Recent Reading: The Goldfinch, Frances & Bernard, Cop Town

the goldfinchI have stalled in my reading of The Goldfinch at an embarrassingly early part of the book, well, if we are counting in inches, that is. Maybe it’s the fault of the strange combination of part-listening to the audio book, part-reading the wrist-breaking real thing that has left me floating still on top of the story, rather than stitched down into it. But essentially it’s because the next couple of hundred pages appear to be a teenage drink-and-drugs odyssey and I can’t think of anything I’d rather read less. I was going to suggest maybe two hundred pages of unpleasant hospital treatment, but then that would be a book I would never pick up in the first place.

Most books, when you hit a dull patch, you can think to yourself, oh well, thirty pages tops and then we’ll be past it. Not this one. And whilst Donna Tartt’s writing is fine (somehow I remember The Secret History as much better written, but that could just be the work of unreliable memory), she’s only going to tell me what happens, in minute detail. If I thought it was the kind of writing that would be rich in psychological insights and what events mean, I might be more interested. But The Goldfinch so far has been a novel of painstaking description, with a faint fairy-tale quality to the story and its characterisation. I never had the least interest in drink and drugs as a teenager, and I have even less now. I don’t enjoy skim-reading and I’m not sure I have the stamina to plough through what lies ahead. I don’t want to give up, and yet I don’t have much interest in continuing.

frances and bernardOn a happier note, Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer was pure delight. An epistolary novel set in the 1950s, we follow the correspondance between novelist Frances Reardon and poet Bernard Eliot, who have recently met at a writing commune. Bernard has now gone to Florence to finish his book, whilst Frances has returned home to Philadelphia to write hers. Shortly they will both end up in New York. Bernard is attracted to Frances because of her devout religious views and her upright, stern moral demeanour. Bernard is a Catholic in love with ecstasy in all its forms and he is drawn to Frances’ gravitas, as an anchor, perhaps, to his volatile and fierce emotions. They are unlikely friends and even less likely lovers, not least because Frances is determined to remain single and avoid the complications of domesticity that might ruin her work.

But Bernard is a big heart and an outgoing spirit; he loves easily, deeply, magnetically. The downside of this is an inevitable mental fragility, and before long his letters will grow wilder and a spell in an institution is inevitable. Frances values their friendship by now and assures him that she is not afraid of him (Frances would not want to be afraid of anything), and almost against her will she is drawn closer to his vulnerability.

The writing in this novel was just exquisite. It’s a brilliant character portrait of two very different writers and of an unexpected and awkward relationship that nevertheless has moments of sublime grace. Given that she has two writers engaged in a battle of wits and wills, Bauer can just have fun with their voices, which she most certainly does. Apparently, the couple is loosely based on Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. I would not have guessed this myself and I don’t think it matters much one way or another to know about the biographical background. There is a great deal of chat about religion, though, which might strike secular readers as unusual. But it echoes and questions the way art can become a religion – this in a very subtle way – how passion is necessary in one form or another though we might make very different uses of it. I think it’s fair to say I enjoyed every sentence of this one.

cop townAnother book I enjoyed, from the opposite end of the reading spectrum, was Karin Slaughter’s latest novel, Cop Town. Set in the 70s in Atlanta it’s essentially the story of new recruit to the force, Kate Murphy and the woman who gives her a helping hand on her traumatic first day, Maggie Lawson. Maggie has grown up in a police family and, against just about everyone’s wishes, joined the force alongside her brother, much beloved ex-football star, Jimmy, and her brutal, misogynist Uncle Terry. Terry represents everything the white male police force is about; he despises women, he despises foreigners, and he has no respect for the law when it’s in his own hands. When the book begins Jimmy’s partner, Don, has been the latest victim of a cop killer wreaking havoc in the city. The force is on red alert, determined to mete out its own justice to the killer when they find him. With a black mayor and a black head of police, times are changing, and the old boys have no faith in the authorities, which is rich given that Uncle Terry’s planted evidence on their last conviction caused the case to fall through.

Into this ugly regime stumbles Kate, a widow whose husband recently died in Vietnam. She is well-spoken, attractive, and Jewish; she’s also lived a gentle life up until now. Oh boy, is she in for a nasty shock. What Karin Slaughter does so brilliantly in this novel, as well as in the best literary fiction, is recreate the conditions of the 70s that we all have convenient amnesia about. It’s a man’s world, in which women need to shut up and stop asking stupid questions, and anyone who isn’t white and American needs to remember their place. Her description of the bad side of town is particularly hard-hitting too. Whilst a lot of novels depict places you might actually want to visit, Cop Town makes a reader feel very relieved to be safely in the new millenium. An excellent novel about how we used to be, but a violent and graphic one, be warned.


vertigo hitchcockAlfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film, which topped the British Film Institute’s poll in 2012 for best film of all time, is deservedly famous. But how many people have read the book the film was based upon?

Well, Pushkin Press have just released a new crime imprint, Pushkin Vertigo, that features the novel along with other international crime masterworks published originally between the 1920s and 1970s. Vertigo was written by the amazing French crime duo, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who I actually became rather interested in about a decade ago. Their books are often outrageous in premise and yet they pull them off brilliantly. Mostly they turn on a seemingly supernatural occurrence which always ends up with a logical explanation as part of a dastardly crime. So they’re both nutty and completely engrossing, a combination that always hovers around the supernatural in any case, something Boileau-Narcejac exploit ruthlessly in the knowledge that the impossible, the numinous and the inexplicable have a hypnotic effect on us.

vertigo boileauVertigo as written by Boileau-Narcejac is essentially a ghost story – or rather a Geist story, the original term from which ghost derives, meaning the spirit or soul. The story begins when ex-police detective, Roger Flavières is employed by his old friend, Paul Gevigny, to keep his wife, Madeleine, under strict surveillance. According to Gevigny, Madeleine has been experiencing periods of blackout, moments of ecstatic absence that have led him to suspect her of being possessed by the spirit of her suicidal grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac. Flavières is initially skeptical: ‘Either your wife’s ill or she’s up to some game or other,’ he tells Gevigny. However, once he has made Madeleine’s acquaintance and begun his mission of surveillance, Flavières undergoes a radical change of heart. Not only does he become convinced of her ghostly possession, but he also falls deeply in love with her. After thwarting her suicide attempt, he exchanges his role of spy for that of protector; rescuing Madeleine from her own internal estrangement becomes his raison d’être.

However, Flavières has one fatal weakness; his vertigo has already made him abandon his job in the police force after an incident in which a colleague, taking his place in a rooftop chase, fell to his death. The logic of inevitable repetition powers this story and so, when Madeleine rushes to the top of a church tower in a moment of otherworldly possession, Flavières finds himself once again unable to intervene, and once again forced to witness a death by falling.

Flavières is a curious mix of frustrated heroism and full-blown neurosis, a prickly, unstable character whose cynicism is a form of romanticism contaminated by despair.Yet his force is bound up in his determination to overcome his own phobias and to find strength and courage inside a mind tortured by its own uncertainties. When he rescues Madeleine from her attempt to drown herself, he rescues himself from his apathy and aimlessness – small wonder then, that when he loses her, he thinks: ‘She was dead. And he was dead with her.’ What a clever, tight thematic grip this narrative exerts; Madeleine is possessed by the spirit of Pauline Lagerlac, and in going to her rescue, Flavières becomes possessed by the spirit of the woman he adores. Round and round in circles we go, but it doesn’t stop there.

Intrinsic to this story is its setting at the very start of World War 2. When Flavières and Madeleine first meet, it’s the period of the phony war, when everyone is thrilled and terrified and waiting in disbelief for something to happen. And when Madeleine falls to her death, it is, of course, the moment when the war begins for real and the Germans invade Paris. Flavières decides to leave the country and he only returns when the war is over; his years in Africa have left him sick and weak, he is a broken man, returning to a broken, hapless France. It’s more than just a pathetic fallacy at work here; instead it’s a radical lack of boundaries, as the spirits of time and place as well as people, reach out contaminatory fingers, infiltrating one another. Aimlessly entering a cinema, Flavières is astonished to witness a face in the newsreel he thinks he recognises. After all, he’s just spent the past five years being obsessed by her memory. Could it be that Madeleine now lives on in someone else?

Well, we’ll leave Flavières rushing off in search of his old love. Even if you’re well acquainted with the ending to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, you’ll find the second part of the story quite different. There is a much darker, harsher, more unnerving vision at work, and Hitchcock’s movie seems quite light and cheery in comparison. The film of Vertigo is understood to be the place where Hitchcock spells out his relationship to his cool blondes most openly – his desire to control and mould them which always ends in disappointment, because his fantasy is only ever that and cannot really be made real. Whereas Boileau-Narcejac suggest that ghosts are both intrinsic and alien to our sense of the human – that our identity is to some extent a haunted house, people live on inside us, just as we inhabit the hearts and imaginations of others. For Flavières, Madeleine really does complete him, and what might seem romantic is actually pretty scary too. Hence our ambivalence over the ghost – what is psychologically real is denied as being too uncomfortable to our sense of self, and instead we play with the idea of the ghost as something that exists in a troubling way outside and beyond us.

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac makes a fascinating companion to the Hitchcock film, and is, I think, an amazing book in its own right. I’ve got a couple more of the Pushkin Vertigo series to read and if they’re all up to this standard, it’s going to be a fabulous collection for crime lovers.

Frenchman’s Creek

johnny deppEver since the success – and general pervasiveness – of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, I’ve found it hard to imagine a pirate without the vision of a heavily guylinered Johnny Depp floating across my mind. But the pirate in Daphne du Maurier’s romantic classic, Frenchman’s Creek, is not very Deppish at all. He is refined and artistic, thoughtful and efficient, a gentleman warrior whose crimes are mostly bloodless. He is not a drunken maniac, teetering on the edge of madness. And yet still Johnny Depp’s face persisted. Oh, popular culture, what an unexpected stranglehold you exert!

frenchman's creekDu Maurier’s novel, first published in 1941, stands up very well indeed to present day reading, partly because it’s already set in a Restoration past, partly because the heroine is as spirited and lively as any modern reader could wish. Dona St Columb is a spoiled party girl, bored with marriage to an aristocratic oaf, and desperate for some release for her excessive energies. She’s caused scandal in London already, frequenting taverns with her husband and his cronies, wearing men’s breeches to ride her horse bareback, flirting with all the beaus who cross her path. Shortly before the story begins, she has taken her quest for fun too far, pretending to be a highwayman with the rather sinister Lord Rockingham and threatening the carriage of a rich elderly lady. Sickened by her own behaviour and determined to escape the unwholesome influences at Court (of which Rockingham is clearly the worst), she takes her two young children down to Cornwall, where her husband’s childhood estate, Navron, is situated.

Navron is evoked every bit as gorgeously as you might expect, and at first all Dona wants is peace and quiet. There’s only one servant in situ when she arrives, a strange little man called William, who is quite adroit at being both cheeky and deferential to her, a combination she rather admires. Though when she finds tobacco and a book of French poetry in her bedside drawer, she wonders if she should sack him for the impudence of sleeping in her chamber when she was not there. Not long after her arrival, she is visited by one of the local lords, a very ponderous and smug man called Godolphin, who warns her that the coast is being terrorised by a French pirate and his band. Ships and jewels have been taken, local women have been ‘distressed’, and Godolphin is all for summoning Harry, Dona’s husband, to protect her.

In actual fact, it’s Dona that the locals will need protecting from, for of course, you will have guessed by now whose tobacco was by her bed, and whose servant William is. Dona stumbles on the pirates at anchor in a hidden creek on her own land, and before you can say ‘not a bit like Johnny Depp’, she has fallen passionately in love with their Captain and taken to piracy with a ready will. It’s represented in the story as a sort of fulfilling-her-potential affair, a matter of growing up and finding her soulmate, though really all she’s done is swap a botched attempt at amateur crime for a more encouraging attempt as a professional. But hey, du Maurier tells her tale with terrific verve and panache and frankly I didn’t even care, it was such a fun piece of froth.

Although that’s unfair. It just so happened that while I was reading the book, I also read an essay by Adam Phillips entitled ‘On Getting Away With It’. If there’s one imperative in Frenchman’s Creek, it’s that Dona and the pirates should get away with their activities, though as a mother and a wife, Dona has limits to what she can give up lightly. Phillips points out that getting away with things is in no ways a ruination of the law, in fact, transgression needs the law in order to be validated. You can’t be getting away with something there’s no injunction against. What happens is that the character changes while the world stays the same, and what changes is that the character swaps being a Good Person, for being an Impressive Person.

This makes a lot more sense when applied to the laws in place for women in 1941, or indeed in the Restoration period. Restrictions on women’s behaviour were not about to lift any time soon, the only option they had was to try to find their adventures in a space outside the law and hope to get away with it. It’s funny how most fiction assures us that you can’t get away with things – that there will be a price to pay of some kind, a final reckoning or an absolute judgement. But Daphne du Maurier allowed her heroine to be impressive at the cost of being good. Perhaps also in 1941, in the middle of the war in Britain, women were actually getting away with more danger and excitement than they had ever been able to access before. Maybe Daphne saw how they could finally play at being boys, just as she had always longed to do herself.

Frenchman’s Creek is vintage du Maurier, a quick and engrossing read with a romance that is not in the least sentimental, portrayed in writing that has a touch of class. I thought I’d enjoy it, and was surprised by how much I did.

Friends, I continue to be a dreadful blogger but I have not abandoned you, as it may seem. There are all sorts of things going on chez Litlove that I am not able to tell you about at the moment but will as soon as I can. Nothing to worry about, we’re all fine, but big changes on the way. I’m just a bit distracted!

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Three Types of Awe

wind in the willowsA couple of weeks ago audible suckered me in with a big sale, and I found myself purchasing The Wind in the Willows for a bargain price. I had never read this book as either a child or a mother, although I must have seen countless bits of adaptations on the television. It did have undeniable charm, with Ratty, Moley, Badger and Toad all as I had gathered they would be from osmosis of the general culture. The rather delightful mash-up of fantasy and reality gave me that frivolous feeling, and I couldn’t help but ponder foolish questions, like, who was manufacturing and supplying small armaments to water rats, and how could Mr Toad brush his hair? But I did realise that was beside the point. If you want to read a rational book, you don’t pick one that features talking animals.

After a while, I realised that Wind in the Willows is essentially made up of two different books, which is why it made no great name for itself until A. A. Milne filleted out the plotline concerning the exploits of Toad and turned it into a successful play. The other side of the story is harder to summarize, but it essentially concerns Rat and Mole as they experience certain iconic emotional states – the experience of friendship, for instance, and the pull of home, as well as the lure of wanderlust. Because I was listening to this book at night when I’d gone to bed, it was inevitable that I should drift at certain points, and so it was with some sense of disorientation that I came to in the middle of the chapter entitled ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’.

In this episode, Ratty and Mole have been searching all night for the otter’s lost son, Portly. They take to the river in their boat, and finally, in the mystical light of dawn, come upon young Portly, curled up asleep at the feet of the great Pan. The narration goes completely bonkers at this point, evoking what I eventually understood was a state of divine awe. And it occurred to me to wonder whether awe of this nature, the experience of the sublime, is ever present in contemporary children’s books? Awe seems so much more secular these days, if it exists at all. I couldn’t help but feel that if Portly had been discovered thus in a more up to date book, Pan would have found himself under a paedophilia charge.

the magus of hayI found myself thinking about awe again, however, whilst reading a very recently published crime fiction novel. Phil Rickman’s The Magus of Hay features Merrily Watkins, a diocesan exorcist working from Hereford cathedral. This is apparently the twelfth novel in a series concerning Merrily, which has an interest in alternative spirituality, paganism, and generally unexplained potentially superstitious religious occurrences. Merrily herself held a somewhat wishy-washy position, a good Christian woman who comes to offer a few prayers for those who feel troubled by the dark side, uncertain herself whether they will do any good or not. However, Phil Rickman’s interest in all matters of the occult and alternative spirituality was clearly heavily researched, respectful, curious and exploratory. He provided a lot of information, and whilst the tone is essentially skeptical, this was a much more serious novel than your average outing into the paranormal.

I’d picked the book up originally because the main story was set in Hay-on-Wye where a couple are opening a secondhand bookshop which turns out to have a disturbing atmosphere. Meanwhile, not far away, an elderly man is found drowned in the pool of a waterfall. The young police detective who finds him admits to the investigating officer that as a kid, they all used to call him a wizard and dare each other to run up to his house. It’s a long and quite complicated story that eventually draws these events together and I enjoyed it, though I’m not sure I’d rush to get another in the series, mostly because Merrily didn’t win my heart. But it was well done, and I did appreciate the treatment of the supernatural.

I don’t think I’ve ever told you about my Uncle Graham, have I? Well, I do love my crime fiction, but Uncle Gray is a good excuse to read a steady stream of it. He is a retired widower and a voracious reader; he’s also a man of economical ways, which see him, in winter, in bed reading every evening and night with his scarf and hat and gloves on. This tickles me, probably because I aspire to much the same sort of retirement myself, only with central heating. Well, once Uncle Gray had worked his way through my dad’s not inconsiderable library of crime fiction, my parents asked me if I had any books I could lend him. Did I have books! So now I keep the crime I read to one side, supplemented by the review copies I’m sent, and goodness knows what Uncle Gray makes of some of them (The Magus of Hay will be a good case in point), but he’s never been known to complain.

this boy's lifeA last burst of awe, of a brief but powerful nature: Tobias Wolff. I’ve been on a reading kick of his writing lately and He. Is. Amazing. I read This Boy’s Life, then some of his short stories. The writing is genius – pure, clean, completely without pretention, but he says so much. And he’s funny too. Why is it so hard to write about the books that make the most impact on you? I have no words, but much awe.