Monday, October 19, 2020

Vienna 1900

Vienna 1900: Games with Love and Death - Arthur Schnitzler

Schnitzler (1862-1931) was a doctor, playwright, novelist and short story writer in fin de si├Ęcle Vienna. He is most well-known as the author of Traumnovelle (Dream Story) which served as the basis for Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick's last movie.

The four stories collected here concern people in bourgeois society dealing with their problems of marriage and adultery, and the origins of sexual temptations. The interesting points are the use of the stream of consciousness technique and examinations of neurotic personalities (Schnitzler and Freud were close friends). Women consummate their desires, usually with worthless or otherwise inappropriate males, and pay heavy prices for pleasure outside of marriage.

With much psychological insight, Vienna 1900 also treats the issues of aging and its accompanying fear of boredom, decay, and suffering. Schnitzler handles these heavy themes with a candidness that is direct and provocative, never merely glum or stoical. Readers that like John Fowles or Tennessee Williams or who read Freud as a literary figure may like these stories.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Ides of Perry Mason 17

The 15th of every month until I don't know when I will post a review of a Perry Mason mystery. For the hell of it.

The Case of the Careless Kitten  - Erle Stanley Gardner

This 1942 novel is an authentic Golden Age mystery. It is a strong outing, as many of his novels written during WWII were, well-written with a solid plot and an inventive solution, both of which balance deprecating references to the adversary country of Japan.

In 1932 eminent banker Franklin Shore disappeared in the traditional mysterious circumstances, leaving behind ornery Matilda, a wife with cheatin' on her mind and an adoring 14-year-old niece, Helen Kendal. A decade later he suddenly gets into contact with the now grown-up niece. He tells her to bring Perry Mason to a confab but at the meeting, a man, not Franklin Shore, is found dead, shot through the head. Though Helen has no connection to the murder victim, the police charge her with the murder so she naturally hires Perry to defend her.

The roof really caves in on this unlucky family. Helen's cat and then Aunt Matilda are poisoned with strychnine. Both pull through. Lt. Tragg is enraged however, when he finds the kitty under wraps in the apartment of Della Street, Mason’s devoted and intrepid secretary. He arrests Della because Mason’s foe, D.A. Hamilton Burger, has convinced himself that Della also knows the whereabouts of Franklin Shore, He charges her for concealing a material witness thus obstructing justice.

Perry, Della, and Paul thus get involved in a case that registers 7 Strands on The Tangled Web Meter. Mystery writer and critic Jon Breen calls this one "one of the best pure detective novels [Gardner] ever wrote."

It's also well worth reading because Gardner has Perry vigorously defend what Burger calls "theatrical interludes" and "courtroom flimflam." Mason argues constitutional protections have been slowly by undermined cops, prosecutors, and judges, raising the prospect of the government using the law and the merciless criminal justice system as tools of political oppression. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

I, Claudius

Note. Yet another installment in reading books that take me far away from the pandemic crapstorm. Hope you’re doing okay.

 I, Claudius – Robert Graves

My wife switches to Game of Thrones and I flee. I usually hate historical dramas filled with enough intriguing, cruelty, fanaticism, superstition, and conflict to make me despise the human race. What is history but the story of endless struggles and violence for what is out of control of kings, warriors, artisans and farmers: power, wealth, property adulation, station, longevity, et cetera ad nauseam?

So you’d think a story of the completely sick Roman emperors, told by a member of their family, would make me turn up my nose. Not so. This is a full-bodied novel that begins with the re-birth of the monarchy and ends with the acclamation of Claudius, the last man standing, spared for years because he was considered a simpleton, good for only writing about safe historical topics like the long-gone Etruscans.

Our narrator Claudius was a seven-month baby so he is lame, deaf in one ear, and stammers. Therefore, in a culture that prized a smooth tongue and athletic and military prowess, from boyhood he has been shunted to the sidelines by his entire noble family. He finds himself observing the different political moves made by his ruling family, but especially by his evil genius grandmother Livia, wife of Augustus, to further her own goals, get her favorites plum positions, and ensure the continuance of the Roman Empire under a monarchy.

Livia is not treacherous, but she is unscrupulous, ready to do anything for what she believes to be the good of the state. She does terrible things to people in her way – mostly those sympathetic to a republic - because she thinks she is doing right by the Empire. Claudius grants that she, Augustus, and Tiberius all administer the empire skillfully, limiting lawlessness by brigands, pirates, and administrators and creating the stable conditions in which common people can prosper. Caligula’s major problem, besides his cruelty, was his maladministration. He wanted to be emperor but he didn’t like the tedious details of governing, a situation we ourselves have gotten a bellyful of since 2016.

Claudius, a historian himself, collects evidence, finds reliable sources and in so doing does not shrink from recording the most arrogant, most disgusting, bloody, impious deeds of his family members, especially as regards the endless machinations of Livia, the ultimate spoiled brat-monster Caligula, and the police state tactics and preposterously aberrant sexual practices of Tiberius. What I appreciated most was Claudius’ ironic, sharp and yet regretful eye. He himself says that he takes the Stoic way of looking at things from his tutor Athenodorus. His keeping a low profile by shamming weakness and foolishness has in fact saved his life. Discretion is a sub-virtue of the stoic emphasis on wisdom.

In the end it is Claudius, who has been a spectator the entire drama and who has never demonstrated a yen for power, comes out on top, in a position he never wanted. The story makes us understand that in a world of flux nothing is fixed, nothing is destined to happen and that everything could be different, if only because circumstances turn out different in unpredictable ways. We are not stuck in a rut established by the stars, even if the characters in our plays think so.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Paper Moon

Paper Moon – Andrea Camilleri

This 2005 mystery is the ninth story starring Inspector Salvo Montlbano. For those of us who have Mediterranean genes (if the Italians hadn’t, the Croatians would’ve invented opera), Salvo of Sicily is utterly relatable. He’s smart and intuitive and a devil for both work and the nice things in life like good food. But he is also grouchy, short-tempered with a sarcastic bent and sharp tongue. He is shocked and scared that he is not exempt from getting deeper into middle age. Surrounded by colleagues like the numbskull Catarella, he doesn’t like drama but creates a lot of it simply by being himself. And the drama of his personal and police life is often pretty funny.

Compared to other books in the saga, this one focuses more on the investigative aspect, leaving little space for Montalbano's personal life. For instance, a weekend visit from his long-time GF Livia takes up about three lines. The case unfolds in a linear way and without any particular twists until the final surprise.

There are many laughs in the story but there are harsh aspects as well. It is a murky story of drugs and sexual transgressions featuring incest, adultery, impotence, a coerced abortion and a sexual assault committed by the police. Some scenes are not for the faint-hearted. There are acerbic comments on Italy under Berlosconi and on our post-Nine Eleven security precautions:

It meant that, today, to enter any place whatsoever – an airport, a bank, a jeweler’s or watchmaker’s shop – you had to submit to a specific ceremony of control. Why ceremony? Because it served no concrete purpose. A thief, a hijacker, a terrorist, if they really want to enter, will find a way. The ceremony doesn’t even serve to protect the people on the other side of the entrance. So whom does it serve? It serves the very person about to enter, to make him think that, once inside, he can feel safe.

Think of this when you see employees wiping down surfaces so we can feel safe from air-borne covid-19.

This is worth reading mainly because Salvo Montalbano finds himself dealing with two astute women. He will need all his self-control and wisdom as he negotiates his way between dangerous Michela the Fury and Elena the Cheetah, who tries to charm him with innocence and spontaneity.

Monday, October 5, 2020

An Oxford Tragedy

An Oxford Tragedy - J.C. Masterman

This 1933 mystery novel feels authentic because its author was an academic all his life. Like the historian author, the narrator Francis Wheatley Winn is the Senior Tutor in History at fictional St. Thomas's. He probably speaks for the author when he avers “My life is bound up in the life of the college.”

Familiar elements of the classic mystery are a large number of suspects, an amateur detective,  and a lengthy anti-climactic discussion of the puzzle in the last 25 pages.  In A Catalogue Of Crime (1989), critics Barzun and Taylor list it as one of the 90 best mysteries and say of it, “A first rate story, which...projects the genuine atmosphere, establishes plausible characters, and furnishes detection, logic and discussion of 'method' in admirably simple and attractive English...a masterpiece.”

I’m not sure I’d go that far. But I heartily recommend it to readers that like classic mysteries set at Oxford-type universities. It’s rather more intellectual than Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, with sometimes stiff vocabulary and ruminations on how a quiet community of scholars is rattled by a killing. It is, however, less puckish than Michael Innes’ The Weight of the Evidence in which while sunning himself in a courtyard Professor Pluckrose is crushed to death by a meteorite that the culprit has shoved out a window. 

At least, in this novel, one has a sense that murder has been done and that violence has dark consequences nobody can guess.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Back to the Classics #22

I read this book for my second round of the reading challenge Back to the Classics 2020.

Classic in Translation. This 1954 novel is titled Le Grand Bob in the original. Simenon’s romans durs (hard novels) often begin or end with a crime but are not mysteries. They are concise, clinical examinations of human beings who’ve left patience and moderation in the rear view mirror, driven by the shock of aging, altered circumstances or twisted thinking to irrational responses. In the 1980s, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich released a boatload of romans durs in English. But US culture (moonwalking, Magnum PI, neon, Chariots of Fire, big hair, etc.) wasn’t into home truths and the books were quickly remaindered, ending up in discount stores like Edward R. Hamilton. Times change. I daresay thinking people might get a charge out of existential thrillers in our plaguy days, given COVID-19 has even hardcore readers like us contemplating the ends of our tethers.

Big Bob - Georges Simenon

On a typical summer Sunday, in Tilly, on the banks of the Seine, the title character attempted to make his suicide look like an accidental death. But nobody is fooled. His wife Lulu Dandurand, consumed with carking guilt that he did it because action or inaction on her part, asks Dr. Charles Coindreau if he can find anything out that would explain Bob’s taking his own life, out of the blue. Charles searches the past and the present of his buddy Bob, the life of the party always cheerful and bantering, for pieces that can fill in this puzzle.

Coming from an upper middle class family, Bob had attended law school, first in Poitiers, where his father taught law, then in Paris. It was in 1930 that he met Lulu, a good-hearted young woman with no discernible future. Making the rounds of the dizzy array of French drinking establishments, he tells her of his decision to blow off his oral exams to be held the next day, an act tantamount to breaking with his family. Bob and Lulu, after having lived together, get married a few years later and settle in Paris where Lulu, a hatmaker, and Bob, who changes jobs frequently voluntarily and not, live modestly, the center of a boisterous social circle.

During a weekend at the Auberge du Beau-Dimanche in Tilly, Lulu had one of her many miscarriages. Dr. Charles Coindreau looks after her and becomes the couple's confidant. Charles's investigation into the death of his friend Bob yields revelations though one wonders if any explanation will be complete..

Bob didn’t value money, property, prestige, awards, vacations, authority. He flitted from job to job, always loving his wife, always laughing. He found meaning in his life by making one person happy and enjoying himself in an active social life. And when he found out his remaining time would have to be devoted to things that were unbearable to him and things that didn’t contribute to the happiness of Lulu, he chose to go through what the Stoics call the open door.

Bob’s dying well as an expression of living well, however, does not have a beneficial effect on Lulu. With his hard-headed bead on the tendency of people to call going through motions to get past one damn thing after another “living,” Simenon poses hard questions to middle-aged readers.  How relatable is a story about avoiding ruts? How do you the reader recognize yourself in the story? How do you not recognize yourself? How do you recognize value in life?

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Back to the Classics #21

I read this book for my second round of the reading challenge Back to the Classics 2020.

 19th Century Classic. “One wants some sort of excuse for reading Trollope - a long convalescence, or an ocean trip.  Without it, it is hard not to suspect the motive for immersing oneself in this reassuring ambience of decency, money, and ease,” wrote critic Clara Claiborne Park in 1962. What a glorious era, that time from the end of WWII to the assassination of President Kennedy. When it was unimaginable that the tidal waves of pandemic, bungled federal response, economic devastation, closed schools, and social unrest would simultaneously break on our shores. And provide the motive for immersing myself in the reassuring ambience of Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux, and The Prime Minister consecutively since April. So, suspect my motive. I dare ya.

 The Prime Minister – Anthony Trollope

This 1876 novel, the fifth of the Palliser series of six, focuses on two characters. Ferdinand Lopez, though the son of a Portuguese immigrant, talks, walks, and dresses like an English gentleman. His tidy appearance helps him in his business practices, i.e., incessant unstable rounds of buying, selling, speculating, using puffery and other people’s money to nail down the big deal that will put him on Easy Street.

His fatal flaw is that he literally does not know the difference between right and wrong. Ethical, schmethical – he’s clueless. This ignorance disables his discernment, i.e., the wise judgement that would enable him to overpower his love of money and his overweening ambition. This ambition turns men into ravening beasts, complains Mrs. Parker, the working class wife of his put-upon accomplice, Sextus Parker. Out of her own bitter experience, she observes:

But them men, when they get on at money-making,—or money-losing, which makes 'em worse,—are like tigers clawing one another. They don't care how many they kills, so that they has the least bit for themselves. There ain't no fear of God in it, nor yet no mercy, nor ere a morsel of heart. It ain't what I call manly,—not that longing after other folks' money.

If Ferdinand Lopez is badly in need of wisdom, so is the other main character, Plantagenet Palliser, the Prime Minister and Duke of Omnium. Trollope identifies the ingredients of unhappiness for a politician as zeal, a thin skin, unjustifiable expectations, biting despair, contempt of others, a vehement ambition, a scrupulous conscience, and a sanguine desire for rapid improvement.

Planty Pal, as our not chirpy hero is ironically called, is wonderfully free of the above qualities but for two. His conscience is over-scrupulous because he fears he will be a loafer of a PM, merely presiding over a do-nothing coalition government. He is a genuine Trollopian hero in that he is ridden with self-doubt; see Mr. Harding in The Warden and Josiah Crawley in The Last Chronicle of Barset.

But a more fearsome enemy to his state of mind nags him. His skin is so thin that he frets about the scurrilous attacks of the gutter press. Such is his anxiety that his wife Glencora Palliser remonstrates, “I wish I could make you thick-skinned for your own [sake]. It's the only way to be decently comfortable in such a coarse, rough-and-tumble world as this is.”

The Duchess of Omnium – a.k.a. Lady Glen – freely admits that she is made of coarser stuff than her husband. In her role as wife of the PM, she is the happy worldling planning ostentatious parties, balls, and fetes. Her goal is to provide networking venues for her husband’s liberal friends to feel they are mixing with the right people, to coax unpleasant Tory adversaries into collegiality, and thereby extend the tenure of her husband in office.

Plantagenet needs all the assistance he can get on the social side since he is not genial and clueless as to fundamental people skills. Socializing drains him of energy he’d rather use doing useful work and fending off brazen seekers of office and favor.

“Two gentlemen have been here this morning,” he said one day to the Duke of St. Bungay, “one on the heels of the other, each assuring me not only that the whole stability of the enterprise depends on my giving a certain office to him,—but actually telling me to my face that I had promised it to him!” The old statesman laughed. “To be told within the same half-hour by two men that I had made promises to each of them inconsistent with each other!”

The Duchess capriciously takes people in hand, however, and this whimsical tendency to play favorites precipitates a political crisis. Their marriage, one of incompatibles from day one, is complicated since their feelings for each other are too complex to be subsumed under the catch-all term “love.” As they discuss moving on to the next stage of their lives, she wonders how he will occupy himself:

“I am thinking of you rather than myself. I can make myself generally disagreeable, and get excitement in that way. But what will you do? It's all very well to talk of me and the children, but you can't bring in a Bill for reforming us. You can't make us go by decimals. You can't increase our consumption by lowering our taxation. I wish you had gone back to some Board.” This she said looking up into his face with an anxiety which was half real and half burlesque.

Suffice to say, the long-time married among us hardcore readers will connect with the Pallisers' intricate relationship because we too express to our spouses“anxiety which was half real and half burlesque.” Trollope’s indirect  suggestions for a serene marriage are sensible:  don’t ever lie, respect each other, do no harm, and make each other comfortable, and, if possible, happy. Moderation in all things, thus echoing the ingredients of happiness for a politician: have reasonable expectations and timelines; don’t be zealous or over-scrupulous or too conscientious; develop a thick skin and you’ll get along just fine.

The loyal reader is spared the usual fox-hunting interlude and romcom subplot. Still, Trollope will use tried and true expedients. For example, though I can readily believe muggings were all too common in the dark parks of Victorian London, the outcome of a mugging is once again largely positive as when Phineas saved Robert Kennedy from being garroted. And a single female eats her heart out over her unworthiness a la Lily Dale, which made me groan and stamp my foot getting through the barefaced padding of the last 100 pages or so.

Overall, these two stories provide entertaining reading. To my mind, the best part of the politics of this book are the short digressions on the importance of resilience and other soft social skills politicians and their minions must have. Technocrat readers that toil in large bureaucratic organizations may get useful HR lessons out of this installment of the Palliser series. Also, because I’m a brute, I enjoyed Trollope’s parodies of the monstrously unfair editorials of the “energetic yet not thoughtful” Quintus Slide, the editor of the scandal sheet, People’s Banner.