That summed up the whole mess: heartburn

heartburnHeartburn
by Nora Ephron

Man, Nora Ephron was funny. Sadly this was her only novel, but as it is the thinnest veneer of fiction over autobiography, I guess it’s not so far from her brilliant essays. This beautiful new edition from Virago Modern Classics was the centrepiece of a Waterstones window display and tempted me into the shop to buy a copy, then also led me to buy three other books because, you know, I was in a bookshop.

It’s the story of Rachel who, seven months pregnant with her second child, discovers that her husband is not only cheating on her, but has fallen in love with the other woman. She must now figure how to move on with her life while protecting her toddler son Sam. And she has to reassess her marriage to Mark, which turns out to have been on rocky ground from the very start.

“When Mark and I married we were rich and two years later we were broke. Not actually broke – we did have equity. We had a stereo system that had eaten thousands of dollars, and a country house in West Virginia that had eaten tens of thousands of dollars, and a city house in Washington that had eaten hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we had things – God, did we have things…now, of course, I understand it all a little better, because the other thing that ate our money was the affair with Thelma Rice. Thelma went to France in the middle of it, and you should see the phone bills.”

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Leaving behind me a thousand little phantoms in my image

vagabondThe Vagabond
by Colette
translated from French by Enid McLeod

I love Colette. This slim, seemingly simple novel is beautifully told and explores in great detail the psychological weight of the decisions we make.

Renée is a music-hall dancer in Paris. Divorced and in her 30s, she has to perform in seedy venues late at night to pay her rent but she doesn’t mind that. In fact, she quite enjoys it, though it does give her a great fear of getting old, knowing as she does that it is her looks and not her talent that the crowds are attracted to. For now she has an agent who keeps her in work and a regular partner called Brague, a mime who designs and choreographs their act.

“Behold me then, just as I am! This evening I shall not be able to escape the meeting in the long mirror, the soliloquy which I have a hundred times avoided, accepted, fled from, taken up again, and broken off…Behold me then, just as I am! Alone, alone, and for the rest of my life, no doubt. Already alone; it’s early for that.”

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Caught up to her among the luminous clouds of deity

A Handful of Dust
by Evelyn Waugh

After my recent discovery of Waugh’s genius, I was glad that this title was picked by my book group. I must say it didn’t bowl me over the way Vile Bodies did, and if it hadn’t been for the book group discussion I would have been left very confused by it.

By which I don’t mean that the style or storyline was confusing. I mean that it has an odd tone, one that I didn’t entirely like. It’s, as you might expect, a comedy, but always at people’s expense – the comedy is never about the circumstances or event, so it’s a painful comedy.

The story is that an apparently happy marriage – that of Tony and Brenda Last – very suddenly falls apart thanks to an unappealing interloper. But can it really have been as happy as it first appeared if it is able to fall apart so suddenly and apparently easily? There are clues that boredom may be setting in:

“Although they were both in good health and of unexceptional figure, Tony and Brenda were on a diet. It gave an interest to their meals…Under their present system they denied themselves the combination of protein and starch at the same meal…
‘I’m sure it does me a great deal of good.’
‘Yes, darling, and when we get tired of it we might try an alphabetical diet, having things beginning with a different letter every day.'”

This is a book absolutely loaded with irony (in a possibly very bitter, personal way) and crammed full of vicious attacks on high society and the people therein. It simultaneously deplores and is guilty of snobbery. And yet, if you cut through the irony, what you are left with is really a sad, painfully real story of a marriage falling apart.

“…opinion was greatly in favour of Brenda’s adventure. [She} was filling a want long felt by those whose simple, vicarious pleasure it was to discuss the subject in bed over the telephone. For them her circumstances shed peculiar glamour; for five years she had been a legendary, almost ghostly name, the imprisoned princess of fairy story, and now that she had emerged there was more enchantment in the occurrence, than in the mere change of habit of any other circumspect wife. Her very choice of partner gave the affair an appropriate touch of fantasy…the joke figure they had all known and despised, suddenly caught up to her among the luminous clouds of deity…”

If you asked most people when they were halfway through this book I imagine they would say they didn’t like and didn’t care about any of the characters. And yet when bad stuff happened to them, or threatened to, I found that I did care. (And according to my book group I was not alone in this.) I think Waugh’s real genius is in observing people so well, so minutely, that even his least appealing characters are genuinely believably real.

Which is not to say that there isn’t some element of send-up going on. Considering Waugh’s cleverness it can’t be accidental that the couple at the centre of it all are Mr and Mrs Last. But the last of what? At first, you might conclude that they are the last couple about who married for love rather than money/convenience. But actually there are other love matches in the background and Brenda’s love for Tony disappears so quickly you have to wonder whether it was ever really there.

Perhaps Tony is the last of his generation to care about his big country house; he is completely devoted to it where other families are all selling off their estates. But he’s not very good at being a country gentleman, so maybe that’s not it either.

Perhaps Tony is the last faithful man in high society. There are some painful sequences where various friends (including Brenda) try to throw women at Tony to make the break-up easier on him. And even when he tries to have an affair he just can’t do it. Which should be admirable but somehow makes him look pathetic. (I believe there are elements of Waugh’s own marriage break-up in this novel so it could be that his self-pity and self-hatred became part of Tony’s character. This might also explain the sudden switches in sympathy, sometimes abandoning a character mid-scene.)

There is a long section at the end set in South America that is markedly different from the rest. It was originally a short story, which explains some of the tonal difference, but it actually works well as a new way of looking at British society. It’s pretty racist, which is partly a product of its time but also, I suspect, a comment on the characters who are there for all the wrong reasons, as it’s through their eyes that the racism occurs.

Someone at book group pointed out that Waugh heavily references T S Eliot, and in particular The Waste Land in this novel, which I must admit I missed despite having studied (and enjoyed) The Waste Land at uni and a verse of the poem being the epigraph for it all (and indeed the origin of the novel’s title). Ah well; what was that conversation The Readers were having about not being literary enough…?

First published 1934 by Chapman & Hall.

Why isn’t a standing order with Shelter enough?

How to be Good
by Nick Hornby

I was feeling a bit ill and not quite up to stretching my brains around the Asimov novel I’m in the middle of reading, so I picked this off the TBR. Somehow that sounds as if I’m disparaging it. I’m not. I really like Hornby. And he is easier to read than Asimov, it turns out.

But how did I like this Hornby novel? Well, it was better than Slam, which is a good start, and generally pretty funny and intelligent, but I do have some bones to pick. And I can’t tell if I’m mostly annoyed with the storyline or with the way it’s told. Some of each, probably.

Kate is struggling with her marriage. It’s not so much that the sex has become mechanical, or that she has started an affair, or that her husband David is constantly in a heightened, bordering-on-caricature, state of anger…but something is clearly wrong and only apathy has prevented the inevitable divorce. Then, out of the blue, David visits a faith healer (largely to spite Kate, who is a GP) and suddenly he is changed beyond all recognition, his whole aim in life is to do and be good, and he’s damn well going to make the whole family join him.

A certain suspension of disbelief is required for this story that, frankly, I didn’t quite manage. Despite the faith healer, DJ GoodNews, being unappealing and having no religion and no oratory skill, he is successful at healing doubters and believers alike. David changes from comically angry and judgemental to painfully earnest do-gooder with difficulty having any other topic of conversation than, well, doing good:
“[David’s] relentless quest for the gag in everything used to drive me potty…some elaborate and usually nasty witticism would come darting out of his mouth…and I would either laugh, or, more often, walk out of the room, slamming the door on the way. But every now and again – say, five per cent of the time – something would hit me right on the end of my funny bone…So now I very rarely walk out of the room and slam the door; on the other hand, I never laugh. And I would have to say that as a consequence I am slightly worse off.”

Kate is, for the most part, pretty believable. As the narrator, it is her head we are inside and her perspective we see. She believes herself to be a good person because she is a doctor, and that the number of pus-filled sores she tends to each day outweighs minor aberrations such as having an affair. She is initially outraged that her husband’s mid-life crisis appears to require her and her children to give up some of their middle class creature comforts but she tries to support David and even begins to see the point of his efforts.

There are brilliantly quotable lines on almost every page but I think this gives a particularly good flavour:
“What is the difference between offering spare bedrooms to evacuees in 1940 and offering spare bedrooms to the homeless in 2000?…do we have a moral right to keep a spare bedroom as a junk room, or a music room, or for overnight guests who never come, when it is February and freezing and wet and there are people on the pavements? Why isn’t a standing order with Shelter enough?…I wish David and GoodNews were interested in starting up an Internet company so that they could make millions of pounds to spend on Page Three girls and swimming pools and cocaine and designer suits. People would understand that. That wouldn’t upset the neighbours.”

The story of a failing marriage is told poignantly and well. It was achingly sad to read about Kate being happy to share a bed with David because they have learned to fit together, but at the same time growing to hate him. And the social issues that David and GoodNews touch on are real ones that people should care about and want to do something about.

But this is a gentle comedy, not a hard-hitting one, so of course it implies that Kate was right to not bother in the first place and David is made to look stupid for having tried. Which is a shame. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I think it’s easy to poke fun at middle-class left-leaning liberals. The tone of the book, for all its humour, is actually very bleak – there is no point, no hope. Which is depressing. And not true. There are good people out there who didn’t need a spiritual conversion to make them good and don’t make themselves ridiculous by doing good deeds. Guess I’m just an optimist.

As you can tell, the story does raise interesting questions about faith, “goodness”, charity and family, though it explores them from a fairly limited Christian perspective. There were some irritating non-sequiturs when Hornby switched between David being a hardnosed rational to a science-hating artist. And a GP who doesn’t know basic first aid and includes homeopathy in a list of “proper” treatments preferable to faith healing? Both equally terrifying though sadly the latter is at least believable.

So where does that leave me? I thoroughly enjoyed the read but it also frustrated me and continues to now as I mull it over. Is that a sign of good writing? Perhaps.

First published 2001 by Penguin Books.