“The 1920s were a great time for reading” (Bill Bryson)

A little while ago I wrote about Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, her novel set in the 1920s, which I took refuge in as I was trying to grow my hair into a bob (well, it made sense at the time). Rest easy reader, I know you must have been worrying about it, but a friend proclaimed this weekend that my hair looks most definitely bob-like so I’m walking around like a fabulous flapper:

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Maybe not. But regardless, to celebrate I’m looking at two novels from the 1920s, as recommended by Sarah Waters at the end of The Paying Guests. Choosing from the list of ten was a serious business, involving shortlists, consulting with various bookish types, taking votes…. OK, I just picked the two I had on my TBR mountain 🙂

Firstly, The Judge by Rebecca West (1922) which Sarah Waters describes thusly: “Suffragism, illegitimacy, motherhood, melodrama: like lots of West’s fiction, this is sprawling, brilliant, funny – and a little bit crazy.” The story begins in Edinburgh, where Ellen, nineteen years old, beautiful and a suffragette, meets Richard Yaverland:

“For sufficient reasons he was very sensitive to the tragedies of women, and he knew it was a tragedy that such a face should surmount such a body. For her body would imprison her in soft places: she would be allowed no adventures other than love, no achievements other than births.”

Later in the story it will emerge what those sufficient reasons are, but against her better judgement Ellen falls in love with worldly, handsome Richard.

“She was not sure that she approved of love. The position of women being what it was. Men were tyrants, and they seemed to be able to make their wives ignoble. Married women were often anti-Suffragists; they were often fat; they never seemed to go out on long walks in the hills or write poetry.”

Alongside this humour and Ellen’s naivety “I will have nothing to do with any man until I am great. Then I suppose I will have to use them as pawns in my political and financial intrigues” West does have something serious to say about relationships between the sexes at that moment in time. The Judge presents detailed character studies of Ellen, Richard and his mother Marion, and how society has influenced the nature and capacity of their love. This is not a rose-tinted view of young marriage by any means.

“Perhaps something like fear would have come upon her if she had known how immense he felt with victory; how he contemplated her willingness to love him in a passion of timeless wonder, watching her journey from heaven, stepping from star to star, all the way down the dark whirling earth of his heart; and how even while he felt a solemn agony at his unworthiness he was busily contriving their immediate marriage. For there was a steely quality about his love that would have been more appropriate to some vindictive purpose.”

 The second half of the novel sees Ellen leave Edinburgh to live with Richard and his mother in the Home Counties. More emerges about the circumstances of Richard’s illegitimacy and subsequently complex family dynamics. It is at this point that the melodrama mentioned by Sarah Waters really starts to ramp up. I think it’s here that the novel may start to lose readers, but although it begins to spiral somewhat, I still thought the novel had a lot to say about women’s position and the ramifications of moral absolutes. Marion and Richard have a relationship Freud would have found great mileage in, teetering on the edge of impropriety. Ellen is understandably somewhat befuddled by this brittle woman and her weird family, but she decides they suit her:

 “The rapidity with which she had changed from the brooding thing she generally was, with her heavy eyes and her twitching hands perpetually testifying that the chords of her life had not been resolved and she was on edge to hear their final music, and the perfection with which she had assumed this bland and glossy personality at a moment’s notice, struck Ellen with wonder and admiration. She liked the way this family turned and doubled under the attack of fate. She felt glad that she was going to become one of them, just as a boy might feel proud on joining a pirate crew.”

The Judge is somewhat overblown, but I enjoyed it for that reason – sometimes it’s nice to indulge in a bit of mad melodramatics alongside the serious issues.

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Secondly, Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim (1921) which Sarah Waters describes as “a brilliant depiction of a sinister, suffocating marriage, this novel also features one of the most likeable spinster aunts in British fiction.” Sinister is right: this is a very different tale to the delightful The Enchanted April. Definitely not escapist, Vera is rather one of those novels where you want to reach into the book, yank out one of the characters and shake them until they listen to you, the older, wiser reader. Maybe I get over-involved in my reading…

Lucy Entwhistle, young and naïve, finds herself almost alone in the world after her beloved father dies. Blundering into her grief moments after the death is the older, good-looking Wemyss, also grieving a loss, as his wife has recently died in possibly murky circumstances:

“‘How good you are!’ she said to Wemyss, her red eyes filling. ‘What would I have done without you?’

‘But what would I have done without you?’ he answered; and they stared at each other, astonished at the nature of the bond between them, at its closeness, at the way it seemed almost miraculously to have been arranged that they should meet on the crest of despair and save each other.”

Vera is extremely clever, as at first we don’t like Wemyss, but like Lucy’s beloved spinster Aunt Dorothy, it’s not totally clear why: “whatever she felt about his legs she welcomed him with the utmost cordiality”. The more time he spends with Lucy, the more unpleasant he reveals himself to be – a wholly self-centred, arrogant, ignorant bully. Aunt Dorothy is wise enough to realise that if she registers her objections, it will only push Wemyss and Lucy closer together, and so she keeps quiet, though distressed, as she watches the tragedy unfold.

“His way of courting wouldn’t be – she searched about in her uneasy mind for a word, and found vegetarian. Yes; that word sufficiently indicated what she meant: it wouldn’t be vegetarian.”

Von Arnim’s lovely humour stops the tale being bleak, but it is a tense tale, increasingly so after Wemyss and Lucy marry less than a year from the death of the titular wife. The scales begin to fall from Lucy’s eyes:

“One learns a lot on a honeymoon, Lucy reflected, and one of the things she had learned was that Wemyss’s mind was always made up.”

But Lucy doesn’t realise the extent of what is going on in her marriage. We are living at a time of fourth-wave feminism, and in a post-Freudian world, so I would say Lucy is in a psychologically abusive marriage with a narcissistic, megalomaniac sadist who seeks to destroy her.  But she cannot see it.

“the mood of tender, half-asleep acquiescence in which, as she lay in his arms, he most loved her; then indeed she was his baby…You couldn’t passionately protect Vera. She was always in another room.”

Wise Vera.  There is a glimmer of hope, and that hope is the wonderful Aunt Dorothy. Never underestimate the clear-sighted spinster Wemyss, you have no idea who you’re dealing with.

Joan Hickson, the greatest Miss Marple - 5 points if you can spot the wardrobe malfunction in this picture

Joan Hickson, the greatest Miss Marple – 5 points if you can spot the wardrobe malfunction in this picture

Vera is a brilliantly written psychological study of the dangers for women in a society that seeks to position them as economically and socially dependent on men, particularly when this dependency is wrapped up in romantic notions. It made me furious and it made me sad. It also made me glad that although we have some way to go, I live where my rights as a woman are enshrined in law.

To end, what Lucy needs is a Lesley Gore classic cranked up to 11, sung by the perennially awesome feminist icon Joan Jett:

“Oh Rio, Rio hear them shout across the land/From mountains in the north down to the Rio Grande” (Duran Duran)

The 2016 Olympics have come to an end (boo!) but we still have the Paralympics to come (hooray!) There have been astonishing achievements by those who seem to have been made from very different stuff to us mere mortals. When they seem doused in more than their fair share of charisma as well, you can’t even make yourself feel better by thinking that they’re probably horrible people, because they’re just so funny and charming about it all. Who could I be thinking of….?

Human being: 2.0

Human being: 2.0

To celebrate the Olympics, I thought I’d take up triathlon sit on my backside reading, of course. It’s Women In Translation Month (head over to Meytal’s blog to read all about WITmonth) so I’m looking at two novellas by Brazilian women writers. This will also be one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

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Firstly, Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector (1973, tr. Stefan Tobler 2012). Although I’ve called this a novella, I’m not sure that’s really what it is. It’s a series of impressions and observations, plotless but definitely not artless.

“This is life seen by life. I may not have meaning but it is the same lack of meaning that the pulsing vein has.”

I say it’s not artless, because although Agua Viva can give the impression of randomness, it’s carefully constructed to carry you through, the different passages building on and echoing one another.

“So writing is the method of using the word as bait: the word fishing for whatever is not word. When this non-word – between the lines – takes the bait, something has been written…so what saves you is writing absentmindedly.

I don’t want to have the terrible limitation of those who live merely from what can make sense. Not I: I want an invented truth.”

“I notice that I’m writing as if I were between sleep and wakefulness.”

Agua Viva quite a difficult work to talk about, because it resists being pinned down.  I could attach various labels to it: impressionistic, modernist, stream-of-consciousness, but none of these are quite right. On this reading – for I suspect it changes every time you read it – I felt it was about trying to capture the immediate present, to pin down moments knowing that they are gone forever just as you recognise them.  The style lends itself to this theme, as it jumps and disorientates, on occasions tipping over into surrealism:

“I am feeling the martyrdom of an untimely sensuality. In the early hours I awake full of fruit. Who will come to gather the fruit of my life? If not you and I myself? Why is it that things an instant before they happen already seem to have happened? It’s because of the simultaneity of time. And so I ask you questions and these will be many. Because I am a question.”

I read Agua Viva cover to cover, and I do wonder if this was the wrong approach. While the kaleidoscopic style and images build towards an overall impression, Agua Viva would equally lend itself to being dipped into, reading a single passage and ruminating on it. Apparently the Brazilian singer Cazuza read Agua Viva 111 times. I suspect it’s that sort of book: either you hurl it against the wall within minutes of opening it, or it becomes a mercurial companion for life.

I can’t sum myself up because you can’t add a chair and two apples. I am a chair and two apples. And I cannot be added up.”

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Secondly, With My Dog-Eyes by Hilda Hilst (1986 tr. Adam Morris 2014). This is also a disorienting , unsettling work, non-linear and impressionistic. Hilst uses this style to create a highly effective portrait of Professor Amos Keres, who is having some sort of breakdown or psychotic episode. The fractured story-telling serves to take the reader inside the mind of someone who is extremely unwell.

“Poetry and mathematics. The black stone structure breaks and you see yourself in a saturation of lights, a clear-cut unhoped-for. A clear-cut unhoped-for was what he felt and understood at the top of that small hill. But he didn’t see shapes or lines, didn’t see contours or lights, he was invaded by colours, life, flashless, dazzling, dense, comely, a sunburst that was not fire. He was invaded by incommensurable meaning. He could only say that. Invaded by incommensurable meaning.”

The narrative shifts from third to first person as Keres copes with his boss suggesting he take a break, and then spends the day thinking over his life since boyhood, his career and his marriage. This makes it sound more linear and contained than it is, and does With My Dog-Eyes a great disservice. Its power comes from its layering of ideas and images with such rapidity as to almost assault the reader – never incoherent but an effective immersion in an unravelling mind.

“And everything begins anew, the patience of these animals infinitely digging a hole, until one day (I hoped, why not?) transparence inundates body and heart, body and heart of mine, Amos, animal infinitely digging a hole. In mathematics, the old world of catastrophes and syllables, of imprecision and pain was cracking up. I no longer saw hard faces twisting into questions, in tears so many times, I didn’t see the gaze of the other on mine, what a thing it can be to have eyes on your eyes, eyes on your mouth. Waiting for what kind of word? Such formidable cruelties occurring every day, humans meeting and in the good-mornings and good-afternoons such secrets, such crimes, such chalice of lies…”

It’s a good job this was a novella (59 pages in my edition) as I don’t think I could have taken much more of it (that’s a recommendation, not a criticism). With My Dog-Eyes is a short, sharp, shock: a plunge into madness.

To end, I was very excited that Caetano Veloso was performing at the Olympic opening ceremony, but I don’t think the acoustics did him any favours in capturing his wonderfully sensitive voice.  Here he is as part of the Pedro Almodovar film Hable Con Ella (Talk to Her):

“One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by.” (Jeanette Walls)

A couple of weeks ago the news reported it was the busiest day for holiday getaways. And just in case there was any doubt that this was a British news story, it was delivered by a reporter standing next to a motorway, framed within a narrative context of extreme traffic jams, while the traffic behind her was disappointingly free-flowing. Brilliant. It’s the first bit of news that raised a smile from me after Brexit.

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Sadly, my finances are as dire as ever so I will have to leave the joys of non-existent traffic jams to more solvent souls. Instead I looked to my TBR for some suitably summery titles and came up with two that by coincidence are both short story collections. So not quite the traditional holiday doorstop reading matter, but highly recommended nonetheless.

Firstly, Sunstroke by Tessa Hadley (2007), whose stories explore desire in various guises, showing how it is both extraordinary and everyday. The titular story looks at old friends Rachel and Janie, married with kids, committed to their lives yet willing to risk it all for a moment’s sexual excitement:

“Neither is exactly unhappy, but what has built up in them instead is a sense of surplus, of life unlived. Somewhere else, while they are absorbed in pushchairs and fish fingers and wiping bottoms, there must be another world of intense experiences for grown-ups.”

Hadley is very good at placing dramatic tension within these ordinary domestic details. Her settings and characters are wholly recogniseable, and it is this that makes her writing challenging: you can’t step away from it as something outside your experience. So even if you’ve never had an affair with your lecturer, tracked down the older woman who got away, or recreated the sexual betrayals of your parents within your own love life, as the protagonists of Hadley’s short stories have, it is difficult to claim that these experiences are entirely alien. Is it out of character behaviour, or is it that someone’s character is sublimated beneath the ordinary? Hadley questions how secure anything is, how sure we can be of the foundations of our lives, when in a moment, something can happen to change the narrative we’ve constructed:

“Even if we were good, if we were perfectly and completely chaste, we can’t control what happen in our imagination. So being good might only be another kind of lie.”

Hadley is a highly skilled writer. Often I found myself on finishing the stories thinking “Oh, that’s clever.” The collection works as a whole and the individual stories are exactly what the genre should be: powerful, contained, strengthened rather than weakened by their limited words. She’s also great at effective turns of phrase:

For a moment he was sure she could smell something on him, see something of the dazzle that was clinging to him, dripping off him, flashing round in his veins. But he saw her deliberately tidy that intimation away, out of consciousness. This was her husband, the man she knew. He was a physics teacher and competition-standard chess player, wasn’t he?”

Duran Duran taking a formal approach to their barging holiday along Birmingham's canal system

Duran Duran taking a formal approach to their barging holiday along Birmingham’s canal system

Secondly, The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr (2002), written 12 years before the Pulitzer prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See. Having read this collection, I don’t think it’s too much to say the Pulitzer potential was already evident – this is a brilliantly written collection of stories, spanning several countries: Kenya, Liberia, the US,  Finland, Tanzania. In the titular story, a young boy loses his sight and discovers the love of his life:

“‘That’s a mouse cowry,’ the doctor said. ‘A lovely find. It has brown spots, and darker stripes at its base, like tiger stripes. You can’t see it, can you?’

But he could. He’d never seen anything so clearly in his life. His fingers caressed the shell, flipped and rotated it. He had never felt anything so smooth – had never imagined something could possess such deep polish. He asked, nearly whispering: ‘Who made this?’ The shell was still in his hand, a week later, when his father pried it out, complaining of the stink.”

As an adult, his quiet life collecting on the coast is disturbed by people wanting him to sting them with cone shells, convinced it will cure their various ills. It is a melancholy tale, about a search for meaning in the world, about loneliness and grief. Ultimately though, it is about resilience and love.

“He took the cone shell and flung it, as far as he could, back into he lagoon. He would not poison them. It felt wonderful to make a decision like this. He wished he had more shells to hurl back into the sea, more poisons to rid himself of.”

All eight stories in this collection are beautifully written; wise and moving. Even in such company, one of the stories which stood out for me was The Caretaker, about a Liberian refugee. Joseph Saleeby is not a particularly likable man when we first meet him: selfish, spoilt and making a living illegally. Then war breaks out, and he suffers horribly. He arrives in the US to claim refuge, deeply traumatised.  When the bodies of six whales are washed ashore, he takes their hearts and buries them on the estate where he is caretaker:

“He fills the hole, and as he leaves it, a mound of earth and muscle, stark amid a thicket of salmonberry with the trunks of spruce falling back all around it… he feels removed from himself, as though his body were a clumsy tool needed only a little longer. He parks in the yard and falls into bed, gore-soaked and unwashed, the door to the apartment open, the hearts of all six whales wrapped in the earth, slowly cooling. He thinks: I have never been so tired. He thinks: at least I have buried something.”

He starts growing fruit and vegetables on the plot of land and befriends the unhappy daughter of the owners. Things do not go well for Joseph as people don’t realise how mentally fragile he is, but his friendship with Belle endures:

“The girl saws a wedge from one of the halves. The flesh is wet and shining and Joseph cannot believe the colour – it is as if the melon carried light within it. They each lift a chunk of it to their lips and eat. It seems to him that he can taste the forest, the trees, the storms of the winter and the size of the whales, the stars and the wind. A tiny gob of melon slides down Belle’s chin.”

Doerr writes with delicacy but without sentimentality. His view is penetrating and unblinking, but compassionate. Just devastating.

To end, summer = Pimms, and this advert = another chance to acknowledge the enduring genius of Adam Ant:

“Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.” (George Steiner)

Last week I looked at a Nordic mystery as part of Women in Translation month, and this week I thought I’d make it the central theme – head over to Meytal’s blog to read all about WITmonth. The need for Women in Translation month was brought home to me when I went to my TBR shelves thinking “No problem! I have loads of translated literature waiting to be read.” Well, yes, I do, but looking at the titles I suddenly realised it was very much dominated by male writers.

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I’m glad you asked, Mads. Firstly, The Vegetarian by Korean writer Han Kang (2007, tr. Deborah Smith 2015) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. You probably don’t need me to tell you how good The Vegetarian is; it was the glowing reviews and enthusiasm from bloggers that led me to pick up this novel in the first place. The hype was well deserved – The Vegetarian is an unsettling, brutal and beautifully written tale which has stayed with me long after I finished it.

It is the story of Yeong-hye, the titular herbivore, told from three points of view: her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister, over the course of a few years, from the point she starts refusing to eat meat. Her husband can’t believe that his wife – whose main appeal was that she impinges on his life in no way whatsoever – would do something so antisocial.

“As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion. In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done.”

Yeong-hye’s behaviour is not rooted in any of these ‘reasonable grounds’ but in a deep disturbance at thought of eating meat, something which is not easy to cope with or explain:

“Something is lodged in my solar plexus. I don’t know what it might be. It’s lodged there permanently these days. Even though I stopped wearing a bra, I can feel this lump all the time. No matter how deeply I inhale, it doesn’t go away. Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of all the animals I ate are lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives stick stubbornly to my insides.”

Yeong-hye’s behaviour exposes the fractures in her family: the tensions, hidden desires, and loyalties which on one occasion spills over into physical violence. She can’t be what her husband wants her to be. Subject to her brother-in-law’s sexual fetishes, she cannot answer all of his needs either. Nor can she start eating to please her sister who sees her wasting away. Her deterioration – mental and physical – is painful but her determination is relentless.

“Her voice had no weight to it, like feathers. It was neither gloomy nor absent minded, as might be expected of someone who was ill. But it wasn’t bright or light-hearted either. It was the quiet tone of a person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.”

The Vegetarian is a short novel, 183 pages in my edition, but it punches far above its weight. Kang’s voice is strong and unique, her writing all the more dramatic for its concise understatement, and she refuses to offer any easy answers. Disturbing and brilliant.

Secondly, a classic of Spanish literature, Nada by Carmen Laforet (1945 tr. Edith Grossman 2007). Andrea, a young student, leaves her rural home to attend university and moves in her with grandmother, aunt, two uncles, her uncle’s wife, a green-toothed maid and a dog. Although filled with youthful hope for opportunities and change, the atmosphere is unsettling from the start:

“We rode down Calle Aribau, where my relatives lived, its plane trees full of dense green that October, and its silence vivid with the respiration of a thousand souls behind darkened balconies.”

Once inside the house, things worsen. The house is cluttered, dirty, filled with layers of past glories.

“That bathroom seemed like a witches house, the stained walls had traces of hook-shaped hands, of screams of despair. Everywhere the scaling walls opened their toothless mouths oozing dampness. Over the mirror, because it didn’t fit anywhere else, they’d hung a macabre still-life of pale bream and onions against a black background. Madness smiled from the bent taps.”

The Spanish Civil War – over six years previously – is mentioned in passing but never dwelt upon, though there is the sense that this is a family and a city, possibly a nation, dealing with the aftershocks of trauma. The family are entirely dysfunctional, locked in abusive, sado-masochistic, manipulative relationships to a greater or lesser extent. Andrea’s uncle Juan savagely beats his wife Gloria; her aunt Angustias tries to control Andrea through a  mix of overbearing affection and oppressive boundary-setting; her uncle Roman plays  cat-and-mouse with just about everyone he encounters. Andrea’s friend Ena offers a possibility of escape:

“Ena never resembled on weekdays the rash girl, almost childish in her high spirits, that she turned into on Sundays. As for me – and I came from the countryside – she made me see a new meaning in nature that I’d never thought of before. She made me understand the pulsing of damp mud heavy with vital juices, the mysterious emotion of buds that were still closed, the melancholy charm of algae listless on the sand, the potency, the ardour, the splendid appeal of the sea.”

Nada is a gothic tale without a doubt, but never quite spills over into the camp that gothic often skirts along. The novel had to pass through Franco’s censors, and while its not overtly a political tale, I think the Gothicism helps disguise the fact that it is a tale of a society in shock; of resistance to oppression; of survival and escape.

“The memory of nights on Calle de Aribau comes to me now. Those nights that ran like a black river beneath the bridges of the days, nights when stagnant odours gave off the breath of ghosts.”

To end, an example of gothic that doesn’t skirt around camp but rather dives straight in – quite the maddest film I’ve ever seen:

“I don’t like to be out of my comfort zone, which is about a half an inch wide.” (Larry David)

Last week I wrote about dystopian novels, and Kaggsy commented that when things are bad, comfort reading is the thing, particularly golden age crime. A sage suggestion – it offers the escape of another time, and the reassurance of puzzles being solved, things being put right. So this week’s post is all about comfort. The comfort of people being stabbed in the back with knives, and left to freeze to death in the snow.

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Firstly, the golden age classic A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh (1934), the first of her novels featuring Chief Inspector Alleyn. I did enjoy this: a country house murder, a closed circle of suspects, class snobbery, unfounded paranoia about Bolsheviks; it was a perfect example of the genre 😀

Sir Hubert Handesley throws a party at his country house, to include a game of ‘Murder’ – you can probably guess what happens. During the time allotted to the game, a man who disappointingly, is never referred to as a cad or bounder though he is clearly both those things, is found stabbed in back, bleeding out next to the cocktail tray and the  dinner gong (love the incidental details of golden age mysteries!)  What’s more, the knife is Russian:

“‘Rum coincidence that the knife, your butler, and your guest should all be of the same nationality.’”

Enter Inspector Alleyn – dry of wit, Oxford of education, mysterious of background but suspiciously posh, not a man to be carried away by xenophobic paranoia, who sets about investigating the murder through an appealing mix of dogged attention to detail and flashes of flamboyance fuelled by his prodigious intelligence:

“‘As a rule,’ he observed, ‘there is much less to be gleaned from the clothes of a man with a valet  than from those of the poorer classes. “Highly recommended by successful homicide” would be a telling reference for any man-servant.’”

Ngaio Marsh’s authorial voice is similarly witty, making this novel a funny, entertaining puzzle.

“Mr Benningden was one of those small, desiccated gentleman so like the accepted traditional figure of a lawyer that they lose their individuality in their perfect conformation to type.”

A Man Lay Dead is perfectly paced (only 176 pages in my edition) and of course Alleyn gets his murderer, with a few red herrings along the way. I bought this as part of the perennially tempting collected sets from Book People, and I’m looking forward to working my way through the rest…

Patrick Malahide as Inspector Alleyn in the BBC adaptation

Patrick Malahide as Inspector Alleyn in the BBC adaptation

Secondly, a novel I’m including as part of Women in Translation month – head over to Meytal’s blog to read all about WITmonth. Under the Snow by Kerstin Ekman (1961, trans. Joan Tate 1996) is not a golden age novel, but it offers much of the same appeal, being a straightforward, non-gory whodunit. Reading in the midst of a UK summer (such as it is) it also offered me an escape into a wintry Lapland landscape, far away from real life and the daily news which currently evokes this reaction in me:

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One winter’s night in a remote northern village in Lapland, a mah jong party gets out of hand (as they so frequently do, those crazy mah jong players) and the art teacher of the local school, Matti, is found frozen to death in the snow. Police officer Torsson is called into this small community:

“just like Torsson, the chief of police of this mining town had originally come from the south. Having carried out his duties for thirty-five years among a taciturn breed in a country where the winter is five thousand and sixty-four hours long, he had lost some of the animation in his speech and the cheerfulness he associated with brightly lit shopping streets and apple blossom. He did not like to be disturbed.”

Torsson feels something is not right with Matti’s death, but can’t prove it. The story then jumps forward to the summer, when Matti’s friend David arrives in the area:

“Occasionally the road seemed to be leading up to heaven, the car climbing in growling second-gear up kilometre-long hills towards the empty sky…this July day was clear, the sky blue. The mountains seemed to him to be the most immobile and largest objects he had ever seen. Top marks to you, old chap, he thought, for David Malm travels round the world, painting, and he’s seen a thing or two”

David and Torsson form an unlikely partnership as they start exploring the events of the winter night in the midst of the relentless daylight of summer within the Arctic Circle. The overweight, steady, unemotional Torsson has been underestimated by the villagers but alongside the more flamboyant David progress is made. The mystery itself is straightforward (the novel is only just over 200 pages) but the atmosphere evoked by the extremes of light in the different seasons is fully utilised by Ekman to create an eerie, unsettling atmosphere.

“there is infinite patience up here. This is due to time, which thanks to the sun’s strange behaviour exists here in different proportions. A year is one long cycle of cold night and blistering light day. The celestial clock turns rather majestically when you live right underneath the pendulum.”

To end, a cornucopia of comfort 🙂