money

BLACK WINGS HAS MY ANGEL BY ELLIOTT CHAZE

You and me, she said, could take on the world. And it was easy to believe her, although I knew that she didn’t need any help with that. If she had wanted the world, she could have taken it all by herself. She was high at the time, of course. It was midnight when she called, and I had to be up for work in six hours. She wanted me to watch her sing at a gay bar in town. I couldn’t say no, partly out of a desire to see her and partly out of fear of what she would do if she was disobeyed. She was a deadly kind of beautiful, the kind that if you felt breathless in her presence you couldn’t say with any confidence whether it was love or cyanide poisoning. I was familiar with femmes fatales from films and books, with cold-hearted, dangerous dames with sultry looks, but in real life it wasn’t so glamorous or sexy or exciting. I felt like an amateur snake charmer who is happy just to get through each day without fatal injury. This girl will be the death of me, I once told a friend, and for the first time in my life I meant it.

“Thinking back, I remember the stupidest things; the way there was a taut crease just above her hips, in the small of her back. The way she smelled like a baby’s breath, a sweet barely there smell that retreated and retreated, so that no matter how close you got to it you weren’t sure it was there. The brown speckles in the lavender-gray eyes, floating very close to the surface when I kissed her, the eyes wide open and aware. But not caring. The eyes of a gourmet offered a stale chunk of bread, using it of necessity but not tasting it any more than necessary.”

Black Wings Has My Angel was published in 1953, a little after the greats of hard-boiled crime fiction – Chandler, Hammett,  Cain et al – had produced the majority of their best and most cherished work. In fact, one could argue that this goes some way to explaining not only why it was largely forgotten for a number of years but also many of its merits. Those writers were trailblazers, of course, but to be at the vanguard of something means you have no real reference points, no conventions to work within, and no one to learn from; you have to find your own way and make your own mistakes. The novels written during that golden period of the 30’s and 40’s are undeniably appealing, but often the characters lack depth and the plots are convoluted or under-developed. Elliott Chaze, however, was a refiner, in that he took what was already established and gave it finesse. The end result is noir with a kind of Stendhalian sweep, a genuine sense of tragedy, and characters you care about.

One of these characters is Kenneth McLure, aka Tim Sunblade, who narrates the action. My initial impression of Kenneth was that he was the archetypal hard-boiled tough guy. He’s an ex-con, who, he tells us, tried to get himself beaten during his time in prison in order to break the monotony of solitary confinement; he also contemplates murdering anyone who might stand in his way. His narrative style is, as one would expect, punchy and broad-shouldered, featuring lines like: ‘[I let] my mind coast. It needed a lot of coasting.’ Yet, as the story unfolds, Chaze does something unexpected: he allows you to see different sides to Kenneth, his sensitive and vulnerable sides. He is, for example, haunted by the death of his friend, and particularly the image of his bloody, mangled face. He does bad things in the novel, certainly, but he exhibits a conscience at times; in fact, the climax of the story, and his desire to look deep into the abyss of the abandoned shaft, is all about his guilt. Kenneth isn’t a sociopath, like the continental op, he is capable of feeling fear, shame, sorrow and love. He even waxes sentimental about his home town and his childhood sweetheart.

Consequently, one feels as though one gets to know McLure, including both his qualities and his faults, his strengths and his weaknesses. Chaze endeavoured to make him believable, to make him psychologically sound, if not entirely sane. We are told that he was in solitary confinement, as noted previously, and this allows one to make sense of the regular, romanticised, descriptions of scenery and wide open spaces in his narration. Moreover, his conflicted attitude towards death, and his desire to make the most of his time on earth – as though he has been told that he has only twelve months to live – could be put down to his experiences in the war, where he was injured in action. If you have stared death in the face, it is easy to see how it could become more monstrous and yet easier to confront in future. Having said all that, one does wonder whether the author was actually suggesting that Kenneth’s behaviour is a direct result of his head-wound, such that his ‘bad side’ is physical not psychological. This is not a ludicrous idea, although it is less interesting for me personally.

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I mentioned love in the previous paragraph, and that may have raised a few eyebrows. Relations between men and women in noir tends towards the wildcat sort. Lust, sure, obsession, maybe, but love seems like a stretch. However, there are moments between Kenneth and Virginia that are genuinely touching. Once again, I believed in them, I, specifically, believed in them as a couple. She is a looker, of course, with legs like a champion racehorse, and he is rough and manly, and there is plenty of good fucking throughout the novel; but there is also tenderness, intimacy; there are, for example, the numerous references to her smell; and there is a scene in which they swap ice back and forth between their mouths, and another in which Kenneth tells Virginia things he never thought he’d tell anybody. In these ways, Black Wings Has My Angel is not a novel about meeting the wrong person at the wrong time, but maybe the right person in the wrong circumstances.

It is also, however, a novel about money and class. I have not written in detail about Virginia so far, partly because she adheres a little too closely to the noir femme fatale stereotype. She is a wise-cracking whore, who doesn’t sleep for thrills anymore. Yet Chaze gives her a backstory too, in which it is revealed that she was once well-to-do. This is important, not because it justifies her expensive tastes, but because it creates tension between the couple, which, in turn, allows Chaze, via Kenneth, to lambast high society. Almost everyone in Black Wings Has My Angel is afforded some level of sympathy, with the exceptions being the police – predictably enough – and the rich, who are thieves of a more socially acceptable sort or idiots. What’s more, towards the end, after he has become moneyed himself, Kenneth states that while he had always wanted to live ‘lazily and glossily’, he has come to realise that it weakens and demotivates you, that it makes you flabby and frivolous. And isn’t that the worst kind of living of all?

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THE ROBBER BY ROBERT WALSER

I plod through life in a disgraceful manner, it is true. I approach every day as though it were a Sunday afternoon in midsummer. Even in relation to my writing, which I would like to one day make my career. So many times I have been encouraged to grab the tiger by the tail, and I agree that it would be in my best interests, and yet I never do. Instead, I gently rub its nose and admire its whiskers. In this way, many opportunities have passed me by, and I have watched them, sleepy-eyed, as though I was sitting on a warm and pleasant riverbank, and they were slow-moving sailing boats. For this reason, I have always related to Robert Walser’s protagonists, but especially the ‘layabout’, ‘good-for-nothing’, ‘hopelessly indolent’, but amiable Robber.

The Robber is a young man who, we’re told, is exceedingly poor and only able to live by virtue of the charity others bestow upon him, such as the money given to him by the Batavian uncle, and the attentions of a number of well-meaning women. In this way, he is very much like Simon, from The Tanners, who, early in that novel, is allowed to stay in an apartment beyond his means by a landlady who takes a particular shine to him. It would be tempting, in light of this, to see both men as ‘users’, as the sort who will gladly take advantage of others, and while that might be literally true, there is certainly no sense that they do so with conscious deliberation or, if you like, malice aforethought. Simon and the Robber are dreamers and drifters, rather than arch manipulators; there is something naïve, soft and kittenish about them, and so it is no surprise that people often take it upon themselves to look after them, to indulge them, in the way that one would a stray but friendly little animal.

For me, the Robber’s dominant character trait is a kind of gentle frivolity, lightheartedness or lack of seriousness. For example, when he finds out that Rathenau, a German statesman, has been assassinated he claps his hands;  he is, moreover, enchanted by unkind looks and delights at not being able to gain the esteem of gentlemen. From my experience, readers tend to find this precious otherworldly-ness, these quirks, either aggravating or charming. I cannot, of course, influence how any particular person will react, but I would argue that there is more to the Robber than mere whimsy, or silliness, although I suspect he would value both of those things. He is, without question, an genuine eccentric, someone who is not entirely sane, and, as such, he is rather vulnerable – Walser points out that he does not have any friends, for example – and this makes the flightiest of his flights of fancy touching.

“He resembled the leaf that a little boy strikes down from its branch with a stick, because its singularity makes it conspicuous.”

In this regard, his name is obviously significant, for a robber, like an eccentric,  is someone who has, in a sense, stepped outside of polite, conventional society by virtue of his behaviour. This outsiderness is further emphasised by the lack of steady occupation and also by his interactions with the middle classes. Indeed, class plays a subtly important role in the novel. For example, the respectable Stalder sisters want him to respond to their coquetry, to behave in certain predictable ways, to marry them, but of course he does not, for the Robber is disinterested in, or not familiar with, middle class duties, values, institutions, etc. Furthermore, there are a number of references throughout to narrowmindedness, where Walser, or the Robber, lament that those who are different, or behave differently, are not accepted or are bullied and criticised. Take the teacher with the ‘odd nature,’ who was told she knew nothing of her profession. Only with time and support is she able to become a productive member of society. The idea is, then, not that it is a good thing to be outside of conventional society, but that it is incumbent upon society to make everyone feel included and worthy. Which is, of course, a lovely sentiment.

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[One of Walser’s microscripts]

The Robber was Robert Walser’s last novel, and although it was written in 1925, it wasn’t published until the 1970’s. There was, I am sure, more than one reason for this, but it is worth noting, first of all, that The Robber is one of Walser’s microscripts, which means that it was written in pencil in tiny, almost indecipherable letters. I can just imagine how a publisher would react to being presented with such a manuscript. Moreover, the style of the novel is especially unusual. There is, for example, absolutely no plot, and precious little character depth and no development. Indeed, although it isn’t set out on the page in the same way, one might compare it to David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which is composed of a series of declarative statements.

Yet perhaps the most trying, or amusing, aspect of the novel, depending on your tolerance level for this sort of thing, is its digressiveness. The first line is ‘Edith loves him,’ and in a conventional narrative one would expect that it would then be explained just who exactly Edith is, who the ‘he’ is, and that there would follow from that some discussion as to the nature of their relationship. But Walser promises ‘more on that later’ and throws in a random reference to a ‘famous’ hundred francs, which, of course, one has no prior knowledge of. And this is not, as noted, a one-off; he does it frequently, relentlessly, so that the story is constantly running down dead-ends [‘that hundred francs will come to nothing at all,’ he later writes]. The effect upon the reader is that it keeps one from ever finding a firm-footing; it is disorientating. As a writer, Robert Walser snatches away the tablecloth and sends all the plates and cutlery flying [but, ah, how beautifully he approached the table].

In 1929 Walser admitted himself to a sanatorium, upon his sister’s urging, and, I think I am right in saying, remained there until his death. With this in mind, there is a tendency to view The Robber as a manifestation of madness, but I think this would be simplistic, not to mention unfair to the author, because it, in a sense, deprives him of credit or complete responsibility for it, it is akin to saying that he wrote it despite himself or that he had no option but to write it the way that he did. I don’t believe that. One must remember that none of Walser’s novels have a strong plot, and they are all erratic, episodic and digressive, to a lesser or greater degree. That was his style. It is, for me, simply the case that The Robber is the most complete, the most sophisticated example of that style; it is what he had been working towards all along. It, in my opinion, expertly, deliberately, captures the stop-startingness, the circularity, the charming meaninglessness of everyday life.

WAR WITH THE NEWTS BY KAREL CAPEK

A few years ago a friend of mine sent me an email containing a link to a newspaper article. This article referred to the discovery of, if I remember correctly, a previously unknown type of lobster. Underneath the article my friend had written: ‘How long before this ends up on a plate in some restaurant?’ To which I replied with something like: ‘They’ll probably dissect it or fuck it first.’ It has long been a running joke between us that with anything we – by which I mean human beings – encounter on this planet our instinct is to see if there is some way that we can exploit it. All in the name of progress, of course, a progress that, it strikes me, has always been, and will always be, paid for with gallons of blood.

Karel Čapek was a Czech writer, whose work – including plays, essays, novels – was published in the early part of the 20th century. He is probably most well-known for coining the term robot, but his dystopian novel War With the Newts appears to have become the go-to text, the one that, if Čapek is read at all, is most popular with modern readers. In short, the book describes the discovery of a species of intelligent newts by a Captain Van Toch, a Czech seaman, who teaches them how to speak, and how to fight their enemies [the sharks], in return for pearls. While at this stage, the relationship between man and newt could be said to be mutually beneficial and respectful, it does not take long before they are being ruthlessly exploited and oppressed.

“Besides, people never regard anything that serves and benefits them as mysterious; only the things which damage or threaten them are mysterious.”

Even on the basis of this brief description it ought to be clear that War With the Newts is not solely concerned with amphibious creatures. It is, indeed, generally considered to be a satire, an allegorical story pertaining to colonialism, whereby the newts are a stand-in for any number of indigenous peoples. I have repeated myself numerous times recently regarding my dissatisfaction with allegory and certain kinds of satire, but this book is, in my opinion, one of the more amusing, successful and complex examples. So, while there is some fairly obvious stuff about slave trading – the ‘dark-skinned’ newts are captured and sent all around the world to work for human masters – there are also more subtle and interesting barbs.

For example, the newts have a ritual, a kind of native dance that periodically takes place at night. This dance is considered by humans to be dubious in some vague way, as something to be suspicious of; and as the newts become more ‘civilised’ [i.e. humanised] they too, it is said, come to feel ashamed of it. Furthermore, Van Toch’s arming of the newts is significant. He, as noted, respects them, he gives them knives so that they can defend themselves, but he does not do so for purely altruistic reasons, but also in order to, in a sense, have access to their natural resources [the pearls under the sea]. This is very similar to what the UK and US governments have done in places like Iraq, where we have given them our cast-offs, our out-of-date weapons etc, in return for oil.

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One of the most rewarding, and surprising, aspects of Čapek’s novel, his allegory, is that, unlike with something like The Master and Margarita, the Czech was able to breathe life into his characters, both in terms of the oppressed and the oppressors. The newts are charming and likeable, and therefore their fate, their treatment at the hands of human beings, is moving. Take Andy, the lizard at London Zoo, who learns to speak English and reads the newspapers. His interview with the authorities is one of the novel’s highlights, as he answers the questions with information he has picked up in the media. Then there is the Czech-speaking newt who makes friends with a holidaying Czech couple. He longs to visit his homeland, a land he has not and will never see! The creatures are, by and large, innocent, funny, trusting, intelligent; they are like precocious children, and one cannot help but feel for them and want to protect them. Likewise, the blustering Van Toch isn’t merely a one- dimensional, heartless profiteer; in fact, it is not until he has passed away that the newts are exposed to the worst human behaviour, for it is said that he would not have allowed them to be brutalised while he was alive [and here we see a subtle psychological distinction between exploitation and severe physical mistreatment].

What gives the novel even greater depth is that it just as engaging, if not more so, if one overlooks the allegory and takes it on face value. In this way, it has a lot to say about the treatment of animals and the importance of animal welfare. First of all, to return to Andy, he dies when he is fed too many sweets by well-meaning, but careless or thoughtless, people. Think about certain fat cats or dogs you may have seen, which are habitually ‘treated’ by owners who do not understand or take seriously the responsibility of looking after an animal. Čapek also touches upon the use of exotic animals for amusement or spectacle, such as those poor tigers and bears one encounters in certain countries. In War with the Newts one man has himself a very ill show lizard, which is made to perform in a tent. Likewise, one could see the working newts as akin to the animals that we use or have used for farming, for pulling carriages; things like pit ponies and so on. There is even a mention of newt farming, when it wasn’t until very recently that battery farming became a hot topic.

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This is a book that is teeming with ideas, with intelligence and compassion; and there is so much more that one could focus on or discuss [I haven’t even mentioned tyranny, socialism, fascism]. I don’t, however, want to go over everything, I would like to leave some things for you to discover for yourself. Having said that, I am going to write a few sentences about one further notable theme, one that particularly interests me, which is the arrogance of the human race as it seeks to impose its will on the natural world and have it reflect himself. Once it is discovered that the newts can speak, numerous countries are adamant that they ought to speak their language; there is a drive to get them to wear clothes, etc. This is something I have touched upon before in other reviews, but, to reiterate, I find the obsession to remake non-human things in our image absurd and really quite depressing. One could, of course, also see this attitude as a comment on colonialism, in that what these people are essentially saying is that something is only worthwhile if it is like me; and this is how certain indigenous people are and have been treated. So, if they do things like we [civilised Europeans] do, well, then that is ok, they are human beings, and deserve rights and all that, but if they do not? If they eat things we wouldn’t eat? If they speak a language we do not understand? Savages! Barbarians! Sub-humans!

“Gentlemen, four-fifths of the earth’s surface is covered by seas; that is unquestionably too much; the world’s surface, the map of oceans and dry land, must be corrected. We shall give the world the workforce of the sea, gentlemen. This will no longer be the style of Captain van Toch; we shall replace the adventure story of pearls by the hymnic paean of labour.”

I was asked the other day to describe War With the Newts and, not wanting to give the impression that it is a piece of fluff, a silly b-movie in novel form, I said that it is ‘Moby Dick crossed with Dr. Strangelove.’ Some of what I have written so far ought to give weight to this statement. Like Dr. Strangelove it is a superior satire; like Melville’s great novel it is open to numerous compelling interpretations, etc. One other thing that is worth mentioning in this regard is Čapek’s  style. The novel includes chapters that stand as excellent short stories, newt anecdotes, newspaper articles, some fairly rigorous science, and engaging little essays [the best of these being Wolf Meynert’s communistic interpretation of the newt community and their glorious future!]. One is given all kinds of information about the creatures – their history, their biology, and much more – so that one comes to feel as though one is something of an expert on them. War with the Newts is an immersive experience, an in-depth look into the world of newts in the same way that Moby Dick is for whales. And now that I have read the book, now that I have had this experience, I can say that, in the event of war, I am firmly with the newts, man. Fuck humanity, we’ve had our chance.

EUGENIE GRANDET BY HONORE DE BALZAC

I’ve never met a miser, or certainly not one that could be said to meet the standards of the great 19th century authors. I have not, so far, come across anyone who, regardless of the size of their fortune, counts every penny, scrimps and saves and hoards. Perhaps it is simply that times have changed. The 21st century, it strikes me, is about ostentation, about displaying your wealth like peacock feathers. What is the point, we feel, of having money if you don’t spend it, if other people don’t know that you have it? Indeed, even the people who have little often attempt to convince others that they have greater means; they covet and even mimic, as much as possible, the lifestyles of the rich.

This kind of attitude would be completely alien to Monsieur Grandet, Honore de Balzac’s chief miser. Grandet was once a lowly cooper, who made his money through his own ingenuity [although his wife also brought with her a large income]. Yet, as with many people skilled in business, he is not exactly brimming with virtues; indeed, he is crafty and manipulative, affecting a stutter and partial deafness in order to bamboozle competitors and, when asked a difficult question, maintains that he must discuss it with his wife [who in reality is entirely subservient]. Moreover, despite his eye-watering wealth, he would rather the world thought him poor, because that way one is more likely to pick-up bargains and can avoid having to give charity to others [including his newly arrived nephew, Charles]. This is not to say that he is entirely successful in this regard; other misers can nose out one of their kind, and it is said that hours gazing at his huge mound of coins has given his eyes a noticeable yellow, metallic glitter. Balzac, in one of the book’s best metaphors, describes Grandet as something like a cross between a tiger and a snake. The old man, we’re told, is adept at lying in wait for his victim, ready to pounce and kill, and, once he has his prey, opens wide the mouth of his purse to swallow his bounty.

“Grandet unquestionably “had something on his mind,” to use his wife’s expression. There was in him, as in all misers, a persistent craving to play a commercial game with other men and win their money legally. To impose upon other people was to him a sign of power, a perpetual proof that he had won the right to despise those feeble beings who suffer themselves to be preyed upon in this world. Oh! who has ever truly understood the lamb lying peacefully at the feet of God?—touching emblem of all terrestrial victims, myth of their future, suffering and weakness glorified! This lamb it is which the miser fattens, puts in his fold, slaughters, cooks, eats, and then despises. The pasture of misers is compounded of money and disdain.”

However, it should be noted that Grandet is not entirely villainous, or is not grotesquely, exaggeratedly so. Often 19th century bad guys are without redeeming features, are cartoon figures, but that isn’t really the case here. We are told that the cooper loves his daughter dearly, although he certainly doesn’t spoil her. Furthermore, he was the only landowner prepared to take in and employ the ugly, warty big Nanon. Yes, one could say that is this instance he simply spied an opportunity, and that he has had more than his money’s worth out of her. Yet it is also true that she is genuinely devoted to him as her benefactor, and he treats her with some kindness [he gives her his watch, for example]. Were the old man overly cruel or excessively unpleasant Eugenie Grandet would be a different book, a tragedy; as it is, with Grandet being tight-fisted but recognisably human, it is more of a light, domestic comedy of manners.

The title character begins the book as a naïve, but happy young woman. Grandet hides his wealth from her, and so she has no reason to complain about her situation, about the unglamorous, and often tough, nature of her existence. What Balzac does with Eugenie is very clever. She is a kind, caring and selfless soul, who thinks little of her own comfort, and therefore it takes the arrival of someone who she wants to make happy and comfortable to open her eyes to her father’s attitudes and behaviour. She wants to give her cousin nice things to eat, to arrange his room, to treat him, essentially, as befitting an honoured guest. Of course, all this hugely irritates old Grandet, who charges the girl with wanting to ruin him financially. For the first time, Eugenie notices how unreasonable he is, as he argues over a lump or two of sugar; more significantly, she is exposed to his callousness when he shows his nephew no sympathy in his grief, stating that it is more upsetting to lose a fortune than to lose one’s father. Charles is, in this way, the catalyst for Eugenie’s awakening, he, or rather her love for him, allows her to see her world differently.

“In the pure and monotonous life of young girls there comes a delicious hour when the sun sheds its rays into their soul, when the flowers express their thoughts, when the throbbings of the heart send upward to the brain their fertilizing warmth and melt all thoughts into a vague desire,—day of innocent melancholy and of dulcet joys! When babes begin to see, they smile; when a young girl first perceives the sentiment of nature, she smiles as she smiled when an infant. If light is the first love of life, is not love a light to the heart? The moment to see within the veil of earthly things had come for Eugenie.”

As with nearly all of Balzac’s major works money is the principle theme and primary motivating factor for many of the central characters. Grandet’s obsession with coin is clear, but he is not the only one. The des Grassins and Cruchots are, from the beginning, engaged in trying to win Grandet’s esteem and, in the process, win his daughter – a potentially very rich heiress – and draw her into their family. Even the foppish Charles is not without blemish in this regard; he too, at least initially, sees Eugenie as a way to secure his future following the bankruptcy and death of his father. Balzac, ever the psychologist, makes an interesting point about how, for Eugenie, Charles’ grief in some way obscures his real motives, that she sees in his tears proof of a loving, sensitive soul, not realising that sensitivity in one area does not preclude calculating behaviour in another. What is unusual about Eugenie Grandet, in comparison with the other Balzac novels I have read, is that the money eventually ends up in the best hands, but, this not being Dickens, the outcome is not a happy one, for the person who possesses the multi-millions is the one person in the book who least values it, who least craves it, who is not satisfied in owning it.

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[Eugenie Grandet, directed by Mario Soldati, 1946]

I wrote previously that Eugenie Grandet is not a tragedy, but I guess that it is, in a way, because the good do not prosper, they suffer instead. Balzac makes no secret of his admiration for Eugenie, who is the most warmly described and exaggeratedly praised of all his saintly women [and there are quite a few of them throughout La Comedie]. However, for all that, and to my surprise, I did not find her excessively irritating. I think the reason for this is that, unlike Eve in Lost Illusions, she is not absolutely blind to the faults of others, is not essentially a doormat. She is, in fact, rather strong-willed and brave and perceptive, certainly after falling in love. For example, she stands up to her father on more than one occasion, takes a husband on her own terms, and  so on. I must also admit that I found her devotion very touching, and not unbelievable. Yes, there was very little substance to her affair,  and the cynical amongst us might scoff at the idea of holding a candle for someone for seven or more years, but one must remember that it was her first love, and those are incredibly potent, and that Eugenie was not exactly a socialite. Indeed, that is another of the book’s themes: the provincial attitude in comparison with the Parisian attitude, the worldy vs the cloistered.

While Eugenie Grandet lacks the fire and fevered genius of his later novels, it was nice to encounter the good-natured, the less intolerant and judgemental Balzac. Yes, he was, even at this early stage, fond of generalising but the book is mercifully free of the unpleasant comments about women [the old maid stuff in Cousin Bette, for example, where the title character is likened to a savage] or other races [the deplorable anti-semitism in Cousin Pons] that mars some of the work he produced towards the end of his life. Moreover, the focus of Eugenie Grandet, whose action takes place for the most part in one or two rooms of the Grandet house, is much narrower than most notable 19th century novels, including Balzac’s own Lost Illusions, which I consider to be his masterpiece, giving it a pleasing intimate feel. Indeed, the book has the sweet simplicity, melancholic undertone, and slow place one often encounters in Japanese literature or even Jane Austen [it does, in fact, remind me strongly of her Persuasion]. Personally, I prefer my Balzac strung out on coffee, unrelentingly cynical and melodramatic, but there is space for this sort of thing too, for tenderness and sentimentality and gulping down the odd tear.

BEL-AMI BY GUY DE MAUPASSANT

Ah, le scélérat….rebonjour, mon ami…

I’ve read so many French novels about cads and ladies men that I’m now something of an expert. I am able to recognise the subtle differences of approach these men take, and their various motivations, like a marine biologist who can adroitly identify different breeds of shark, which to a layman would all look the same. Take, for example, Julien Sorel, who conducts his amorous pursuits as though they were a military campaign, who, as I said in my review of The Red and The Black, is all about winning, and isn’t too interested in drinking the victory champagne, if you know what I mean. Then there is Lucien Chardon, who, on the surface, is much like Julien, in that he is young and self-obsessed. Lucien, however, is primarily a careerist, and so uses women as a way of climbing the social ladder. Moreover, he is able to convince himself that he is truly in love and, unlike the manipulative Julien, does not alter his character to suit the circumstances, believing that his own is his best weapon. Finally, consider Valmont, who is more or less a sociopath; he behaves worse than the previous two gentlemen, and does so out of boredom. And what of Georges Duroy? How does he fit into the rogues gallery? Well, he is a most unusual piece.

Bel Ami, Guy de Maupassant’s fine novel, begins with the above-named hero skulking around a hot and foul-smelling Paris, evidently frustrated and ill-at-ease. He barges people with his shoulder, he wants to throttle anyone who has more money than him [which is pretty much everyone], he longs for the touch of a woman and for a drink to ease his rasping throat. Maupassant reveals that he was once in the Army and describes his attitude, in one of the book’s most memorable lines, as being like ‘an NCO let loose in a conquered land, and reference is made to shooting Arabs while on duty. One gets the impression that Duroy might be dangerous, physically dangerous, and I must admit that I wasn’t expecting anything quite so dark, so noirish.

“His pockets empty, his blood seething, he was excited by the whispers of the whores on street corners.”

It is a brilliant, thrilling introduction, but it is, I think, slightly misleading. When Duroy gets a new job as a journalist, he is shown to be nervous, lacking in self-confidence, without any great talents or merits. The clearest indication of this is when he attempts to write an article, but finds that he is incapable, that he cannot even start it. Far from being a Machiavellian cad, with supernatural charm, he is pretty much dull-witted; he is slow on the uptake, naïve [or green, as he describes himself, I think]. Moreover, he is, for at least two-thirds of the book, honest or at least transparent. For example, when his mistress, Clotilde, wants to go for a walk he initially says that he would rather stay inside, but when pressed he confesses that he doesn’t have the money to pay for their entertainment. He doesn’t do this because he is trying to elicit sympathy, or manipulate her into giving him money [even though she does] but because he is simply unable to keep his fear or worry to himself.

What is most striking about the first part of the book is that Georges Duroy is thoroughly average, is unexceptional in every way, except perhaps his looks; even his motivations and ambitions are, for want of a better word, standard, are the kind almost everyone has. He wants money in his pocket and a woman…well, don’t we all? Yes, he also wants to get ahead, to raise himself up, but he actually lacks the mental wherewithal to accomplish it on his own. Indeed, every time Duroy does move up in the world, or gets a break, his success is courtesy of someone else, or at least something outside of himself; his victories are, more or less, pure dumb luck. For example, his journalism job comes via an old military friend who works for a paper, his first article is written by his friend’s wife, his standing in the paper is increased when he survives a duel, and so on. For the most part, things happen to Duroy, he doesn’t make them happen.

Perhaps in recognition of his own limitations, Duroy’s character is, until late in the novel, primarily a docile one. It is Madeleine Forestier who advises him to go see the woman he makes his lover; when Madeleine requests that he keep their impending marriage quiet, he acquiesces; and when she tells him to break it off with Clothilde, he again does just as he is told. This may sound exceedingly dull, and I accept that it lacks the sturm and drang of most other 19th century French novels, but it did feel fresh; and the novelty makes it engaging. In fact, one of the most satisfying aspects of the novel is how adult, how contemporary the relationships are [again, in the first part]. For example, when Duroy thinks about making love to Madeleine he is told in no uncertain terms that she finds all that preposterous, and will not countenance it. Moreover, when the couple speak of marriage she makes it clear that he will only be accepted if he grants her the freedom to which she is accustomed and treats her as though she is a partner, an ally, not his possession.

It ought to be clear then that Bel Ami is somewhat removed from the grand romanticism and emotional bombast one finds in Balzac et al. If I had to make a comparison I would say that Maupassant’s novel has more in common with the work of Georges Simenon or even Charles Bukowski, that his protagonist is reminiscent of the cowering and gloomy Ferdinand Bardemu, the narrator of Celine’s novels. It is not until some two hundred pages into the book [out of two hundred and ninety] that Duroy begins to exhibit the kind of traits and behaviour one would expect of a immoral scoundrel in a classic French novel. I must admit that my interest waned a little from this point onwards; the dumb-fun-factor is greater, but the story becomes familiar and predictable. Moreover, I did not feel as though the change in Duroy’s character was well handled – it is too abrupt, too extreme – and, ultimately, I got the impression that the author himself wasn’t really sure what was behind it.

After a happy start to his marriage, Duroy begins to resent the fact that his wife once belonged to someone else, and suspects that she cuckolded her first husband. As noted, in the previous two hundred pages one could not say that he has been a nice man, but he certainly hasn’t been a irredeemable bastard, either. Therefore, it is natural to suppose that his jealousy is the reason that he begins to behave as wickedly as he does from this point onwards. However, while I can accept that jealousy could lead someone to thinking ‘fuck it, feelings are for idiots, I’ll have no more of that, and will therefore treat everyone like shit and please myself,’ I don’t see how this feeling is then transformed into an overwhelming, passionate envy, directed towards anyone in a superior position, and a obsessive desire to supplant them and become top-dog. I don’t, either, buy that he would swing from tormenting jealousy to, well, complete indifference where his wife is concerned. More importantly, during this final section of the novel Duroy is able to do things without breaking sweat or batting an eyelid, that before he found difficult or impossible. He lies, he schemes; he shows intelligence, talent, daring, cunning, and so on. Maupassant had spent the greater part of Bel Ami giving the reader the impression that his hero was an average, albeit attractive, schmo who frequently gets lucky, and yet suddenly he is some sort of Devilish Byronic figure who has complete command over himself and everyone else? Come on.

With this in mind, my preferred interpretation is that the catalyst for his caddish manoeuvres is a series of existential confrontations with death. In the first instance, consider his proposal to Madeleine Forestier, which comes while the couple are watching over the dead body of her husband. On the surface, this seems like an outrageous, cynical step, and yet a panicky Duroy appears to be genuinely struck by his own mortality, and the need to make the most of his time on earth, and as such his offer of marriage is hardly an example of cold-hearted cuntishness. There are, in addition, two other incidents, prior to Forestier’s passing, where death is on the agenda: a kind of soliloquy delivered by a colleague, Norbert de Varenne, and a duel. These two passages are, for me, Bel Ami’s finest moments; and both appear to have a profound effect upon Duroy.

The duel is, of course, particularly significant, because it involves, not death as an abstract, as something happening to other people, but the very real threat of it happening to Duroy himself without too much delay. Again, I have to credit Maupassant with a modern outlook, because his hero does not take it in his stride, he does not rise to the challenge, nor welcome the opportunity to defend himself against unfair criticism. No, he does what most of us would do: he gets scared. He isn’t necessarily a coward, but rather a rationalist; he wants to avoid fighting because it is, well, dangerous; he questions the absurd dictates of honour, which have put him in a situation whereby he must fire at a man he has never met and has no real beef with. It isn’t difficult to imagine that if someone has had a brush with death it might spur them on to being more ruthless in pursuit of their desires and dreams, but how much this theory holds weight, when one considers that Duroy’s character does not immediately change in the way that it does following the jealousy chapters, I don’t know. In any case, being someone who is terrified of dying I understand myself how motivating that fear can be; in fact, I consider it to be responsible for a great many of my actions, both positive and negative. For what it is worth, the philosopher Martin Heidegger proposed that one should always keep death, or one’s mortality, in mind, that this was the only way to ensure an authentic existence.

 “We breathe, sleep, drink, eat, work and then die! The end of life is death. What do you long for? Love? A few kisses and you will be powerless. Money? What for? To gratify your desires. Glory? What comes after it all? Death! Death alone is certain.”

I have spent much of this review focusing on the particulars of Duroy’s character, without, as yet, saying anything about the wider significance of the action. To this end, John Paul Sartre said of Maupassant’s creation that ‘his rise testifies to the decline of a whole society.’ If I am honest, I’m not entirely sure what he meant by this. What Duroy’s ultimate victory suggests to me is that the structure of French society, maybe western society as a whole, was changing; but whether that was for the better or worse I cannot say. Duroy comes, one must remember, from low stock; his parents are tavern owners, and he frequently refers to them as peasants. As the novel reaches a climax Georges, in a sense, has infiltrated the upper reaches of French society, and laid his hat there. Maupassant seems to be suggesting that he is one of the new breed of men, the nouveau riche, who will usher out the old aristocracy, taking their money, their positions, and their titles. It isn’t just Duroy either; the biggest winner in the novel is the Jewish financier, M. Walter, who in some kind of stock market scam earns millions. Does unscrupulous common men making all the money and having all the power testify to a decline? It is certainly a sign of the times, is more in keeping with the world we live in now than that of privileged barons and lords, but I’m less than convinced that it is a bad thing, certainly in comparison to the alternative.

OUR MUTUAL FRIEND BY CHARLES DICKENS

To speak about reality is nonsense. I’ve written about this before. I can’t think about it too much as I would lose my fucking mind. Your reality is what you experience, what you take to be the truth of the world; but what is truth? For example, consider how two people can experience an event in completely different ways. It could be something as mundane as a film. One thinks the film is really good, and the other thinks it is really bad. What is the reality? What is the truth? Is the film good or bad? How about how two people can witness a crime and yet one may describe the perpetrator as having blonde hair, and the other describe him as having brown hair? At one time people were convinced that the earth is square; that was their reality and yet we now, with just as much vehemence, believe differently. What’s more, I saw a documentary the other day in which a woman was convinced that her husband was rich; he told her he was rich, he lived as though he was rich. And yet he didn’t have a bean; he was catastrophically in debt. Likewise, you might be convinced that Africa exists; you have been told it exists, but what if you have never seen it, what if you have never been there?

The thing is, there is no objective reality; or if there is you don’t have access to it. Nothing you think you know about anything is safe. You have all seen The Truman Show I am sure. That is how the world is to me; I am always aware that everything about my experience is conjecture, potential, only possible; nothing is concrete. The reason that this is on my mind again is due to Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. It is hard to write about the book, and especially hard to write about a certain aspect of the book, by which I mean what it says about the nature of reality, without giving the game away. And yet it is central to one’s experience of the novel. So, with that said, I am not going to worry about spoilers and proceed as though you have all read it or have no interest in reading it [and therefore I can’t ruin it for you]. I will, however, make it clear when I am going to reveal the big secret, the twist, so that you can look away if you absolutely must.

Our Mutual Friend starts out as a dark tale of death, gold-digging and inheritance and, uh, pretty much proceeds that way throughout. A young man, John Harmon, is to come into a large amount of money, an inheritance from his rich but miserly father, but he drowns without claiming it, and so it goes to Mr Boffin, his father’s employee. One of the conditions of the inheritance was that John was to have married Bella Wilfer, a beautiful but essentially poor girl. Consequently, when John is found dead, and Bella’s prospects have therefore been compromised, the Boffin’s patronise the girl as a kind of recompense. Both the Boffins and Bella are classic Dickens characters, yet they are less predictable than many of his creations. Bella is charming and goodhearted [although she certainly knows the value of money], but what sets her apart from a number of Dickens’ other heroines is that she has a little more pluck, a little more spunk. Compare her, for example, to Little Em’ly or Esther Summerson and there is a marked difference; Little Em’ly is weak and a bit of a sap and Esther, although she exhibits greater strength, is almost oppressively kind and seemingly of an eternally sunny disposition. Bella, however, is not always grateful, not always cheerful; she is sometimes argumentative and will not marry for love but for money or status.

In terms of the Boffins, they are evidence of Dickens’ great genius for creating amiable and likeable characters. The truth is that they ought to be irritating; they ought to grate on you, and yet they do not. That is a talent; it is not an accident. However, while Mrs Boffin remains good-natured for the duration of the novel, her husband, as the narrative progresses, goes through a drastic, unexpected change. I do not know how other readers feel about it, but Mr Boffin’s change of heart, his development into a miser like his once employer, was one of my favourite aspects of the novel; it shifted Our Mutual Friend up a gear, gave it a momentum and tension that it would otherwise have lacked. One cannot help but be fascinated by the change, and what it will mean for the characters and the story as a whole. Boffin is also part of one of the great double acts in literature, with Silas Wegg, who he engages to read to him. Silas Wegg is a crippled ballad-seller, a conman and thoroughly nasty sort; his interplay with Boffin, both before and after his change of character, is hilarious.

In addition to Silas Wegg, the book is populated, as you would expect, by many memorable supplementary characters and storylines. However, what is novel about them, in terms of the author’s oeuvre, is that many of these stories are sad or depressing and many of the minor characters are villains or at least morally dubious. Our Mutual Friend is, in my opinion, Dickens’ darkest work. Take Bradley Headstone [great name!], a schoolmaster who becomes obsessed with another beautiful but poor girl, Lizzie Hexam. His infatuation is genuinely creepy, and ultimately ends in attempted murder. Then there is Rogue Riderhood [another great name!], a man whose employment is to drag corpses from the river and rob them of valuables before turning them over to the authorities. He too gets embroiled in a murder plot. Even the more lighthearted scenes, even the characters who one assumes are meant to provide comic relief, are shot through with misery, are entangled in horrific situations. An example of this is Jenny Wren, a crippled teenager who treats her alcoholic father as though he were her child. I mean, bloody hell. Suicide, blackmail, double-crossing, plots, murder, violence, deformity, gold-digging…Our Mutual Friend has it all.

And so we come towards the end of the review; and here be serious spoilers. As one approaches the conclusion of the novel one asks oneself, Will Dickens’ buck the trend of an entire career and wrap up his narrative without a happy ending? Will his message be that the world is an awful, bleak and terrifying place? No, of course not! And that is almost a disappointment, because the turn-around seems a bit forced. Dickens spends most of his novel showing us the dark side of life, and went so far into it that the only way to come back was abruptly. Remember that Boffin is meant to have become a miser, and that Bella will not marry a poor man; from this position it seems impossible to forge a happy ending. The way that Dickens does this is for it to be revealed that Boffin was never truly a miser, that he was pretending, and for Bella to abandon her principles and fall for a man below her own station. This man, John Rokesmith, then turns out to be the presumed-drowned John Harmon. Yep. So, basically, John Rokesmith-John Harmon set up his own girlfriend in order to be sure that she will marry him for himself and not for money, and Boffin was in on this plot.

The most troublesome aspect of this plot is Bella’s reaction. She takes the revelation in her stride, she almost approves of the plan. I find that hard to swallow. She has been manipulated. To return to my opening paragraph, her conception, her understanding of the reality of the world has been shown to be false. She thought Harmon dead, she thought her lover to be poor, and she thought her patron to be a miser, and yet none of these things turn out to be the case. Most people would, understandably, be upset about being played with in this manner, and all in order to prove to themselves that you’re not actually a heartless gold-digger! I don’t know what else to say about all that, and I certainly cannot defend it; all I can say is that while I would not have made the choices that Dickens himself did, would have preferred the book to conclude in a different way, Our Mutual Friend is still a truly great read, a ten-out-of-ten novel; it may even be his best and that is some accolade.

THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY BY HENRY JAMES

This is the sexiest novel of all time. You’re screwing up your face right now, I can tell. It is though, it’s sexy as fuck. People often want to tell you that Henry James’ greatest flaw was his lack of passion. Nabokov, If I recall correctly, labelled his work blonde. I don’t think he meant that in the way that modern readers would understand it i.e. as a synonym for dumb, but rather as one for bland. Katherine Mansfield once said of E.M. Forster that he was like a lukewarm teapot [ha!], and that description also seems to nicely sum up the prevailing attitude towards James. It’s wrong though, that attitude; I’ve read numerous Henry James novels and I am of the opinion that he was a firecracker, a sexual viper.

Read the first 100 pages of Portrait of a Lady and then try and convince me that the male characters don’t all want to bash Isabel’s doors in; and that she, likewise, wants them to, or enjoys giving the impression that she wants them to. You won’t succeed. I’m serious. If you can’t see it then I conclude that you can’t recognise extreme sexual tension when it’s under your nose. The flirting is outrageous! You might think all this is cute, like oh [P]’s being theatrical. I say again, I’m serious. It’s not as though I consider all so-called button-down and stuffy lit to be, in reality, hot shit; I mean, I’ve never claimed that Pride & Prejudice is really all about rimjobs and teabagging. There’s something about Henry James’ work, and this novel in particular, that seethes, writhes with unspoken frustration and desire. James’ art, the one thing that makes him stand out for me, is in how he somehow suggests, hints, implies but never outright tells you the juiciest bits of his story. It’s pretty magical really; I don’t know how to explain it; there’s a whole world beneath the surface of his work. In Portrait of a Lady I believe that world to be a sexual one. Why do all the male characters fall for Isabel? Because she is charming and pretty? Is she really all that, looks-wise? No, it’s because she gives the impression of being up for it; she’s, to put it more politely, sensual. She has great sex appeal, which is why she was not right for Lord Warburton, who is a bit of a sop and would make a conventional woman of her; by conventional i do not mean that he will not allow her to be herself, that he wishes to clip her emotional and intellectual wings, but that the match he is offering is conventional i.e. he is rich and handsome and terribly nice, and only a fool would turn him down.

Some people say that Portrait of a Lady is about freedom, and I agree, it is. But I think that involves sexual freedom also, although, of course, as stated, that is not made explicit. There’s a lot written in the beginning of the novel about Isabel’s independent spirit, about how she does not want to be tied down. Before she takes up with Gilbert Osmond the novel is strongly feminist in tone. This is because Isabel regards marriage as an impediment to her freedom, she rejects marriage [literally, she receives two proposals early on] as a barrier to her gaining experience [what kind of experience, huh? Huh?] and knowledge of the world. However, I would argue [as I am sure many would argue to the contrary] that the second half of the book, and by extension the whole book obviously, is feminist, because Isabel makes her choice, the one to marry Osmond, freely. It does not matter that it may be a bad choice, the important thing is that she rejected more beneficial matches in favour of the one that most pleased her. In fact Isabel says at one stage ‘to judge wrong is more honourable than to not judge at all.’

Isabel is one of the most fascinating characters I have ever encountered, because she is so extraordinarily complex, complex in a way that fictional people seldom are. She is strong-willed, arrogant, and yet thoroughly nice; she is perceptive and yet makes poor choices; she is warm and charming and yet sometimes stunningly cold; indeed, her rejections of Lord Warburton are flawless examples of smiling iciness, of jovial dismissiveness. Isabel falls for Gilbert Osmond, to my mind, partly because he does not mindlessly adore her, does not fawn over her. He is mysterious, indolent; there is the hint of a darker side. He appears to be tired of everything, bored of everything, and so that he is interested in Isabel seems like a huge coup; it speaks to her ego. It’s pretty straightforward psychology to want most the thing that appears to be able to live without you with the least trouble. Isabel also credits herself with an original intelligence, therefore one could perhaps say that she likes Osmond, sees something great in him, precisely because others do not. However, the irony, the tragedy of their union is that Osmond is himself utterly conventional and tries to force Isabel to be so; Osmond, out of an anti-conventionality sentiment, demands that she be the most conventional wife.

Madame Merle, who first earmarks Isabel for Osmond, is often regarded as one of literature’s great villains, which is not really the case, because James’ novels don’t contain true villains. Having said that, however, there is something vile about her, despite her never really doing anything to deserve the charge. It’s James’ great art again; he makes Madame Merle a masterpiece of quiet menace. You are dangerous, the Countess Gemini declares, as they chat together about the prospect of Osmond and Isabel uniting, and you quite well believe it, even without the accompanying evidence. Her entrance into the novel, her unannounced [to Isabel] presence in the Touchett’s home is strangely chilling. She is first encountered, sat with her back to Isabel, playing the piano; she strikes you as almost girlish, initially, despite her age. It made me shudder, and I don’t think I can express why that is. Ralph describes his aversion to her as being due to her having no black specks, no faults, and one understands that what he means by this is that only bad people appear to be perfectly good.

If Portrait of a Lady does not have a true villain, in the Dickensian sense of that word, it does at least have someone who it is very easy to hate [which is, of course, not quite the same thing]. As Isabel herself admits, Gilbert Osmond does not do a hell of a lot wrong – he does not beat her, for example – but there is certainly something disquieting about him, something not right. One only has to look to how he treats his daughter Pansy; he sees her as a kind of doll, one that is absolutely submissive to his will. She is entirely artless, which is interesting because Osmond approaches her like a work of art, as something that he has created, has formed out of his imagination; it is not a coincidence that Osmond is both an artist and a collector [he creates Pansy; he collects Isabel]. Pansy is, for me anyway, a little creepy; she is so in the way that dolls themselves are, in that they give the impression of being human, of being alive, and yet are lifeless. It is fair to say that while he may not be a wife-beater, Osmond’s attitudes towards women are suspect; he is a kind of passive-aggressive bully, a subtle misogynist.

Amongst other things Portrait of a Lady is a classic bad marriage[s] novel. The earliest indication of this is the relationship between Isabel’s Aunt and Uncle; the Uncle lives in England, and the Aunt in Florence. What kind of a marriage is that? Then there is, of course, Isabel and Gilbert. Isabel, as stated, marries Osmond, I believe, because she thrills to think that such a man might pay court to her, might be interested in her, when he takes so little interest in the world at large; she finds his attitude heroic, and his interest in her, therefore, as a boon to her sense of self-worth. Osmond, on the other hand, sees in her something that will do him credit, both financially and socially. He appreciates her, for all that she will benefit him, rather than truly loves her. This appreciation does involve admiring certain qualities she possesses, but he wants those qualities to work on other people, not on himself; for himself he would like her to be another Pansy [i.e. entirely submissive] and appears to think he can train her to be so. He enters the marriage, in a way that a lot of people do even now, believing that he can smooth her rough edges, make her perfect for him, instead of accepting and cherishing what she is. Finally, there is the courting of Pansy by Rosier and Warburton; Warburton as a Lord is, obviously, favoured by the girl’s father, but Pansy does not love him, she loves Rosier. While I won’t give away the outcome of this little love triangle, what is most interesting about it is that it again raises the question of whether one should marry to make the best match, or for love; should one use one’s head or heart when making the decision? Isabel used her heart, and came a cropper, but perhaps that was still for the best; it is better to choose with your heart and fail, than to choose with your head and benefit from it.