Dilettante's Diary

June 2/16

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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Head to Head
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Roberto Devereux (Opera); My History (Memoir); Perilous Question (History); Submission (Novel); Liar (Memoir); Moonlight Mile (Mystery); A Special Seder (Humour); Fable (Short Fiction)

Roberto Devereux (Opera) by Gaetano Donizetti; conducted by Maurizio Benini; production by David McVicar; starring Sondra Radvanovsky, Matthew Polenzani, Elina Garana, Mariusz Kwiecien; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live Transmission (May 28th re-broadcast of April 16th performance).

This was my first time attending a reprise of an original production that I hadn’t seen. Would the warmed-over performance prove as satisfying as a live one?

Not surprisingly, the audience in the movie theatre was smaller; you could reserve a good seat even on the morning of the show. In the pre-performance time, you didn’t get to see the cameras scan the Met audience at random. I missed that. It’s always fun to watch the opera-goers in New York chatting and studying their programs when they don’t realize they’re being shown mega-size on movie screens all around the world. Instead of that, we endured a raft of commercials for coming events at the Cineplex theatres. But once it came time for the opera, we got the usual introductory flourishes, leading to host Deborah Voigt’s charming welcome from backstage.

This production is the Met’s first ever of Donizetti’s rarely performed Roberto Devereux, based on a loose interpretation of events towards the end of the reign of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I. One of the opera’s virtues– or drawbacks if you want to look at it that way – is that not a lot happens. It’s mostly people standing around and emoting about a situation. The fact that there are just four major roles makes for a tight, intense drama. Roberto Devereaux, the Earl of Essex, has just come back from the wars in Ireland to face trumped up charges that he betrayed the Queen by showing mercy to the Irish rebels. Nobles are demanding his execution. Trouble is, the Queen is in love with him. But Roberto’s secretly in love with Sarah, the Duchess of Nottingham. Unfortunately, while Roberto was in Ireland, the Queen forced Sara to marry the Duke of Nottingham, who happens to be Roberto’s best friend.

Glorious Donizetti-style bel canto swirls around those basic facts. The major developments are mostly in terms of people’s feelings about this mess. David McVicar has chosen to present the work on a small stage, as a performance within a performance. The chorus members are nobles sitting in galleries and stalls watching the principals act out the story. Occasionally, the chorus members step forward to comment on the action. This has the effect of acknowledging the theatricality of the piece, giving us permission not to take it realistically. The dark wood of the baronial hall where the work is being performed helps to convey an Elizabethan atmosphere and it obviates the need for different sets for various scenes. It’s as if we’re watching in a venue like one of the ones where Shakespeare’s players strutted their stuff.

In the title role, tenor Matthew Polenzani sang beautifully, although his voice sounded a bit "covered" at first, not having much ring to it. Once he warmed up, the bright clarity at the top of his voice came through brilliantly. In a quiet vein, his poignant aria "Come spirito angelico," near the end of the opera, was one of the emotional and musical highlights of the afternoon. (The aria’s sweetness reminded me of "Una furtiva lagrima" from the same composer’s L’Elisir d’ Amore.) Mariusz Kwiecien sang the role of the Duke of Nottingham with panache. His voice is a youthful, vigorous baritone but it doesn’t have quite the meaty quality that would be ideal for one of these "heavy" characters. Also, his fresh-faced, clear-eyed choirboy look sometimes makes it a bit difficult to believe the violent streak in a character like this. Elina Garana, with her lush, velvety mezzo, gave us a Sarah of great beauty, both vocally and physically. Sondra Radvanosky’s singing, in the role of the Queen, was stupendous. What a rich, powerful voice, with such tremendous range! And yet, I kept wanting to hear the role sung by a soprano with a somewhat lighter voice – say, a Sills or a Sutherland or a Caball. It seems to me that the champagne sparkle of the music calls for that kind of voice. Which is not by any means to denigrate Ms. Radvanovsky’s astounding feat in delivering the music so well. I did feel, though, that the tottering infirmity of the ageing Queen was overdone: after all she was only sixty-nine when all this was going down.

Did this re-broadcast please me as much as many of the original ones I’ve attended? No. There’s undeniably a loss of excitement in the repeat performance. I like to know, as I’m watching things unfold onscreen, that this is happening right now in New York. Admittedly, there may be a touch of blood sport syndrome involved. There’s no telling what might happen; the singers might triumph and they might not. When they do, it’s all the more exhilarating. You don’t get that thrill with the repeat broadcast, but it’s a good way to enjoy a Met opera if you weren't able to catch the first transmission.


My History (Memoir) by Antonia Fraser, 2015

Antonia Fraser writes so well about other people – her life of Marie Antoinette is one of the best biographies I’ve read – that I couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out how Ms. Fraser writes about her own life.

Very engagingly, it turns out.

Although Ms. Fraser’s mother insisted that their family was strictly middle-class, their social position looks pretty lofty to us plebs. Ms. Fraser’s father, Francis Pakenham, was an Oxford don, as well as a hereditary peer of Ango-Irish origins, who served as a minister in various cabinet posts in Labour governments. Antonia’s mother, Elizabeth Harman, a left-wing politician and something of a feminist before her time, was campaigning for a seat in parliament even as a mother of eight young children. In what might be seen as a supreme political irony, she was, at one point, running for election against the candidate for the Conservative party, who, at the time, was her daughter Antonia’s first husband, Hugh Fraser.

Both Antonia’s parents had converted to Catholicism, Elizabeth somewhat later in life than Francis. From today’s perspective he strikes one as an altruistic, high-minded politician with a great deal of integrity, if a bit idealistic. He saw his Christian faith as requiring him to try to bring about equality and peace among peoples. Long before most British were ready for it, he was trying to effect a post-war reconciliation with Germany. It was his zeal for prison reform that led his daughter, Antonia, to direct some of her volunteer work as a young woman to the wellbeing of prisoners.

Thanks to her having such accomplished parents, Antonia, born in 1932, spent an enchanted childhood, romping in the environs of Oxford . For a year or so during the war, her family shared an Elizabethan manor in the countryside with two other families seeking refuge from the war torn cities. Antonia entertained herself by crawling into the hiding holes that the house had provided for Catholic priests in the religious turbulence of the 16th century.

Her first school was chosen by her parents simply because it was literally next door to the family’s home in Oxford. The institution had originally been a boys’ school and, in Antonia’s time, girls constituted only about one-third of the total student body. Being forced to deal with the boyish culture that prevailed there seems to have inculcated a kind of strong, independent spirit in Antonia, while, at the same time, emphasizing her own sense of being a girl. The strange result was that, when she transferred to a girls’ school, she didn’t feel like one of them. "I was like Kipling’s Mowgli in The Jungle Book, the feral child who had been brought up by wolves and had difficulty adjusting to existence among human beings, despite awesome powers of hunting and tracking."

Vacations included visits to her father’s ancestral home, an estate in Ireland. In later life, the Irish connection would have some repercussions for Ms. Fraser. She felt, for instance, some uneasiness in writing a biography of Oliver Cromwell. As for her bio of Marie Antoinette, when the French took offence at the thought that a Brit should happen to write the definitive work on the tragic queen, Ms. Fraser mollified them by insisting that she was Irish.

Ms. Fraser applies a light touch to the theme of privilege in her life, occasionally joking about it at her own expense. When her father became a Baron, she acquired the title "The Hon. Antonia Pakenham." Having implored her mother to address letters to her this way, Antonia left one such letter lying on the table in the reception hall of her boarding school in the hopes of causing a stir. Several days went by until one of her peers happened to ask Antonia, didn’t she know there was a letter waiting for her in the front hall? No mention whatever of the supposedly impressive title.

Another subject that gives Ms. Fraser an opportunity to note her youthful pretentiousness is her own conversion to Catholicism as a teenager. She opted to have her reception into the Catholic Church performed at a ceremony witnessed by the entire student body of her school. Since the ritual required a private confession, Antonia retired with her confessor priest to the sacristy, where she dragged out the confession for as long as possible, so that her peers, waiting in the chapel, would be wondering what momentous crimes could be taking so long to confess.

Early on, Antonia discovered that she loved genuine history more than the fictionalized version. One of the first true histories she enjoyed was Marjorie Villiers’ The Grand Whiggery, a book about "those racy aristocrats obsessed in equal measure with sex and politics." Sixty years later, this interest would come to fruition in Ms. Fraser’s book about the Great Reform Bill of 1832. Another work that hooked her on history in her teen years was Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Ms. Fraser attributes an important step towards her career to Mother Mercedes, an Irish nun of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who taught history at St. Mary’s Ascot. (This memoir is in fact jointly dedicated to Mother Mercedes and to Antonia’s brother, Thomas.) "She was," says Ms. Fraser of Mother Mercedes, "a teacher of genius and furthermore a teacher with a love of History that matched my own – except that she knew far more about it and in a far more disciplined fashion." It was under Mother Mercedes’ guidance, that Antonia began to get "some glimmering of what the historical method might be."

And Ms. Fraser does not leave the subject of her schooling without pointing out that one of the most important things the nuns gave her came almost by a fluke. Here again, there’s a nod to her own snobbishness. When Antonia’s classmates were asked about their future expectations, most of them made modest references to marriage, motherhood and entering the convent. Hoping to cause a sensation, Antonia announced that she intended to become a journalist on The Daily Express, a Beaverbrook publication that was banned at her school. A few days later, it was announced that, although Saturday mornings were free time for all the other girls, Antonia, since she intended to become a journalist, would spend the morning taking private typing lessons at a machine set up in the gym. Although mutinous at the time, says Ms. Fraser, "I should have felt intensely grateful."

Another important stage in her education occurred at Oxford, when her dad started helping her with her work. "It was an extraordinary timely discovery that my father was a thrilling tutor just as I was approaching my final year....It marked a new stage in our relationship and an exciting one: suddenly my beloved but abstracted parent reading a book who left all decisions to my mother, was transformed into a vigorous, argumentative historian who enjoyed debating the subject as much as I did."

After various jobs – as a saleslady in the hat department of a large store, for instance – Ms. Fraser landed a job with the publisher, George Weidenfeld. Her job description appears to have been as non specific as it was all-encompassing. On one occasion, she was sent to help a Polish-born artist with his writings. "The trouble was that he wanted help with more than his writings...." Ms. Fraser’s response to what would be considered sexual harassment today would probably not satisfy most people who are concerned about this kind of offence in the workplace. Although she found his attitude unpleasant, she says, she was "not particularly outraged, let alone traumatized by the incident." Ms. Fraser acknowledges that her somewhat blas dismissal of the matter helps to show that we live in very different times now.

Her first book came to be written on command. One flourishing project of the Weidenfeld & Nicholson publishing company was re-printing kids’ classics that were out of copyright. At a certain point, Mr. Weidenfeld wanted one about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table but a suitable version wasn’t available. So Ms. Fraser was instructed to write one – in her free time. She pumped it full of barn-burning gusto, the kind of swagger than she felt kids would love. Apparently, they did: the first printing of 50,000 copies was repeated the next year. For this job, Antonia was paid a flat fee of one hundred pounds. She followed up with a rip-roaring tale about Robin Hood.

Ms. Fraser’s description of her London whirl as a young woman includes mention of the gliterati of the world, both literary and otherwise. Dancing with T.S. Eliot, for instance. Within a few pages you get references to Cyril Connolly, Sonia Orwell, Lucian Freud, Evelyn Waugh, Clarissa Churchill and Anthony Eden – all people Ms. Fraser was connected to in some way. Her father’s sister, Violet, was married to Anthony Powell, author of the celebrated novels published under the series title A Dance to the Music of Time. His example gave Ms. Fraser a feeling for the combination of "writing, discipline and a good life." While riding in a taxi with Saul Bellow, Antonia was taken aback by a flirtatious remark from him. Before she could figure out how to respond appropriately, he fell asleep. Ms. Fraser confesses that she wasn’t impressed by Look Back in Anger, the sensation from the hotshot new playwright, John Osborne.

It was on reading Barbara W. Tuchman’s The Guns of August (a.k.a. August 1914) that Ms. Fraser was entranced by "the mixture of scholarship, readability and a quality which I will call humanity." The first serious product of her own writing, other than those kids’ barn-burners, was about Mary Queen of Scots. The enormous success of that led to twelve books of history, ten books of fiction and one memoir of her life with Harold Pinter.

For a reader who knows Ms. Fraser mostly through her books about history, however, some of the most interesting details of this memoir deal with her approach to writing in that genre. Ms. Fraser notes that she benefitted from lucky timing in that an "appetite for properly researched biography" had emerged in the public readership just as she was hitting her stride. She eschews the "historic present" whereby a writer forecasts what’s going to happen to a historical character. On this point, she takes to heart the words of F.W. Maitland: "We must always be aware that what now lies in the past, once lay in the future." Citing Winston Churchill’s observation that writing about the past can give one some relief from the trials of the present time, Ms. Fraser tells us that, as her writing life progressed, she found: "The distraction which History brings from the inevitable ordeals of life at every stage was an unexpected but enduring discovery."

In her historical writings, Ms. Fraser hews to fact rather than fanciful ornamentation. A friend who didn’t understand the kind of book she was writing about Mary Queen of Scots asked if it was going to be one of those "so-she-gazed-into-the-sunset" books. Ms. Fraser’s response: "Only if I have documentary proof that the sun did set that day." Still, Ms. Fraser generously admits that books which might not belong in the upper echelons of literary status, "can teach you narrative skill, which never comes amiss in writing history." In an interview with the press after writing Mary Queen of Scots, Ms. Fraser acknowledged her debt to Barbara Cartland, for whom she’d had a teenage addiction. The day after the interview was published, a chauffeur showed up at Ms. Fraser’s door with a huge package of Barbara Cartland’s books from the author herself.

Given that My History is subtitled "A memoir of growing up," it doesn’t include much detail about Ms. Fraser’s later life. But you do eventually glean tidbits of information, such as the fact that she had six kids in ten years. Sometimes references to "Hugh" and "Harold" can be confusing, until you remember that they were her two husbands. A note at the front of the book explains that she left Hugh Fraser in 1975 for Harold Pinter, marrying him in 1980 and remaining with him until his death in 2008.

Although there is self-deprecating humour running through the book, I didn’t get a strong sense of the author’s personality as conveyed in a distinctive voice. Perhaps that’s because Ms. Fraser is essentially an historian. At least, that’s the way I think of her, although she does have those published novels to her credit. In any case, you don’t get the feeling that the main impetus of her writing here is an irresistible urge to tell us about herself. That could be why the prose is a bit formal, slightly arch at times. As in these sentences:

I owed it to my father’s position in the government and it should therefore be firmly added to the credit account of his political career so far as I was concerned, given that at this age I was liable to grumble tiresomely about the disadvantages of being a Labour minister’s daughter, in contrast to the more conventionally social families of my friends.

A few years later I would find with relief a straightforward cause about which it was possible to feel passionately and that was the abolition of capital punishment, acting as an usherette at Gerald Gardiner’s Fifties meetings arguing for the reform.

But you have to accept that that’s how Ms. Fraser chooses to express herself to us, to tell us about her life. And we can be grateful that she has. It’s a rich, notable story from a person who, in many ways, has stood at the confluence of some of the most important currents in recent Western culture.


Perilous Question: Reform or Revolution? Britain on the Brink, 1832 by Antonia Fraser, 2013

This book came my way more or less by accident.

In her memoir, My History (reviewed above), Antonia Fraser frequently mentions her book about the Great Reform Bill. From high school history (or somewhere), I remembered that as the bill that first tried to cope with the effects of the Industrial Revolution; the bill, as I recalled, took a stab at eliminating child labour. Its passage by the British parliament had always stood for me as one of the important historical landmarks.

Well, it turns out that such a bill, if there was one, isn’t what is referred to as the Great Reform Bill. Not by Ms. Fraser, at any rate. The Great Reform Bill, as she knows it, enacted some major reforms of Britain’s parliamentary system, inaugurating changes that brought about something more like a genuine democracy.

There were two crucial aspects to the bill. Firstly, it reorganized the electoral districts in order to eliminate certain anomalies. One riding, for instance, had consisted of an empty field that had infamously been allotted two members of parliament even though nobody lived in the riding. Similarly, many tiny places sent two members to parliament while some bustling urban areas had none. The other important change was to extend suffrage, if not by any means universally, at least somewhat more broadly than previously. Although still based on property ownership, the new regulations enlarged the electorate by about forty-nine percent.

Many details brought to light by Ms. Fraser may surprise a contemporary reader. It was news to me that voting in elections had always taken place publicly; there was no such thing as a secret vote. People were expected to vote the way their landlords and employers told them to. Besides, if you were paying somebody to vote for you – and huge sums were spent on that – you’d better be able to make damn sure that he did. Also, there was not one set election day. The polling – held publicly – could take place over several days.

On the subject of societal mores, who among us would have guessed that the national government could declare a day of public fasting and humiliation by way of a plea for divine favour at a time of great crisis? Which this certainly was. The prospect of the changes was greeted with great enthusiasm by many but with horror by many others. (Hence, the title of the book, a phrase used to describe the issue in a letter to the King’s private secretary from Lord Grey, the Liberal Prime Minister whose party was proposing the reforms.) Talk of expanded "democracy" was not as welcome to everyone as we might think; to many, it suggested some of the dire events associated with the recent French Revolution. The aristocracy feared that the changes proposed would be the end of the Britain they had always known. Their privileged status would be eroded. The country would be over-run by the rabble.

In what seemed like a confirmation of these fears, riots were breaking out in many places where members of the lower classes banded together to express their outrage at the many impediments that the toffs were putting in the way of true reform. A sense of dread about the turmoil was expressed by the young Charles Dickens in a poem about the devil’s gloating over the country’s disarray. Another literary eminence of the times, William Wordsworth, wrote in a letter that England’s constitution had not been preconceived and planned but had grown "under the protection of Providence" and that the ministers who were campaigning to change it were about to commit "a greater political crime than any committed in history."

The names of those two poets are among the few familiar to a non-historian in the reading of this story. It’s the kind of book that, when you’ve read it, you’d like to read it again, now that you know who everybody is. At the start, it can be difficult to keep track of the characters. Part of the problem is that many of them can be known by several names, including their family names and their aristocratic titles. The resulting confusion can sometimes create the head-spinning effect of a Russian novel.

One character there’s no trouble identifying is King William IV. At the beginning of his reign, he was thought to be a great improvement over his older brother, King George IV who, by the end of his life, was looked upon as not much more than a dissolute, obese lay-about. William, having served in the navy, was considered a more rough-and-ready guy, a hearty sort who had a touch for the common man. The people saw him as a king who was one of their own – at least more so than his predecessors. When the time came for his coronation, he insisted that expenses be kept to a minimum. In effect, that meant that only one violinist was hired to provide accompaniment for the national anthem.

However, William’s popularity declined when debate over the bill became more protracted and it was seen that the King was dithering, instead of stepping in to settle the matter. While acknowledging that the wishes of the masses must be taken into account, the King, in a written communication to Lord Grey, the Prime Minister, expressed his fear that possibly "the overthrow of all legitimate authority, the destruction of the ancient institutions" were at stake. It didn’t help matters that the King’s spouse, Queen Adelaide, was thought to be siding too blatantly with the forces opposing the reforms.

At the culmination of the two-year battle over the bill, the dilemma facing the King was whether or not he would create more peers, as demanded by the Whig government, in order to get the bill passed in the House of Lords. The King hated to create a lot more peers because the aristocracy would consider that an encroachment on their territory. The government of Lord Grey resigned and the King asked the Duke of Wellington, the previous Prime Minister and the leader of the Tories, to form a government which would bring in some modified reforms. Wellington, the great hero who conquered Napoleon at Waterloo, had never made any secret of his virulent opposition to reform, Since he was unable to do as the King asked, the Whigs came back into power. After lengthy plotting and scheming, the only reason the bill was ultimately passed was that some Tories accepted the fact that retracting their opposition to the bill was preferable to having the upper chamber swamped with newly-created peers.

Another character who emerges strongly in this story – and someone of special to some readers – is Lord Durham, the son-in-law of Lord Grey, the Whig Prime Minister. A fiery radical member of parliament, Durham was always upsetting and offending people. (Possibly, his hot-headedness was exacerbated by the loss of a son to tuberculosis while the skirmishing about the Reform Bill was going on.) Durham nevertheless gets credit, in Ms. Fraser’s account, for forcing the Prime Minister, his wife’s father, to stick with the original reformist intentions of the bill, rather than watering it down to please the Tories.

Most Canadians of my generation will dimly recall that Lord Durham had some important role to play in the pre-confederation days of our country. Some of us may be a bit uneasy about the meddling of those upper class Brits in our history, but Ms. Fraser reports that Lord Durham acquitted himself responsibly and respectably in his duties as Governor General of British North America. Appointed in 1838 to investigate the 1837 rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada, he submitted his famous Durham Report which, in addition to calling for the uniting of Upper and Lower Canada, recommended several changes that eventually led to Confederation.

It’s to Ms. Fraser’s great credit – although this is no surprise – that she makes this material, which could have amounted to dry reporting, into a lively, colourful account, thanks to her vivid recreations of the characters and the ambiance of the times. While never skimping on accuracy and subtleties, The Perilous Question amounts to almost a page-turner.


Submission (Novel) by Michel Houellebecq, 2015; translated from the French by Lorin Stein

I took this book from the library shelf with some trepidation. A Houellebecq novel can be daunting. It’s not just that he’s a controversial writer whose ideas may be upsetting. There’s also the matter of the complexity of his works. My reading of The Map and the Territory (reviewed on DD page titled Fall Reading 2012) demanded a considerable investment in time and mental energy. Not that it wasn’t worth the commitment. The payoff was rich. But was I ready for another undertaking like that?

Thank goodness, Monsieur Houellebecq’s new novel, Submission, turns out to be a much easier read. From the first page, the narrator’s voice captured me and carried me all the way through. Which wasn’t a huge distance. At 246 pages, Submission is much shorter than the earlier book.

This one is set in the near future and our first-person narrator, Franois, is a professor of French literature at the Sorbonne. His speciality is the author, J.-K. Huysmans. Franois, in his mid forties, usually manages to have an affair with an attractive new female student each year but now he’s beginning to wonder if he’s losing his libido. And his interest in teaching. He seems to be in something of a stalemate in almost every aspect of his life.

What does capture his attention is the Islamization that is taking place around him. Gradually, it comes to the point that France is ruled by a Muslim government. My saying that may seem like revealing too much plot, contrary to our policy here at Dilettante’s Diary, but the happenings in the world around him aren’t the main point of the book. What it’s about is the response of Franois, the workings of his mind as he watches the Muslim takeover. It happens in slow, incremental measures. Yes, there is a bit of fighting and skirmishing in some quarters but, from Franois’ point of view, the process is relatively civilized. Mostly a question of waiting and watching. Nothing particularly dramatic or thrilling about it.

Ultimately, it becomes a question the Muslim party’s coming to power by forming an alliance with the Socialists. The Saudis then take control of the Sorbonne. Women profs lose their jobs. Women’s apparel in the streets changes. M. Houellebecq appears to want to show how easily and smoothly such a societal transformation could come about. It’s almost as if a person could be subtly seduced into adopting a system of values that had always seemed alien to that person. And I’m guessing M. Houellebecq intends his emphasis on the quiet, calm nature of the process to ring alarm bells more loudly than if he were showing it as a cataclysmic event.

At times, the book almost bogs down in scholarly discussion of the politics and the sociology (so to speak). But that’s probably acceptable, indeed obligatory, in a book like this. After all, M. Houellebecq’s characters are academics who are bound to indulge in lengthy analysis of current events.

One of the most striking indications of the quality of this book, as experienced by me, is the contrast between it and another book I was reading at the time. That one was a conventional mystery, good enough in its way, but loaded with the typical character quirks and plot twists meant to catch your attention. Entertaining but somewhat predictable, adhering to a well-known standard. Immediately on opening M. Houellebecq’s book, though, I felt that I was in the presence of a distinctive, original mind that had something unusual to say.

Take this passage, from the very first pages of the novel, where Franois is reflecting on the importance of literature:

...only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it finds moving, interesting, exciting, or repugnant. Only literature can grant you access to a spirit from beyond the grave – a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you’d have in conversation with a friend.

Who wouldn’t want to continue reading what this guy has to say? Throughout the book, he keeps dishing up scintillating observations. This one, for instance:

We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we’ve lived there; whether we lived well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful. So, for that matter, is the future. Only the present hurts, and we carry it around like an abscess of suffering, our companion between two infinities of happiness and peace.

Not that everyone would embrace Franois as a kindred soul. He’s not an misogynist, exactly, but he seems to categorize women into two groups: sexually interesting or not sexually interesting. Which is not to say that he doesn’t have any respect for the women in the latter group. Some of them are colleagues whose intelligence and expertise he acknowledges, but the distinction in terms of sexual attractiveness seems to be the basic one for him. Franois makes sure that we take note of some of his epic sexual encounters in which, while his women partners are not unwilling, the explicit details about male sexual function give the impression of a supreme egotist at work. (Seems this guy’s libido isn’t dead after all!) Franois even goes so far at one point as to say that a man’s love for a woman is simply gratitude for the pleasure she has given him. In attributing such an opinion to Franois, M. Houellebecq may be stating what he sees as a hard truth about human nature but it’s not a statement that’s likely to endear Franois to all readers.

Whether they admire him or not, something that might help make Franois more understandable to all readers would be some background in his academic subject matter. A reader would no doubt get much more from this book if he or she were familiar with the work of many writers Franois and other academics talk about: e.g. Pguy, Rimbaud, Maupassant and Zola. Franois’s interest in Huysmans constitutes an especially important aspect of the novel. Franois is constantly pondering the fact that the cumulative impact of Huysmans’s work seems to point to the importance of contented domesticity in the context of religious conviction. The message seems to be that, no matter how wild and unconventional a person has been, the true meaning of life, the fulfilment of a person’s being, won’t be achieved until he or she is settled down with a capable, supportive spouse. Throughout the book, Franois seems to be wondering if, contrary to all his previous expectations, this could be what’s in store for him.

Submission is marred in just two ways, by my estimation, both of them rather incongruous in a work of such high quality. M. Houellebecq has made the pompous decision to divide his book into five parts, marked by roman numerals. There’s no artistic justification for this, especially in such a short book. And towards the end of the book, a high-ranking academic who has converted to Islam is espousing the theory of "Intelligent Design" as an argument for the existence of a God. We’re apparently supposed to believe that intellectuals like Franois might find this hoary argument worth consideration. Really?

The ending of the book isn’t the one that most readers – at least those in Western culture – would welcome but M. Houellebecq cleverly casts Franois’ predictions about future events in a somewhat less than definitive tone of voice: "A few more weeks would go by, like a sort of pretend waiting period, and in those weeks the weather would grow milder day by day, and it would be spring in Paris...." This way of narrating allows the wary reader to think that, although Franois figures it’s inevitable that certain things will happen, there’s always the slight hope that they won’t.


Liar (Memoir) by Rob Roberge, 2016

Presumably, the title of Rob Roberge’s memoir is meant to convey his sense of himself. As a drug addict (and an alcoholic), he endorses the saying about people like him:

How can you tell when a junkie’s lying? His lips are moving.

But "liar" isn’t the only epithet that might sum up Mr. Roberge’s character. Another label for him that might make a suitable title, but for problems in terms of publicity, would be "Fuck up." There’s hardly a page where Mr. Roberge doesn’t refer to one of the many ways in which he has screwed up his life.

Not that all the catastrophes could be attributed entirely to his character flaws. He’s been diagnosed with rapid-cycling bipolar disorder. Further, as a result of many concussions, he suffers from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative disease that can affect a person’s memory. And he’s prone to psychotic episodes.

But his underlying medical problems aren't ameliorated by his lifestyle:

  • Innumerable failed relationships and casual hook-ups.
  • A sexual fling as a teen with his best friend’s mom.
  • Nights spent in drunk tanks.
  • Planned suicides.
  • Failed attempts to get sober and/or clean.
  • Stealing his wife’s pain pills, which she badly needed.
  • Pretending to dish out sound advice to a new AA member when he, Mr. Roberge, is back on drugs.
  • Being unreliable.
  • Cancelling on friends.
  • Zipping back and forth across the U.S., from one shifty living arrangement to another.

Not exactly an edifying story. So why read about this man? Because he’s a human being struggling to make his way through this world as we all do, albeit in somewhat more fraught conditions than most of us face. Besides, he’s not playing up the "bad boy" role, just trying to come to terms with it, to make sense of it. As an account of one person’s battle with life, the book reminds me of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novels with the series title "My Struggle." Mr. Knausgaard’s situation is nowhere near as chaotic as Mr. Roberge’s, but there’s a similar spirit of a man trying to find his way through endless trouble.

In Liar, Mr. Roberge doesn’t come across as a profound thinker or philosopher. He doesn’t spend a lot of time analyzing his problems. He’s impulsive and spontaneous. As one girlfriend challenged him: "Don’t you ever think about your actions?" But he’s obviously intelligent. We get glimpses of that quality in observations like his statement that narrative comes from our "desire to make things that happen have some reason for happening." (A comment like that helps to explain why Mr. Roberge has a job teaching creative writing at the university level.) He also has a self-deprecating, quixotic sense of humour. As a younger man, Mr. Roberge attended a poetry writing class. The teacher responded to his submission: "What makes you think this is a poem?" Mr. Roberge answered: "I don’t know. It’s all skinny and it’s on the left?"

Whatever you might feel about his flaws or his more admirable traits, the main reason for paying attention to Mr. Roberge is that he’s a terrific narrator. This book races along in a compellingly readable way, thanks to several factors. First the structure: a collection of snippets of memory, in no particular order, although each one is preceded by the date on which the original incident of the memory occurred. We may be reading about public misbehaviour by Mr. Roberge as an adult, and the next passage will be a scene from his early childhood. Many of the fragments are no more than two or three paragraphs; most of the others no longer than a couple of pages. It seems an unlikely way to make a book that would hold together successfully but Mr. Roberge makes it work. Maybe because that’s the way memory works.

Two other tactics create a sense of urgency about what Mr. Roberge has to say. Not only does he tell his whole story in the present tense, but he also tells it in the second person, "you." This might seem to be a counter-intuitive choice for a memoir. Why would a writer want to distance himself from his work in that way? You’d think a memoir, if anything, would call for the unquestioned use of the first person.

But Mr. Roberge’s use of the second person proves to be startlingly effective. I’m not sure exactly what that effect is, though. Maybe it makes us feel that Mr. Roberge is standing back with us and watching his behaviour in a more detached way than if he were speaking in the first person. He’s not trying to defend himself or apologize for his actions; he’s not invested in them. Paradoxically, the device makes you feel his pain all the more vividly. The fact that he needs to refer to himself as "you" seems to suggest that the events he’s describing were so horrific that it would be impossible to insert himself into them as "I," to own them in that way. Or maybe – and this could be the most important effect of the second person narration – it hints that this mess of a person he’s talking about could be any one of us readers.

The combined effectiveness of the present tense and the second person shows up nowhere more vividly than in this account of an incident when Rob was about six years old and his parents were partying at the home of friends. Along with other kids, he’d been banished to the hosts' basement. He desperately needed to pee but was too shy to ask about a downstairs bathroom. So he risked heading upstairs.

You make it halfway up the stairs and piss your pants. The kids all laugh as the piss stain swells in the front of your pants and the piss pools on the steps and finally begins its humiliating dripping from the open-backed stairs onto the carpeted floor. Screams of laughter fill the basement. Some kid says, "Fucking disgusting."

Over and above the tale of his personal traumas, Mr. Roberge manages to give his memoir a special resonance, an almost spooky quality, by means of random references that, although they don’t have much narrative follow-through, somehow manage to suggest a kind of deep trouble that can run through a person’s life. There was his childhood girlfriend who got murdered when they were both about ten years old. Mr. Roberge frequently calls up memories of that unsolved case without ever arriving at any peace about it. He also refers often to tragedies like the sinking of the Titanic, certain well-known suicides and executions, even extinctions. Notes about these incidents are simply dropped in, unconnected to the rest of the text, conveying a sense of danger in the world lurking at a barely conscious level.

If there is a flaw in the book – and it would only be one of omission – it’s that Mr. Roberge doesn’t always give us the information we want. He tells us, for instance that he botched promising contacts with editors and agents. But he doesn’t give us any indication of how he eventually broke through to success as a novelist and short story writer. And then there’s the time when he was driving to an important faculty meeting and assorted anxieties caused him to lose bowel control. How did he deal with that?

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book is that it isn’t the usual story of a triumphant recovery from addiction. Mr. Roberge does happen to mention that he has been clean and sober for nineteen of the last twenty years. But he leaves us in no doubt about the fact that his attempt to live in a reasonable, healthy way is a daily slog. Once, when he’s severely tempted to drop into a bar that he’s passing, he picks up a shard of glass from a broken beer bottle on the sidewalk and makes three incisions in his forearm to distract himself from the lure of the bar.


Moonlight Mile (Mystery) by Dennis Lehane, 2010

My knowledge of Dennis Lehane relates mainly to his writing of the books that were turned into the movies Shutter Island and Mystic River. Seems to me that I did read at least one of those books and saw one of the movies. If so, the reading and/or viewing would have occurred before the inception of Dilettante’s Diary, so there’s no written record of my impressions.

This book gave me the feeling that it would be more enjoyable to a reader who was more familiar than I with some of Mr. Lehane’s previous writing.

In Moonlight Mile Patrick Kenzie, a private detective, is working freelance for an agency. But the main plot concerns a case that comes to him from elsewhere. It’s about the disappearance of Amanda, a sixteen year old, whose aunt has asked Patrick to look for her niece. The problem is that there’s no payment on offer for this job. Since Patrick and his wife, Angie, are struggling to raise their own four-year-old, he’s obliged to take the sporadic work that he can get from his agency. (They don’t want to make him a partner because his rudeness tends to alienate clients.) However, a sort of moral compunction prompts him to do what he can to find Amanda.

Strangely – or coincidentally, however you want to put it – Patrick had already dealt with a disappearance of Amanda. That was when she was four years old. It was difficult for me to sort out what had gone down back then. Might the figuring have been easier if it had all been laid out in a novel that I’d read? Sure enough, an Internet check revealed that Mr. Lehane’s 1998 novel Gone, Baby, Gone had told the story of Amanda’s being kidnapped as a child. For anybody who read that, the reading of Moonlight Mile might go more smoothly than it did for me.

Still, Midnight Mile reads well for the most part. It moves at a somewhat leisurely pace, compared to many thrillers and mysteries. There’s plenty of violence and gore, but you get the feeling that Mr. Lehane is more interested in creating a certain kind of world – the dark side of Boston – than in taking you on a roller-coaster ride. Characters are vivid and well drawn, notably one Russian mobster who keeps you guessing as to whether he’s a threat or a friend. Patrick’s thoughts are interesting, particularly in one section near the end of the book where he philosophizes about what life means to him. His wry sense of humour helps to make him likeable, as in this comment about a piece of furniture:

And there was a coffee table (I think it was a coffee table) in the shape of a chain saw. Which is to say, I don’t understand modern art and I’m fairly certain it doesn’t understand me, so we leave it at that and try not to bother each other.

And he’s capable of some startling insights into what might be called sociological psychology. Here, he’s reflecting on a woman’s irate response to what seemed like an inoffensive observation:

You asked a simple question lately or made an innocuous aside and suddenly you were the recipient of a howl of loss and fury. We no longer understood how we’d gotten here. We couldn’t grasp what had happened to us. We woke up one day and all the street signs had been stolen, all the navigation systems had shorted out. The car had no gas, the living room had no furniture, the imprint in the bed beside us had been smoothed over.

But I didn’t find the book as engaging as some mysteries. Among small irritations there was the sexual banter between Patrick and Angie: far too cutesy. And the attempt to convey their rapport with their toddler was cloying. It also annoys me when writers, for no discernible reason in terms of the structure of the material, divide a book into sections indicated by a page announcing "Part One," "Part Two," and so on. Where there’s no artistic validity in doing that, it strikes me as nothing but pretension and a waste of paper.

The bigger problem for me in Moonlight Mile was that difficulty in getting a handle on the backstory about Amanda’s original kidnapping. Even after finishing the book, I had to read parts of it again, in an attempt to make sense of what happened back then. As for the present-day aspects of the novel, strenuous mental effort is required to sort out some situations involving Amanda’s negligent mother and the no-good-niks she’s involved with. As a whole, the book feels like the work of a gifted writer who’s struggling to pull together enough complications to make a convincing plot.


New Yorker Notables

A Special Seder by Paul Rudnick, The New Yorker, April 25, 2016

Paul Rudnick has come up with some of the best contributions to the New Yorker’s humour page, "Shouts & Murmurs." Some of his pieces are unforgettably hilarious. In recent years, though, I haven’t always found his writing up to the high standard hit by some of his work. So it’s a pleasure to report that with "A Special Seder" he’s back in top form. Citing a news item to the effect that Abraham Lincoln was sympathetic to Jews, Mr. Rudnick pictures the Fleischman family’s Seder supper with Lincoln as a guest. It would be an injustice to Mr. Rudnick to give away any of his wonderful jokes, so let’s just say the piece focusses mainly on attempts to interest the President in the Fleischmans’ marriageable daughter.

Fable (Short Fiction) by Charles Yu, The New Yorker, May 30, 2016

Ordinarily, a title like this would be enough to put me off any writing. I generally avoid literature -- or any art --- that relies heavily on symbol, fable or allegory. The first two paragraphs of this one, however, caught my attention.

A guy’s therapist has asked him to work through some issues by telling a story about them. So the guy delivers a short tale about somebody who wasn’t very happy but realized that his life was ok. And then he died. End of story. The therapist isn’t satisfied, so the guy begins to spin a much longer yarn, beginning with the clich "Once upon a time" and going on to include the narrative conventions of the genre: a dragon, a candlestick maker, his plain daughter, a village, a test of valour and so on – all of it the kind of material I would normally shun.

Except that, in this case, it’s sprinkled with contemporary expressions and slang that, while jarring with the expected tone of a fable, win your sympathy for the narrator as an amusing, cool guy:

His parents were gone now, and his sister lived in another kingdom, on the other side of the sea. But it wasn’t like he didn’t have friends. He totally had friends. People he could call to get the occasional beer or catch a movie. It was just that, well, there were those nights.

With occasional interruptions from the therapist, the story goes on to talk about the guy’s life with the candlestick maker’s daughter. It gets rather dark in terms of a child of theirs. And surrealistic at times. You can’t help wondering if everything that happens in this mythical world is supposed to have an exact reference point in our own world; sometimes it’s hard to say what, precisely, that would be. But you have no trouble identifying that narrator. He’s the intelligent, well-groomed guy on the subway who’s pissed off with his life and can’t figure out what’s wrong. This guy's creator, i.e. Charles Yu, strikes me as a new and unique voice for our times.

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