Strangers on a Train

strangers on trainToo many psychological thrillers these days think they’ve done sufficient work by placing their female heroine under multiple threats of peril. They need to have a look at the dark and twisted novels of Patricia Highsmith to see how it’s really done. Highsmith knew that no amount of external threat can rival the psychological terror we are able to inflict on ourselves. In her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), she created a story of claustrophobic menace that turned any simplistic understanding of morality upside down.

Guy Haines and Charles Bruno are chance acquaintances on a train heading south to Texas. Guy, an architect, is travelling to see his estranged wife, Miriam, whom he hopes will finally agree to a divorce. Miriam is pregnant by a new lover, and Guy feels that here, at last, is the leverage required to settle the matter, though he is sure she will continue to kick up as many obstacles as she can. Guy has become steadily more impatient as he is nominally engaged to Anne, an altogether better prospect for the wife of a man with a budding career. Anne and her moneyed, harmonious family offer Guy the sort of social status he needs, and charming, elegant Anne inspires his genuine love.

Guy is accosted on the train by Charles Bruno who thrusts his company upon him. Bruno is already three sheets to the wind when they meet, and will drink steadily through their encounter. He has the sort of entangling presence that certain unstable people wield with cunning; a genius for ingratiating himself where he is not welcome. Guy drinks more in his presence than is wise and he ends up saying a little about Miriam – more than enough for Bruno to come to some astute conclusions. And so Bruno offers him partnership in a criminal scheme he’s been brewing for a while. Bruno hates his father and longs for him to be dead. He’d kill him if he thought he’d get away with it, but his homicidal desire is too evident. What he suggests to Guy is a tit for tat. He’ll kill Miriam if Guy will kill his father, and they will never be caught because there is no motive to link them to the crimes.

Guy is horrified by this idea and by Bruno himself. He ends the conversation and hopes never to see him again. But by the time he arrives in Metcalf, Miriam has miscarried and is threatening to accompany him to his new architectural project, a commission that could make his name. He can’t help but acknowledge a few murderous impulses towards her. When Miriam is found strangled at the local fair, Guy has the sickening sensation that his unconscious enmity has killed her, even though he is sure it was in the form of the all-too corporeal Bruno.

For Bruno turns out to be a man of queer passions. He loves his mother a little too much, and he has fallen into an idealistic veneration for Guy. This is a murder committed primarily out of twisted love – partly because he has been longing to reveal his own capabilities to himself, partly because he wants to offer it like a gift, a homage, to Guy. When Guy reacts with hostility to his actions, Bruno is deeply wounded. But not diverted from his determination to make Guy keep up his end of a bargain he never agreed to.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, but if you’ve seen the Hitchcock adaptation, you should know that from here on in, movie and book diverge. Hitchcock, with a mainstream cinema audience to please, keeps Guy riveted to his ‘good man’ persona, whereas in the book, Guy knows his integrity is lost from the moment he wishes Miriam dead, a moment that isn’t even articulated, but is no less potent for all that: we know he did because of the guilt he feels when she dies. From now on, the story of Guy will be a study in guilt and what it can make us do. Guy will find himself pushed to the extreme because the guilt he feels is so intolerable he will do anything – even compound his crimes – in the crazy desire to be free of it. I was writing last week about Patrick Modiano and his ability to create characters who are guilty until proven guilty. Guy is another in this mode. It’s a very common part of the human condition, and it makes a mockery of this idea that we have control over our lives to the extent that we can choose to be good or bad. We’re human and so, under duress, we do good things and we do bad things, and sometimes doing nothing is the most damning thing we do of all.

If Guy is the good man forced to the bad, then Bruno is the bad man who forces us to feel pity. Sure, he’s a fledgling psychopath, but it’s the love that’s inside him we cannot deny, however horrifying its manifestations may be. His descent into the worst terrors of alcoholism are car-crash mesmerising, and we wait on tenterhooks for the moment when he can no longer contain all his messed-up emotions – worship for Guy, pride in his cleverness, terror at his own steady disintegration. We know Bruno can’t be all bad, despite appearances, because Guy becomes bonded to him, in an act of brotherly recognition:

Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved.’

This is not a pleasant book but it’s a gripping one. The claustrophobia that Highsmith builds up is brilliant and sickening. Although much of the book is about people doing dreadful things, its centre is the tragedy of our longing to be pure. Guy shows how nothing that has value in life – love, success, money – is worth a fig when set against the horror of feeling besmirched in our own sense of self-worth. Guilt dominates, and almost nothing can appease it at the height of its power. The kind of novel that sends a genuine chill down the spine.

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.

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

In contrast to the modern caricature of the bookseller – in cardigan with cat and tea – for centuries the bookseller was regarded as a rogue, a hell-raiser, someone more than capable of making a few quick bucks off the grief-stricken, or of sowing the seeds of heresy and dissent. From the beginning of the trade, the bookseller existed independently, with little institutional or government sanction or censor, and would act as the conduit for the newest ideas and information of the day.’

YellowLightedBookshopYay for booksellers! Mavericks and subversives one and all! Reading Lewis Buzbee’s charming account of his life as a book addict, bookseller and writer, I felt he had his finger right the pulse of the beautiful double life that obsessive readers so slyly lead. It may look as if we don’t go out much, as if the fascinating people we know are figments of our imagination, as if we take our adventures sitting in an armchair, but we know that opening our minds to all sorts of information is a revolutionary thing to do. To hear the alternative story, to think the different thoughts, these are dangerous practices indeed. It’s only with the cardigan and the mild-mannered air that we can fool others enough to mask our insurrectionist activity; they are necessary props.

Well, maybe I exaggerate a tad. But the history of books and bookselling makes for fascinating reading, and it can’t help but win you over to the great cause of literature. Lewis Buzbee takes us from the first “impulse buy”: the Egyptian Book of the Dead which was considered to be ‘a travel guide to the underworld’ and thus a useful object to be enclosed in the tomb of the deceased, through the library at Alexandria, the first great collection of papyrus scrolls (apparently between 50,000 and 100,000 ‘books’ were held there, as much as your average large bookshop today would hold), to parchment, the Chinese invention of paper, and eventually the Gutenberg press. Meanwhile, the bookshop mutated from a wheeled cart or a blanket on the ground, to a stall, to an enclosed arcade, to the ‘shoebox’ shaped shop we know nowadays, with early shopwindows having little shelves attached to the leading of the panes of glass on which books could rest. At the end of the book, my edition had been updated to include extra chapters on amazon and e-books, although the digital revolution was still in its infancy when Buzbee was writing. For a shop and paper guy like Buzbee, amazon and e-books are pretty much anathema, but he struggles hard to be fair and even-handed, coming up with some advantages of the virtual form, though fighting valiantly against any notion that the world he adores should become obsolete.

For Buzbee’s book is very much about his own participation in a highly particular world with its own ideology and how it has shaped him. He is a passionate advocate for reading, having fallen in love as a teenager with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and then turned up every week for two years at his local bookshop until they finally hired him. The space of the bookshop is unlike any other for him: ‘Time may be money in the rest of the world but not in the bookstore. There’s little money here so we can all take our time.’ And it provides a vital space for readers to commune with one another the way they like best, ‘alone among others’: ‘It’s a lovely combination, this solitude and gathering, almost as if the bookstore were the antidote for what it sold.’ I particularly enjoyed reading about his experiences as a bookseller, how ringing up a customer’s purchases ‘represents a part of that person’s life. It’s not a mere tally of reading tastes, who likes what authors, it’s a gauge of what concerns people, what occupies them.’ He was also shaken out of his young man’s contempt for his parents’ reading choices, and told by his fellow bookseller that enjoying reading was the point. I have to say my own experience of bookselling was, alas, the opposite, as my let’s-read-it-all approach to books bumped into the delicately graded canon of superiority of which the other booksellers kept careful account. But it didn’t matter; I kept quiet, I learned a lot, and was only very occasionally caught out by someone saying ‘why on earth are you reading that?’

This is a delightful, charming, warm-hearted book, as safe and informative as the bookshops its celebrates. Wherever you perch in the food chain of book production and consumption, there’ll be something to relate to and something new to exclaim over. Lewis Buzbee is an amiable tour guide and enthusiast, the kind of bookseller you’d hope for when you have a fistful of tokens and the desire for a different kind of book, but be warned you might be left with an insatiable desire to go book browsing (and not online) when you’ve reached the end…. Recommended for book lovers of all persuasions.

Gossip

GossipThe question of whether we ever know when we are being cruel runs through this darker-than-you’d-expect novel by Beth Gutcheon. And of course she doesn’t mean drowning kittens or running amok with an axe; she is talking about the kind of everyday social cruelty that comes from aligning oneself to one friend rather than another or to reaching blindly and impatiently towards desires and failing to notice others in the way. This concern is all bound up with the title – for the origin of the word ‘gossip’, the narrator tells us, is ‘the talk between people who are godparents to the same child, people who have a legitimate loving interest in the person they talk about. It’s talk that weaves a net of support and connection beneath the people you want to protect.’ As the story gradually wends its way towards an unexpected tragedy, so it seems that even the most supportive and loyal love can exact a terrible price.

I need to say straight off that this is an old-fashioned sort of novel. A lot of the story takes place through the sixties and seventies and although we end up in the present day, that’s the era dominating the expectations and behaviours of our narrator. Loviah French runs an exclusive boutique dress shop in Manhatten and her philosophy of life is very bound up with her daily work, which is to hide a woman’s flaws and enhance her social worth through the clothes she wears. Discretion is her watchword at all times. The social spectrum she moves in is akin to that micromanaged by Edith Wharton – the last gasp of moneyed folk who gained their self-esteem from being born into established wealthy families. And although everything I’ve told you about this book could lead to the misinterpretation that this is a piece of chick-lit, or some sort of throwback blockbuster, it isn’t that at all. It’s a serious novel with some intriguing questions, smoothed over by an icy cool narrative voice that could belong to one of Hitchcock’s blondes. I love that kind of writing, and find it elegant and smooth to read, though if you are expecting the cosy, chummy warmth of contemporary genre fiction or the slightly over-written sensationalism of a Gone Girl, you’ll find it flat and low on emotion. This is an easy book to mis-label and the wrong expectations could seriously spoil the reading experience.

So anyhoo, our tale begins back in boarding school, where Loviah French is the scholarship girl. She makes friends with two young women who have a great deal more self-assurance – Dinah, who is vivacious, full of fun and confident, but a hater and a grudge-bearer too. And Avis, a cooly superior brain whose basic kindness and generosity can be concealed by a rather awkward manner. After an unfortunate incident during a school trip to a concert, Avis unintentionally puts Dinah down, and Dinah will never, ever forgive her for it.

The friends grow up and take on quite significant careers – Lovie goes into the dressmaking trade, Avis buys art for collectors, and Dinah becomes a celebrity journalist, running a gossip column that keeps her in the public eye. They gain romantic attachments, though none of them are truly successful – Avis’s husband is a rich alcoholic, Dinah marries for love and is betrayed, and Lovie falls for a married man and must manage her expectations accordingly. Not for her are the children who bring such compensation to the lives of her friends, although she becomes godmother to Dinah’s youngest son, Nick, a delightful, talented boy who will be indulged by love.

We know that some sort of dreadful event will occur, but have no idea what it is, so the reader is teased time and again as the story unfolds by all sorts of semi-dramatic happenings in the lives of the main characters. Which ones will combine to produce the awaited tragedy? I confess that even up to the very end, I never saw it coming, and in fact, if there is a flaw in this novel, it was for me the blindsiding nature of the climax: it wasn’t as causally motivated as I’d hoped. Though really, all the pleasure of this novel lies in the journey, and it is a highly pleasurable one, enriched by the sort of deep character portraits that are too rare a find. It’s extremely easy to read but it’s by no means lightweight – instead Beth Gutcheon suggests that we underestimate the impact of the trivial, for what’s meaningless gossip to one person is devastating to another, and the collapse of a good life can so easily result.