After Claude – Iris Owens (1973) 206 pages (cheating my own criteria by 6 pages)
Trigger warning: mentions rape
I bought this one day when I finished the book I was reading more quickly than expected and I was waiting for a friend, who was late. I don’t like being without a book to read on my person and I found a late-opening charity shop. Amongst the Da Vinci Codes and James Patterson’s entire back catalogue I was thankful to spy a New York Review of Books logo. They’re a reliable, interesting publisher and so I found myself launched into the acerbic wit of Iris Owens, totally unprepared.
After Claude is funny, but it also features a despicable heroine. Kudos to Owens for not feeling it is necessary to write an attractive, likeable female for her lead, but really, Harriet Daimler is one of the most infuriating, obnoxious and unpleasant people ever committed to paper. She moves from friend to friend, sponging off them until her unrelenting selfishness alienates them and they chuck her out. She may be depressed: she sleeps all day, watches trashy quiz shows and eats, that’s it. But any sympathy the reader may feel is limited by her rudeness, prejudice and manipulations towards all who cross her path. She frequently uses homophobic language; she is racist; she denies her own Jewishness without realising that her denials illuminate that which she is trying to hide:
“ ‘Mazeltov,’ he congratulated me in an unfamiliar tongue.”
Who doesn’t know what Mazeltov means? Harriet is also completely delusional. The story begins “I left Claude, the French rat.” What quickly emerges is that Claude has thrown her out, sick of her utter selfishness and bitterness.
“Claude, who had learned his English in England, spoke with one of those snotty, superior accents, stuffed into a slimy French accent, the whole mess flavoured with an occasional American hipsterism, making him sound like an extremely rich, self-employed spy.”
What Claude quickly learns is that trying to throw someone out who won’t listen and is totally self-interested, is no mean feat.
“ ‘Me a bore?’ I laughed, amazed that the rat would resort to such a bizarre accusation. I have since learned never to be amazed at what men will resort to when cornered by a woman’s intelligence.”
Over the course of the story we learn how Harriet and Claude met, when she was thrown out of her friend Rhoda’s house, for something horrific which I won’t include for fear of spoilers, but would you live with someone who treated you thus?
“Had I been insensitive when I told her ‘Rhoda, I have nothing per se against your karate classes but rather than pin all your hopes on a rapist, wouldn’t a cruise make more sense?’”
What kept me reading was partly wanting to see what would happen to someone so extremely selfish and self-serving that normal rules don’t apply: Harriet could do anything. Also, amongst the rancour are some bitingly funny observations, such as this regarding a friend’s marriage:
“It goes without saying that though ideally suited and ecstatically happy, Jerry and Maxine had flown directly from their wedding ceremony to group therapy, paying top prices for the privilege of insulting each other in front of an audience.”
What happens to Harriet after Claude is bizarre. She meets a guru-type and ends up begging to be allowed to join their cult, even after suffering sexual humiliation at their hands. Ultimately then, Harriet is both horrible and pitiful, extremely vulnerable but bent on destroying anyone who might want to help.
Like a pratfall in which someone ends up genuinely hurt, After Claude is funny but you feel you shouldn’t laugh; it’s painful and you want to tear your eyes away. Owens is an accomplished writer but I’m not sure I could have stood a much longer novel.