Like Water for Chocolate – Laura Esquivel


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Like Water for ChocolateAnyone who thinks Wuthering Heights wasn’t romantic really needs to read Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies, one of those novels whose marketing far eclipses its content. It’s got a quirky subtitle, it promises food, magic, love and female empowerment; it’s short and easy to read, and is written by a Mexican woman, giving it that patina of worldly sophistication that every so often inspires a translated mega-hit in the United States. It’s easy to see how this novel from 1989 was such a smash, with a translation by Carol and Thomas Christensen and a movie both arriving in 1992.

The trouble with crying over an onion is that once the chopping gets you started and the tears begin to well up, the next thing you know you just can’t stop. I don’t know whether that’s ever happened to you, but I have to confess it’s happened to me, many times. Mama used to say it was because I was especially sensitive to onions, like my great-aunt, Tita.

Tita was so sensitive to onions, any time they were being chopped, they say she would just cry and cry; when she was still in my great-grandmother’s belly her sobs were so loud that even Nacha, the cook, who was half-deaf, could hear them easily. Once her wailing got so violent that it brought on an early labor. And before my great-grandmother could let out a word or even a whimper, Tita made her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves, and cilantro, steamed milk, garlic, and, of course, onion. Tita had no need for the usual slap on the bottom, because she was already crying as she emerged; maybe that was because she knew then that it would be her lot in life to be denied marriage.

This is quite an enticing opening, less magical realist, more folk tale embellished by a favorite aunt, and this crazy, congenial narration kept me turning the pages with some avidity even as it dawned on me that I hated Like Water for Chocolate. That’s worth a star by itself. So we’ll start with the plot of this, Laura Esquivel’s most notable contribution to Mexican literature.

In Tita’s family, there is a tradition in which the youngest daughter is required to forgo marriage and children, instead devoting her life to being her parents’ caretaker until they die. Tita is the youngest daughter of Mama Elena and when she falls in love with a local boy her mother forbids the match. Pedro then decides the best strategy for securing his beloved is to take up Mama Elena’s offer of her eldest daughter Rosaura’s hand. He then moves into the house with them. A foolproof plan, surely. What follows are eleven chapters of ghastly family dysfunction that took me by surprise. I understood that Hispanic culture places a greater emphasis on family than any of their northern neighbours, so to see Esquivel make a complete mockery of it somewhat took me aback.

The only tradition Esquivel seems to value is the preparation of food, with each traditional recipe carefully embedded in the novel itself, yet she betrays and mocks it alongside everything else, for most of the dishes produce disgusting results as the food takes on the properties of Tita’s own suppressed emotions, causing mass vomiting at Pedro and Rosaura’s wedding, summoning worms into the sausages and turning a regular meal into a destructive aphrodisiac – twice. I did not crave Mexican food during this read and was in fact somewhat queasy at the thought of it.

So Pedro sets out to have a wife and a woman on the side while Mama Elena spends most of her time arranging for Pedro and Tita to never be left alone together. Rosaura is trapped in an unhappy marriage but we’re not supposed to feel sorry for her and, to ensure our cooperation on this point, Esquivel makes her fat and gassy and she dies in the most humiliating way the author could devise. Middle sister Gertrudis gets infected by Tita’s accidental aphrodisiac, gets abducted by a rebel soldier and winds up working in a brothel but we are certainly not meant to feel sorry for her liberation.

The funniest thing about Like Water for Chocolate is the vaguely defined yet repeated claim that it is somehow a feminist text (probably because it is set during the Mexican Revolution and Tita and Gertrudis both rebel against tradition). I find this amusing when literally every time Tita seems ready to take her destiny into her own hands Pedro comes along with his suggestive eyes and gets her to throw her life away. Meanwhile the very traditions she rebels against are her mother’s. Mama Elena runs a female household, she scares off bandits all by herself and she says outright “I’ve never needed a man for anything; all by myself, I’ve done all right with my ranch and my daughters. Men aren’t that important in this life, Father” – she said emphatically (to the local priest, by the way). She’s a firebrand feminist and she runs a hellish household and makes her daughters miserable. When Rosaura and Pedro have a baby girl, it is Rosaura who decides to carry on the youngest daughter tradition even though she can’t have any more children – dooming the family line. Pedro doesn’t interfere or even seem to care because he wants to have bastard kids with Tita, but when Rosaura says no to that idea he quickly drops it. All of the men in this novel are incredibly weak, by the way, from Pedro, too craven to elope with the woman he desires, to the soldier and great womanizer Trevino, who is emasculated by Gertrudis and becomes only her watchdog, protecting her flanks, not letting her out of sight for a second, to Mama Elena’s late husband, who is carried off by a heart attack when he learns of his wife’s unfaithfulness. It is painful and it leads to a major problem with the narrative. This is meant to be a “traditional family,” with happiness granted only to the daughters who rebel against it but the family is matriarchal, creating cognitive dissonance all the way.

It is only the middle of the book, chapters May – July, that really escape the story’s general bizarreness. Tita escapes her dreadful situation at the apex of its tragedy and is taken in by the patient, reasonable, caring Dr. John Brown. He is everything the main cast is not: scientific, gentle and capable of respecting Tita’s choices. A love triangle develops: Tita was beginning to wonder if the feeling of peace and security that John gave her wasn’t true love, and not the agitation and anxiety she felt when she was with Pedro. A back and forth develops between lust and love, raw passion and tempered emotion. Will Tita become a wife or remain a mistress? The penultimate chapter leaves her decision a cliffhanger, cementing this for all time as a beach read, before the final installment engages in an incredibly lame time-skip bait-and-switch to wrap things up. And what an insane wrap-up it is, something I can only describe as “the Marquis de Sade for housewives.” Check it out below the SPOILER line!


Tita, it is revealed, has chosen to be a mistress, sneaking into closets with Pedro while keeping up appearances with the community and scrupulously avoiding pregnancy for twenty-two years. How fulfilling. The Wuthering Heights reference I made wasn’t entirely snark, as in both novels it falls to the youngest generation to correct the family faults and forge ahead to a good life. However, there is no redemption to go along with it in this case, and you could even say the older generations got exactly what they wanted. Tita follows Mama Elena’s instructions to never marry, while young Esperanza is only freed from tradition by her mother’s ignoble end. And there’s more.

At the wedding of Esperanza to John Brown’s son, Tita’s aphrodisiac strikes again, infecting all the guests except for John, who leaves without a partner. John should have found someone else when she refused him, but he never had. So the only rational character exits unaffected while everyone else grabs a partner and heads out for a massive orgy. Esquivel singles this out for applause, crowing that the uninhibited sexuality on display that day was some of the greatest creativity in the history of the human race. Meanwhile, Tita and Pedro are finally free to indulge their carnal appetites uninterrupted and it’s such an intense experience that it stops Pedro’s heart. Tita realizes she will never again experience such an inner fire and the narration completes its regression from an old crone spinning yarns to a seventeen year old girl’s erotic prose poem: Surely Pedro had died at the moment of ecstasy when he entered the luminous tunnel. She regretted not having done the same. Now it would never again be possible to see that light, because she could no longer feel anything. She would but wander through the shadows for eternity, alone, all alone. [Is she a vampire now? Seriously?] She would have to find some way, even if it was an artificial one, of striking a fire that would light the way back to her origin and to Pedro. The language gets vaguer from here but basically she masturbates to death and the ranch burns to the ground around her. Then Esquivel tries to invoke some cycle-of-life imagery with the ash left behind but what we really have here is the old sex-equals-death pathology, with Pedro and Tita dying of sheer satiation because that is passion for the ages, people, and Pedro was the superior choice to John Brown. It is deeply insane.

But that’s the whole book for you. The best reviews come from people whose comments boil down to “have you read this book? It’s CRAZY!” They were the ones who got maximum entertainment value from it. It’s like reading Richard Brautigan’s novels and I suspect Laura Esquivel is heading for the same quasi-literary plateau he’s on. The final joke goes back to the title: “Home Remedies,” it claims, when the only lasting remedy for this home is to burn it down with the over-exerted corpses of its owners inside. Now there’s a cure.

Laura Esquivel

When not writing books, Laura Esquivel serves in Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies for the left-wing Morena party.


The Return of the Soldier – Rebecca West


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The Return of the SoldierA slim novel from 1918, The Return of the Soldier is the first work of fiction by Dame Rebecca West, the most celebrated woman writer of her day who now drifts semi-forgotten in the shadow of Virginia Woolf. She was too great a contrarian, too independent a thinker for our politicized era and in consequence she is rarely read or talked about anymore. She was the first woman to write a novel about the First World War (for comparison, even Vera Brittain’s famous memoir Testament of Youth came out in 1933, while Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room was published in 1922, since Woolf only wrote about the Edwardians while the war was on). The premise is really quite simple: Chris Baldry returns from the Western Front shell-shocked and unable to remember the last fifteen years of his life, including his marriage to the beautiful Kitty. He believes he is still twenty and in love with an innkeeper’s daughter called Margaret. Kitty and Jenny, Chris’s unmarried cousin, have to endure the pain of being forgotten by this man whom they adored, while wondering what will bring him back to the present.

Jenny is the narrator, although she has very little to do with the unfolding drama besides providing a sympathetic ear. She is an eyewitness to the quiet tragedy in its final act, as the past comes back to haunt the people who believed they had moved on. There is a strong class element to the interactions. Kitty and Jenny are so well ensconced in their orderly home at Baldry Court that they cannot stand the sight of Margaret, “seamed and scored and ravaged by squalid circumstances.” Margaret and Chris broke up in the past because of mutual distrust: “it struck me he wasn’t trusting me as he would trust a girl of his own class, and I told him so.” He then ends by marrying a woman of his own set, who picked up his conception of normal expenditure, and carelessly stretched it as a woman stretches a new glove on her hand. Yet as Jenny gets to know Margaret she begins to romanticize the woman’s hard life, constructing in her a visiting saint, spiritually greater than any of them. The psychological quality of this novel has little to do with Chris’s actual condition or its cure, being instead rooted in Jenny’s evolving consciousness.

The Return of the Soldier is primarily focused on the subject of beauty, treating it as a sustaining illusion, something needed and described in the most delicately moving terms as it contrasts with the nightmare that is the First World War – at the time of the novel’s publication still ongoing. Chris remembers his courtship of Margaret:

When there had descended on them a night as brilliant as the day he drew her out into the darkness, which was sweet with the scent of walnut-leaves, and they went across the lawn, bending beneath the chestnut-boughs, not to the wild part of the island, but to a circle of smooth turf divided from it by a railing of wrought iron. On this stood a small Greek temple, looking very lovely in the moonlight. … tonight there was nothing anywhere but beauty. He lifted her in his arms and carried her within the columns, and made her stand in a niche above the altar. A strong stream of moonlight rushed upon her there; by its light he could not tell if her hair was white as silver or yellow as gold, and again he was filled with exaltation because he knew that it would not have mattered if it had been white. His love was changeless. Lifting her down from the niche, he told her so.

And as he spoke, her warm body melted to nothingness in his arms. The columns that had stood so hard and black against the quivering tide of moonlight and starlight seemed to totter and dissolve. He was lying in a hateful world where barbed-wire entanglements showed impish knots against a livid sky full of blooming noise and splashes of fire and wails for water, and his back was hurting intolerably.

Chris’s women, Kitty and cousin Jenny, understand the importance of beauty and devote their time to arranging splendour for his eyes, meaning to soothe him and show their affection and give him something to fight for in France. It had lain on us, the responsibility, which gave us dignity, to compensate him for his lack of free adventure by arranging him a gracious life. But now, just because our performance had been so brilliantly adequate, how dreary was the empty stage! West clearly held a rational understanding of what is expected of men and what their role in civilization actually entails. For men, “privilege” is a temporary thing that must be sacrificed, as millions were sacrificing it one hundred years ago by their descent into the trenches. In truth, Chris’s life of leisure ended the moment he inherited Baldry Court, for nothing of value can long exist in a state of idleness and being the ideal Englishman is a role that has to be upheld, a job that must be performed.

Jenny insists that it is only beauty, only grace, that she and Kitty supply for their soldier, that I was sure that we were preserved from the reproach of luxury, because we had made a fine place for Chris, one little part of the world that was, so far as surfaces could make it so, good enough for his amazing goodness. But Jenny is deluding herself. As is revealed on the very first page, which takes place in Baldry Court’s empty nursery, there is a deep unhappiness in Chris’s life and Jenny’s use of the words luxury and surfaces betray the limitations of what she and Kitty bring to the table. When Margaret appears on the scene, without style, without riches, she reveals the paucity of their fabrication by the simplest of phrases, among them: “It’s a big place. Chris must have worked hard to keep all this up.” She is a poor woman yet she pities a rich man. She nurses whatever nice things come her way in the business of life while Jenny and Kitty try to staunch spiritual wounds with material acquisitions. And so Chris loses his memory and is drawn back to hopeful days, long before the horrors of war and the loss of his progeny left him working to support a grand yet empty house while Kitty remains baffled by his discontent to the end.

West treats this entire scenario with marvelous calm, weighing and balancing the scales without ever falling prey to polemic. The Return of the Soldier does not come down for or against the upper or lower classes, men or women, Chris forgetting or Chris remembering. Throughout she shows that beauty, though it can become the trap of luxury, is not a false concept in itself (a particularly noxious conclusion that many others would come to after first one, then two world wars). This slender novel thus acquires a remarkable poise and gravitas that cannot be faulted.

The return of the “soldier” can only bring with it self-awareness and its attendant sorrows. It is a return that has to happen for the sake of reality, but there is no cure for Chris’s troubles because he has lost the future, for himself and for the world that he has worked for; his retreat to the past is a tacit admission of that. It is a tragic story, enhanced by West’s precision of language reflected in the wealth of quotes I have lifted, and so I must conclude this review with a final passage as the troubled family sits down to an evening’s entertainment and the twentieth century settles in to stay:

I went to the piano. Through this evening of sentences cut short because their completed meaning was always sorrow, of normal life dissolved to tears, the chords of Beethoven sounded serenely.

“So like you Jenny,” said Kitty, suddenly, “to play Beethoven when it’s the war that’s caused all this. I could have told that you would have chosen to play German music this night of all nights.”

So I began a saraband by Purcell, a jolly thing that makes one see a plump, sound woman dancing on a sanded floor in some old inn, with casks of good ale all about her and a world of sunshine and May lanes without. As I played I wondered if things like this happened when Purcell wrote such music, empty of everything except laughter and simple greeds and satisfactions and at worst the wail of unrequited love. Why had modern life brought forth these horrors, which made the old tragedies seem no more than nursery-shows? And the sky also is different. Behind Chris’s head, as he halted at the open window, a search-light turned all ways in the night, like a sword brandished among the stars.

Rebecca West

The Venus of Ille – Prosper Mérimée


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Carmen, Hesperus PressThe complete text of Carmen, with footnotes and Crichtonian epilogue on the author’s studies on Romany runs to 60 pages. To make it a reasonable investment, Hesperus Press pushed it to 93 pages with the inclusion of Prosper Mérimée’s horror story ‘The Venus of Ille’ (1837), also translated by Andrew Brown. A tale of terror that proves once again how the French do love their schlock horror tropes.

I can’t find any meaningful background to the story so I’m going to devote this space to the achievements of Prosper Mérimée (1803 – 1870) himself, a remarkably accomplished and even heroic individual in the field of architecture. He served as Inspector General of Historic Monuments from 1834 to 1860. The monarchy had returned to France and they set out to protect and restore the symbols of the France overthrown by the revolution: the monarchic and religious buildings and ornaments that had been seized, stripped, melted down and vandalized by the revolutionaries. Historic France was in need of wide-scale restoration and Mérimée was perfect for the job, having an eye for quality and the patient charm and cleverness of a diplomat. There were no protective laws for historic buildings at the time – Mérimée could only fulfill his task by convincing the local authorities to maintain their unacknowledged monuments. I highly recommend this article by Julian Barnes for more detail on the subject but to encapsulate: he rediscovered the tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn, moldering in the castle of Boussac and he saved the medieval ramparts of Avignon from demolition. He fought countless battles across the country and tirelessly promoted monument preservation. In addition he was a government worker, courtier, Russian translator, historian, ghost writer to Napoleon III and novelist, whose Carmen would inspire the greatest French opera of all time. He was an atheist who saved churches, a minor writer but a major player in French civilization, a truly remarkable man who should be far better known.

This background leads back to ‘The Venus of Ille,’ written early in his architectural career. The narrator visits a town where a statue of Venus has recently been unearthed by his host M. Alphonse de Peyrehorade. He stays for the wedding of Peyrehorade’s son and witnesses the statue wreaking terrible vengeance upon the family. When you think of Mérimée’s work and the battles he lost this story actually starts to make a lot of sense. How do you get up each morning and fight for something so many people don’t even give a damn about?

‘I just need to wish the idol goodnight,’ said the bigger of the apprentice boys, suddenly stopping.
He bent down, and doubtless picked up a stone. I saw him flex his arm, throw something, and immediately a loud clang echoed from the bronze. At the same moment the apprentice’s hand shot to his head, as he cried out in pain.
‘She’s rejected me!’ he exclaimed.
And those two scamps took to their heels in flight. It was obvious that the stone had rebounded off the metal, and had punished that young scoundrel for the outrage he had committed against the goddess.
I closed the window, laughing heartily.
‘Another vandal punished by Venus! May all the destroyers of our ancient monuments get a similar headache!’ And uttering this charitable desire, I went to sleep.

Knowing something of the author’s life gives this greater coherency and also explains his cutting portrait of provincial life and culture. I was deeply shocked to see a young man seemingly more enthusiastic about the dowry his future wife was bringing him than about her lovely eyes. Mérimée seems to feel unalloyed disgust at the lot of them. Venal, materialist, greedy, ribald, gluttonous and indifferent to any higher sentiments, the wedding party brings out nothing but a sense of distaste in the narrator and M. Alphonse de Peyrehorade masks his overweening pride (badly) with cloying humility. The only one spared from this portrait is the bride-to-be, whom the narrator pities. ‘What a shame,’ I mused as I left Puygarrig, ‘that such a likable person should be rich, and that her dowry should mean she is sought out by a man who doesn’t deserve her!’ Mérimée used this story to punish two types of people I assume he strongly disliked: the vandals of historic architecture and those who arrange marriages for profit. ‘What a hateful thing an arranged marriage is!’ I thought. ‘A mayor puts on a tricolour sash, a priest slips on a stole, and there you have it: the nicest girl in the world, married to a Minotaur! What can human beings who don’t love each other find to say at a moment like that, a moment which two real lovers would pay with their lives to obtain?’

Then there’s the horror aspect to all of this, which does start off quite well. Statues have an uncanny quality and this is effectively leveraged at the start, what with the Venus’ hand jutting out of the ground like a discoloured corpse, it breaking a man’s leg while being pulled out of the earth and its malignant stare – empty silver eyes in a blackened bronze face. The problem arrives with the end of the story, where ‘The Venus of Ille’ turns into something Hammer film studios or Roger Corman could have gladly filmed. I can actually see Corman slapping the name Berenice onto the bride and calling it another Poe adaptation.


Young Peyrehorade is challenged to a tennis match and slips his fiancée’s ring onto the statue’s finger while he competes. The fatuous idiot discovers too late that he can’t remove the ring from Venus and that night heavy footsteps ascend the stairs as Venus comes to the bridal chamber and crushes the groom to death in her iron arms! The bride goes insane, no one believes her story and the statue is later melted down for a church bell…causing the church vines to wither away. OoooOOOooohh.

End spoilers.

Okay, if that had been made into a B movie it would probably have been a blast but that’s because I have always liked my horror movies nonthreatening. Books are another matter and I greatly prefer Stoker and Lovecraft (or even Radcliffe) over this ludicrous plotline.

It’s also strange from a propaganda point of view. Mérimée wanted to preserve ancient works so why write a story where an ancient monument brings horror and suffering to the town that dug it up? I mean, he’s not making a good case here and I certainly wouldn’t want that thing in my yard. Maybe he just figured none of the local officials would read his fictions, which he did seem to view as a recreational activity (nobody reads his monument writings anymore but at the time I suspect he was better known for his day job than his stories).

When it comes right down to it, the important thing about Prosper Mérimée was the work he did to save historic France. He didn’t save everything he set his sights on and he didn’t do it alone but he was a figurehead. As much as I love Bizet’s Carmen, this was his truly great achievement.

Avignon, wall, architecture

The ramparts of Avignon.

Mérimée died in 1870. Seventeen years later a man called Le Corbusier was born, a living instrument of the destruction of historic architecture, father of “urban planning” and all its attendant social decay, founding figure… of modernism.

unite d'habitation

There was a reason J.G. Ballard called his ‘Lord of the Flies’ novel High-Rise.

That’s only one of his design abominations. There’s more!

sainte marie de la tourette

Tree, lawn, building, bench. Only three of these things are in harmony.

Had Mérimée been able to see the future I think he would have wished far more than a headache on the vandals and destroyers of Europe. The picture above? That’s a monastery. My first thought was to go check and yes, Le Corbusier was an atheist. Instead of saving churches, he took revenge on them. I really don’t know what else to call that.

So I went to YouTube and typed in “modern architecture is bad” and the first thing that came up was this bloke:

Over 700,000 watched this video. There are also all kinds of internet groups tracking architectural tragedies and triumphs across the globe, calling for protection, restoration and revival and there are always local societies as well. You can find them, you can join them, you can name your son Prosper (it hasn’t charted in France since 1962) and defy the tidal wave of glass and concrete in whatever small way you can, because it isn’t permanent. A demolished tower block brings back the skyline. Prosper Mérimée would have known that.

Busy Farm – Kate McWethy


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Introducing a new Family Friendly subcategory to my blog, as my focus over the last year has turned from putting away childish things to taking them back up from the viewpoint of the parent I hope to become. Expect to see an uptick of children’s and young adult books in addition to my regular diet of adult literature.

Full disclosure: I know the author and received a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Busy Cover web copy

When children are very young they’re just learning about the world and don’t even know what a farm is or how it works, which is why you teach them the Old MacDonald song and give them books about tractors and farm animals. Busy Farm is for the next phase, when children know what to expect on a farm and are ready for a fresh spin on it, ready to see the ordinary turned upside down, ready for nonsense. This picture book takes the old phrase “the inmates are running the asylum” and applies it to a productive farm, with absurd results. One page mentions a new, normal chore that needs doing and the following image depicts the zany way the animals go about trying to accomplish the task without human assistance. For example, if you send ostriches to pick the apples they’re naturally going to eat them as well. It’s a cute, effective joke.

Busy Farm illustration

Kate McWethy uses digital photo collage for her illustrations, using carefully selected stock images and combining them into something new with filters and editing. The result is refreshingly cheerful absurdity, some of it hearkening back to old children’s tropes, from the farm setting to an image of counting sheep. It’s amusing and the humour is never cruel or crass.

Busy Farm is an ode to nonsense, which does come at the expense of world-building. The tasks are all things you’d have to do on a farm of sufficient size but the subversions march to their own tune. For instance, you’d expect there to be pigs and cows but ostriches, rubber duckies and even a mythical beast all put in appearances. Physics and proportion are only suggestions on this farm, not rules. Sometimes the style of art even changes gear before reverting to normal, which I think was a bridge too far. However, all of this does play to the book’s advantage because every time you think you’ve figured out the joke it changes. “Okay,” you think, “this is just animals with silly expressions on their face. No, wait, they’re also in silly situations…woah, that’s from Greek mythology…” Busy Farm is unpredictable and that adds value for parents. From visual puns to silly hats, it’s always trying something different.

Parental Guide: No humans are depicted. No educational value to speak of. A few of the scenes may make some children nervous depending on how they feel about tornadoes and aerial dogfights (other kids will undoubtedly find those the best parts of the book). Nothing gross or mean-spirited in the humour, just cute animal silliness that will have equal appeal to boys and girls.

If you want to purchase the Kindle book, you can go here.



Blue Velvet as Traditionalist Allegory (David Lynch, 1986)


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blue velvet david lynch

It was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch Blue Velvet, David Lynch’s most famous film, assuming from the reviews that it would be too brutal and depraved for my tastes but deciding to muscle through it anyway on the heels of the excellent Mulholland Drive. Blue Velvet was passed over by major studios for its graphic content and it eventually found financing with the independent Italian studio De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. This doesn’t sound promising so imagine my surprise when it turned out that Blue Velvet is actually reaffirming the value of traditional communities.

The surface reading of Blue Velvet takes the most obvious symbolism of the film and claims it for the whole intent. The punchline of the opening scene shows pristine flowerbeds before panning down to view the repulsive movements of ravenous insects below. Therefore Blue Velvet is a shocking expose of the rot lying beneath the hypocritical surface of small town life. From here the clichés can write themselves. Small towns, once seen as the ideal place to start a family, are constantly being reinterpreted on page and screen as seething masses of repressed sexuality, failed ambition, religious extremism, grotesque crime and plain unappetizing eccentricity.

Blue Velvet is a David Lynch film though, and it would be insulting to take such a simplistic view of one of his modern fables. Blue Velvet is actually one of his more straightforward films in terms of plot yet it is still so patently unrealistic that it can hardly function as a believable crime drama, even when compared to such unlikely films as Fargo or Leon. And so the critical interpretation claims it as a dark, sensuous, dreamlike neo-noir for film students to unpack. However, examining the subtext and soul of the film actually transforms it into a hard-to-watch but ultimately uplifting allegory.

The film is set in Lumberton, a fictional town with an overwhelming feel of the 1950s. You have your friendly neighbourhood fireman, friendly neighbourhood policeman, white picket fences, flower beds, local business, intact family units and a majority white population (although a couple of shots make it clear that the town does not actually practice segregation). It is portrayed as a good place to be and (although Roger Ebert saw all of this as a satire of 50s sitcoms) there is nothing mean-spirited in Lynch’s portrayal. The nice people in the film are not torn down by murder or humiliated by the director, nor is their decency ever revealed as some sort of sham front to help them sleep at night (all things you might expect of an actual satire). Lynch is not taking revenge on small-town America; he’s saying in some odd way of his own that their ways are good at heart. There’s a stability here missing from later films with ostensibly similar subject matter. Take Fargo (Coen Brothers, 1996): “Nice people” in Fargo are a running joke, a sideshow of yokels with exaggerated accents while the pregnant cop’s innate decency floats in a vacuum as she goes from corpse to corpse.

blue velvet jeffrey kyle machlachlan

Kyle MacLachlan has Scottish, Cornish and German ancestry

Blue Velvet begins with the clean-cut boy Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) coming home from school to look after his father (who’s had a stroke) and his father’s hardware store. Walking through the fields, Jeffrey finds a severed ear and, being a concerned citizen, bags it and brings it to the police. He immediately asks if Detective Williams still works there, emphasizing community ties by bringing the case to a known family friend instead of a stranger (this decision inadvertently keeps the case from getting buried). I was dreading that Williams would be revealed as a crooked cop in the end but he turns out to be exactly what he seems on the surface – a just and devoted family man. He can’t share details of the case with Jeffrey but his daughter Sandy (Laura

blue velvet sandy laura dern
Laura Dern’s great-great-uncle was poet Archibald MacLeish

Dern) has no such restrictions and she tells him on a nighttime walk that the case seems to lead back to a nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosselini). Jeffrey decides to investigate and Sandy goes along for the ride. They take it as an opportunity to engage in some semi-dangerous hijinks and maybe help the police. For a while it’s just a game with unspoken flirtation underneath but as they get deeper into their detective work Sandy has doubts about the whole enterprise. “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” she says. Jeffrey glibly replies “that’s for me to know and you to find out,” but the truth is that he doesn’t know. And he’s about to be tested.

blue velvet kyle machlachlan jeffrey

Remember this when you’re remodeling your house

Entering Dorothy’s apartment and hiding behind the conveniently slotted door of her closet, Jeffrey watches the older woman undress, receive an ominous phone call and don a blue velvet bathrobe. She discovers his hiding place (the boy is skilled in neither stealth nor forethought) and enacts a mating ritual while holding him at knifepoint. It’s about as hot as watching a couple of praying mantises copulate. Interrupted by someone at the door, Jeffrey again in hiding, we meet Frank (played with somewhere below .001% finesse by Dennis Hopper). In the ensuing scene he beats and rapes Dorothy while huffing amyl nitrate. This done, he leaves. Jeffrey comes out to offer some sort of assistance to Dorothy, another twisted pantomime of sex is offered to him and Jeffrey finally flees the apartment in horror.

Several plot points become clear in this scene. Frank is evil. He is holding Dorothy’s husband (to whom the ear belonged) and young son hostage to force her into becoming his sex slave. Dorothy is being driven insane, having embraced guilt-fuelled masochism and wishing to die. As the film progresses we see Frank surrounded by criminals, crooked cops, prostitutes and degenerates but he sees Dorothy as special. There is no greater emblem of corruption than that of turning a mother into a whore. Frank rules and recruits an underbelly that will one day swamp and destroy Lumberton if left unchecked. He corrupts whomever he contacts.


We’re not in a good place

A few scenes ago Jeffrey and Sandy were equals. Now Sandy alone is the innocent while Jeffrey stands on the razor’s edge contemplating the darkness he has unearthed and unable to convey his despair. If this can happen, what is the point? The kids park outside of the church where light comes through the stained glass windows and organ music filters through the night air. Sandy tries to comfort him by sharing a dream she had right before meeting Jeffrey. She saw the world covered in darkness and then she saw robins arriving, bringing with them the daylight. In her dream the robins represented love. There is nothing subtle about this scene – Sandy has an angelic, faraway gaze and it fits the allegorical interpretation of this film hand in glove.

blue velvet robins laura dern sandy

Hope is the thing with feathers

Jeffrey is not comforted by Sandy’s vision and starts having sex with Dorothy instead, who goads him time and again to strike her and finally succeeds. He starts romancing Sandy blatantly, causing her boyfriend Mike to break up with her. This is how corruption works, spreading from person to person. The boy (whose forebrain still isn’t working for shit) is finally caught cuddling Dorothy in the hall by Frank and his gang, who decide to take Jeffrey for a “ride” that is obviously going to end execution-style.


I’m sure we can work this out

We catch a glimpse of Jeffrey’s better self in his stoicism as these psychos make sport of him. They take Dorothy to see her child in a house of prostitutes but all we hear of it through the closed door is her desperate cry “No, Donnie, no! Mama loves you!”

Back in the car, Frank starts abusing Dorothy right in front of him and Jeffrey finally loses it, punching Frank in the face. An awesome gesture, if a futile one. He’s a dead man walking and from any logical perspective it makes no sense for Frank to let Jeffrey live after what he’s seen. Yet Frank instead bids his minions to hold Jeffrey still while he makes out on (if it can even be dignified with that phrase) and then pummels the boy unconscious, sparing him. If this is a crime story then Frank becomes an idiot who’s so unstable a rival gangster or underling should have rubbed him out long ago. Gangsters have to do business and you can’t do business with Frank. But as an allegory this entire scene makes perfect sense: Frank is the corrupter. Earlier in the car he turns around to look at Jeffrey and says “you’re like me.” It’s better to let the boy fall into the pit on his own than to kill him at the very start of his descent. And so Jeffrey lives to face another day in his fallen state, screwing the woman he wanted to save and lying to everyone in his life.

blue velvet kyle machlachlan jeffrey

We’ve all been there

We see Jeffrey sitting on his bed weeping as the epiphany strikes. He could huddle up there nursing his wounds, hiding from Frank; he could crawl on his belly and hope subservience saves him; he could turn his back on what he’s seen, split town and try to bury the memory in successive bottles of Heineken. Instead he puts his shirt on and goes to get help, coming clean about his investigation to Williams (he does leave both Sandy and Dorothy out of the story though). Now he turns his voyeurism into evidence, choosing to oppose a raving psychopath even knowing that he’s lucky to be alive after their first encounter. Good lad.

From here everything falls into place as a pattern of resolutions: Jeffrey and Sandy are hunted down on an evening drive by what turn out to be Mike and his friends (such a harmless posse after what we’ve seen) and their brewing argument is derailed by Dorothy, who has been thrown naked out of Frank’s car in front of Jeffrey’s house. Is this intimidation or is it an abhorrent gift? Why free such a damning witness unless this freedom is an illusion? Faced with a rapidly escalating situation Jeffrey mans up and takes charge. Note his demeanour against the confused and appalled boys in Mike’s group as they backtrack into apologies and he corrals the women and forgives Mike for his attempted violence. Jeffrey is truly coming-of-age here and it has nothing to do with sex.

The final secrets come out, as they had to. Dorothy the mad harlot stands shameless in the Williams’ kitchen, repeatedly saying that Jeffrey “put his disease in me” (I’ll let that stand without comment). As she’s taken away to the hospital Sandy gives Jeffrey a well-earned slap in the face.

Now the conflagration begins as Frank starts to clean house – maybe he’s just insane or maybe he’s realised that Jeffrey will defy him after all. Amid armed standoffs with the cops Frank sets out to murder all witnesses to his crimes, starting with Dorothy’s husband and the crooked cop. Jeffrey refuses to sit this one out and ends up cornered by Frank in Dorothy’s apartment. But after all he’s been through Jeffrey finally starts to think ahead and think fast. He misdirects Frank by walkie-talkie, arms himself

blue velvet jeffrey kyle machlachlan

Frank’s luck just ran out

with the dying policeman’s gun and hides in the same closet that began his voyeuristic descent. Without panic he watches Frank stalk through the apartment, awaiting the perfect moment to open fire and then shooting the fiend right between the eyes.

Now all that’s left is the aftermath, in some ways the most important part of the film: Sandy forgives Jeffrey, which might look naive on her part but we must remember that Jeffrey manned up and took charge in correcting his error. Taking out someone like Frank earns a lot of good will and without Sandy’s telephoned well-wishing, Jeffrey would have no reason to stay in Lumberton. So the scene in which the two families mingle on a sunny day, all on good terms and with Jeffrey’s own father out of hospital, is incredibly important. Sandy, looking out of the window, sees that the robins have indeed come to the yard. The quotidian humdrum of daily life has resumed, but it brings with it love. It enabled Sandy to forgive Jeffrey when his life was on the line and has brought their families together. How different would Blue Velvet appear if Jeffrey had walked away at the end, alone and embittered by what he’s seen?

As for Dorothy’s fate, the very final scene of the film shows her in the park, alone save for her son and happy for the first time in the film. Though she is now a widow she is free from Frank’s tyranny, free from despair, restored to motherhood and mental health.

blue velvet isabella rossellini


Blue Velvet is an incredibly powerful film. Contrary to what you might think from its reputation, it is not propagating degeneracy. Nor does it showcase the perverse as some kind of inevitable flip side to normality, “what you are in the dark” when all the healthy expressions of the id are repressed. Were that the case, Williams would have been the crooked cop and Sandy would have received the slap, not delivered it. But Sandy is not Dorothy and Jeffrey will not allow himself to become like Frank. In the end, however much evil has festered beneath the surface of Lumberton, Jeffrey chooses to stay in his hometown. He does not blame it for letting its guard down, allowing itself to be compromised. No, he fights for it when the time comes. The little town is a net positive and the film reflects that.

However, most people (with film critics leading the charge) seem to have missed the point of Blue Velvet. Consider the irony: In the role of a raped, beaten, brainwashed mother whose child has been stolen, who sees all sexuality as an expression of violence and who longs for death, Isabella Rossellini… became a sex symbol.

blue-velvet isabella rossellini dorothy vallens

Rossellini is the daughter of Italian director Roberto Rossellini and Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman

A Paean to Carmen, in Three Forms


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Carmen, Hesperus PressShe was wearing a very short red skirt that showed her white silk stockings with more than one hole in them, and dainty little shoes of red morocco leather tied with flame-coloured ribbons. She had pulled her mantilla open to show off her shoulders and the big bouquet of cassia emerging from her blouse. She had a cassia flower in the corner of her mouth, too, and walked along swaying her hips like a filly from the Cordova stud farm. In my country, everyone would have started to make the sign of the cross on seeing a woman dressed like that. In Seville, everyone addressed her with some ribald comment on her alluring appearance; she replied to each one in turn, giving them a sidelong glance, her hand on her hip, as brazen as the true Gypsy she was.

Old books don’t get enough credit for pacing. One thinks of the lengthy childhoods of Jane Eyre and David Copperfield or the thousand pages of Clarissa, when Carmen, within 50 pages of its Hesperus Press edition, slides from seduction to smuggling to banditry to cold-blooded murder without missing a beat or slowing down past a few footnotes. One day a pretty girl bats her eyelashes at you and the next you’re smoking your last cigar. It’s an archetypal story, powerful in its simplicity and yet enigmatic like the best Greek tragedy.

The novella was first published in 1847 by literary dabbler Prosper Mérimée and reprinted by Hesperus Press in a fresh translation by Andrew Brown, padded out to slim but respectable book length by the addition of Mérimée’s less-known horror story ‘The Venus of Ille’ (which I will touch on in a separate review). It has gained enduring fame through Georges Bizet’s opera, which departs significantly from the original work.

The story centers around two characters: Carmen the gypsy and Don José, a Basque and an Old Christian soldier. José abides by the law when it suits him but although his Basque identity is a source of pride it does not carry with it a strong moral code and his fall from grace is far too swift to blame wholly on a femme fatale as he tries to do. Every bad outcome he lays at the feet of ill luck and Carmen’s influence. I was like a drunk. The grand, gory climax of the opera was portrayed as a crime of passion, masked by the cheering crowds at the nearby bullfight. Prosper Mérimée’s scenario is coldly premeditated, an ultimatum taken deep into an isolated wood. The Carmen of the libretto was a free spirit without any guiding light, seducing and discarding on a whim. Here José remarks: She was lying, sir; she always lied. I don’t know if that girl ever said a single true word in her life; but when she spoke, I believed her; I couldn’t help myself. Yet she tells the truth when she warns José away from her, promising she’s bad luck. Throughout the book Carmen does acknowledge a set of laws that are quite rigid – it is Spain’s bad luck that gypsy codes of honour and conduct directly oppose their own. She says matter-of-factly to José: “By our law I owed you nothing, since you’re a payllo.” [non gypsy]. And in the end she holds fast to that.

One major difference between Mérimée’s tale and modern moral conventions is that Carmen is not done to death by Spanish customs in an abuse of power but by a Basque gone wholly native. “You’re my rom and as such you have the right to kill your romi.” This is the law to which Carmen submits in the end, not of the land she’s made her home but of the people who share her blood. Don José follows those laws to avenge himself on his unfaithful wife and then returns to Spanish law to enact justice on himself – with Carmen buried he has no further need to ignore the morals of his countrymen and goes quietly to the fate she had predicted for him. The jacket copy says this is a tale of “ominous undertones that lurk beneath the facade of civilisation” but civilization, as represented by the Spanish laws and customs of the time, is operating just fine. They used to call them rogues for a reason.

prosper merimee

Mérimée, a smart man.

So here’s Prosper Mérimée, a dabbler in the realm of fiction on the cusp of going on a 20-year hiatus with the form, playing effortlessly with morality, fate, freedom, self-assertion, self-destruction and other high-concept heavyweights and he wasn’t even a particularly good or serious writer. Certainly his most famous work does not put him at the level of a Hugo or a Flaubert. Such was the quality of the nineteenth century education system.

If Carmen and Don José are neither victims nor dashing rebels then their only virtue comes from their shared ability to look death in the eye uncowed. This doesn’t sound like much but if there’s one thing Western Civilization has always admired it’s the ability to die well. Christ and the martyrs, Socrates, Leonidas, Joan of Arc, Thomas More… Famous deaths, famous last words pepper our history books. Holding to one’s principles in the face of death is powerfully engrained in our culture. And so Carmen, defiant to the end, achieves a form of honour by her calm refusal of José. “You’re asking me for the impossible: I don’t love you any more; you still love me, and that’s why you want to kill me. I could easily still lie to you; but I really can’t be bothered. It’s all over between us. You’re my rom and as such you have the right to kill your romi; but Carmen will always be free. Calli she was born, and calli she will die … To love you again is out of the question. As for living with you, I don’t want to.”

And so evil undoes itself. Very philosophical (if evil is by its nature destructive than self-destruction is perhaps inevitable) but also rather pat. Carmen follows her private code to the doors of death and José submits quietly to the very laws he spurned for her sake. It’s all of a sudden neat and tidy, befitting a writer who thought fiction a rather frivolous medium.

But perhaps that’s not really the point. To a more modern pair of eyes than mine Carmen is the stuff of tragedy “where the recognition of otherness fails to lead to liberal acceptance and coexistence, but produces only catastrophe,” as Andrew Brown says in his introduction. After all, José takes on a gypsy life to win Carmen’s love but when he begs for the opposite in return Carmen would rather die. Harsh.

georges bizet

Young Georges

When Georges Bizet (1838-1875) and his librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy adapted the novella they had to simplify things. All of these concepts of personal conviction, identity and order are thrown out lest the audience be confused. José is made more sympathetic by the additions of Michaela, his socially approved sweetheart (if he’d only married her everything would have been alright) and a dying mother whose deathbed he does not forsake. Instead of killing a man in jealousy he is forced to flee when the gypsies intervene on his behalf in a fight with his superior lieutenant. Had a Hollywood writing committee made these calls the result would have been an intellectual debacle and the commercial appeal would have interfered with the film’s artistic credibility. But opera is quite a different beast where the weight lies so heavily with the music that the librettists’ simplifications may even have helped, clearing the board to make way for a purity of tone and emphasis. And all of their little adjustments were otherwise for naught: In 1875 the immorality on display was still seen as utterly shocking and the opera was derided by audience and critics alike.

If you’re in the market for a rendition of the opera you can’t go wrong with that Carmen operaconducted by Thomas Schippers (1930-1977) at the Grand Theatre de Geneve, 1963. Regina Resnik as Carmen, Mario Del Monaco as Don José, Tom Krause as the toreador Escamillo and Joan Sutherland as Michaela (not her most memorable role). Schippers had a keen sense of performance and could summon the maximum level of energy from his orchestra at breakneck tempos without sacrificing clarity, capturing the irrepressible joy inherent to the opera (and which Nietzsche commented on) without losing the menace that underlies it. He presented Carmen as something exciting and alive, not a museum piece. His rendition makes the opera immediate again, without resorting to casting gimmickry or modernism, relying on passion, on love. We can only regret his untimely death, with so many performances still ahead of the man.

Bizet also died too soon, and his was a double tragedy for he passed on shortly after Carmen‘s debut performance, when the world at large dismissed his work and he believed himself a failure. Not only that, his death was also a tragedy for France, as Carmen was poised to revolutionize the medium, breaking with many of the traditional elements of the opera-comique common to the time and paving the way for the verismo style that the Italians would soon get all the credit for. Who knows what Bizet could have written had he lived?

Of course, any opera can have slow parts when you don’t understand the language and Carmen has its share but it also has an abundance of melodicity, panoramic soundscapes and moments of profound tension that cut through the levity of gypsy life, as when Carmen’s famous song of love is followed by the uneasy “Carmen! sur tes pas” which, with its laughter and tragic strings seems to seal her fate in an instant. The one drawback to Schippers’ opera is that the booklet contains only act summaries, not the full libretto, so you’re on your own there.

Carmen is the most famous of the French operas and originated out of a Frenchman’s novella, but the tale is steeped in the unique cultures of Spain. To gain an indication of how the Spanish respond to their neighbour’s creation I watched the flamenco Carmen flamencoproduction of Carmen, performed by the Compania Antonio Gades. Gades (1936-2004) was responsible in the late seventies for the creation of the Spanish National Ballet. His choreography eliminated the signs of tourism and sterility from flamenco, saying in 1984 about his newly created Carmen: “Our dance has strength, it has real life. It is not an academic dance, where what is shown is virtually a study, a technique, some forms… But rather our dance is a vital thing; it is the dance of culture, through which the soul of an entire people is expressed.”

The sets are stripped down, with chairs and mirrors the major props. The women wear long skirts, Carmen (played by Vanesa Vento) a fierce red dress. The men, aside from Escamillo, are in ordinary attire. All that matters is the dance. The flamenco guitarists sit among the gypsies, accompanied by traditional flamenco singers whose harsh voices contrast with the pure tones of the opera numbers included (from the Schippers recording so they obviously agree with my assessment of it). The subject has lost all of its shock value and so sympathy cards can now be dispensed with – no Michaela in sight.

The first dancers we see are expressive; there is overt power in a female flamenco dancer: the passion and emotion juxtaposed by discipline and stamina, the seductiveness of the movements that are yet, by contemporary “standards” poetic and restrained. When Carmen appears her dance is more expressive still, earthy and dangerous. Her competition with a fellow woman in the cigar factory slowly builds up to the sudden strike of a knife, destroying her rival’s face in an instant (she’s not a nice person). Don José attempts to bring her to prison but all too soon his hand on her arm becomes her scarf around his neck and it is she who leads him. The company nails these sequences. They also alter the placement of Carmen’s famous love song to after the fight, changing it from an establishment of Carmen’s character to Carmen rewarding Don José’s fall from grace. No wonder the man would do anything to possess her. She is the ultimate femme fatale.

An interesting addition from Mérimée’s story is the return of Carmen’s gypsy husband and the card game at which José goads him to a fight (here done with canes like murderous Fred Astaires) that ends in the husband’s death and Carmen disgustedly casting aside her ring. There is cruelty to her gesture and to José’s thereafter as he becomes more stiff and sullen, asserting his will over her until the bitter end. Each scene is done with such intensity and such beautiful dancing that there is no fault to find. So it was rather crushing to me that they completely misinterpreted the Toreador song.

The Toreador song is such a splendid example of pageantry and power, explicitly anthemic, masculine and so melodically delightful that I would never have dreamed of seeing it played for laughs. Escamillo does not arrive to the tune of the song here; instead the gypsies stage a mock-bullfight with a fat man for the bull. Far be it from me to defend the practice of bullfighting and perhaps the scene was meant to criticize the blood sport but unfortunately the scene is as tied to the beloved opera song as the nominal subject matter: To deconstruct one is to damage the other.

It is a powerful performance nonetheless, an act of cultural preservation. This is Carmen for Spain, for flamenco and for Gades this was a matter of national pride:

Antonio Gades

Antonio Gades

“We have a set of extraordinary countries within Spain itself, each one with its own marvelous folklore and culture… We have dances that are as rich as the Basque dances, as rich as the Catalonian ones, the Aragonese ones, the Castilian ones, the Galician ones and many more. With a suitable cultural policy, with direction and a scientific flowchart, an endless number of splendid things could be done.” To Gades this was not even patriotism, this was “knowledge.” And it is knowledge that is available to all of us at any moment, one opera, one folk song, one painting, one reprinted book away from a vast cultural inheritance that is ancient and alive.

If I have succeeded in piquing your interest you can watch the complete performance of Gades’ Carmen on YouTube below:

Pulp Stories – Raymond Chandler


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LoA Chandler Vol. 1

Got the generator.

Got the wi-fi.

Now I’ve got the laptop. Time to get back to work.


Raymond Chandler once said of his writing that he “wrote pulp stories with as much care as slick stories. It was very poor pay for the work I put into them.” A sad state of affairs for him, but his integrity paid off in the end, as there is no compromise to be found between Chandler’s status as prime entertainment and as an icon of American literature. Where James M. Cain over-reached himself in Double Indemnity, labouring on the symbols of boat, moon and surrender to fate and shredding what was left of the book’s logic on the altar of French symbolism, Chandler’s conclusions can be poetic and arresting without the least pretense or damage to what came before. He swiftly improved upon the style of Dashiell Hammett and his stories often sport vivid and unusual scenes that keep them from blurring together in the noir mass that even Hammett’s best Continental Op tales fall into. Everyone should read some Raymond Chandler and a collection of his pulp stories is a fine place to start.

There are a number of compendiums to choose from, including the rather ridiculous Vintage split (Trouble is My Business / The Simple Art of Murder – well, it’s hard to make money in publishing, isn’t it?). I got very lucky and acquired a Library of America volume featuring the thirteen pulp stories that Chandler did NOT cannibalize for later use in a Marlowe novel. Later material such as ‘Killer in the Rain’ were not given the greenlight to be republished in Chandler’s lifetime and are chiefly of interest to his scholars anyway. So in this edition readers can watch his style develop from the clumsy action of ‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot’ (1933) to the Saturday Evening Post approved ‘I’ll Be Waiting’ (1939) without any fear of repetition when starting the novels.

The net effect of all these stories: Vibrancy. Skill at setting a scene and sketching a character. Observe Kathy Horne from ‘Goldfish’: She was a tall, seedy, sad-eyed blonde who had once been a policewoman and had lost her job when she married a cheap little check-bouncer named Johnny Horne, to reform him. She hadn’t reformed him, but she was waiting for him to come out so she could try again. In the meantime she ran the cigar counter at the Mansion House, and watched the grifters go by in a haze of nickel cigar smoke. And once in a while lent one of them ten dollars to get out of town. She was just that soft. 

And Chandler is just that good. Past one in the morning, a jazz band blows a ruckus in a motel hallway and the house detective is sent to sort it out… A man steps out of an elevator, gets rammed by a stranger with cocaine in his eyes and finds a blackjacked blonde on the hall floor… A guy waits out the Santa Ana wind in a bar when another man enters looking for a well-dressed girl and gunfire ensues. These are just three of the starting points for Chandler’s rocketships of plot. Are the stories improbable? You bet. This is the writer who, when wired about a minor death in The Big Sleep adaptation, couldn’t even say if the character was murdered or not. Are there too many murders? Guilty as charged. If whatever Marlowe-prototype he’s using rings a bell and there’s no answer it’s a safe bet there’s a body on the other side. It becomes both predictable and ludicrous when murder is the only fix.

His plots are a wild ride up and down and all around 1930s LA but they aren’t meaningful by themselves. For that, the best ones are populated by splendid characters whose fates actually seem to matter – all centered around the Marlowe prototype: the cynical tough guy with a soft streak, riding into battle in aid of some sad-eyed dame who “looked like a nice girl” (or at least didn’t look dead), sidestepping cops and raking through other people’s muck while bodies clutter up the road.

Possible caveats: Meaningless (though by modern standards not gratuitous) violence. Large doses of 30s slang.

And now the rundown, which I will attempt to keep colourful and spoiler-free.

‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot’ is a very bad intro to Chandler’s style. I got about ten pages in before jumping ahead to the much more satisfactory ‘Trouble is My Business.’ Problems include a spoiled screen star who talks like a reject from a Djuna Barnes story (“The people are dissipated without grace, sinful without irony” – well, don’t YOU have problems, lady!), tough guys who call each other “sweetheart” and “baby” and a complicated plot full of doublecrosses between barely established characters. When the bloodbath starts, it is impossible to care and the dialogue lacks zing, though by the conclusion we can see glimpses of the real Chandler’s ironies and elegance even in this apprentice work. When asked to explain how RandomGuy got killed, forgettable Marlowe prototype Mallory pithily summarizes: “He crossed everybody up and then he crossed himself. He played too many parts and got his lines mixed. He was gun-drunk. When he got a rod in his hand he had to shoot somebody. Somebody shot back.” But this only hints at how good he’s gonna get so hang in there.

‘Smart-Aleck Kill’ is already an improvement, putting more emphasis on scenes that shine in or out of context (his specialty) rather than A-to-B-to-C plotting. Scenes here include a shootout with a police squad and a wild and crazy party in the best 20s style, peppered with phrases like a bottle of gin in each hand, slopping liquor out of her glass and shooting craps on the floor. Meanwhile the shootout is like a scene from an old Hollywood movie: the red spotlight with Jean Harlow frozen in the glare, then everyone in the room takes cover and the machine gun lets loose. I should mention that it’s a simple matter to take Chandler’s characters and match them to the Hollywood legends of your choice – part of the fun, as it were.

‘Finger Man’ ditches Mallory (thankfully) and takes up the first person, the plot unfolding far more smoothly as a result. Chandler inserts a black Persian cat – because he can (adorable). The building blocks are all in place at this point and Chandler rises from this capable tale of gambling, a femme fatale and a big politico to become the king of the crime story.

‘Nevada Gas’ offers the first memorable cold open I was talking about. Instead of an expository conversation in an indifferent room we get a politician in a deathtrap car. The gambling hero of the story, De Ruse, has an oft-repeated metallic smile and is so forgettably calm and competent that I had to picture him as James Marsters to feel any interest in his fate. On the other hand Chandler does include a fun set of subversions of the usual device of killing off helpful people.

‘Spanish Blood’ is a complete mess plotwise, involving a thatch of unnecessary murders. Good news is it contains the first of his strangely haunting final scenes, an increase in Chandlerisms (racket beer is “tasteless as a roadhouse blonde”), a tough as nails Spanish detective and an understated and creepy scene at a lakeside cabin: He opened the back door with another key and stepped out on a small porch flush with the ground, near a big pile of cordwood and a double-bitted axe on a chopping block.

Then he saw the flies.

In 1936 Chandler’s first truly brilliant story appeared: ‘Guns at Cyrano’s.’ Perfect atmosphere of pouring rain, boxing matches, a sexy floor show and blackmail but what puts it over the top is that the characters actually matter. The rich hotel owner Ted Malvern and gun-toting tramp Jean Adrian might have more in common than they at first realize. There’s romance and redemption and when the inevitable body appears it has some real impact because Malvern knew the victim and they had some scenes together rather than a cheap introductory hit-and-run. It’s emotionally solid, entertaining and highly accomplished.

So I don’t know how his evolutions in excellence got derailed by ‘Pick-Up on Noon Street.’ Other than ‘Blackmailers’ it is easily the worst story in here. First of all, it’s the only story with a predominately black cast, making it extremely noticeable when he proceeds to kill off said cast with as much gusto and even less logic than The Walking Dead. At its most gratuitous (mild spoilers), the hero Pete Anglich is knocked out and comes to in a room with a prostitute (seen briefly at the start of and only tangentially related to the story at hand) who has been murdered solely to frame him for the crime. Senseless violence, lack of panache, forgettable villains so eager to kill each other you have to wonder what the hero’s even there for and a tediously helpless damsel in place of the usually strong-willed Chandler dame. I don’t know what happened here but it’s a disaster.

Pearls show up and revitalise Chandler’s imagination in ‘Goldfish.’ The fellow from ‘Finger Man’ reappears, now called Carmady and feeling more and more like Marlowe. We shook hands, grinned at each other like a couple of wise boys who know they’re not kidding anybody, but won’t give up trying. There’s some nice contrast between Kathy Horne, a softhearted woman, and cold-blooded killer Carol Donovan – with Mrs. Sype as an unknown quantity showing aspects of both. By this point Chandler had outstripped The Continental Op both in literary style and vividness of character, wrapped up with a particularly eerie denouement – a still tableau of guns facing off surrounded by peaceable goldfish tanks is not something I’ll forget in a hurry.

Then there’s ‘Red Wind,’ 1938 and justifiably lauded as a classic of the genre. From the first paragraph it’s a nonstop treat: There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge. This one represents Chandler’s artistic maturity, sidestepping shootouts and finding suspense in the moment before the gun goes off, when the situation can still be saved. The final scene poetic, elegiac and understated, befitting a classic. Go read it.

‘The King in Yellow’ is comparatively flawed but memorable and bizarre. The king of the title is an arrogant, vile-mannered jazz god with a fondness for yellow pajamas, but it’s also the title given to the classic weird tales of Robert W. Chambers, involving a book called The King in Yellow that brings madness and misfortune to those who read it. This connection is never explained. And then the murders start piling up and they feel targeted in a way that’s more serial killer than gangster cover-up. “Tough on women, these guys,” he muttered. By the big reveal of chapter seven my skin was just crawling and then the villain confrontation happened at night…in a mountain cabin…with red drapes. I was filled with happy Twin Peaks horror but occult criminality has no place in the simple art of murder and just this once I wish Chandler had mixed his genres because he’d have been really good at it.

In his last year of pulp stories, 1939, Chandler concocted a spoof on Golden Age mysteries with ‘Pearls Are a Nuisance.’ There’s a rich old bag, stolen pearls, and an idler who talks “the way Jane Austen writes” reluctantly setting out to find them at his fiancée’s insistence. He teams up with working class Henry and there’s a great deal of odd couple humour, much drinking, another round of bait and switch pearls (Chandler got a ton of creative mileage out of that one) and plenty of fisticuffs with a refreshing lack of corpses. The narrative touch is a delight, lightly cynical and sentimental all at once. In a moment the door opened again and Ellen Macintosh came in. Maybe you don’t like tall girls with honey-colored hair and skin like the first strawberry peach the grocer sneaks out of the box for himself. If you don’t, I’m sorry for you. It’s silly and rather sweet, though I suppose real hard-boiled fans would never admit to liking it. Stereotypes aside, it’s one of my favorites.

As of ‘Trouble is My Business’ we have reached the fully formed, movie-worthy Philip Marlowe, still lingering under the assumed name of John Dalmas. From the very first line, every sentence cuts. If ‘Red Wind’ is the peak of Chandler’s plot mechanics and ‘I’ll Be Waiting’ of his craft, ‘Trouble’ is pound for pound the absolute triumph of his style. See here:

He wouldn’t pull anything crude, but if he pulled at all, something would pop.

I remembered the half-bottle of Scotch I had left and went into executive session with it.

He had the frowsy expression of a veteran cop who hadn’t got very far.

One of those perfumes you don’t notice until they are almost gone, like the last leaf on a tree.

It’s pure pleasure to read and revisit and yet the weird thing is it’s wholly forgettable. ‘Trouble’ was the first story I read but all I really remember of it is Marlowe’s (sorry, Dalmas’s) fantastic narration. The plot and characters stand up well but every interaction is filtered through this voice until he’s really the only thing on the page. The great scenes of earlier works aren’t forthcoming but the most inconsequential moments light up. Not a bad trade-off.

And so to conclude with ‘I’ll be Waiting,’ an elegant finish with the neat, reserved interactions of a one-act play. One o’clock in the morning, house detective Tony Reseck makes his rounds. There’s a redhead curled up in the radio room, a tall dark tough guy with the “trouble boys” on his heels, and Tony’s brother on the street outside with a warning. Later on there’s a phone call. All violence occurs offstage. A brief juncture of life and crime, recognisably Chandler’s world in vignette – a poetic distillation with the coarser elements of comedy, cruelty and cynicism removed. The mechanics of plot-mystery-reveal are done away with. Chandler never wrote another story for the slicks and ‘I’ll Be Waiting’ was the last one he wrote to stand on its own without cannibalizing for inclusion in a Marlowe novel. It can stand as a summation of his early art. He listened. Not to the radio – to far-off, uncertain things, menacing things. And perhaps to just the safe whir of wheels going away into a strange night.

In conclusion this is noir done right. Cherish it.

Raymond Chandler


The Dogs of Riga – Henning Mankell


, , , , , ,,204,203,200_.jpg[Notes on my infrequent posting: I moved in May from a rental to a little cabin off the grid. I have an iphone and very intermittent access to a laptop since my old one finally gave up the ghost during the move. I have much time for reading and writing reviews but more difficulty getting them online so please bear with me until the setup is streamlined. Thank you.]

Once again I have proved myself useless at theme blogging with a 4th of July book review of a Swedish detective novel…

So I read Faceless Killers a year or two back and what I remember most fondly about it was how bog-standard the police work was. There was no eureka moment that cracked the case, just patiently following leads, watching the case get cold and following them again while waiting for new information. The modern mystery, as accredited to Edgar Allan Poe, has always been more in love with bafflement and complexity than with the small wonders of realism and my respect to Henning Mankell for waiving the rules and letting the dying word “foreign” damn well mean “foreign” remained strong in memory long after I forgot how stilted the prose was. I suspect the same will be true of the second Wallander mystery, The Dogs of Riga, although being more outlandish in plot I did enjoy it a little less.

Mankell’s realist intent perfectly matched the contents of Faceless Killers but does a far more erstwhile job of it here. Mankell upped his ambition considerably between the books and as in 1992 the state of the Soviet Union was on everybody’s minds so he wrote about the vestiges of the regime hanging on for grim life in Latvia (Riga being the capital thereof, in case you didn’t know). Inside this book you will be treated to drug trafficking, surveillance, secret meetings, illegal border crossings and all the thrills and paranoia that come with “man on the run” plotlines. This would be great except for the fact that it crushes its hangdog, barely bilingual, “when did my life not suck?” protagonist under the weight of its global concerns.

A mission that simply must be carried out. Wallander tried to decide exactly what Upitis meant by that, but he knew in advance that he was wasting his time. His ability to grasp what was happening in Europe was practically non-existent: political goings-on had never had any place in his police officer’s world. He usually voted when elections came round, but haphazardly, without any committed interest. Changes which had no immediate effect on his own life left him unmoved.

“Chasing after monsters is hardly the kind of thing police officers get up to,” he said tentatively, trying to excuse his ignorance. “I investigate real crimes that have been committed by real people… The Latvian police have asked me to help them to track down Major Liepa’s murderer, primarily by trying to find out if there is any link with the two Latvian citizens whose bodies were washed ashore on the Swedish coast in a life-raft. And now, all of a sudden, you seem to be the ones asking me for help – is that right? If so, it must be possible to put the request more simply, without making long speeches about social problems I can’t understand.”

That quote functions as a handy summation of basic plot. The Dogs of Riga is divided into neat thirds. In the first act, two men tortured, executed and set adrift in a life-raft are discovered and we’re treated to by-the-book police work complicated by leaks to the press and the focus of the foreign ministry. There are aggressive reporters, cautious collaborations with other departments, stunning oversights, local colour and it all works beautifully with Wallander’s own established character. Kurt Wallander is a small-scale detective – dogged on the case, good at delegating and directing subordinates, but nowhere near the mental powerhouse of a Holmes or the physical fury of a Marlowe. He’s average, another way the series to this point has aligned itself with realism. It’s easy to sympathize with him and the multiple threads of the investigation are untangled in interesting ways. So far so good.

But then he gets called out to Riga and the earlier case is dropped as he investigates the murder of Major Liepa, the Latvian police officer sent to collaborate on the Swedish case. Momentum is lost in a sudden haze of secret meetings, dark suspicions and Wallander’s own confusion. It turns out Liepa was investigating corruption in the police force, ending with one of his superiors (gregarious Colonel Putnis or watchful Colonel Murniers?) and the hunt is on for proof. The men in the raft are shoved out of focus as mere preliminaries to the actual plot – if you were successfully invested in the former case this is somewhat irksome. And then the Major’s widow appears and we’re treated to a deluge of mawkish sentimentality:

He could think only of Baiba Liepa.

She was the person he trusted, she was the Major’s angel in a world where all the other angels had fallen.

Looking back, it seemed to Wallander that was the moment when he burnt his boats and began to accept that he was in love with Baiba Liepa. He had realised the love he now felt had its origins in another person’s need of him. He asked himself briefly if he had ever felt anything like it before.

There was a one-sided attraction in Faceless Killers too but I don’t remember it taking up near as much room respective to the plot. Instead of building on what came before this entire middle portion is just more setup, ushering out the previous setting, victims, investigators AND ancillaries; it is as if the first third of the novel were a mere prologue.

After his official visit concludes, Wallander crosses back into Riga illegally to save the widow and the mystery morphs into a thriller. Wallander sneaking around trying to escape detection livens up the stagnating plot even though I had already correctly guessed the culprit Liepa fingered (more on that below the spoiler line). So you sign up for a mystery (maybe with a little noir touch) and suddenly you realise you’re reading a thriller with clear roots in the spy story. It’s a crossover; it’s just a pity there had to be lag time in the middle.

But Mankell refuses to glamorize and the classic spy chase (Buchan-via-Hitchcock) where the hero outmaneuvers the baddies by fast talking and dumb luck is rendered curiously tarnished and impotent. Wallander sneaks into the labyrinthine police archives and has to relieve himself. His love for the widow comes to naught. The cold war is over. The spy novel is dead. In retrospect it’s almost meta, though I don’t think that was intended at the time. But I am prevented from admiring the effect, as I just don’t feel that average Joe Wallander was necessarily the right fit for the story (and the character himself clearly felt the same). Faceless Killers had a perfect tone and here we get a deliberate fish-out-of-water plot that doesn’t really satisfy.

I haven’t talked about the writing because like Faceless Killers I found the delivery very rigid, a bland conveyance of facts that was also repetitive with concern for Baiba Liepa (who was a symbol of Soviet suffering more than a character) and the metaphorical “dogs” on Wallander’s tail. If the Swedish is enlivened by the crackle of idioms, Laurie Thompson does not render any such material for English audiences.

So I was hooked in by the men on display in the life raft but they were a footnote at the end. As The Dogs of Riga heated up as a thriller it became a very lukewarm mystery. I have to get into spoilers to discuss The Dogs of Riga as a mystery (mostly just airing my disgruntlement) so here is a shiny picture of Henning Mankell for a finish:


The big driving question of the book is which of the Colonels should Wallander trust? I made my choice early on and Mankell was no Agatha Christie to make me second-guess myself. The problem is that I chose my suspect about halfway through and Wallander did not cotton to the same man until the facts were spoon-fed to him.  The choices: Putnis, who acts more personable but is skilled at “interrogation” (so he’s a torturer), is shown to have an opulent home (so he’s rich) and dismisses Liepa’s claims as those of an irrational or jealous man (so he’s a liar) vs. Murniers, whom the Latvian underground suspect (so we’re supposed to) and who keeps his cards close to the vest (so he’s a smart guy). This is just not hard to figure out. Then at the end of the story Putnis shows up claiming to be protecting Wallander from Murniers’ men all this time – it’s an obvious ploy! And what does Wallander do? Does he ask questions, stall, recollect any of the paranoia that’s gnawed at him ever since he arrived in Latvia? No, he unquestioningly trusts Putnis, proceeds to spill his guts like a complete maroon and is about to be gunned down like a dog (with the girl on his arm) when he is saved by the timely intervention of Murniers and his men. Finding Liepa’s evidence file in the police archives was admittedly clever of him – handing this trump card over to the first guy who makes nice? not so much. This was disappointing to me because frankly I like investigators to be a little more on the ball and even if Wallander was outgunned and outmaneuvered it would have been nice to see him cotton to the facts before the villain got his filibuster on. I am certain that Wallander should not play cards with anyone.

The Town and the City – Jack Kerouac


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book cover - The Town and the CityThis review was written at the request of Open Road Media, who have just brought The Town and the City to ebook for the first time. Sob story alert: I had never read an ebook before and had no device for it, so used Adobe Digital Editions on my computer. Everything went well for the first 300 or so pages and then it stopped functioning. I suspect this is the fault of Adobe and/or my elderly laptop. The Open Road edition certainly looked nice and was very comfortable to read so those of you who have designated devices or are tech savvy don’t have to worry. Unfortunately, I could find no way of fixing the problem and so this review is incomplete as my reading is incomplete. Please keep that in mind.

Jack Kerouac’s first novel (published in 1950) is a remarkably structured fiction, clocking in around 500 pages. It’s a lazy, nostalgic read, about the Martin family, about a time in America of Sunday drives and happily domestic housewives, when boys played baseball and tinkered with cars. As their lives go downhill Kerouac develops his own style, but the first hundred pages are definitely a slog – not because “all happy families are alike” and therefore boring; rather because Kerouac, apparently trying to emulate Thomas Wolfe, is writing something that feels like a sentimental, well-nigh Victorian family saga, all household angels and innocent babes, without any of the stylistic grace which that older generation had possessed.

When the Martin boys become teenagers things get more like classic Kerouac, though not the part that I enjoy: pretentious, mystical, mournful, dewy-eyed pronouncements on the soul of the restless American youth. [Francis] was a musing, discontented, lonely young reader of books, of which there are so many in America scattered thinly and almost pathetically throughout the towns and cities; easy to hurt, open to abuse and scorn, much too sensitive in a thoughtful formal loneliness to withstand the harsh buffooneries, the horseplay, the animal brutality, the wild carelessness of a savage rhapsodic America in its shouting youthfulness. Francis, the intellectual son, gained my immediate interest but Kerouac doesn’t seem to have treated him with much sympathy and as the novel wears on he becomes a nihilist. Last I read of him he was trying to worm his way out of boot camp – it’s possible that experience changes him but lord knows Kerouac was never big on maturity…

Peter Martin, the strongest stand-in for the author, is a sensitive lad who by sheer force of will makes himself over into a football player and discovers that to triumph was also to wreak havoc. Joe Martin, the oldest and wildest son, becomes a happy truck driver: On downgrades the truck would gain a giant momentum, he would jam in the clutch and let the whole mighty bulk roll in silence, and then at the foot of the upgrade he would again step on the gas and send himself roaring uphill in unbelievable glory. Nevertheless he broods and has secret longings for the sublime like any other man and is soon stealing trucks and hitchhiking across America.

The two youngest boys don’t get as much play. For the older boys Kerouac divvied up his personal traits but he didn’t actually HAVE any brothers after the death of Gerard and such embellishments were not really his forte. As a family saga, there are also more female characters than are average to his books and his treatment of them leaves something to be desired. He addresses them with the same soulful tone, though the focus turns from outward striving to inward peace, in keeping with the idea that women are passive and men act. The mother figure is idealized (a problem Kerouac had in real life), love interests like Patricia have zero motivation for their behaviour and none of the women are as chaotically well-rounded as Mardou Fox from The Subterraneans – though that’s also true of the men. Kerouac simply had skills that did not fit the traditional novelist’s role and there’s a faint discomfort throughout The Town and the City as he makes stuff up and pads things out. If you’ve read any of his later works you can almost feel the tension in these pages. Kerouac was ALWAYS a pretentious writer, but with On the Road he cleared the decks. The structured, over-polished dignity went away, like he stood up and said “screw all that, I want to tell you about Neal Cassady. We’ll call him Dean Moriarty for now. Let’s talk about Dean Moriarty.” It’s refreshingly clear even when all is confusion.

Make no mistake: The Town and the City is a big novel, consciously so. This is the gold and magic of childhood, growing up between the Wars, from the boundless plans for greatness to the sudden gloom of leaving home to the more finalized sadness of finding there is no home to go back to. There are some lovely passages:

After the first months of his freshman year with its dark campus at night when soft golden light shone in library and lecture-room windows, after his wanderings in New York and Philadelphia, he was now returning to something wild and crude, to deep snow and raw gray skies, a flight of dark birds over the pines, to ice-locked brooks and kids skating and shouting in the frosty air, to old woodstoves in saloons and men in boots and jackets, to the New England of towns and woods and snowstorms and deep star-sparkling nights. He realized now with strong conviction that nothing which could be taught him in the university could ever touch the wild joy in his heart, the plain powerful knowledge of things, the boyish glee and wonder he felt now as the train bore him back to the weather and veritable landscape of his soul.

The extolled simplicity of such a worldview contrasts dramatically with his puffed-up declarations on youth in America and is far more believable. Soon enough, the Martin father gets his mid-life crisis going. At fifty he was experiencing that second restlessness of manhood which is just as intense as the first restlessness of youth, just as wild, and open to springtime lurings, and subject to lonely futile whims, as that first urge to burst out of the shell of sameness and loneliness which men always know, but never conquer in peace and patience as women somehow do in time. I find this stuff so much easier to take when he’s tripping over himself to pour all his thoughts onto paper. What the hell did Kerouac know about the souls of middle-aged men or the inner lives of women?

The Town and the City gives me new respect for Kerouac’s later work – he corrected so many problems. Gone are the awkward dialogue tags, much of the verbatim dialogue, and the attempts to be self-consciously “literary.” I never realised before just how good he must have become at self-editing. The Town and the City had 400 pages excised by the editor and it still contains lines like He tiptoed out of the room finally, leaving the woman to her fate, and hurried to a cafeteria where, over a glass of tomato juice that he could not drink, he literally stared into the abyss.

The family’s situation degrades just in time for the U.S. to enter the war and things miraculously improve. The war adds some locomotion to the narrative, the Martins scatter to the four winds and a lightbulb seems to go off in Kerouac’s head and he starts developing a style of his own.

This home stretch of possible excellence I did not get to partake of. Not being very tech-savvy, I could not fix my Adobe problem and since this gets to the heart of why I distrust ebooks in the first place I was unwilling to jump through technological hoops for a wonder of the Renaissance world. Other reviews back me up regarding the final “city” section being more like classic Kerouac and so I conclude for now. IF you’re an ebook pro with a device, check this out. It’s great that it’s available for people with maxed-out shelf space or a preference for Kindles and it is a nice-looking virtual edition.

As for The Town and the City itself, while it gave me new admiration for his later books, I found very little of the Kerouac I enjoy in the pages. My Kerouac is the chronicler of a vanished bohemia and the literary gravedigger of his own life, predicting his downward spiral step for step and it is these traits that so fascinate me that are missing here. If Jack Kerouac is one of your literary lions, if your interest in him is either scholarly or fanboyish, then The Town and the City will be time well spent. The casual and curious among you should most likely stick with On the Road and The Subterraneans.

Jack Kerouac football

Sanditon – Jane Austen


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book cover - AustenTo conclude this mini Austen project with my thoughts on Sanditon, her final work.


Second only to trench poetry, the British stiff upper lip was never given a more exemplary literary showing than Sanditon, a comedy of hypochondria written in the breeziest tone imaginable by a very sick woman with mere months to live. She began it in January 1817, halted in March and died in July of that year; yet it is a far more polished work than The Watsons, an effortless read and a wildly unpredictable departure from what one thinks of as Austenish. Where leaving The Watsons unfinished is a cause for mild regret, Sanditon is a full-bore literary tragedy, plain and simple.

Sanditon’s ostensible protagonist, Miss Charlotte Heywood, is made an offer to stay with family friends in the newly-established seaside town and health resort of Sanditon, quite a change from her life as a genteel farmer’s daughter. Although clever, compassionate and virtuous, Charlotte is a blank slate in the text, effectively there to observe the comic foibles of her new milieu rather than participate. As her stray observations begin to coalesce and situations to arise, it’s likely that she would have begun to interact in a stronger fashion had Austen been able to continue. As it stands, the book belongs to Sanditon before any specific characters.

Seaside resorts were one of the early forms of modern tourism, a marketable mixture of health and leisure that, when combined with the emerging comforts and easy travel of the rail system, really did build whole new towns (and put a new face on former backwaters like Brighton). So Austen’s satire was actually ahead of the curve, as sea-bathing’s popularity didn’t reach its height until the railways were installed in the 1840s.

Austen was not a landscape writer by nature and her Sanditon lacks the astonishing definition of, say, Thomas Hardy’s Casterbridge; her town is explored through the voices of an ensemble cast, a lively chorus that give the town colour and movement. Every character is vividly sketched, and it is sad that we cannot know along what lines they would have developed. The family Charlotte stays with, the Parkers, are given the most focus as a comedic unit. Mr. Parker, family man and Sanditon enthusiast, whose every speech is a brochure and who finds Sanditon hardly less dear – and certainly more engrossing than his wife and children, represents the innocent pleasures and entrapments of forward-thinking modernity. Mr. Parker’s wife is gaily satirized as not of capacity to supply the cooler reflection which her own husband sometimes needed, and so entirely waiting to be guided on every occasion, that whether he were risking his fortune or spraining his ankle, she remained equally useless. She is then basically dismissed from the story.

Mr. Parker’s many siblings are cast in a mostly negative light. Diana and Susan are hypochondriac busybodies tangling the lines of communication as they seek out prospective seagoers, and brother Arthur is caught up in their invalid lifestyle, relishing the comforts of an unsparing fire and regular tea. Some natural delicacy of constitution in fact, with an unfortunate turn for medicine, especially quack medicine, had given them an early tendency at various times, to various disorders; – the rest of their sufferings was from fancy, the love of distinction and the love of the wonderful. – …and there was vanity in all they did, as well as in all they endured.

Sidney, the last of the siblings, makes only the briefest of cameos at the manuscript’s end, but appears to be the sensible and very good-looking one. Was he to have been the hero of the piece? There’s no reason to suppose Austen was done with romance after six and a quarter books on the subject and certainly Sidney makes a more likely match (even knowing nothing about him) than bedridden Arthur or the amoral popinjay Sir Edward.

The Parker family by themselves are great figures of fun with their genial obsessions and misunderstandings, giving the story much comedic zest, though I doubt they could have carried the completed novel on their own. Luckily, rich intrigue (and a little budding suspense) is supplied by a second set of characters that orbit around the twice-widowed Lady Denham – who had many thousands a year to bequeath, and three distinct sets of people to be courted by. The lovely Clara, companion to Lady Denham, is currently wooed and menaced by Sir Edward, another claimant to the fortune who secretly plans to discredit Clara by any means necessary. Sir Edward is a villain but he’s also easily the funniest character in the book. All of his conversation reads like this: ‘[Robert Burns] was all ardour and truth! – His genius and his susceptibilities might lead him into some aberrations – But who is perfect? – It were hyper-criticism, it were pseudo-philosophy to expect from the soul of high-toned genius, the grovellings of a common mind. – The coruscations of talent, elicited by impassioned feeling in the breast of man, are perhaps incompatible with some of the prosaic decencies of life…’ Charlotte, gaining a little personality at this point, is wholly unimpressed. …why he should talk so much nonsense, unless he could do no better, was un-intelligible. The dry humour of this scene is dependent on Austen’s pragmatic narrative voice; without it, this could be the soliloquy of any Oscar Wilde character.

Then there are the latecomers to the plot: the wealthy and affected young ladies newly arrived for their health. One in particular intrigues, the West Indian heiress Miss Lambe, described by Austen as about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, had a maid of her own… This is all we’re given to work with. What was to be her role in the story? Maybe much, maybe little. These dramatic and exotic trappings are worn lightly yet how they entice!

It is not easy to see where Austen was taking this, whether the levity was to be sustained or quietly transformed into a more sobering story. For that matter, would she even have pursued its publication or was she writing it to please and distract herself? My concept of Jane Austen is as a discreet writer yet here the comical pretensions of Sir Edward are seen to mask the sole intent of ruining Clara and he coldly ponders the most efficient way to go about it. Her seduction was quite determined on. Her situation in every way called for it… If she could not be won by affection, he must carry her off. He knew his business. It’s a bit of a stretch to assume Austen was on her way to an Alcott-type thriller, caution thrown to the wind, but it is obvious that the tone speaks more to Lady Susan than to the frigidly dignified Watsons.

On the other hand, since Austen’s working title was The Brothers (Sanditon chosen by her brother as more accurate to the portion we have) it is also possible that all of the above was window-dressing and her plan was to focus upon the lives of men, specifically the vast differences between the generous, overexcited (and reckless?) Mr. Parker, the clever (and perhaps colder?) Sidney and the wholly unmotivated Arthur. The text as it stands also makes heavy use of the industrial revolution as a broader canvas, with consumerism gently ribbed and the story’s overarching tension having nothing to do with the private affairs of its residents and everything to do with the possibility of Sanditon’s success and worry for what should happen if the venture fails. Unless Jane was really on a tear, I suspect a happy ending was in the works but cleverly there are hints scattered throughout the text for both a prosperous bathing resort on the rise and a hubristic speculation that will fail.

As a final note, it is miraculous how a book composed in such tragic circumstances can be so witty, so entirely amusing all the way to the sudden, inevitable silence that leaves you of an instant with a lump in your throat, choked with emotion, wondering at the all too human ability to grieve for a person you never met and at the ability which seems more than human to create, create even as the last window closes.

Jane Austen - Cassandra's Watercolour