“A feeling of beauty, of totality, of being one with everything else.” – The Silence of the Wave by Gianrico Carofiglio

November 26, 2013 at 8:11 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

The Silence of the Wave cover  This is the third novel I’ve read by Gianrico Carofiglio. The experience has strengthened my conviction that he is a truly exceptional writer.

In The Silence of the Wave, which is primarily set in Rome, we meet Roberto Marias, formerly of the Carabinieri, Italy’s national military police. I say ‘formerly’ because when this story commences, he is on extended leave and does not know if he will ever return to the force.

In the course of doing undercover work, Roberto has sustained a deeply traumatic psychic injury. As the novel opens, he is under the care of a psychiatrist. The bulk of the narrative consists of transcriptions of their therapeutic sessions. The result is that while the plot is rather inert, especially at the outset, the psychology is deep, and getting deeper all the time. There is a great deal of pain that must be suffered, anger that must be expressed,  and self-disclosure that has to happen if the healing process is to be real and effective.

Meanwhile, the good doctor – I don’t recall whether his name is ever given – is a man of exceptional eloquence and wisdom. In this passage, he’s trying to explain to Roberto the erratic course one often travels while on the way to recovery:

“The backward steps derive from a fear of change. If we live with suffering for a long time, it ends up becoming somehow part of us. when we start to feel better, when we start to detach ourselves from the suffering, we experience contradictory states off mind. On the one hand we’re pleased, on the other we feel uneasy, because we’re missing something that was part of our identity and guaranteed us a kind of balance. That’s the reason for this fluctuation between euphoria and sadness.”

I am intrigued by this admixture of psychology and philosophy. It puts me in mind of the final lines of Byron’s poem “The Prisoner of Chillon:”

‘My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are:—even I
Regain’d my freedom with a sigh.’

It takes a while to find out just what the precipitating events were that so incapacitated Roberto in heart and mind. As the novel progressed, I began to feel more and more invested in Roberto’s treatment, and to wish, with increasing fervor, for his recovery.

The Wave in the title refers to surfing. Roberto had grown up in California and had embraced the sport with enthusiasm. Even though he hasn’t done it in years, he can still recall what it felt like to ride the waves:

“You have a feeling of truth, I don’t know how to put this, the sense that everything is…brought into focus. A feeling of beauty, of totality, of being one with everything else. When the wave carries you, you feel you’re part of it, if you understand what I mean, you feel  that everything finally has a meaning….And there’s a perfect harmony, in those seconds when you’re there, a balance between the sea and the sky, almost still, while you slide very fast between the water and the air, and the roar. You pass through the middle of the wave, exactly equidistant from those opposites.”

I love the way Giancarlo Carofiglio writes. Praise is also due to Howard Curtis, who translated this novel from the Italian.

As I’ve been sitting here working on this post, with The Silence of the Wave reposing beside the keyboard, it has occurred to me that as well as loving the contents of this book, I take delight in its physical presence as well. It measures eight and a half inches by five, and is about an inch thick. It seems downright elegant in its compactness. It’s a library book, and the mylar jacket cover enhances this effect. Finally the cover image seems appropriately muted and indistinct. I love handing this small volume and will be sorry to bid it farewell.

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In this space I have also posted a brief review of Temporary Perfections. This was the first book I read by  Carofiglio and the fourth in the Guido Guerrrieri series. (On Stop! You’re Killing Me, this character is described as “a jaded defense lawyer.” Don’t let that deter you; for the most part he’s a delight to spend time with.) I’ve also read Involuntary Witness, the first novel in this series. I found this one rather slow going at  the outset, but I ended by liking it quite a bit. Guido Guerrrieri lives and practices in Bari, a regional capital in the south of Italy. Bari is also Gianrico Carofiglio’s birthplace.

Gianrico Carofiglio

Gianrico Carofiglio

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“…a unique, irresistible contraption of a book” – The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer

November 19, 2013 at 7:44 pm (Uncategorized)

9780374102418_custom-ee9a42e2ad4808c0d3b65458a4adad25b91fb217-s6-c30  Of late I have been avoiding long books. My heart sinks at the sight of their size – never mind their weight. Of course the e-book format rather artfully conceals these factors, but I am still doing most of my reading the old-fashioned way. (And as I write this, I cannot help thinking of my mother, who instilled in me a lifelong passion for the written word and who, were she alive, would find the locution ‘old fashioned book’ incomprehensible.)

This aversion to lengthy tomes is due to my desire to read so many books as soon as possible. Of late I’ve been reading several simultaneously, some in e-book format and others in hard copy. Can this become confusing? Indeed it can – and occasionally does. Am I reading more and enjoying it less? Well, no, I still love it – but I can’t deny that in recent years, my reading has taken on a somewhat manic aspect…

On the other hand, there are few experiences as rewarding as settling into a magisterial work of literature, one that quite literally transports you to another time, another place, another world. Most of the time,  but not always, such books have considerable heft. They take some time to work their magic (and in some cases, it is a dark magic). Oh but is it ever time well spent!

I’m thinking, for example, of A Passion for Nature, Donald Worster’s biography of John Muir; Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard; The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes; Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel; The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings; People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry; Nature’s Engraver, Jenny Uglow’s biography of Thomas Bewick; and Robert K. Massie’s biography of Catherine the Great. To this august company I now gladly add The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer.

The Unwinding is very much a book of the present moment and not the sort toward which I ordinarily gravitate. But as I read the reviews,  I found myself thinking, I really want to read this. I felt drawn by the description of its contents. The Unwinding more than fulfilled its promise.

That said, this is a difficult book to describe. Packer’s crowded canvas includes portraits of the famous, the infamous, and everyday people. It’s that last group that is most compelling. It’s comprised of a wide variety of individuals, some pursuing their dreams, others just trying to keep their heads above water.

For example:

Dean Price of Rockingham County, North Carolina.

The plateau of hardwood hills and red clay fields between the Appalachian range and the Atlantic coastal plain is called the Piedmont. Along the order between Virginia and North Carolina, from Dansville and Martinsville down to Greensboro and Winston-Salem, the mainstays of Piedmont life in the twentieth century were tobacco, textiles, and furniture. In the last years of the century they all started to die, more or less simultaneously, as if a mysterious and highly communicable plague swept through the region.

Packer concludes this succinct, dystopian summary by telling us that “Dean Price returned home just as the first bad signs were showing up across the landscape.”

Then there’s Jeff Connaughton of Alabama. Connaughton wanted to contribute to the betterment of America through political engagement. A self-confessed “Biden guy,” Connaughton’s odyssey through the power  corridors of Washington makes for very illuminating reading.

The more familiar names come from all walks of life: Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, Colin Powell, master chef Alice Waters, rapper Jay-Z – the list goes on. The celebrity chapters are short but enlightening. This holds true especially for Peter Thiel. Packer chooses the German-born Thiel to represent the phenomenon of Silicon Valley. The chapter on him might have been entitled, “Inside the Mind of a 46-year-old Billionaire.” Not unexpectedly, one finds some unusual things in that mind.

As a poster child for the ravages of the housing bust, the city of Tampa rates several chapters of its own. Starting in the seventies, numerous residential developments had sprung up, most of them miles from any kind of commerce. As long as people continued to come in ever increasing numbers, building would continue at a rapid pace, facilitated by generous allowances and perquisites for developers courtesy of the city fathers. “A few local critics pointed out the strategy’s resemblance to a Ponzi scheme. But everything kept growing and no one paid attention.”

In the fullness of time, those Cassandra’s were proven all too prescient

Packer’s description of what was happening to the land during this period is straightforward and unflinching:

The growth machine cleared out the pine trees and palmettos and orange groves along State Road 54 up in Pasco County. It cut don the mangroves on Apollo Beach and asphalt over the strawberry farms around Plant City. Farther south down Interstate 75, in Lee County, the growth machine built a university on the wetlands near Fort Myers (Senator Connie Mack put in a call to the Army Corps of Engineers),and it sold quarter-acre lots on the installment plan between the drainage canals of Cape Coral. Farmers and ranchers cashed out and suddenly, where there had been orchards or pastures or swampland, developers put up instant communities–they were called ””boomburgs”–and christened them with names that evoked the ease of English manor life: Ashton Oaks, Saddle Ridge Estates, the Hammocks at Kingsway….

And on and on. Followed of course by the inevitable implosion. And with no way to reinvigorate the fragile and destroyed ecology of the place. (As one whose childhood was mostly spent  in South Florida, I am tempted to say that in that part of the country, it was ever thus.)

For some folks, life was good in Tampa. This was especially true for certain four-star generals attached to MacDill Air force Base, home of the United States Central Command: “They enjoyed the lavish hospitality of Tampa society hostesses while shaping U.S. foreign policy and the fate of nations across the most volatile region of the globe, from Egypt to Pakistan, with all the authority of Roman proconsuls.” Four blocks from this hive of weighty activity lived Danny and Ronale Hartzell, their two kids, and Danny’s younger brother Dennis. All inhabited a ground floor apartment in a complex where drugs were regularly bought and sold. It was all in the way of living quarters they could afford. All three adults were willing to do any kind of work but had trouble finding and keeping jobs.

Of Danny Hartzell:

He was in his late thirties, short, with a pot belly on him, a wispy goatee, and a nearly hairless head under his Steelers cap. He was missing a bunch of teeth and spoke in a loud hoarse voice because of deafness in one ear. He classified himself as a “blue-collar-type guy,” not a “behind -the-counter-take-your-money-can-I-help-you-find-your-dress-size-type guy,” but the only jobs left were in retail and he lacked the right look and manner.

Danny took full responsibility (more so than necessary, I think) for the family’s problems, although he honestly questioned why “…all those people out there view me as such a bad person?”

Like her husband, Ronale had bad teeth and was overweight. The couple had numerous other difficulties, but these paled when, in the spring of 2009, they learned that their daughter Danielle was suffering from bone cancer in her left leg. Up to that time, the Hartzells had not owned a vehicle, but then a stranger gave them money to purchase a 2003 Chevy Cavalier so that they could drive to Danielle’s medical appointments. Here’s the upshot:

A prosthesis that would require regular four-millimeter adjustments as she grew was sewn inside the length of Danielle’s skinny little leg. she went a whole year cancer free. They thanked God. Otherwise, nothing changed for the Hartzells.

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The summing up of the people, events, and experiences depicted in The Unwinding is presented through the eyes of Peter Thiel. In his view, 1973, the year of the oil shock, was when things began to go wrong:

A lot of institutions stopped working. Science and technology stopped progressing, the growth model broke down, government no longer worked as well as in the past, middle-class life started to fray. It was pretty much a roller coaster ride until the “seismic events” of 2008. “Four decade–down,up, up, down–After forty years, you were flat.”

Thiel calls those middle decades an Indian summer of sorts. They were characterized by “a series of bubbles: the bond bubble, the tech bubble, the stock bubble, the emerging markets bubble, the housing bubble….” And all of these went the way that all bubbles inevitably go, so that the one salient remaining fact to be discerned amid the wreckage was that “things were fundamentally not working.”

Thiel sees the information age as a disappointment in that it has failed to generate anywhere near enough jobs or to raise the standard of living across the board or to improve conditions for the populace in general – for people, in other words, like the Hartzells:

The creation of virtual worlds had taken  the place of advances in the physical world.

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In his blurb for The Unwinding, writer David M. Kennedy says the following:

George Packer has crafted a unique, irresistible contraption of a book. Not since John Dos Passos’s celebrated U.S.A. trilogy, which The Unwinding recollects and rivals, has a writer so cunningly plumbed the seething undercurrents of American life. The result is a sad but delicious jazz-tempo  requiem for the post World War II American social contract. You will often laugh through your tears at these tails of lives of ever-less-quiet desperation in a land going ever-more-noisily berserk.

The Unwinding is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction. I hope it wins.

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Josephine Tey – a postscript

November 10, 2013 at 11:10 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

[This post constitutes an addendum to the one I just completed on Josephine Tey.]

Carol, my fellow Usual Suspect, has reminded me that there is currently a crime fiction series being written in which Josephine Tey figures as a continuing character. The author, Nicola Upson, has done extensive research on Tey and turned up some interesting material.

There are currently five novels in Upson’s series, beginning in 2008 with An Expert in Murder. This year’s entry is The Death of Lucy Kyte. Carol has kindly provided me with several links, which I will pass along here. First, this is an essay posted on Upson’s website on the life and work of Josephine Tey. Second, here’s an interview with Nicola Upson conducted by a blogger who’s an historical fiction enthusiast. Have a look at Question 4, an inquiry into Upson’s research. First, she reveals the source of many of the names Tey gave to the characters in her novels. Even more intriguing is what follows her observation that “There’s no greater excitement than discovering something new about Josephine Tey’s life.” Steven Saylor, author of the Roma sub Rosa series featuring Gordianus the Finder, calls this “information ecstasy.” Anyone who’s ever had a momentous research breakthrough will know the feeling.

Finally, in this interview with Amanda Vale, Upson reveals that she and her partner have had considerable success gleaning information about Tey’s life from the letters and diaries of those who knew her. There may, in fact, be enough to constitute a biography – finally! That’s truly cause for rejoicing.

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The Enduring Mystery of Josephine Tey

November 10, 2013 at 9:04 pm (Anglophilia, Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

bfarrarcover  While preparing background material for a discussion of Brat Farrar with AAUW Readers, I found myself falling once again under the spell of the author. For Josephine Tey, possessor of not one but two pseudonyms, an almost phantom presence on the literary scene, author of eight superbly crafted crime novels, was herself something of an enigma.

In her book Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists, Martha Hailey DuBose observes:

Of all the Women of Mystery, Elizabeth MacKintosh is the most deserving of the title. She never published under her own name, hiding her identity behind first the male pseudonym Gordon Daviot and then the pen name by which she is recognized today, Josephine Tey. She never submitted to press interviews, shunned all forms of personal publicity, and was guarded even with close colleagues. No one has yet collected her letters or edited her papers, if there are any around, and she never, so far as we know, chronicled her life beyond the most basic details. She left behind only the bare outline of a mystery whose clues must be extracted from her fiction.

(DuBose’s book came out in 2000; as far as I know, this assessment remains accurate.)

Elizabeth MacKintosh/Josephine Tey was born in Inverness, Scotland. The year of her birth has been disputed in the past, but it’s now generally accepted as being 1896. The eldest of three girls, she appears to have had a happy childhood. She attended Inverness Royal Academy and later, during the years of the First World War, traveled south to matriculate in the Anstey Physical Training College in Birmingham. She enjoyed athletics and was able to put this academic background to use as a teacher in secondary level schools. But all this time, ever since her girlhood, she had been writing, mainly short stories and poetry. Some of her early work was published in Scottish newspapers and in the English Review.

(At this point I’d like to interpose some intriguing information concerning the future so-called “Grande Dames’ of British crime fiction’s first Golden Age. Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Josephine Tey were all four born between 1890 and 1897. Talk about an auspicious decade! Margery Allingham lagged behind somewhat, the year of her birth  being 1904.)

Using the pseudonym Gordon Daviot,  Josephine Tey published her first crime novel in 1929. Written as a contest entry, it was called The Man in the Queue and featured Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard.

Tey also wrote plays, also under the name Gordon Daviot. The first and most memorable of these efforts was entitled Richard of Bordeaux. Premiering on stage in 1932, this drama about King Richard II provided John Gielgud with his first starring stage role. The play was a hit, thus launching Gielgud on what eventually became one of the most illustrious acting careers of  the twentieth century.

John Gielgud as Richard II in Richard of Bordeaux

John Gielgud as Richard II in Richard of Bordeaux

Meanwhile, under the name Josephine Tey, seven more novels of crime appeared, starting with A Shilling for Candles in 1937. Tey published nothing during the war years; then came more plays and the remaining six crime novels, starting with Miss Pym Disposes in 1946 and ending with The Singing Sands in 1952. Alan Grant appears in six of the eight novels, being entirely absent only in Brat Farrar and Miss Pym Disposes.

At some point in late 1950 or early 1951, Tey learned that she was seriously ill. She kept her condition a secret from all but those closest to her. When she died in February of 1952, probably of cancer, many who knew her were shocked. Her memorial service was attended by Sir John Gielgud and Dame Edith Evans. At the time, the papers were full of news of the passing of King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth II. He had died just days earlier.

In his memoir, Sir John Gielgud hints that the playwright whom he esteemed and admired might have suffered a bereavement as a result of World War One. If so, then Tey was one of many women who suffered a similar loss.

At the time of her death, Elizabeth MacKintosh, aka Gordon Daviot, aka Josephine Tey, was 55 years of age. She willed her entire estate to England’s National Trust.

Since 1926, Josephine Tey had been keeping house for her father in Inverness, her mother having died a few years previous. Colin Mackintosh died in 1950 at the age of 86, predeceasing his gifted and intensely private daughter by a mere two years.

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Thursday’s discussion of Brat Farrar was both edifying and stimulating. I’ve now read this novel four times, and yet points were brought forth and questions raised that I’d not heretofore considered. How could the young Brat have traveled so freely during the war years? When exactly are the events of the novel supposed to have occurred? It was published in 1949, so one supposes the time frame to be postwar. Yet there is barely  any mention of the seismic, six year long agony that had ended so recently. One reads of the bleak impoverishment of British life during this period, yet Latchetts (the country seat of the Ashby family) and its surroundings seem bathed in fruitful prosperity. (One thinks of the novels of Jane Austen, with their sense of the wider world kept almost completely at bay while their author examines the niceties of provincial country life.) Emma observed that Tey seemed to have deliberately evoked a timeless setting in which her characters could work out their respective fates.

Rita was the most seriously critical of the novel, especially of the ending. Too much happened too quickly, she averred. Many of us agreed with her. We found ourselves having to thrash out some of the plot points, such as how Simon knew that Brat was going to try to descend that fatal cliff face where Patrick Ashby had met his end. We also tried to clarify the issue of the consanguinity of Brat and Eleanor. First cousins? Second? After all, the assumption is that they intend to marry; Eleanor declares her intention in no uncertain terms.

Finally, someone commented on the loveliness of the scene, earlier in the novel, in which Brat takes Timber out for a run. I think it’s worth quoting at some length:

Timber seemed as well acquainted with gates and their uses as a cow pony was with a rope, but never before had Brat had so delicate and so well-oiled a mechanism under him. Timber obeyed the slightest indication of hand or heel with a lack of questioning and a confidence that was new in Brat’s experience. Surprised and delighted Brat experimented with this new adaptability. And Timber, even with  the turf in front of him, with the turf practically under his feet, moved sweetly and obediently under his hands.
“You wonder!” said Brat softly.
The ears flicked at him.
“You perishing marvel,” he said, and closed his knees as he turned to face the down. Timber broke into a slow canter, headed for the clumps of gorse and juniper bushes that marked the skyline.
So this was what riding a good English horse was like, he thought. This communion, this being one half of a whole. This effortlessness. This magic.
The close, fine turf slipped by under them, and it was odd to see no little spurt of dust coming up as the shoes struck. England, England, England, said the shoes as they struck. A soft drum on the English turf.
I don’t care, he thought, I don’t care. I’m a criminal, and a heel, but I’ve got what I wanted, and it’s worth it. By God, it’s worth it. If I died tomorrow, it’s worth it.

Brat is soon to find out that Timber’s docility is a sometime thing. But how beautifully Tey conveys this moment of ecstatic communion between man and horse!

I think that among those who were present at Thursday’s discussion, the general feeling was that although Brat Farrar has its flaws, these are far outweighed by the many qualities that make it shine. In his introduction to the Scribner paperback edition of 1997, Robert Barnard extolls “…Josephine Tey’s brilliant storytelling: her varied, loving characterisation; above all, her control of reader sympathies.” This last is especially evident in Brat Farrar, as the reader comes to share in Brat’s life and death struggle with his conscience, his obligations, his very soul.

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Somehow I’ve managed to do a fair amount of writing about Josephine Tey without mentioning the novel for which she is most famous. the-daughter-of-time In The Daughter of Time, Alan Grant finds himself laid up in hospital with a broken leg. In desperate need of mental stimulus, he takes it upon himself to investigate the case against King Richard III, a man who’d been reviled for centuries as the murderer of the Princes in the Tower. They were the true heirs to the throne, and he is supposed to have done away with them so that he might be the sole unopposed ruler of England.

I read The Daughter of Time many years ago. In fact, for a long time, it was the only work of detective fiction I’d ever read. (Hard to believe, I know! You can see, I’ve had lots of catching up to do.) In some quarters it’s considered to be Tey’s masterpiece. I really do need to reread it, but for now, in my view, that designation belongs either to Brat Farrar or The Franchise Affair – or to both, jointly.

(Colin Dexter paid homage to The Daughter of Time in his novel The Wench Is Dead. Like Alan Grant before him, Inspector Morse finds himself immobilized in a hospital and in need of diversion of an intellectual nature. He finds it by investigating the real life murder  of one Christina Collins in 1839. The Wench Is Dead, long one of my favorites among Dexter’s oeuvre, won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 1989.)

The only other crime novel I’ve read by Tey is the last one, The Singing Sands. Again, it’s not fresh in my mind, although I do recall enjoying the vividness of the Scottish setting. As it has finally occurred to me that some of the best exemplars of the British police procedural, my favorite genre, have been right under my nose for quite some time, I’ve just begun reading A Shilling for Candles and am already enjoying the lucid prose and engaging characters.

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The manuscript for The Singing Sands was found among Tey’s papers after her death, and was published posthumously.

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As far as I can determine, the best online source of information on Josephine Tey resides on a site called Josephine Tey – A Very Private Person. Not only is the biographical article quite enlightening, but if you work your way down the buttons on the left, you’ll find video of Brat Farrar, The Franchise Affair – two versions, no less – and some delightful photos like this one taken at the Anstey Physical Training College, Elizabeth MacKintosh’s alma mater.  Josephine_tey_anstey_physical_training_college_1

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I’d forgotten that the urbane Vincent Price hosted Mystery! in the 1980s. Click here to see him introduce a Josephine Tey segment to the television audience. I love the way he casually mentions the fact that he actually saw the original 1933 production of Richard of Bordeaux, starring John Gielgud!

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Finally, my heartfelt thanks go out to the seventeen or eighteen Readers – a great turnout!  – for one of the most exhilarating book discussions I’ve ever been lucky enough to be part of.

Elizabeth MacKintosh, aka Gordon Daviot, aka Josephine Tey  1896 - 1952

Elizabeth MacKintosh, aka Gordon Daviot, aka Josephine Tey: 1896 – 1952

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Please click here for additional information on Josephine Tey.

 

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