Balthasar’s Gift

balthasar's giftThere’s a back story to this one. Once upon a time, now many years ago, a group of women writers, all friends online, came together over a feminist blog: What We Said. We were all involved with different kinds of writing; novels, short stories, nonfiction. Now one of our group has published her crime novel, Balthasar’s Gift, which is the first in a series featuring maverick journalist, Maggie Cloete.

The setting is South Africa, post-apartheid but before the turn of the millenium. Maggie is going about her normal business (chasing muggers on her motorcycle, in fact) when the call comes in: a shooting at the local AIDS mission. Maggie arrives to find a young man dying in the arms of the woman who runs the place, and it’s only when a passer-by knows the victim’s name, Balthasar Meiring, that Maggie realises she’s heard of him. A little while back he had called her on the phone, urging her to attend the court hearing of a class action against a doctor selling a fake cure for AIDS. Maggie had decided to pass the information onto her colleague at the paper who works on health issues, mostly because she was resisting the pressure Meiring seemed to want to put on her. And of course now, she regrets it.

While the general assumption is that his death is a robbery gone wrong, Maggie begins to suspect there’s a great deal more behind it. Following up on leads that she hides from her editor at the paper, she begins to believe that the two sides of Balthasar’s life have clashed: his private school friends, some of whom are now operating far too close to the limits of the law, and his work with AIDS sufferers, of whom there are escalating numbers. It’s the mid-90s and the government is reluctant to provide the drugs that could save thousands of lives, while the people react with fear and superstition. It’s a bad situation, ripe with all the urgency and exploitation that leads to murder.

Maggie is a terrific character: determined to be the alpha male in any situation, stubborn and provocative and with the subtlety of a jackhammer, but fundamentally it’s her tender side that gets her into trouble, undermining any professional distance she might try to have. She reminds me a whole lot of V. I. Warshawski.

But perhaps what I admired most in this novel is the setting of Pietermaritzburg. I’ve never been to South Africa and know very little about the country, but this story is so steeped in the atmosphere of place and time, I felt as if I’d been there. The best crime fiction doesn’t just tell a pacy, high-octane story, it also has a profound awareness of the social injustices and loopholes that create the right conditions for crime to flourish. I really admired this in Eva Dolan’s crime novel, Long Way Home, a few weeks back, and was again impressed by that same depth in Charlotte Otter’s.

I should also say that I read an early version of this novel, when Charlotte was first drafting it. It was a great read then, but now it’s amazing. Every scene is crisp, the transitions are smooth, the characterisation sharp and vivid, the story unfolds so neatly and lucidly… All too often I read books that feel a bit ragged still, as if they should have gone through another edit before reaching their readers. But this one is as slick and tough as a turbo engine. And finally, hard-boiled crime fiction has a new edge in the 21st century, led by women writers who marry uncompromising social insight with compassion. The old sisterhood would be justly proud to bits of Charlotte.

 

Thursday Reading Notes

Looking back over the past month or so I see that my reading has been all over the place, rather like the golden rose in our back garden that will suddenly shoot two or three long suckers out in random directions. There have been distinct obsessions lately and quite a lot of books read that I haven’t mentioned here.

eva dolanAs ever, once we’ve finally put an edition of Shiny out, I take a fortnight’s vacation in crime. Of several titles I read, the standout was Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. I picked it up because it was set in Peterborough, a town not far from where I live, and which does seem to have featured on the news lately as a Place Where Bad Things Happen. Eva Dolan’s novel was brilliant, focusing on the large immigrant population in Peterborough and the dangerous drudgery of their lives. Although it was a much darker book than I usually read, the writing was excellent and the situation so fresh and contemporary I almost expected to read about the crime in the local papers. Gripping and pacy, I really rated this one.

the telling errorI also read my first Sophie Hannah, The Telling Error. I’m late to this particular writer and initially I wasn’t at all sure I’d like her. The murder was committed in a ludicrous way, which I could have forgiven had her main detective not rushed in with a series of interpretations that were even more implausible. However, as the story got into its stride and the complexities of the plot unfolded and were ironed out, I was lost in the story in a wholly good way. I’m not going to say anything about this one – Mr Litlove was driving me to lunch in Saffron Walden, and I spent the entire half hour recounting the plot in a way that even confused me long before we reached our destination, and I like to think I can make a reasonable job of a synopsis. I was left with even greater respect for Sophie Hannah’s powers of narrative organisation. Heaven only knows this story was complicated, but I followed it perfectly at the time.

Interestingly enough, I was at a book event in town on Tuesday where Sophie Hannah and her mother, Adele Geras were both speaking. Sophie Hannah was talking about her new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, and how it came into being. Apparently her agent had a brainwave that she would be the perfect person to write a continuation novel for Agatha Christie, and by strange coincidence, the estate actually felt the time was ripe for one (having shuddered at the prospect for many a year). The Christie family is apparently delighted with Sophie’s book, but I’ve only read mixed reviews of it. If you know of a good one, point me in the right direction. Amusingly, Sophie said that usually when you publish a novel, you have to brace yourself for some moaning, but the good thing about this novel was that she was inundated with complaints on twitter as soon as it was announced she’d be writing it. So the publication had been fairly uncontentious by comparison.

I was actually there, though, for her mother. I’m interviewing Adele Geras for Shiny New Books towards the end of the month, and trying to zip through a portion of her huge back catalogue before we meet. This means unusually for me, I’m reading YA fiction – her rewrite of Greek mythology in Troy – as well as more romantic novels. Her latest, Cover Your Eyes, and one from a few years back, A Hidden Life.

TheLastAsylumMy real obsession at the moment, however, is with memoirs. I’ve been reading some utterly brilliant ones. A few weeks back I finished Barbara Taylor’s account of her psychotic breakdown in The Last Asylum, where she was put for want of anything better to do with her. Barbara Taylor writes so engagingly and so honestly about her mental collapse, I properly could not put the book down. I am never quite sure why reviewers so often praise a lack of self-pity in memoirs, when quite often those writing them have a great deal to be sorry about. But in this book, Taylor’s powerful, straightforward and lucid voice is just wonderful. Throughout this time she was seeing a psychoanalyst – indeed the implication is that therapy forced her to confront her problems without being able to prevent her lapse into psychosis – and essentially this relationship becomes the spine of the story. Taylor is mean to her therapist in an eye-watering way, but he hangs on in there for her and eventually becomes her route to sanity.

Also utterly, breathtakingly brilliant was Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up The Ghost. I’d better not say much about this other than I loved it and hope to review it properly soon.

zeno's conscienceFinally, I am plodding through Zeno’s Conscience, an Italian Modernist hit from the early part of the 20th century. I’m reading it because it has such a good story behind it. It was the third self-published novel by its author, Italo Svevo (whose real name was Ettore Schmitz), and each of his books had appeared to an indifferent critical reception before sinking without trace. He’d given up trying to publish anything for 25 years before writing his last, and he believed his best, book. When it, too, looked like it would disappear unnoticed, he sent a copy to his old friend and one-time English tutor, James Joyce. Joyce was enthusiastic and told him to send copies to prominent French critics that he knew. They took it up with excitement and the novel then catapulted Italo Svevo to brief, late fame. He absolutely loved it, all his dreams had come true, but he only lived a few more years to enjoy it. Generally I can get into any book if I make the effort, but this one is resisting me quite stubbornly. I think it’s a gender problem, as the novel is the story of a lazy, cowardly, morally dubious man who spins everything to put himself in a better light. He is the Homer Simpson of the early 20th century, a man who may not always be right, but who is never wrong. I know he’s meant to be unsympathetic, but his torturous meandering thoughts do sometimes grate upon my nerves. Still, I will plod on.

I shouldn’t really ask, but if you have recommendations for excellent memoirs, just whisper them in the comments below.

Mentor

mentorThis memoir of the tortured trajectory of the writer’s life was completely fascinating, if not always for the right reasons. Tom Grimes’ brave and excruciatingly honest account of sixteen rollercoaster years of his life is a startling documentation of the craziness, both literal and figurative, that can descend when a person decides to stake his entire life on becoming A Published Author. One small anecdote caught my eye: it’s reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises at community college that inspires Tom to become a writer; he wants to be Jake Barnes, journalist and the novel’s narrator. ‘The only problem was, I’d romanticized Jake’s life so completely that, until my professor pointed out this fact in class, I didn’t realise Jake was impotent.’ Beware all would-be writers with urgent ambitions. Whether he intends it or not, Tom Grimes is a terrible warning rather than an excellent example.

Ostensibly, the memoir is about the relationship between Tom and Frank Conway, author of a classic memoir, Stop-Time (and not much else), when they first meet, but more crucially, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Tom is waiting tables in Key West, Florida, a struggling writer going nowhere, but all that is about to change. Having crudely snubbed him when they first meet, Frank Conway astounds Tom by phoning him after he submits his application to the workshop. ‘”I never call anyone,” he said, “but I’ve read your manuscript.”’ At this point, doors to the Aladdin’s Cave are flung wide, with Frank offering Tom his agent’s services, scholarships, and every other glittering prize he can think of. Tom enters the program at Iowa as teacher’s pet, his arrival heralded in advance on the strength of the early chapters of his literary novel about baseball. Over the next two years, buoyed by such spectacular support, Tom writes his novel with manic intensity. An earlier novel is picked up by a small publisher and put out to encouraging reviews, and a play he has written also finds backers and a theatre.

The speed at which Tom’s star rises overwhelms him somewhat, and this sense of swimming out of his depth culminates in the auction for his novel, not quite the bidding frenzy he had thought it would be, but a painfully drawn-out day of escalating advances that never seem to come from the right people at the right time. Having already overthought this moment too many times, Tom has a whole shopping list of literary ideals – the right house, the right editor, the right price – but ultimately in the confusion of having to make a decision on the spot, he does not go with the house he has always wanted, but takes the larger offer from Little, Brown. In no time at all, the editor he signed with has switched jobs, leaving his novel an orphan. And now Icarus feels the intolerable heat of the sun on his wings. The novel is handled as ‘just another baseball novel’, the reviews are meagre and bad, the book never makes it out of hardback into paperback, and the chapters of the new novel he has recently begun are looked upon from this tainted perspective and roundly rejected.

But Frank’s faith doesn’t waver in his star pupil. He simply exerts himself even more to get teaching positions and grants and awards to sustain Tom while he works on his second novel. Frank doesn’t want to hear the negativity and brushes all the bad stuff off. As he negotiates for Tom, Tom has an unsettling moment of clarity. He knows Frank is genuine in his admiration, but ‘he also wanted to prove he still had the clout to bestow upon me a major literary honor solely on the strength of his name.’ For Frank’s star is currently in the ascendent – the novel he is writing has editors salivating and offering outrageous advances. And meanwhile, Tom Grimes sinks into delusion and paranoia in a mental breakdown from which his creativity never seems fully to recover (until, we suppose, this memoir).

Let us pause here for a moment and consider the impossible equation that is publishing. Tom accepts an advance of $42,000, with which he is a little disappointed, truth to tell, as Frank had thought he’d get $100,000 at least. The novel took him about three years to write, and he could have earned $10,000 a year if he’d stayed waiting tables. However,

A year after Seasons’s End’s publication, its paperback edition was nonexistent. Twenty-two hundred hardcover copies sold. Thirteen thousand were remaindered. And Little, Brown had recouped only forty-four hundred dollars of my forty-two thousand dollar advance.’

Ouch. He does publish his next novel, for a $17,500 advance. It had six reviews, mostly positive, but only sold 4,000 copies and again never made it to paperback. Even Frank Conway’s much-anticipated novel, Body & Soul, although it certainly does recoup its large advance, never makes it to the bestseller list and receives somewhat mixed reviews. What are we to make of all this? Tom Grimes’ memoir never comments upon it, viewing the situation entirely from the perspective of his own humiliation and thwarted longings. But what is going on here? And how is it sustainable for any of the players involved?

What does come across, loud and clear and somewhat mesmerising, is the painful solipcism of the author. Tom never spares himself any harsh criticism, but does he realise his own self-obsession? His sister attempts suicide a couple of times in the book, but having mentioned it and indeed flown back to see her, the narrative focuses exclusively on Tom’s research trip to the local baseball team (I’m sure they’re famous but baseball makes no impression on me and I can’t be bothered to look their name up). What takes his attention is the slighting behaviour he has to endure from a journalist for the New Yorker, who asks about the publisher for his first novel and then seems to dismiss him and ignore him for the rest of the day; ‘his publishing pedigree made me feel more than ever like a literary mutt’ Grimes writes. It’s all so desperate, this hunt for status, this desire to be one of the players. In retrospect, Tom blames his mismanaged first auction on the fact that he had to handle it alone. ‘Frank should have been sitting behind his desk and I should have been sitting across from him in my chair,’ he writes, because nothing is so important as that auction, certainly not Frank’s life. It’s no wonder that when Tom falls ill, it’s paranoia – an anxiety disorder that arises paradoxically out of the fear that one is insignificant – that holds him in his grip.

And what of Frank, the wonderful mentor? Grimes argues that his story’s obvious trajectory, from success to failure, can actually be overwritten by a more important arc: ‘The meaningful story is: I arrived fatherless; I departed a son.’ But you can’t help but think that Frank’s input has been a lot of baseless enthusiasm that might have been swapped for more insightful literary critique.

If I’m making this sound like a bad book, I don’t mean to at all. It’s an excellent book. It is gripping and engrossing and, I fear, all too true to life. Grimes’ straightforward, show-don’t-tell style means that we are left with a lot of questions that a more self-aware and nuanced character portrait might have elucidated. But goodness it’s fascinating trying to come up with answers to those questions. An absolute must-read for anyone who thinks they not only want to write, but publish, too.

On Patrick Modiano

patrick modianoYesterday I put two and two together and realised that the reason I’d seen a lot of brief but extremely unusual mentions of Patrick Modiano online was that he’d just won the Nobel Prize. Yes, I know, let’s put it down to age. But I love Patrick Modiano, he’s a wonderful author whose simply written novels, drawing on – and subverting – the genres of the spy novel, detective fiction and film noir are exquisitely complex and unnerving. I was trying to think how I could possibly describe the experience of reading one of his works and I could only come up with strange metaphors. They are like waking from a vivid dream, straining to catch those last fleeting remnants as they fade away. They are like being involved in a high-speed car chase only to turn the corner and find you are driving in solitary splendour. They are like the moment when Bugs Bunny runs off the edge of the cliff and doesn’t realise that he is pedalling pure air. He writes what I suppose I think of as proper literature – in which the story is perfectly formed, but the questions provoked by it are endless.

rue des boutiquesTake for instance the novel for which he won the Prix Goncourt, Rue des boutiques obscures (Missing Person). This was my first introduction to Modiano and I still recall it today. Guy Roland is a detective who decides, when his partner retires, to turn his skills onto himself. For fifteen years, since an accident left him an amnesiac, he has not known who he is. Armed with a fistful of clues he heads out on the quest for his real self, following a chain of witnesses, each of whom provides him with just enough information to carry on the search, but never enough for answers or closure. The trail of his old self runs out in the Second World War, when he seemed, like others around him, to be escaping the Nazis and the Occupation by fleeing to Switzerland. When Guy tracks down the last surviving person who might be able to help him, he learns that he has gone missing. And now I’m going to give away a massive spoiler, so you can hop to the next paragraph though the spoiler is intrinsic in understanding Modiano’s audacity as a writer… because the story ends with Guy in pursuit of this last witness, the original missing man chasing a missing man. The traces could not be any existentially lighter, and so it is almost as if Guy fades away into oblivion. It’s a shock ending, it was certainly not what I was expecting, and yet I didn’t mind at all; I may even have applauded. It was so original when I first read it, some 15 years ago.

voyage de nocesThe other novel of his I want to tell you about is Voyage de noces (Honeymoon). This concerns the documentary maker, Jean, who learns in a hotel in Milan of the recent suicide there of a woman he once knew. When he returns to Paris, he arranges his own disappearance and sets off on a quest to find out all he can about her. The search for information about Ingrid Teyrson and her husband, Rigaud, takes him back in time to the Occupation in France, when the couple were hiding out on the Côte d’Azur. Ingrid is Jewish and the couple are haunted by the figure of a man in a black raincoat who they feel sure is spying on them, in the hope of turning them in. How does this past match up with the present in which Ingrid has become suicidal? What happened?

So what have we got, then, in terms of preoccupations here? There’s an intriguing quest for identity at work in both novels, in which the hunt for the self is also the hunt for another person. But these quests which drive the narrative forward powerfully and compellingly are always doomed to failure – what’s missing can never be retrieved. There’s also a fascination with the Occupation as a kind of black hole – or maybe the sort of rabbit hole that appears in Alice in Wonderland – down which the experience of France as a nation disappeared, and now only fantastic traces remain that seem surreal and inexplicable. There’s nostalgia for a time when things were not strange and disconnected and wrong. But there’s also a pervasive sense of melancholia and shame. Modiano’s protagonists are not just postmodern, they’re post-lapsarian: guilty until proven guilty. We may not even be sure what they’ve done, but the strong sense of needing to atone, or to piece together a mystery that shows them in a bad light, creates building blocks of the plot that feel like they’re made out of antimatter.

bon voyageOf all the contemporary writers in France that I know of, Modiano is a surprise choice for the Nobel. His novels have a strong family resemblance – I imagine he might be accused of being a one-trick pony (though it’s a good trick). I cannot think he would go down well in America; if as a culture you want to outlaw the passive voice then Modiano’s enigmas of who-did-what and who-am-I-anyway aren’t going to please a lot of people. He’s very postmodern. And I wonder how much you have to understand French history to get the significance of the feeling aroused when it became clear that the myth of France as a nation of resistance fighters was built on shifting sand. But all that being said, I really like him; he’s an original, and his work of sophisticated simplicity is both eminently readable and full of menacing mystique.

If you’re interested in trying Patrick Modiano in his simplest form, then I recommend the film: Bon Voyage. Modiano wrote the screenplay, about the converging lives of a disparate group of people who flee Paris when the Nazis invade. Watching the different storylines dovetail so neatly into one another, you can feel the hand of Modiano guiding the plot.