I had quite a bit of free time this month, especially when I wasn’t writing the things I should be writing. But it didn’t feel especially restful: living amid the continual, not-so-slow erosion of a functioning civil society takes a toll. Plus I had a lot of leaves to rake. Like, a lot. (Corner lot, seven pin oaks.) I did read some books, though.
Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (1971)
In his odd and to my mind often unsatisfactory but certainly never dull introduction to this excellent novel, Michael Hofmann suggests that Saul Bellow struck a fatal blow to its chances at winning the Booker prize because he thought it sounded like a book with a lot of ladies sipping tea. (Apparently he hadn’t even read it? Which ugh Saul not a good look.) As Hofmann notes, almost no tea is sipped in this novel, there’s nothing cute or sweet or twee about it. It’s a late novel by a writer now finally getting her due as one of the best England produced in the 20th Century and by this point in her career Taylor really knew what she was on about.
What she’s specifically on about in this novel is death, and the loneliness that leads to it. Mrs. Palfrey, recently widowed and unwilling to stay with her daughter in Scotland, where she does not feel particularly welcome anyway, chances on an advertisement for the Claremont Hotel in London. “Reduced Winter Rates. Excellent cuisine.” Mrs. Palfrey is no dummy, she knows the latter is unlikely but she has the idea that London could be exciting and seizes the chance to strike out on her own. She arrives on a Sunday afternoon in January, and although the events take place over the course of the most of the rest of that year, it feels a wintry book to me.
Mrs. Palfrey finds the Claremont to be populated mostly by people as old as herself (rather than the bewildered, moneyed American tourists the manager much prefers), all of whom have nothing much to do other than to mark out their days and husband their dwindling resources. Mrs. Palfrey brags about her grandson, who works at the British Museum, implying he will soon visit; his failure to do so causes her much embarrassment. So when she takes a fall while on a walk (pacing out the time, duration, and direction of the daily walk being one of her important occupations) and is helped by a young man who lives in the basement flat opposite the accident, she is happy to pass him off as her grandson. The young man, Ludo (not quite as playful as his name suggests), is happy to oblige, as he is writing a novel and living on next to nothing (he writes at Harrod’s where he can sit in the warmth for nothing) and is always up for a free meal, even at a place where the cuisine is decidedly as non-excellent as the Claremont Hotel.
All the elements are in place for a farce—pretending Ludo is her grandson proves trickier than Mrs. Palfrey had anticipated, especially when the real one shows up—but the novel is dark rather than sparkling. Ludo is not a bad man, exactly, but he uses Mrs. Palfrey’s infatuation with him, not so much for financial gain as artistic material—he uses the milieu of the boarding hotel and its status as an antechamber to death for his novel and is generally more contemptuous of Mrs. P than he lets on. He’s not just a chancer, and does much more for the woman than her actual family, so it’s all interestingly complicated.
In one sense, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is about the definition of family. Can the community of those who are thrown together be more powerful than the connections between blood or marital ties? The answer might not be yes, but the novel doesn’t have any nostalgia for those conventional ties, either. When one of the residents, the only man, proposes to her, Mrs. Palfrey is horrified. The most indelible scene in the novel, for me, is when the man refuses to wash his hands after using the toilet but runs the water briefly so that people will think he did. This is funny but also grim—and that gets the tone of the book, for me.
There’s a lot more to say about this novel—much more interesting than the film, which I saw many years ago and remember as cloying, an interpretation that kept me from reading the book for years, alas—which punches above its short length and too-easily dismissed subject matter (old people, especially women). Shout-out to NYRB Classics for publishing this in the US. I especially approve of their cover choice. Would have been easy to go for something with more chintz. That’s what Saul would’ve done.
Garry Disher, Peace (2019)
The second Hirsch novel is even better than the first. Disher evens out the ambivalence of Hirsch’s character, making Peace the more conventional book, but maybe I just want to be comforted—this book really worked for me. I love how Hirsch is as much social worker as cop: much of his job involves visiting shut-ins or otherwise marginalized figures who live on the out of the way farms or properties that seem to almost exclusively comprise his far-flung district. Eventually the plot coalesces into a central investigation, but this is a pleasingly loose-limbed novel.
John Le Carré, Silverview (2021)
At some point I might have to conclude I’m a Le Carré philistine. He’s just not my guy. The story of a man—a former finance guy who’s left the City and opened a bookshop in a seaside town in East Anglia—who meets and becomes entangled with another—a broken former spy offers a promising narrative structure is promising, lending itself to indirection and the juxtaposition of private and public secrets. But the bookseller character feels cursory and implausible, which means that his interest in the second man is hard to figure out. It’s a book written by someone who feels betrayed by the turn his country has taken—I read it as an anti-Brexit novel; I assume the otherwise odd extended references to Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn are meant symbolize an idea of Britain as inextricable from Europe—but the betrayal at the heart of the novel is confusing. Are we supposed to accept, even admire its consequences? In the end, Silverview left barely an impression on me.
Garry Disher, Consolation (2020)
Third Hirsch novel, best of the lot. Like most actual cops (I assume), Hirsch usually has a number of cases, many minor, barely worthy of the term, on the go at once. Consolation is a procedural, so inevitably a number of these strands end up coming together, but I like what Disher is doing in these books a lot. They’re generous, maybe a little regressive, but I prefer “cop doing his best” to “burnt-out obsessive with his demons.” Can’t we all use some generosity these days? I found the ending as satisfying as the title promises. It would be fine to end the series here, but I gather a fourth’s on the way and I’ll read it for sure.
Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These (2021)
Beautiful novella set in Ireland in 1985—I was surprised when the date was first mentioned, I thought it might be the 50s, but as a friend told me the 80s in Ireland were the 50s elsewhere—about the Magdalene Laundries. That makes it sound worthy and dour, but it’s not, it’s a quiet heartbreaker in the William Trevor or Alice Munro mold.
Bill Furlong runs a coal delivery service—I loved the details of the business scattered throughout—and in the weeks leading up to Christmas he becomes aware of something terrible at the local convent. He finds a terrified young woman hiding in the convent’s coal shed, she begs him to take her with him, he doesn’t, even bringing her back to the nuns, but as soon as he does he knows he shouldn’t have, the nuns treat her kindly and with concern but he knows something is wrong and worries about what’s happened to her once he left. When he enquires into the situation he gets messages, some subtle and some not, that he shouldn’t mix himself in the nuns’ business, it’ll only end badly for him. In a moving conclusion, Furlong has the chance to right his previous wrong and Keegan leaves us poised on a knife edge—exultant that the right thing has been done but dreading what will likely be the terrible consequences of his decision. Furlong is a magnificent creation—Gabriel Conroy with self-knowledge (maybe a fanciful comparison, but the snow storm of the final pages had me thinking of snow being general over Ireland)—but one of many extraordinary things about the book is Keegan’s facility with characters. Especially fascinating, to me, was Furlong’s upbringing, being raised by a single mother, a domestic at the local Big House, whose welfare was taken in hand by the local Protestant grandee. (It tells you how much is going on in this little book that I haven’t even mentioned what Furlong learns about his paternity.) Equally brilliant is how these events are told: the prose is so careful, so infused with the rhythms of speech, so crafted without being labored or poetic. I read somewhere that Keegan revised the book forty times, and it shows—without ever being showy.
Everyone loves Small Things Like These, it was on half of the TLS contributors’ year in review lists, and I get it. It’ll be on mine too.
Paula Fox, The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe (2005)
“I knew so little, and the little I did know, I didn’t understand.” That’s how Paula Fox describes her barely adult self when she sailed for Southampton in the summer of 1946. After a few weeks in bombed-out London she finagled a gig as a stringer and headed for Paris, Prague, and then, in the snows of December, to Poland. As in the novels that would make her name, the memoir is good with telling details: a woman’s clenched knuckles appearing white through the worn cloth of her apron signifies her trauma more than anything she says; a couple struggling with their wartime losses slowly press their cheeks together, the pained ritual “more intimate… than a passionate kiss would have been.” The point of the Poland trip was to observe the first post-war election, though given the Soviet-backed communist takeover, the results were a foregone conclusion. Fox is accordingly more interested in her fellow journalists, especially Helen Grassner, a Midwestern matron sent by an American Jewish organization to see what Poland was doing for its surviving Jews. Fox is fascinated by and disparaging of Grassner, a mixture mostly born of the contempt young people have for anyone they think of as old but a smidge of antisemitism is evident too. Fox reports with respectful bewilderment Grassner’s painful despair at not having lost anyone to the Holocaust (“When they have no dead, people feel it worse, somehow,” one of her colleagues notes) and records, first with dismay but eventually with respect, the woman’s affair with a younger Czech reporter.
Fox all but admits the book is slight, an addendum to her much-better known memoir Borrowed Finery, which I plan to read soon. The Coldest Winter feels like a sketch, missing the reflection that characterizes the best memoirs. Two of its most interesting moments—a memory of seeing Paul Robeson at Grand Central Station and a description of the torment she experienced as a puzzlingly fair-haired child of Spanish immigrants in a New York public school populated by Irish Catholics—are also the most retrospective, the older, experienced writer reflecting on and therefore shaping those moments. Still, an interesting glimpse into the rubble, hunger, and cold of Europe right after the war.
David A. Robertson, The Barren Grounds (2020)
Bought this book for my daughter for Hanukkah 2020, with the idea that the whole family might read it together. Which we did, for a while, but then my daughter lost interest (I think she found it a bit scary), and so it sat on the nightstand until my wife and I decided that we would finish it.
The easy summary is that this is Narnia told through Cree traditions: two indigenous kids fostered by a white couple in Winnipeg, Manitoba, find a portal to another world populated by humanoid animals who are suffering from a curse that has turned their lands into the barren grounds of the title. I enjoyed the first half or two-thirds of this middle-grade novel: the present-day framing material is poignant (no surprise that I, a well-meaning white liberal, was drawn to the kids’ struggles with their well-meaning white liberal foster parents), and the initial description of the alternate world is enticing. (Robertson is good on cold.) I also appreciated how the author matter-of-factly sprinkles Cree words and expressions throughout. But when the inevitable quest takes center stage (which, to be fair, is pretty interesting, as the villain is, as the kids realize, just a sad little ordinary white man, which doesn’t make his damage less powerful), the book takes on the mannerisms of an action movie, most gratingly the mechanical use of quips and sarcasm to punctuate the tension. In general, everything gets hasty, as if the book were rushed to meet a deadline. I’m not the intended audience, so whatever right, but I won’t be rushing to read volume two.
Charlotte Carter, Rhode Island Red (1997)
Breezy crime novel starring Nanette Hayes, “more or less a Grace Jones lookalike in terms of coloring and body type (she has the better waist, I win for tits).” Nanette plays saxophone on the streets of New York while putting her degree in French to use by translating Verlaine and dreaming of escaping to Paris. One day she takes home a fellow busker; when she wakes up he’s dead, leading her to discover that he was an undercover cop who has left 60K in her sax: predictably Nanette is caught up in some bad shit. The mystery is implausible, but the book’s worth reading for its style. Nanette on her investigation is funny—“It didn’t make sense. But on the other hand, it didn’t make no sense”—and self-aware: “This had all the elements of a film student’s low-budget homage to Godard.”
I read Rhode Island Red in a battered, smelly 90s mass market edition from the library, but I heard about it because Vintage has reissued the three Hayes novels in stylish new editions. Since the library here doesn’t have volumes two and three, I probably need to buy them, right?
K. C. Constantine, The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1972)
Tom convinced me to give this long-running series a try—a kind of American Sjöwall & Wahlöö set in the fictional western Pennsylvanian town of Rocksburg. Chief of Police Mario Belzic, Italian-Serbian-American, is diverted from the thankless task of directing post-Friday night football traffic and desultory hooliganism to investigate the death of a man found bludgeoned to death at the local train station. (The train station! Where passenger trains regularly come and go! The victim takes the train to work at the night shift of the nearby mill! We once had a better country!) Some series take a while to hit their stride; on the basis of The Rocksburg Railroad Murders, the Belzic books arrive fully formed. The lead is great but Belzic is joined by several good minor characters: his deputies; the head of the local detachment of the State Troopers; the DA; a crime reporter; and, best of all, his wife, Ruth, his two teenage daughters, and his infirm and lovable mother. I hope Belzic’s family life will continue to feature prominently. Ruth is especially great—it’s a treat to read a crime novel about a cop whose relationships are not only not terrible but even loving. Mario and Ruth been married a long time and still have the hots for each other. At one point, Ruth is embarrassed to kiss him first thing in the morning because her breath smells. Cute!
The most surprising thing about the book, though, is how skeptical Belzic is about the police. (I mean, Nixon was President when this thing was published!) He believes cops shouldn’t carry guns:
“Nobody thinks twice about sending out a meter maid without a gun or a school crossing guard—why the hell do guys doing practically the same job—giving tickets or directing traffic—why the hell does everybody think they need a gun?”
It’s not the same, retorts his colleague.
“The hell it’s not. You’re just brainwashed, that’s all. You just can’t picture a man cop without a gun, but you see meter maids without them, and you don’t even think about it.”
The mystery itself is more psychological than suspenseful, more why than who, and that stuff felt dated, but as the quote about taking guns away from cops shows the book’s real interest is sociological. And for me, anyway, life in a small-town largely Catholic rust-belt town in the 1970s is fascinating—one of the important characters, a good friend of Belzics, is a priest, who, along with most everyone else in the book, enjoys late night card games and plenty of drinking, though it’s more convivial than desperate and includes local wine (!). Belzic himself is a fan of a late-night snack of provolone and banana peppers washed down with a beer.
His creator seems himself to be a figure of mystery—Wikipedia speculates Constantine may have been a minor-league baseball player, which would account for the matter-of-fact way the sport threads its way through the dialogue—and so maybe he is as laconic and gimlet-eyed as his protagonist. Here’s Belzic lamenting breaking a personal rule:
“It’s one I made about six, seven years ago when I made lieutenant. I told myself that whenever I don’t know what to do, I’d never make the mistake of doing something.” Advice more of us should follow.
And here he is with a bleak one-liner:
“Well, Mario, how’s it feel to be right?”
I laughed when I read this exchange; if you did too, give these books a try. K. C. Constantine revival 2022, I say!
Leigh Bardugo, Ninth House (2019)
Fantasy novel about New Haven as a nexus of magic, the secrets of which are lorded over by Yale’s Societies—and it fucking slaps. Haven’t enjoyed a book this much in ages, so grateful to the brilliant former student who told me about it. Strong Secret History / Prep vibes, but with more social criticism and a hell of a lot more ghosts. Even if you are a person who does not read fantasy, doesn’t want to hear the word “portal,” and could care less about the idea that some people see the remnants of those who’ve died, you should try this book. The world-building is so clever, the prose is impressive, and the commentary on the way privileged classes expand who gets accepted to them only to protect themselves is spot on. That utterly rare thing, in other words, a great campus novel.
Tadeusz Borowski, Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories Trans. Madeline G. Levine (2021)
More on this new translation of these indispensable stories in another venue before long.
That was December—and another year. Soon I’ll drop my Year in Review piece, but not before I present similar reflections from some other readers. If you’d like to be included, just let me know. And tell me about your December reading, please!