The Customer is Always Wrong

Mimi Pond’s graphic novel about 1980s Oakland, working as a waitress in a diner and trying to hustle up a career drawing comics, fending off (or partaking in) the river of drugs that flows through the restaurant, her tender relationship with Lazlo the manager (who develops cancer, enlists Madge’s help to wrest his 14-year-old daughter from the drips of a maniac boyfriend, the poet who drinks/drugs and all the restaurant staff adore him). Eventually Madge saves up enough money and heads to New York, sight unseen with her cat in a carrier and having given away most of her belongings.

The Black House

Pat had a ho-hum period in the 80s that explains why this 1981 collection of stories is sleep inducing. No story stands out as worthy of remembering, but I’m still committed to working my way through her entire oeuvre. She’s best when she drips the details of everyday life in with an increasing sense of suspense, and that is sorely lacking from this collection. The closest you get is in the first story where a cat finds a severed hand and the finder calls his neighbor to let him know, only to have the neighbor come over to admit to killing his gardener for flirting with his wife. I guess the other story that was amusing was the couple who “adopt” an older couple from the nursing home to let them live their glory days in style. The old folks take over, TV blaring, demanding trays of food to be sent up, wetting their bed deliberately.

Jakob von Gunten

My interest in Robert Walser got a jolt from reading Walks with Walser , so I checked out one of his novels that I had not yet read. It’s the tale of a runaway boy who decides to enroll in butler-school. Apparently there were still enough mid-level aristocrats in early 1900s Berlin to merit a school devoted to their servants. This was based on Walser’s own experience, enrolling in such a school in 1905 then going a’butlering the next year. It’s a school that teaches nothing, the teachers are asleep. The students learn obedience, patience.

When Jakob first arrives, he’s put into a room to board with 3 other boys. He revolts, gets his own room. “One is always half mad when one is shy of people.” He’s a bit full of himself, coming from an upper-class family, but wanting to completely debase himself.

“That I am the cleverest of them all is perhaps not altogether so delightful. What is the use of thoughts and ideas if one feels, as I do, that one doesn’t know what to do with them?”

Walser (and his English translator) have a way with words. “The mumbling of a grumbler is lovelier to me than the murmuring of a woodland stream, with the loveliest of Sunday morning sunshine sparkling on it.” Also, one of my favorites: “He speaks like a flopped somersault and behaves like a big improbability pummeled into human shape.” His street scenes are dizzyingly gorgeous. Oh, and “When inside I’m bursting with laughter, when I hardly know what to do with all this hissing gunpowder, then I know what laughing is, then I have laughed most laughishly then I have a complete idea of what was shaking me.”

Jakob finds extreme pleasure in all the rules. “If you aren’t allowed to do something, you do it twice as much somewhere else.”

Angel

What an odd book from British author, Elizabeth Taylor. The early parts were well done, depicting a bullheaded young girl who proudly writes her first novel and insists that no changes be made to the over-the-top language that ends up being commercially appealing to the uneducated. She’s a goldmine, but rigidly humorless. These early sections are also a goldmine.

Then a man comes onto the scene, and of course he’s penniless but a gambler. Enter marriage, and Angel buying an old dilapidated mansion that she pours her money into (reminding me of the film, Mildred Pierce), and he heads off to war but spends his leaves with another lady, coming home with a huge gambling debt that Angel writes another novel furiously to cover the expenses of. He ends up drowning in  a pond, and the story limps along through another war and to the bitter desperate end of Angel’s life. Blah.

Found in the Street

Ugh, I finally found a Pat Highsmith book that was disappointing. Actually, there are a few that I couldn’t even continue reading (post to come later), but this one held out a tinge of promise so I plowed through. The one-star review on AMZN echoes my feeling: “I nearly always love the work of Patricia Highsmith so this was a real disappointment.”

I wasn’t quite sure who I was supposed to be rooting for, or even who the anti-hero was. You’ve got the freelance journalist who’s also an artist who loses his wallet, found by weirdo stalker guy who insists that the young woman working at the coffee shop is also a prostitute (she’s not). Ultimately, she’s killed by the jealous ex-lover of her own ex-girlfriend. It’s meandering and wheezy and avoidable.

The Day on Fire: A Novel Suggested by the Life of Arthur Rimbaud

Beautiful (& completely forgotten) book by James Ullman wherein he writes the life of Rimbaud and fills in the gaps with his own fantasy. I discovered this via breadcrumbs left for me in an Annie Dillard book. Claude Morel is the reimagined Rimbaud, a brilliant poet who churns out his best, disturbing work between the ages of 16-19 before disappearing into Africa and Europe. We meet him at age 15, winning most of the prizes in school, and simply hopping a train to Paris to get away from his mother, the Black Queen as he dubs her. His first knee injury is incurred when jumping from the moving train to avoid the ticket taker at the other end; later he’s shot in the knee when soldiering for the Dutch; at the end he must get the leg shorn from the thigh down, leading to his delirium and ultimate death. On that first trip to Paris he is molested by a bum who calls him girl/boy; on another trip to Paris where he wants to join the Communards, he’s again sexually assaulted, leaving him confused and ending up in a drunken/drugged relationship with Durard (in real life: Verlaine).

Claude perpetually circles back to his mother, the Widow Morel, despite their grievances. In Africa, having given up his poet identity, he buckles down and works hard for a merchant, rising quickly and sending half his salary back to his mother. Throughout, he runs away but always returns to her.

My only real beef with the book is the usual wooden portrayal of women as either Madonna/Whore. Germaine comes closest to being a real woman, meeting Claude when they were both 16, in Paris, and “getting” his poems, no matter how disgusting they were. Claude’s African wife, Nagunda, is a savage tamed and given trinkets like candy and the rosary. They don’t speak, and she’s conveniently murdered by the conquering army before she gives birth to their “son” (Claude is convinced it must be a son).

The best recommendation I can give of this fictional biography is that I’m now interested in attempting to read Rimbaud’s poetry again.

***

Great quote from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell:

Right now, I’m damned. My country appalls me. The best course of action: drink myself comatose and sleep it off on the beach.

Deep Water

Pat’s 1957 Deep Water is light on suspense compared to her other work. This is part of its beauty, the mundane details building to an unexpected event. In this book, Vic is the “hero,” the psychopath husband who plays it all cool. His wife Melinda ignores their daughter Trixie (so Vic ups his attention to her) and has several open affairs with other men. Vic moves to the garage where he tends to his snails and study of Italian. One of Melinda’s lovers is murdered in NYC and Vic begins to bandy about the story that he killed him to scare off other lovers. This works, until the real murderer is found. But the seed is planted, and off Vic goes. First he drowns the piano player, Charles, in a neighbor’s pool at a party where no one else is around. Then a detective comes sniffing around, disguised as a psychiatrist. Melinda trumpets his killing Charles around town, everyone averts their eyes and most believe Vic didn’t do it. Nothing comes of it except Melinda’s close alliance to Don Wilson, a man who also hates Vic. Along comes another conquest, Cameron, and after much in-your-face flirtation, Melinda decides to take Vic up on his offer of divorce with a generous alimony settlement (he has a private income from his family and runs a publishing business mostly for kicks). Chance allows Vic to lure Cameron to the quarry where he hits him with a rock and weighs him down to drop to the bottom of the water. Eventually he’s caught back at the scene and in the final pages attempts(?) to kill Melinda before he’s nabbed by the police.

The snail-watcher, and other stories

Pat’s first collection of short stories came out in 1970 and her obsession with snails is clear from the eponymous story. A man grows interested in snails when he sees them mating before they’re about to be cooked for dinner, rescues them, turns his study into a snail habitat, lets them run wild, they take over and eventually crush him to death. Snails pop up again in The Quest for “Blank Claveringi,” a story about a man bent on discovering a new snail species who sets out to investigate the man-eating 25-foot snails he’s read about. (He dies, eaten by snails). The Terrapin follows the anguish of a son realizing that his mother has brought a turtle home to eat, not as his pet. That night he cuts her up like he witnessed her attack on the terrapin. A woman attempts to kill her husband with chloroform in When the Fleet was in at Mobile. The Cries of Love has two old ladies who wreak havoc on each others’ lives, Hattie snipping Alice’s nice new cardigan into shreds, Alice chopping off one of Hattie’s braids while she slept. They continue to live together, plotting slow revenge. In The Heroine, an insane woman comes to be the nurse of two rich kids, ripping her pay into bits, setting the house on fire so she can be of use. This collection was published as Eleven in the UK.

Martin Chuzzlewit

Probably the only reason to read this is for the crumbs that reveal Dickens’s rage against America. Those are the only savory bits I enjoyed, at least.

As the younger Martin arrives by boat, he’s astonished by the newsboys crying their wares, “Here’s this morning’s New York Sewer! Here’s this morning’s New York Stabber! Here’s the New York Family Spy! Here’s the New York Private Listener! Here’s the New York Peeper! Here’s the New York Plunderer! Here’s the New York Keyhole Reporter! Here’s the New York Rowdy Journal!… with all the shipping news, and four whole columns of country correspondence, and a full account of the Ball at Mrs. White’s last night, where the beauty and fashion of New York was assembled; with the Sewer’s own particulars of the private lives of all the ladies that was there! Here’s the Sewer!… Here’s the Sewer’s exposure of the Washington Gang, and the Sewer’s exclusive account of a flagrant act of dishonesty committed by the Secretary of State when he was eight years old; now communicated, at a great expense, by his own nurse. Here’s the Sewer!” A great commentary of the state of the U.S. press that slips all too closely into what today’s media is like.

Dickens let loose with all his impressions, how we’re a country obsessed by money: “It was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word. Dollars. All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them?”

The unending pursuit of knowledge was also pilloried as a lady is asked what course of lectures she’s attending. Wednesday is the Philosophy of the Soul, Monday is Philosophy of Crime, Friday is the Philosophy of Vegetables.

All the men Martin is introduced to are “one of the most remarkable men in the country,” so this becomes a jokey refrain. He is barraged with requests to lecture about any topic he chooses, and has to endure hoards of people coming to get a look at him. “If they spoke to him, which was not often, they invariably asked the same questions, in the same tone: with no more remorse or delicacy or consideration than if he had been a figure of stone, purchased and paid for, and set up there for their delight.”

After a failed attempt to set up a business in the wilderness and beating an illness, Martin hightails it back to England. His companion says he’d like to paint a picture of the American Eagle: “I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like a Ostrich, for its putting its head in the mud and thinking nobody sees it…”

Charming, Charles!

The Cry of the Owl

This 1962 gem from Pat looks like a practice run for her more perfectly formed A Suspension of Mercy (1965) wherein one of the characters disappears so as to bring suspicion of murder onto another character. The Cry of the Owl centers around Robert, a recently divorced draftsman who works at an aeronautics company and who likes to go peeping at night. He prowls up to Jenny’s isolated home and enjoys watching her in the kitchen, happy for her when he sees her making dinner for her and her boyfriend, Greg. A few errant noises makes Jenny spooked about his sneaking around outside, and eventually she catches him. Surprise: she’s not freaked out, but befriends him and finds their meet cute to be fate. Soon she’s abandoned Greg, who turns savage and stalks Jenny, tries to run Robert off the road, engages in a fight that leaves Greg knocked out by the river’s edge and Robert pulls Greg out so he doesn’t drown. But Greg disappears, heads to NYC and gets support from Robert’s psychotic ex-wife Nickie. Robert tries to track him down in a NYC hotel but fails. The local police suspect him of murder and eventually find a body in the river, unfortunately missing the part of teeth that the dentist could have matched with his records for Greg. Fast forward, Greg comes out of hiding to shoot at Robert, improbably, and eventually kills the doctor who was tending Robert’s gunshot wounds. Greg’s out on bail and Nickie comes to visit him, then they head over to Robert’s to terrorize him a bit more (Jenny has killed herself by now). In a final knife fight, Greg swipes at Robert but kills Nickie, Robert looks at the knife and realizes he has to call the police.

Excellent Women

An excellent novel, Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. The phrase denotes women who are great but unmarriageable, and is used tongue-in-cheek by the narrator of the story, Mildred Lathbury, a capable spinster living in her own flat but sharing a bathroom with the downstairs flat. New neighbors move in, the Napiers, and disrupt Mildred’s quiet life. Helena is an anthropologist, quite independent, and finds herself in love with a man not her husband. Rocky is the husband, serving as a Naval officer in Italy and winding up home with Helena to find her attracted to Eduard. Mildred’s closest friends are the vicar’s sister and the vicar, and that relationship goes topsy-turvy when they take in a border, a widowed Mrs Grey who soon becomes engaged to the vicar but the relationship sours when Mrs Grey insists that Winifred, the sister, must find somewhere else to live. Through the drama, Mildred counts and recounts her blessings about not being married, having to defend herself against unjust accusations that she is in love with this or that man. Eduard invites her over for dinner in his flat but she can’t bear the thought of having to cook his dinner for him, so she declines. In the end, she’s there, taking the roast chicken out of the oven, dreaming up how her life will be as she helps him with this scholarly work.

One interesting bit I picked up is the use of “any road” as another way to say “anyway”: Mrs Morris says ‘Let’s have a fag, any road.’

This Sweet Sickness

Maybe I’m overdosing on Highsmith because she’s the perfect complement to the insanity of today’s world. So here’s another, this not among her worst or her best; pub’d in 1960, bouncing back from her unreadable 1958 book set in Mexico.

The “hero,” David Kelsey, is an absolute nut, living a splintered life in a boardinghouse during the week and then scampering off on weekends to a house he bought where he lives a fantasy life with the woman he loved but who married someone else. His boardinghouse and work think he spends weekends with his dying mother in a nursing home, but she’s been dead fourteen years. David buys the house under a fake name, William Neumeister, and lives an entirely different life as Bill, smoking and drinking cocktails while he pretends that Annabelle lives with him. David continues to write to Annabelle, insisting that she spend a few days leading up to Christmas with him in NYC, calling her house, and generally terrorizing her. He shows up one day and meets the husband, insults him, and leaves. The continued behavior drives Gerald, the husband, to the brink of wanting to kill David, and he shows up at the boardinghouse with a gun. David’s neighbor Effie gives Gerald the location of the house that David spends the weekends at, and Gerald arrives, brandishing the gun, gets into a scuffle, is shoved by David, clonks his head, and dies. David/Bill drives the body to the police and gives a full report acting as William Neumeister, then proceeds to sell his house, quit his job, get another job and move to a different town. Effie’s in love with David and keeps his secret, but as David becomes more and more unhinged (Annabelle marries a different man after Gerald’s death), Effie & his friend Wes visit and David accidentally kills her. The last pages are when he’s on the lam in NYC, acting weird as Bill, pretending he and Annabelle are on their honeymoon, ordering 2 dinners with 2 drinks, then showing up at an old college buddy’s apartment who then sends his wife out for the police. He ends up jumping from their apartment, but does he hit the police net or die?

Burning Girl

Perhaps Claire Messud’s Burning Girl was an ill-considered choice of reading material on a day that shattered heat records in San Francisco. My heart wasn’t quite in it, as I gulped down water, hid behind curtained windows, and blasted the fan while leaning back on a towel-covered ice pack. Or maybe the writing just wasn’t enough to transport me through to the world on the other side. I can’t chalk it up to the narrator’s youth, as I have absolutely loved some YA fiction (e.g. The Fault in our Stars). The plot seemed thinly stretched, and although less than 250 pages, a chore to get through. It’s a story of the disintegrated friendship of two young girls, besties at age 12 only to spiral away from each other. One goes to the bad crowd, one gets asked to join the debate club. The usual. The bad girl ends up trying to overdose in an abandoned asylum. Almost too cliche but there it is.

I appear not to have enjoyed her other work too much either, so maybe this is just par for the course.

Small G: A Summer Idyll

Pat’s U.S. publishers rejected her last work a few months before her death; I suppose the in-your-face gayness was too much for them? The story follows an atypical trajectory for Highsmith, starting with the brutal murder of Peter, a young homosexual, then meandering through the lives of various other Zurich residents related to Peter before ending on a happy note with Peter’s lover having moved on, and happy endings all around. Luisa is a teenager who fell in love with Peter to his dismay, and is eased in his death by Rickie, Peter’s much older boyfriend. She’s an apprentice seamstress kept under virtual lock and key by her mistress, Renate, who vocally abuses gays at the local watering hole, the Small g, AKA Jakob’s (small g for gay). Teddie is a young man who wanders in one night, Rickie falls for him but he’s straight and lusts after Luisa who ends up dating both Teddie (a man) and Dorrie (a woman). Renate is killed after slipping on the stairs running after Dorrie and Luisa inherits her whole estate, including the dress shop. Very odd for Highsmith, the last word is “happy.” Did she realize that would be ultimately her final printed word? Would she have wanted that? Hmm.

A Legacy

Sybille Bedford’s novel is another enjoyable example of her luxurious prose, droll wit, perfectly timed dialogue (see also her travel book to Mexico), always a treat to sink into after a few hours of battling with the gloom of the real world. It’s couched as fiction, but the bones of the story seem to closely follow her own life, born to an elderly German baron who lived in France and Spain and a distracted, rich, beautiful English woman (possibly not even the baron’s, having an affair with someone else at the time). It’s rich with descriptions of growing up in the polished wood mansion of her grandparents’ Berlin home, only they weren’t her grandparents—it’s complicated. Her father’s first marriage was to a wealthy young Berliner, Melanie, who died a year after giving birth to the narrator’s half-sister, Henrietta. The in-laws, the Mertz, insisted on his living with them and raising Henrietta, and soon he got a large allowance and was kept on in style. When he married a second time, he has the audacity to ask for a larger allowance from his previous in-laws! The first section is an exploration of her father’s childhood, carefree for the most part, until rumblings in the German state caused chaos and sent his younger brother Jean to military school where he went insane. They lived in the country, ate well, no money problems but no real money either. The grandfather insisted that they dine an hour after sunset, as was the custom of the Romans.

Beautiful and well worth your time to take a trip back to pre-war Europe if you can stand the mutterings and peccadilloes of the upper class.