly killed, after trying to escape and Nashe may have felt that he also had no way out of the contract. But he kills himself, as well as Murks and Floyd, just when he is celebrating being clear of his debt. Does Nashe believe, like Pozzi did, that he isn’t really going to escape from his debt, or is it the freedom that he finds unendurable? I must admit that I like this violent, destructive ending more than I did before.

A film was made of the book in 1993 which was directed by Philip Haas and starred James Spader, as well as a cameo by Paul Auster. I have seen the film and have a feeling that the ending was changed. I shall have to watch it again as I remember really liking it.

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‘Collected Stories’ by Richard Yates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘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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‘The Neon Wilderness’ (Part 2) by Nelson Algren

1947-club-pinkFollowing on from my earlier post on two of the stories from The Neon Wilderness I thought I’d comment on some of the others. The opening story, the captain has bad dreams, is an amusing piece; it’s not really a story as such, rather it consists of a parade of petty criminals coming before the police captain and verbally sparring with him. They have to stand under a bright light and make a sort of confessional before the cynical captain. The criminals’ explanations are generally amusing, and the captain’s replies just as funny.

    “She fell down. I went to help her up, so her pocketbook opened up. I was helpin’ her to pick up the t’ings.”
    “You’re always helpin’ women pick up their things, somehow. We got six warrants for you from New York for helpin’ out there.”

    “You ever been arrested before?”
    “No sir. This is my first time.”
    “The first time this week, you mean.”
    “Oh, I been arrested in Michigan. I thought you meant in Illinois. I never been arrested in Illinois. I never did no wrong in Illinois.”
    “What good does that do you?”
    “It don’t. It’s just that I love my state so much I go to Michigan to steal,” he explained with an expression almost beatific.

And they keep on coming, one after another…and they haunt the captain in his sleep as well as when he’s awake.

A similar story is a bottle of milk for mother, but in this story it’s just Bruno Lefty Bicek being interrogated by the police. He’s accused of ‘jackrollin’ a drunk and killing him. Bicek denies this and innocently says he was just getting a bottle of milk for his mother when the police arrested him. But the police put pressure on Bicek to confess; he maintains that he hadn’t intended to murder the drunk but just to shoot him in the foot to get him off of him as they tussled. Bicek has to accept that he’s going to prison for manslaughter at least and the story ends with him in a prison cell. Although algren_neon-wilderness_fcx-700pxthe dialogue is as snappy as the captain has bad dreams this story has little humour—it’s a more serious piece. In the story depend on aunt elly Algren shifts his attention to a female character. It concerns Wilma who gets arrested for prostitution and after paying a fine is re-arrested and faces three years in prison, or some sort of correctional facility—Algren is often unclear about details. She manages to get out before her time is up by agreeing to pay her ‘Aunt Elly’ (actually a corrupt prison guard) a fixed sum each month. On the outside she shacks up with, and marries, a ‘flat-faced clown’ called Baby Needles. Things look good for a while but Wilma doesn’t tell her husband about the payments to Elly and then things start to go wrong and Elly catches up with Wilma. Although the story is downbeat it’s not depressing, it’s just that there’s an inevitability about their lives, they only have momentary release from the oppression of poverty and the law; they have to break the law to survive—until they’re caught.

Another stand-out story includes the face on the barroom floor, which is basically a story of a barroom brawl between the ‘mild-mannered youth’ Fancy and Railroad Shorty who got his legs chopped off by a train. Goaded on by the other drinkers the fight ends with Shorty pounding Fancy’s face.

For the face on the floor was no longer a face. It was a paste of cartilage and blood through which a single sinister eye peered blindly. The broken mouth blew minute bubbles of froth and blood.

In design for departure we are introduced to a couple of drunks, Sharkey and his latest woman called ‘the Widow’. But the focus of the story turns to Sharkey’s daughter Mary whose aim in life is to find a quiet room of her own with no doors where she can escape from the world. Although her father and the Widow are not abusive they are uninterested in Mary and don’t notice when she stops going to school and probably don’t notice when she leaves home for a dingy roominghouse and a job wrapping bacon.

Thus she lived in a twilit land between sleep and waking. And in sleep saw the terrible maze of the city’s million streets. Saw a million friendless faces, all going one way down a single avenue, each alone. Saw herself among them, touching strangers’ faces curiously, touching many hands; yet always untouched by any man’s hand and befriended by no woman.

As with Wilma in depend on aunt elly Mary encounters a man (Christy) who is good to her but who runs a protection racket and introduces her to drugs. But it’s when Christy is arrested and goes to prison that Mary’s life descends into a dreamlike insanity where she believes that she’s the Virgin Mary and Christy is Jesus Christ. It sounds bleak but there is some excellent writing here; at times Algren reminds me of Zola, Dickens or Dostoyevsky, and at other times he’s more like Kerouac, Céline or Bukowski. Here’s a great example from design for departure which evokes the lives of the inhabitants of the roominghouse:

Along the pavement-colored hall doors stood half open on either side, all the way down; each one was numbered in bright bald tin, each one stood just so much ajar in the gas-lit corridor. Just enough to reveal half-dressed men and women waiting for the rain or about to make love or already through loving and about to get drunk; or already half drunk and beginning to argue about how soon it was going to rain or whose turn it was to run down for whisky or whether it was time to make love again or forget it for once and just wait for rain.

What I find significant about Algren’s characters is that there are very few that you would call ‘bad’, let alone ‘evil’; they quite often do ‘bad’ things, usually as a consequence of a life of poverty. Algren doesn’t offer that as an excuse but instead forces us to try to understand the lives of these inhabitants of the urban underworld.

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‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’ by Carson McCullers

McCullers_Reflection-in-Golden-Eye-fc2X-700pxI read Carson McCuller’s short novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye a few weeks ago and meant to write a review…but I never quite got round to it. McCuller’s first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, was the first of hers that I read and it has remained a favourite of mine since; when I subsequently read some of her other works they never quite impressed me as much as ‘Lonely Hunter’ – but I now wonder if it was unfair to compare them against such an amazing book. Now, with a little distance from my reading of ‘Lonely Hunter’ I think that I can appreciate McCuller’s other works in their own right and Reflections in a Golden Eye is a real Southern Gothic gem of a novella. It is set on a U.S. army base and there are only five main characters which makes it read a bit like a play. There are two couples, Captain Penderton and his wife Leonora, their neighbours Major Langdon and his ill wife Alison, and there is the slightly unusual Private Williams who becomes obsessed with Leonora Penderton.

Rather than describe the plot I just wanted to share an excerpt of the book. It is quite close to the start of the novel so there should be no fear of spoilers. Captain Penderton has returned home to see his wife walking around in her bare feet, drinking brandy and dancing. Such slovenly behaviour irritates the Captain, especially as they are expecting their neighbours around for dinner.

‘The Langdons are coming any minute now and you will sit down to dinner like this, I suppose?’

‘Sure,’ she said. ‘And why not, you old prissy?’

The Captain said in a cold, taut voice: ‘You disgust me’

Mrs Penderton’s answer was a sudden laugh, a laugh both soft and savage, as though she had received some long expected piece of scandalous news or had thought of some sly joke. She pulled off her jersey, crushed it into a ball, and threw it into the corner of the room. Then deliberately she unbuttoned her breeches and stepped out of them. In a moment she was standing naked by the hearth. Before the bright gold and orange light of the fire her body was magnificent. The shoulders were straight so that the collar-bone made a sharp pure line. Between her round breasts there were delicate blue veins. In a few years her body would be full-blown like a rose with loosened petals, but now the soft roundness was controlled and disciplined by sport. Although she stood quite still and placid, there was about her body a subtle quality of vibration, as though on touching her fair flesh one would feel the slow live coursing of the bright blood beneath. While the Captain looked at her with the stunned indignation of a man who has suffered a slap in the face, she walked serenely to the vestibule on her way to the stairs. The front door was open and from the dark night outside a breeze blew in and lifted a loose strand of her bronze hair.

She was halfway up the steps before the Captain recovered from his shock. Then he ran trembling after her. ‘I will kill you!’ he said in a strangled voice. ‘I will do it! I will do it!’ He crouched with his hand to the banister and one foot on the second step of the stairway as though ready to spring up after her.

She turned slowly and looked down at him with unconcern for a moment before she spoke. ‘Son, have you ever been collared and dragged out in the street and thrashed by a naked woman?’

I think this sets the tone of the novel perfectly. This section is shortly followed by one of my favourite quotes from the book:

Leonora Penderton feared neither man, beast, nor the devil; God she had never known.

By the way Leonora is played by Elizabeth Taylor in the film version and the front cover is a still from the film. I haven’t seen it but apparently it bombed at the box office.

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‘Brother Death’ by Sherwood Anderson

800px-Sherwood_Anderson_(1933)Most people who read anything by Sherwood Anderson probably only read Winesburg, Ohio. Now that book is definitely a good one to start with but there is no need to stop there. Anderson was a master of the short-story and I feel that he struggled somewhat with novels; I wonder if he felt that short stories were somehow inferior to novels and that real writers should write novels. His best short stories are easily comparable to Chekhov’s, especially if we accept that Winesburg, Ohio is really a collection of short stories rather than a novel.

Now, I would call Sherwood Anderson one of my favourite authors, but when I look at those I have read it’s actually quite a small fraction of his total output. The problem is that every few years I feel like reading something by him and end up re-reading ones I’ve read before just because I know I like them – I’ve realised that I’m a little bit afraid that he might disappoint me if I read some of his other novels and memoirs, but I shall have to get over this fear.

Anyway, a few months ago I read the collection of stories, Death in the Woods which was originally published in 1933. This wasn’t strictly a re-read, but I had read eight of the sixteen stories years earlier in the excellent collection called Certain Things Last. I can’t remember now what I originally thought of the story Brother Death when I read it but reading it in the Death in the Woods collection I was struck by its simple brilliance.

Sherwood Anderson writes in a very simple and direct way. The story starts thus:

There were two oak stumps, knee high to a not-too-tall man and cut quite squarely across. They became to the two children objects of wonder. They had seen the two trees cut but had run away just as the trees fell.

The two children are Ted, aged eleven and sickly with a heart condition and Mary his sister, aged fourteen. Their father is John Grey who is a successful Virginian farmer who is used to getting his own way. The children discuss whether the trees bled when they were cut. Ted’s condition means that at any moment his heart may stop beating ‘leaving him dead, cut down like a young tree’ and so a strong bond develops between him and Mary. Because of his condition Ted’s mother and most of the adults try to stop Ted from doing anything that might trigger an illness and ultimately his death. This, however, infuriates Mary as it stops Ted from living a normal life.

“If he is to have but a few years of life, they shall not spoil what he is to have. Why should they make him die, over and over, day after day?” The thoughts in her did not become so definite. She had resentment against the others. She was like a soldier, standing guard over Ted.

There is another family struggle going on between the father and the eldest son, Don, aged eighteen.

It concerned ways of doing things, descisions to be made. As yet the son always surrendered.

One day Mary confronts her mother over her molly-coddling of Ted. Ted’s mother reprimands Ted for running about in the rain but Mary, furious with her mother, tells her to ‘have more sense’ and that her over-protectiveness is ‘always making him think of it’. Mary’s mother finally understands and the adults leave the children alone, giving them more room to live.

Anderson now turns back to the two oak tree stumps and an explanation of why the trees were cut down. One day, the father gets it in to his head that the trees, that were just outside of the family house, are stunting the growth of the surrounding grass and that they’re just ornamental and therefore not productive. The house originally came from the mother’s side of the family and the trees were planted by one of her relations. The mother objects to them being cut down as they’re beautiful and the act just seems pointless to her. Ted and Mary object because they like climbing them, but they don’t say anything. Don joins in on his mother’s side and argues against his father vociferously. Both father and son are obstinate, but the father currently holds the authority within the family and he orders some employees to cut down the trees. Don, threatens to leave and never return to the farm. When the tree-cutting continues he leaves the farm.

However, a few days later Don capitulates and returns to the farm. When they meet, the father says to Don “It will be yours soon now…You can be boss then.” Mary witnesses this meeting and we get later recollections of this meeting from her:

  “What had the father meant?
“When it is yours you can be boss.” It was too much for the child. Knowledge comes slowly. It meant:
“You will be in command, and for you, in your turn, it will be necessary to assert.
“Such men as we are cannot fool with delicate stuff. Some men are meant to command and others must obey. You can make them obey in your turn.
“There is a kind of death.
“Something in you must die before you can possess and command.”
There was, so obviously, more than one kind of death. For Don Grey one kind and for the younger brother Ted, soon now perhaps, another.

Ted eventually dies in his bed peacefully and Mary later ponders over the death of Ted, the knowledge of which gave him a ‘curious sense of freedom’ whilst he was still alive, whereas Don suffers a ‘more subtle and terrible death’ whilst he’s still alive.

This is a brilliant story brilliantly told. I love the way that the story is told in the third-person but flits backwards and forwards in time with the elder Mary filling in details of what the younger Mary saw and experienced. The volume Death in the Woods is available quite cheaply these days if you’ve got an e-reader. As are Winesburg, Ohio and the excellent Triumph of the Egg.

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