The One from the Pacifist in Exile

Erich Maria Remarque, Eight Stories: Tales of War and Loss (Washington Mews Books 2018; original 1930-1934) 

Of course I knew Erich Maria Remarque. Everyone in middle school and again in high school has 20C history class and you can’t avoid reading a few pages of his bestseller about the First World War: All Quiet on the Western Front. And so I did like millions of French teenagers, and I did not feel the need to read the whole book, because I got the idea. And so is Remarque’s name forever associated with the trenches, the gas attacks, the murderous deadlock between several nations at war for years on end.

Of course I guessed that these short stories were about the First World War, from a pacifist standpoint, and after reading a few of them I came to expect these vignettes of soldiers who had survived the war itself but still lived with the fallout. Wasted lives, missed opportunities, physical trauma, emotional trauma, isolation, loss of family and friends, loss of jobs and status. None really stood out, but the collection painted a rather complete landscape of the defeat’s aftermath. Except for one disturbing point: people didn’t seem angry or vengeful. Not the kind of anger and hatred that would explain how people came to see Hitler as the one man who could give the country its honor back.

I was grateful to read the invaluable introduction to the book by Maria Tatar and Larry Wolff, that was probably the most memorable part of the book. These eight stories’ publication spanned originally from 1930 to 1934 in American magazines, and I must say that this lone fact was highly disturbing to me. Remarque left Germany in 1933, just a day before Hitler was named chancellor. He went first to Switzerland, then to the US in 1939 right before the war broke out. So it’s weird (let’s put it mildly) that none of these were mentioned in any of the stories. As if Nazi violent ideology was not born out of the previous war’s defeat and resentment. As if Remarque could detach his present circumstances from the past.

I don’t quite understand what his intent was. Was he a blind pacifist? He wasn’t so blind as to remain in Germany, at any rate. His books were banned and tossed into bonfires. Did he think that the US readers were not ready for a more contemporary rereading of the previous war? Was he worried that people forget the previous war? Was he just cashing in on his bestseller, that was made into a movie in Hollywood in 1930, or did he think that American readers needed to be reminded that Germans were victims too? The collection doesn’t answer any of these questions, but it was intriguing to read and wonder.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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The One with the Cute Scott before Culloden

Diana Gabaldon, Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander #2, 1992)

This is my winter’s small guilty pleasure, but in fact I’m not even feeling guilty and with 743 pages it’s not small by any standards!

After I’d finished Outlander #1 I knew that sooner or later I would be returning for a second helping, the day I needed a comfort read of the escapist kind. I had a sort of reading slump (and a cold) and I took this opportunity. They’re back: Claire Randall and James Fraser, and this time no Frank Randall but Claire’s daughter Brianna. The year is 1968, oops, no, wait, 1744, well, you know what I mean…

It’s bewildering how easily I have come to accept this sci-fi / time-travel / historical romance that would have made my eyes roll a few years ago if I had only heard of the premises. I am impressed how Gabaldon can pull it off and make it somehow plausible, but make no mistake : Claire’s research for Jamie’s grave and Brianna’s doubts aside, I don’t really care for the contemporary story line, I only waited for the 18C epic story to start again. I love how Gabaldon mixes real historical facts with her fictional characters and details about random period stuff (medical plants? check. merchant navy? check. French royal court manners? check. Potato farming? check. When I told you these were detailed and random…).

The only thing is that I knew too little about the real facts to make sense of the political intrigue of the big part when Claire and Jamie are in Paris to try to convince Bonnie Prince Charlie not to start the war that would end up in disaster at Culloden. This part would qualify as dragging if the plot didn’t have twists and turns every five minutes or so, and if the writing didn’t flow so easily.

The first volume was definitely better and more tightly pulled together, but I will probably continue the series one day when looking for an escapist read. At the same time, I guess that with every further volume the rationalization of this whole sci-fi / time-travel / historical romance will become harder and harder to justify, so I’m not too sure if I should persist. Any advice?

 

The One with the Boring Bureaucrat

Seicho Matsumoto, A Quiet Place (1971)

Oh, I totally get the appeal, and I think you might too: the case of the ordinary guy. The case where some nobody gets mixed up with something bigger and more exciting or dangerous than his usual routine and how he gets out of his depth and rises to the occasion (or not). After all, this is the basis for so many mysteries and thrillers.

But the thing is that it’s truly hard to make a novel exciting if your main character is dull by essence. Like, a banal civil servant working at the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture. I don’t know anything about the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, but apparently these guys have (or used to have, this being published in the 1970s) a whole lot of meetings and a whole lot of business trips, with speeches and applauses and dinners and geisha involved (this being Japan, I guess it’s to be expected). Also, a whole lot of brown-nosing to step up the corporate ladder, which is not only limited to Japan and to the 1970s, sadly.

Tsuneo Asai is a tough main character to love. It’s hard to empathize with someone who is so deeply into his professional career at the ministry of whatever. I’m sorry he doesn’t come from money, I’m sorry he hasn’t the right connections and the right diplomas, but I don’t really care. Still, he’s a bit obsessive, and he has put in the necessary hours, and has studied hard until he has achieved this expert reputation in his field. Well, good for him, but not good for the book. The main character is plodding, and at some point the pace of the novel threatens to be plodding too.

The point where we start to care is when it becomes obvious, early on, that his career is much more important to him than his wife. He’s a callous husband, a cold guy. He has married because he needs someone at home to take care of him and because of social conventions. But he sure doesn’t love his wife. So when he gets the news, while in business trip, that his wife died from her well-known heart weakness, he doesn’t bowl over with grief. If anything, he seems numb, cancels the rest of his trip after lots of apologizing to his boss, and goes through the motions of funeral arrangements.

Then things veer off his routine, because he can’t shake the idea that there’s no good reason why his wife died where she did, in a beauty shop in a neighborhood far from their home. The rest of the novel is his obsession to get to the truth, whatever the cost. Not even because he respects truth out of principles (he can lie his way to a promotion), but because he’s a relentless bureaucrat and bureaucrats don’t leave stones unturned. Of course, there’s more to it. Of course his wife was not just what he thought she was. Where will it stop? Everything is in his head, and not much in his heart, until he loses his bearings.

It is a very curious and interesting mystery. I could compare it, in opposite terms, to Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s Blank Wall. An ordinary housewife gets embroiled with something dark and dangerous, clearly out of her depth. Where Asai reacts with his cold logic, Lucia reacted with warm gut feelings. But both stories are outside of the genre conventions, and make me want to find more about their authors.

The One with the Sad Husbands

Raymond Carver, Short Cuts (1993)

I’ll assume that you have read some Carver stories and that you know how well written they are. Not one word is misplaced, not one is too much, and the atmosphere is set in a few sentences that are enough to build a whole world.

But oh my, what a world. I have read Carver before and he’s a master, but the experience of reading Carver is a post- #metoo world is that you cannot avoid noticing what a harsh this world is for women (a blue-collar world of the 1960s or 1970s?), how much abuse they get, how little consideration they get from their husbands and other men, how they’re supposed to stay quiet and follow the men’s orders. Many stories’ characters are husband and wife, ignoring each other, misunderstanding each other, cheating and lying when they are not hiding even darker secrets or suspecting their significant other of it, and there is a deep pessimism about marriage in general.

One could argue that the men don’t get a better treatment and that Carver’s pessimism is about life in general, not just marriage. He exposes people’s empty lives and dirty little secrets with a cold irony (at most), and he leaves the judgment to us readers. Beneath the simple surface emotional (or real) violence is lurking.

I know that these 9 stories have been made into a choral movie by Robert Altman but I haven’t watched it, and most probably won’t, as I enjoyed each of these perfect little, sad bubbles on their own, and I don’t want to have artificial, random links built between them. I’ll surely read some more Carver, but I guess I need a pink and sweet palate cleanser before the next collection.

Parallel Reading: Girls at the brink of the 1970s

Don’t think that I’m doing a catch-all post to quickly get rid of reviews that are long overdue… On the contrary, writing a post for each book would be easier for me, while trying to link books together is a bit of a challenge, to be honest. But that’s in that spirit that I read them, so here is my experience of parallel reading.

To start, even though it’s harder for me to report, the reading experience is so, so fun! I love when books talk to each other. Over the last 3 months I read 3 books that clearly had a lot of common ground: “America”, by Joan Didion, is a French collection of 11 essays taken from several of her best-known collections: “The White Album” (1979), “Slouching towards Bethlehem” (1968) and “After Henry” (1992). The second book was Emma Cline’s “The Girls”, an oblique retelling of the Manson murders, but also a coming of age story of a 14-year-old angsty girl in 1969 California. The third book, “Mercy, Mary, Patty” by Lola Lafon is a French take on the Patty Hearst kidnapping, told obliquely by a French young woman in the present day and a young girl with her American teacher at the time of the trial.

The first obvious parallel is the end of 1960s and 1970s, when the summer of love has turned sour, when drugs and violence have taken the high ground over idealism and peace and love. I haven’t witnessed it first hand, but I was born at the end of the 1970s when the mood was dark and hopeless and I have never fully understood what was in the air to shift so much from the hopeful days of the 1960s.

The second obvious parallel is young women and girls, as main characters written by female authors. None of these female voices in the three books are exactly likeable. They’re angsty, a bit whiny, both entitled and so unsure of themselves. Violaine in “Mercy Mary Patty” is the pet student of an American exchange teacher in high-school, she’s been chosen to help the teacher with the Hearst material to prepare for trial. She’s highly persuadable and in awe of these exotic characters (both Patty Hearst and the teacher), highly out-of-place in small town 1970s France. Evie Boyd in “The Girls” is lonely and lost, also in awe of Suzanne, the wild, dark (“feral”) young woman in an exotic cult that rejects everything Evie was taught in her upper class, ordinary family. Joan Didion does not quite use the same voice but she doesn’t hide how lost she felt. Although older at the time, a professional journalist whose mission is to observe the people she meets, I can’t help but think that she was strangely fascinated by these weird people in Height Ashbury (and perhaps in Manson’s ranch too, as we see her buying a dress for cult member turned trial witness Linda Casabian). And she was very close to a nervous breakdown.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Emma Cline read Joan Didion (required research reading, isn’t it?), and the result is that in my mind, Evie could very well have crossed paths with Joan in one of these dingy, decaying places where people did drugs all the time, or that Joan could have been invited to a polite party organized in California by Evie’s parents. Violaine, on the other side of the Atlantic, could very well have befriended Evie. She could have been fascinated by Manson or another guru if gurus were roaming the French countryside at that time (not that I know of… California is a far cry from the French Atlantic coastlines). Violaine is taken by the radical protest that her teacher introduces her to, she sees an authentic, pure idealistic woman in Patty Hearst, a young girl like herself who has gone beyond the lies of the civilized society and stifling, conventional parents. Violaine has a massive girl crush in Patty, similar to Evie who has massive girl crush on Suzanne, but doesn’t seem to be as fascinated by Manson. What adults see is that Violaine and Evie are taken into a cult, but what we see from the inside is the adolescent fascination for something different, whatever the discourse (political or spiritual) it takes. Joan Didion, as an adult (she is 35 in 1969, after all), looks at those drifting adolescents and younger with dismay, the same way Evie’s parents and her father’s girlfriend look at her.

The last parallel I’ll draw between the 3 books is the way the writer has addressed her stories and her characters. In the 2 novels, the writer has chosen an oblique approach, with the narrator speaking from the wisdom of her later years, a narrator is contemporary to the reader. Evie has not joined the cult herself but kind of drifts on the periphery (which saves her when things turn dark). Her life afterwards is basically a huge failure. Violaine has not joined any protest group and she has nothing to link her to Patty Hearst herself. Her life afterwards is basically… well, nothing much either. The oblique approach of “Mary, Mercy, Patty” and “The Girls” is what caused my reservations about both books. I didn’t care so much about the present timeline plot, I wanted to be with the girls and experience things firsthand. And I found that it was a bit too easy to make Violaine’s et Evie’s adult lives dull and empty.

Of course, Joan Didion didn’t choose such an oblique way for her essays, but she still starts the White album with this very famous sentence that looks back to the end of the 1960s from the end of the 1970s, in a failed attempt to make sense out of it.  In some ways, even after three books, the era will keep its mystery.

The One with the Breakdown in the Desert

Mary Westmacott (aka Agatha Christie), Absent in the Spring (1944)

[This is the first in a series of posts related to books read in 2017, because my reading pace completely outran my blogging time. No reason to forego a blog post, right?]

I don’t remember how I came to think that Agatha Christie wrote romance novels under the name of Mary Westmacott… This is SO entirely wrong! There’s nothing romantic in this book, on the contrary!

Now, I remember that I read somewhere that the novels written under this pen name dealt with “crimes of the heart”, whatever that means. I took it to mean romances (as in agonizing over heart issues), but I am now sorry I didn’t even try to make sure I was right.

It’s obvious that I misread and that “crimes of the heart” meant psychologically heavy subjects, because this book is about what happens when a woman suddenly bares her soul and finds there something not totally appealing. This is such a departure from the usual Agatha Christie characters, who are often archetypal and whose psychology is described in broad strokes. (I’m a fan, so I don’t mean to say that they are uni-dimensional cardboard characters, but I’m aware some people say so).

Mrs Joan Scudamore is the proud wife to a country notary and the self-satisfied mother to three adult children, all apparently very successful. She is returning to London after visiting her daughter who lives with her husband in Baghdad as expats, when she finds herself unexpectedly stranded on her own waiting for a train. It’s the first time she is alone and has nothing to distract herself with, so after a few days the only thing she has is her memories, her doubts and her feelings. Something is rotten in the state of the Scudamores, and Joan, with all her British stiff upper lip, is close to having a full-blown mental breakdown. Her perfect life has big cracks in it, and the truth is not so pretty. People have been lying to her, and she lied to herself too.

I guess Agatha Christie’s goal was to make the reader uncomfortable and she succeeded all too well! Her main character is not very likeable; and she grows worse by the minute as we get to read her thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. The book is called by the publisher “bittersweet with a jagged edge”, and I do see what they mean. For people used to Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, you know you’re onto something dark and raw when within the first dozen pages, someone casually says to Mrs. Scudamore: “You know, you’re the sort of woman who ought to be raped. It might do you good.” How shocking! Not your typical body in the library indeed. Likewise, the resolution of this “crime of the heart” does not tie neatly every strand, we are left wondering how much the desert episode has really changed Mrs. Scudamore.

I’m sorry that it took me that long to try Agatha’s “crimes of the heart”, but it won’t be the last for me.

The One with the Great Elopement Scheme

Georgette Heyer, Snowdrift and Other Stories (1960, 2016)

Of course, I had heard of Georgette Heyer, but I had never read anything by her until this December. I am not a big romance reader, although I have been known to indulge in some heavily sugary treat before. The first time I remember reading romances was during college, when I found some in the recreation room of the boarding house I lived (managed by Catholic sisters, of all things! I bet they never opened the second-hand books that gathered dust there!). It made sense to me to try Georgette Heyer’s short stories to close 2017 when I tried to read all kinds of short stories.

You won’t be surprised that Georgette Heyer’s stories are very clean and witty, and provide light-hearted entertainment with lots of costumes and a happy ending guarantee (I have just finished Downton Abbey, so I was in the right mood for it). I didn’t take them very seriously because most were quite short, so that the plot line between the 2 people meeting and them falling in each other’s arms at the last minute wasn’t developed enough. There are a lot of love at first sight, a lot of funny misunderstandings, a lot of elopement schemes (so many couples running to Gretna Green that they likely were stuck in traffic!), a lot of dashing young men with shiny Hessian boots. They were a bit interchangeable (once again due to the format), but I enjoyed the light banter between the characters and the overall feeling was playful and charming.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher Sourcebooks Casablanca for the review copy.

The One with the Down-At-Heel Mansion

Dorothy Whipple, The Priory (1939)

Wow, it took me about 6 months to read this book. Yes it’s a big book (536 pages, and I’m not counting…), but still, I’m not generally afraid of big books (Outlander? 11/22/63?) Actually, it was a tough read for me, and there were many times when I wanted to give up on it.

It’s only because this book was on my shortlist of 10 titles I wanted to read in 2017 that I stuck with it (more on this resolution another day). There were times when I did wonder why everybody had such a glowing opinion of the book. There were long weeks where I didn’t even crack the spine open and it sat there, collecting dust.

Is it any good? Now that I’m on the other side, I can say “yes” and I finally “get” why this book was a publishing success during Dorothy Whipple’s life, and why Persephone Books has it on its bestseller list, and why it has a 4.18 average on Goodreads at the time I write this post. But for the first half of the book (probably 250 pages in), I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t get the characters, I didn’t warm up to any of them. And there are many of them.

The Priory is a mansion where the Marwood family lives. They are gentry, but they don’t have any money any more, and they scrape by in their derelict mansion, barely keeping up appearances (they still have a lot of staff). The Major, a widower, is only interested in cricket, the two daughters are selfish and spoilt, the major’s young new wife is incompetent, the nurse she hires is stiff and proud… There are many other people in the “cast” and they each have their fair share of flaws. There is a comic tone at the beginning which I found most unsettling (I rarely if ever get comic books in English, something always gets lost in translation…) and I wondered if I was in a kind of tongue-in-cheek Upstairs/Downstairs comedy.

But when weeks became months, the book turned into something else, the characters started to develop and I started to like them more. I could see past their flaws and find them endearing, or with redeeming qualities. Perhaps it was just me becoming more familiar with them, but I started to feel sorry for them. The Major’s daughters had no education whatsoever, and they have no other prospect but marrying well. Both marriages end up being problematic in some respect, and the tone veers into nostalgia, melodrama, sentimental and even tragedy as everyone dreads the upcoming war. I was most interested in how the evolution of society (women working, women wanting to have a say in general) permeates a family with old Victorian or Edwardian principles.

The ending was nice, but as it is set in 1939 it made me shiver in retrospect to think of what those characters would have had to endure in the following years if the novel had continued (not that I wish for 300 pages more…)

The One with the Canadian Summer Camps

Margaret Atwood, Wilderness Tips (1991)

I meant to read this book forever. Like for decades. I used to have a copy of this book in German, back when I used to speak fluent German and when I had fooled myself into thinking that I could read fiction in German (I couldn’t, and I definitely can’t anymore).

And then came the Handmaid’s Tale’s frenzy (I haven’t watched it yet, but want to), and then this short story collection found its way into my hands again (this time in English). There’s nothing dystopian about these stories, although there’s something about men and women relations in every story that says that men are generally not nice to women, and that women should be aware and wary.

This is most glaring in “Weight”, a story in which a middle-aged single woman tells of her best friend’s fate, who got killed by her abusive husband and who decides to extort money from other philandering husbands to fund a women’s shelter.

Several stories center on adulterous women and how they compete (or not) with the wife. In “Hairball”, the story that is most full of dark humor, Kat, the fashionable British editor of a Canadian fashion magazine, takes her revenge against her lover’s wife, whose mind she describes as mind “room-by-room Laura Ashley wallpaper, tiny unopened pastel buds arranged in straight rows.” In “Uncles”, a girl grows up to become a powerful, successful journalist, helped along the way by her uncles and by some men, and yet when one of them betrays her, she ends up doubting herself and doubting her own understanding of life, as if her success and power had only been granted to her by those men and not by her own value and skills.

Two stories of these collections are set in summer camps, “True Trash” and “Death by Landscape”. Summer camps are something of an American cliché, but although the kids find their stay idyllic, we get to see how what happened back then shaped them into adulthood, with their own fears and insecurities.

With the exception of Hairball I found that the collection had a nostalgic tone. It made me think of my own turning points moments or of my own misunderstandings. Highly recommended.

The One with the Gloomy Swedish Detectives

Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, Cop Killer (Swedish 1974)

Part of the fun to decide to read another Martin Beck police investigation is to search through the library shelves and try to remember how exactly both names of the writers are spelled. In my head, they are Maj and Per, which doesn’t exactly help. And you can’t really get help from the librarian if you don’t know how to pronounce them, right?

This one is Martin Beck’s ninth book, and they can be read out of order, but it’s probably best not to start with this one, because one can witness the trajectory of Martin Beck’s mood and beliefs from the beginning in the sixties to this one in the mid-seventies. In short, it’s not a spoiler to say that it doesn’t get better. Also, it’s better to have read Roseanna before, because one of the suspects of this investigation is a character from the first novel in the series.

If I was dealing with real people and if being gloomy was not part of the gumshoe’s and detective’s cliché image, I would be tempted to suggest a strong dose of Prozac to Beck and his close colleagues. Sjöwall & Wahlöö are part of the tradition that uses the conventions of the police procedural to denounce everything that goes wrong in society: miscarriages of justice, hasty judgments, unregulated use of violence by the police force, but also a country where young people struggle to find a right place, where they don’t find jobs and don’t find meaning in the jobs they may find. A country where press and politicians manipulate the news (has anything changed since?). 1974 is a time when young Swedish people are disenchanted, and except for smoking dope and having long hair, Swedish policemen such as Beck and Kollberg are just as disenchanted as they are. 1974 is the year heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped, the year Abba released Waterloo and when lots of bombings by extremists and the economic crisis worried people all over the world. The 1970s were dark and bleak and the book does reflect this mood.

Reading a Maj & Per book is not about big twists and big shockers, it’s about the work and the time policemen put in to find a killer, often without much recognition. Only dogged determination, and a part of chance too. The pace is slow and it takes more than half the book to understand why the book is titled Cop Killer, but I promise, this is all worth it.