Monday, December 20, 2010

"Because you didn't have any"

My first Icelandic thriller turned out to be fairly thrilling. Tainted Blood, by Arnaldur Indriðason, was also published as Jar City. It's well-paced and has some thought-provoking aspects, not least being Iceland's nature as a closed community and how invaluable it therefore is in terms of things like genetic research, when traits and diseases can be readily mapped to geneological trees.

Detective Erlunder, the main investigator, is a fairly well-drawn character, with a complicated personal side, blah, blah, blah. His coworkers are more enigmatic, or more thin (at least in this first of the detective series).

It turned out that they were well suited, had similar interests and both wanted to make a beautiful home for themselves with exclusive furniture and objets d'art, yuppies at heart. They always kissed when they met after a long day at work. Gave each other little presents. Even opened a bottle of wine. Sometimes they went straight to bed when they got home from work, but there's been considerably less of that recently.

That was after she had given him a pair of very ordinary Finnish Wellington boots for his birthday. He tried to beam with delight but the expression of disbelief stayed on his face for too long and she saw there was something wrong. When he finally smiled it was false.

"Because you didn't have any," she said.

"I haven't had a pair of Wellington boots since I was . . . 10," he said.

"Aren't you pleased?"

"I think they're great," Sigurdur Óli said, knowing that he hadn't answered the question. She knew it too. "No, seriously," he added and could tell he was digging himself a cold grave. "It's fantastic."

"You're not pleased with them," she said morosely.

"Sure I am," he said, still at a total loss because he couldn't stop thinking about the 30,000-króna wristwatch he'd given her for her birthday, bought after a week of explorations all over town and discussions with watchmakers abut brand, gold plating, mechanisms, straps, water-tightness, Switzerland and cuckoo clocks. He'd applied all his detective skills to find the right watch, found it in the end and she was ecstatic, her joy and delight were genuine.

There he was sitting in front of her with his smile frozen on his face and tried to pretend to be overjoyed, but he simply couldn't do it for all his life was worth.

— from Tainted Blood, by Arnaldur Indriðason.

This passage is nothing much special — it's certainly not representative, nor is it particularly witty. I think it's quite weird, actually; it sticks out of this book like a sore thumb. And it is about all the insight we're going to get into the private life of Sigurdur Óli, Erlunder's partner.

But it made me kind of sad. And it made me think a little harder about what I would do for J-F for his birthday this year. Happy birthday, J-F!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The miraculous Matilda

Why didn't anybody tell me? Have you read Matilda? Have you read Roald Dahl? Are his other books any good?

The only other Dahl that I've read is The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. And the title story in that collection — what a wonderful story it was! I know squat about its narrative structure, blah, blah, blah, but what a great frickin' story! And when I read it, when I was 11, or maybe 15, it blew my mind.

So here's this Matilda, which I read earlier this week, charming for all sorts of reasons, the well-read eponymous heroine, her criminally thoughtless parents, the weirdly nasty headmistress, et cetera — it's all so sweet (I mean that in a Dickensian way) and funny. But then! [Spoiler alert!] Matilda develops paranormal telekinetic powers! Which is what put me in mind of Henry Sugar.

I know Dahl by reputation (oh, and that terrific Mr Fox movie). Henry Sugar was special, special to me, and I assumed it was unique among his writing. But this paranormal angle fascinates me. Henry Sugar had it, and so does Matilda. Is there more? Do the other books also feature similar uncanny abilities? Are they all this good?

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Has anyone ever seen a man smile at a woman as a woman smiles at the man she loves, fortuitously, at a bus-stop, in a railway carriage, at some chain-store in the middle of buying groceries, a smile so naturally joyful, without premeditation and without caution? The converse, of course, is probably true also. A man can never smile quite so falsely as the girl in a brothel parlour. But the girl in the brothel, Querry thought, is imitating something true. The man has nothing to imitate.

Not sure what possessed me to read Graham Greene’s A Burnt-out Case at this time. An examination of one man’s faith — in a leper colony — didn’t strike me as the cheeriest of reads. But perhaps I’m a bit like our hero Querry in this respect, fingering a sore.

Definitely in the mode of the Catholic novels, though not considered a major one, it’s somewhat lacking in subtlety. It’s a little too intensely moral (and in sharp contrast to Simenon’s indifferent amorality, which I’ve been gobbling up these last weeks) for my taste. However, it’s still quite worthwhile — it’s relatively short (also, available as an ebook), events take a very surprising turn toward the end, and Greene demonstrates some wonderful turns of phrase.


(The Superior)
...suffering is something which will always be provided when it is required.

Sometime he read, sometimes he simply watched the steady khaki flow of the stream, which carried little islands of grass and water jacinth endlessly down at the pace of crawling taxis, out of the heart of Africa, towards the far-off sea.

...and a girl with a baby on her lap smiled and smiled like an open piano.

The Governor was a very small man with a short-sight which gave him an appearance of moral intensity.

...he had passed from excessive amiability to dissatisfaction, the kind of cosmic dissatisfaction which, after probing faults in others’ characters, went on to the examination of his own.

(Father Thomas)
...fetching up a smile like a liquorice-stick, dark ands sweet and prehensile.

Boredom is worse in comfort.

(Doctor Colin)
“You’re too troubled by your lack of faith, Querry. You keep fingering it like a sore you want to get rid of. I am content with the myth; you are not — you have to believe or disbelieve.”

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The snow was dirty

I finished reading Dirty Snow this weekend, and for a couple hours I walked around in a daze, like I'd been punched in the gut.

Can't put my finger on what it is that makes this book, and all of Simenon's romans durs, so ngaah (that's the sound I make when I'm punched in the gut).

The prose is spare — all the fat is trimmed. But it's not just the tap-tap rhythm, like heels clicking on the crusted snow, that's so evocative. It's all so empty feeling. Not exactly emotionless, there's plenty of hate and fear and wistfulness and sometimes love, even if Simenon doesn't tell you about it. How do I explain this? It's the emptiness of the abyss staring back at you.

I'm still reeling. I still have no idea what happened. Frank kills this man, a noncommissioned officer of the Occupation forces, pretty much on page 1, and you see him getting reckless and then it just gets worse and worse, and poor Sissy! It's unforgivable what Frank does to her. And then Frank's arrested and the book takes a weird turn.

Was he arrested for this murder? Or the other one? Or his crime against Sissy? Or the thing with the stolen watches? To do with his mother's business (she runs a brothel)? For consorting with the wrong people? Someone getting back at him? Who? Sissy's father? One of his mother's girls? One of Kromer's men? Kromer himself? The violinist on the second floor? Where does Monsieur Hamling, the inspector, fit into all this?

We spend the second half of the book detained, inside Frank's head, undergoing months of interrogation (by the Occupation forces), without getting anything straight. There's this faint glimmer of insight, maybe signifying love and redemption, but no, it's gone.

Dirty Snow championed by James Hynes as a better book The Stranger (Camus), with excerpt.
Afterword, by William T Vollmann, in which comparisons are drawn with Middlemarch.

This is my fourth roman dur by Simenon in just over 2 months. I'm bloody addicted. They are very frustrating — if you're the type of reader who likes everything tied up, if you need closure, then Simenon is probably not for you. The appeal for me, I think, lies in how lifelike it all is — not that life is so harrowing and bleak, but in the sense that we can't ever really know anyone, their motivations, what makes them tick. There is no omniscient third-person narrator to explain life to us.

I regret, a little bit, that I'm starting to learn a little bit about Simenon. Art and artist should remain separate, and I feel most strongly about this when I disapprove of the artist. While I'm about to order another batch of romans durs to feed my addiction, it turns out that I don't much like Simenon the man.

Simenon was accused of being a Nazi collaborator, presumably on the grounds of several of his works having been produced as films under the Nazi administration, and this is the reason for which he fled France in 1945, for America. (His younger brother was also accused of being a collaborator; he joined the Foreign Legion and was killed in Indochina.) Though he claims to have no ideology whatsoever, this casts a dark light on how he unfavorably portrayed Jews in his novels.

In the 1982 Radio Canada interview (link below), Simenon comes off as someone quite full of himself — he doth protest too much against the riches and the glory to be taken at his sincere word. Also, his account of his relationship with is daughter, not to mention with his wives and women in general, is somewhat disturbed. He claims to have slept with far more women than Casanova; that most of them were quite probably whores is a trivial point in his view. He's a bit of a jerk, really; and also creepy. Like M Hire, only more sexed.

Radio Canada, Gérard Pelletier, 1960.
Radio Canada, Denise Bombardier, 1982.
The Paris Review: Georges Simenon, The Art of Fiction No. 9.

Simenon in Canada
La bonne quebecoise.
Simenon's cottage at Lac Masson.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

You would never forgive yourself

It was lucky he hadn't finished his sentence. He had to get out of the habit of speaking pointless words.

He didn't know yet that everything he saw had its importance, and became a little more important with each day. You think "school." And you have a ready-made image of it in your mind. But in some cases, the tiniest detail might one day become so precious that you would never forgive yourself for not having looked at it more carefully.

— from Dirty Snow, by Georges Simenon.