#6Degrees from Less than Zero to…

1987 film poster

It is my absolute pleasure to participate once again in the Six Degrees monthly link-up organised by Kate. The starting point this month is a book I haven’t read by that once shining light of the 1980s literary Brat Pack Bret Easton Ellis: Less than Zero. If I didn’t read it at the time, when I was closer in age to the hedonistic youth portrayed in its pages, I don’t think I am likely to read it now (middle-aged sniff of disapproval!).

 

Another book which describes decadent youth is Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. I have to admit that I wanted to be a flapper of the 1920s when I was growing up, although, like with Mozart’s music, you are always aware in Waugh’s novels of a darker desperation underlying the frenetically cheery and madcap surface.

The other writer associated with the Roaring Twenties is of course F. Scott Fitzgerald and he also captures the sadness underlying the apparent prosperity and carelessness of that period. My favourite of his books was for a long time Tender Is the Night, which also describes a rather madcap party.

Part of the Fitzgerald novel is set on the French Riviera, which is also the setting for Françoise Sagan’s amazing debut novel Bonjour Tristesse, written when she was only 18 and perfectly describing the stubborn, gauche, misguided teenager who tries to act older than her age.

 

There are plenty of books about disaffected youth and the difficulties of being a teenager, especially nowadays, but for my next choice I go back to an old classic The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, who was herself a teenager when she wrote it. This sad tale of gang life and pointless violence reveals how hard it is for teenagers to figure out right from wrong and how powerless they often are to do anything about it.

Speaking of gangs, there is a little-known book by Ernst Haffner called Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin (Blood Brothers, transl. by Michael Hoffman) about Weimar-era teenagers trying to scrape together an existence via the welfare office, pickpocketing and other petty crime.

Berlin is also the setting of a more modern novel Tomorrow Berlin by Oscar Coop-Phane, about the post-1989 youth culture there. A generation full of promiscuity, rave culture and drink, drugs and toilet sex which brings us right back to Brett Easton Ellis subject matter, but perhaps described with more French elegance and nonchalance.

So I have stuck pretty much to youth culture in my little foray through literary links, but tried to keep it international. What links will you be making?

Six Degrees of Separation October 2017

Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps.

This month’s starting point is the Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate. I must be one of the few people who never saw the film adaptation of it, but I heard about it and was curious to read the book. I enjoyed its combination of recipes and home-spun wisdom, but I never quite understood the bestseller status of it.

 

 

Valeria Luiselli is another Mexican writer that I have started to really appreciate. So far I have only read some of her essays and interviews, and really enjoyed her fragmented, unusual yet very evocative novel Faces in the Crowd. But I definitely want to read more.

 

Another author I keep meaning to read more of is Sarah Moss. The novel Night Waking is the next one of hers that I have on my bookshelf, sitting nice and pretty and hoping I will pick it up.

 

Another novel with Night in the title is of course Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most excoriating portraits of a marriage and expat society that I can imagine.

 

Speaking of expats, an example of expats behaving badly (or the extreme loneliness of expat life, if you are feeling kindly disposed) is Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau. While I was intrigued by the depiction of a woman going amok in neat and ordered Zürich, it was not as enjoyable and innovative as Essbaum’s poetry, for which she is better known.

There are plenty of poets turned novelists but the one who never ceases to fascinate me is Rainer Maria Rilke’s one and only novel (a sort of semi-autobiographical journal-meditation) The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Just mentioning it here makes me want to read it again – it is such a rich source of wonder and inspiration, made to be read again and again.

My final choice also refers to notebooks: Anna Wulf’s famous coloured notebooks (black for the writer, red for political activism, yellow for her memoirs, blue for a diary) in The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. A seminal work of feminist literature, which had a profound impact on me when I was in my teens.

So my journey this month takes me from cooking in Mexico to political demos in 1960s London, via New York, the Hebrides, the Cote d’Azure, Zürich and Paris. As always, I like to travel! You can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or create your own blog post. Where will your 6 degrees of separation journey take you?

Rereading ‘Tender Is the Night’

To say that this is one of my favourite books is an understatement. It’s amongst my top ten (and I am very, very picky). Nine years in the making, revised endless times, Fitzgerald himself considered it his best work. First, here are some covers of ‘Tender Is the Night’ which I have admired over the years.

tender2 tender5 tender4 tender3 tender1My own battered copy dating from 1983 (goodness, so I must have read it for the first time when I was quite a bit younger than Rosemary, no wonder I found it so shocking!) has a less immediately appealing cover.

Tender

 

It has been with me for thirty-two years now, across nine moves to a different country, fourteen house moves, my own first marriage break down, through my own darkest days of depression, through my greatest personal triumphs and it has witnessed two children growing up to be nearly the age I was when I first laid eyes on it.

But I had not reread it cover to cover in oh-so-many years now. Would it disappoint? Not exactly, but nor did it delight me quite so much as before. One critic commented that anyone who loved Gatsby would end up loving this novel even more. In my case, I’ve moved the other way. I used to prefer it to The Great Gatsbybut I am no longer sure that is the case. Gatsby is concise and leaves a lot to the imagination. We never quite find out enough about Jay Gatsby’s missing years, unsavoury connections, or the way he made his wealth. It is the subject of myth and speculation. In Tender Is the Night everyone’s back story is much more clearly spelled out (although here too, there is plenty of gossip) and the points of view shift. The style feels much less in control, even repetitive at times. Some of the characters feel a bit extraneous, although each one contributes to the atmosphere around the gilded couple.

I remembered very clearly the French Riviera and Paris locations, but had forgotten about Lausanne and Vevey, so it was rather charming to read about the locations that are now so close to me. Some of the scenes that I remembered very clearly were still there, glittering like gems of absurdity and yet extremely poignant: the anecdote about trying to cut a waiter with a musical saw, the ridiculous duel which neither participant really wants, what Mrs. McKisko witnesses in the bathroom…

But the downward spiral of the marriage and the descent into alcoholism felt much more restrained this time round, not as shocking as I remembered – perhaps because I’ve read so much about dysfunctional families and breakdowns since. Now that I’m so much older, I had more sympathy with Nicole rather than with Rosemary. In fact, Rosemary seemed to me already tainted with the allure of fame and the artificiality of the film world. Yet I still understood her youthful hero-worship of Dick Diver, and her ultimate disappointment.

Finally, what struck me is how F. Scott Fitzgerald is so aware of the deadly consequences of privilege, how he mocks both those born with money and those chasing after it (or fame), how relentlessly self-aware he is in his work… and yet in his real life he could never escape the siren call of this very world he professes to despise. Tender Is the Night recognises that man is weak, filled with self-doubt, but that he is at his best when he still seeks out perfection. Doomed to failure of course, as we finally admit that there is no perfect moment, all is transient, but oh, how we hate ourselves for giving up…

Finally, what about the chronology? There are two versions of this novel. The best-known (the one first published in 1934) starts on the Riviera and then deals with the back story of Nicole and Dick’s meeting and marriage in flashback. The second version, published posthumously, follows the events in chronological order. The original version is best, even for people like me who don’t overly like complicated flashbacks. In this case, it’s not: Fitzgerald knew what he was doing. That chapter (X in Book II) from Nicole’s point of view, taking us right back to the present – priceless!

Quick-Fire Reviews: Crime Fiction

I was planning longer reviews for each of these books, but the risk is that the longer I leave it, the less I’ll be in the mood for reviewing them, or the more I’ll have forgotten the first impressions.

So here are some quick-fire reviews of recently read crime novels. Two are by authors I’ve already read and admired, so I know what I’m getting. The remaining two are debut authors. And when I say ‘quick-fire’, it still has somehow added up to a very long post, so I apologise in advance.

BloodSaltDenise Mina: Blood, Salt, Water

A woman suspected by the police of major drug-smuggling and money laundering disappears. Has that got anything to do with the death of a woman, something confused criminal Iain Fraser is struggling with? And why is a middle-aged former Scout leader, Miss Grierson, back in town? Alex Morrow and her team struggle to make sense of all these disparate elements, as do the readers.

I’m a big Denise Mina fan – she always captures a particular Scottish setting impeccably. This time it’s a smaller town and a posh golf course gated environment, as well as the gritty streets of Glasgow. But this is perhaps not the most memorable one in the series: some of the motivations seem a little forced to me. Still, Mina’s ‘good/OK’ is a notch above most other writers, so I’d still recommend this book.There were some characters who had the potential to become interesting but were not given quite enough room to develop. I also missed hearing more about Alex Morrow’s family life  – while I don’t like it to overwhelm the plot, it was just noticeable in its complete absence.

OtherChildLucy Atkins: The Other Child

Tess, single mother to nine-year-old Joe, falls in love with American pediatric surgeon Greg and gets pregnant. When he is offered the job of a lifetime back on the East Coast of the US, they marry and relocate.  But life in an affluent American suburb proves anything but straightforward. Unsettling things keep happening in the large rented house, Joe is distressed, the next-door neighbours are in crisis, and Tess is sure that someone is watching her. Greg’s work is all-consuming and, as the baby’s birth looms, he grows more and more unreachable. Something is very wrong.

Confession: I read this one mostly because of the ‘moving to the US as a trailing spouse’ storyline. I just love those fish out of water suffering culture shock stories! I read this book very quickly, as it had plenty of mystery and some interesting characters to engage me. It does feel slightly déjà vu – the marriage that you jump in all too quickly, the man with secrets, the suspicions and gradual unravelling of relationships, the ‘who can be trusted, who’s telling the truth’ scenario are all well trodden ground. This book certainly won’t stay with me for a very long time. But the author has a fresh, engaging style, it’s got a nice sense of menace to it without getting too gory, it’s an entertaining beach read.

GranotierbookSylvie Granotier: Personne n’en saura rien (No One Will Know a Thing)

Isabelle is the latest in a series of kidnappings and rapes of young girls from the beaches of Normandy. Except that, unlike the other victims, she does not end up dead. Instead, she is taking her aggressor to court on the count of rape. The accused, Jean Chardin, certainly seems to fit the profile of a rapist, but, as we find out more about the background of each of the people involved, we begin to wonder just what revenge Isabelle is planning.

For those who don’t like serial killer tropes or graphic descriptions of women suffering, rest assured there is not much of that here. Instead, it’s a thrilling and psychologically subtle read. Effortlessly moving between points of view and timelines, the author makes us question ourselves about the nature of justice, the ways in which we justify our own behaviour, and the role of families. This hasn’t been translated into English yet, but Le French Book has translated one of Granotier’s other novels, The Paris Lawyer.

BitterChillSarah Ward: In Bitter Chill

The Peak District as winter approaches is a chilling place, especially when a thirty-year-old crime is reopened following a suicide apparently related to it. Back in 1978 two young schoolgirls were abducted by a woman driving a car. One of them, Rachel, made it back home later that day, but could remember little of what had happened. The other girl, Sophie, was never found. It’s Sophie’s mother who has committed suicide in a hotel in the area. But why now, so many years after the event? Another death soon after also seems to be linked to the tragic event in 1978. Rachel and the police are equally committed to finding out the truth about events both past and present, uncovering some very dark secrets in the process.

This is a very promising debut indeed and just the kind of police procedural I enjoy: satisfying, logical, with interesting characters throughout (I especially liked Rachel’s grandma). The writing is of a consistently high quality and very precise, and the location is so well described I felt as if I was there (although I’ve never visited the area myself). But all this does not come at the detriment of the plot. Yes, I guessed part of the solution, but by no means all of the ramifications. I’m really glad that, although Ward intended this to be a standalone crime novel, she will write another novel featuring these detectives, as I got quite attached to ambitious Connie, about-to-get-married Palmer and their boss Sadler.

I’ve also read Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless (which will be reviewed shortly on Crime Fiction Lover), the cracking follow-up to The Hummingbird, and Sophie Hannah’s quirky, unexpected standalone psychological thriller A Game for All the Family.

The remaining four reviews (I hope to have more time to spend on them this coming week, but I’m also trying to write another 20,000 words on my novel, so guess where my priorities lie?) are for:

Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts – a surprisingly modern feel, very candid, not for the squeamish, heartbreaking and yet full of an urgent love of life.
Emmanuel Carrère: L’Adversaire – a fascinating study of evil and the power of deception, including self-deception – whether we believe evil exists in all of us, or whether we see some people as being born evil. Particularly heart-wrenching and disturbing since I know the places and some of the people involved.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is the Nightno longer quite the ultimate story of marital and individual breakdown that I believed it to be when I was 18 – Rosemary’s age – and fell in love with Dick Diver myself. Still an unsettling portrait of inner demons and dysfunctional families, but this time I particularly admired the locations and descriptions of the expat experience (yes, I have a one-track mind).

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd –  unlike other ‘vignette’ type novels, I really liked this one, although I don’t think it could be sustained over a much longer book. I liked it because it really is experimental, not just pretending to be so, and there is a warm, funny, fearless and erudite imagination at work there, blending fantasy, philosophy, literature and everyday experiences so well together.

Rereading ‘The Great Gatsby’

I blithely said at some point that I would write regularly about the writers who have most inspired me.  Well, not only have I not been ‘regular’ about it, but – with some ‘dare you to’ from Marilyn McCottrell over at the very funny and wry Memos from the Middle blog – I will also now break my promise about sticking to the less obvious suspects.  Yes, I will brazenly talk about that much-praised, over-analysed book called ‘The Great Gatsby’, a.k.a. ‘The Great American Novel’ by some.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this and it does seem to get better and better with age.  I suspect that my infatuation with it in my youth probably had something to do with the image of Robert Redford at the swimming pool, waiting for Daisy’s phone call, pouting beautifully and moodily in the mid-distance.  This was the movie adaptation of it, of course, sumptuously clothed and filmed (quite a bit of it in England, incidentally), but ultimately not considered a triumph by the critics.  The upcoming adaptation of it, with Leonardo Di Caprio in the title role… well, I beg to reserve judgement, but suspect he cannot quite replace Redford in my mind.

Yet, no matter how much I love it, I’ve been surprised that it’s considered the ‘Great American novel’, because it seems so far removed from the confidence, language and bluster that much of the American literature has. Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Hemingway – there are so many contenders for the title of the Great American Novel, but this one seems atypical.   It certainly talks about the dangers and the failure of the American dream, which is perhaps why it has grasped the public’s imagination for so long (and why it is being remade as a film and also currently onstage as a musical these days). The long sentences, the tentative statements, the moral ambiguity make the novel feel European in many ways.

There are some things that struck me instantly when first reading the novel and that have stayed with me since: the description of Daisy’s thrilling ‘money’ voice, the green light at the end of the pier, Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes towering on a billboard above the grey badlands.  Oh, yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald is clever with his symbolism, foreshadowing of tragedy, the recurrence of the eye image, all of that.  I remembered that clearly from my previous readings.

But here are some things that I did not quite remember, or maybe only just now noticed:

1) Although it’s such a short novel, it does not feel rushed.  The pace is leisurely, gentlemanly.  For heaven’s sake, it does not even plunge straight into the story, but opens instead with a statement by the narrator, Nick Carraway, of just how uncritical and non-judgemental he has taught himself to be (thus breaking all the rules given to fledgling writers).  And the novel does not end with Gatsby’s death or pathetic funeral, but with the author painstakingly tying up all the loose ends, while the narrator muses cynically and at length about all of the characters in the drama.

Book cover for the Great Gatsby2)I had forgotten just how long and complicated his sentences are, abounding with semi-colons, commas,  adjectives, piling of details – accumulation which works wonderfully in the chapter describing Gatsby’s extravagant parties.

‘By seven o’clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums…. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there, among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and colour under the constantly changing light.’

Occasionally, this can lead to some meandering but intriguing side alleys, which just adds to the unhurried pace of the narration.  And yet each details feels perfectly placed and not all superfluous.

3) I had also forgotten that Nick Carraway is such an unreliable narrator, despite his initial exhortation that ‘I’m inclined to reserve all judgements’.  I had initially taken his character assessments at face value: ridiculed silly Myrtle, condemned brutish Tom Buchanan, despised shady Wolfsheim, was wary of the golfing Jordan Baker.  My perception was coloured first by Gatsby’s naive dream, then by Nick’s cynicism.  Now I have begun to distrust Nick’s version of events, his critical and often far too self-righteous tone, his tone of omniscient interpreter of events.  I feel more pity and empathy for all of the characters, even Daisy, who ultimately fails not because she is a horrible, weak, selfish and self-centred person (although she is all of that too), but because she is human, not the goddess that Gatsby had built her up to be in his memory.

4) There are layers beneath layers beneath layers in this rich book – which is why I never tire of it.  There is no simple answer or explanation or solution.  There have been so many interpretations of it: a condemnation of wealth and excesses, the hollowness of materialism and the American Dream built upon it, the impossibility of replicating the past… yes, it is about all of that and more.  It triggers something within the readers, puts all sorts of ideas in their heads and feelings in their hearts, which cannot be easily summarised.  There is one instance when Nick says ‘Life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all’.  And supposedly we are looking at this story though a single window, Nick’s window of insight.  Yet Fitzgerald has the skill to hint at multiple windows and to reveal the complexity and ambiguity of something far deeper.  There is something here we can barely explain but can only feel, like an image half-glimpsed, half-imagined in the moonlight.  There is always that hint of something ‘almost remembered’, an ‘elusive rhythm’, which we have to believe in to get through the everyday.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on ‘The Great Gatsby’: did you love it or hate it, especially if you had to read it at school? And do classics get better when you reread them?  What have you recently discovered upon rereading an old favourite?