Friday, September 28, 2007


"Finding Patrick Hamilton feels somewhat like joining a secret society."

(Thanks, Tom.)

Ah, to live life as a not-quite-5-year-old

Me: "You're always singing. Why are you always singing?"
Helena: "Because I love singing."

The girl is always singing. Most days I adore the constant chatter, the voice experimenation, the musical nonsense, the running commentary of her day put to song. It puts a smile on my face.

Some days I wish she'd shut up already. But she sounds so... so happy.

Me: "How come you're so happy?"
Helena, with a roll of her eyes at the obvious: "Because it's fun."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Things I discovered while browsing in the magazine shop during my lunch break

1. Tim Parks reviews That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, by Carlo Emilio Gadda, in the London Review of Books. And still he thinks very little of William Weaver's ability as a translator. (I haven't read That Awful Mess, but I really, really want to.)

2. The Insufferable Gaucho, by Roberto Bolaño, in The New Yorker.

In spite of everything, his life was happy. It's hard not to be happy, he used to say, in Buenos Aires, which is a perfect blend of Paris and Berlin, although if you look closely it's more like a perfect blend of Lyons and Prague. Every day, he got up at the same time as his children, had breakfast with them, and dropped them off at school. He spent the rest of the morning reading at least two newspapers; and, after a snack at eleven (consisting basically of cold cuts and sausage on buttered French bread and two or three little glasses of Argentine or Chilean wine, except on special occasions, when the wine was, naturally, French), he took a siesta until one. His lunch, which he ate on his own in an enormous, empty dining room while reading a book under the absentminded gaze of the elderly maid, and the black-and-white gaze of his deceased wife looking out from photographs in ornate silver frames, was light: soup and a small portion of fish and mashed potatoes, some of which he would allow to go cold. In the afternoon, he helped his children with their homework, or sat through Cuca's piano lessons in silence, or Bebe's English and French classes, given by two teachers with Italian surnames, who came to the house. Sometimes, when Cuca had learned to play a whole piece, the maid and the cook would come to listen, too, and the lawyer, filled with pride, would hear them murmur words of praise, which struck him at first as excessive, but then, on reflection, seemed perfectly apt. After saying good night to his children and reminding his domestic staff for the umpteenth time not to open the door to anyone, he went to his favorite café, on Corrientes, where he would stay until one at the very latest, listening to his friends or friends of theirs discussing issues that he suspected he would find supremely boring if he knew anything about them, after which he went back home, where everyone was asleep.

Ah, life.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A trick of the light

In the evening we went to see "Angel Street," which I recommend to anyone who wants to be absorbed and taken out of his daily round of interests. You sit on the edge of your chair most of the time and it is really a grand mystery story. Every member of the cast is excellent.

The handsome villain is so well played that the audience hisses him, and the old detective is a joy. But the part which seems to me incredibly hard to play, night after night, is that of the wife, who is slowly being driven insane by her husband — a very fine piece of acting.

— Eleanor Roosevelt

Angel Street, by Patrick Hamilton. Or Gaslight as it is perhaps better known (in large part thanks to the 1944 film adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten, and introducing Angela Lansbury).

Earlier this summer, I watched the movie, and the British film that came before it. While thoroughly enjoyable, and with more similarities than differences, apart from telling a great, thrilling, suspenseful mystery story, they didn't wow me. I'd seen the Hollywood movie years ago, so I knew the basic plot. I dozed off a few times during the British movie, so I'm not sure I'm not lying when I say I've watched this one too. I watched them dutifully, as a completist, to find the Patrick Hamilton in them. I found a little: mostly in the maid, her aspiring beyond her station. There wasn't the drink and thoughtless cruelty I've come to associate with Hamilton, though there was cruelty, deliberate and purposeful — Hamilton does seem to have an interest in the mechanisms of cruelty of all kinds. And madness — certainly madness is central to Hangover Square, but most of Hamilton's characters are one way or another driven out of their minds (in a much looser sense), usually through a fog of drink, by desperate circumstances (does tedium count?).

So, what of the play? How much liberty had been taken with the films? How much Hamilton was in them really? I hunted, pinpointed, and purchased a copy of the play, in a charming shop.

I've mentioned before that I'm not one much for reading plays — they're meant to be seen, after all — but this was a wholly engrossing reading experience. (Maybe I should read more plays.)

It speaks to Ingrid Bergman's screen presence, if not her performance (for which she received an Oscar), that I couldn't help but picture her as I began reading the first act. It speaks to the strength of Hamilton's writing that by the end of that act that picture had entirely vanished.

The play is — as plays ought to be, I guess — tighter, without superfluous backstory or unnecessary complications. Hollywood added a layer of coincidences, which I now see for the distractions they are. Here, every word — and, I imagine, every look — counts. Here, everything cuts to the chase.

Mrs Manningham. But I'm married to him. You must go. I must think this out. You must go. I must cling to the man I married. Mustn't I?

Rough. Indeed, cling to him by all means, but do not imagine you are the only piece of ivy, on the garden wall. You can cling to him if you desire, as his fancy women in the low resorts of the town cling to him. This is the sort of wall you have to cling to, Ma'am.


Gaslight has returned to the stage this past summer. The director of the London production makes the point that it is quite a modern play, and a good play.

"It actually calls for stylish and truthful acting. There's no way you could play it with your hand on your chest. There's no requirement to be histrionic. The tone of it is too well-written and in that sense it's a 1930s play, not a pastiche 1880s play. In actual Victorian melodrama, the situations were much more extreme and bloody than they are here."


"It's difficult to talk about it, because it doesn't pretend to be anything other than a thriller in the Victorian manner, but it's a thriller written by someone who can really write. He pitches you into the situation between the husband and wife within three lines of the opening. You don't know how you get into the terror — it just happens after about three sentences."

Far from being passé, the play, he believes, was ahead of its time. "Without wishing to sound too portentous about it, you can see the hint of a play that, in a different world, in a different theatre, he might have written — about sex."

The flirtatious relationship that Manningham has with his maid-servant, one of the many means by which he sadistically undermines his wife, is telling: "The maid is very important in creating the atmosphere of the play, suggesting the kind of middle-class marriage where the wife is neurotic and not available to her husband. Gaslight is not a feminist play but it's a marvellous portrait of a desolate marriage. It's hetero-hell."

The play as written on the page turned out to be a good deal steamier than either film version, the innuendo more blatant.


A little history of Hamilton translated to film:

Putting aside the novels and coming back to the films, I saw them with fresh eyes. The key Hamilton terms are missing: cement, plains, pleasure. Those three words recur endlessly, as he describes the slate and limestone city of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. Hard, unyielding surfaces. Snot-grey grass. Miserable hotels. Crowded bars. But Hollywood doesn't do cement or pleasure (as Hamilton understood it). It specialises in fake surfaces, overblack shadows that follow actors across trembling walls.

(I'm not sure I agree. Hamilton is full of fake surfaces, though they be not the facades of buildings but the manners of people.)


Sean French, Hamilton's biographer, on what went wrong on Hamilton's path to success and on the recent revival of his work.

Sometimes I think the only answer is to forget literary criticism — just push a book into people's hands and say: "You'll enjoy this. Now go away and read it."

In the time it's taken you to read this far, you might've already read, or viewed, or enacted in your head — experienced — Act One.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Another new book by one of my favourite dead authors!

I'd been awaiting Alexandre Dumas's The Last Cavalier Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napoleon for months, but its publication date came and went with Amazon showing it unavailable. I'd stopped checking, but I'm heartened to find it's finally made an appearance, as swashbuckling a one as ever there was.

Michael Dirda:

...Claude Schopp — France's pre-eminent Dumas scholar — discovered that, during the very last year of his life, the novelist, though ill, suffering and out of critical favor, had somehow turned out a daily newspaper serial about "the adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the age of Napoleon." Because of Dumas's death, the novel was never finished and consequently never published in book form. So Schopp assembled all the newspaper installments and edited them. Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine appeared in France in 2005 and is now brought out in an excellent English translation by Lauren Yoder as The Last Cavalier. It's absolutely wonderful.

Yes, it's full of melodrama and coincidence, shamelessly studded with every possible romantic cliche and period flourish, and old-fashioned enough in its storytelling to wander into lengthy historical and biographical digressions. What's more, we only possess the first third or so of the original mammoth saga envisioned by its author. (A letter exists outlining the entire plot.) No matter.

Bourbon loyalists! Shopping bills! A witch's prophecy! Malay pirates! Tigers and pythons! The battle of Trafalgar!

Dumas with the help of research assistants produced 300 volumes. I have so much more to look forward to...

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Say "Uncle"

"Uncle is an elephant. He's immensely rich, and he's a B.A."

Uncle, by JP Martin and illustrated by Quentin Blake, is amazing. Imagine the Moomintrolls living in Gormenghast, only more urban.

Moat and drawbridge, of course. There are stairways and elevators and waterfalls and chutes and tunnels, and a bathing pool in a secret location that defies the logic of space. There are towers, so many towers, one of them haunted. There are 2 stores: one where things are impossibly cheap and one where they are outrageously expensive, in which Uncle found an artificial pineapple for 33 pounds and bought it at once. "Uncle is the last person in the world to put artificial fruit on the sideboard, but he can't resist anything that is capable of being thrown."

But it's an episode about shoes that made me a convert — not for the shoes in themselves but for the depiction of the politics surrounding them.

The Old Monkey's uncle is called the Muncle and he's a very nice person, but seems to live for footwear. Uncle likes him, but thinks he is a bit too fussy about shoes.

However, he told the Old Monkey that the Muncle would be welcome, and, about half an hour later, just as he had settled down to his paper, the Muncle arrived. He was wearing an enormous pair of travelling boots. These have electric motors in their soles so that they can run along with him, and they come up so high that he can lean on the top edges. He always keeps a lot of stuff in them, including several pairs of smaller boots and shoes.

He came scooting over the drawbridge with an anxious expression, then drew up with a joyous shout. "Not a spot of mud on them!"

He is always terribly afraid, when he comes to visit Uncle, that Beaver Hateman, the leader of the Badfort crowd, may splash his boots with mud. Beaver Hatemean always tries to. But today he had seen nothing of him.

He sat down by the open window with a smiling face.

"So glad to see you, sir, and also my nephew. He looks well, though I am sorry to see his shoes are dusty. Nephew, open the right-side compartment in my travelling boots and you'll find a pair of dove-coloured visiting shoes. Ah, that's a relief. My travelling boots are rather heavy."

Then he looked keenly at Uncle and said: "Excuse my saying so, sir, but your shoes are somewhat shabby. I wonder if you'd gratify me by putting on a really nice pair?"

Uncle said to the Old Monkey:

"Just look in my number eight shoe saloon, and on the fourth shelf to the left you'll find a pair of red ones; I rather think it's the sixty-ninth pair from the door. Bring them here."

The Muncle seemed deeply impressed by this speech. He had never imagined that even Uncle possessed such a vast stock. He was still more deeply moved when the Old Monkey appeared with an exquisitely shaped pair of elephant's morning shoes of a deep red colour.

"Oh, those look very well, sir!" he cried, in a rather envious voice. He was thinking hard how he might regain his lost ground as shoe expert.

Then he pulls some poems out of his pocket, and Beaver Hateman comes by and ruins the Muncle's shoes and it's decided they should give him a new pair from the store. And we never hear of the Muncle again.

It's a strange world Uncle lives in, but one that I have no trouble accepting — my 4-year-old's imagination devises similar joys and evils, where complications and near magical solutions are a matter of course. The child's logic reigns supreme here.

For example, the school room is immensely long, and the teacher is railed in, but beside their desks the boys can access the many underground passages that lead up into the teacher's compartment.

The Economist wonders whatever happened to Uncle:

Much of the humour in "Uncle" is so quirky and understated that it is more likely to appeal to an adult than a child. For example, in most successful children's literature, a haunted tower would be genuinely spooky. In Uncle's castle, however, it is a great disappointment. One room is said to be inhabited by a ghost known as the White Terror. But the phantom turns out to be only a foot high, and stands on a bedside table, muttering monotonously, "I did it! I took the strawberry jam!" Quentin Blake, the book's illustrator, muses that "The books have always had terrific fans, but they have never attracted a mass following because they are so eccentric." Charlie Sheppard at Random House agrees that "there just may not be enough truly eccentric children out there." Even the most ardent Uncle fans would probably also concede that the stories suffer from a certain lack of narrative structure.

Nothing much happens. I mean, lots of stuff happens, but there's no plot to speak of. Uncle keeps pace with a child's attention span and concept of cool.

I'll be scouring the shelves of the second-hand shops for more Uncle titles.

Fans of Uncle: sinister cabal.
Looking for Uncle: a plea for reissues.

Next fall, NYRB publishes the second volume of Uncle's tales, Uncle Cleans Up.

Tales from Homeward: Uncle is alive and well and maintains a blog.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The end of our journey

It was around six in the evening, and light the colour of opal, pierced by the golden rays of the autumn sun, spread over a bluish sea.

The heat of the day had gradually expired and one was starting to feel that light breeze which seems like the breath of nature awaking after the burning midday siesta: that delicious breath that cools the Mediterranean coast and carries the scent of trees from shore to shore, mingled with the acrid scent of the sea.

Over the huge lake that extends from Gibraltar to the Dardanelles and from Tunis to Venice, a light yacht, cleanly and elegantly shaped, was slipping through the first mists of evening. Its movement was that of a swan opening its wings to the wind and appearing to glide across the water. At once swift and graceful, it advanced, leaving behind a phosphorescent wake.

Bit by bit, the sun, whose last rays we were describing, fell below the western horizon; but, as though confirming the brilliant fantasies of mythology, its prying flames reappeared at the crest of every wave as if to reveal that the god of fire had just hidden his face in the bosom of Amphitrite, who tried in vain to hide her lover in the folds of her azure robe.

Though there was apparently not enough wind to lift the ringlets on a girl's head, the yacht was travelling fast. Standing in its bow, a tall, bronzed man was staring wide-eyed at the dark, conical mass of land rising from the midst of the waves like a Catalan hat.

"Is that Monte Cristo?" asked the traveller, who appeared to be in command of the yacht, in a grave and melancholy voice.

"Yes, Excellency, " said the master. "We are just reaching the end of our journey."

"The end of our journey" the traveller muttered, with an indefinable note of dejection. Then he added under his breath: "Yes, this is port." And he relapsed into thoughts that expressed themselves in a smile sadder than tears.

— from The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas.

I know that smile.

This book has everything: Sailors! Napoleonic sympathizers! Corsicans! Assassins! A purloined letter! An island fortress prison! Hidden treasure! Hashish dreams! A suspicion of vampires! Family secrets! Italian masquerades! Bandits! Illicit love affairs! A long-lost son! Traitors! An oriental princess sold into slavery! Shame and dishonour! Optical telegraphs! Cross-dressing lesbians! Opera! A challenge to a duel! Gunplay! Poison! Courtroom drama! Really a lot of poison! Vengeance! Justice! And love!

(Not necessarily in that order.)

Oh, I hope I didn't just ruin it for anyone.

Although, I do think the Count goes too far in the end, with Maximilien. "You must needs have wished to die, to know how good it is to live." That was a bit much.

But really great book! Way better than television!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Back from nowhere

Saturday, J-F and I got in the car and drove. Without a destination, without a plan, and, for the most part, without worries. We had it in our heads to head for Quebec City, not to stay there — we'd done that before — but to explore the villages in its environs. But early on we accidentally followed a road over a bridge to the south shore of the Saint Lawrence. We toyed with the idea of ferrying back across, but the one sign we passed indicated the ferry was closed (other options would've been available further up the road, but that would've involved scheduling). We followed the river on its south side.


The best pizza since we'd moved to Montreal, in a tiny diner called Le Villageois, in a village we don't recall the name of. Not as good as Ottawa's Colonnade, but closer (not too far out of town, and still on the seaway's north shore, I believe), although I doubt we'd be able to find it again. With green peppers still crunchy.

Kamouraska. When I saw it was lying directly in our path, I insisted we stop there, because of its literary connection (to a book I've never read and I've never had an interest reading, but which I'm now intent on tracking down), but mostly because I just think the name is very cool, evoking something exotically romantic and Russian, the exact opposite of the sense I have of Nowhere, Quebec (in fact the name is Algonquin for "bulrushes by the water"). Anne Hébert novelized a love triangle and real-life murder that took place there in 1839, to which the tiny village owes much of its fame. But it's pretty (in a way no photo could ever capture), in such a stark, cruel way. On the shore is a plaque quoting from Hébert's book; the character describes the view from her house, which opens up onto the river, and captures both the harshness of the living conditions and the beauty and hope in the peculiar light that is cast over the landscape. I wish I could cite that passage here, but I didn't copy it down, so that will have to wait till I someday encounter it in context.

A tasty Trois Pistoles ale, in Trois Pistoles. The place is apparently riddled with legends (which I'm endeavouring to learn more about), commemorated in the names of the town itself, its church, and other landmark sites, as well as in the imagery on the beer's label (the devil came in the guise of a black stallion to help raise the church).

A fine romantic dinner in a hotel restaurant in Rimouski. I had lamb rolled in tea and chocolate and exotic spices, on cranberry quinoa.

The village of Estcourt, at the tip of Lake Pohénégamook. A frontier town, bordering Maine, with a distinguished history of bootlegging and border disputes. Several concrete obelisks mark the current US–Canada border. We amused ourselves by circling these and, like Homer, weaving from one country to another, or more ominously proclaiming things like, "My shadow falls across two nations." A few house actually straddle the line. A rickety wooden bridge crosses the border where it veers to split the river; care is taken to maintain it, as, were it ever to entirely collapse, it could not be rebuilt under the current terms of the border treaty.

The fact that our entire journey was somewhat coloured by our having watched Inland Empire the night before we set out. I'm not sure what I mean exactly, and I certainly don't know what the movie means, but our backroad roadstops felt, well, Lynchian — whatever that means — but in a good way if that's possible.