The Man from Greek and Roman by James Goldman ~ 1974. This edition: Random House, 1974. Hardcover. 215 pages.

I have a confession to make. If it weren’t for my latest Century of Books reading project, and the fact that this novel fit into an empty place on the list, I might not have made it through.

As it was, I did, and I ultimately found it reasonably amusing, but it’s not something I’m going to push forward with a “You must read this!” recommendation. In fact, it’s poised above the giveaway box, as I suspect one time through will quite enough for me.

That off my chest, I have to say that there were a lot of things to like about this lightweight novel. James Goldman can certainly write – his manner of stringing words together was a pleasure to encounter.

But The Man from Greek and Roman is a schizophrenic sort of novel, in that it skips from mood to mood much too frequently for this reader’s comfort. Was I reading a travel-adventure-action-romance spree? A tormented psychological drama? Light porn? The ending got really dark there for a bit, and then turned all sunshiny again. I am still confused. What was that all about?

Here’s the scenario.

Dr. Melvil West, middle-aged Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum, is going through a rough patch. He should be on top of the world, as his department has just acquired a priceless golden chalice – Roman, 1st Century B.C. – but for the fact that his wife Dido (yes, really) has announced that she is leaving him.

Side-swiped by his imminent de-spousing, our protagonist is all in a state of confused anguish largely because Dido, an avant garde artist, who remains in residence because her studio is attached to their apartment, starts bringing home her lovers and bedding them loudly with Melvil present. Awk-ward.

Then the phone starts ringing off the hook at work, for the golden goblet which came with a supposed ironclad provenance, proves to be perhaps not quite such a safe buy after all. Accusations of double-dealing and theft, emotional missives from dueling archaeologists, and skulkingly mysterious millionaires get into the picture, leaving Melvil so wrought up he does what any sensible museum curator would do.

Yes, he quietly goes to his safe, packs the chalice up in a brown paper parcel, walks out of the Met and into the airport, where he is astonished to find that people’s luggage is being gone through before they are allowed to board the plane. Those pesky hijackers and their bombs, you know. Melvil’s journey seems about to end before it’s truly started when he is rescued from his dilemma by a lovely young woman who has her own ideas about how best to get sensitive things on to and off of international air flights, and the romp is on.

For Melvil is on the track of the real story of the chalice, and the beautiful (and secretly tormented) Caroline becomes his mostly willing accomplice as they dodge reporters and policeman, zigzagging across England and France, and ending up in Corsica, where the jig appears to be up, with Melvil tagged as an eccentric thief and cornered by a B-movie’s worth of detectives and bumbling European cops.

Season all of this with sporadic episodes of Melvil having sexual fantasies about Caroline, and vice versa, and their eventual fulfillment of the same and you have – well – I’m not quite sure where to shelve this rather odd novel.

It wasn’t awful by a long shot – parts of it were downright excellent, in particular the travelling sequences, and the cynical-humorous depictions of various artist-scholar types – but it was hard going during the semi-graphic sex scenes, and when it delved into the troubled places of the two main characters’ back histories. It seems to me to be a novel with an identity crisis of sorts, and I can’t imagine having the patience to tackle it ever again.

As a period piece of the decadent 1970s art-and-money scene it succeeds, and for that I will give it fair due: 5/10. Though it’s not to be a keeper, I’m afraid.

 

 

Stranger at Wildings by Madeleine Brent (pseudonym of Peter O’Donnell) ~ 1975. This edition: Doubleday, 1975. Alternate title: Kirkby’s Changeling. Hardcover. 310 pages.

I am finally beset by the virus that’s been going around for months here – it’s almost a relief to be ill at last, as everyone else seems to have had it or is in the middle of it, and I was thinking my apparent immunity was a bit too good to be true – and my reading luck is also at rather a low ebb.

I have three finished novels stacked up to share some thoughts on. They are all very different – this one, and The Man From Greek and Roman by James Goldman (intriguing title, no?), and The Land God Gave to Cain by Hammond Innes. All of them were quite entertaining in parts, though none attained perfection. With that in mind, let’s see what my foggy brain can find to say. I’ll start with Stranger at Wildings, while its finer points are still fresh in my memory.

From the front flyleaf:

Here is a tale of charm and adventure – set in Europe around the turn of the century – whose colorful action ranges from a touring circus in Hungary to the fox-hunting society of the English countryside to the elegant circles of wealth and fashion in London. It is the story of a spirited young woman of eighteen who has left an unhappy, uncertain past in England and made a new life for herself as a trapeze artist in a small touring circus…But that forgotten past will stumble upon her one day, beside a stream in Hungary, where the circus has pitched its tents for a time. It will come in the form of a mysterious young man – handsome, appealing, yet curiously remote – whose appearance is the beginning of a strange, dangerous intrigue that involves deception, romance, disappearance and, in the end, the revelations of a family’s darkest secrets.

Yes, it’s a gothic romance!

Written – anomaly alert! – by a man. The only man, in fact, to have ever won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award by the Romantic Novelists’ Association, in 1978, for his novel Merlin’s Keep.

Though to be fair, no one at the time except his publisher (and presumably his nearest and dearest) knew that “Madeleine” was actually “Peter”. For some reason I get a lot of quiet amusement from knowing this, and I read this novel with enhanced enjoyment because of it, in particular during the more “girly” bits, where Mr. O’Donnell finds himself forced to describe articles of womanly attire. He does quite well, for a while. I did notice towards the end that he rather lost interest in playing that particular game, merely stolidly stating that a character’s dress was, say, blue, no other details of style or shade or fabric or embellishments given.

The whole scenario is decidedly unlikely, but a good romp it makes, and I liked it a lot until the last chapter or two, when the requisite happy ending was being set up. Yeck. This is where someone like Norah Lofts trumps others in the genre, with her carefree tendency to keep things dark; no happily-ever-afters there. But I digress.

Okay, here it is. A thirteen-year-old, motherless English girl, spoiled and unlikable, finds out upon the death of her supposed father that she is in fact no relation at all – she was a changeling child. She is therefore told that she is to be put into an orphan asylum, as no one wants to continue supporting her.

So she runs away, and joins a circus, where she becomes a talented trapeze artist. (Yes, seriously.)

Fast forward a few years. Our heroine, Chantal, is now eighteen, and has decided that she wants to become a medical doctor, once she has banked enough money from her acrobat’s salary to put herself through medical school. (This is not such an easy feat for a young woman in the late 1800s to pull off, remember.)

In Hungary, where the circus is touring, Chantal befriends a handsome young man who has apparently lost his memory. Their eyes meet, etcetera, but before anything comes of it the young man disappears under suspicious circumstances. Hot on the heels of this drama, Chantal is “discovered” by an English brother and sister couple (but are they?) who inform her of her real heritage, and off she is whisked to England, to a high place in society.

But Chantal soon realizes that someone is out to harm – kill? – her, and lo and behold! – the mysterious man from Hungary reappears, memory apparently repaired…

There is a killer dog attack, lots of acrobatic antics, various horseback athletics (Chantal is a talented equestrienne, of course), a sinister secret society, and a grand finale which I must admit I didn’t see coming, save for the inevitable romantic clinch at the end.

Points in favour include a divertingly fast pace, and a heroine with numerous personality flaws to contrast nicely with her enviable physical accomplishments. Points against are the sincerely silly plot, and the goopy ending.

But all in all a rather decent example of the genre. Let’s give the man (Peter) a round of applause, and a well-deserved 7/10.

I’d made acquaintance with Madeleine-Peter before, and I wrote about it, too. At length.  Here we go.

A bit of an extra from the back dust jacket:

Chocky by John Wyndham ~ 1968. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1968. Hardcover. 184 pages.

This was John Wyndham’s last novel published during his lifetime, though there have been several others pulled from the “not quite ready” pile, dusted off, tidied up and published posthumously.

I wish I could say that this book is brilliant; one of the best; a fitting end to Wyndham’s string of creative and very readable sci-fi almost-disasters.

But it isn’t.

I found it to be a bit of a dud, in fact.

Caveat: the following rantlet is stuffed with spoilers.

Young Matthew, 11, the adopted child of loving parents and the older brother of an exceedingly pert younger sister, Polly, starts exhibiting some unusual behaviour. He talks (apparently) to himself, pausing between comments as if listening to another side of the conversation. He starts asking precocious questions, such as why are there two separate sexes versus a much more efficient hermaphroditic, self-fertile single parent, and where is the earth exactly in relation to everything else in space. He starts to do his math homework in binary code, and makes telling comments regarding the inefficiencies of the internal combustion engine.

A psychiatrist is consulted, for his family is starting to fear that some sort of mental illness is developing – for who knows what his background is, after all? Maybe his biological parents were…you know…subnormal…

Turns out that Matthew isn’t exhibiting schizophrenia at all; the voice inside his head belongs to a being from another planet way out beyond the boundaries of known space, seeing as thoughts/mind communications aren’t bound by pesky restrictions such as speed of light or sound.

Chocky, as Matthew christens his alien mind-friend, turns out to be an advance scout of another civilization, a eco-missionary, in fact, questing mentally across the void of space to find other thinking creatures, and to share a vision of better living (nuclear energy! hydroplanes! solar power!) with them. Matthew has been chosen as a communicant because of his open young mind. Too bad he’s just a naïve child, as his unusual behaviour leads to all sorts of complicated situations.

The popular press gets turned on to something weird happening after Matthew, who can’t swim, miraculously rescues himself and Polly from drowning, Chocky having taken over Matthew’s movements at the critical time and turning him into a superhuman swimmer. A similar plot twist involving artistic skills is floated.

Eventually everyone gets tired of all the press attention; Chocky decides to end the relationship in order to de-complicate Matthew’s life – he/she (Chocky’s sex is vague) has been allowing himself/herself to get too emotionally involved with the subject, not at all scientific, you know.

And that is pretty well that.

Potentially creative premise, which went absolutely nowhere.

I kept waiting for things to get properly interesting; they never did. This might have made a better short story than a novel, and it turns out that that’s close to the actual background of Chocky. First published as a novella, it was padded out to novel size the following year, no doubt in order to take advantage of the well-selling Wyndham name.

Points off for lame plotline which drops the ball early on, and more points off for the sexism which is absolutely overt in this novel, with some very sketchy attempts by the author to explain the weaker-sex complications of the feminine psyche, with all of the female characters – wee sister Polly, Matthew’s adoptive mother, his aunts, his art teacher – being depicted as silly, meddlesome, frequently foolishly moody and/or hysterical, and definitely lower on the intelligence food chain than the Big Important Men who get all of the plum roles.

Oh, yeah, there’s also a pointless mysterious kidnapping, as some secret “officials” whisk the young lad away and subject him to a series of injections – truth serum? or? – before decanting him onto a street in a faraway city.

Yawn.

4/10. Generous, because despite its poorness (John Wyndham was capable of much better!) I did read it to the end. Luckily it is a shortish book.

Margaret Atwood has a slightly kinder take on Chocky, and Wyndham’s stuff in general, in this 2015 article from Slate.

 

A Peaceful Retirement by Miss Read (pseudonym of Dora Saint) ~ 1996. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1996. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7181-4123-7. 152 pages.

Poor Miss Read! She has been banished to a dark corner of our bookcases by fiat from my spouse/co-reader – he can’t abide her, which distresses me (mildly) because I quite like these subfusc village dramas. If we can call them dramas; that might indeed by overstating the magnitude of the action here.

I tried once again to stick up for Miss Read when he caught me deep(ish) in this one a few days ago. “I know they’re not exactly exciting,” I said, “but think of it this way: when nothing else seems to click they’re decent place-holders, requiring no effort whatsoever on the reader’s part. They’re not bad books. Maybe a bit priggish occasionally…”

“Aha!” he said. (Or an exclamation to that effect.) “Priggish. Exactly. I think that’s why they annoy me.”

So there you have it. One man’s opinion. But I will still read them, especially when nothing else appeals. So soothing, like vanilla pudding or something equally mild.

This is the last book in the long Fairacre series (20 books), which started back in 1955 with Village School, a fictional account of the observations of headmistress “Miss Read” in a two-room school in the invented village of Fairacre.

Rich with well-observed detail, ex-schoolteacher Dora Saint’s many low-key novels and novellas give a fascinating glimpse into ever-changing rural England over the four decades in which they are set. The narrator in these particular books (there is also another non-school-centered series set in another fictional village, Thrush Green), happily unmarried spinster-by-choice Miss Read, is a woman of stern morals and quiet wit; she observes, records, and only very occasionally makes an out-loud statement on things which pass under her eye. She has learned early on that the schoolmistress inhabits a specific niche in the village hierarchy – slightly above shopkeeper, just below vicar – and woe betide the unwary soul who steps out of place or makes unpopular pronouncements.

In A Peaceful Retirement, our Miss Read has recently suffered several mild strokes. Her doctor has advised leaving her work, which she does with good grace but some regret; she feels like she hasn’t quite finished with that job, but she sets her sights on taking care of herself, fully relinquishing her status and retiring to a small village a short distance away from Fairacre, Beech Green.

Here Miss Read discovers that an apparently free woman still in her capable years is seen to be the natural choice for a vast number of volunteer positions; she must become adept at saying “No!” rather forcefully in order to maintain even a modicum of inoccupation; the “peaceful” of the title is ever so slightly ironic.

So what happens in A Peaceful Retirement? A whole lot, but not much.

Our narrator copes with an old admirer, now unhappily married, who comes to lay out his woes for her advice. Another long-time suitor persists in proposing to her at every meeting; she mulls over the possibility of accepting his suit, but settles for the status quo – frequent drives and teas and dinners – with each returning to one’s own solitary abode each night.

A trip is made to Florence with a friend; nothing in particular happens; it was a pleasant change and gives much scope  for happy reminiscence in the subsequent months. A week’s substitute teaching in her old school brings home to Miss Read how pleasant retirement is; she is rather disturbed to find how tired she is after coping with children all day long; she knows she has made the right decision.

A window of new interest opens up in her life with the commissioning of an update to the local church’s historical write-up; this leads to the keeping of a journal, and, yes, the first chapter in a book about a village school…

This was Dora Saint’s last novel; she was 83 when it was published; time to lay down her own pen and move gently into what one hopes was a happily peaceful retirement, for real.

This book did what it was supposed to do: it satisfied the reading urge, it was amusing, it was restful. Judged for those reasons, and not in comparison with richer fare and stronger stuff, I must give it its due. 8.5/10. (Yes, Miss Read is indeed occasionally priggish; she lost her point-and-a-half for certain unnecessarily  judgemental attitudes here and there.)

 

 

 

 

The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute ~ 1947. This edition: William Morrow & Co., 1947. Hardcover. 380 pages.

‘Tis all a Chequer board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward Fitzgerald

Nevil Shute was a writer of a certain dedicated earnestness, and in none of his many books is he as earnest as he is here, tackling the thorny question of skin colour and mixed race relationships, from the everyday associations of people-at-large to the intimacy of marriage.

Nevil Shute was also a man of deep personal decency, so it won’t be any surprise to those who know his work to hear that this is a deeply decent novel, a nice novel. In it people are given the opportunity to redeem themselves, to take the high road, and for the most part they do.

In 1943, during World War II, four men find themselves sharing a ward in a British military hospital after the plane three of them are in crash lands after being damaged by enemy fire on the way home to England from Algiers. Two of the plane crash casualties are under military arrest: Captain John Turner, for black market activities, and paratrooper Duggie Brent, for killing a man during a bar brawl. The pilot of the crashed plane, Flying Officer Phillip Morgan, is in the guarded ward because he has a badly broken thigh bone, and there is no other place for him to be cared for.

This annoys Morgan, because in the bed next to him is an American soldier, David Lesurier, under arrest on a charge of attempted rape, and in hospital because he cut his own throat while hiding from pursuing police. The reason for Phillip Morgan’s annoyance is not so much that David is a possible rapist, but that he is black. A “dirty n*gger”, in fact, and he goes on about this at great length, which proves to be deeply ironic due to events which occur later in the tale.

Oh, yes. I should mention here that the book was written in the 1940s, so the various common words used to refer to people of colour back then – now deemed highly derogatory – are used freely and abundantly. Bear with Nevil Shute; he’s got a little moral to expound on; the archaic terminology is being bandied about partly because that was the norm, but also for future dramatic effect.

So Captain Turner has a serious head injury; he’s swathed in bandages and can’t see his wardmates. They are set to keep him from going absolutely stir crazy by reading to him and conversing with him; in the weeks they share the space they become deeply intimate, though when each departs there is no thought of ever seeing each other again; it is wartime, after all, and people go where they’re sent, plus there are those three trials looming.

Forward four years, and here we find John Turner out of jail, back in civilian life, and doing not too badly, except for these fainting spells and dizziness. Seems that there are a few metal fragments lodged in his brain, inoperably so, and the long-term prognosis is not good at all.

Yup, John is dying, and he comes to terms with that in a most admirable way, but before he goes, he sets himself to find his old wardmates and see how they’re doing, to help them out if need be. (Seems John still has some of that illicit black market money tucked away, and since he’s not going to be around to spend it…)

One by one John tracks down his old companions, and what he finds is most surprising.

Despite the main character being under sentence of death, this is an optimistic tale, all about people overcoming personal challenges and going on to make the world a better place for them having been in it.

There’s a rather well-worked-out theme in this tale involving Buddhism.

And that whole interracial relationship thing.

That’s all I’m going to divulge, for if you are a Shute fan already you’ll believe me when I assert that this is up to par, a steady good read, and if you’re new to him you’ll hopefully find something to please you in this even-tempered saga of the not-too-perfect common man.

Here’s another teaser of sorts  from the back dust jacket of the first American edition of The Chequer Board.

Oh, and my rating. 8/10.

One last note. Yes, Nevil Shute pounds home his points in this one, doggedly pursuing his plot to each tidy end of each diverging thread, and yes, it does get a bit preachy here and there. I forgave him, because his heart is so obviously in the right place. Bear with the man; he did his best, too!

 

 

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin ~ 1984. This edition: McClelland and Stuart, 1988. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-7158-2. 213 pages.

“It’s America. You start to read the history of America and there’s violence everywhere. It’s as if America was built on violence.”

I had mentally bookmarked that as a quote which reflected a lot of what is discussed in this novel even before seeing the news last night of the latest mass killing in the United States yesterday – 17 shot dead in a Florida high school.

Perhaps not quite the same sort of violence Poulin’s quoted character has in mind; he was referring in the main to general acts of warfare; but it felt a depressingly apt comment in light of current affairs.

Volkswagen Blues is a quirky, thoroughly charming, occasionally angry novel, and it’s a bit hard to slot into a neat category. It’s first and foremost a road trip novel, and there are shades of love story, and also, running through it like a blood-scarlet thread, an examination of the history of the Americas and the continual conflict between indigenous-indigenous, indigenous-colonizer, and colonizer-colonizer cultures.

The driving character (pun intended) is a forty-year-old Québécois writer, pseudonym Jack Waterman, who has embarked upon a journey in his old Volkswagen minibus to try to find his older brother Théo, last heard from fifteen – or maybe twenty? – years ago, sending Jack a mysterious postcard from Gaspé.

On the way to Gaspé, hoping to pick up Théo’s long-cold trail,  Jack picks up a hitchhiker – well, two, really – a young Metis woman, Pitsémine, nicknamed La Grande Sauterelle – The Grasshopper – because of her long legs – and her small black kitten. The two (three!) click, and soon they are seen driving along, following an elusive breadcrumb-trail of clues, which leads them all the way (eventually) to California, to San Francisco, where they find (maybe?) what they are seeking.

The novel consists of small episodes described in detail and strung out like beads on a chain. Great narrative gaps exist, filled (we assume) with miles and miles of driving. The Volkswagen early on takes on a personality of its own, it is the fourth member of the travelling band, and though in the main it is a reliable sort of creature, it does have a few episodes of road-fatigue itself, echoing the occasional emotional breakdowns of its human companions.

At some point in the journey the man and the girl (for that is how Poulin refers to them most of the time) become lovers, though we are never told that they are in love; sex is kept in its place as not the be-all-and-end-all of the relationship, but as merely something shared, a physical pleasure coming naturally between two people once affection and trust have been established.

The journey ends, or perhaps it doesn’t. The companions part, though possibly not for good. Each has found something that was searched for, but each still seems to be on an as yet unfulfilled quest, perhaps best tackled alone…

A most interesting small novel, deeply Canadian, and even more deeply American in the continental sense.

Volkswagen Blues is a very slightly awkward read, though how much of the gentle stiltedness is by author’s intention and how much from its French-to-English translation I cannot tell. It was no trouble at all to follow, though. It’s a quick read, too, and one which will no doubt reward a subsequent re-reading with a deeper appreciation of all its many nuances.

I enjoyed it, and had many moments of wishing I could follow the (physical) route the journeyers took. I would cheerfully read another book by Jacques Poulin if one were to come my way.

An appreciative 6.5/10.

Can-Lit note: Volkswagen Blues was nominated for a Governor-General’s literary fiction award in 1984, and was selected as a contendor in the 2005 “Canada Reads” event on CBC Radio.

 

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier ~ 1957. This edition: Doubleday, 1957. Hardcover. 348 pages.

Ah, nothing like a good old gothicky doppelgänger story, right along the lines of Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar, and Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree. Suspend your disbelief, embrace your acceptance of lucky coincidence, and come along, step inside…

Middle-aged Englishman John, introverted historian-lecturer in French history back home in Britain, and, incidentally, very accomplished French linguist (this is important!), is facing an existential crisis of sorts as he mopes through his summer holiday in his beloved France.

John is heading for a religious retreat in a Trappist monastery near Le Mans, which he hopes will help him chart his personal path forward. Utterly alone in the world, with no responsibilities and no one responsible for him, he feels that his life has no meaning, that he is an utter failure, and he debates stepping out of the world, though whether he intends to do so literally or figuratively is not specified; it is possible John himself does not know how far he is prepared to go to find peace.

A coincidental meeting with a man who is his exact physical double results in a night of sharing life stories (though one of the pair is, it will soon be discovered, less than fully forthcoming in his private confessions) and heavy drinking; when John awakes in his hotel room the next morning, he is dressed in his double’s clothing, and there in the room are the other’s personal effects. His own things have vanished.

Still drink-befuddled, when a chauffeur shows up to collect “Jean, Comte de Gué”, John stumbles along, bemused by his dilemma, his terse replies to “his” employee being taken in stride, as if a sullen silence is an accepted character trait of the vanished count.

John finds himself decanted at the front door of a large but desperately rundown French château, and giving in to an impulse, decides to carry on with the mistaken identity, to see what will happen next.

What happens is that everyone whom he comes in contact with – not just the family servants but a brother, sister, aged (and drug-addicted) mother, highly pregnant wife, an amorous sister-in-law, a precocious and religion-obsessed eleven-year-old daughter, and even a beautiful Hungarian mistress – accept him as the real Jean, much to his (and the reader’s) shocked surprise.

Over the period of one intense week, John-Jean discovers the many dark secrets of the Comte’s family, and of Jean de Gué himself. Not knowing where the real Jean is and what his intentions are, but assuming from much he has found out that his double has departed permanently from his complicated life to reinvent himself elsewhere, John allows himself to be drawn into his angst-beset new family; he soon develops a sense of responsibility and even of love for the troubled members of “his” household.

But can he really take Jean’s place? What secrets doesn’t he know, and how will they effect his attempts to heal old wounds and bring about better times for all of the people who are looking to him for leadership?

Tragedy strikes; a fortune becomes accessible; and the real Jean makes contact: he wants to return.

What happens next? I won’t tell, you must read it for yourself.

Could this sort of thing actually happen in the real world? Not likely, but it makes a grand fictional drama, dark as night and emotionally fraught on a multitude of levels.

One of Daphne du Maurier’s best, right up there with the also-improbable but mesmerizingly memorable Rebecca.

Let’s give it a 9/10. Definitely a keeper.