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

The Watsons – Jane Austen


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book cover - AustenContinuing my review of Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon with the middle portion of the collection…

The Watsons

Of the three unpublished works, The Watsons seems the most difficult for the uninitiated to enjoy. Written square in the middle of her career, with its heroine Emma Watson soon to be replaced by Emma Woodhouse, its style, themes and overall layout fall more in line with the typically Austenish compared to the divergent career bookends of Lady Susan‘s 18th Century worldliness and Sanditon’s impressionistic town sketch. To go by most reviews of The Watsons, drawing parallels and hunting for recycled elements from and in other Austen works is the root of this potential novel’s charm, one which I am obviously barred from getting. To me, The Watsons is the weak link in this chain, a promising but unsatisfactory draft that demands a serious intent for study from the reader.

The premise has much potential: Emma Watson comes from a poor family (with three older sisters, all ominously unmarried) but was raised by a wealthy aunt and stands apart in manners and outlook from her more rustic kin. Having suffered the loss of her inheritance before she could ever receive it, Emma has returned to her dying father as one more burden upon him, only to attract the attention of Lord Osborne – the richest man in the province. However, Osborne lacks social grace and Emma does not encourage him: ‘Female economy will do a great deal my Lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one.’ From what Jane Austen told her sister, the greater plot of The Watsons (hopefully to have been given a less quotidian name somewhere down the line) would have involved the family’s increasing financial woes and Emma’s pursuit of a more satisfying match with the pleasant Mr. Howard.

What we have here is the beginning of a very dark storyline, with a family on the verge of losing its patriarch and all of its prospects. The ailing father figure gives clear reason for why Austen would have laid the manuscript aside upon her own father’s demise and this casts a shadow over the book as the Watson girls have nothing to fall back on. The middle sisters Penelope and Margaret have devolved into thoughtless backbiting as they jockey for a man’s eye while eldest Elizabeth has resigned herself to the hope of a practical match. The most effective moment of the piece comes as Elizabeth quietly relates the story of her lost love, heartbreaking both as a ruined romance and as one person’s selfishness ruins the best hopes of the entire family:

…’I was very much attached to a young man of the name of Purvis, a particular friend of Robert’s, who used to be with us a great deal. Everybody thought it would have been a match.’

A sigh accompanied these words, which Emma respected in silence – but her sister after a short pause went on – ‘You will naturally ask why it did not take place, and why he is married to another woman, while I am still single. – But you must ask him – not me – you must ask Penelope. – Yes Emma, Penelope was at the bottom of it all. – She thinks everything fair for a husband; I trusted her, she set him against me, with a view of gaining him herself, and it ended in his discontinuing his visits and soon after marrying somebody else. – Penelope makes light of her conduct, but I think such treachery very bad. It has been the ruin of my happiness.’

Over and over, The Watsons makes it very clear just how dire the life of a poor spinster would be. When Emma rather piously proclaims “We must not all expect to be individually lucky… The luck of one member of a family is luck to all-” she is simply pointing out how tightly networked family life was in that era. One sibling’s good marriage offered a measure of support to everyone connected. In Lady Susan, when the lady in question is out of friends she sails straight for the home of the in-laws and settles in for a long visit. The more marriages, the more siblings, the bigger and more comfortable the net would be for any spinsters, widows, orphans or invalids caught in it. According to Austen’s outline, Emma would have to depend on her brother Robert (an attorney) for a home after her father’s death and judging by his and his wife’s behaviour this would not be a pleasant fate.

This makes me curious about the trajectory of the novel, as it was planned that Lord Osborne would be rejected in his proposal, Emma preferring the pleasant Mr. Howard, an upstanding clergyman whose personality is barely sketched. This is an unfortunate choice for the reader, as Osborne gets some dialogue and development allowing us to feel some interest in his fate but Austen did not get far enough in to leave us a single paragraph focused on Howard. Then there’s the slight moral uneasiness at the thought of Emma turning down the richest man in the province, who we are told wanted neither sense nor a good disposition, when her father is dying, her sisters are unprovided for and although Robert’s making good as an attorney, her other brother is a surgeon (Margaret Drabble says in a footnote: “The social status of the surgeon was then considerably lower than it became in the nineteenth century. It was hardly a profession for a gentleman.”). Emma’s family is at great financial risk and she is gambling with more than just her individual happiness in holding out for a better match. I don’t know to what extent Austen would have made this conflict the crux of the tale, but as she intended for Emma to marry Mr. Howard in the end I assume it would have all worked out for the best.

The working title does imply a strong focus within the family, which could have led to a complicated scenario with the conflict between Emma and the interests of her sisters being mined for some great drama. There are certainly hints of early tension between sheltered, high-minded Emma and the more pragmatic Elizabeth as they discuss prospects, with neither of them being shown entirely in the right:

‘- To be so bent on marriage – to pursue a man merely for the sake of situation – is a sort of thing that shocks me; I cannot understand it. Poverty is a great evil, but to a woman of education and feeling it ought not, it cannot be the greatest. – I would rather be a teacher at a school (and I can think of nothing worse) than marry a man I did not like.’

‘I would rather do anything than be a teacher at a school-‘ said her sister. ‘I have been at school, Emma, and know what a life they lead you; you never have. – I should not like marrying a disagreable man any more than yourself, – but I do not think there are very many disagreable men; – I think I could like any good humoured man with a comfortable income. – I suppose my aunt brought you up to be rather refined.’

Although speculating about the novel’s trajectory is enjoyable, and there are some good scenes throughout, The Watsons lacks style. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Emma’s meeting with the Edwards, a family whose characteristics Austen seems to have only vaguely drawn and whose conversation is therefore rather stiff, needing a burnishing it did not receive and slowing the book’s pace. The fragment ends up feeling a little lopsided, as the characters and situations start to coalesce only for the story to halt. There’s no reason to dwell on this as such imperfections are expected of a roughhewn manuscript, making it all the more miraculous how unaffected Sanditon will prove to be. This does not stop The Watsons from being thought-provoking, but the very seriousness of the issues raised actually makes it the more damaged by its underworked nature and the author’s abandonment. I still enjoyed it in abstract, but I didn’t fly through it as I did Lady Susan and her final work.

Jane Austen

Lady Susan – Jane Austen


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book cover - AustenIt’s an unusual place to start with Jane Austen (1775 – 1817), but you can’t say no to free books, I find. Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon is a compendium of Austen’s major unpublished and unfinished works, discounting her juvenilia. Lady Susan was written when she was near twenty, in the epistolary style favoured by the 18th Century but quickly given up in the next. The Watsons hails from 1804 or so while the family was at Bath and was laid aside when the death of her father robbed her of motivation. Sanditon was written as her own health failed and was never completed. The Penguin omnibus is indispensable for Austen enthusiasts and entertaining enough to form a good introduction for those driven by happenstance or eccentricity to begin here and it also contains a wonderful plethora of engaging footnotes and introductions (critical, social and textual) by Margaret Drabble.

I have written so much on the subject of Sanditon in particular and am intent on posting more regularly so have decided to write about all three works separately.

Lady Susan

Lady Susan has a simple plot: Comely but conniving widow Susan Vernon seeks her latest diversion seducing Reginald, the antagonistic brother of her sister-in-law Catherine while also determining to marry her daughter Frederica off to a rich, gauche young man the latter abhors. She basically invites herself to stay at Churchill with Catherine’s family to pursue these aims, but she must also take care to keep her true nature and prior scandals hidden from this respectable family’s view. Letters are traded among the characters, Susan gloats, the good women wring their hands and then an abrupt upswing concludes the novel with just desserts all around. Jane Austen’s renowned social commentary is in its infancy, as Drabble admits in the first and last footnote for it that “one looks in vain for obscure points of meaning or social detail in Lady Susan. There are none.”

Lady Susan probably dates from 1793-4. A fair copy was made, indicating that Austen liked the result of her early work, but she never made a whisper about publishing it and it was left to her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh to bring it to light in his Memoir, published in 1871. It’s a slight work, 60 pages in the old Penguin edition, a novella by modern standards. Once you sort out who’s who the letters fly back and forth and it’s a breezy read.

Although by far the shallowest of the three little books Lady Susan does have an advantage over the others by possessing a beginning, middle and end. Turns out, to gain full satisfaction from a novel an ending really IS required, experimentalism be damned – although Sanditon and The Watsons will remain in my memory far longer, they live or die based on how much the reader is willing to put into them after the standstill is reached. Lady Susan takes you on a short, charmingly old-fashioned ride at the close of which you dust your hands, pronounce judgement and move on to the next entertainment.

Austen quickly abandoned the epistolary form as her storytelling technique of choice and it’s not hard to see why. The chief pleasures of the form are its found-document facade of reality and the psychological and narrative trickery you can get up to when several people narrate the same events. Austen found it a stilted, artificial convention and the novel comes to a rushed and willfully sarcastic conclusion: This correspondence, by a meeting between some of the parties and a seperation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post Office revenue, be continued longer. Pragmatism and letter-writing are not a good fit.

Making this early work my official introduction to Jane Austen, without any earlier experience of her vaunted genius, I could still see glimmers throughout the work of the foundations of that praise. There’s an observant wit in action here that always strikes sparks. Susan’s blasé quote “where there is a disposition to dislike a motive will never be wanting…” rings of truth. The veiled fascination which Reginald de Courcy attempts to hide from Catherine and which brings him to Churchill to gawk at “the most accomplished coquette in England… – engaging at the same time and in the same house the affections of two men who were neither of them at liberty to bestow them – and all this, without the charm of youth…” becomes a direct foreshadowing of the ease with which Lady Susan seduces him.

Susan herself is a wonderful villain, charming on the surface and acid underneath. Her seductions are practiced not for money but for fun. She sets her sights on Reginald and says with relish “I have made him sensible of my power, and can now enjoy the pleasure of triumphing over a mind prepared to dislike me, and prejudiced against all my past actions.”  Being a melodrama at heart, Lady Susan needs someone to gloat to and so Austen introduces Mrs. Johnson, her dear friend Alicia with whom she plots, schemes and snipes. Yes, it robs Lady Susan of a measure of devious subtlety, as a Susan with no one to play confidant would tax the reader to uncover the disparity between her honeyed missives and the damages being played out in other accounts; still it gives clarity to proceedings and also functions to keep Susan’s sheer villainy grounded. Susan and Alicia’s affection remains steadfast even as her plans fall apart and when she warmly claims that “Our friendship cannot be impaired” it reveals the malicious schoolgirl underneath the ruthless widow. Just enough character-building to keep her from being cartoonish, not enough to wreck her villainous disposition.

It’s impossible to find a review that doesn’t single out Lady Susan as the star, because Austen gives her no competition. You read it for her and it keeps the novel fun. Catherine is not an interesting woman, Reginald is deluded and the desperate Frederica, a natural draw for the reader’s sympathy, is only given a single short letter of self-expression. I am decidedly of Frederica’s party, however, as a promising character given short shrift by her own author. Downtrodden and neglected as she has been her whole life, she nevertheless has the pluck to run away from boarding school (she doesn’t make it far but that’s not her fault) and to take advantage of loopholes in her mother’s orders while knowing the cost these rebellions will have. Susan’s malice, her treatment of her daughter as a dumb animal and a prop in pursuit of fortune, is quite chilling. Although she is an intelligent, independent, and worldy woman she is against Frederica’s receiving any education at all, putting her in school to keep her out of the way and blithely dismissing the subject: “Not that I am an advocate for the prevailing fashion of acquiring a perfect knowledge in all the languages arts and sciences; it is throwing time away; to be mistress of French, Italian, German, music, singing, drawing etc., will gain a woman some applause, but will not add one lover to her list. Grace and manner after all are of the greatest importance. I do not mean therefore that Frederica’s acquirements should be more than superficial, and I flatter myself that she will not remain long enough at school to understand anything thoroughly.”

On the other hand it is said of Frederica that “Though totally without accomplishment, she is by no means so ignorant as one might expect to find her, being fond of books and spending the chief of her time in reading” so she’s the one who gets my vote. Lady Susan, for all her vaunted sophistication, has a rather parochial mind.

What ends up being the least impressive aspect of the work is the ending. Austen’s plot deflates into a lackluster denouement in which Susan’s schemes are foiled by happenstance as things just sort of work out for the best. The conclusion, in which Jane switches to third-person prose with an almost audible sigh of relief, is hasty and more acerbic than the situation called for. One rather suspects that she was just tired of writing letters. Her epistolary fragment Elinor and Marianne dates from the same era as Lady Susan and with the retirement of this style Sense and Sensibility, and Jane Austen as she is known and loved today, was born.

If however, you haven’t read any Austen and come across a reasonably priced edition of Lady Susan, don’t think to yourself “oh what a terrible place to start with Jane Austen,” because it really isn’t. It’s short, entertaining and attractive, well-paced with ups and downs, letters penned in triumph and sorrowfully recanted the next day and if you read it first you can flaunt your iconoclastic reading habits.

Footnote: I have used quotation marks in all excerpts from the text for the sake of clarity, as letter writing is closer to dialogue than to narration. This is obviously not part of the original text.

Jane Austen -

My Year in Books: 2015


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Another year, another booklist. Without further ado, here’s the recap of 2015:

Classic Literature: Finally I made time for some of the big names. This was the year I specifically went out and bought a copy of The Trial (the last time I made such a calculated decision was when I read The Great Gatsby about five years ago). I also read my first Jane Austen, beginning in the most unlikely of places with Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon, only to find it was still good enough to make me hungry for more. And if Hermann Hesse is canon enough to count in this book cover - steppenwolfsection, I finally gave him another chance after the Siddhartha debacle, selecting his most famous work Steppenwolf – a quite brilliant example of the novel of ideas which, for all its frustrations, restored my faith in this particular writer and which I have a strong desire to revisit somewhere down the line.

Literature in General: I made quick work of The Levant Trilogy, cementing Fortunes of War in my personal pantheon of great works. This along with Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque – a terrifically underrated novel – and some little books by Patrick Modiano, means World War Two semi-saturated my spring reading list.

On the lighter side, Iris Murdoch’s crazed gothic burlesque The Unicorn;book cover - unicorn I still can’t decide if it was a big joke on the author’s part or a serious philosophical novel (perhaps it was both). At long last I returned to Jack Kerouac’s confessions with The Subterraneans and got my first introduction to the legendary Roberto Bolaño with the atmospheric crime novel The Skating Rink.

The worst book I read all year was the formally impeccable, taxing, lifeless, long as hell Irish novel Langrishe, Go Down by Aidan Higgins. I am quite serious in saying that reading and reviewing this book left me questioning why I had ever started reading literature in the first place and left me wistfully longing for genre fiction. I had three months of reader’s block afterward that I do not think a coincidence. The effect has thankfully begun to wear off and I am happily embroiled in Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square at the moment.

Modern Literature: Patrick Modiano was my big concession to the cutting edge this year, taking advantage of his sudden proliferation in the bookstores to acquaint myself with Honeymoon and Suspended cover - suspended sentences I also read the literary suicide note Last Words from Montmartre, which NYRB brought out last year and which hit me (and probably everyone else who read it) quite hard – I have a review all written up but have left it alone for the present to better distance myself from the text.

Otherwise, I also read the Slovak novel Ilona: My Life with the Bard, brought to the English market by Calypso Editions and providing some worthy food for thought.

Plays: Last year I read no plays and resolved to do better. I did return to the Greeks this year and read Euripides V off a friend’s bookshelf, containing ‘Electra,’ ‘The Phoenician Women’ and ‘The Bacchae.’ Later I got my first taste of Ibsen, reading An Enemy of the People off another friend’s shelves. More a diatribe than a drama, putting the entire “angry young men” movement to shame but too much of a polemic to leave me hungry for more.

Poetry: Apart from a worthy compendium of Georgian Poetry (translated by Lyn Coffin) I let verse shamefully pass me by.

Non-fiction: I took a break from the Harvard set following a very tedious and quickly aborted revisit of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Instead I read a few history books, selecting 1215: The Year of Magna Carta for the historic anniversary and Maimonides: A Spiritual Biography on the whim of not knowing anything about the man. Both payed off handsomely.

book cover - 1215

Two memoirs were also on the reading list. I was given Without You, There is No Us for Christmas last year and found the original hardcover of An African in Greenland in a box of free books. I also read the Auster – Coetzee letters collected in Here and Now, which left me particularly interested in Coetzee’s work.

Light reading: Let’s see… Crime was represented by Walter Mosley: Known to Evil, a Leonid McGill Mystery with a great cast of characters and a strong undercurrent of violence that rarely broke the surface and was more satisfying for it. Pulp melodrama was explored through the venue of a forgotten James T. Farrell story called Ellen Rogers. Exciting stuff!

Reading the Wiki page on B. Traven left me excited to give The Treasure of the Sierratreasure of the sierra madre Madre a try and in spite of some strong socialist soapboxing I found it mostly delivered. My first crossover into 20th Century horror (not counting Lovecraft) was The Haunting of Hill House, an ambivalent little book with rather awful dialogue and creative use of its haunted house. The good and bad really cancelled each other out in the novel and my response remains mixed.

And lastly, I did read The Little Prince, doubtless the most worthy contender in the “literary fable” genre I’ve yet read (not that that’s the highest praise). Being written for children by a Frenchman probably helped as I was for once thoroughly charmed.


As you can see from the number of links, I didn’t review as many of these as I wanted to and even let this blog go dormant for a few months so that I could recover some enthusiasm and tackle these books fresh (I’m on the Jane Austen review currently). We’ll see how well this strategy worked as Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews heads into the New Year.

The tally of books is slightly confusing due to a higher number of omnibuses than usual that makes me feel I’ve read more than I did (26 volumes but if taken as individual works it rises to 34). My tally from last year was 33, so it’s clear the three month break did not help me in this regard. It is a pity I only posted 12 reviews this year, a much steeper falloff from the 19 I managed in 2014.

However, 2016 is a new page for this blog and so I wish you all a happy new year as I prepare my next reviews.

Cleo de Merode reading

The Trial – Franz Kafka


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The TrialExpectations are almost impossible to avoid where the major classics are concerned. Having heard about The Trial all my adult life and already having seen the Orson Welles film adaptation, I finally went into the 1925 novel (written in 1914-15, my copy Schocken’s Definitive Edition translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir; a really lovely volume with Kafka’s drawings, diary excerpts and all unfinished and deleted work translated by E.M. Butler) with predictions firmly in place. I anticipated the story of Joseph K., accused without having done anything wrong, would follow the struggles of an unassuming everyman heroically defying the faceless state. I also figured that Orson Welles must have inserted a lot of the sexualized female characters because, well, it was the sixties and all. Amazingly (or not; I mean what’s a classic if it can’t surprise you?) I was wrong on both counts.

Welles’ film faithfully recreated all of the strange events in The Trial but reinterpreted their meaning. His vision of Joseph K. was a chaste man, offering only meek response to the femme fatales all around him. Kafka’s Joseph K. is callous and misogynistic, leveraging his plight to gain the sympathy and favors of women and feeling fury when they refuse him. Meeting a married woman seemingly trapped into servicing the court officials his response to her predicament is this charming fantasy: …probably there could be no more fitting revenge on the Examining Magistrate and his henchmen than to wrest this woman from them and take her himself. Then some night the Examining Magistrate, after long and arduous labor on his lying reports about K., might come to the woman’s bed and find it empty. Empty because she had gone off with K., because the woman now standing in the window, that supple, voluptuous warm body under the coarse, heavy, dark dress, belonged to K. and to K. alone.

This remarkably unsympathetic and even odious little man is what gives The Trial its kick. I can’t imagine an American writer of the same period doing this and certainly it’s not what Welles chose to do. He made K. into an unobjectionable hero. The Trial is more of a two-way street requiring re-assessment at every turn. I was often torn by my satisfaction to see this arrogant, bullying functionary get chewed up by the machinery of Law as – in spite of his personal behaviour – it is hard not to admire the man for attempting to defy so loathsome and monstrous an organization. So you see I was pulled scene by scene from one side of the battle to the other and this gave the novel a deep fascination even in the scenes Welles faithfully recreated and whose outcome I already knew.

As the case grinds along without development K.’s responses gradually evolve from aristocratic disdain of the proceedings to obsession and paranoia. Even though he’s never truly arrested or prevented from leading his daily life the trial consumes him and his job at the bank suffers for it. Kafka does a brilliant job depicting this subsequent paranoia in its most insidious, slow-burning form:

Every hour that he spent away from the Bank was a trial to him; true, he was by no means able to make the best use of his office hours as once he had done, he wasted much time in the merest pretense of doing real work, but that only made him worry the more when he was not at his desk. In his mind he saw the Assistant Manager, who had always spied upon him, prowling every now and then into his office, sitting down at his desk, running through his papers, receiving clients who had become almost old friends of K.’s in the course of many years, and luring them away from him, perhaps even discovering mistakes that he had made, for K. now saw himself continuously threatened by mistakes intruding into his work from all sides which he was no longer able to circumvent. Consequently, if he were charged with a mission, however honorable, which involved his leaving the office on business or even taking a short journey – and missions of that kind by some chance had recently come his way fairly often – then he could not help suspecting that there was a plot to get him out of the way while his work was investigated, or at least that he was considered far from indispensable in the office. Most of these missions he could easily have refused. Yet he did not dare do so, since, if there were even the smallest ground for his suspicions, a refusal to go would only have been taken as an admission of fear.

Counteracting such heavy material are subtle moments of humour (naturally, of the dark variety). In particular, the unfinished chapter ‘Conflict with the Assistant Manager’ notably lightens the mood, as does the bushy Nietzschean mustache of the Italian K. is called upon to entertain, which prevents him from lip-reading and was obviously perfumed; one was almost tempted to go close up and have a sniff at it. The black comedy leads to direct switchbacks as in the horrific sequence with the Whipper: upon fleeing the scene of punishment, Joseph K. is left alone with his thoughts and immediately attempts to weasel out of any responsibility to interfere on behalf of the wardens involved, with excuses ranging from the fear of witnesses catching him in such sordid company to blaming one of the warders for screaming – it must have been very painful certainly, but in a crisis one must control oneself. One might think of this as satire until the nightmarish conclusion of the chapter leaves you searching for explanations that will not be found.

The Trial is famous for being unfinished. The chapters come in fragments, an indeterminate amount of time passing between each one but there is a clear Kafka-labelled chapter called ‘The End,’ so although you won’t receive a single answer over the course of The Trial you can rest assured that you aren’t signing up only to be left hanging. What you’ll miss is what would have been the second half of the novel, some of whose ideas are conveyed in the series of unfinished chapters, including K.’s friendship with the prosecutor Hasterer and some information on his mother’s health and whereabouts – small things which would have filled out The Trial and perhaps added cohesion or at least allowed some characters to make more than one appearance in the book.

The question everybody loves to tackle is what The Trial actually means and it is indeed fun to speculate. Some take a literal view and say it’s a prediction of 20th Century totalitarianism and bureaucratic control. Kafka does quite brilliantly convey not only the crushing power of the law machine but also its shambling, rotting insanity where even those who work within it have no idea of the big picture. The system in The Trial is really in its death throes, sucking everything into the Court until it seems all-powerful yet is at the same time monstrously inefficient.

Another alternative is to take The Trial as a parable. None of it is meant to evoke a sustainable structure; it is only a larger version of the scripture told to K. by the prison chaplain. For that matter what is the meaning of the story the chaplain tells and which is K.’s own struggle in miniature? That no one who looks for the Law will find it? That going to the Law seeking Justice is futile? That Law can disrupt, change or even end one’s life but cannot resolve it? You could go on all day with such suppositions and every one of them could fuel ten papers.

The element which I latched onto concerns guilt and its absence. Joseph K. is a man who despises his social inferiors and is even impulsively violent toward them (unfinished chapter ‘Journey to His Mother’ makes this abundantly clear), who seems to maintain no strong affection for his family and is only civil to those he feels can help him with his case. He recruits women as tools and puts all blame on others when his case seems to be going badly. K. never questions his actions or feels any guilt for this behaviour. The novel is third person limited, with every event given from his point of view, including the famous opening line: Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning. It becomes a very unreliable statement when looked at from this angle…

“Crime” and “guilt” are never defined in the course of the story; the accusation against K. is never revealed and this allows them to take a more open-ended and universal meaning than if Kafka had revealed the circumstances. When Leni, his lawyer’s maid and mistress, tells K. that his mistake lies in being too unyielding, she urgently advises him that “you can’t fight against this court, you must confess to guilt.” He rejects the idea: Above all, if he were to achieve anything, it was essential that he should banish from his mind once and for all the idea of possible guilt. There was no such guilt. This legal action was nothing more than a business deal such as he had often concluded to the advantage of the Bank, a deal within which, as always happened, lurked various dangers which must simply be obviated. The right tactics were to avoid letting one’s thoughts stray to one’s own possible shortcomings, and to cling as firmly as one could to the thought of one’s advantage.

This fascinates me. It’s possible the German word “guilt” stands for means something more specific; I have to take the Muir translation on its own at present and it creates a metaphorical atmosphere where Joseph K. is on trial because of his own considerable personal failings. A man who feels no guilt is rather a dangerous person and this interpretation gives The Trial the semblance of a morality play.

Only the semblance, of course. This is all conjecture of the most delightful and exciting sort, as I suspect a re-read in five or ten years would give way to a cascade of new thoughts on the matter. Reading The Trial at long last was a happy experience for me, a thorough surprise that shows how Kafka earned his reputation, and I’m exceedingly glad I made time for it this year. What’s most impressive is how an incomplete work such as this could have become the widely read household name in literature that it is today – “surprise” is definitely the word of choice for The Trial. If you’re avoiding it for any reason, be it hype backlash or imagined redundancy, cease your mistake. It’s a classic for a reason.

Here’s a nice picture of Kafka with a dog.

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson


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The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Classics)

“Luke,” she called, leaning over the banisters. “Doctor.” Her voice was not loud, and she had tried to keep it level, but she heard the doctor’s book drop to the floor and then the pounding of feet as he and Luke ran for the stairs. She watched them, seeing their apprehensive faces, wondering at the uneasiness which lay so close below the surface in all of them, so that each of them seemed always waiting for a cry for help from one of the others; intelligence and understanding are really no protection at all, she thought.

Any haunted house story should feature the haunted house as the main character. You wait with bated breath for the next room revealed, the next move it makes. The people staying in such a place can be sympathetic or not but ideally they should be able to hold their own against the house, retaining concern (if sympathetic) or at least interest. The brightly sketched quartet of guests who make their way to the eponymous locale at the beginning of The Haunting of Hill House seem made to fit the bill, but the interest I felt in their fates was quashed as soon as they opened their mouths.

Dr. John Montague, a researcher of the paranormal cast sadly adrift in the 1950s (far past the heyday of Victorian ghost hunters and spirit mediums) resolves to stake his reputation on investigating the ill-reputed Hill House. Needing assistants for his research, he hires two young women with paranormal incidents in their backgrounds (a seemingly psychic card-reading in the case of bohemian Theodora and a poltergeist incident of falling rocks in the unhappy childhood of Eleanor Vance, our protagonist). Along with Luke Sanderson, the charming but useless young man who stands to inherit Hill House, the group moves in for the summer and choose (in a show of bravado and then as a coping mechanism) to act like carefree schoolchildren on holiday; behaving like overgrown Bobbsey Twins, planning picnics and engaging in wannabe-Wildean banter. Here’s Luke and Theodora playacting (they call Eleanor “Nell”):

“I would like to have been a goatherd, I think.”
“If you were not a bullfighter.”
“If I were not a bullfighter. Nell’s affairs are the talk of the cafes, you will recall.”
“Pan. You should live in a hollow tree, Luke.”
“Nell, you are not listening.”
“I think you frighten her, Luke.”

They talk like that a lot. Even Dr. Montague behaves in this asinine manner (pouting when it turns out Theodora doesn’t know how to play bridge, for example). After the first manifestations he complacently states that “not one of us, even after last night, can say the word ‘ghost’ without a little involuntary smile.” This was the moment where I realized that, horror classic or not, I was incapable of feeling any concern for these nitwits and started rooting for the house. It felt as if Shirley Jackson herself lost her interest in the cast, particularly the males, as soon as they entered Hill House. Luke is introduced feet first as a liar and a thief but nothing further is done with this information and he spends most of his time engaging in stale make-believe with the girls and manning the brandy decanter. Eleanor’s sole conversation with him leaves her bored – …the only man I have ever sat and talked to alone and I am impatient; he is simply not very interesting. Hey, I don’t blame her and I suspect Jackson felt the same. Montague has equally little use outside of the exposition and house tour he provides. As for Theodora, her characterization is patchy and changeable from scene to scene (critics like to read lesbian subtext in the two women’s interactions but I think Eleanor has way better chemistry with Hill House than any of the people staying there).

Eleanor is thus the only one who is reasonably well-developed. As a repressed and troubled woman whose catchphrase could be “my mother…” it’s no surprise that The Haunting of Hill House gets pegged as psychological horror. She’s not too tightly wrapped at the beginning and only gets worse but I wouldn’t agree that she’s an unreliable narrator – she’s in a haunted house that is stated in the first paragraph to be a living organism and repeatedly bends physics when it gets riled; rather than our heroine, the entire story is unreliable. Eleanor is a brittle, self-pitying mess but she really does have nowhere to go and she commands sympathy as Hill House focuses its attention on her and the others respond by turning a blind eye to her increasingly erratic speech and behaviour. They are all strangers to each other and this provides a genuine chill – in such a scenario, this troubled woman is derided and ostracized, looked down upon as an attention-seeker; implicitly seen as the weakest link, she’s offered no real support even from Dr. Montague, who should be taking full responsibility for his assistants. The sense of isolation that is a major part of the atmosphere in The Haunting of Hill House has as much to do with the people in it as its out-of-the-way location.

Still, most of the book’s shivers and fascination are in how Hill House reacts to Eleanor. I’ll spare the specifics of what it does but the house remains noticeably quiet until Eleanor shows it some respect, feebly protesting the uncleared dinner table left for the housekeeper in the morning. That very night comes the first aggressive manifestation. The following morning Montague describes poltergeist phenomena, eliciting a most disconcerting mood swing in Eleanor: Suddenly, without reason, laughter trembled inside Eleanor; she wanted to run to the head of the table and hug the doctor, she wanted to reel, chanting, across the stretches of the lawn, she wanted to sing and to shout and to fling her arms and move in great emphatic, possessing circles around the rooms of Hill House; I am here, I am here, she thought. She shut her eyes quickly in delight and then said demurely to the doctor, “And what do we do today?” Hill House is quick to respond…

This is what caught my interest, as Eleanor’s view of the house changes from loathing and fear to a rhapsodic sense of freedom and unity with it. Since the story wasn’t scaring me anyway I took this more mystical interpretation and rolled with it, though I’m sure Jackson intended Hill House to be an evil thing and the ending horrific (which it absolutely would be in real life). I feel a bit guilty about this but what else could I do? The dialogue is atrocious, the major characters underdeveloped, the minor ones completely stock (like the standard-issue horror-movie housekeeper and Eleanor’s petit bourgeois cliché of a sister) and Jackson killed what was left of her spooky atmosphere with the late addition of the “comic” character Mrs. Montague. She strides through the pages like one of Bertie Wooster’s fire-breathing aunts, being deeply offensive and belittling to everyone she sees and – despite being ready-made for some satisfying karmic retribution – she gets away without even a word against her. There’s nothing funny about her inclusion and she completely changes the tone of the novel just as Hill House prepares its most sinister onslaught.

The Haunting of Hill House was published in 1959 and I am perhaps being too hard on it. The characters get in the way but most of the supernatural occurrences are subtly drawn and memorable acts of the imagination. No gruesome manifestations are to be found and the housekeeper’s introductory speech is the only bit that verges on cartoonish. The actual horror elements have not dated. They didn’t “scare” me but I found myself pleasantly creeped out at times (to say nothing of the last 15 pages, which finally drop the quaint conversation charade and are unquestionably the strongest and most intense portion of The Haunting of Hill House).

Looking at reviews, it’s clear I’m the odd one out. Most people respond to the writing, the scares, the characters. I was remarkably unmoved by the entire thing. Perhaps I just don’t play ball when it comes to horror fiction – after all, my main points of comparison while reading were with two unusual short stories: Felisberto Hernández’ ‘The Balcony’ and Franz Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis.’ Make of that what you will and seek this out if you think it’ll have a better effect on you than it did on me.

Shirley Jackson

Langrishe, Go Down – Aidan Higgins


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Langrishe, Go DownLangrishe, Go Down was published back in 1966 and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (a prestigious award by any measure, I’d think). With this debut, Aidan Higgins (born in 1927) became one of Ireland’s writer’s writers and – for me – a particularly challenging read. The book ostensibly follows the surviving Langrishe sisters, three old maids living alone in Springfield House, their family’s decayed Irish estate, but it rather quickly loses that focus and becomes something of a prose-poem with beautiful descriptions of Ireland and a long-winded story of a love affair that I found hard to sit through.

For me the strongest writing comes during the plotless opening salvo that follows Helen, eldest and emptiest of the Langrishe daughters: I have never known the love of the body or of the heart. People think that I am bored with them but that in fact is not so. I come empty-handed to them and go empty-handed away. Senseless to lament what cannot be changed; but there you are – one does. It is Helen who is the strongest character. She knows the history of the Langrishes and Springfield House and she of all the sisters tries to manage realistically. Yet she doesn’t recognise a former servant come across in a churchyard and silently pleads to escape him: Will you let me go? Will you let me be? We are paupers like the rest of you, except we live in a big house and enjoy credit. But we can’t pay our bills any more. There’s nothing to eat in the place except a few maggoty snipe hanging up in the larder. For all the eating we do, we might just as well not eat at all. Porridge and tea, tea and porridge. Heavy old stirabout that lies heavy on the stomach all day. Will you let me go?

These 80 pages stand almost on their own, unfurling haunting emptiness in page after page of desolate beauty: December snow breaks the windows of the greenhouse. Rot undermines the exposed roof supports and half of it falls in upon what has already perished there – tomatoes that nobody wants, a lone tea-rose, Belgium vine. The leaves of the chestnut tree dry up and fall in groups and singly. All that seasonal decay and dying fall to the ground, deprived of summer’s light and heat. The leaves cover the wrinkled conkers, soon to be obliterated. And so all goes away. The field-hands share the gabardine suits between them. Lily is cheated in a scheme for marketing Bramley seedlings. Winter invades the garden and the orchard, coming down from the freezing sky and up from the ground, to lay all in waste before it. Gaunt and famished like a wolf the neglected Alsatian Oscar starves in the backyard ash-pit.

Once this early segment is concluded and it proceeds backward in time to 1932, Langrishe, Go Down loses a great deal of forward momentum as Higgins devotes an extensive amount of the book to youngest sister Imogen and her short, stormy relationship with Otto Beck, who first roused and then snuffed her spirit. It is unfortunate that Higgins does very little to convey the affair, devoting himself instead to more and more elliptical scenes from their time together. Brief snippets of conversation, arguments unmoored from context and little faded glimpses of “passion” make up the bulk of the affair as he paints it.

By no coincidence for a book of this vintage, Otto Beck is a German; an esoteric intellectual wildman, poaching, tree-climbing and taking advantage, plundering the estate without conscience. Imogen sees in him a pagan figure: His restless eyes devour me. Mine meet them, and I flinch away. He has a small flat head and a fox’s face. One thinks of sharp teeth and a lolling red tongue; his expression never changes. He runs his tongue over his dry lips like a fox cleaning its chops. His small-boned body and animal nature suit that first image of him I carried away as a silly girl; a still face staring from among the leaves. Not stepping on a twig, alert, ready to pounce; the fire is burning in him, – lust and cruelty too. He seemed an outlandish, a legendary figure, that face among the leaves… Though Otto holds to no “worse” an ideology than egregious self-centeredness, in his actions he is always at the kill – whether fishing or ferreting, shooting pigeons or eradicating insects.

The age gap between Imogen and Otto is a scant four years (he’s 45 to her 49) but with no inheritance to speak of and nary a fling to her name, she’s long been an old maid and acts it. Imogen is a pallid individual, simpering and weak yet prideful. Her relationship with Otto devolves into petty insults and distrust and she listens in on gossip dismayed that she might be the subject. It’s a fact, people can never get enough of what’s bad for them... When her confessor convinces her to renounce Otto we are told this estrangement lasted perhaps a fortnight. Afterwards Otto sneers about “Irish piety.” Attempts on Higgins’ part to show Imogen as a passionate individual of some kind (running starkers through the night and such) do not convince and she actually comes across as a less developed (and certainly less intriguing) character than Helen in spite of being the ostensible protagonist. Otto is more charismatic but he’s kept at something of a distance.

Unfortunately, Imogen and Otto are the only characters even depicted for the majority of the novel, with scarcely a hint of the outside community and even less of her sisters. This may function as a demonstration of insularity and isolation but it is wearying and a little frustrating if you thought you’d signed up to read about the downfall of the Langrishes. That happened long before the book begins and the reason is never clearly stated. Why fail? Otto said. I don’t understand it. You have seventy-four rich acres of land, ten of that in tillage. You had a herd of cattle once, a supply of eggs, pullets, a vegetable garden, a fruit garden, an orchard. You did not live riotously; so why had it to fail?

So, if the protagonist and her lover are not interesting enough to keep the pages turning, what steps into the spotlight? Higgins’ elegant, lilting-Irish landscape painting. His is a wonderful example of fine prose, from rolling depictions of the pastoral seasons to richly detailed imagery of decay (not as imaginative as would come from the pen of Djuna Barnes or John Hawkes, but gorgeous as demonstrated). Eventually the narrative breaks down into isolated paragraphs, prose-poem impressions capturing like scattered memories their daily life. This further damages the narrative flow and character development but enhances the bucolic impressions:

Swallows dipping, catching flies. Sandmartins clinging to the sides of the bank opposite. Pitted with their nests. Riddled. Continually on the go. Swifts scouting over the shadowed river, touching the surface of the water with their wings. Smell of the river. The sound of it passing. Peaceful river. Purling. Water purls. A river purls. Kingfishers (a touch of brilliance) fly upstream with undeviating straightness. Waterhens jerking across the current. Their cries. River flags the trout swim along.

As Langrishe, Go Down concludes I am left to struggle between admiration and weariness. The unstoppable modernist language, freely experimenting with literary styles, is a gift. There is a transporting power to the prose and while the obscure allusions aristocratically bestowed upon an unworthy and ignorant audience are a challenge (unless you’re a German-language literary scholar or something), they are not what bog the writing down. The kernel of the story is sad and haunting but Higgins has no storytelling technique. His writing is exquisite but sensory in all it conveys. It only really works when describing the minutiae of existence, rather than the mechanics of a plot. Had he completely abandoned the alleged story of a love affair and just continued to follow Helen through her sad daily movements I would be more pleased. For something this rich with detail to feel so meager is a pity. Researching his later works, it appears Higgins swiftly turned to writing stream-of-consciousness impressions full-time and I am not surprised. It might be a better display of his talents, in any case – though sad to say I’m not especially curious to find out.

Aidan Higgins

The Subterraneans – Jack Kerouac


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The Subterraneans (Grove Press)According to sources, Jack Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans in three days and three nights (benzedrine was possibly involved). Putting aside the obvious need for editing, this move on Kerouac’s part proves beyond doubt that despite what his detractors say he was a genuinely gifted writer – whether you consider the result an unholy mess or the opposite, it is quite readable for a 72 hour writing blitzkrieg. The prose habitually fractures – soaring rhapsodically for a longer or shorter time, coming apart in midair and finding new footing for a relaunch to do it all again. I can only describe this as “live” prose, a staged performance far outdoing On the Road as Kerouac unloads everything in a bid to prove that spontaneous prose is a real, viable and artistically pure form.

Like all of Kerouac’s work, The Subterraneans (his third novel, published in 1958) is based on his own life and times. A quick character conversion chart is needed for full understanding: he thinly disguises himself as Leo Percepiad, Allen Ginsburg as Adam Moorad, Gregory Corso as Yuri Gligoric, William S. Burroughs as Frank Carmody and Lucien Carr as Sam Vedder. There are cameos by stars-on-the-rise William Gaddis and Gore Vidal (called Harold Sand and Arial Lavalina, respectively) and in the starring role, Alene Lee as Mardou Fox – the mentally unstable hipster girl, half African-American, half Cherokee, whom Kerouac shacks up with and soon dumps. He regrets it too late and, life sliding down the drain, sits down to write this book, making his addition to the large canon of “literary exorcism.”


Here’s Alene Lee sharing a human moment with W.S. Burroughs. Photo by Allen Ginsburg.

Kerouac was, even as Beats go, an extremely pretentious writer. His San Francisco is “gray” and “tragic” and his writer friends are inevitably compared to great poets and the angels: Julien Alexander the Christlike unshaved thin youthful quiet strange almost as you or as Adam might say apocalyptic angel or saint of the subterraneans… It’s flashy and ridiculous yet strangely endearing, even attractive. Such words were a part of the lingo (“beat” was linked to beatification, after all) so all the while Kerouac over-uses “Christlike” as an adjective to the point of silliness it doesn’t really dent the romanticism of the Beat Generation.

The Subterraneans makes for a different impression than On the Road, written in a different style (think of it as portrait opposed to panorama). His scattered snapshots of the San Francisco underground are dizzy and inconclusive, leaving the reader hungry for more. It is the subtext of On the Road that comes to the foreground here: as all the friends Kerouac had at the start of On the Road didn’t want to hang with him at the end of it – four road trips in four years later Kerouac was still acting like an irresponsible man-child while others were starting families and holding down jobs. It was pretty clear to me as I read how Kerouac’s story would end and The Subterraneans functions as a commendably honest sequel, as he sets down an account of his growing problems as a self-described drunken maniac. Perhaps this is a poor place to get introduced to Kerouac but it is a necessary chapter for those interested in the man’s life story.

But enough about him for now. The Subterraneans is just as much about Mardou Fox, a gentle, confused soul with at least one major breakdown in her past. She wants to settle down with Leo Percepiad and work on their relationship. He doesn’t. And in those days her love meaning no more to me than that I had a nice convenient dog chasing after me… Sad for him but good for her when she finally gives up and decides to be independent, no longer the little woman waiting at home all hours of the night fulfilling his real secretive Mexican vision of her following me down dark dobe streets of slums of Mexico City not walking with me but following, like Indian woman… Leo makes little to no effort at supportive behaviour and struggles with his basic prejudices and expectations of a woman’s role unsuccessfully. There’s no future for Mardou with him and when she finally blows him off it gives her a chance at a happy ending. Leo is left alone with his book of self-recrimination – deep in the dark pit of night under the stars of the world you are lost, poor, no one cares, and now you threw away a little woman’s love because you wanted another drink with a rowdy fiend from the other side of your insanity.

The Subterraneans focuses not, as you might expect, on the anatomy of a break-up – rather, Kerouac makes a mental mapping of all the thoughts and erroneous conclusions that led Percepiad to blow his chances until there were none left. His tone is also remarkably free from any accusatory bitterness; even when describing the things which Mardou did to irritate him he heckles himself for being an unreasonable man: she was sloppy (always putting off everything till tomorrow, the dirty room unwashed sheets–what do I really for Christ’s sake care about sheets). Everything bouncing through his head, the good times and bad all thrown together madly scrambled between a formal beginning and end. He lays everything out: the complex poison of insecurity and egotism that he struggles with, the tenderness he feels towards Mardou and the unexpected moments of intimacy forging what feels like a real connection between them. Kerouac doesn’t stop there, depicting both his callous disinterest in Mardou and the paranoid jealousy he could feel, spurred on by nothing more than a bad dream and a lot of booze. In this way, Kerouac’s time with her is displayed as mania both in his descriptions and his prose. It’s impossible to sort out what happened when. What it offers is a dynamic glimpse inside Kerouac’s head, one filled with much ominous foreshadowing of his end:

…realizing it’s all myself, a big subjective phantasy that my mother really needs me and would die if I weren’t around… … …saying to myself “If you keep on drinking like that you’ll die…” Sadly, he did not listen to his own warnings, becoming demoralized, giving up on life and drinking himself to death in 1969. He was 47.

Yet this book also shows (better than On the Road) how much Kerouac needed to write and why always about himself: It was on a morning when I slept at Adam’s that I saw her again, I was going to rise, do some typing and coffee drinking in the kitchen all day since at that time work, work was my dominant thought, not love–not the pain which impels me to write this even while I don’t want to, the pain which won’t be eased by the writing of this but heightened, but which will be redeemed, and if only it were a dignified pain and could be placed somewhere other than this black gutter of shame and loss and noisemaking folly in the night and poor sweat on my brow… Writing redeemed Kerouac, perhaps as a confession or an attempt to find some scrap of absolution, and all his bad decisions became grist for the mill producing a stack of novels. He was a devout Catholic and seeker of spiritual truths, after all. But even in this most personal belief of his, it is the sympathetic Mardou who points out the bitterness of the deal. Discussing Baudelaire, her comment could as well have extended to her sad typewriting lover. “I would have preferred the happy man to the unhappy poems he’s left us.”

Jack Kerouac