La Femme de Gilles / Madeleine Bourdouxhe

FemmedeGillesMadeleine Bourdouxhe’s novel opens with her protagonist, Elisa, awaiting her husband’s return from work. As she lays the table for the evening meal, she is transfixed, ‘giddy with tenderness’: ‘Overcome with the thought of his return her body, drowning in sweetness, melting with languor, loses all its strength.’ As the title suggests, Elisa is a character who exists primarily in relation to her husband. She inhales his smell; she runs her fingers over his body; she gazes adoringly at him. This might sound cloying – anti-feminist even – but it’s not. It’s tender. It’s tender because Gilles also loves Elisa. They are content together. The novel is narrated from Elisa’s point-of-view, but in a brief departure into Gilles’ consciousness at the end of the first chapter, Bourdouxhe goes out of her way to establish this. He is entranced by the smell of soup that Elisa has made and the flowers they have planted together in their little garden, and, ‘as he watches Elisa bathing his two little naked daughters in the setting sun, he feels at peace.’

But, of course, marital bliss does not a novel make. So when Gilles begins an affair with his wife’s capricious sister, Victorine, Elisa’s well-ordered life is thrown off kilter. At first she feels a vague sense of unease, but her realisation that something really has changed comes, not from anything tangible, but from an intuition:

This time the anguish was heavier, more acute. One by one she fixed her gaze on some of the objects around her, the things that made up her familiar world, then her eyes lit on her own hands . . . and she saw they were trembling. Precisely at that moment she knew that behind her back was another world, a world that was complicated, threatening, unknown. She felt it to be so and she was certain she was not mistaken.

Elisa tries to dismiss her hunch – perhaps her thoughts have been brought on by her ‘condition’ (she is pregnant), but gradually, her suspicions are borne out by scraps of evidence: Gilles lies; Gilles has a little bruise on his lip; Gilles does not make love to her in the morning.

Elisa’s reaction is not to confront Gilles, for fear of driving him away, reasoning that ‘as long as the drama remains secret, it’s within his power to restore the situation to normal.’ Elisa clings, heartbreakingly, to tiny acts of kindness as proof that Gilles is still hers, that he still loves her. Returning from an assignation with Victorine, he rummages in his pocket for a bag of caramels he has bought her. Then he caresses her breasts and she lays her head on his shoulder.

Here he was being as gentle and kind as always, and he’d thought about her, he’d bought her sweets . . . It was all so strange and impenetrable. Perhaps there was nothing wrong after all.

But Gilles changes. He becomes taciturn and morose. He lacks his old vigour and takes no pleasure in his work. He no longer kisses her goodbye in the morning. And eventually Elisa cajoles the truth from him. But not wishing him to know how much she has been suffering, she does not admit that she has known all along, instead granting him ‘the privilege of confessing.’ And when he has expounding for some time about his ‘great fire’, she comforts him.

All this might make Elisa seem like a pitiful sap, lacking all self-esteem, and perhaps there is an element of masochism in her, as if she finds in her suffering something ennobling. But Elisa is not a sap. She is kind and affectionate, and everything that has made her (and Gilles) happy is being laid waste. Her behaviour is not calculated. She simply wants her handsome, cheerful, loving Gilles back. ‘She is a woman without guile, without pride, without a philosophy.’ A kind of female counterpart to poor old Charles Bovary.

All this is told with superb economy, in measured, limpid and flawlessly translated prose. Elisa’s inner life is described without melodrama, although Bourdouxhe allows herself the occasional sentimental flourish (‘Her heart will bear the trace of that bruise longer than his mouth.’). Similar attention is given to the everyday objects – the lampshades, baskets, blankets and chairs – that surround Elisa and to the domestic tasks she so diligently performs; an attention that throws into relief the external ordinariness of Elisa’s life and her inner turmoil.

The ending, when it comes, is quite devastating, and all the more so for the masterful restraint with which it is told. A beautiful, beautiful book, then; sad and exquisite, and the best novel I have read in a very long time.

* * * * *

First published by Gallimard in 1937. Daunt Books edition, 2014, translated by Faith Evans. You can buy it here.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2015

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Strike Out Where Not Applicable / Nicolas Freeling

003aStrike Out Where Not Applicable finds Van der Valk newly installed as Commissioner of Police in the provincial town of Lisse, centre of the tulip growing region. The countryside is, ‘Nothing to look at. Flat like all of Holland.’ And the town?

Walls white; painted, plastered, roughcast. Metal window-frames painted grey. Huge windows washed and polished every day. Nothing dirty or tumbledown, nothing disorderly, vexatious or offensive. The world is neat, prim, and unspeakably tidied.

A place entirely mundane, perfect for Freeling to indulge his favourite pastime of satirising small-town Dutch society.

There is a crime, yes, – a local restaurant owner has been killed by a blow to the head after falling from his horse – but neither Freeling nor Van der Valk seem much interested in solving it. Nothing much happens in this connection for more than two-thirds of the book. Instead (and much more interestingly), the crime is simply a pretext for the Van der Valk to acquaint himself the town’s various characters.

The ‘investigation’ centres around the manège – the riding school – where the fatal incident has occurred. Of course, Freeling has chosen this location quite deliberately as a magnet for the most upwardly-mobile and affected of the town’s residents. There is the Marguerite, the sexy, but slightly mannish wife of the deceased, who seems to have an intriguingly close relationship with the restaurant’s manageress, Saskia. There is Rob, an amiable former cycling champion and his saucy wife, Janine, like Van der Valk’s wife Arlette, an outsider by virtue of being French. There is Francis, the owner of the manège, who is partial to a bit of light S&M and likes reading dirty books (the literary kind, of course). Finally, a local painter of portraits and horses, the arrogant and solitary Dickie Six. To all of these a vague motive for murder might be ascribed (blackmail, jealousy, amour fou), but the author is not really interested in that – instead what he presents is a series of amusing and crisply observed pen portraits. Freeling has an unerring eye for the nuances of human behaviour and he describes them wittily and unfussily.

He is similarly skilled and economical in his depiction of the novel’s locations, such as the:

Solid, old-fashioned meeting-places . . . unchanged for a hundred years – heavy and ornate mahogany, plush-upholstered [with] great massive plated monogrammed ashtrays. Places where hobbly old waiters brought quiet elderly gentlemen games of dominoes or chess. No billiard tables, but music at night made by a trio of elderly flatbreasted virgins in dowdy black velvet . . . where you got coffee in heavy scratched little pots, and a glass of water with it.

While Van der Valk – like their elderly habitués – might wish to linger in such places, this is a detective novel and there remains a case to be solved. Thus, with around forty pages to go, Van der Valk organises his minions into a surveillance squad. As in Double Barrel, there is a certain irony in placing characters so obsessed with appearance and comme il faut under observation – it is only what they already do to each other. Even now, however, Van der Valk’s efforts at actual police work seem half-hearted (he would much rather be cosying up to a suspect with a glass of wine). When one of his underlings asks him what they are looking for, he replies wearily, ‘Nobody knows.’

Van der Valk tasks himself with tailing the Dickie Six. It is an easy task because for days the painter walks around absorbed in his own thoughts, observing his surroundings, ‘storing himself up to the brim, soaking himself to saturation.’

Later on [Six] would distil, but first came the process of fermentation, during which impurities and irrelevances scummed up and heaved and turned into the thick crust of rubbish that the winegrowers all ‘the hat’, while the sediment sank, and the turbid, unattractive liquid clarified, and the sugar grew wings as it turned into alcohol. The analogy amused Van der Valk.

Of course it does, because it is an analogy not just between painting and winemaking, but with the process of detective work (and that of writing or reading a detective novel) – the gathering and sifting of irrelevant details before the dénouement rises to the top. Except that in Strike Out Where Not Applicable, as in Freeling’s other novels, it is not the resolution which gives greatest satisfaction, but the process of fermentation.

* * * * *

First published by Victor Gollancz, 1967. (Hideous) Penguin edition 1985.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2015

Double Barrel / Nicolas Freeling

Double BarrelVan der Valk is dispatched to the small town of Zwinderen in the north-east of Holland, where a series of poison pen letters have been sent to residents and two women have committed suicide. The local police are (of course) baffled.

Freeling’s Amsterdam inspector is a close cousin of Simenon’s Maigret. Both detectives like to take a sideways approach to the crimes they are investigating; they are more likely to drink a beer with a suspect than grill him in a cell. Van der Valk is sardonic and provocative; self-deprecating and aware of his own limitations – a self-confessed ‘clot in a ready-made suit’, except that he isn’t. Far more than Maigret, he is analytical, prone to bouts of abstract thinking. In this, the fourth Van der Valk novel, Freeling switches to the first person and this gives him free rein to the reflect the cerebral aspect of his detective’s nature.

Van der Valk is posted to Zwinderen, armed with a dossier about the town, for good reason. Freeling was an English writer living in the Netherlands, and taking his protagonist out of his normal milieu allows him to use him as a mouthpiece for his own observations of Dutch life. And boy, does he put the boot in. Zwinderen is portrayed as bureaucratic, prying, repressed and hypocritical. It is a town in the midst of economic re-birth; new industries have brought new residents, housed in shiny new blocks of flats; but the Calvinist Dutch mentality remains, or at least the appearance of it. Perusing the town’s court records, Van der Valk is unsurprised by the cases of incest (‘never quite unknown in these ingrown inter-married districts’), but there is, he finds:

Rather too much rape, indecent exposure, dissemination of pornography, obscene dancing in cafés, underhand prostitution – underneath all the drum-beating and bell-ringing on Sundays, there was a sort of sexy itch.

And this is Freeling’s real subject: an almost sociological dissection of small-town Dutch life. In an earlier novel, Because of the Cats (1963), Freeling casts a similar eye over the booming new town of Bloemendaal aan Zee, the ‘pride of Dutch building and planning’, where there residents lavish money on their swish modern homes; where ‘the drunks are polite. Fights in cafés are unknown and breaking-and-entering is a rarity.’ And yet ‘the younger generation find it dead . . . and the many of their elders, secretly, agree.’ The key word here is ‘secretly’, for, just as in Zwinderen, the true religion is conformity.[*]

And in order to explore this aspect of Dutch life, Freeling chooses the perfect crime: blackmail – the threat of exposure. Van der Valk quickly finds that it is hard to get his hands on the letters residents have received. Most recipients, ashamed of the contents, have destroyed them at the first opportunity. It is not clear how many people have received the letters, as nobody wishes to expose their activities to scrutiny by involving the police. Nor is it even clear that the contents of the letters are true – perhaps the writer is taking a scattergun approach, hinting at unsavoury activities knowing that the recipient is likely guilty of something. There is thus a pervading atmosphere of suspicion: nobody knows who has been writing the letters; nobody knows who has received them; nobody knows who is guilty of what. It’s Kafka in the guise of detective fiction.

The chief suspect is Besançon, an aging German engineer, believed to be a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. Besançon translates documents for a local firm from which a sophisticated listening device has gone missing, but this is not the real reason he is a suspect. Rather, it is because in a town where no one closes their curtains for fear that their neighbours will think they are up to no good, Besançon lives behind a high wall. Very much as Maigret would, Van der Valk befriends him and their conversations range over a variety of lofty subjects, the detective eventually finding himself (quite willingly) under the scrutiny of the suspect: “You have acquired a professionalism, a competence – the usual police skills, but you lack the police mentality,” Besançon tells him. Nevertheless, the old man insists, “You will clear this up, all right. It would not surprise me if you cleared up a lot of other things too, that have for long remained obscure.”

And, naturally, Van der Valk does clear things up. But while the novel kowtows to the generic requirement for resolution and the provision of a twist (which is unforgivably given away by both the strap line on the Penguin edition and the blurb on the back), these elements are far from being the most interesting thing about the book. Like Simenon, Freeling is more interested in his novels’ characters than in the crimes they may or may not have committed. The poison pen letters are a mere MacGuffin to provide Van der Valk with a pretext to delve under the skirts of Zwinderen.

Indeed, the most revealing scene in the book occurs towards the end when Van der Valk goes ‘prowling’ around the town after dark, armed with binoculars, disguised in baggy clothes. He trains his sights on a window in a block of flats, ‘the very conventional living room of an unmarried woman living alone . . . A calvinist interior, bare, impersonal, dull. No books to be seen, no frivolities.’ But the occupant is floating around in a negligee, a cigarette in her mouth, her face luridly painted.

Watching a person through binoculars – even if that person is simply cleaning his teeth under the kitchen tap – creates a strong emotion. You are ashamed and excited . . . With binoculars you are the submarine commander, the assassin, the preacher in the pulpit. God. As well as, always, the pornographer. A strong hot emotion.

Van der Valk climbs a staircase in a deserted building and stubs his elbow, straining to get a better view.

Then I saw it was a seduction scene. A solitary seduction. I understood that in five minutes she would be making love to herself . . . Something villainous happened to me at that moment. I wanted to see her.

Then, as he contemplates climbing onto the roof, he is disturbed by a beat cop, caught in the act of committing the very crime he has been investigating. But such actions, forbidden to the private citizen, are easily explained by an officer of the law, especially an inspector from the big city.

Double Barrel, then, is something of a masterpiece. The writing, particularly in its depiction and observations of the provincial setting, is strong, nigh on flawless. Van der Valk is entertaining company and the secondary characters – especially the detective’s feisty wife, Arlette – are skilfully drawn. Finally, there is that dark, ambiguous tone – hinting at the idea that we are all, in some way, as guilty as one another – and it is this that raises the novel way above the expectations of the genre.

* * * * *

First published by Victor Gollancz in 1964. Penguin edition, 1967.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014

[*] In this respect both novels have something in common with the depiction of the town of Sneek in Simenon’s The Murderer of 1938.

Café Céleste / Françoise Mallet-Joris

014Café Céleste tells the story of the intertwined lives of the inhabitants of a shabby Montparnasse apartment block above the eponymous bar. Among these characters are the ‘malodorous’ Mme Prêtre, the all seeing concierge who dreams of setting up her daughter as the lover of a rich man and living off the proceeds; Dr Fisher, an outwardly respectable abortionist, not above partaking of the drugs in his surgery; Socrates, the proprietor of Café Céleste, whose ill-advised largesse is ruining his business; and Jean Cabou, a mediocre painter. To this extent, the the book bears a superficial resemblance to Georges Perec’s later Life: A User’s Manual.

But the novel gradually centres around the triangular relationship between Stéphane Morani, a mediocre musician in poor health; his wife Louise; and the shrewish shop-girl, Martine, with whom Stéphane enjoys a platonic relationship. Stéphane is handsome and charming, and since childhood has had the ability to please those around him through acting out the roles they (his parents, the priest, for example) wish him to assume. As a result he has become a fantasist, unable to distinguish between the reality of his life and the contents of the self-mythologising journal in which he scrupulously records his thoughts. The one act of rebellion of his life has been to defy his parents and marry Louise, an act he committed not out of love but from a misplaced desire to ‘save’ her from a life of prostitution.

But it is the plain and devious Martine whom we first meet, and as she contemplates the customers of the department store in which she works, Mallet-Joris leaves us in no doubt about the embittered nature of her personality:

Oh, those stupid, ill-dressed, ill-fed women, crammed with cheap literature and meat, subsisting on the cheap cuts of life, and satisfied with their lot! But it was not so much their poverty she detested . . . [as] their vulgar and violent zest for life.

Martine, by contrast hates everything. She scorns life and is in turn scorned by it:

This was another thing she detested: this narrow and colourful street that was always congested. She detested everything in it, the passers-by, the costermongers’ carts, the prostitutes, the neon lights, the shop and cafés. In this tumult . . . she walked alone . . . feeling conspicuous and scorned.

Yet every day after work, Martine goes to the Brasserie Dorée to hear Stéphane’s trio finish their afternoon session (they are too mediocre to play in the evenings) and imagines that her relationship with Stéphane will one day amount to more than it presently does.

To this extent, the novel could equally assume the (English) title of Mallet-Joris’ earlier novel, The House of Lies – each one of the characters exists in a world of self-delusion.

The sole character who can be exempted from this charge is Stéphane’s wife, Louise, who works as a dresser at a local revue. She is solid, stoical and possessed of a full awareness of the nature of her situation. When she resumes an affair with a wealthy artist she knew before her marriage, she does so without subterfuge, and when he proposes marriage to her, she reacts calmly and unmelodramatically. In contrast to Martine, Louise feels great kinship with other women, a kinship keenly felt amid the nakedness of the Turkish baths:

A shrill, gay chatter arose, small groups of women had formed. Leaning against the columns, stretching their arms or rinsing each other’s hair . . . They were living intensely again. Three women grouped around that young girl, dragging a secret out of her and sharing it, laughing or groaning with the same vehemence, vigorously slapping their thighs (stout thighs, flabby thighs) . . .[ They] were women again and were recalling with rude words of the flesh the children born of their bodies, the men welcomed into their beds, the money counted by their tireless hands . . . And their lives were there, self-assured, rich even in vice, misery, sickness.

Louise is like an older version of Alberte in The House of Lies an island of stoicism and level-headedness amid a world deception and scheming. And like Alberte, the conclusion of the novel finds Louise returning to a previous existence, an existence in which she is contented and comfortable.

The (ironic) original title of the novel is L’Empire Céleste, and it is this little empire that Martine makes her business to bring down. She is motivated, not by a desire to have Stéphane for herself, but by her enmity towards the world that spurns her:

She was not acting against Louise or against the man who was holding Louise in his arms. She had always known there was a world of this kind which she could never hope to enter, a world in which human beings embraced quite simply, slept and ate quite simply. The people of that world had never promised her anything. If she hated them, it was with an impersonal, cold, almost detached hatred.

When she finally succeeds in destroying Stéphane’s fragile kingdom, she finds a kind of ecstasy in his loathing: ‘Oh, let him at last tell her that all she had ever aroused in him or had ever aroused, was aversion, repugnance!’

She had triumphed at last . . . She had seen his face distorted with rage and fear, stripped of all that pretended sweetness . . . And that face was as ugly as her own. She would unmask them all. From now on the world would be peopled solely with real faces, faces without beauty. The world would be nothing but ugliness.

For all that Mallet-Joris holds up the delusions of her characters to ridicule, Martine is a monstrous creation, repellent in her desire to wreak havoc on the lives of those around her. Stéphane, for all his self-deception is a sympathetic character, undeserving of the fate that awaits him at the end of the book.

But, monstrous as Martine is, it is Mallet-Joris masterful evocation of character that makes Café Céleste so worth reading. Few novels contain such an array of characters, any one of whom could take centre stage in a novel of their own. Mallet-Joris’ exposition is leisurely. She is always happy to linger over the details of a street scene, café or theatre, and, at its best, her descriptive writing is rhythmic, evocative and rich. That said, her prose sometimes strains too hard for literary effect – there are quite often more adjectives than necessary, or a superfluous clause, which, in its attempt to hammer home the point, diminishes it.

Similarly, Mallet-Joris’ is not frightened of taking her narrative off in what can seem a tangential direction. The novel meanders towards its conclusion, and it is hard not to think that were it more tightly focussed on the central relationships, it would have greater power. That said, it would be wrong to criticise the novel for being too complex, for resisting the idea that life is simple and linear. The lives of Mallet-Joris’ characters are messy and the novel should be applauded for reflecting this.

First published in 1959 as L’Empire Céleste. Translated by Herma Briffault. W.H. Allen edition published 1959.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014

House of Lies / Françoise Mallet-Joris

005The story and setting of Françoise Mallet-Joris’ House of Lies might have come straight out of a Simenon novel. The narrative concerns a wealthy brewer, Klaes van Baarnheim and his disagreeable, scheming relatives. Unbeknown to van Baarnheim, he has not long to live and his extended family bicker over the fate of his fortune and openly bemoan his refusal to die. Central to the plot is van Baarnheim’s illegitimate daughter, Alberte, whom the brewer has taken into his home. As van Baarnheim lavishes an increasing amount of time and money on Alberte, and seems about to ‘acknowledge’ her, the family become increasingly anxious for van Baarnheim to expire before he can disinherit them.

The setting is a richly evoked (though unnamed) Antwerp. Mallet-Joris’ locates her characters firmly in the milieu of the town, often opening chapters with quite lengthy descriptions of the town, in particular the red light district known as the ‘Triangle’:

Tramps were sleeping here and there among the warehouse crates, sprawled in strange postures, occasionally flinching and quivering like sick dogs. A few stray cats prowled round the closed fishmongers’ stalls, licking the pavement where lingered bits of crushed flesh or traces of blood. A fog hovered round the electric pylons, the black hulls of boats, the tall house fronts, the warehouses with black doors rising one above the other opening out upon the void…The little cafés were lighting up, corrugated steel blinds were being raised with dramatic flourish.

It is from the Triangle that Alberte comes. Her mother is an ex-prostitute, now alcoholic and on the verge of madness. Van Baarnheim, anxious to avoid a stain on his reputation, attempts to pay her to move away, but she, like her daughter, is stubborn and refuses.

Alberte is an aloof, level-headed girl, who remains distant from the bickering and scheming of the clan. She is resolutely unmoved by the expensive restaurants her father takes her to, and only moderately impressed when he shows her round the brewery ­– clearly as a precursor to putting her in charge.

While the subject matter of Mallet-Joris’ novel might be straight out of Simenon, her prose style is more self-consciously literary. Her depiction of the locality (as in the above example) is highly evocative; but her descriptions of the mental states of her characters are sometimes over-written and lack precision:

Each plunged into the deepest silence of the soul. This lasted for a very long time, without beginning or end, an infinite time of despair and peace.

The novel reaches its inevitable climax at van Baarnheim’s deathbed. Alberte refuses to accept the brewer’s desire to turn his fortune over to her. The scene achieves a high level of tension, but, when her lover spurns her because she is no longer going to be wealthy, Alberte’s principled rejection is shown to be in vain. The critic, Susan Petit* sees Alberte’s stance as a laudable assertion of her independence, but it can also be seen as an illustration of her inability or unwillingness to escape the circumstances into which she was born. Earlier a character observes of Alberte that she might be ‘rigged out like a piano teacher’, but she is a girl of the Triangle nevertheless – she cannot disguise her lowly origins. Our last view of her is as she leaves the van Baarnheim house:

She had thrown a shawl around her shoulders in the way many women of the quarter did . . . She resembled them all. And was she not one of them?

It’s to Mallet-Joris’ credit that the merit or otherwise of Alberte’s decision is left ambiguous, and, in the end, it is this, along with the vivid descriptive writing, that makes House of Lies worth reading.

First published in 1956 as Les Mensonges. Translated by Herma Briffault. Ace Books edition published 1960.

* See “Francoise Mallet-Joris” by Susan Petit, French Review 77.1 (2003)

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014

The Unfortunates / B.S. Johnson

003On the inside lid of the box which contains the unbound chapters of BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates is the following note:

If readers prefer not to accept the random order in which they receive the novel, they may re-arrange the sections into any other random order before reading.

So what do you do? You are about to begin reading the famous novel-in-a-box. Of course, anxious to fully enter into the spirit of the enterprise, you refuse to accept that the order in which you have received the chapters is random enough, so you remove the sections from their paper girdle and solemnly shuffle them until you are sure that they are really, really random. Then, having convinced yourself that you have achieved a sufficiently level of randomness, you begin – as instructed – with the chapter marked ‘First’. Ha ha, as the narrator of the novel might say.

At first you are tentative. You expect to be disoriented. The novel opens as the nameless narrator arrives in a city he gradually realises he has visited before. He slowly recalls the geography of the place; a series of half-remembered incidents and landmarks come back to him. In its reiterations and fumbling towards meaning, the prose recalls Beckett: the repeated implication being that the words used are not the right words, that there are no right words. And, yet like the narrator in his unfamiliar city, you find yourself settling in.

The novel consists of a series of episodes involving the narrator, his friend Tony, who is dying of cancer, and his wife June. The narrator is a novelist and occasional football reporter. He is overweight, enjoys a drink and at some point in the past, has split up with his girlfriend, Wendy. We are constantly reminded of the unreliable nature of the narrator’s recollections – the act of remembering is, we are told, a ‘constant . . . distorting process.’ Thus, the form of the book, in which the various episodes come to us in a random order, mirrors the arbitrary nature of memory.

And more than this, the very act of describing something is by nature selective and distorting. The longest section of the book deals with the narrator’s attendance at a football match and the writing of his report. The section ends with the lengthy dictation of his report to the newspaper’s sub-editor. The final match report is printed in the back of the box. It has been stripped to its bare bones and bears little resemblance to the dictated version. It is a reflection on the distorting of ‘truth’ inherent even in the ‘reporting’ of an event as straightforward as a football match.

Yet despite all this technical experimentation, reading The Unfortunates is a surprisingly normal experience. What it illustrates is that we can quite easily shake off the shackles of chronology. And the novel we are left with is accessible and poignant: the muddled chronicle of the ravaging of a friend by cancer, filtered through a mind no longer sure of the order in which events occurred, or even if they occurred at all.

 First published 1969

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014

An American Romance / Hans Koningsberger

006I picked up a copy of Hans Koningsberger’s An American Romance in a second-hand bookshop purely on the strength of its cover. I had never heard of Hans Koningsberger. I read the book, liked it and googled the author. He was born in Amsterdam in 1921and moved to the USA in 1951, later shortening his name to Hans Koning. He wrote thirteen novels, a similar number of non-fiction books and contributed articles to the New Yorker, Harper’s and other publications. In 1966 he wrote a short review of two Georges Simenon novels. The quality he most admired in Simenon was his precision: ‘There is no false note, not one word or sigh or smile which strikes me as anything but unavoidable.’

It’s a description which could equally well be applied to his own book. An American Romance tells the story of a twenty-something couple, Philip and Ann, who meet in New York, fall in love, marry, bicker and grow apart. The story is told, mostly from the point of view of Philip, in 87 short chapters (the book is only 145 pages long), each consisting of a vignette from their relationship. The writing is spare. There is a general absence of description and the author allows the action to speak for itself.

From the beginning, Philip is self-absorbed and jealous. He sees other men as a threat, other women as a temptation. But he is not repellent. He is often considerate and loving. At the beginning of their relationship, the couple shut themselves off from the world. They want nothing more than each other. There have no need for friends, parties or cultural events. When things start to go wrong this is not conveyed through any dramatic arguments or misdemeanours, but by a subtle change in the small gestures through which the couple communicate. One night, while visiting Ann’s parents, Philip does not feel like having sex. He tries to go through the motions, but is distracted by the sound of washing up in the kitchen below and the squeaking of the bedsprings. ‘He moved off her and she turned her back towards him without saying a word.’

And that’s it. That tiny gesture is the beginning of the end, the point at which the reader knows that the relationship is doomed. Ann and Philip are bright, articulate people – they are aware of what is happening. They talk about it and try to set things back on track, but they are unable or, by the end, unwilling to do so. They take a vacation in an isolated cabin in the woods in Canada. Here, once again cut off from the world, they rediscover their earlier companionship. When they leave Philip is depressed and cries. Ann, who has always been more outgoing, more in-the-world, tells him that New York isn’t so bad.

Things get worse. Ann has an abortion, Philip contemplates an affair with a woman he meets at a party, Ann stays out all night and kisses an artist friend. When Philip finally acts on his impulse to sleep with the woman from the party, it is an act of revenge and a purposeful marker of the end. He leaves the girl’s apartment at midnight, buys a newspaper and a cup of orange juice from a hotdog stall: ‘He was free.’ It is an ending of bitter, depressing irony.

The novel is a small, precise masterpiece. The writing is so artless and unadorned as to make it seem effortless and the dissection of the relationship is scalpel-sharp and affecting. There is no false note, as Koning put it, not one word or sigh or smile which strikes one as anything but unavoidable. I prefer the word inevitable, but unavoidable is just as good.

First published in 1961. Penguin edition 1964. Cover drawing by Milton Glaser

http://www.hanskoning.net/

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2013