Payment Deferred by CS Forester and The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw

What a fascinating pair to read back to back. Payment Deferred is a very modern psychological thriller which hooks the reader in from the start: an astonishing work to come up with in the 1920s by a young man at the start of his career.  The Snow Kimono might also be defined as a psychological thriller, as long and meandering as Forester’s is to the point. And, again in contrast, Henshaw’s novel is the first he’d written for 25 years, having a normal career after realising that there would be no money in writing for him.

I suspect that Henshaw is too clever for me. I spent too much time wondering what I was doing. Whereas CS Forester knows exactly what you are doing. Following the journey this simple question takes  you on: will the murderer get away with his deed? And despite – or perhaps because of – the implications of the title, the reader is sort of barracking (in the Australian usage of the word) for the petty man who acts on this big idea.

The Guardian said of Simenon’s books that they

… focus on the tensions that lead a person to an extraordinary act such as murder. Through Maigret, who works primarily from intuition rather than procedural techniques, Simenon explores the psychology of his protagonists. The focus on people and setting is emphasised by the extremely spare language which is a feature of all his work.

The Encyclopedia Britannica (1993) said ‘Simenon’s central theme is the isolated existence of the neurotic, abnormal individual. Employing a style of rigorous simplicity, he evokes a prevailing atmosphere of neurotic tensions with sharp economy.’

This could so easily be a description of Payment Deferred, published five years or so before Simenon’s first non-pulp books. I wonder if that’s a coincidence? Equally the setting, a down-at-heel neighbourhood, a lower middle-class family who are living beyond their means and with nothing much to show for it. And a one-off opportunity. Never for one moment does William Marble think of using his position in the bank to illegally syphon off funds to sort his situation. But when a nephew appears out of the blue with a large amount of money in his pocket, he conceives on the spot a murder. That juxtaposition of moral lines is always fascinating to observe.

From there on things could scarcely have gone better for Marble, but his psychological spiral downwards is inevitable. He isn’t a psychopath, in other words. Just a rather unpleasant, unattractive loser whose wife feeds off his odd kind word and forgives him everything, including the murder when she finally figures it out. And then, despite her best intentions, she is the undoing of him. It’s a really neat story.

The Snow Kimono is full of exquisite description of place, exactly as a Japanese work should be. Overfull when it first went to an editor, I gather, who insisted that some 40K of words be removed. Even then, I don’t know if that decision was harsh enough. But then perhaps there was a danger that it would be trimmed to a point where it became obvious that none of it needed to be there.

I really don’t mean to be rude to the book in saying this. It ran the gauntlet of several dozen rejections before not only being accepted for publication, but also becoming the winner of a prestigious prize, all monies gratefully received. It is beautiful. But the amalgamation of the stories in it were’t adequate for me. What has the Inspector’s life got to do with the story he is meanderingly and episodically told by his odd neighbour? I didn’t feel like any of it fit together properly. I don’t really understand why it couldn’t instead have been a story, more simply and economically related, of the neighbour’s experiences.

Am I being unfair in saying that? I think Henshaw must be a totally amazing person and I’d love to invite him to dinner and fawn over his erratic, episodic literary career which is even more unlikely than the fiction he weaves. But I still didn’t like this novel enough and it’s one of those times where I feel like I’ve let a book down.

I can’t believe Payment Deterred isn’t a celebrated classic and I’m most grateful to Kate McCallum for giving it to me.

 

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The Stone of Chastity by Margery Sharp

Folklore expert Professor Pounce is evading a bridge game by hiding in the attic of a friend’s place when he spies a diary which discusses, he discovers, the Stone of Chastity. Set in a brook, it is a test for females. If they can cross without falling as the step on said stone, they have passed.

For an academic it’s a godsend. He decamps to the village in question, with an entourage including his nephew who is to assist him as he finds out more about the stone and sets upon an experiment using the village women to test the veracity of the legend. What could go wrong?

It’s a nice commentary on the self-absorption of academics. Why on earth would these women object to giving him details of their sex life. It’s for science. Won’t cooperate? What a ridiculous idea. Of course they will.

Meanwhile, the nephew is having women troubles of his own.

This came out in 1940 – I expect Sharp had finished it before the war started. It must have been a gentle distraction at the time and as with all her work hasn’t dated. The humour is fresh, the scenarios hilarious. And as always with her books, I find some new aspect of the English language to delight in.

 

 

Breaking Glass: A Novel in Two Parts by John Clanchy

Clanchy, a distinguished short story writer has set himself a challenge with his first novel. The two parts referred to in the subtitle are very different from each other. The first takes the form of a writer, writing his own life as a work of fiction under the guise of it being a ‘friend’s story’. His sister hates it. She has no taste, is all I can say. It’s utterly engaging, and that applies even when he gets into the gross details of his bucks’ night. It isn’t at all easy to make those kinds of scenes work. Another aspect I was particularly taken with is the ease with which he writes about sport, without, let me hasten to say, ever being offputting for the reader whose eyes glaze over at the very word. There’s a hilarious scene with his marriage counsellor, which is no doubt informed by having been in that line of work himself.

The second part of the novel could not be more different from the first. Now death, not life is firmly at the centre of affairs and we are in the present, it is the author speaking of himself, not the author speaking of himself through his ‘friend’. The jump is difficult to pull off and I don’t know if Clanchy really manages it. I would dearly love to be able to talk to another person who has read this. I read some of the second part again, trying to get a better sense of it, but it didn’t really help.

How can it be that I am apparently the only person in the world who has read this novel, by an established Australian writer who has won the odd prize? It’s so very disappointing. Reading has become such an undiversified activity, apparently, that not one person on goodreads has read this. The sum interest in it consists of one person’s to-read-list.

I do hope that changes. He’s a massively underrated writer and with the loss today of Peter Temple, bumping Clanchy up the list of Australian writers would do no harm.

Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

I love the way blogs continue to survive the onslaught of mega-umbrella-sites. In this case, I’m thinking of Margery Sharp Day, initiated several years ago by the blog Beyond Eden Rock, and picked up by lots of readers who maintain their own blogs. Each has their own community of followers and commentators.

This year Jane, for the day she put into the calendar, read Britannia Mews and as chance would have it, I picked up a copy (along with several other Sharps) just a couple of days later. I put it at the top of the pile.

It’s almost entirely lacking the often acerbic humor of her books, presumably because it was written just after WWII. Instead, there is a story which might almost be a metaphor for the stubbornness without which the UK could not have stood against Hitler, stubbornness without which it is impossible to think of how the world might look now. Adelaide, the chief protagonist, is a young woman with no future she can bear to look towards. She is deprived in the late nineteenth century of the higher education her undeserving brother is permitted. She watches her cousin fall into the sensible marriage that is her only real future and while that is happening, a revolution takes place in her life.

Her painting instructor makes love to her and she instantly is transformed by it. She believes she is in love and nothing – NOTHING – is going to take that away from her. After secret assignations, she announces to her family that she is going to marry this man and elopes with him because it is that or nothing.  They go to live in what is at that point, the slum of Brittania Mews. She soon discovers that he is an alcoholic wastrel. Her life is ruined. And yet she displays all the stiff upper lip of the English in WWII. She has made her bed and although it has been made clear to her than she (but not the scoundrel husband) can come ‘home’ whenever she likes, that is not an option in her mind. When he dies it is still not an option.

After a while she becomes involved with a married man (whose wife is in India and wants nothing to do with him). They live together unmarried for the rest of their lives. That doesn’t mean life becomes easy for Adelaide, it isn’t. But she remains strong and stubborn. Most importantly she relishes being in control; she’d rather a hard life like that, than an easy life as the doormat of family. Independence is everything to her.

This is clearly no conventional kowtowing-to-the-morals-of-the-time storyline. Adelaide has a niece whom she eventually meets and takes under her wing. The niece – and really, this is a long time after Adelaide’s young adulthood – has exactly the same experiences. The utter meaningless of her life insofar as it would be perforce marriage and the running of a house, a loveless union, but no doubt a civilised and practical one. She breaks off her engagement, leaves home, and in a state of profound confusion ends up in the Mews. I don’t know if these things sound trivial these days, but there is no doubt that they are brave and far from trivial acts at the time.

So here we have Adelaide, an eloper, living ‘in sin’ for decades with a married man who takes his wife’s name and Dodo her niece living a fulfilling single life – the implication being this will never change, when the book ends. The book sees the women who behave in the ‘right’ way feeling as if they are losing out to the women who eschew their duty. How unfair! Both Adelaide and Dodo fail to give the filial love which is the only important thing women can do with their lives. Yet it is these two women who carry the book morally. They are true to themselves; though there are moments made to tempt them, they never seriously waver. Sharp makes it quite clear that the women who stay at home and keep house and raise children are not the good women in this story. I thought this was interesting for the period – but maybe that reflects no more than my ignorance.

At the same time, it should be made clear that Adelaide and Dodo aren’t doing what they do, taking the paths they do, living the way they do, because they are moral people trying to do a moral thing. They are simply doing what they want to do. If they are good people, that’s incidental. Indeed, going back to the start of the story, it is entirely Adelaide’s aim to rehabilitate the ‘painter’ she marries. Her plan is for his success (as she dotingly expects in the first instance) to carry them back triumphantly into the mainstream of upper-class society. Tragically, her no-good husband has one talent, it’s for making marionettes. But far from understanding and appreciating this, she scorns them, and him for making them. She wants something to get him into the National Gallery. Later she discovers how wrong she was and interestingly, her defacto partner is presumed to have made them. Neither he nor Adelaide sees any need to rehabilitate the name of the husband. Indeed, the defacto takes on Adelaide’s married name, the first husband is quickly forgotten and nobody even knows within the story that the defacto is not the original husband. It’s all odd and interesting.

There is a movie of the book and it murders the whole idea of it, from what I’ve read of the plot. Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to watching it.

 

 

 

The Well by Elizabeth Jolley

So this is great up to a point…the point it finishes. I don’t really understand why writers are allowed to set up a terrific story which is truly hard to put down and then stop rather than end. I know that’s the modern thing to do, but all the same, does that make it art or a cop out? We all know that anything might happen in life. But I don’t see why it isn’t part of the duty of a story teller to tell the story. Not just the beginning and middle, but the end. The whole kit and caboodle.

I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t a critical aspect of the new genre ‘book club’. It’s something to talk about isn’t it? OMG, what did YOU think was going to happen next? Blah blah blah. But I don’t give a rat’s what my friends at ‘book club’ think about how it might have ended IF it had had a darned ending instead of just stopping. I want the author’s take on that. Instead she’s taken the easy way out.

Is that too much to ask? For a story to have an ending? Did it have an ending and I missed it? Opinions sought.

 

Two Weeks in Another Town by Irwin Shaw

What a shambolic mess of a melodrama, lacking all the good things there were to be found in the first Shaw I read.

I don’t read chicklit. But I have an idea that this is the boy equivalent. The men are the fall guys for the women – even when they are treating them badly somehow it’s supposed to be the men you are sympathising with, not the women. I guess that’s how chicklit works in reverse.

It’s a stinker.

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

There are any number of reviews of this available in print media/online. But none of them mention how cross it makes you feel. This woman, towards the end of her life, having a relationship of sorts with a neighbour is told by her son after he finds out about it that if she doesn’t stop it, he will not permit her to see her grandson again. Amongst other things he assumes that the neighbour is ‘after her money’. And that money, after all, is really the son’s just as soon as his mother stops inconveniently not dying.

So she stops. Just like that. Says to this guy who is making her very happy and vice versa that they will be as strangers to each other for the rest of their lives. Ridiculous.

Yet the fact is that people do things like that in real life all the time. That’s ridiculous too.