Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Michelle de Kretser, Publisher, Setting

‘Scary Monsters’ by Michelle de Kretser + Perth Festival session

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 320 pages; 2021.

Australian writer Michelle de Kretser’s latest title, Scary Monsters, is an intriguing object. It is a book of two halves and boasts two front covers — a luscious-looking cherry on one side and a pretty cherry tree in bloom on the other — and the reader gets to choose which story to start with first.

One story is set in the past — France in 1981 — and the other is set in the near future in an alternative Australian reality.

It’s not obvious how the stories are linked other than both riff on the idea of immigration and what it is to be a South Asian immigrant in Australian society.

I opted to start with the Australian section (with the cherry tree on the cover), rather than reading the book in chronological order.

Lyle’s story

Lyle is an Asian migrant desperate to fit into Australian society and to espouse “Australian values” wherever he can.

People like us will never be invisible, so we have to make a stupendous effort to fit in.

He works for a sinister Government department, is married to an ambitious woman called Chanel, and has two children, Sydney and Mel. His outspoken elderly mother, Ivy, also lives with them.

In this near-future, the country is ruled by an extreme right-wing government, Islam is banned and if migrants, or their Australian-born children, step out of line they can be sent back to where they came from.

Australian values are all about rampant consumerism, being obsessive about real estate and pursuing individualism at any cost. It is late capitalism at its very worst, but there are strong echoes of contemporary Australian life to make the reader sit up and take notice.

There is nothing subtle about this story. It’s a black comedy about ethics, morality, racism and ageism, and I may possibly have underlined at least one paragraph that resonated on every page.

“Australians are never satisfied with what they’ve got. They — we — always want more. We aim for the highest, we strive. It’s called aspiration.”
“It used to be called greed.”

Lili’s story

Lili is a young academic who migrated to Australia from south-east Asia with her family as a teenager. Now she’s moved to the south of France to take up a teaching position.

She rents a top floor flat and is creeped out by the tenant who lives below her because he wants an intimate relationship with her, but she’s not interested.

In the local town square, she watches North African immigrants being rounded up by the gendarmes. On one occasion she is also asked to prove her identity because as a person of colour in a predominately white society she’s also singled out as foreign.

This story is more subtle and nuanced than Lyle’s and examines the idea of what it is to be a “new Australian” living in Europe when your face does not match the idea of what an Australian should look like.

All his life, Derek had believed one thing about Australians, and now people like me were showing up and taking that belief apart.

As well as racism, it also explores misogyny and the difficulties young women can face when living alone.

But it ends on a hopeful note, with the election of François Mitterand on 10 May 1981, a left-wing politician at a time when the world was dominated by right-wing conservative governments.

Uneven novel

As a whole, I found Scary Monsters uneven because the two different sections are just so different in tone and style. Perhaps the only thing they have in common is that they are both written in the first person in warm, intimate voices.

And while they explore similar themes, they do it in radically different ways: Lyle’s story is essentially speculative fiction told with biting wit, while Lili’s is more akin to literary fiction and hugely reminiscent of de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2013.

Which story you start with may sway your overall feeling toward the novel.

Opinions online have been polarised, as reviews by Lisa of ANZLitLovers and Brona of Brona’s Books demonstrate.

The novel has been published in the UK and US but with a radically different cover design.


Session at the Perth Festival “Writers Weekend”, 26-27 February 2022

I bought my ticket to see Michelle de Kretser at the Perth Festival when we all thought the Western Australian border was going to come down on February 5, allowing writers from the rest of Australia to attend. A few days later Premier Mark McGowan announced the re-opening would be delayed and suddenly the festival’s lineup of writers from the eastern states was in jeopardy.

But organisers did an amazing job to ensure those writers could still appear, albeit via livestream. Ticketholders were offered refunds on this basis, but I figured it was still worth attending, and so this morning I rocked up to the beautiful setting of Fremantle Arts Centre, a mere two-minute stroll from my apartment, to attend Michelle de Kretser’s event.

The 11.30am session undercover on the South Lawn was hosted by ABC Radio National broadcaster Kirsti Melville, who sat alone on stage while de Kretser appeared on a giant cinema screen behind her.

I’m not going to report on everything that de Kretser said, but here are some of the more interesting points she mentioned:

  • She wanted to set Lyle’s story in the very near future rather than the distant future to make it more recognisable for readers.
  • She described it as a “black comedy verging on the grotesque” and that Lyle was “the perfect mediocre Australian man”, which elicited many laughs.
  • Asked whether it was fun to write, she responded: “It was fun.” A beat later, she added: “And it was dreadful.”
  • She set Lili’s story in 1981 and in France because she, herself, had lived there at that time and so was familiar with the region and its politics. She liked the idea of ending the story with Mitterand’s election win because it felt like a “resurgence of hope”.
  • That era was also plagued by violence against women, specifically, the Yorkshire Ripper, which is why she explored Lili’s safety fears and the ways in which misogyny impacts women’s everyday lives.
  • She wanted to write about the migrant experience, but not in a standard way because she felt she had done that before. And she wanted to change the representation of Australians in Europe, which are usually white.
  • The book’s upside down, flip-it-over style format is deliberate. It’s supposed to be a metaphor for what happens when people migrate: their lives are thrown upside down and it can take a long time to feel settled. She wanted the reader to experience that feeling.
  • She highlighted the definition of the word “monster” as something that “deviates from the norm”, which is what happens to your life when you migrate.
  • Writing the stories in the first person was something new for her as a writer — normally she only uses the third person. She has been slightly wary of it because “if your character is female, it’s immediately assumed it’s autobiographical”. She started writing the book in the third person but it wasn’t working for her.
  • Another challenge was ensuring that Lyle’s voice was interesting because he was a deliberately bland character trying to become invisible and this is partly why she uses satire to enliven his voice. She used “the language of advertising”, such as brand names for people’s names, to add humour and colour.
  • Ageism is an issue that troubles her, which is why she explored this topic through the character of Ivy. “Old women are the least valued members of society,” she said.
  • She believes the aged care sector in Australia has been dire throughout this entire century, not just during the pandemic, and she was angry that the Federal Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services Richard Colbeck was still in a job after everything that has happened in this sector during the pandemic, calling it disgraceful and shameful. She said this government’s contempt for the old was shocking.
  • She is not currently working on a new novel, describing this as her precious “fallow time”.

ABOUT PERTH FESTIVAL
Founded in 1953 by The University of Western Australia, Perth Festival is the longest-running international arts festival in Australia and Western Australia’s premier cultural event. The Festival has developed a worldwide reputation for excellence in its international program, the presentation of new works and the highest quality artistic experiences for its audience. For almost 70 years, the Festival has welcomed to Perth some of the world’s greatest living artists and now connects with hundreds of thousands of people each year.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Germany, Picador, Publisher, Ralf Rothmann, Setting, war

‘To Die in Spring’ by Ralf Rothmann (translated by Shaun Whiteside)

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 208 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside.

Ralf Rothmann’s To Die in Spring tells the tale of two 17-year-old boys enlisted to fight for Germany at the tail end of the Second World War.

Reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic Great War novel All Quiet on the Western Front (first published in 1929), it’s a story that highlights the futility of war — from a German perspective.

Senseless bloodshed

Walter ‘Ata’ Urban and Friedrich ‘Fiete’ Caroli are dairy hands forced to “volunteer” in the Waffen-SS, the military branch of the Nazi Party’s Schutzstaffel (SS) organisation. It’s 1945 and the war is entering its final stages. Both are reluctant to join. Fiete knows it is all a con:

They didn’t drag us across the whole of the Reich just so that we can peel potatoes behind the front. We’re fresh fodder, and we’ll be fed to the enemy.

After minimal training, the two are split up fairly early: Fiete goes to the front, where he is injured almost immediately, while Walter becomes a driver for a supply unit.

The story is told in the third person but largely from Walter’s perspective. While his role does not involve direct combat, what he witnesses on the road is no less gruesome or confronting — from the field hospital tents, where he could “hear groaning and screaming from behind the tarpaulins” to seeing partisans being tortured by his superiors who laugh while they do it.

Somewhere along the line, he hears that his father, a camp guard at Dachau, has been deployed to the front as a form of punishment because “he gave some cigs away to camp prisoners”. Later, he learns that he has died, and while father and son were not close — “Well, he wasn’t exactly a role model. He drank and hit me and felt up my sister” — Walter feels obliged to find his grave to pay his respects.

He is given a few days’ leave and the loan of a motorbike to carry out his search, which plunges him closer and closer to the front and where, by a great stroke of luck, he comes across his friend Fiete again. But the reunion is a tragic one.

A beautiful and powerful read

To Die in Spring is a gripping read about innocent farm boys having to grow up very quickly in a war that is not of their own making. Or as Fiete tells Walter:

Christ, what am I doing here? I mean, if I had voted for Hitler, like most of them… But I wanted nothing to do with this mess, any more than you did. I have no enemies, at least none that want to kill me. This is a war for cynics, who don’t believe in anything but might makes right… when in fact they’re only mediocrities and weaklings, I found that out in the field. Kick downwards, bow and scrape upwards, and massacre women and children.

It’s poignant and heartbreaking, full of vivid descriptions, whether of peaceful wintry landscapes or bawdy pubs and dancehalls, but its true power lies in the way it depicts a generation raised by men — damaged by a previous war — who are forced to repeat history.

For the contemporary reader, aware of the very many atrocities carried out by the Nazis, To Die in Spring does not overlook the barbarity of those men, nor does it wallow in self-pity or guilt. It simply offers up a haunting, searing — and compassionate — story, and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

I read this for German Literature Month hosted by Lizzy and Caroline. The book is short enough to also qualify for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. This is what you call killing two birds with one stone!

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Penguin, Philippe Besson, Publisher, Setting

‘Lie With Me’ by Philippe Besson

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 148 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Molly Ringwald.

The passion that can’t be talked about, that has to be concealed, gives way to the terrible question: if it isn’t talked about, how can one know that it really exists?

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson is a bittersweet novella about first love between two teenage boys in rural France in the 1980s.

Their affair, kept hidden because of the shame surrounding homosexuality at the time, begins in winter but is over by the summer. During those few intense months, their love is passionate but furtive. For both boys, it is a sexual awakening that has long-lasting repercussions on how they live the rest of their lives.

A story in three parts

The story is divided into three parts — 1984, 2007 and 2016 — each of which is narrated by Philippe, a famous writer, who fell in love with a boy at his small French high school when he was 17 years old.

In the first section, he details the affair he had with Thomas Andrieu, whom he had admired from afar for quite some time before Thomas, who was a year older than him, issued a surprise invitation.

In the second, more than 20 years after their affair ends, Philippe runs into Thomas’s doppelganger — only to discover that the good looking young man is, in fact, Thomas’s son, Lucas.

In the third and desperately sad final part, Lucas gets in touch with Philippe to impart some news about his father.

An old story told in a new way

Of course, we have read this kind of story about forbidden love before. Perhaps what makes this novella different (aside from the fact it has been translated by Hollywood actress Molly Ringwald) is that it reveals what happens when people are not allowed to be their authentic selves.

In the aftermath of the affair between two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, we come to understand how their sexual orientation shapes the rest of their lives: one man embraces his homosexuality and is comfortable in his own skin, while the other gets married and tries to be someone he is not — with tragic consequences.

The novella is written in a deeply melancholic style and is completely free of sentiment. The prose is sensual, tender and filled with longing.

This feeling of love, it transports me, it makes me happy. At the same time, it consumes me and makes me miserable, the way all impossible loves are miserable.

Emotional detachment

But as much as I admired the beautiful writing, I found it hard to connect with the protagonists, not because I didn’t understand nor empathise with their predicament, but because the narrator’s voice is so cool and aloof I felt one step removed from the story. And yet, this is a terribly sad tale about thwarted opportunity, lost love and the inability to live an authentic life. It should have wrecked me; instead I felt emotionally detached.

Several reviews I have read have drawn comparisons with André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name. I have not read that book but I have seen the film adaptation, which is so beautiful and EMOTIONAL and absolutely DEVASTATING that I bawled like a baby at the end. It’s kind of how I thought this one would affect me, but it didn’t.

That said, Lie With Me has been adorned with praise (including from Aciman himself) and been a bestseller in France. It won the prestigious Maison de la Presse Prize in 2017 when it was first published.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Lock Elliott: Australian classic about a gay man hiding his real self from the world in the 1930s and 40s when homosexuality was illegal.

‘The Last Fine Summer’ by John MacKenna: A heart-rending Irish novel about a newly widowed school teacher recalling his love affair with a man 10 years earlier.

Author, Book review, Conor O'Callaghan, Doubleday Ireland, Fiction, France, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘We Are Not in the World’ by Conor O’Callaghan

Fiction – paperback; Doubleday Ireland; 260 pages; 2020.

We Are Not in the World by Conor O’Callaghan is a haunting, heartbreaking novel about an Irishman trying to come to terms with two major events in his life: the breakdown of a six-year affair with a married woman and the hospitalisation of his beloved young adult daughter who has tried to take her own life.

Two storylines

The narrative is comprised of two threads: the man’s road journey through France as a novice truck driver delivering unspecified goods for a mysterious man named Carl; and the tale of his illicit affair, told in reverse chronological order from break-up to initial meeting.

The first thread is told in the first person; the second in the second person.

It’s set in August 2015, before the Brexit referendum, in which “the whole landscape of continental haulage could change indefinitely and not for any good.” Refugees, fleeing war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, are on the news, and when Paddy arrives in Calais from Dover, it’s hard to ignore their inpoverished presence, in the “jungle” and on the streets around town.

The road is lined with wire fencing, fingers pushed through, faces pressed against. Behind them, waves of tents and shacks. The fence is staring at us. And we’re trying not to make eye contact, with the fence. A truck with an Irish reg gets pulled out of the contraflow. Live bodies, one by one, are prised from its chassis.

Clandestine daughter

Accompanying him on this journey is his 20-something American-raised daughter, Kitty, who, as it turns out, is making the trip as a “clandestine” — Paddy is not supposed to have passengers on board — and spends most of her time hidden in the sleeping alcove behind the driver’s seat. Paddy deliberately times their rest stops and overnight stays at unsociable hours to avoid other truck drivers, including the aforementioned Carl, making the same journey and spotting Kitty.

Their time together, whether in the truck’s cabin or sharing a meal in roadside cafes, is conveyed largely through Roddy-Doyle-esque dialogue:

This, she says staring straight ahead.
This?
These more like.
I’m gonna need a few specifics, darling, please.
There you go again.
These what are a bit what?
Carparks, she says.
Ah.
They’re a bit samey.
She is: bored in her reclined passenger seat, in shades and King of the Road cap, rambling aimlessly. I am: about to go indoors to check that it’s safe for her to join me, working overtime to humour her along, inclined to lose track of days that we’ve been here.
They are, I suppose.
They are, aren’t they?
They are.
It’s not just me, she says.
Not just you, love.
Same nothing spaces, she says. Same caffs, same staff, same drab grub. Same sun even, same dome of unblemished friggin azure over our heads.

As the journey unfolds, we learn more about Paddy’s tormented past, his childhood with his beloved mother, also called Kitty, and the strained relationship with his younger brother, Art, who is the “golden child” and executor of their mother’s will in which he is the major beneficiary.

Art also has a very close relationship with his niece, who is also his godchild, and it’s hard not to see that perhaps he has been more of a father figure to her than her own father and this is why this particular road trip, spending time together, is so important to Paddy: he needs to repair their fractured relationship.

We also learn the details of Paddy’s affair, the strange time he spent living in a snow-bound caravan in his lover’s back garden, and the forbidden trysts in stairwells, public toilets and other daring locations.

There’s an achingly sad side trip to Camargue to try to locate a house where Paddy’s mother stayed as a young girl, and another confronting scene in which Paddy is expected to partake in what appears to be a “gang bang” in a wood involving lots of other truck drivers. (He declines.)

An opaque but unforgettable story

Much of the story is opaque and occasionally confusing. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether references to Kitty are to Kitty the daughter or Kitty the mother. I suspect this is deliberate.

And just like O’Callaghan’s wonderful debut novel, Nothing on Earth, which I read a few years ago, the story is infused with a strange, almost elusive, sense of foreboding. It feels both sinister and enigmatic at the same time.

It’s the kind of novel that is hard work, for you have to piece together bits of information in your own head and come to your own conclusions about what is really going on, but it is entirely worth the effort. (We never find out what Paddy is transporting, for instance, and why Carl encourages him to rig the tachometer readings because he appears to otherwise observe all the haulier rules about driving limits and rest times.)

The ending, when it comes, is like a sucker punch to the stomach. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished this book a few days ago. Combined with the unsettling nature of the story, the beautiful language and the difficult subjects tackled, including familial and forbidden relationships, We Are Not in the World is a truly indelible read.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ by David Park: The story of a photographer from Northern Ireland driving across a snowbound England to rescue his ill son stranded in his student lodgings.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, France, Maclehose Press, Pierre Lemaitre, Publisher, Setting

‘Blood Wedding’ by Pierre Lemaitre

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 312 pages; 2016. Translated from the French by Frank Wynne.

I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk lately with way too many books on the go and none of them really hitting the spot, as it were. And then I picked up Pierre Lemaitre’s Blood Wedding and — cliché alert — I COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN.

Set in Paris, France, the story focuses on Sophie, a nanny, who wakes up one morning to discover the little boy in her care is dead, a shoelace from her own boot around his neck. Having no memory of the night before but knowing she will be accused of the murder, she withdraws all her savings and decides to flee the city. Not everything goes to plan, and before she’s even had time to book a train ticket she commits another horrendous crime that serves to make her situation even worse.

Running from one calamity to the next and frightened that she will be arrested, Sophie makes a series of blunders that threaten to expose her. It becomes clear that she is deeply troubled. She’s mentally unhinged, often blacks out and, as a consequence, has giant holes in her memory. Her problems seem to stem from the death of her husband in a terrible road traffic accident several years earlier. Since then, everything has spiralled out of control.

Now, convinced that the only way to hide from the authorities is to assume a new identity, she sets into motion a plan to find a rich man to marry and take care of her. But the person she marries isn’t who she thinks he is and this fast-paced octane-fuelled novel switches into an even higher gear.

Lemaitre then does something superbly clever — and unexpected. He tells the story from a different point of view so that we see Sophie in a whole new light.

Someone watching over you

Frantz is a voyeur who has been keeping an eye on Sophie for quite a long time. He stalks her and knows her every movement and records it in a diary, but Sophie has no idea she is being watched in this way. It makes for an insidiously creepy read, but it’s also highly intriguing. Who is Frantz? Why is he so obsessed with Sophie? What does he know about her husband’s death? And will he sabotage Sophie’s plan to assume a new identity?

Both storylines come together neatly at the end, but there’s nothing predictable about the plot. I have a lifetime of reading experience in this genre but even I couldn’t guess what would happen — or how. It felt like such a rare treat to be so absorbed by a suspense novel in this way.  (Indeed, it turns out Lemaitre is an award-winning writer — his first novel to be translated into English, Alex, won the CWA International Dagger for best translated crime in 2013 and in the same year he also won France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for The Great Swindle.)

In this book, nothing is as it seems. Just when you think you have a handle on what is going on, the author throws in a new piece of information that turns everything on its head. It is pointless to second guess. And that’s the beauty of this compelling suspense novel.

Blood Wedding really does quicken the pulse. Its intricate plot twists and turns its way towards a satisfying could-never-see-it-coming conclusion. I loved being held in its thrall for two days and missed it when it was over. It got me out of a reading slump, and has me inching to read more by this talented French author.

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, James Salter, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘A Sport and a Pastime’ by James Salter

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 192 pages; 2007.

James Salter is one of those authors I had only ever heard good things about, so when I found A Sport and a Pastime in my local second-hand store (I live a few doors down from Elizabeth’s Bookshop in Fremantle), I couldn’t resist buying it.

First published in 1967, it tells the story of a love affair between an American college dropout and a French shop girl, who go on a road trip across France in the late 1960s. Their liaison, steamy and sordid, is imagined by an unnamed narrator, another American, who spies them from afar and lets his creative juices get the better of him.

It’s a rather strange and beguiling novel, and not quite what I expected. It feels voyeuristic in places, misogynistic in others. Mainly it feels like a writer being a little self-indulgent as he lets his own sexual fantasies dominate the storyline.

But the writing, clear and lucid and full of heartache and a deep sense of longing,  is reminiscent of so many American writers of the era. I’m thinking Richard Yates, William Maxwell and William Styron. It’s a style I admire a lot.

Throughout this short novel, Salter is very good at capturing moods and heightened emotions, of the conversations, pithy and of little consequence, between people, but he really excels at conveying the beauty and history of the landscapes and villages of rural France. A Sport and a Pastime could very well double as a tourism advertisement for the French Tourism Board. Take this as an example:

The blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky, The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners. The uneven curbstones, their edges worn away. A town of doctors, all with large houses. Cousson, Proby, Gilot. Even the streets are named for them. Passageways through the Roman wall. The Porte de Breuil, its iron railings sunk into the stone like climbers’ spikes. The women come up the steep grade out of breath, their lungs creaking. A town still rich with bicycles. In the mornings they flow softly past. In the streets there’s the smell of bread.

Personally, I admit that I didn’t care much for the storyline, but the luminous prose made up for it. There were many turns of phrase that took my breath away — the line above about the streets smelling of bread is but one example; “over France, a great summer rain, battering the trees, making the foliage ring like tin” is but another — and I felt I was in the hands of an accomplished writer, one who had honed his craft and understood the power of words to enchant and hold the reader captive.

Perhaps A Sport and a Pastime, with its over-emphasis on eroticism and its blurring of the lines between the body and the soul, was not the place to start with Salter. It probably didn’t help that the entire book felt too similar to William Maxwell’s The Château, also written in the 1960s, which I read earlier in the year and found a bit tiresome.

That said, it has certainly made me intrigued enough to read more of his work. If you can recommend any titles, please do leave a comment in the box below.

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, England, Fiction, France, John Lanchester, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40

‘The Debt to Pleasure’ by John Lanchester

Fiction – paperback; Picador Classics; 232 pages; 2015.

John Lanchester’s debut novel, The Debt to Pleasure, is a subversive black comedy about a narcissistic food snob who has a well-disguised penchant for murder.

The tale is narrated by Tarquin Winot stream-of-consciousness style in a voice that is both pompous and eccentric. He begins by stating “this is not a conventional cookbook” and then explains it was written while on a short holiday travelling “southwards through France, which is, as the reader will learn, my spiritual (and for a portion of the year, actual) homeland”. (For the rest of the year he lives in Norfolk.)

This lends the narrative a “serendipitous, ambulatory and yet progressive structure” as his wanderings are accompanied by his highbrow thoughts on food philosophy, provenance and gastronomy — or, as he describes it later, “gastro-historico-pyscho-autobiographico-antropico-philosophic lubrications”.

These, in turn, are intertwined with his own personal history, the second — and more popular (as we are constantly told) — son of wealthy parents (a successful businessman and a former stage actress), educated at home via a succession of private tutors (because his nature was judged “too fine grained and sensitive” to weather boarding school) and effectively raised by a kindly Irish nanny, called Mary T, whom he adored but then inexplicably seemed to frame for a personal theft.

Menus for all seasons

Structured around a series of seasonal menus — for winter, spring, summer and autumn — replete with recipes, it’s easy to feel that Tarquin’s thoughts on everything from what makes a good blini to the secret of a great croque monsieur (a “dab of mustard” apparently) are essentially harmless (and occasionally soporific), without quite realising he’s making a series of rather sinister confessions involving  family members and various servants.

His seemingly innocuous ramblings are dotted with laugh-out-loud funny lines and humorous asides, such as this sentence from a recipe for fish stew:

[…] then add six pints of what in England would be chlorinated former effluent (also known as ‘water’) and boil furiously.

And this introduction to his chapter titled “An Aïoli”:

‘It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking.’ Thus X. Marcel Boulestin, a hero of Anglo-French culinary interaction, inexplicably omitted from ‘Larousse Gastronomique’. And which of us has not felt the truth of Boulestin’s words as we arrive in that land whose very name seems to betoken and evoke a widening of life’s sensuous possibilities, the addition of an extra few notes at either end of one’s emotional keyboard, a set of new stops on the church organ of the psyche, an expansion of every cell of one’s sensory paraphernalia, a new rapprochement between body, mind and spirit, that land which is also an idea, a medium, a mêtier, a programme, an education, a philosophy, a cuisine, a word: Provence. (On rereading that sentence I discover that, grammatically, it requires a question mark which I am, however, reluctant to supply.)

Along with his constant “mansplaining” and penchant for overly verbose sentences and often ludicrous word choices (see quote above), Tarquin’s narrative is riddled with petty jealousies mostly revolving around his older brother, a successful sculptor, whom he managed to cheat out of an inheritance. And we soon learn that the real reason for Tarquin’s holiday is not to soak up some French provincial sun, but to track down his brother’s biographer so that he can, well, let’s just say ensure that she doesn’t uncover, in the course of her research, anything that she shouldn’t…

Admittedly, I found Tarquin’s voice a little overbearing and far too conceited and arch for my liking (I could only read it in small doses), but that’s the point of the book: you’re not supposed to like this character and you’re certainly not supposed to like his deeds.

But this was a fun read — and to use a deliberately chosen pun — a rather delicious one at that!

The Debt to Pleasure won John Lanchester the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1996 and it was reissued as part of the Picador Classic imprint in 2015.

If you liked this, you might also like:

The Cook by Wayne Macauley: A deliciously dark and subversive tale about a 17-year-old young offender who becomes a trainee chef under the tutelage of a Gordon Ramsay-like figure, before branching out into his own (deadly) business as a personal chef for a rich woman and her family.

This is my 7th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 26th for #TBR40. I purchased it in 2015 when it was re-issued as part of the Picador Classic imprint. I attended an event at Foyles celebrating the launch of that imprint where Lanchester discussed this book, alongside John Banville whose novel The Book of Evidence was also re-issued as part of the series. Banville also wrote the introduction to Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. Lanchester kindly signed his copy for me.