Going off in a million different directions – but sticking with The Master

September 28, 2012 at 3:38 pm (Book review, books, California, Italy)

If I don’t simply sit down and start writing, I’ll never get back to it. So, here goes:

Ron and I have just returned from California. More specifically, we were in the South Bay Area, aka Silicon Valley as it is now known. I loved it last year, and loved it twice as much this year. It is an utterly magical place. My head is still swimming with visions of seals and sea lions, majestic redwoods, and Stanford’s spectacularly beautiful campus. More to come on this journey, which now seems to me to have been momentous for several reasons.

Meanwhile, I find myself entangled, at least to some degree, in three different book clubs. I’m making it a rule simply to opt out if I really don’t want to read the selection – or if the date’s not good for me – or whatever. The only time I require myself to attend is if I’m involved in presenting. (Big of me, isn’t it?)

And speaking of books, the reading I brought with me had nothing to do with California. Let me provide a bit of background to explain my seemingly eccentric choice of reading matter.

Several weeks ago, I read a review of a book that I knew, beyond question, I wanted to read:  .  I immediately realized that it made no sense to do so, however, without first revisiting  its subject, a novel I read many years ago, in my English major days. And so I obtained a copy of Portrait of a Lady from the library. They carry the Penguin Classics edition, with its arresting cover featuring a detail from John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler:  .

I have seen this painting; it hangs in one of my favorite places, the Smithsonian American Art Museum: . Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler – slightly imperious, even more mysterious –  became, in my mind, the image of James’s heroine, Isabel Archer.

I finished Portrait of a Lady last night at 3 AM. Reading it at times felt like a massive undertaking, but the rewards were commensurate with the effort. The pacing is at once stately and urgent, a seemingly impossible narrative coup on the part of the artful Henry James. It keeps the reader glued to the page – at least, it did so with this reader.

Meanwhile, I had almost forgotten how reverent, how brilliant, a great novel can be. Isabel Archer is so very alive for me at this moment.  Another thing I’d forgotten was open-ended nature of the novel’s concluding paragraphs. For Isabel, almost nothing concerning her relations with Gilbert Osmond has been resolved.  Why has she determined, in the teeth of a profound crisis, to embark on a seemingly perverse course of action? What is to become of her?

One of the few things I remembered from my long-ago first reading of the book is Henrietta Stackpole’s ringing declaration, in the novel’s penultimate paragraph: “‘Look here, Mr. Goodwood,…just you wait!'”

One of the many joys of Portrait of a Lady is the strongly evocative nature of  some of the descriptive passages. In this one, Isabel, Henrietta, and several others are exploring Rome:

The  herd of reechoing tourists had departed and most of the solemn places had relapsed into solemnity. The sky was a blaze of blue, and the plash of the fountains in their mossy niches had lost its chill and doubled its music. On the corners of the warm, bright streets one stumbled on bundles of flowers. Our friends had gone one afternoon – it was the third of their stay – to look at the latest excavations in the Forum, these labours having been for some time previous largely extended. They had descended from the modern street to the level of the Sacred Way, along which they wandered with a reverence of step which was not the same on the part of each. Henrietta Stackpole was  struck with the fact that ancient Rome had been paved a good deal like New York, and even found an analogy between the deep chariot-ruts traceable in the antique street and the overjangled iron grooves which express the intensity of American life. The sun had begun to sink, the air was a golden haze, and the long shadows of broken column and vague pedestal leaned across the field of ruin.

Two thousand year old ruts made by chariot wheels, broken columns casting their shadows courtesy of the brightness of the sun, the intense blue of the sky….I remember it all from my last visit to Rome, more than forty years ago. It came back to me as though it had been yesterday, and the longing to be there along with it. (My journey to Italy three years ago, wonderful as it was, did not include a stop at the Eternal City.)

And as for Henrietta Stackpole: what a pleasure it was, after so many years, once again to spend time on her company! She’s a wonderful, down to earth, straightforward person, utterly immune to the affectations of languid aesthetes like Gilbert Osmond. She is unmistakably a woman of the future, and she is also a fast and immoveable friend to Isabel Archer. The two women have vastly different personalities, yet in the ways and at the moments that matter the most, each is for the other a tower of strength. (The need is invariaby more urgent on Isabel’s side.)

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Talking about The Terrorists, by Sjowall and Wahloo: Everything a book discussion should be – and more

September 16, 2012 at 2:16 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

I’m not quite sure how to begin this post. Tuesday night’s Usual Suspects book discussion was so rich and stimulating:

  When it’s Frances’s turn to lead the group, we always know we’re going to be treated to an extraordinary degree of preparation. Even so, she may have outdone herself as she led our discussion of The Terrorists, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

From an amazingly thick binder, Frances extracted page after page of fact sheets and images. The latter were especially poignant; we got to see these two writers when they were still relatively young, just starting out in their lives both as crime fiction authors and as lovers.

I for one had not realized the complexity of their lives in the period before their time together. Maj Sjowall had been married twice and had a daughter; Per Wahloo was married at the time of their meeting.  They met while working for the same magazine publisher. He wooed her with passages of writing in which he invited her to, as it were, fill in the blanks. Obviously she did that – and more.

Frances’s central question to us was: Who exactly were the eponymous terrorists in this novel? She helped bring us to the realization of the importance of this consideration. Meanwhile, many of us praised  the sheer cunning of the plot hatched by the police in order to foil the would-be assassins. The Terrorists, the final novel in the Martin Beck series, was published in 1975. It was interesting to note that in today’s world of instant communications, where it’s so difficult to keep a secret, that plot would almost certainly not have worked.

The amazingly effective efforts by the police in this case made it all the more puzzling  – to this reader, at least – that  the writers allude almost casually to the routine corruption in the force, as in this passage concerning Martin Beck’s new and very desirable living space:

He had been in luck when he found the place, and the most extraordinary thing was that he didn’t get it  through cheating or bribery and corruption–in other words, the way police generally acquired privileges.

It’s a well known fact about these novels that Sjowall and Wahloo used them as a vehicle for criticizing the social and political conditions prevailing in Sweden in particular, and the Western world in general, at the time of their writing. Marge commented that these critical comments, some of them very forthright and blunt, were her least favorite aspect of the novel. As she succinctly put it: ‘It stops the plot.’ I agree with her. As an instance of that, the above passage leaped out in a jarring way, interrupting the otherwise smooth flow of the narrative.

But this is a minor cavil: over all, the pacing is swift, the story is involving and suspenseful. The characters are exceptionally engaging. This is especially true of  what Frances termed the ‘team of five,’ a group of exceptionally skilled and resourceful law men headed up by Martin Beck. I can do no better in describing this protagonist than Dennis Lehane, in his introduction to  the 2010 Vintage Crime /Black Lizard edition of this novel:

As this novel…is Martin Beck’s swan song, it’s worth noting that in the annals of realistic fictional policemen, Beck stands a full head above most. He carries plenty of psychic scars and admits to a depressive personality, but he’s not gloom laden to the point of masochistic self-pity that so often masquerades as a hard-boiled hero’s tragic worldview. Beck is a dogged worker bee entering his later middle-aged years with a healthy romantic life and no illusions about his place in the larger scheme of things.

That last sentence, at least, could equally apply to two other favorite fictional policemen of mine: Commissario Guido Brunetti and Detective Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford,  recently retired. Brunetti and Wexford are both uxorious, dependent on their respective wives for affection, moral support, and insight. Both men are comfortably – and comfortingly – ensconced in marriages of long standing. Beck, on the other hand, manages in the course of the series to extricate himself from a stale and joyless union. In The Locked Room, the eighth book, he meets Rhea Nielsen, who works for the social welfare services and also owns and manages an apartment building. There’s an instantaneous attraction, and by the time the events of the tenth and last book are unfolding, Beck and Rhea are in a relationship that’s richly rewarding for both of them.

(I admit I was somewhat startled by the physical description of Rhea. Here’s her first appearance in The Terrorists, during a courtroom scene:

She was of below average height and had dead-straight blond hair, not especially long. Her clothes consisted of faded jeans, a shirt of indefinite color and strap sandals. She had broad, sunburnt feet with straight toes, flat breasts with large nipples that could be seen quite clearly through her shirt. The most remarkable thing about her was her small, angular face with its strong nose and piercing blue gaze, which she directed in turn on those present.

In the course of the novel, those nipples receive multiple mention, as do her feet.)

At any rate, the trajectory of Martin Beck’s love life would seem to have some parallels in the lives of the authors. (It also reminds me of events in the life of one of my other favorite fictional policemen, Bill Slider.) In a 2009 article in the Guardian/Observer,  Sjowall admits that at the time that she and Per Wahloo began their love affair, “His wife hated me, of course.”  She adds that they are now friends. (This is yet another instance of the fact that if you live long enough, the nature of some of your relationships may change profoundly.)

Frances asked us how we felt about The Terrorists being the conclusion of the series. Apparently this was the plan from the very beginning, ten years earlier, starting with Roseanna in 1965.   I believe we agreed that this novel did not have that autumnal quality that one associates with such endings. Moreover, as a series winds down, it’s usual for its creator to have the protagonist retire, become in some way incapacitated,  or even die. (Who can forget the loss of  Inspector Morse, masterfully played by John Thaw, in The Remorseful Day? I read the novel, but I’ve never been able to watch the TV episode. Of course, one’s sadness was made more acute when John Thaw himself passed away a short time later.)

I don’t mean to be dismissive about the social and political concerns of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. According to my understanding, these were the prime motivation behind the writing if these novels. Again, Dennis Lehane:

One wonders how Sjowall and Wahloo managed to live there through the writing of the ten Martin Beck novels, , so negative is their depiction of not just the failed welfare state but the physical landscape as well, a shameless myth of blond goddesses and mineral springs that in reality gives birth every morning to a ‘dismal, dirty, gray and depressing dawn.’ It’s a late November world, compressed by a dark, swollen sky that hovers roughly four inches above your head until May. The courts don’t work, the schools produce little but rot, and the ruling class skims the cream off the top and turns its back as the poor fight over the coffee grounds.

Well. I don’t know about you, but this harsh appraisal does not at all accord with my mental picture of the workings of Sweden’s social democracy. But it was their country; they should know. When you add to this the fact that Sjowall and Wahloo began their collaboration at the height of the war in Vietnam their animus against Western governments in general becomes more understandable. And of course, much of that animus was directed against the United States. It’s the visit to Sweden of an American senator, with the concomitant need for extraordinary security measures, that precipitates the crisis in The Terrorists.

Per Wahloo is on record as stating that their goal in the Martin Beck novels was to “use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideologically pauperized and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type.” Well, golly, that doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? But these books are fun, in the sense that a terrific story well told invariably is. I like the way the case is stated at Scandinavian Books:

 How well they succeeded as far as the social criticism of the Swedish welfare state is concerned, is open to debate. However, what they did succeed in, was the creation of one of the most interesting and wonderful series of crime fiction novels ever. While each of the books may be read individually as a stand alone crime novel, this well designed series contains a rich, intriguing and fascinating set of side stories about the main character Martin Beck and his family, the dynamics of the group of detectives working with him, and the intrigues and struggles within the police force. Martin Beck and his colleagues at the Central Bureau of Investigation in Stockholm are the main characters of the series.

This photograph of the authors, the one most commonly reproduced, is one I’ve featured in other posts on Books to the Ceiling:    This was taken when Per Wahloo was already gravely ill, something I’d not previously known. (He died at the age of 48; Maj Sjowall was some eight or nine years his junior.):  . Here are two photos of an earlier vintage:   .  I especially like this one, with the two sons they had together: . (The couple lived together but were never married.)

Frances did some research on the translators of the Beck novels. Translators tend to be the unsung heroes of international literature, yet there efforts are so crucial. The translator of the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition of The Terrorists is Joan Tate, who turns out to be an extremely interesting and accomplished person in her own right.

All ten of the Martin Beck novels, taken together, are called The Story of a Crime . This image comes from a site called Zoom Street, where an ‘August Beck Fest’ was recently commended to crime fiction fans. Writer Derek Pell calls the books “highly addictive.” There’s no shortage of similar praise everywhere I’ve looked. And as for the new, most gratifyingly excellent wave of Scandinavian crime fiction authors currently on the literary scene, they’re all well aware that  they stand on the shoulders of these two giants.


In 2010, Sweden issued a number of postage stamps featuring distinguished authors of crime fiction. This one honors Sjowall and Wahloo: 


The Laughing Policeman made the list of 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century compiled by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.


I began by trying to take notes Tuesday night, but I soon gave up. Ideas, questions, and observations – all were flowing back and forth fast and furiously. Frances had such a wealth of material to share – I wished the meeting were being recorded.  I don’t feel that I’ve quite conveyed the feeling of exhilaration that blossomed in Frances’s cozy and charming living room. I know I’ve left out a great deal of what passed. Suspects – feel free to offer additions and/or corrections. (For much of the time, Toby the genial Black Lab was chewing with noisy gusto on his bone, adding to everyone’s general delight in the occasion!)


There is something strangely compelling in the story of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: their passionate lives as both lovers and artistic collaborators; their carefully planned ten volume fictional series concluding at the same time that Wahloo’s own life was concluding. It was a richly rewarding partnership on several levels, cut short by a cruel and unforgiving fate. I can’t help thinking: If I’d been Maj Sjowall in 1975, I’ d have felt as though my entire world were imploding. And yet – look what they achieved – look what they had!

Maj Sjowall in 2005

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Country Life Magazine revisited, with a brief digression

September 10, 2012 at 1:20 pm (Anglophilia, Art, books, Magazines and newspapers, Music, Mystery fiction)

In February 2008, drunk on a new found – or rather, reawakened – love of Britain that was the byproduct of two terrific trips, I took out a subscription to Country Life Magazine. Country Life is a weekly, and if I got it every week, I’d be buried (albeit happily) in a mountain of back issues. Instead, I receive one issue per month.

Here are some highlights from the April 4 Easter issue. To begin with, this cover image sent me scurrying to find the artist. He is Edgar Hunt. Biographical information on this painter is somewhat hard to come by. There’s a brief bit about him on Artnet, where we learn that he was ‘of retiring disposition’ (such a felicitous phrase!).

Country Life does not place much of its content online. A pity, really. “Creating a Poultry Paradise” by Matthew Rice was utterly delightful, featuring exceptionally beautiful photography and art work. The following are images of several of the breeds highlighted by Rice in his article.

Old English Game



Light Sussex

This exercise brought back happy memories of our sojourn in the Hudson Rover Valley four years ago. Our B & B was located next door to a farm, so we took the opportunity to “…make the acquaintance of the local poultry.” More recently, we encountered some attractive fowl at the Shrine of Saint Anthony.  (“A Little Assisi in Maryland,” this lovely and peaceful haven is but a short distance from our house.)


In this issue of Country Life, we learn of the dire situation of the Wedgwood Museum. This distinguished institution may have to sell off its priceless collection in order to raise funds to satisfy a pension related obligation. This seems a somewhat bizarre and complicated quandary, but the danger is real enough and was made more so by  a legal ruling that  was recently handed down.

The article is entitled “Is This the End of the Wedgwood Museum?” It begins thus:

It would take a novelist to do justice to the disaster that has engulfed the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. In the words of the Minister for the Arts, Ed Vaizey: ‘We are almost, as it were, walk-on parts in an obscure Dickensian novel, in which a complicated piece of legislation has the most dramatic and unintended consequences.’ The sequence of events to which he refers recalls the nightmarish legal web of the great case Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, which pervades Dickens’s novel Bleak House. The consequences of these events are, however, brutally simple: the Wedgwood Museum, one of the most significant collections and archives of its kind in the world, must be sold.

A vigorous campaign to save the museum has been launched.

The Dancing Hours, designed for Wedgwood in 1778 by John Flaxman

While searching for news on this topic, I came across a review of a  newly released title that sounds quite wonderful: The Potter’s Hand by A.N. Wilson.

It’s worth noting that over the years, in addition to master potter and patriarch Josiah Wedgwood, the Wedgwood family has accrued many distinguished members, the most famous among them being Charles Darwin. (You’ll also find Geoffrey Keynes, brother of  economist John Maynard Keynes, and a composer much beloved by Ron and me: Ralph Vaughan Williams.) Here’s a family tree provided by the ever helpful folks at Wikipedia. If you click on it, you should be able to read the names without too much difficulty: 


A piece entitled “The Shrines of Saints” features that of Thomas Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford from 1275 to 1282.   We had the great privilege of viewing this shrine last year, when we visited Hereford Cathedral, which also houses the Mappa Mundi and the Chained Library.


A regular feature  that I always enjoy is “My Favourite Painting.”  The work highlighted in this issue, Portrait of the Artist’s Family by Hans Holbein the Younger, was selected by actress Anna Chancellor. (For each issue of Country life, a different person chooses the work of art; then art critic John McEwen provides additional commentary.)

Chancellor comments: “I can hardly bear this painting–it punched me in the solar plexus when I first saw it.”

Last year, one of the feature works, Simone Martini’s Annunciation, dated 1333, was selected by Rory Stewart

Stewart, an amazingly accomplished individual, is just shy of forty years old and looks to be about half that. (See  the Wikipedia link above.) Here are  his comments on the painting:

Country Life have, this week, published a brief description of my favourite Painting – The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Asano by Simone Martini. Martini portrays the resistance of the Virgin, the angel Gabriel moves towards her like a hawk, his damask plaid alive like a third wing behind him. I remember a sheet of flat gold,  the filigree columns and the metal blaze of the gothic arches and the etiolated elegance of the olive and the lillies. But above all it is the Lady turning away, drawing her cloak across her as though rejecting an importunate suitor.  So much was lost with the Renaissance.

Priceless, that last sentence.


There’s an invariably insightful essay by Carla Carlisle at the back of each issue. Naturally I was exceptionally pleased to find that this time she’d written about her idol and mine, Dorothy L. Sayers. Writing about Sayers’s depiction, in Gaudy Night, of the first wave of females to storm the barricades of Oxford in the early years of the last century, Carlisle exclaims, “Oh, those brainy, educated women.” They are indeed a joy to spend time with, both in the novel itself and in the film version starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter. Happily, “Goodness gracious gaudy nights” is available online.

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Paris on my mind

September 1, 2012 at 6:15 pm (Film and television, France, Short stories)

“Thank you for the Light,” a previously unpublished story by by F. Scott Fitzgerald, appeared in the August 6 edition of the New Yorker Magazine. The piece was recently discovered by Fitzgerald’s heirs; they were perusing his papers in preparation for an auction at Sotheby’s. Several commentators have dismissed this sad, brief tale as facile and sentimental. I think Sarah Churchwell’s piece in the Guardian comes much nearer the truth.

When Fitzgerald originally submitted this story to the New Yorker in 1936, it was rejected. His heirs offered the magazine another crack at it. This time around, unsurprisingly, they accepted it.


“An Affront To Love, French Style” by Agnes Poirier appeared in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times. This article was written in response to a recent Parisian phenomenon: locks affixed to the railings of the bridges over the River Seine. These locks  purported symbolize the commitment of the lovers who place them there. However, Poirier and others find them erroneous and misguided, and worse: utterly at variance with the French way of loving:

At the heart of love à la française lies the idea of freedom. To love truly is to want the other free, and this includes the freedom to walk away. Love is not about possession or property. Love is no prison where two people are each other’s slaves. Love is not a commodity, either. Love is not capitalist, it is revolutionary. If anything, true love shows you the way to selflessness.

This brings me to Midnight in Paris.    Several nights ago, Ron and I finally got around to watching Woody Allen’s blockbuster romantic comedy cum time travel fantasy. Let me just say right up front: we loved it! For those of us who’ve been fans of Allen’s work for decades, Midnight in Paris was a most welcome return to form. He has penned, in cinema format, the kind of affectionate love letter to the City of Light that, in earlier films, he frequently offered up to New York City. I loved the evocation of Paris in its glory days, He did a great job of summoning up the rich artistic scene of the 1920s. The viewer gets to share the same “Wow” factor that Gil Pender is experiencing. (Pender, an unmistakable Woody Allen stand-in, is played delightfully by Owen Wilson. He gets the stumbling, excuse-making Wood Man character just right!) There’s Scott Fitzgerald! And with him Zelda, already displaying signs of increasing instability! And what’s this: I’m talking to Hemingway! (That’s him all right: every sentence is a weighty pronouncement; there’s nary a glimmer of irony or humor;  but instead, he’s always gunning for higher profundity!  As you can guess, he’s not been a favorite of mine – but I did enjoy Corey Stoll in the part.)

And there are many more: Luis Bunuel, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, T.S. Eliot, Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas – all appear on the crowded canvas portraying the splendor of Paris in times past. My personal favorites were Adrien Brody’s delightful send-up of Salvador Dali in all his outré glory, and Kathy Bates as the hyper-intellectual, nonstop verbalizing  Gertrude Stein. (And what a treat to see Picasso’s portrait of Stein prominently displayed in her apartment! The painter himself, played by Marcial Di Fonzo Bo, appears in a brief cameo.) 

Allen is great at skewering pretentious pseudo-intellectuals, and he does it again here in the person of Paul Bates, played by Michael Sheen. Bates is an acquaintance of Gil and his wife Inez (played with marvelous bitchiness by the beautiful Rachel McAdams), encountered quite by accident at a cafe. My favorite scene with Bates/Sheen is the one in which he critiques the flavor of a wine he’s been sampling: “…slightly more tannic than the ’59; I prefer a smoky feeling.” Aargh! you’d like to shake him. (Ron’s invariable observation upon hearing a pronunciamento of this kind: “They’re making that stuff up!”)

The shots of the city, especially at the beginning of the film, are ravishing. Gil is positively childlike in his delight: ” This is unbelievable! There’s no city like this in the world!”  That just about says it.

Owen Wilson and Woody Allen at last year’s Cannes Film Festival


(You may have to endure an ad before watching this trailer.If so, be patient; it’s worth it!)

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