It sometimes happens that a man at home moves about the house, goes through familiar motions, everyday motions, his expression unguarded, and, suddenly raising his eyes, he notices that the curtains have not been drawn and that people are watching him from outside.
"Belle" fits into the revitalized, refocused, Simenon-In-Exile period of the mid-fifties, the years in America that recharged his vision and distilled his ideas of the psychological novel. What is equally important is that it is near the top of the list, a peer to the likes of Three Bedrooms In Manhattan and Red Lights. Most readers will find interestingly similar concerns, continuing motiefs that are threaded through this era.
We find Simenon still pursuing the distracted Bourgeois Man, always a step or a reflex away from walking out of his middle-class environs .. This is the same man that he often documented in his European books, but now with a once-removed, refracted quality, the disenfranchised outlook of the exile who is resigned to any world that will accept him. Nearly.
What tends to go along with this loosely-connected status, this feeling of detachment from a banal society -- is a quick and unforeseen reversal of fortune, a glancing intrusion of something violent or just coarse and brutal-- that takes our antihero unaware. What could not have been predicted is that the violence or brutality resonates with something already present in our lead character, a foreign and confusing influence that somehow hits home just perfectly.
It is as if this contact with something pathological and infernal has triggered a recalibration, a new outlook for the ordinary, meek everyman who always avoided "trouble". A look behind the curtain of respectability, maybe no more than a glimpse, that changes everything.
From there we have guilt without crime, a man falsely suspected, a sense of doubt where once there was lax certainty. A whole range of paranoid, Hitchcockian emotions that must now play out. And Simenon, we know, has no mercy. If the greeks were known to set fate against their protagonist, Monsieur Simenon will certainly follow through, and bring it down around his head. (less)
Featherweight romp of a train-coach mystery. Set on the altiplano route of the trans-Andean express, the story here is a familiar one. Really not a my...moreFeatherweight romp of a train-coach mystery. Set on the altiplano route of the trans-Andean express, the story here is a familiar one. Really not a mystery, certainly not a noir, and for some reason set in 1952; the scenery is colorful, and so are the characters. What the author appears to be aiming for is kind of mashup of forties pulp, Bogart movies, & the Orient Express, all framed by the cinematic standbys of high mountain passes and exotic views.
As might be expected, we have the ingenue-in-peril, the youthful-stalwart, the evil-step-husband, the venomous-dowager, and the rest of the compulsory Sidney Greenstreet / Peter Lorre entourage ... all strangers on trains who are ill-disposed to their fellow passengers.
None of which bothers the reader. One slight quibble is that the grand set-piece in the end, (from and toward which we will cut away to more nefarious actions...) --is a card game, played as usual in the dining car. Okay, there aren't all that many "train" activities overall, it's true. But this is a convention whose time is now past; there is nothing riveting or suspenseful about a card game, even for 1952, and certainly not for current fiction. We don't need computerized special effects, but Playing Cards are someone's grandparents' version of excitement. It takes a lot of work from the author to render a poker table in terms of high drama, and it doesn't seem to be easy. (Casino Royale comes to mind, but that was actually written in the early fifties, when cards were ... less.. outdated. And that was Baccarat, anyway.) Here, they may as well be playing tiddly-winks for pesos.
Everything's familiar and timeworn, nothing's original, and yet. It's a one-sitting read that goes by with pleasure, and with a tightly knitted plot. Except for some startling out-of-period dialogue touches (pissed-off, hooked-up, bonked, "we'll be toast") this is an enjoyable & well-paced read.
(note: Each and every one of the Blurb Writers on the cover and the inside leaf should be sent back to Blurb School. To call anything here 'dark' or 'noir' is misleadingly ridiculous. Spare? Quirky? ..."heir to classic noir" you say, Mr Robert Arellano, author of 'Havana Lunar' ? Sorry, but I've seen Cartoons that were more noir. As usual, ignore the Blurbists; who are paid to generate verbiage but not to back it up.) (less)
Not a suspense / espionage in the regular le Carré mode, but a satire of same, and an expansive, elaborate nov...more Chance Favors The Prepared Mind - Pascal
Not a suspense / espionage in the regular le Carré mode, but a satire of same, and an expansive, elaborate novel at that. Since the demise of the Cold War this author has been casting around for another conflict to narrate, and I'm not sure le Carré has ever allowed himself to be this carried away by his characters and their dramatic entanglements.
That being said, there is an enormous asterisk here. The story of a bourgeois merchant-class civilian who is recruited mistakenly for espionage purposes --and sees his way clear to invent the espionage because the money is so good-- has already been covered, and really well at that. Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana did all that, and le Carré follows with a remixed version here, an homage to the original. And says so on his Acknowledgements page.
You get all the spy-novel twists : the uncomfortable domestic (family, friends, mistress) arrangements, the deceptive moves amongst the colleagues, false alibis, tails, cut-outs, dead-drops and also-- the secondary layer whereby it's all a fiction anyway. After a lifetime as the most recognized spymaster in the business, Mr. le Carré seems to have read Mr. Greene, read deeply and laughed long-- and I think he just couldn't help himself. Hints are dropped throughout that this one acknowledges it's parentage, even down to stray details like buying the pony for the daughter, mirrored exactly in the Havana original.
What makes this a uncommonly good read, then, is not only that le Carré has left off the serious hat and gone for the humorously coincidental, but that it leads him to really lively and visceral prose, not always evident in the dank corridors of the coldwar epics ...
To arrive in his little side street is for Harry Pendel a coming into harbour every time. On some days he may tease himself with the notion that the shop has vanished, been stolen, wiped out by a bomb. Or it was never there in the first place, it was one of his fantasies, something put in his imagination by his late Uncle Benny. But today his visit to the bank has unsettled him, and his eye hunts out the shop and fixes on it the moment he enters the shadow of the tall trees. You're a real house, he tells the rusty-pink Spanish roof tiles winking at him through the foliage. You're not a shop at all. You're the kind of house an orphan dreams of all his life. If only Uncle Benny could see you now.
"Notice the flower-strewn porch there," Pendel asks Benny with a nudge, "inviting you to come inside where it's nice and cool and you'll be looked after like a pasha ?"
"Harry boy, it's the maximum," Uncle Benny implies, touching the brim of his black homburg hat with both his palms at once, which was what he did when he had something cooking. "A shop like that, you can charge a pound for coming through the door."
"And the painted sign, Benny ? P&B scrolled together in a crest, which is what gives the shop its name up and down the town, whether you're in the Club Unión or the Legislative Assembly or the Palace Of Herons itself ? 'Been to P&B lately ?' 'There goes old so-and-so in his P&B suit.' That's the way they talk round here, Benny !"
"I've said it before, Harry boy, I'll say it agin. You've got the fluence. You've got the rock of eye. Who gave it you I'll always wonder..."
His courage near enough restored ... Harry Pendel mounts the steps to start his working day.
For much of the book things swirl along like this, with a kind of Walter Mitty of unintentional spies doing the narrating. Fearlessly le Carré plunges into the plot and it's cluster-verse of interconnections, making it feel both inevitable and wildly improvisatory at once.
As with many inadvisable schoolboy fancies, and even moreso those in midlife that gamble fortune and stability, things end not so well. Eventually the lighthearted and fanciful Harry Pendel is cornered, and driven to the distasteful side of spycraft, as much by realities as by creations of his own imagination, and the whole scheme goes squirrelly. (The scheme itself, called "Buchan" in the secret papers (and it's participants Buchaneers) is clearly another in the line of references le Carré is willing to entertain for humor's sake).
Interestingly, le Carré isn't done with homages, though, and invokes the enveloping desperation of Lowry's Under The Volcano, another tale of expatriate self-delusion and its discontents. The scenes of Harry walking alone through the Panamanian religious festival at the end, under hails of fireworks and under his own yoke of guilt, evoke that same conflict, cross-cultural setting intact :
Pendel was walking, and people in white were walking beside him, leading him to the gallows. He was pleasantly surprised to find himself so reconciled to death... He had never doubted that Panama had more angels per acre, more white crinolines and flowered headdresses, perfect shoulders, cooking smells, music, dancing, laughter, more drunks, malign policemen and lethal fireworks than any comparable paradise twenty times its size, and here they were assembled to escort him. And he was very gratified to discover bands playing, and competing folk dance teams, with gangly, romantic-eyed black men in cricket blazers and white shoes and flat hands that lovingly moulded the air round their partners' gyrating haunches. And to see that the double doors of the church were pulled open to give the Holy Virgin a grandstand view of the bacchanalia outside, whether She wanted it or not... He was walking slowly, as condemned men will, keeping to the centre of the street and smiling ...
Finally, too direct to be a coincidence, that spectral Uncle Benny that keeps advising Harry from the Other Side-- is familiar too. Himself a con-man who's been responsible early in Harry's life for a few mishaps, Uncle Ben is the seasoned flim-flammer whose advice Harry cherishes in his dodgy spy endeavors. A character from another, long-ago tragedy of the merchant-class, this ghost was also named Uncle Ben, a raconteur that advised protagonist Willy Loman, in Death Of A Salesman, another ill-fated dreamer.
Not sure what le Carré was up to with all of this, and not sure he was after hooking in old lit-majors to find the references, but they are there. On a technical level this book is really brilliantly written; the structural complexity at hand is no match for Mr le Carré's craft & execution. I am knocked out by the concision, the considerable expertise at large-ensemble-cast writing.
But in the end this is a practice-piece, an excercise for le Carré. He has dressed this design in an amazing skin and cloak of colors, but the bones will always belong -- to Graham Greene.
No breaks in the tension, no letup, a single-sitting read in 150 pages that feels alternately like no time is elapsing, or like a lifetime lashed to t...moreNo breaks in the tension, no letup, a single-sitting read in 150 pages that feels alternately like no time is elapsing, or like a lifetime lashed to the wheel. A family roadtrip upstate, circa 1953, set on the east coast of the United States... goes off the tracks.
Tension leads to white-knuckle dread, in the traditional noir vein wherein familiar turns strange, the rules have all changed, and the options are disappearing by the minute. I think the word 'harrowing' does it justice. Put this one on that shelf that bows under the weight of thin novels that instill fear... Mildred Pierce, and Thérèse Raquin. Spellbinding, brutal. (less)
"I wan't actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiousity. The bored, haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something-- most af...more "I wan't actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiousity. The bored, haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something-- most affectations conceal something eventually, even though they don't in the beginning-- and one day I found what it was...."
A whirlwind of memory, willfulness, and of the way we may think as young men; stormy and tough, all the way through. I was interested to read this again, maybe forty years later, after my adolescent self had somewhat enshrined it as the standard in American lit (conveniently, for once, echoing my teachers on that).
Well it is and it isn't. Really lovely prose, though via a contemporary lens often enough belabored for effect; contrasting with a jagged, modern and angular narrative strategy, that creates some distance, only to collapse the divide when necessary.
This is a novel about men around the age of 30 that is written by one who is also about the age of 30. Thus a last product of youth, at its longest reach and means, yet still fairly well isolated from the more grounded, practical thinking of age.
F. Scott Fitzgerald managed writing the ultimate Great American Novel-- nothing else has quite this charge, weight, or right to the claim--- from the comfortable remove of the French Riviera. Contrarily setting up internal dissonances right from the start.
In the FSF vision of modern literature, nothing operates on the square, or at least, at sensible right angles. The fix is in, the world is sharper than any one player, and there is no level to the playing field.
The Great Gatsby is actually a tight collection of short stories, but a fairly disconnected novel, in the best modernist sense. As if seven or eight separately conceived stories, all viable on their own (and Fitzgerald was a master of the short form) were able to be rolled into one narrative.
As if it was all so true and representative of the American life, that it could be sifted, carefully decanted, into 'one' life that reflects outwards like a beacon, from a central persona.
And it could.
The Great Gatsby is, without question, an American Noir, (which goes some way to explain why it was rejected, a failure in its own Roaring Twenties first release.) Gatsby only began to find traction after the second war, in the late forties--- in sync with, and for many of the same reasons, as the Noir genre itself.
Disillusionment, and morbid ennui, are common to both; disturbingly, time, place and convention can morph, without much warning for the reader. And there is a hollow at the center, a question mark where the period should be.
Like watching Citizen Kane, another young man's attempt to frame an account of a Great Man of his age, the trail of Gatsby proceeds more through speculation and process of elimination, than it does by open depiction. As the Jazz Age's most emblematic work, the story pings around corners like a pinball machine or, maybe a game of chinese checkers, with its angular logic and eventual inevitability. Positions are always triangulated in Gatsby, as with Kane. Thus there continues a thread of mystery, uncertainty that cuts against the earnest descriptors of Nick the narrator all the way through, despite his better intentions.
So all the signposts of classic American Noir are already there, in the mid-twenties: desperate characters, unreliable ground-rules, atmosphere that veers quickly from opulent to seedy and bleak; add a violent death and a languidly beautiful femme fatale to complete the puzzle.
Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine : I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.
It is difficult to reread Gatsby and navigate its free-floating ambiguities without considering it a contemplation of America on the brink of superpower status. In 1924 the Great War had just been settled with the US being the decisive participant; with Europe in ashes, a new world order was being deliberated in Paris, under the watchful, bespectacled eyes of Woodrow Wilson, ala the image of Dr. Eckleberg's eyes floating above the wasteland in the novel.
The flipside to the frantically dynamic American Twenties was the memory of that still wasteland, the hollow at the center, the valley of ashes. Fitzgerald takes on the two sides by suggesting that the future is always triangulated by the past, but not by stating so much outright. The image that resonates is the bulky frontage of the neoclassical, arriviste hulk of Gatsby's mansion, positioned only to recede into the distance, into the one point on the horizon impossible to reach. That super-analyzed blotch of green on the watery horizon of the Long Island Sound. The whole novel seems to move along in triangles, whether in the realms of character, story arc, or even time itself. Every third wall in this cluster of triangles is projected, stipulated by the first two.
For me this re-reading of Gatsby suggests nothing so much as a Youthful America, in the very unique position of having won the brass ring at the Carnival, only to be rewarded with an uninterrupted and terrifying night in the House Of Mirrors.
For Gatsby, Fitzgerald had the good sense, for a writer himself in his twenties, to never take on the mantle of Omniscience; oversights of perception, or of judgement, are thus consistent with the age of the characters. Anyone who seems overly ingenuous or incapable of reflection really has every right to be that way, and fits, necessarily, into the overall puzzle.
The novel is now close to its own centennial, but its concerns & insights are still very contemporary.
Perilously close to a five-star rating, saved from that by its tacked-together construction, but a winner.
Probably the wrong way to go about this, but...morePerilously close to a five-star rating, saved from that by its tacked-together construction, but a winner.
Probably the wrong way to go about this, but now I’m going to have to read Democracy In America, the testament of a French aristocrat whose survey of a youthful America is a touchstone in most histories of the US. Author Peter Carey’s Parrot & Olivier In America seeks to encapsulate, humorize, update and ruminate on the original by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835, and there seems no way to really savor the twists without a full read of the original. But there’s no real necessity, either; the Olivier & Parrot novel (ampersand!) is a world unto itself, fully in bloom and entirely self-sufficient without the original.
Well first, the last part, during which Carey has the de Tocqueville character deliver –with no warning of such well-aimed incisiveness in the previous three hundred and eighty pages, it might be mentioned—a pair of Judgements, first on the Arts in the new world of democracy, and second on the unlikelihood of success of that particular system. Having saved these for the last pages of the book, and having clearly edited them down to laser sharp directness, the points are ruthlessly made. In democracies, you’ll never reach the extreme of the Artist as the interpreter of the gods; you’ll never have a man whose ears are so exclusively tuned to the voices of the angels, a Michaelangelo, say, or a Mozart, supremely confident and controlled, as only the support of monarch or pope can arrange.
And in democracies, there is ever the requirement to sate the feverish anxieties of the coarse and illiterate, thus there will always be the element of the lucky-idiot, the broadly smiling puppet, in the qualities of the elected leadership. With an aristocracy the fix is long in and well entrenched, whereas the democracy’s mechanism requires a newly formulated criminal enterprise, with no sense of ease or elegance, every time out.
Okay then, nailed. Settled. But that’s no way to run a Novel, and fortunately Carey doesn’t stoop to it until, as he can no longer help himself, those last couple of pages. In America’s defense, I would say, well, look-- Edison, FDR, Mark Twain, and you’ve got your cheek for a fellow colonist, mate. Carey could parry with the inevitable quotations from Phineas T. Barnum, or the monumental arrogance of a George W. Bush. Touche’, let’s say.
In the early parts Carey has a really good time spoofing the mannered expectations of his own narrative, taking his time with a reeling, Thackeray-style ‘young-ruffian’s-progress’ thread for Parrot, against which he prances out the posh & simpering noble Olivier, in consecutive first-person chapters. All good fun, and I could only ask for more of the Grand Adventure aspects, (ala Robert Louis Stevenson) in the beginnings.
There is the sense at times that Carey can’t really believe the astounding stuff that’s showing up on his own pages, and there is some fun had there, too, in that some of the Olivier narrative is admittedly transcribed and ‘improved’ by Parrot. But like the limitless New World de Tocqueville / Olivier sees unreeling before him, Mr Carey unleashes torrents of words and you can feel the delight coursing through the prose itself :
“… these same judges also proclaimed her attempts at English to be charming, whilst I, who could hear her French, knew she sounded as musical as a barrow wheel. None of this is to suggest she was unattractive to me, for many is the country girl, around Auteuil particularly, in whose voice and smells the farmyard was everywhere apparent, and no bad thing, for my blood was never more hot than when my ennui was most deadly, when the air was rich with summer hay and the orchard fruit lay among the grass, rich rotten peaches, bees crawling the blossoms, wax melting, honey dripping from the beehive frames..."
It is a difficult trick that Carey has pulled off here, and that is making the tempo of the 19th century palpable, plying his satire at times both thick and razor thin, all while keeping the pace lively and the humor intact. If a little haphazard in its construction —this doesn’t come close to the clockwork plotting of Dickens or the smoothly-racing, quiet engine-rooms of Austen--- the sheer conviviality of the undertaking is broadly brushed throughout, and it’s a nice, rambling ride. I would gladly have gone with this at 1500 pages; what's here in 400 goes by like lightning. (less)