Bats in the Belfry: E. C. R Lorac (1937)

E. C. R. Lorac’s Bats in the Belfry begins with a handful of people gathered together following the funeral of a young Australian. The topic of death holds sway, and then a young woman, Elizabeth, brings up “an intellectual exercise” set for discussion at her club:

If you were landed with a corpse on your hands, by what method could you dispose of it so as to avoid any liabilities?

A lively discussion ensues with various methods suggested, but oddly, actress Sybilla, the bored, unhappy wife of author Bruce Attleton has the best suggestion. In fact, her method seems to have been refined –almost as though she has given it some thought. Sybilla’s husband, Bruce, notes that one of the guests appears shocked by his wife’s calculated approach towards the disposal of  a body, but notes that his wife is “quite in the Borgia and Lady Macbeth tradition, when you thought Sybilla only played drawing-room comedy?” Discussing the best way to get rid of a body is hardly polite talk, but it’s a seemingly harmless discussion that has greater significance when a nasty blackmailer appears on the scene and Bruce vanishes …

Bats in the belfry

Bruce’s suitcase and passport are found in an artist’s studio in Notting Hill, and when a headless and handless corpse is found in the same location, it seems probable that Bruce is dead.

The novel’s main characters (and suspects) are introduced right away: Bruce Attleton and his wife Sybilla, friends Thomas Burroughs, Neil Rockingham, Robert Grenvile and Bruce’s ward Elizabeth. Bruce had more than his share of enemies (including his wife) and so most of the book is devoted to the police procedural with the intrepid Inspector Macdonald at the helm of the investigation and its convoluted solution.

Unfortunately I guessed the villain very early in the novel, so that took away a lot of enjoyment, but I enjoyed the portrayal of Sybilla and her “apparently lazy make-up” (as in character). The novel is also dated with one character who punctuates his sentences with the verbal tic,“what?” a mention of “over-sophisticated, man-hunting pseudo-intellectual females,” and reference to a “queer-looking dago with a pointed beard.” Still I enjoyed the atmosphere of 1930s London and the arty-crowd.

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For Those Who Know the Ending: Malcolm Mackay

“He was a crook, yeah, but there was a limit to that. He took money, but he always left people breathing.”

With a title that has to be the best I’ve come across in years, Malcolm Mackay’s For Those Who Know the Ending opens with Czech transplant, gunman Martin ziptied to a chair in a Glasgow warehouse waiting for a grisly end. The book then takes us back in time to how the laconic Martin, desperate to find serious money in Glasgow, a town full of criminal gangs not interested in working with someone they don’t know, became involved with Usman Kassar. Usman usually works with his older dealer brother, but he also works jobs on the side, and that’s where Martin comes in.  Word is out on the street that Martin is looking for work. Martin doesn’t like the looks of Usman, doesn’t take him seriously and considers him too flashy with “oversized headphones,” and a gangster swagger. Usman is confident that Martin will be desperate enough to take a chance:

Always took men like him a while to realize that their celebrity only burned bright in their own neck of the woods, and now they had left their home city some younger spark would be filling that vacuum. 

Martin left Czechoslovakia under murky, desperate circumstances, and his savings are running out when he meets Joanne, and moves in with her. The pressure is on to start contributing, and so Martin, who’s lived this long because he doesn’t take chances, takes a chance on a job scoped out by Usman Kassar. According to Usman, it’ll be easy: it’s a two-man in-and-out job, hitting a bookie who is a front man for the Jamieson criminal organization. That’s the beauty of the job according to Usman–the fact that it’s dirty money means that the police won’t be involved….

For those who know the ending

The job doesn’t go quite as planned, but Martin is already in deep with Joanne and with bills rolling in, he takes a second job with Usman.

For Those Who Know the Ending reunites us with some of characters we’ve met before: most notably Jamieson ‘security consultant,” Nate Colgan. With Jamieson still in prison, and other criminal organisations always eager to grab Glasgow turf, this is a job that Nate can’t afford to screw up. And when Martin and Usman cross Nate, there will be hell to pay.

The book is written from the criminal view: so while the police are out there somewhere else in Glasgow, they have very little to do with the day-to-day concerns of organised crime. Instead we see the lonely lives of these career criminals (men and a few women) who’ve decided to pass on the complications and exposure of family life. But then there’s also Martin, who would like to be able to afford a family, and Gully, Nate’s ultra calm, aging sidekick whose sad, barren home life is carved by grief. The plot explores the dangers of ego, gangster swagger, and how being a legend in one’s own mind can sabotage clear thinking in an industry in which you survive by keeping quiet and being useful. These men aren’t romanticized; they have no conscience, and killing is just part of the job. Author Malcolm Mackay explores the abyss between robbery, GHB, and the ultimate crime: murder.

Gully knows that you don’t just kill a man and move on from it because you’re making money out of the deal. That isn’t how it works, not for normal people. He’s seen enough in his time, knows they’re not normal people. For men like him, like Nate, and like Usman, killing a man is a step out of the life you know, and there’s no turning back. 

Another marvellous gritty crime novel from Mackay–a writer who continues to dominate Scottish crime fiction.

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The Restorer: Michael Sala

It’s the late 80s and competent, attractive nurse Maryanne is back living at her mother’s Sydney home along with her two children. We know that something must have gone horribly wrong in her marriage to Roy, but when he shows up, hat in hand, all humble and hopeful and tells Maryanne about this bargain of a house he’s found on the coast… she decides to go back to him. Maryanne’s mother doesn’t mince her words and neither does she tamper down her feelings. Meanwhile 14-year-old Freya isn’t thrilled to be leaving while 8 year-old Daniel just goes with the flow.

The house in Newcastle is a disappointment. Gutted after a fire started by squatters, the family have to camp out in a few rooms while Roy slowly restores the house. Maryanne gets a job at the hospital and so the family’s routine falls back into place, There’s a surge of sexual energy between Maryanne and Roy but there’s also underlying violence, and in the case of Maryanne and her husband, the two go hand in hand….

She’d always thought, always believed that if somehow they could learn how to handle it, then everything would fall into place, and all the risks and hardships would have been worth it.

While Maryanne comes to terms with the idea that it was a terrible mistake to return to Roy, Freya begins to run wild in Newcastle, and she makes friends with a local boy named Josh, an equally lost soul. Josh is one of several secondary characters whose lives collide with Freya and Maryanne; these are people who know that there’s something wrong in the household, but they can only offer limited help–in Josh’s case his help is limited by his own youth and inexperience. There’s also Maryanne’s neighbour who can only acknowledge and advise.

The scenes between Maryanne and Roy are chillingly real with escalating violence that will end one of two ways: violent sex or just plain violence. It’s a routine with an outcome which will be decided by Maryanne’s compliance. She knows shortly after she moves to Newcastle that she’s made a horrible mistake, that Roy hasn’t changed, will never change, and yet living back home with her mother was also an acknowledgement of defeat, “every conversation was loaded with allusions to Maryanne’s past failures-the drip, drip, drip of her commentary.” Living back at home with her mother had its own set of problems:

She’d stand and stare out at the streetlight half hidden by the leaves of the tree outside, listening to the formless roar of traffic on distant roads, trapped in her childhood bedroom like she was caught in some perverse winding back of her own life. 

It was terrifying, that sense of hurtling backwards. Sixteen years since that room had been hers. Sixteen years, and now here she was again, all of the struggle and failure behind her. The posters were gone, but her bed remained, and her desk, and there was still a bookcase beside the desk, though the books on it were no longer hers. The memories here were like a smell that you only noticed when you first came in.

This novel is a slow burner; the threat of violence permeates almost every page. Roy must be ‘jollied’ away from his obsessive controlling jealousy, and although it’s something the whole family understands, it’s never talked about. And while Maryanne tries, courageously (and misguidedly) to hold things together, in “the strange mixture of hope and suffering with which she lived her life, how she never gave up in anything even when it hurt her,” Freya encounters undercurrents of violence from young males at school.

It’s an interesting decision on the author’s part to make Freya the novel’s central character. Maryanne’s choices have already been made, but Freya’s path has yet to be determined. The Restorer, a haunting, troubling story, is essentially about male-female relationships and how violence can become an integral, toxic, component.  In one of the saddest moments of this novel, there’s a moment when Freya, unobserved  sees her mother at work:

There was something about Mum, her posture her voice, that same strangeness from before, when they’d walked together to her work. Like she was wearing a disguise-not now, but when she was home. Mum looked unburdened, younger, stronger.

I puzzled a bit over the title of Michael Salas’s book: The Restorer. On one level the restorer is Roy, a man who is restoring his house and supposedly his marriage, and yet far deeper than that, the restorer is a mechanism by which Freya will move beyond male-female violence, rejecting her parents’ model.

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A Sister in My House: Linda Olsson

“Love is not fair. You don’t get in proportion to what you give. And you can never make someone love you.”

It’s been two years since the death of Maria and Emma’s mother, and it’s also the last time they saw each other. The two women aren’t close–they each had different fathers, and in adulthood, both sisters went their separate ways. Emma, who married and had children, took care of their mother in her final illness. Following the funeral, for reasons she can’t explain, Maria impulsively invites Emma to stay.

When the novel opens, Maria is now living in Spain, and she’s shocked when Emma writes to her accepting her impulsive invitation, and now two years later, Maria acknowledges that the invitation was “ill-considered.

a sister in my house

Maria, now in her 40s, is a very private person, and more than anything else, she resents Emma’s invasion of that privacy–her favourite time of days in the house, her favourite rooms and even her favourite restaurant all become exposed to Emma. Normally we enjoy sharing these sorts of things with people we care about, so what exactly are the issues between Maria and Emma? Maria, who is our first person narrator, considers Emma “just a kind of extra in my personal life drama.”

We had somehow been given parts in the same play, without understanding what it was about. We had played along, year after year, together yet not together at all. Whether we wanted it or not, we were inevitably connected by our common past.

To Maria, Emma’s life is smooth, traditional and uncomplicated. How little these two know about each other …..

A Sister in My House is about familial relationships: how little we know about people we grow up with, how two children who grow up in the same home share some memories while other memories seem diametrically opposed.

Nothing seems to be anybody’s fault when you look back. It’s as if everything just aimlessly happened. Evolved without anybody’s interference, and turned into a hopeless mess. A chaos where all you could do was to sit in the edge, hold on for your life, and hope that eventually a pattern would emerge. That something would point you in some direction. That somehow you would survive.

As Emma’s visit continues, Maria learns that her sister’s life isn’t as perfect as she assumed, and gradually over the course of the visit, layers of memories peel away and reveal that Emma and Maria’s early lives were complicated by stepfathers, their mother’s multiple relationships,  a stolen lover, and a dead sister, Maria’s twin Amanda.

While this is written with great intimacy, there’s a lack of passion, a distance coldness here that trivializes the issues under scrutiny. I didn’t warm to the characters. Perhaps things are resolved too easily.

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A Perfect Sentence: Patrick Starnes

When it comes to reading, I seem to be on a roll with Men Who Leave. This time it’s A Perfect Sentence from Patrick Starnes. Kier Buchan, a married fifty something writer of a series of middling-level detective stories is made redundant from his part-time lecturer position at the Open University. This news couldn’t come at a worse time for Buchan. It’s not that he cares that much about the job–he doesn’t. It’s just one more thing that unmoors him from his already unsatisfying life.

When the novel opens, Buchan is sitting in Gatwick airport waiting for a flight and a holiday in Riva del Garda. He’s with his saintly long-suffering, patient wife Fran, and his two children 21-year-old Charlie and 16-year-old Cat. Charlie was only persuaded to come along for the trip when it was agreed that his American girlfriend, bartender Cassie could join them, and while the family, quickly fractures into their own spaces at the airport, Buchan, obviously already emotionally distant from his family, wonders off alone musing about Cassie’s suitability for Charlie.

A Perfect Sentence, which is narrated by Buchan, by the way, begins with a worn,  bitterly comic tone. He admits that he doesn’t pay “much attention to the political, social, or commercial lurchings of our tired planet.” Think along the lines of Kingsley Amis at his best, but this mood soon passes as the story becomes much much darker, and Buchan finds himself in full Midlife Crisis mode.

What the hell do I think I’m up to? What male menopausal, pre-prostatic madness have I succumbed to? Back off Keir, back right off. Put this afternoon down to anything you want to, put it down to global warming, the Bermuda Triangle, whatever, but don’t get in any deeper, don’t destroy the lives of those you love simply because you’ve fallen for a redhead with world-class tits and legs that won’t give up. But why the hell not?  

It’s not easy to move beyond an almost stomach-churning dislike for this character: tragic past combined with midlife crisis or not. For this reader, there was nothing whatsoever to like about this selfish jerk. An incorrigible snob who dislikes almost everyone in his orbit, he cheats on his wife, abandons his children, and careens around Europe until Fate catches up to him in a big way.

In many ways, this story takes a predictable path (man in his 50s hooks up with a sexually rapacious girl young enough to be his daughter), and yet it’s told with such flair, that it’s impossible to tear our eyes away from Buchan’s train wreck of a life. The author’s choice to tell this tale in the first person dangles the possibility of an unreliable narrator. Is everyone really as small-minded and clichéd as Buchan thinks. Is Fran as saintly as Buchan thinks or has she just learned to tune out and tolerate a man who no longer interests her? There were a couple of characters, for example, Josh and Buchan’s father-in-law, who never move beyond stereotype cardboard-cutouts. Starnes is too good a writer for this to be anything other than Buchan’s narrow, one-dimensional view of two characters who are bit players in his life. At one point, Buchan feels sorry for himself when his long-time lover, Ruth, abruptly tells him to ‘fuck off,’ and Buchan argues that he is unable to understand this behaviour–after all the longtime, no strings-affair, spent in various hotels rooms, seemed to work so well for him. This was an affair that was all about “flying the outer edge of the erotic envelope.” And that’s the root of Buchan’s character: it’s whatever works for him and other people exist as pieces on his chess board.

The novel’s rich imagery is powerful:  “a wasp expiring like some Roman orgy victim in the sticky heel of a beer glass.” Or Buchan’s mother-in-law: “once a handsome serene woman, she is now a dessicated Gordain knot of nerves for whom contact with even her close family, let alone the outside world (her bridge four is a miraculous exception) is painful.” I’m not a writer–I’m a reader and there were times that this extremely polished novel is almost too polished in its imagery. That minor issue aside, I enjoyed reading this knowing that Cosmic Justice or Karma or Fate … (you take your pick) careened towards Buchan on a collision course. This is a man who had everything: his health, a lovely, kind, tolerant wife, no money worries, holidays abroad, two children, a nice home, and way too much time on his hands. Yet it was not enough for Buchan. Ah… the burdens of middle class life. Some people drive fast, expensive cars to glamorize the image of themselves, and Buchan uses his affairs to add some level of excitement to a life he’d rather not be attached to.

There’s another aspect of this novel that I’d love to comment on, but I can’t due to spoilers. I will say that there’s the shadow of an alternate, less dramatic outcome that would also have served Buchan his just desserts. Pick your poison.

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The Italian Teacher: Tom Rachman

Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher is a story of suppressed identity, reinvention, wasted talent, and a cynical look at the Art world told through the prism of a father-son relationship. While children of famous/wealthy parents may find doors opening that would be closed to the plebs, being the offspring of someone ‘great’ also brings its burden. It’s a curse to be the plain daughter of a beautiful actress, for example, and in Rachman’s book, it’s a  burden to be the son of the great American painter, Bear Bavinsky.

When the novel opens in 1955, middle-aged Bear is living with Natalie, a young artist whose medium is pottery. Together they have a 5 year-old child, Pinch (Charles) and are currently living in quasi-exile in Italy while Bear’s last family (wife and children) remain in America. Natalie and Bear’s story is a familiar one: awestruck young artist meets icon and sparks fly. But the relationship is harmful for Natalie and her work; there’s one incredibly painful scene when Natalie tries to work and the incredibly manipulative Bear is ‘struck’ by the urge to draw.  Bear is so intensely selfish, there’s room only for his ego, his needs, his demands. In another scene, they attend an art evening, and Natalie finds herself insulted and literally edged out by Bavinsky fans. Bear has a way of seeming to promote someone while he actually belittles them:

Bear reaches through the crowd, dragging Natalie to his side. “My miraculous wife, a serious talent in her own right,” he says. “Tell them, sweetheart.”

A mass of eyeballs turns to her.

“Now listen here, Bear,” someone interrupts. “You’ve simply got to tell us how…”

Nobody came to meet an unknown lady potter. They’re here for Bear Bavinsky, creator of expressionistic masterworks, wild colors crashing across each composition, a bare throat filling the huge canvas, or a roll of tummy fat, or a pricked shoulder. His detail portraits are too intimate–uncomfortably penetrating despite never once including a subject’s face. 

The novel follows the trajectory of Pinch’s life through childhood, youth, middle age and beyond. Pinch continually struggles to attain his father’s approval, subconsciously copying his mannerisms, and even his pipe smoking. As a husband and father, Bear always loses interest quickly, continually moving onto to fresh relationships. And as Bear burns through wife after wife, continually fathering children,  we see as the novel continues, Pinch’s struggles with his apparent lack-of-talent as an artist, loneliness, intimacy, sexuality, academia, etc.

Pinch makes a few significant relationships in his life, but they are all marred, in some way of another, by Pinch’s proximity to Bear. Bear’s reputation combined with his larger-than-life personality overshadow everything. At one point, teenaged Pinch, who’s been encouraged to paint by his mother, attends an art show in a rare moment with his father. Bavinsky spends the entire evening introducing his son as  “artist of tomorrow,” and yet ultimately ensures that his son will never paint again. Pinch, constantly seeking approval, moves from painting to a career in academia where, again, his whole focus is pleasing his father through a sad ambition to gain academic prestige and write the definitive Bear Bavinsky biography. While Pinch’s mother, back in London, is loving and supportive, she sinks into madness, and Pinch finds himself avoiding her, and there’s the nagging feeling that Natalie, who was discarded by Bear, has no value, and that Bear’s judgement is mirrored in her son.

The Italian Teacher is overwhelmingly sad. I rooted for Pinch to jettison his quasi-relationship with his monstrous father, strike out, change his name and have a life of his own without the legacy of his father lurking in the background. It’s up to the reader to decide whether or not Pinch triumphed in the end. Looking at some reviews, I see the complaint that Pinch is a sad, frustrating example of a wasted life. It’s true that I struggle with character passivity, so there were many times I wanted to knock some sense into Pinch. Ultimately, the book, for this reader, is a poignant cautionary tale about a man who spends a lifetime trying to please a father whose opinion is worth exactly nothing.

This is primarily Pinch’s story, but it’s also a rather ugly look at the Art world, and just what constitutes “great work.” Artists/writers/creators are often given free passes when it comes to their personal relationships. There’s always that argument that Art is a jealous mistress and any great creator cannot juggle a single-minded devotion to work along with the demands of a family. And while this may be true, nonetheless, Artist as Complete Shit when it comes to personal relationships is impossible to excuse.

Rachman’s book has the power to induce the reader to examine familial bonds in light of the fictional Bear-Pinch father-son fiasco. What constitutes a father-son relationshipHow much damage should anyone sustain before severing a close family relationship? At what point do we give up trying?

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A Change in the Lighting: Amy Witting

“This world. This human race. It isn’t divided into sexes. Everybody thinks it’s divided into sexes but it isn’t. It’s the givers and the takers. The diners and the dinners.”

In Amy Witting’s gently witty novel,  A Change in the Lighting, Ella Ferguson, mother of three adult children, is stunned when her husband of over thirty years casually and calmly announces he wants a divorce. Ella, a wonderful wife and mother, who has ensured that her husband “never waited for a meal nor wanted for a clean shirt,” is suddenly cast adrift. Not only must she come to terms with her new solo life, but she also, through her relationships with her children, discovers just how shielded her ‘old’ life was.

A change in the lighting

Professor Bernard Ferguson is (appropriately) standing in front of a mirror when he announces that he wants a divorce. Of course, there’s another woman, in this case it’s the much younger researcher, Louise. After being thrown out by Ella, Bernard stops to ask for clean socks “in a neutral tone, as if he were off to a weekend conference after a small domestic disagreement,” He’s lucky there wasn’t any violence, but then Ella hasn’t yet absorbed the totality of the situation.

Ella breaks the news to her three children: Married teacher, David, difficult, beautiful Caroline who is married to a much older man who works at the same university as Bernard, and Ella’s youngest Sophie, the only one still at home, who’s working as an assistant to a filmmaker.

While Sophie sides completely with Ella, David oversees his mother’s financial interests in the divorce with the idea that he can be some sort of emotionally reasonable conduit. Caroline, however, who’s always been at odds with her mother, strikes out to gain her father’s favour, and as a consequence, Ella’s relationship with her only grandchild becomes a casualty of the fallout.

A Change in the Lighting could have been written with a dire, desperate undercurrent. Certainly Ella finds herself in a difficult position with no job, no money of her own, and  a large, mostly empty house to maintain. In Ella, Amy Witting creates with nimble, gentle humour, a marvellous, and yet perfectly ordinary protagonist, a middle-aged woman who discovers that her sheltered life ends with the departure of her roving husband. While at first, Ella’s life seems to shrivel when her husband leaves, it also begins to expand in new unexpected ways. Sophie brings home her boss, a lesbian filmmaker, and soon there’s a reclusive writer living in the house. While all these changes take place, Bernard, with the predatory Louise lurking in the background, rants about the electric bill, and it soon becomes clear that Ella must make a decision about her home.

Amy Witting, and this is the third novel I read from this author, has a wonderful approach to female madness. I is for Isobel introduced the main character we follow into Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop.  Isobel, in isolation and damaged from a neurotic mother, must learn to accept acts of kindness. In A Change in the Lighting, Ella must accept change, but when her marriage is torn apart, she initially goes through various despondent emotional stages, acknowledging  “no wonder that deserted wives turned alcoholic.” Ella’s life as she knew it begins to disappear and, at times, feeling disoriented she realizes that it would be easy to go mad–that madness is a monster who’s moved in, waiting for her collapse:

When she had got into bed, she considered her day with the monster. Had she made any progress? There were three stages: short spells of quiescence, even moments of peace in which it disappeared altogether, long spells where they co-existed reasonably well, and moments of crisis, when somebody mentioned obsession or some other cause of pain–nothing so bad again as that moment when the thing seemed to be mocking her. It had been coincidence, a trick of the light. 

In hindsight, Ella realizes that there were clues about Bernard’s affair, and as she explains to her best friend, Pam:

“You know, when there’s a noise breaking into your sleep and you don’t want to wake up, you can dream a long, complicated dream that explains the noise away.”

In the fallout of the divorce, Ella discovers a surprising ally in her daughter-in-law Martha, and how true it is that those who marry into a family are often more competent when it comes to deciphering family dynamics. While dramas in her children’s lives spiral around her, and Ella is propelled towards making decisions about her future, she sinks into avoidance by making a complicated rug for her beloved granddaughter. It’s a gift of love and also a marvellous way to ignore her crumbling world:

“So we’re all on the move,” said Martha. “We’ll be moving, too, joining the mortgage belt now that we’ve paid off the unit. Do you have any idea where you’re going to settle? It would be nice to be close to you.”

Ella had no idea on this subject at all. As furniture for the future, she had a remnant of pale green lamé which was to form a stylised arc of sea, the base of a foam of cobweb Shetland wool knitted rather loosely in the traditional Old Shale pattern

Bernard’s desertion of Ella is cold, shift and brutal, and yet of course he gets his comeuppance. The gentle humour reminds of Barbara Pym–although Pym’s novels are, of course, set in the world of lonely academics, clergymen and spinsters. But I would say if you like Pym, you’ll like Witting and vice versa.

How easy it all was, to get drunk, to go mad, to vandalise, to commit fraud. Perhaps she had always had criminal tendencie; they hadn’t surfaced before because they weren’t relevant, didn’t suit her lifestyle. 

Absolutely on my best-of-year-list

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(Forgot to add this is one of the books read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge)

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His Excellency Eugène Rougon: Zola (Brian Nelson Translation)

A few years ago I completed Zola’s 20 volume Rougon-Macquart Cycle. As I worked my way through the 20 books, I came to the conclusion that some would forever have a place on my-best books of all-time list: The Kill, Nana, L’Assommoir, Pot LuckMoney, Earth, The Ladies’ Paradise, Debacle,His ExcellencyThe Masterpiece, while others were bridge-books and not so memorable. At the time only some of the books were available in new or newish translations, and that left me with the 19th century Vizetelly translations. I don’t intend to knock the Vizetelly translations as the Vizetellys believed in these books, tried to publish them and were heavily penalized for their efforts.

When I discovered the shocking fact that many of the 20-volume cycle hadn’t been re-translated since the 19th century, I thought that the reason these books hadn’t been re-translated had to be because they were the minor novels in the series. But as it turns out, my theory wasn’t correct.

His excellency

That brings me to the new translation of His Excellency Eugène Rougon from Brian Nelson. Nelson has previously translated the following novels in the series:

The Fortunes of the Rougons

The Ladies’ Paradise

Earth

The Kill

Pot Luck

The Belly of Paris

I’m excited about this translation as His Excellency Eugène Rougon is due for a reread, and what better reason than a new translation. If you want to read my review of the book, it’s here, but this post is about translation.

The main character, power-hungry Eugène Rougon has a certain attitude towards women:

Vizetelly translation:

“Yes, beware of women,” Rougon repeated, pausing after each word so as to glance at his papers. “when a woman does not put a crown on your head, she slips a halter around your neck. At our age a man’s heart wants as carefully looking after as his stomach.”

Brian Nelson translation:

“Yes, be very careful with women,” Rougon repeated, pausing after every word as he peered in a file. “If they’re not putting a crown on your head, they’re slipping a noose round your neck… At our age, a man should look after his heart as much as his stomach.”

Perhaps those two quotes don’t seem so different at first glance, but I read them both several times. In the first quote, the word “halter” evokes the imagery of a man being controlled whereas in the second quote, “noose” implies a much more terminal position. Plus then there’s that last line … “a man’s heart wants as carefully looking after as his stomach,” versus “a man should look after his heart as much as his stomach.” The matter of who is doing the care-taking of the heart is not in question in the Nelson version, as we would expect with Eugène Rougon, whereas the Vizetelly version implies that a woman could perhaps be taking care of the heart and the stomach which is in complete contradiction of Rougon’s speech.

But here’s a meatier quote:

Vizetelly translation:

“What had first attracted him in Clorinde was the mystery surrounding her, the story of a past-away life and the yearning for a new existence which he could read in the depths of her big goddess-like eyes. He had heard disgraceful scandal about her–an early love affair with a coachman, and a subsequent connection with a banker who had presented her with the little house in the Champs-Elysees. However, every now and then she seemed to him so child-like that he doubted the truth of what he had been told, and again and again essayed to find out the secret of this strange girl, who became to him a living enigma, the solution of which interested him as much as some intriguing political problem. Until then he had felt a scornful disdain for women, and the first one who excited his interest was certainly as singular and complicated a being as could be imagined.”

Nelson translation:

“What attracted him in Clorinde was the quality of the unknown, a mysterious past, and the ambition he thought he could read in her big, dark eyes. Frightful things were said about her–a first attachment to a coachman, then a deal with a banker, rumoured to have paid for her false virginity with the gift of a house on the Champs-Élysées. On the other hand, there were times when she seemed such a child that he doubted these stories. He swore he would get the truth out of her himself, and kept going back hoping to learn the truth from the strange girl’s own lips. Clorinde had become an enigma which began to obsess him as much as any delicate question of high politics. He had lived his life thus far in disdain of women, and the first woman to whom he was attracted was without doubt the most complicated creature imaginable.”  *(and there’s a note here that Clorinde was modeled on the real-life Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione)

Comparing the two, IMO, the Nelson version is much smoother and also much more effectively conveys Rougon’s fascination with Clorinde. Significantly, Clorinde’s sexuality is absent from the Vizetelly quote. Back to censorship and what the Vizetellys had to deal with. Zola’s incredible, unforgettable characters are human beings who experience great passions: whether is be the passion/obsession for power, money, revenge, or sex, and it’s a shame  crime against literature that the Vizetellys were forced to tone down their translations. Henry Vizetelly was convicted twice for obscenity when he published versions of Zola novels. But that was the 19th century, so I’m going to celebrate the 21st century with a re-read of His Excellency Eugène Rougon.

Review copy.

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The Master Key: Masako Togawa

“Fate! It can stab you in the back any time, upsetting the most carefully thought out activities. Fate doesn’t care what the upshot is.”

The Master Key from Japanese author Masako Togawa is another entry in the Pushkin Vertigo line. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve read several books from this series, and that I’m a huge fan of the Frédéric Dard titles.

The Master Key is set in the bleak, dark K Apartments for Young Ladies. At one time, the rules and regulations regarding occupants and visitors were strict. Men were not allowed to stay overnight, and of course, all the occupants were female. The over 100 occupants are no longer “young ladies” but longtime tenants who are “old maids.” The apartment building is now rundown, and depressing, and its “one hundred and fifty rooms connected by dark corridors into which the sunshine never penetrates,” are representative of the lives of the residents. “The long years have wreaked havoc on both the building and its inhabitants.”  The lives of these women, who were once vibrant and successful, are sad and depressing, and there’s a horrible irony to the name of the building, along with the idea that the residents were once segregated from men in order for their virtue to remain intact.

Here are some of the residents:

Katsuko Tojo, one of the receptionists who has limited mobility.

Noriko Ishiyama, a former art teacher, a mad hoarder who roams the halls at night seeking fishbones to chew

Suwa Yatabe, a violinist whose career was cut short by the mysterious paralysis of a finger

Professor Toyoko Munekata who is devoting herself to completing her husband’s manuscripts.

The building is about to be moved, and this is an event that causes tremendous anxiety and upheaval in the lives of some of its residents. Plus the master key, which opens all 150 rooms is missing, and some of the residents harbour secrets that they are desperate to protect. …

I liked The Master Key, but unfortunately I guessed the central twist early on, so that took the fizz out of the novel’s Big Reveal. The creepy atmosphere of the building and its mostly forgotten residents is well created and the detailed lives of the residents are incredibly sad.

I’d rank it below the Dard novels, Boileau and Narcejac’s Vertigo & She Who Was No More, and Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, but above Resurrection Bay, and the Augusto de Angelis novels. So in other words, somewhere in the middle. But still, it’s wonderful to read some newly translated Japanese crime fiction, and Pushkin Vertigo has another Togawa title for publication: The Lady Killer

Review Copy

Translated by Simon Grove

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The Good Liar: Catherine McKenzie

In some ways, The Good Liar mirrors the all-too familiar headlines of our current times, but the back story explores the aftermath of grief through the lens of three women who all played a role in a horrific tragic event.

Triple Ten is the name given to the event: this was an explosion that ripped apart a Chicago building and left hundreds dead or missing. It’s now a year later, the anniversary of the event, and Cecily Grayson, who has, unwillingly, become the poster woman for the tragedy, is still unable to move on with her life. Then there’s Kate, a woman who’s working as a nanny for an affluent family in Canada. Finally, there’s  Franny, a young woman whose birth mother died in the fire.

The Good Liar

Through these three characters (with published articles and the transcripts of interviews from a documentary filmmaker thrown in) it gradually becomes clear that all three women are lying to one extent or another. Slowly, the real stories of the relationships lost in the fire emerge.

A shiver runs through me, because that is how I feel now all the time, that nervous feeling like something bad’s about to happen, something I could avoid if I knew which event to skip, which route not to take, which call not to answer. 

Cecily Grayson, now in therapy, a widow and mother of two, is the main character here, which is a good thing as she is sympathetic.  At first, all we know about Kate is that she fled Chicago and hasn’t returned. Franny, who had just managed to reconnect with her birth mother, has become a permanent fixture in the family her deceased birth mother left behind. While Cecily and Franny run a foundation which dispenses compensation to the victims of the tragedy, there’s a slippery unease between them which is hard to place.

Through the plot, the story explores how we grieve, and how guilt combined with lack of closure disrupt the healing process. But there’s also the thriller element here, a streak of danger, a stench of psycho running through the narrative, and while the plot takes a long time to get there, we know that explosive confrontations will occur.

Cecily is the most convincing character here, and it’s easy to identify with her conflicting feelings of anger and loss combined with the shattered sense of security and safety. As always with domestic thrillers, we are left pondering the choices our characters make. Some of these choices are foolish, some are downright illogical, but then we all know people who constantly make stupid mistakes. I guessed the big reveal, which was a shame. Glancing over reviews on Goodreads, the book seems to be a big hit with fans. While I liked the lack of closure/guilt elements, the thriller/psycho aspect of the book stretched credulity for this reader.

Review copy

 

 

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Filed under Fiction, McKenzie Catherine