Loved, and lived in, books

I was looking along the bookshelves recently and noticed how many old books were battered looking, stuck with cellotape, torn edges, etc. So, I asked myself, would I like new copies? No, I would not. These books were all read many times; they have coffee and wine stains; pages had been turned down, passages were underlined; comments were written along margins. These are MY books, loved, and lived in. A lot of them are old Russian classics; I have at least six by Orwell. I have Rebecca and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Every book I have, has been read at least twice, and I wonder which will be the next ones to be held together with tape. Perhaps all of Patrick de Witt’s books, Redhead by the Side of the Road, by Ann Tyler, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

I’m always happy to find brand new books that I can really love. These days, I depend on my children to make suggestions. I stand in bookshops and haven’t a clue what’s good, and what is not. When I was young this was never a problem for me; I knew exactly what I wanted.

Ah well, old age, I suppose.

A Review of “French Exit” by Patrick de Witt

This is Patrick de Witt’s latest book, his fourth, published in 2018 and it certainly lives up to the standard of the other ones. Ablutions, the first, The Sisters Brothers next, and Undermajordomo Minor – I love them all. It is impossible to categorize them as they are all completely different.

So, French Exit – as the title implies is mostly set in France although the first quarter of the book is set in New York. It is a wonderful romp of a book – you’d pick it up with a smile of anticipation. The main characters are the wealthy Frances Price and her son, Malcolm. Frances is beautiful and elegant and totally irresponsible. Malcolm is vague and pleasant. He is engaged to Susan, a girl he professes to love but can’t quite commit to.

The story takes off when Frances realises she has spent all her money and is completely broke. The pair decide to go and live in France when a friend offers them an apartment in Paris. They sell everything they have left, jewellry, pictures and furniture and take  all the cash with them. They also bring their cat, Small Frank, so called because Frances believes him to be a reincarnation of her husband, Franklin.

To give a small flavour of the text:

‘Frances sniffed the flowers and asked, “Who has died, and what was their purpose, and did they fulfill their potential?” The doorman didn’t hazard a response. Frances made him uneasy; he believed there was something quite wrong with her.’

‘Frances suddenly became aware of the chair’s dimensions. It was an exciting thing to know and she was happy she’d been told about it. “What did he choke on?” she asked. “Ah, lamb.” “And have you eaten lamb since?” “No. But, you know, I never liked lamb much in the first place.”‘

‘Tom’s foremost characteristic was his handsomeness; his second was his normality; his third was his absolute lack of humour; his fourth, his inability to be embarrassed.’

In France they pick up an entourage of hangers-on, impossible to describe. I have looked for quotes to illustrate them but it’s impossible to take them out of context.

The book is very funny but all along it has a darkness to it. It is perfectly shaped and paced and I can only recommend that you read it.

Five Best Endings . . .

I got the idea for this post from Stephen Writes at Top Five Memorable Endings I Read In 2020 – Stephen Writes (wordpress.com) and he kindly allowed me to use his idea. For me the ending of a book, the last sentence, indeed the last paragraph, is very important. Often, especially in thrillers, the last few pages are long-drawn out and boring. So when you love a book, and are approaching the end, it’s great when the last words are just as good – and just as important – as the beginning.

No. 1. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt

The story is about two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who are sent by their boss to kill someone. They have various adventures on their journey. The younger of the two is tired of the harsh life they lead and wants to go home. Here’s the wonderful last paragraph:

“I dropped into sleep but awoke with a start some minutes later. I could hear Charlie in the next room, washing himself in the bath tub. He was saying nothing and would say nothing, I knew, but the sound the water made was like a voice, the way it hurried and splashed, chattering, then falling quiet but for the rare drip, as if in humble contemplation. It seemed to me I could gauge from these sounds the sorrow or gladness of their creator; I listened intently and decided that my brother and I were, for the present at least, removed from all earthly dangers and horrors.

And might I say what a pleasing conclusion this was for me.”

No. 2. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

When Quoyle, discovers that his wife has been unfaithful, he heads for his ancestral home on the wild coast of Newfoundland with his two small daughters. He secures a job on the local paper, reporting on the shipping news. This book is the story of his life there, and the characters he meets. It finishes thus:

“Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do. A row of shining hubcaps on sticks appeared in the front yard of the Burkes’ house. A wedding present from the bride’s father.

For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat;s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”

No. 3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I’m sure everyone knows this story of the Joad family, and their trek through the Oklahoma dust bowl during the great depression of the 1930s in America. At the end of the book they take shelter in a barn where they find a man dying of hunger, and his small son. The daughter of the family, Rose of Sharon, (Rosasharn) has just given birth to a still-born child, and sharing a deep look with her mother, agrees to breast-feed the dying man:

“For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comforter about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. ‘You got to,’ she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head closed. ‘There,’ she said. ‘There.’ Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”

No. 4. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

From the blurb on the back of this book – It is a murder thriller, a hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic version of eternity, and a tender, brief, erotic story about the unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle.

“We saw, standing with his back to us, an enormous policeman. His back appearance was unusual. He was standing behind a little counter in a neat whitewashed dayroom; his mouth was open and he was looking into a mirror which hung upon the wall.

‘It’s my teeth,’ we heard him say abstractedly and half-aloud. ‘Nearly every sickness is from the teeth.’

His face, when he turned, surprised us. It was enormously fat, red and widespread, sitting squarely on the neck of his tunic with a clumsy weightiness that reminded me of a sack of flour. The lower half of it was hidden by a violent red moustache which shot out from his skin far into the air like the antennae of some unusual animal . . . He came over ponderously to the inside of the counter and Divney and I advanced meekly from the door until we were face to face.”

‘Is it about a bicycle?’ he asked.

No. 5. Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen

I’ve always been a fan of The Boss and I know he writes his own songs, but still, I was a bit surprised by how good his writing is in this autobiography. The book flowed along and I thought the prose was delicious. This is how he finishes the book – he is riding his motorbike south to Manasquan Inlet:

“My “ape hanger” high-rise handlebars thrust my arms out and skyward to shoulder height, opening me up to the winds full force – a rough embrace – as my gloved hands tighten their grip on that new evening sky. The cosmos begins to flicker to life in the twilight above me. With no fairing, a sixty-mile-per-hour gale steadily pounds into my chest, nudging me to the back of my seat, subtly threatening to blow me off six hundred pounds of speeding steel, reminding me of how the next moment holds no guarantees . . . and of how good things are, this day, this life, how lucky I’ve been, how lucky I am. I turn the corner off the highway onto a dark country road. I hit my high beams, scan the flat farm fields looking for deer. All clear, I twist the throttle as rushing into my arms comes home.”

That will do for now. Reading all these wonderful writers makes me question my ability to write, or even to put a sentence together. I’m very happy that the world is full of so many wonderful books – I’ll probably do another five endings in the future!

A Review of Ablutions by Patrick de Witt

“Discuss the regulars.”

So begins “Ablutions”, the first novel by Patrick de Witt. Reviewers have said that it is not as good as the two subsequent books – but it is.

It is written in the second person which isn’t always appealing but in this case it suits perfectly. The blurb on the back cover describes the book as “Hilariously gloomy”; neither word is correct. Certainly there is plenty of black humour in the book but it is not hilarious, and gloomy is too slight a word to describe the terrible sadness which runs throughout.

The prose is wonderful:

   ” . . . before settling into a life of wealth and flashbulbs.

   ” . . . the desire to celebrate the rhythm of your own beating heart.”

The premise is this: a barman, in a bar off Hollywood, is making notes for a novel so there is no narrative as such – each episode takes place in the present – but now and then the reader becomes aware of time passing with the detieration of the barman’s health. He studies the failed actors and writers who people the bar every day and the characters are wonderful, (if people so bereft of hope and joy could be described as wonderful), the ageing child actor, the crack addict, the unhappy doorman, among them. A temporary bar manager is the only one to escape into glamourous Hollywood, a flash of light in the dim room.

The amount of alcohol and drugs consumed is staggering – causing terrible hangovers and punishing the poor, malnourished bodies. And sex: there’s plenty of sex in the backroom, and there’s a scene where a sort of orgy takes place, not like a penthouse orgy with champagne and nibbles and beautiful bodies; no, it’s a sad, woeful, cold occasion, not even lively enough to be called sordid.

Throughout the book there are snatches of empathy and snatches of vicious, casual violence, but loneliness pervades all. The barman, afraid to give in to tears in case he could never stop, hurts himself to deflect the feeling:

   “Once this starts you believe you will not be able to stop, or will soon reach a point from which you will not return without damaging your mind . . . you draw back your hand and punch the brick wall as hard as you can.”

There is very little direct dialogue but this is not noticeable as the barman is always addressing himself so it reads like conversation. The pace and shape of the book is perfect in the way that “Of Mice and Men” is perfect, no part too long, none too short, the last line as important as the first.

An excerpt from “Undermajordomo Minor” by Patrick de Witt

This is Patrick de Witt’s third novel, completely different from the previous two. It isn’t quite a fairy story; some of it is surreal, nightmarish, incredible, but all totally delicious. I was in awe of the author’s creativity and the wonderful dialogue and prose.

Mr Olderglough opened his eyes. “There were once were twenty souls in our employ here, boy. Can you imagine it? Coachmen, waiting maids, porters, a cook, a nurse. All gone now, alas.”

“I thought you’d said Agnes was the cook, sir?”

“Originally she was the chambermaid. When the cook left us, then did Agnes step forward, claiming a deft hand.”

“But it seems you take issue with her cooking, is that correct?”

“Not so far as she knows. But in my private mind, yes, I am unenthusiastic.”

“And why do you not speak with her about it, may I ask?”

“Because I dislike unpleasantness. Also there is the fact of my being somewhat afraid of her. And then, too, I’m not much interested in eating.” He looked at Lucy. “Are you?”

“I like to eat,” Lucy said.

“Is that right?” Mr Olderglough shook his head, as if to accommodate an eccentricity. “Personally, it never held much sway for me.”

Lucy said, “May I ask what became of the others?”

“Well, they’ve gone away, haven’t they?”

“But why have they, sit?”

“I suppose they thought it the wisest course of action, is all.”

Mr Olderglough looked wistfully about the room. “Twenty souls,” he said, “and here, what’s become of us? Well, we’ve got you in our company now, boy, and this heartens me, I can tell you that much.”

Lucy was not so heartened. He followed Mr Olderglough to the larder; the shelves were all but bare. There came from the corner the scratching of rodents, and now began a thumping, squabbling battle, a lengthy affair concluding with the agonized squeal of the defeated: high and sharp at its commencement, distantly windy at its resolution. Mr Olderglough wore a satisfied expression, as though the outcome were favourable to him. Drawing back his cascading forelock, he said. “I find the constant upkeep of the body woefully fatiguing, don’t you?”

Endings . . .

Many books have very disappointing endings, especially thrillers. The last few chapters are boring dreary things with the detective/policeman/woman explaining in tedious detail how she/he unraveled the plot. With other genres it’s as if the writer flounders a bit and doesn’t know quite where to finish the tale. But then there are wonderful books with wonderful endings and here are a couple of them:

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones, he laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do. A row of shining hubcaps on sticks appeared in the front yard of the Burke’s house. A wedding present from the bride’s father . . . Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off cold fires, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

“And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”

Ablutions by Patrick de Witt

“I will try to be happy, you think, and your heart and chest feel a plummeting, as in the case of the hurtling rollercoaster, and your heart wants to cry and sob, but you, not wanting to cry, hit yourself hard in the center of your chest and it hurts so much but you drive on, your face dry and remaining dry, though it had been a close call, after all. Time passes and you shake your head. Work will drive you crazy if you let it, you say. You do not speak for a long time after this.”

I can read these books any number of times. Every word is in the right place, the last sentence as important as the first.

5 Best Opening Lines

  1. “Ennis Del Mar wakes before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminium door and window frames.” Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx.
  2. “All night long he would walk the ship, from bow to stern, from dusk until quarterlight, that sticklike limping man from Connemara with the drooping shoulders and ash-coloured clothes.” Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor.
  3. “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.” The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
  4. “‘All good things must end,’ said Frances Price.” French Exit by Patrick de Witt.
  5. “It was love at first sight”. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.