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Note:  This book/novella is the latest book which Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano has written about his life, and it is, in many ways, the culmination of his story, a novel which reveals aspects of his life which he is only now addressing and putting into context. Fans of the author will find this book both intimate and important.  Those new to Modiano will probably feel more comfortable beginning with Suspended Sentences, which describes the unusual (and dysfunctional) childhood which made him the writer he is now.

“I’m trying to impose some order on my memories.  Every one of them is a piece of the puzzle, but many are missing, and most of them remain isolated.  Sometimes I manage to connect three or four, but no more than that. So I jot down bits and pieces that come back to me in no particular order, lists of names or brief phrases.  I hope that these names, like magnets, will draw others to the surface, and that those bits of sentences might end up forming paragraphs and chapters that link together.” – Patrick Modiano

cover sleep of memoryI have made no secret of the fact that I am addicted to the work of Patrick Modiano, having read, at this point, well over a dozen of his novels and novellas.  I was hooked from the day I read Suspended Sentences, a novella about his early childhood, in which his black-marketeer father and his absent actress mother abandoned him and his younger brother Rudy to the care of a group of circus acrobats who lived near an abandoned chateau.  These acrobats were arrested several months later for criminal activities, leading to a new chapter in Patrick Modiano’s life.  Since reading that account, I have also become familiar with Modiano’s later life in a boarding school, in some summer activities when he was of college age, and in his early years as a writer, times which are a focus of additional Modiano works.  The one period which Modiano has not described in detail until now includes the five years from the time he was seventeen until he was twenty-two, a time which every parent knows can often be crisis-filled and laden with events which may affect the maturing teen for life.  For Modiano, who had virtually no family life and was forced to make most of his decisions without the aid of supportive adults, this was a fraught time about which he still has questions, described in this review’s opening quotation.

francenobel-thumb-large

date about 1965Sleep of Memory, Modiano’s first published work since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014, draws together many of his early memories of these late teens and early twenties, often in fragments, which have haunted him from the mid-1960s.  It is by far the most intimate picture he has given of his life, which feels so real here that it is hard to imagine that it is “fictionalized.”  He recalls these years as “a time of encounters, in a long-distant past,” admitting that he “was prone back then to a fear of emptiness, like a kind of vertigo.”  Many of his memories from this period, not surprisingly, are connected with girls and women.  The first “memory” here is of “Stioppa’s daughter,” when he is fifteen.  He thinks she might have been the daughter of one of his father’s Russian connections in the black-market, and he hopes that she will “help [him] understand [his] father, a stranger…” but though he telephones her often, she never calls him back.

Modiano describes Genevieve and her role in his life in 1964, and then in 1970, he meets her again at the botanical gardens and zoo to get caught up on her life.

Modiano describes Genevieve and her role in his life in 1964, and then again in 1970, when he meets her  at the botanical gardens and zoo to get caught up on her life.

By seventeen, Modiano’s relationships with women have become more realistic and much more complex.  On one occasion he leaves the Haute-Savoie, where he is in boarding school, and heads to Paris, where he appears  at his mother’s apartment, only to discover that his mother has moved out.  He spends two weeks living with the woman who has moved in, going to a cabaret at night and accompanying her and an actor friend who might have been part of the parapolice group involved in the Algerian War.  By age nineteen he is living in Paris, where he becomes friends with Genevieve Dalame, a woman he has met at an occult bookstore.  Through Genevieve, he also meets Madeleine Peraud, who lives in a elegant apartment where she, Genevieve, and a secret society practice “magic” with a group, which may or may not be a cult connected with George Ivanovich Girdjieff, “a spiritual teacher.” Mysteries surround all these people, their lives, and their motives, and Genevieve Dalame’s eventual disappearance is a warning sign that things may not be as they appear.  Other people enter, then leave Modiano’s life, and one person threatens him, forcing him to use violence to escape.  Years later, he seeks out some of these people and places, often finding surprising connections among them.

hotel alcina

The Hotel Alcina in Montmartre, where the speaker and Mme. Huberson lived for the summer in 1965.

One person, Madame Hubersen, is someone he wants to erase from his memory permanently, though he tells himself that his relationship with her in 1965, when he is twenty, “is all so far in the past that it’s covered by what the law calls amnesty.”  Other references to “witnesses” and “the statute of limitations” confirm the suggestions that something terrible – and possibly illegal – happened with Madame Huberson, and that he is seriously involved.  Living at the Hotel Alsina in Montmartre with her for the rest of the summer, he is not sure what his future holds, but he reads many books about the occult and about psychology in an effort to come to terms with what has happened and might yet happen to her and to him.  Still subject to upsetting memories, he finds Hervey de Saint-Denys’s book Dreams and How to Direct Them to be particularly helpful in redirecting his daydreams, his fears, his occasional panic, and his obsessions.

Leon Hervey dd Saint-Denys's Dreams and How to Direct Them

Leon d’Hervey de Saint-Denys’s Dreams and How to Direct Them, a book that the speaker found very helpful during his fraught time in 1965.

As Modiano sorts through his memories and opens up more and more to the reader, he is coming to terms with his own needs and the decisions he has made in his life, even as early as age seventeen.  Though he is on his own during those years, he is, however, intelligent, sensitive, and, most importantly, literate and talented in writing, which eventually sees him through some of the most difficult situations a young adult could ever face alone.  He is quick to tell us that a turning point occurred about five years after the events with Madame Hubersen:  “I was living in Montmartre…with the woman I loved.  The neighborhood was not the same.  Neither was I….The Montmartre of summer 1965, as I thought I envisioned it in memory, suddenly seemed to me an imaginary Montmartre.  And I no longer had anything to fear.” Thirty years ago, he says, he blended some of the details of that terrifying summer into a novel so that “no one would know whether they belonged to reality or the realm of dreams,”  and though one could also say that we do not know how much of what Modiano says here about the episode with Mme Hubersen is real and how much is fiction, it feels absolutely real, as do the fear and the sense of guilt. This is Modiano’s most personal and revelatory book, one which his fans will appreciate, while they may also be left wondering….

ALSO by Modiano, reviewed here:    AFTER THE CIRCUS,     HONEYMOON,       IN THE CAFE OF LOST YOUTH,      LA PLACE de L’ETOILE (Book 1 of the OCCUPATION TRILOGY),      (Patrick Modiano and Louis Malle–LACOMBE LUCIEN, a screenplay      LITTLE JEWEL,      THE NIGHT WATCH (Book II of the OCCUPATION TRILOGY),      THE OCCUPATION TRILOGY (LA PLACE DE L’ETOILE, THE NIGHT WATCH, AND RING ROADS),      PARIS NOCTURNE ,      PEDIGREE: A Memoir,      RING ROADS (Book III of the OCCUPATION TRILOGY),            SO YOU DON’T GET LOST IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD,      SUCH FINE BOYS,     SUNDAYS IN AUGUST,     SUSPENDED SENTENCES,     VILLA TRISTE

Montmartre

Montmartre

Photos.  The photo of the author as a young man is from https://www.pinterest.com

The author as a mature man is from http://www.grreporter.info/en/

The Hotel Alcina in Montmartre, where the speaker and Mme. Hubersen lived for the summer may be found here:  http://intentionalmama.com/

The sign from the botanical gardens and zoo, where the speaker met Genevieve Dalame six years after the events of his teen years appears on http://intentionalmama.com/

The panoramic photo of Montmartre  is found here:  https://propertylistings.ft.com

SLEEP OF MEMORY
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Autobiography/Memoir, Coming-of-age, France, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Patrick Modiano
Published by: Yale University Press
Date Published: 10/16/2018
ISBN: 978-0300238303
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note:  This novel was WINNER of the 2017 Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious prize.

“The sun is a cold star.  Its heart, spines of ice.  Its light, unforgiving.  In February, the trees are dead, the river petrified…Time stands still.  In the morning, not a sound, not even birdsong.  Then an automobile, and another, and suddenly footsteps, unseen silhouettes….Through doors obsequiously held open, [the shadows] step from their huge black sedans and parade in single file…and enter the large vestibule of the palace of the President of the Assembly.” – Berlin, February 20, 1933.

cover order dayEric Vuillard’s latest prizewinner opens with the secret arrival of twenty-four wealthy industrialists at the Berlin palace of the President of the Assembly in 1933.  Bearing names like Krupp, Opel, Siemens, and Vogler, these gentlemen have answered the call of Hermann Goering on behalf of Adolph Hitler and the Nazis to “help put an end to a weak regime, ward off the communist menace, eliminate trade unions, and allow every entrepreneur to be the fuhrer of his own shop.”  Elections are coming in two weeks, and the Nazi Party has no money to spend to promote their position.  “Time to pony up, gentlemen” is the appeal.  In an unprecedented compromise with the Nazis, “Most of the guests immediately hand over hundreds of thousands of marks, Gustav Krupp gives a million, Georg von Schnitzler four hundred thousand, and so they rake in a hefty sum.”

Author Eric Vuillard after winning the Prix Goncourt for this book in 2017.

Author Eric Vuillard after winning the Prix Goncourt for this book in 2017.

Four years later, in November, 1937, the elections are long over, Germany is unified under its Nazi goals, and the regime’s only real threat is from foreign powers.  The Saarland has been annexed, the Rhineland has been remilitarized, Guernica has been bombed, the Reichstag has been made defunct, and the Nazis “have abandoned all self-restraint.”  When Lord Halifax is sent as an envoy from England to Berlin to meet with Hermann Goering in 1937, the author expresses his conviction that Lord Halifax had to have been fully aware of the dangers Hitler represented to the rest of Europe and cognizant of Goering’s mental instability: his sinister allusions, his morphine addiction, his raving egomania, his diagnoses of psychological disorder and depression, and his violent, sometimes suicidal, tendencies.  The author, however, also points out the cruel limitations in Lord Halifax’s own makeup.  His direct ancestors opposed aiding the Irish during the potato famine that left a million dead, and Halifax himself has stated publicly that “Racialism is a powerful force…neither unnatural nor immoral.”  The author believes that Halifax’s callousness is “the result of social blindness and arrogance,” yet it is Halifax who is the British envoy sent to deal with the Nazis as they plan to invade Austria.

Kurt von Schuschnigg, Chancellor of Austria, March 21, 1938.

Kurt von Schuschnigg, Chancellor of Austria, March 21, 1938.

In February, 1938, Kurt von Schuschnigg, Chancellor of Austria, is called to Berlin to meet with Adolph Hitler.  Here author Vuillard focuses on the interplay between the two men, stressing a “childish outburst” in which the Fuhrer announces proudly that he plans to build “the largest bridge in the world,” and then put up “the tallest buildings in the world,” and eventually build “much bigger and better houses than in the United States.”  As Hitler declares his intentions to conjoin Germany and Austria politically on the national level, he also abandons all pretense, clearly illustrating that there is “only one art of persuasion, only one means of getting what you want: fear – [and] in this house fear was what prevailed.”  After two hours of discussion and the inclusion of Germany’s Ribbentrop and von Papen in the conversation, Germany announces its own terms of “agreement” between it and Austria.  Germany will impose the National Socialist doctrine on all of Austria, and control all aspects of the government through the appointment of Austrian sympathizers and the replacement of Austrian propaganda ministers with German ones. Its recognition of Austria’s sovereignty and independence are purely decorative.  As preparations for the Blitzkrieg get underway, there is virtually nothing von Schuschnigg can do to stop it.

German troops cross the border into Austria, March 12, 1938.

German troops cross the border into Austria, March 12, 1938.

Throughout this work, author Vuillard stresses the games played by officials on both sides, the bluffs, the extreme positions, and the lies designed to sway populations.  As the Germans begin their invasion of Austria, they quickly become aware that the tanks and other war materiel they plan to display throughout the march from the German border to Vienna are inoperable, broken. They simply pack everything up, put it on trains, and send it through the Austrian countryside by rail.  Its appearance alone is enough to scare the population into submission.  Having described in detail the means and methods by which the Nazis took over both the German population and the population of Austria and elsewhere, the author says little about the war itself, focusing instead on the Nuremberg trials after the war to show more details about propaganda methods, how they were imposed, and the excuses which war criminals offered, if any, in defense of their crimes.

The Nuremberg Trials began on November 20, 1945. In this picture, the man on the farthest left is Hermann Goering. Convicted and sentences to death, he committed suicide the night before the hanging was to be carried out.

The Nuremberg Trials began on November 20, 1945. In this picture, the man on the farthest left is Hermann Goering.  Convicted and sentenced to death, he committed suicide the night before the hanging was to be carried out.

Author Vuillard compresses many years of wartime study into a novella-length book which shows how Hitler, an ordinary person with an unalterable goal, could affect the lives of so many other ordinary people through persuasion, fear, and raw power.  By also incorporating some cultural elements into the book, such as the music of Beethoven, Bruckner, Haydn, Lizst, and Mozart, and the work of an artist, Louis Soutter, Vuillard incorporates surprising details which expand his themes and make them more inclusive.  His stylistic excellence – from nearly romantic descriptions to hard reality – allows him to keep his focus literary, and to explore images of light and dark, warmth and cold, and the passage of time, while also expressing his conviction that “We never fall twice into the same abyss.  But we always fall the same way, in a mixture of ridicule and dread.”  Guilt, innocence, and ignorance get the full treatment here as Eric Vuillard brings life to the years leading up to the Second World War, and readers will be astonished by the breadth and depth of history which this author achieves within this very compressed work.

Photos.  The author photo appears on  https://www.practicaespanol.com/

The Time magazine cover is from http://content.time.com/

Germany’s entrance into Austria is shown on http://content.time.com

The Nuremberg Trials, showing Hermann Goering at the farthest left in this photo, are described and illustrated here:  https://www.boerner.net/

 

THE ORDER OF THE DAY
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Austria, England, Germany,
Written by: Eric Vuillard
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 09/25/2018
ISBN: 978-1590519691
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note:  Kate Atkinson was WINNER of the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995), and was twice WINNER of the Costa Award, its renamed successor, for Life After Life (2013) and A God in Ruins (2015). 

“Chatter and gossip, a lot of it, yet somehow more alarming because of that.  The willingness of seemingly ordinary people to bring any scrap of information [to the Gestapo] if they thought it would help the enemy cause.  The main characters in this cast of perfidy…[all] reported on a myriad others, filaments in an evangelistic web of treachery that stretched across the country.” –  description of British Fascism, 1940.

cover transcriptionIn the opening scene of Kate Atkinson’s new novel about the UK’s espionage during World War II, a sixty-year-old woman, “Miss Armstrong,” is lying in the street, badly injured after being hit by a car.  It is 1981, and this woman has recently returned to England from Italy, where she has lived for years.  She assumes that the paramedics have found her purse because they are calling her by name, and as she lies there, waiting for help, she is thinking about the Shostakavich concert she has just attended at the Royal Albert Hall.  She thinks about her twenty-six-year-old son, Matteo, the result of a brief liaison with an Italian musician, and about the fact that flags currently adorn the main streets in London because a royal wedding is imminent.  She is aware that up the road “a sacrificial virgin is being prepared to satisfy the need for pomp and circumstance.”  Though she is just sixty years old, and “had probably [lived] a long enough life, suddenly it all seemed an illusion, a dream that had happened to someone else.  What an odd thing existence was.” 

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 28: Costa Novel Award Winner Kate Atkinson attends the Costa Book of the Year awards at Quaglino's on January 28, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Author Kate Atkinson. Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

As if this scene of a woman, Juliet Armstrong, contemplating her life after an unexplained  accident is not enough of a “hook” to draw readers into the story from the beginning, author Atkinson then flashes back to 1950, introducing the next chapter “in the middle of things” in London.  Juliet Armstrong, then thirty years old, is walking in the city when she sees a man she knows well, someone for whom she worked in the 1940s.  When she approaches this man, “Mr. Toby,” to say hello, however, she is met with an annoyed, blank stare  – no sign of recognition whatsoever.  Having established two mysteries – Juliet Armstrong’s pedestrian accident in 1981, and the failure of a man in 1950 to acknowledge his life in 1940 – Atkinson then flashes back to develop the character and background of Juliet Armstrong.  Juliet, the reader learns, had been tapped to work for the national spy agency MI5 while also working at the BBC in 1940.   At the end of the war, she continued to work at the BBC while Godfrey Toby, her former boss at MI5, disappeared – to Europe or New Zealand, she thought.

Dolphin Square. where MI5 set up an apartment to spy on fifth column members supporting the Gestapo.

Dolphin Square, where MI5 set up an apartment to spy on fifth column members supporting the Gestapo.

In shifting time periods, Juliet first begins to “come alive” for the reader when she enters Moretti’s Cafe in 1950, a place she had patronized during the war and which suddenly inspires vivid memories for her. Her mother had died in a nearby hospital while Juliet was eating her lunch at Moretti’s one day.  “Her mother had [always] represented a form of truth for her, something that Juliet knew she had moved away from in the decade since her mother’s death.”  As she sits at Moretti’s experiencing flashbacks to her earlier life during the war, Juliet fingers a string of pearls around her neck.  “The pearls at her neck were not Juliet’s; she had taken them from the body of a dead woman.  Death was a truth, too, of course, because it was an absolute….Best not to think about that.”  Still she cannot avoid thinking about Godfrey Toby and the past.  After all, “together they had committed a hideous act, the kind of thing that binds you to someone forever, whether you like it or not.  Was that why he had denied her now?  Or was that why he had come back?”  Having now established several new mysteries for the reader to ponder, Atkinson continues to develop Juliet’s life through flashbacks, including her work with Godfrey Toby.

Trent Park House, where MI5 interrogators held and imprisoned Nazis during World War II. The man who interviewed Juliet for MI5 ran this program.

Trent Park House, where MI5 interrogators held and imprisoned Nazis during World War II. The man who interviewed Juliet for her job at MI5 worked here sometimes.

In 1940 Godfrey Toby was an MI5 official posing as an agent of the German government, and he had been in “deep cover” for years, attending Fascist meetings throughout the 1930s and becoming well known to the “fifth column” and other Fascist sympathizers and subversives in England –  including the Right Club, the Imperial Fascist League, and the British Union of Fascists members.  Instead of rooting them out, the government’s plan was always to let them flourish “but within a walled garden from which they cannot escape and spread their evil seed.”  Under Godfrey Toby in 1940, MI5 acquires two flats, side-by-side in Dolphin Square to which fascist informants come to report every week.  Feeling completely safe with Godfrey, whom they believe to be a Gestapo agent working for the Nazis, the fascists chat each week at his flat, unaware that microphones and recording devices are  buried in the walls.  Within twenty-four hours of their chats,  someone transcribes those conversations.  That person is Juliet, who has also been assigned the job of befriending some of the female members of the fifth column in an effort to learn even more about them.  

Camera used by newsreel companies during WW2.

Camera used by the BBC and newsreel companies during WW2.

Most of the action, including everything having to do with Juliet’s MI5 group and her social life, takes place in the 1940s – in the first half of the novel.  At the mid-point of the novel, the action shifts to 1950 and Juliet’s later career at the BBC as Program Producer for a series called “Past Lives.”  More generalized and less compelling, this second half deals with issues other than World War II, and many of the key characters from the 1940 section disappear from the action. The second half does gain some momentum when Juliet receives an anonymous and unexplained message, “You will pay for what you did.” While  Juliet does ask herself some questions and does try to find answers in 1950, these scenes lack the intensity of the war-time years. and they feel as if they should have been edited and compressed.  Thematically, the novel is a study of illusion and truth, especially during World War II, as virtually everyone is living a lie during that time and its immediate aftermath.  In the 1950s section, the novel has less intensity, and while it does have some moments of dark irony, the tension in this part peters out without the kind of thematic resolution one would expect from the subject and its forty-year time span.  Fans of Atkinson’s work will probably enjoy the novel’s insights into British fascism, though newcomers to her writing might prefer to start with Life After Life, or A God in Ruins.

ALSO by Kate Atkinson, reviewed here:    CASE HISTORIES (Jackson Brodie mystery #1),     A GOD IN RUINS   LIFE AFTER LIFE,     ONE GOOD TURN (Jackson Brodie mystery #2),     STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG (Jackson Brodie mystery #4),      WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS? (Jackson Brodie mystery #3)

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://articlebio.com

Dolphin Square, where MI5 set up an apartment to spy on fifth column members supporting the Gestapo is seen here:  https://www.alamy.com/

The Trent Park House, where Germans were interrogated during World War II in England, is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/

The Camera used by the BBC and newsreel companies during World War II is here: http://www.golden-agetv.co.uk/

TRANSCRIPTION
REVIEW. PHOTOS. England, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Kate Atkinson
Published by: Little, Brown
Date Published: 09/25/2018
ISBN: 978-0316176637
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note:  Julian Barnes was WINNER of the Booker Prize in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending.  He has also won major international literary awards in the US, Austria, and France for his twenty-two previous books.

“First love fixes a life forever: this much I have discovered over the years.  It may not outrank subsequent loves, but they will always be affected by its existence.  It may serve as model, or as counterexample.  It may overshadow subsequent loves; on the other hand, it can make them easier, better.  Though sometimes, first love cauterizes the heart, and all any searcher will find thereafter is scar tissue.”—Paul Roberts.

cover, only story, barnesIn The Only Story, British author Julian Barnes returns to examine, once again, some of his most encompassing themes.  As in his Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending, he writes a “character novel,” in which a main character examines his experiences with love, loss, memory, and time to try to find a grander truth about life, something not affected by immediate emotions, the sentimental memories of the good times, or the tendency to see what one wants to see in the past.  Here Barnes examines the intensity of a first love and its effects on main character Paul Roberts’s entire life, emphasizing that no matter what the outcome of such a love is – happy, sad, long-lasting, or brief – that its effects on a life are, in fact, ineradicable.  At the outset of the narrative, main character Paul Roberts indicates that he is not sure how much scene-setting – time, place, and social milieu – he should do:  “I’m not sure how important they are in stories about love.  Perhaps in the old days, in the classics where there are battles between love and duty, love and religion, love and family, love and the state.  This isn’t one of those stories.  But still, if you insist….”  Continuing in the first person, he indicates that his story is from more than fifty years ago, and takes place about fifteen miles outside of London, in “The Village,” part of “the stockbroker belt” from which men commute to London by train.  He goes on to describe everyday life at a time with few TV channels, little drinking done during the week, few stores, fewer diversions, and all “sexual items” available only if you travel to London.

julianbarnes-ksJE--621x414@LiveMintThe Village does, however, have a tennis club, which becomes a major part of this story when Paul Roberts returns home after his first year at college, and is invited to “play in” at the tennis club, with a temporary membership which will last as long as he “fails to display negatives” while there.  Eventually, Paul is needed to fill in at a tournament, where he meets Mrs. Susan Macleod, whose own daughters are about his age.  After their match, he drives Susan home, though she jokingly worries about hurting his “reputation.” In a quick aside to the reader, he adds, “Perhaps you’ve understood a little too quickly: I can hardly blame you.  We tend to slot any new relationship we come across into a preexisting category, [but] there often didn’t seem words for our relationship. At least, none that fitted.”  Turning to the reader, Paul asks, “So, what words might you reach for nowadays to describe a relationship between a nineteen-year-old boy, or nearly-man, and a forty-eight-year-old woman….We were English, and so had only those morally laden English words to deal with: words like scarlet woman, and adulteress.  But there was never anyone less scarlet than Susan,” who thought the word “adultery” referred to “the watering-down of milk.”

tennisTheir relationship continues, not as a summer fling, but as a real, lasting relationship.  There would be no story if there were no problems, big ones, for Paul and Susan and, eventually, their families, but to detail those here risks spoiling the story for potential readers.  It is enough to say that Susan’s marriage has been essentially dead ever since the birth of her now-grown daughters, and with Paul in college, where he has other social interests, the relationship grows very slowly for over a decade with increasing complexity.  Problems arise as their desire to be together and their age differences limit their social interactions with the world at large, and as each of them ages, their interests grow in other directions.  Still, author Barnes keeps their stories fresh and intriguing for the reader, and an element of suspense continues despite the indication on the first page that this story is a memory from fifty years ago.

The only escape Paul and Susan have is a brief vacation together to Camber Sands.

The only escape Paul and Susan have is a brief vacation together to Camber Sands.

One way Barnes accomplishes his literary goals is to divide the novel into three parts, with a different point of view for each.  Part One is the story of young Paul and mid-life Susan, told in the first person by Paul, whose attraction to Susan feels genuine, despite their unusual age difference. Their mutual friendship with a tough neighbor woman named Joan, a friend almost Susan’s age, provides new viewpoints and offers different insights into life, love, and the community here and throughout the novel.  Joan has never been successful in love and has little tolerance for nonsense, serving as a bridge between the two main characters. Part II skips a few years forward, when the relationship of Paul and Susan is already well established.  Susan has developed problems which Paul finds difficult to deal with, and as he tries to do so, her past with her husband Gordon and her relationship with her children is revealed.  Here Barnes begins with the first person point of view which he has used in Part One, then slowly shifts to the third person as he narrates events more objectively, and provides some distancing between Paul and the reader, as the second person “you” emerges as a main “voice” and makes him sound more critical.  The pronouncement that “You are an absolutist for love, and therefore an absolutist against marriage,” among other statements, feels like an attempt by Paul to imagine advice to him by an outside source who might take his side as some problems begin to spiral out of control.

1600px-Vincent_Van_Gogh_-_Wheatfield_with_Crows

Looking at a cheap print of Van Gogh’s “Crows in Wheatfield,” Paul remembers a time in which someone told him that if he lowered his expectations in life, then he would never be disappointed.

Part III, which takes place fifty years after Paul and Susan first meet, is told completely in the third person as Paul remembers events, and updates the reader on how he has spent the last forty years.  Intense in its revelations, it also remains objective about the conclusions of the relationship and its long-term effects.   With all its well wrought details and its many complexities, Barnes carefully structures the novel to show how this story of first love may also epitomize the experiences of the reader and others who have ever experienced true, intense love.  The result, an engrossing and expansive study of two very different characters, creates both empathy for Paul as he deals with love’s complexities, and the growing recognition by the reader that Paul Roberts is not alone .

ALSO reviewed here:  Julian Barnes’s THE SENSE OF AN ENDING

Photos.  The author’s photo is found on https://www.livemint.com/

The tennis court is from https://mapio.net/

Camber Sands and its cottages appear on https://www.booking.com/

Van Gogh’s “Crows in Wheatfield” offers Paul a lesson: https://en.wikipedia.org

THE ONLY STORY
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, England, Literary, Psychological study, Literary
Written by: Julian Barnes
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 04/17/2018
ISBN: 978-0525521211
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

 

Helen DeWitt–SOME TRICK

If ever if ever a wiz there was
The Wizard of Oz was one because
Because because because because because
….
But Dorothy? I don’t BELIEVE Judy Garland could fake it.
I think she was glad Technicolor was only a dream
Glad to find she had never left home
Glad to wake up in grey black and white.
Because because because because because”–epigraph to Some Trick.

I51eFcFCZwiL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_n “Here is Somewhere,” the poetic epigraph to Some Trick, her collection of thirteen thoughtful and challenging stories, author Helen DeWitt calls to mind a mood similar to that of her first published novel, The Last Samurai, published in 2000.  Short-listed for the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Award, The Last Samurai tells the story of a single mother, Sybilla, as she brings up her genius son Ludo.  Ludo could speak English, Greek, and French by the age of four, and as he grows in that novel, his interest expands into other esoteric subjects – Japanese language, Icelandic verse, Fourier’s analysis, Arabic, astrophysics, and tournament chess, bridge, and piquet, among other challenging pursuits.  His mother home-schools him and also pursues these favorite subjects on her own.  A reader seeking entertainment within the intellectually exotic subject areas of this book will be charmed by the engaging personality of Ludo, who feels like a “typical” boy, sharing a warm and protective relationship with his mother.  Despite the many layers of academic study here, the novel is very much a story of two people and their personal issues.

Author Helen DeWitt.

Author Helen DeWitt.

DeWitt had written fifty novels before she felt comfortable enough with The Last Samurai to submit it for publication, and it was a ground-breaking literary success when it was published in 2000.  Lightning Rods, her second novel, eleven years later, was a similar critical success, though less popular.  In that novel DeWitt writes a dark satire in which a businessman develops a way to deal with issues of sexual harassment in the workplace.  He simply contracts with the female employees to have anonymous sex with the male employees as part of their jobs.  Jennifer Szalai, in the New York Times, noted “the novel’s brusque disregard for any depth of feeling,” at the the time of the novel’s publication, but she also said that “To find fault in DeWitt’s broad strokes…would be like denouncing Mel Brooks for having made ‘The Producers’ instead of “The Pawnbroker.”  Some Trick, DeWitt’s new story collection seven years after Lightning Rods, is yet another level removed from Lightning Rods in terms of feeling and the reader’s ability to identify with the characters.  Though a few of the characters repeat throughout the collection, and many of the themes and areas of academic reference are similar to those of The Last Samurai, the stories overall lack the warmth and charm of The Last Samurai and the earthy satire of Lightning Rods. 

Painting by famed artist Robert Ryman, which appear to be as "goopy" as those by Nuala in "Brutto."

Painting by famed artist Robert Ryman, which appear to be as “goopy” as those by Nuala in “Brutto.”

Instead, Some Trick examines difficult issues about writing, publishing, an artist’s relationships with the public, the involvement of agents and representatives who sometimes distort an artist’s goals in the name of sales, the dependence of creative scholars on outsiders for professional survival, and the lonely life of a creative artist who will never be fully understood.  The stories are often darkly satiric and sometimes eerie or bizarre as the author exaggerates problems that creative geniuses have in dealing with the real world, even in their everyday lives.  The stories convey the feeling that the author herself has been confronting problems like these for virtually all her creative life, and the critical response to the book confirms that others can also identify with these problems. 

Muccia Prada of Prada Designs in MIlan features in "Brutto," the first story.

Muccia Prada of Prada Designs in Milan features in “Brutto,” the first story.

“Brutto” (meaning “ugly”), the first story, tells the tale of Nuala, a struggling artist who is forty-nine as the story opens.   She is two months behind in her rent and she is owed five thousand pounds by a Serge, a male friend. People visit her studio on certain days to see her “goopy,”  all-white paintings, some of them so heavy with white pigment they take a year to dry.  When Adalberto, an Italian, visits, he discovers a suit she made for her dressmaking apprenticeship years ago – an ugly suit – and he wants twenty copies of it to display in his gallery in Milan.  With hopes high, she makes the  twenty identical suits for a high price so that he can display them.  He also wants samples of her bodily fluids for display; again, she complies.  Eventually, she becomes much more “canny,” and she takes action on her own.  The second story, “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” is the tale of an author who has written a book of robot tales and  is negotiating for a second book.  He ends up involved in complex issues of probability, the distribution of heads, and the Gaussian curve as these issues may affect the future of the book.

Gaussian curves and issues of probability are factors in "My Heart Belongs to Bertie," the second story.

Gaussian curves and issues of probability are factors in “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” the second story.

“On the Town” takes place in New York, and features an innocent young Iowan named Gil who is so besotted with New York that he spends all his time exploring its possibilities.  He becomes friends with Benny Bergsma who has already “arrived,” and slowly begins to imitate him and his friends. The story becomes a wicked satire of New York behavior, life, goals, and even speech patterns, as they pertain to the creative world.  Carefully planned on all levels, like the other stories in this series, the satire works its way to a grand climax on all levels.  “The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto” is the tale of a pianist famous for having the world’s finest sensibility in interpreting Chopin. “Climbers” tells of Peter Dijkstra, a Dutch novelist who has spent time in an asylum.  Several characters from other stories reappear here as the machinations within the current literary publishing world begin to resemble games, with elements of chance part of the equation.

"The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto" features her stylistic excellence with Chopin, and may be a reference to Asuka Matsumoto.

“The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto” may be a reference to the work of Asuka Matsumoto.

The stories are heady, intense, concentrated, and often difficult, as intellectual concepts of special interest to the author dominate the lives of the characters.  While the stories are unquestionably unique, offering new and thoughtful visions of the creative life, and a number of the odd characters are intriguing, the overall intellectualism of the collection is so weighty that readers unfamiliar with DeWitt would do well to read the more charming and character-driven The Last Samurai first.  Some Trick, read leisurely, is a fascinating encore for those, who crave more.

ALSO by DeWitt:  THE LAST SAMURAI

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://www.vulture.com

The all-white, “goopy” painting by Robert Ryman, from 1961, is owned by the Museum of Modern Art.  https://www.moma.org/

Muccia Prada is interviewed here:  http://www.alainelkanninterviews.com/

The Gaussian Curve is from https://ned.ipac.caltech.edu/

Asuka Matsumoto may be the subject of the story “The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto,” in which her sensitivity to the work of Chopin is discussed.  Her photo is here:  https://www.theaudiodb.com

SOME TRICK
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Satire, Absurdity, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, United States
Written by: Helen DeWitt
Published by: New Directions
Date Published: 05/29/2018
ISBN: 978-08112
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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