20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Tahiti, TBR40, Vintage Digital, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Moon and Sixpence’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 226 pages; 2008.

Somerset Maugham is a consummate storyteller and this novel, which was first published in 1919, is no exception.

The Moon and Sixpence is about a man called Charles Strickland who forsakes everything — including his wife, children and a lucrative job as a stockbroker — in the pursuit of a dream. The rumour mill suggests he left his wife in London for another woman in France, but that is not the case: aged 40, he left her to free up his life to become a painter.

A desire to make art

The story is told through the eyes of an acquaintance, a young writer, who initially meets Strickland through his wife. Over the course of the novel, he gets to know Strickland quite well — and it soon becomes apparent he’s not a particularly nice person. He’s gruff and bad mannered and blunt and cares for nothing except exercising his creative inclinations. He doesn’t even care if his paintings sell. He rarely shows them to people. He simply wants to make art.

There are men whose desire for truth is so great that to attain it they will shatter the very foundation of their world. Of such was Strickland, only beauty with him took the place of truth.

Said to be inspired by the life of French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence explores what it is to eschew material possessions, money, domestic happiness, family and love in pursuit of leading a truly creative life.

The bulk of the book is set in Paris, but the last few chapters are set in Tahiti, where Strickland settles into a relatively comfortable existence with a lover, whom he uses purely to satisfy his sexual urges.

Fame and fortune

Like Gaugin, Strickland’s talent remains largely unappreciated during his lifetime, but in the opening chapter we discover that his work is now highly regarded.  We know his paintings sell for high prices and that many biographies and books have been written about him. The pleasure of the novel is discovering how this came about and the collateral damage that happened along the way.

Written with Maugham’s typical insights into human psychology, in prose that occasionally drips with satire, the story is very much about the artistic life and what it is to refuse to compromise when we strive for a goal bigger than ourselves. It also shows how the sacrifices we make to pursue an obsession can have long-lasting ramifications on the people around us.

But it’s also a rip-roaring story about sex, betrayal, friendship and human behaviour — the good, the bad and the ugly.

This is my 12th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 31st for #TBR40. I bought this one in 2013 not long after I read Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’, a book I loved so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it, because I just didn’t have the words.

1001 books, 20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Ford Madox Ford, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage

‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 256 pages; 1983.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

So begins Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier, which was first published in 1915 and has remained in print ever since. It is said to be based on Ford’s own messy personal life.

Set in the Edwardian era and spanning nine years (1902 to 1914), it explores the complex and intertwined relationships between two wealthy and seemingly perfect couples —  John and Florence Dowell, from the USA, and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, from England — who meet every year at a German spa resort.

The good soldier of the title is Edward Ashburnham, a refined English gentleman, who has a strong public record — “for his good soldiering, for his saving lives at sea, for the excellent landlord he was and the good sportsman” — but, as we come to discover, he isn’t exactly a good husband. He has what we would call a “roving eye”, particularly for much younger women, and over the course of the novel takes several mistresses. He is also involved in various sexual harassment incidents, which are made to go away via blackmail and bribe — such payments threaten Ashburnham’s already dwindling finances.

His wife, well aware of her husband’s shenanigans, turns a blind eye. She’s Catholic, so divorce is impossible, and she loves Edward’s reputation as a fine, upstanding citizen. She takes the best option open to her: she looks after her husband’s welfare and his finances and manages his country home for him so that they can at least keep up appearances without falling into disrepute or impoverishment.

But it’s a thin facade and it soon begins to crack.

An unreliable narrator

The tale is narrated by John Dowell in a kindly, occasionally puzzled, voice, almost as if he can’t believe what has happened to his English friend Ashburnham: he thought he was an upright citizen but now realises he was “morally soft”.

His narrative jumps backward and forwards in time via flashbacks, and as his story unfolds the reader begins to question Dowell’s version of events. He’s an unreliable narrator in the sense that he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue himself and by the end, I wasn’t sure if he had been played by others or done the playing himself.

Initially, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. His young wife Florence has “heart trouble” so he needs to ensure she’s always calm, never panicked, that she has lots of personal space and time to herself. He seems to be consumed with worry about her.  The slightest rise in her heart rate might end in death.

But as his tale proceeds, you realise that the only “heart trouble” Florence has is psychological: she’s having an affair and using her quiet time, in which her bedroom door is always locked, not to quell the beating of her dodgy heart but to have her adulterous way with a married man.

Dowell, who describes himself as a “trained poodle”, is shocked when the affair comes to light, but by then it’s too late to do anything about it: Florence is dead.

A tale of adultery 

As a tale of adulterous love and an exposé on the duplicity of those whose public lives do not match their private personas, The Good Soldier is extraordinarily good.

For a story that is very much about sexual morals, there is little to no sex in it. There’s quite a bit of religion in it, though. There’s a lot about the cultural differences between Americans and Brits (which I enjoyed), and a good smattering of tragedy, including illness, suicide and madness. But it never feels over the top. Madox Ford keeps a tight rein on events and emotions; everything is carefully restrained, so much so I sometimes had to reread passages to ensure I hadn’t missed anything.

It occasionally feels a bit woolly and repetitive, and I found it difficult to truly engage with any of the characters. As much as I liked Dowell’s voice, the rhythm of the sentences and the cool detached nature of the prose, I struggled to like The Good Soldier as a whole. But there’s a lot in this book to discuss — about gender and marriage and love and lust and which characters are true to themselves and which aren’t. It would make a terrific book club read for that reason.

The Good Soldier is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and was adapted for television in 1981.

This is my 11th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 30th for #TBR40. It has been sitting in my TBR for more than a decade, having acquired it via BookMooch when I was an active member in 2005/06.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage, William Maxwell

‘The Château’ by William Maxwell

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 416 pages; 2012.

Do you ever finish reading a book and then feel totally ambivalent about it? When I came to the end of The Château, by William Maxwell, I really didn’t know what to make of it. Did I love it, or did I loathe it? A couple of weeks later and I still don’t quite know how I feel about it.

First published in 1961, The Château was Maxwell’s penultimate novel (he has six to his name, plus a handful of short story collections and books for children).

It’s about a young American couple, Barbara and Harold Rhodes, who go to France on holiday in 1948 as the country is still finding its feet after the Second World War. On the recommendation of a friend, they plan to stay at Château Beaumesnil in Touraine, where they will base themselves for the summer, exploring the local area, heading to Paris and other European cities (Venice, for instance), while bettering their use of the French language.

But after a long, complicated journey to get there, they don’t receive the warm welcome they had expected from the château’s owner, Mme Vienot, who seems a little “off” and neglectful of her hostessing duties towards them. They soon figure out she’s a social climber and a snob. And the other guests staying there are similarly distant and aloof.

Over time, as they settle in and come to terms with French culture, they realise they may have formed the wrong impression about Mme Vienot and her guests. They form friendships and alliances, get invited to parties and people’s homes and catch up with acquaintances in Paris, but the sense of being Other, of always being seen as privileged Americans never quite leaves them.

Not much happens in the novel; it’s not plot-driven but character-driven. It feels a little like a travelogue because it follows the ups and downs of Barbara and Harold’s travels, including their day-to-day encounters with new people, the little cafes and restaurants they visit, the tourist sites they pay homage to, the art and souvenirs they buy and the domestic dramas that ensue, usually involving Mme Vienot or misunderstandings with taxi drivers or officials.

All the while you are privy to their most intimate conversations, their indecisions about whether to stay or go, their confusion over how much to tip people, their inability to complain about service, their puzzlement as to why people they meet along the way do or say the things they do. Anyone who’s ever gone on holiday with a loved one to a foreign country will recognise a lot of those same conversations and experiences.

It’s all beautifully rendered and written in a very subtle, observant way using elegant prose, reminiscent of Richard Yates’ understated style.

But there’s a weird twist at the end. Just when you think the story has finished, Maxwell introduces Part II — entitled Some Explanations — that spans around 50 pages of meta-fiction. In it, he explains some of the unanswered questions that haunt Barbara and Harold’s trip. Why, for instance, did their friend Eugène act so horribly towards them on the train, and why did his wife Alix not say goodbye?

It makes for an interesting change in perspective and serves to highlight that the American couple’s lack of worldly experience and their linguistic and social difficulties meant they often misunderstood what was happening around them. This meant they sometimes jumped to (unfair) conclusions. It’s an interesting exercise in showing how travel can broaden the mindset, but I admit it felt quite odd coming at the end of a rather long novel about characters that — if I’m honest — weren’t especially interesting.

This is my 10th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 29th for #TBR40. I purchased it in the early 2000s in paperback form and, forgetting that I owned a copy, I also bought it on Kindle last year. (Does this happen to anyone else? I seem to buy multiple copies of books because I forget I already own it.)

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, TBR40, Viking, William Trevor

‘Last Stories’ by William Trevor

Fiction – hardcover; Viking; 224 pages; 2018.

Willam Trevor’s Last Stories are literally that: the last short stories he penned before his death in 2016. They were published posthumously as a handsomely bound collection by Viking last year, and have now been reissued as a paperback by Penguin.

As you may know, Trevor is one of my favourite authors and earlier this year I went through a bit of a phase reading his first three novels: The Old Boys (1964), The Boarding House (1965) and The Love Department (1966). But this is my first foray into his short fiction.

10 tales

There are 10 rather exquisite tales in this collection. Most focus on love — particularly love less ordinary — and are written with a deft eye for detail and a storyteller’s regard for the bittersweet and the unexpected.

There’s a watchfulness at work here, because Trevor is focused on the small happenings in people’s lives, but that is not to say these stories, nor the lives depicted within them, are small. Indeed, it’s often the accumulation of small happenings that leads to bigger things — domestic dramas, marriage break-ups, even death.

As ever when it comes to short story collections, I find it difficult to review them because I’m never quite sure what to focus on and what to leave out. Rather than give you a detailed account of every story, let me single out the one I found most memorable.

The paperback edition

It’s the second story, The Crippled Man, which represents William Trevor at his very best.

In roughly 24 pages he lays out a tale that feels quite run-of-the-mill, of a woman living in an isolated farmhouse with her crippled cousin, whom she cooks and cleans for. But by the time you reach the conclusion, you realise that this is no ordinary tale: it’s slightly creepy and malevolent and has a delightful little twist at the end. I immediately wanted to re-read it again to see what I had missed the first time around.

The story goes something like this. The woman, Martina, is having a long-term love affair with the local butcher. One day, when she’s out visiting him, her cousin hires two men — brothers — to paint the house. He thinks the men are Polish, but they’re actually Roma and have never done a job like this before. The immediate assumption the reader makes is that they are up to no good and that they will rip off the crippled man. This is what Martina thinks too. She is angry at her cousin for making this decision without her input.

The men, however, do a rather good job painting the house, but mid-way through the job they are puzzled by a bizarre change in Martina’s behaviour. She stops bringing them their tea at the agreed times of 11am and 3.30pm and often just leaves a tray on the doorstep for them to find. One day the younger brother spots her through the window “crouched over a dressing-table, her head on her arms as if she slept, or wept”.

Later they realise that they have not heard the voice of the crippled man — who has only paid them half the agreed price —  for quite some time and they’re fearful something has happened to him. They are also fearful that they will not be paid the rest of the money owing them when the job is complete.

The clincher at the end — which I won’t reveal here — is akin to a penny dropping in the well, but Trevor writes in such a deeply understated way it comes as quite a shock that such a calmly told tale could deliver such a deliciously dark blow.

If you’ve not read Trevor before and want to get a feel for his style, I’d recommend reading The Piano Teacher’s Pupil, which is in this collection but has also been published in The New Yorker (which is where I read it first). It showcases to perfection the way in which he tends to focus on people’s unexpectedly dark character quirks and highlights how we often fail to confront those who have wronged us because we can’t quite believe their bad behaviour.

This is my 9th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 28th for #TBR40. I treated myself to the hardcover edition for my birthday last year, but that copy is still in London. A few weeks ago I bought it on Kindle — it was the 99p daily deal — so I could read it here in my new home in Fremantle. 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Han Kang, Portobello Books, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Korea, TBR40

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 183 pages; 2015. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Quite frankly, Han Kang’s debut novel, The Vegetarian — which I read for Women in Translation Month is a bonkers story.

The premise goes something like this: a married woman becomes a vegetarian in meat-loving South Korea after she keeps having a freakish dream involving lots of blood. Her family reacts angrily to her decision. At a dinner party, her father tries to ram a piece of meat down her throat. She responds by picking up a fruit knife and slashing her wrist. She goes to the hospital. Later, when she’s discharged, her marriage begins to fall apart. Meanwhile, her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful video artist, develops an unhealthy interest in her body, which is slowly wasting away, and paints flowers all over her naked form. They have sex, get caught by her sister, and then she ends up in a psychiatric ward, where she’s diagnosed with schizophrenia and anorexia, before admitting she really just wants to morph into a tree.

Yes, I told you it was bonkers.

An unsettling metamorphosis

Structured in three parts, it follows Yeong-hye’s metamorphosis from dutiful wife (her husband is arrogant, sexist and sexually abusive) to subversive vegetarian in pursuit of a more “plant-like” existence. We never hear from her directly, because her tale is told from the perspectives of those closest to her: her husband (in part one), her brother-in-law (part two) and her sister (part three).

As the narrative inches forward it becomes increasingly more unsettling and unhinged. Part one is particularly confronting (Yeong-hye’s husband rapes her and treats her abysmally), while part two borders on the pornographic. Part three is a bit more even-keeled, but even so, there are vivid descriptions of unpleasant experiences and medical procedures in a psychiatric facility that are unnerving.

And all this is rendered in cool, detached prose, with an occasional nod to poetic lyricism.

Critically acclaimed

When The Vegetarian was published in 2015 it was greeted with much enthusiastic praise and it won the International Man Booker Prize the following year, but at the risk of sounding churlish, I don’t quite understand the fuss.

It’s certainly original and even though it’s from South Korea, it has that languid, haunting quality that I normally associate with the best fiction from Japan. Similarly, it addresses themes of alienation, misogyny and a refusal to conform to societal conventions, but I found it difficult to engage with any of the characters and the storyline just didn’t hold my interest. Every time I put this book down, I really did not want to pick it up again.

And while I understand the book is saying a lot about the rigid constrictions of South Korean society, about sexual frustration and desire, and the ways in which the female body is used and abused, The Vegetarian — for all its intelligence, ideas and confrontation of taboos — really wasn’t for me.

Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest didn’t much like it either.

This is my 8th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 27th for #TBR40. It has been in my TBR since 2015, having received it unsolicited from the publisher for potential review prior to its official release.