The next review is not yet written. But fifty pages into Self Portrait with Russian Piano by Wolf Wondratschek, I thought I'd preview a book I'll feature next month, which has the look of a real winner. Shades of Julian Barnes’s wonderful The Noise of Time, except the Russian at its center lives, like so many, in Vienna; and unlike Shostakovich, this entirely fictional protagonist here is not a composer but a concert pianist, looking back on his long career and life. Ethan Hawke, fresh off performing the audio recording of Kerouac’s Big Sur and writing in last week’s New York Times Book Review, says its author, Wolf Wondratschek, “has matured in ways Kerouac never did. This novel is at once egoless, sly, profound, funny, authentic and utterly mysterious—without ever seeming to break a sweat.”
It’s a short novel, not to be gobbled up but savored. If you’re in, click on Comment below (or write me at MatthewGeyerWriter@gmail.com) and we can compare notes before or after I post my next batch of reviews. Cheers.
A young writer from Scotland, who has lived for a time in a string of cities I’ve long had on my Gotta-Get-There list (Prague, Porto, Bordeaux), is already a master at literary crime novels. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second novel, His Bloody Project, was short-listed for the Booker Prize a few years back, and while I’ve not yet read that one, the book that preceded it is a great piece of work.
In his debut novel, The Disappearance of Adéle Bedeau, which was originally published by a very small house then republished following the Booker business,* Burnet carefully constructs the interior architecture of two characters we’d have to call protagonists here. One is the subject of a criminal investigation, Manfred Baumann, who was orphaned early in life and became a bank manager in the backwater of Saint-Louis; and the other is Inspector Georges Gorski, chief homicide investigator who also grew up in this humble little burg. Both Baumann and Gorski—they share the point-of-view in Burnet’s skillful telling—are people to root for, even though one comes under suspicion for a long-ago crime he may not have committed if mature intent is one of the elements, and the other can’t seem to shed a wife who so clearly seems to deserve it at times.
The beauty of the book, for me, is its unerring balance of literary and crime fiction elements. Wonderful renderings of the interior lives of both men are balanced with the unspooling of plot lines that drive crime fiction. Free of the excessive factoids and buried clues all too common in detective stories that never really get inside any of the characters, but just lay out clues as if fashioning a crossword puzzle, here the investigation is free to become one of not just whodunit, but who these two people really are . . . and how they resemble so many of us inside. Allusions to the character studies common in works by Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye) and many others may be useful.** This is the crime fiction I’m interested in. (Click on Comment below to shout out your own favorites.)
The principal driver of the crime fiction plot is, of course, the event noted in the title. Baumann is questioned because he hangs out in the restaurant where Adéle worked, and left just after she did on the night she was last seen. In the process of answering questions about anything he saw or heard, he tells an innocent falsehood that turns out to plague him when Inspector Gorski can’t understand how it could be true or why Manfred would lie about it. It’s a complete irrelevance, really—everything he could have told was discovered by the detective in short order—but because it must be a lie, he’s under a cloud of suspicion for the unresolved disappearance, which won’t lift until he comes clean. Manfred is a man who mostly means well but can’t seem to get out of his own way, and not just in his dealings with Gorski. And the ending is not to be forgotten.
Burnet is the real deal. I will not be surprised to see him win lots more prizes in the many years of writing he has in front of him. His third novel, The Accident on the A35, is another Inspector Gorski novel that two of my favorite sources rave about, and it’s waiting here on the shelf.
* For a hilarious send-up of Booker Prize machinations, see Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn.
** Examples going back many years include John Banville (writing as himself in The Book of Evidence, and as Benjamin Black in Christine Falls and others); Patricia Hightower (The Talented Mr. Ripley; Strangers on a Train; and The Price of Salt, renamed “Carol” for the film version); Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest); Graham Greene (The Ministry of Fear and Brighton Rock); Caleb Carr (The Alienist); John Fowles (The Collector) and Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
William Trevor wrote novels and short stories for over 60 years. He was born in Ireland, moved to England in the 1960’s and settled eventually in Devon, where he died peacefully in his sleep a few years ago. This collection was published in 2018. And though he wrote about a dozen books of each, and wonderful novels that won many awards, he’s perhaps best known for his short stories, maybe because few of our great fiction writers publish as many books of short stories as they do novels.
But I think there’s another reason: He’s better than anybody at creating within the span of a very few pages both fully realized characters and an image of their whole lives.
The opening story, “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil,” spans just eight pages. One marvels at how simply and directly he sets up our protagonist’s life with all its relevant backstory, and the challenge she is presented when a schoolboy arrives for his first lesson with her, and she learns within a few notes that he’s the best pupil she will ever have. All this without a wasted word, but a deep, clear picture in four pages. Then, the rub. A very short story, so full and yet so spare. Trevor at the height of his powers, writing short stories that feel like whole novels because of what’s between the lines.
“At the Caffé Daria” tells the story of Anita, a woman who lost her handsome and clever husband to another—a longtime friend, no less—long ago. She returns daily to the caffé in what had been their neighborhood, which is still his neighborhood along with the house, but the caffé is still hers. A well-wrought caffé is like a painting—some even a masterpiece. They have a spirit to them, that draws out of their long-time denizens all manner of memories down all the years; a place that’s warm and human you can return to again and again, like chapels on the roadside of a life once lived.
One morning, Anita feels someone hailing her in the caffé. It’s Claire, the second wife, who dropped by several months back to tell Anita her husband is dead, and the house is to be sold to pay the debts. She says then what she has come to say now:
“I’m sorry,” Claire says, the useless words whispered as if they deserve no more than that.
“Why have you come?” Anita repeats her question of months ago, precise and cold, as it was then.
“Perhaps I’ve come to beg you to forgive me. You bear Gervaise’s name and I do not. Gervaise has died and we  are left.”
“But we are as we are, not as we were. Death exorcizes nothing. I was a passing fancy in a spoilt man’s life and you were everything. It’s that that’s left.”
Anita stands up, and Claire does too. In silence she begs again, a pleading in her eyes.
“Gervaise did not know about being faithful,” she says before she goes. “He never was. Nor was I everything.”
But Anita’s unforgiving resolve does not weaken, and the conversation ends in silence.
The seasons pass. Several times Anita thinks she sees Claire in the caffé, but it is not to be.
Claire is somewhere. If Anita prayed she would pray to know where. If she knew the secrets of telepathy she would employ them.
The sales board has been taken down. Other people live in the house. Claire cherishes in her lonely solitude what Anita, in hers, too late embraces now: all that there was before love came, when friendship was the better thing.
“The Women” closes this collection of ten stories. Mr. Normanton and his daughter, Cecilia, live in London City. She takes weekend trips with him to Suffolk, and they walk the City streets with all its sights and sounds. “Your mother isn’t here anymore,” is all her father has told her since she was very young. She is home-schooled by a retired schoolmaster, and a married couple come to cook and clean. Eventually, “sensitive to the pressure of duty where his child was concerned, her father did not demur when he was advised that the time had come to send her away to boarding school, to be a girl among other girls.”
There she keeps a garden and is made to watch field hockey games when other schools come to play. At one game, Cecilia spots two women watching, too. At a second game, “They stood about as if they had a reason to, and Cecilia avoided looking in their direction.”
The point of view then shifts to these women. But I’ll leave it there.
Judging from his writing—fairly knowing from his writing—William Trevor was a kind soul with a knack for painting them with words. A man as he himself put it, with “Irish in every vein.”
Finally, you probably know of Keb' Mo', a talented bluesman born in Compton now living in Nashville. The lovely Pheme and I saw him at the Paramount Theater in Oakland years ago, and signed up to see him here this summer in Santa Fe's legendary theater and concert venue, The Lensic. That concert isn't going to happen live at the Lensic now, but we just got word it's happening online. A mere $15 per device, to listen and watch on your Laptop or your Big Dog. Or you can cable up the sound through your home stereo system and the picture through your wide screen, if you dare (free tips on reply). Great blues on September 26 at 6:30 PT/7:30 MT/8:30 Keb'T/9:30 ET.
By Lawrence Osborne
I’m not a big reader of crime novels or mysteries. I think it’s mostly that they make me feel stupid, because I never figure out whodunit it in what I’d regard as an acceptable timeframe. I’m just no good at that game.
Raymond Chandler is one of the few exceptions. I can listen to the voice of Philip Marlowe endlessly; to this day, it makes me feel like I’m sitting on a couch, flanked by three or four or five of my brothers and sisters, watching Humphrey Bogart or any number of other leading men play Marlowe in the dozen or so movies made of Chandler’s novels. In film, The Big Sleep is my favorite, because it’s the only one Bogie made. In the novels themselves, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye vie for the crown. Reviews of these are coming attractions in this space.
But today we take the measure of the third Marlowe novel written by someone other than Chandler, as the request of his estate. After John Banville (aka Benjamin Black) and Robert B. Parker (who also finished Chandler’s last Marlowe after his death), Lawrence Osborne takes a crack. In my view, he’s done a creditable job. The atmosphere, the diction (with an exception here and there) and even the pace of things seem just about right. It felt at times like I was sitting on that couch. I didn’t mind that the story is set in Mexico, or that Marlowe is older than he ever was in Chandler’s books. The Puerto Vallarta of 1988, and what’s missing from its glory days of the 1970s, are accurately conveyed. I miss the streets of Los Angeles, but find it totally believable that Marlowe would be drinking his way through retirement in the Coronado Cays (I know people who’ve done some of that!) and Baja. If anything, I question the several passages where Marlowe’s allegiance to his client wanes, or worse; these stopped me up short, because I don’t recall anything like that in the Chandler books I’ve read or films I’ve seen. Most importantly, the voice of the novel is there—in the dialogue, and in the first-person narration and introspection.
Speaking of the voice of a novel, FictionFan—who’s from the UK—said of my own Atlantic View (https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/2020/07/15/atlantic-view-by-matthew-geyer/):
“There is a distinctively American style to Geyer’s prose – what I think of as West Coast writing, though I’m no expert. It’s a kind of specific vocabulary that in itself creates a sense, not perhaps so much of place, but of a culture and, dare I say it, a class – educated, liberal, moderate, introspective, male (though that may simply be that my limited reading of American fiction hasn’t covered women writing from the same cultural perspective). While I often find this language style more ‘foreign’ to my British ears than many other American regional variations, I find the attitudes far more in tune with the overarching culture of western Europe and that always makes it easier for me to empathise with the characters.”
So, what about this “West Coast writing”—what exactly is it, where does it come from, and why is it so familiar to even the British ear? I ask here in the context of a new Philip Marlowe novel written by another contemporary Brit, following Chandler’s lead in terms of style, no question. And I believe many would find a bit of “West Coast” sense or style in it; and if I’m right, what is it we recognize as “West Coast writing” about it, and why?
Could it be tied to the fact that this particular style is akin to one used by so many Hollywood screenwriters from Chandler’s generation, and not just in their novels but in their screenplays? From the 1930’s through the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, the lion’s share of American movies—and probably most of the English-speaking world’s movies—were written and produced in Hollywood, where people like Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and even William Faulkner went often to find a steady paycheck, not just after the Depression but after the Second World War and through the broad middle of the 20th Century. And who watched those movies they wrote? Not just Californians or people on the West Coast, but people all over the States and well beyond. Whether it was Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy or John Wayne, or Joan Crawford, Betty Davis or Ingrid Bergman on the screen, the script was written by writers on and largely of the West Coast, well into and even through the Golden Age of Hollywood.
My grandmother lived in Hollywood, and the motion picture studios were everywhere. Every year, she brought her home-made Christmas cookies to our house in two of the largest cookie-jars I’ve ever seen—thirty-five-millimeter film cans the size of wagon-wheels.
I guess what I’m positing here is: Hollywood gave our generation, wherever we lived, more than just those cookie jars. It spread West Coast-style far and wide.
By Maya Jasanoff
I need to admit something right up front. I had meant to be reviewing Nostromo, Joseph Conrad’s twenty-four-players-without-a-scorecard novel set in Costaguana, a fictional country in South America. Two hundred impenetrable pages in, with three hundred more to go, I took a break to browse in a bookstore.
It’s a used-books store, called op. cit. here in Santa Fe. Crammed floor-to-ceiling with books, sporting obstacle-course piles in nearly every aisle, the good folks who run it are always willing to juice my account with a few bucks credit for used fiction I’m not saving in the bookcase. I dropped a few of these at the counter and headed into the stacks. I soon found myself fingering spines in the Biography section, unusual territory for me.
There must be dozens of biographical works on the life of Joseph Conrad, who was being lionized while he was still alive and died nearly a hundred years ago. They didn’t have all of them, but they did have one from the 21st Century – 2017, in fact—by a Guggenheim Fellow who teaches at Harvard. Just five minutes paging through Maya Jasanoff’s fine and lucid prose had me walking out with it.
Jasanoff tells the story of Jozef Teodor Konrad Korseniowski’s childhood in Poland, losing his father early and being supported by his uncle, his emigration to England as a young man to work sailing vessels and eventually steamships while writing in their close quarters. But she also tells the story of all the major novels he wrote, in accounts far more lucid than any of them, including Nostromo. After pleasurably reading all the way through her three-hundred pages of text (and a select few of the eight-hundred-and-fifty footnotes), I decided to try Lord Jim instead. Both these books, along with The Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent, made the Modern Library’s List of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.
Lord Jim has a manageable number of characters. It is burdened somewhat by overuse of the semi-colon and long, winding paragraphs, largely because large swaths of the novel are narrated by the actual live testimony of the first mate of a ship abandoned by its captain and crew to avoid going down with the passengers. Except the passengers were saved, the captain ran away, and the first mate—once held in such high regard by the rest of the crew as to be called Lord Jim—was left to be crucified by court trial.
It’s slow going for this sailor. But it’s very cool reading it from the First Modern Library Edition, 1931, lent by my younger and smarter brother who’s read Conrad’s whole canon. I might get through it by Christmas . . . but I’m not saying which Christmas.
Finally, I came across this item last week, and it’s worth sharing. The link below is to a one-hour televised debate from 1965 between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, debating at Cambridge University the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”
The best 25 minutes are Baldwin’s, of course—which start at 14:00, and he’s just amazing—and then the last minute or two, when the votes are counted. That said, Buckley is pretty fun to watch, too, chasing his tail, tying himself up in knots, and doing the weird thing with his eyebrows.
In this just-released collection of short and long stories, Richard Ford returns to a form he explored more often early in his career, before the Frank Bascombe novels that brought him the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day, and the wonderful subsequent novel Canada, which may be his best work if The Sportswriter isn’t.
The opening story here, “Nothing to Declare”, tells the tale of a chance encounter with an old flame, and the afternoon walk they share through the French Quarter and along the Mississippi. Sandy McGuinness spots a woman he hasn’t seen since a school-break trip to Iceland that ended their relationship. They meet by chance decades later in a noisy bar where Sandy and some law firm colleagues are drinking. She’s drunk enough, and he’s open enough, for this to turn into most anything. And what it turns into is an account of their respective ambivalences, not-quite-regrets and wondering-what-ifs, all told in snippets of laden and open-ended dialogue, narrated in language that pulls us into the heads and hearts of each of them, in what writers call a “free indirect style” that colors in around the edges. Each takes the measure of the months they had and the decades they missed.
“Happy” is named after a dour and too-often-unpleasant woman, Bobbi Kamper, who for many years has peopled the periphery of a group of now-aging artists and writers and the like. Her husband Mick, with whom she’s not lived for some time, gave her the nickname in irony, a commodity he traded in while editing for a significant publishing house after his own novel did okay many years ago, but he couldn’t come up with another. Over the course of a last night in Maine before heading back to their lives in New York and beyond, they all look back not very wistfully, and forward uncertainly, after a tepid toast to Mick’s recent passing.
In the first of two long stories, “The Run of Yourself” explores life after losing one’s wife of many years, with so many more to go. Peter Boyce takes a summer rental on Cape Cod, near the one they had rented for years and Mae died in two years back. He recounts her battled with breast cancer, her courage near the end, and the way she chose to go. He decides to leave early, drive straight through to their home in New Orleans, then stays. “Small, graduated adjustments were all he needed” to go on.
“Not that Mae, here or gone, was a small matter. She was now his great subject. But why she’d done what she awfully did was, at this day’s end, not business she’d wanted to share. And not business he could do anything about. There was nothing further to learn or imagine or re-invent around here. Love now meant only to take in and agree.”
In something of a return to the territory of Ford’s first collection of stories, Rock Springs, “Displaced” is the tale of a sixteen-year-old boy, who tells us about life after losing his father. The story itself is activated by the presence of a not-much-older Irish immigrant hooligan, Niall, who lives for a time in a rooming house across the street in Jackson, Mississippi. It begins:
“When your father dies and you are only sixteen, many things change. School life changes. You are now the boy whose father is missing. People feel sorry for you, but they also devalue you, even resent you—for what, you’re not sure. The air around you is different. Once, that air contained you fully. But now an opening’s cut, which feels frightening, yet not so frightening.
“And there is your mother and her loss to fill . . .”
Niall dubs our protagonist “ole Harry” and takes him under his wing at the widow’s urging. They take the taxicab Niall drives for a living (because his own father is a drunk) to a drive-in movie night, where “Harry” is taken with Niall’s cool and cocky demeanor. “He had a natural understanding of whatever stood in front of him.” But Niall has secrets of his own, and after a scrape with the law and a short stint in the military at the suggestion of a judge, he’s written that he’s gone to New York to catch a freighter back to Ireland.
“When I read the letter, I wondered what kind of boy would I say Niall MacDermott was. We go through life with notions that we know what a person is all about. He’s this way—or at least he’s more this way than that. Or, he’s some other way, and we know how to treat him and to what ends he’ll go. With Niall you couldn’t completely know what kind of boy he was. He was good, I believed, at heart. Or mainly. He was kind, or could be kind. He knew things. But I was certain I knew things he didn’t and could see how he could be led wrong and be wrong that way all his life. ‘Niall will come to no good end,’ my mother said a day after his letter came. Something had disappointed her. Something transient or displaced in Niall. Something had been attractive to her about him in her fragile state, and been attractive to me, in my own fragile state. But you just wouldn’t bank on what Niall was, which was the word my poor father used. That was what you looked for, he thought, in people you wanted closest to you. People you can bank on. It sounds easy enough. But if only—and I have thought it a thousand times since those days, when my mother and I were alone together—if only life would turn out to be that simple.”
This is Richard Ford, still doing it—and teaching it to some fortunate ones indeed at Columbia—after all these years.
In an earlier post (4/7/2020) I explained how my first novel came to be, the individuals I’d met or encountered whose physical attributes, and the interior lives and circumstances I imagined for them, became the characters and story line for Strays.
In a book on writing published ten years ago which I’ve only just come across, Colm Tóibín explains how the last great novel Henry James wrote, The Golden Bowl, was conceived. Five years after The Portrait of a Lady was published, one of the two people whose villa in Florence inspired that novel got married. James then wrote to the father, introducing him to Constance Fenimore Woolson, who was on her way to Florence. His purpose was to have these four people—the younger married couple, and the older pair of new acquaintance—living in proximity, to stimulate his imagination. As Tóibín puts it in All a Novelist Needs (2010):
“In other words, James in London could contemplate the four of them in Florence—the father severed from his only daughter, to whom he was devoted, by her marriage, and the arrival of the outsider to offer comfort or provide company for the father. All four living in close proximity.”
It would be another seventeen years until James even started writing the book that was the product of all this rumination, and his notes written in journals down all the years. But the book is not about those real-life characters; it’s the product of contemplation, about their plight as they go about their lives in close proximity. Tóibín continues:
“This is all a novelist needs, nothing exact or precise, no character to be based on an actual person, but a configuration, something distant that can be mulled over, guessed at, dreamed about, imagined, a set of shadowy relations that the writer can begin to put substance on. Changing details, adding shape, but using always something, often from years back, that had captured the imagination, or mattered somehow to the hidden self, however fleetingly or mysteriously.”
More recently, in conversation on stage with Richard Ford (https://vimeo.com/192459241)
Tóibín says more about these early stages of the writing:
"A novelist's job is almost to be as stupid as possible, except in the cunning moment when you need to structure something, when you need to be very intelligent indeed.”
That structuring will come later, Tóibín says, but for now:
“[Y]ou need almost an empty mind, where you can let any image in, follow it along, and allow an emotional charge, almost the way actors and singers can work.”
One needs to sit and watch and listen, he says, to the characters as they interact with each other and meet situations some of which they hadn’t counted on; and to those around them who want something else, something inconsistent perhaps with what your main characters want. For this work, you clear your mind and go on instinct, not intelligence.
“The more instinct you have as a novelist the better."
At least until that “cunning moment.”
It’s been said that the The Lay of the Land, the final book in Richard Ford’s Ralph Bascombe trilogy, was “less successful” than the others. I don’t subscribe to that theory; in my view, it’s the most successful . . . except for the end. Which is a big exception. The climax felt incongruously violent and unnecessary, not unlike Richard Russo’s to Empire Falls. Both felt contrived for Hollywood or something, unworthy of either writer or either work, detracting from the elegant realism that hums through both these great pieces of American literature.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .