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Monday, May 23, 2022

Something New

 

We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.



“NEXT: Poems 2016-2021” by Alan Roddick (Otago University Press, $NZ 27:50); “ANOTHER BEAUTIFUL DAY INDOORS” by Erik Kennedy (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $NZ 25); “MEAT LOVERS” by Rebecca Hawkes (Auckland University Press, $NZ 24:99)

 

Alan Roddick is a unique figure in New Zealand literature. Now well into his 80s, he was born in Northern Ireland and has lived in New Zealand for the last 70 years. By profession he was a dentist. Well-known as the literary executor of Charles Brasch (whose Selected Poems he edited), Roddick has produced just three collections of poetry since the 1960s – The Eye Corrects (1969), Getting It Right – Poems 1968-2015 (reviewed on this blog 2016) and now Next – Poems 2016-2021. No irony intended, but I like the speed with which he has written his poetry. All power to the poet who thinks long and carefully about what he publishes instead of churning ‘em out every second year or so. Roddick is thoughtful and witty with a keen eye for the natural scene. This collection’s title Next derives from a quotation by Allen Curnow “…so long as there’s a next there’s no last”. Alan Roddick might be an old man, but he’s not giving up on life. As long as he breathes, he sees and lives and looks forward.

Roddick has organised Next – Poems 2016-2021 into four discrete sections, each of which is dominated by a distinct theme.

Poems recalling childhood and the immaturity of young manhood dominate the first section of eight poems, and naturally most of these poems reconstruct remembered life in Northern Ireland. There is a Belfast childhood memory of Christmas carollers coming to the door in snow (“The Waits”); a sequence of memories involving his father’s disorientation in coming to the other end of the world (“Five Ways to Go”) ; a little boy’s view of his mother buying him new shoes (“Because”); an awkward memory of an American soldier in Belfast during the Second World War (“Captain Conroy’s War”);  and the memory of being a child giving a recitation as part of the entertainment at an adult meeting (“On Mr Sherman’s Agenda). In all these poems there is the inevitable tension between experiencing events as a child would have experienced them and reassessing those same events as a very mature adult.    Greater tension comes in adolescence with “In Memoriam” concerning sexual overtones when watching monkeys behaving as monkeys do in the zoo; and especially “What Happened”, a memory of being a young man shut out of a vital conversation and revealing his more callow state of mind. In this first retrospective section, Roddick’s most perfectly conceived poem is “First Crossing of the Southern Alps” , which yields not only a clear narrative situation (a family awkwardly acclimatising themselves camping in wilder New Zealand terrain) but which gives us a clear understanding of a father’s anxiety - a poem not merely of physical detail but of psychological insight.

The nine poems that make up the second section of Next – Poems 2016-2021 turn firmly to the New Zealand scene. They are concerned with New Zealand landscapes and seascapes, but to see them as mere pictorial displays is to under-rate them. Roddick feels as well as sees the scene. The section opens with “Under Pahia Hill”, a gem of a poem. In its three stanzas there is a clear evocation of a specific place but also of a mood. Read this first stanza: “Cosy Nook. A sudden whiff of seal / sharpens the wind. / You watch from the crook of the hill / seas upon seas hit / the harbour entrance. / To make a home here takes practice.” Now dare to tell me that you don’t want to read the two stanzas that follow. Another fine poem is “Southerly” with its conceit that a house battered by the wind is really a ship sailing through rough seas. “Anticrepuscular” is a precise reflection on the phenomenon of seeing the sun’s setting reflected in the eastern sky; while “Midnight at Mt John” is more than stargazing, again playing with the idea that the skies are seen differently in the Southern Hemisphere from the way they are seen in the Northern Hemisphere. Roddick dedicates two poems to Karl Stead, who has apparently mentored him in his poetic development. His shift from Belfast childhood to being absorbed in the New Zealand scene is complete. But there is old age to contend with. His wittiest poem – as unnerving as sprightly - is “Further Reflections”, when seeing multiple images of oneself in a lift raises the question of where life is leading.

I confess that I was least engaged in the third section, comprising literary witticisms and comments on the writing scene. Vers de societe, perhaps. Polite amusement made out of some meetings with Charles Brasch, a critique of a poem by Yeats, and Roddick’s own version of two Russian lyrics among other things. Very civilised, very discreet.

I was happier in the fourth and final section where Roddick faces old age full on. There are some valedictory poems for deceased friends. “Our Last Meeting” is perhaps wistful about the withering effect of time. A chance meeting with a woman he has not seen for decades has him reflecting “The lights changed, and yet again we learned / how old age can make us look invisible / to the young who thronged the crossing there / around us, between us, submerging us / in rapid, bright-voiced conversations, themselves tomorrow’s ghosts.”  Three poems reference fishing, with “Catch and Release” likening death to a caught fish being released into the stream of… what? Eternity? Oblivion?.  There is an awareness that time is short time, best expressed in “Lockdown: Hold it!” where taking a family photo is always an attempt to freeze time. But childhood memory persists in old age (“The Bagatelle Board”). Beloved landscapes are spoiled by time (“The End of a Road”). And we dream of people long since dead (“At Bluecliffs”). The relentless passage of time – and its implicit destination – is best expressed in “At Last – Level Two” where the clanking of a passing freight train at night picks off the minutes.  It would again be misrepresentation to see all Roddick’s poems in this section as being haunted by old age and decay. One string of images speaks of the poet’s great admiration for practical skills – the fisherman’s steady hand which is able to cut out a dry fly that has wounded a lip; the plumber who has the skill to install a tap properly; the skill needed to use an axe. To be is to do.

Roddick doesn’t rage about not going gentle into that good night. He accepts age and death, but insists that his perceptions are sharp and his observation still keen. And life lasts as long as these things are so.

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            And so to another poet who was born elsewhere. American by birth but New Zealander by choice and based in Christchurch, Erik Kennedy is of a younger and very different generation from Alan Roddick. Kennedy is deeply concerned about climate change and its dire consequences. He co-edited a book on the subject. Kennedy is a polemicist, provocateur and po-faced wit. When I reviewed on this blog his first poetry collection There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime ( 2018) I couldn’t help dividing it into what worked and what didn’t, or the good and the bad of his verse, noting the way his hard irony sometimes turned into whimsy. But there was much real wit and vigour to his work.

            Does his second collection take us down the same paths? Again, we have an ironical title Another Beautiful Day Indoors, and the poetry is preceded by epigraphs condemning capitalism. He nails his colours to the mast at once. And so to a generous collection of 52 poems – or at least 52 offerings, for the second section of this collection, entitled “notes towards a definition of essential work”, is what a publicity sheet calls “a sequence of magical realist short fictions”.

            Let’s look at the poems first.

Climate, conservation and ecological matters still tend to be major concerns for Kennedy.  “Studying the Myth of the Flood” allows him to compare the Biblical flood of Noah with possible inundations brought about by climate change, and to implicitly rebuke us for our complacency.  “The First Plant Grown on the Moon” chides that “The moon is full of foreigners, / with our stiff flags and our left-behind shit. / Some corner of a foreign field will be forever / Earth. Let us tend to it.” “Phosphate From Western Sahara” chastises New Zealand for still extracting Saharan phosphate with negative effects on the environment. These jeremiads can be bracing to read, but there is a downside to Kennedy’s style. It can easily turn to rant and exhortation, and the sensitive touch flies away. Consider “Microplastics in Antarctica”, which deals with an insidious form of pollution. In one stanza, Kennedy likens this phenomenon to global dandruff, with the lines “Scratch the scalp of civilisation / and bits of it go all over the place.” On its own, this is an arresting statement But Kennedy immediately follows it with “Concerned about those embarrassing flakes? / You should be” and we are brought down to the level of an harangue in a demo.

Allied to the ecological themes, there is Kennedy’s ridiculing of business, of capitalism, of our present social and economic set-up in general. “Satellite Insurance” ridicules insurance policies and false hopes based on them. “Open-Plan Office” is a deadpan critique of such architectural designs and the deadening conformism they impose on employees. Deciphering its somewhat surreal imagery, “An Interesting Redundancy Package” appears to be the revenge of somebody who has been fired by an unjust boss. “The Dead Men of 2012” is open-ended in that it appears to be about homeless men made so by the social system. When Kennedy puts together his “Composite Sketch of My Enemy”, he shovels together a mass of things he doesn’t like, such as arrivistes, wine snobs, and those who suck up to powerful bosses. This has the cumulative effect of telling us that the poet himself is a far more principled person than such as these.

Some of Kennedy’s work has the effect of placing two bob each way, giving with one hand and taking away with the other. “The Please Stop Killing Us and Destroying Everything That Sustains Us Society” is ostensibly what its title says, an oration in which somebody pleas for a better world. But the audience that listens to this oration are depicted as comfortable, self-satisfied dreamers and the implication is that such pleas are merely a form of entertainment for the well-to-do. “The Black Friday Elegy” concerns a man complaining in a shopping centre. He appears to have a real complaint, but the poem ends “at least he died doing what he loved / complaining about capitalism”, again suggesting that activism is just a game, or that it is an amusement for the poet. Such pieces come across as resigned hipster irony, capped by the title poem “Another Beautiful Day Indoors” where staying indoors and doing nothing is not only a display of lethargy but a way of life. Sheer whimsy comes in a poem about couple having a drone to deliver the rings to their wedding. And sheer sour-puss-ery comes in Kennedy’s dyspeptic moods. Read “Lives of the Poets” and you are told that poets are either ruined by success or they become too comfortable and conformist. “All Holidays Are Made-Up Holidays” sneers at holidays, while “Young Adult Success Stories” ridicules the whole idea, telling us all successful kids have rich parents and that’s all there is to it.

What do I miss here? I miss any introspection or self-assessment. For Kennedy, the rest of the world is at fault and he alone is clear-sighted. This sort of bashing-the-world may work wonderfully with a full-on, no-holds-barred satirist like Swift or Juvenal. But Kennedy’s stance is more often peevishness than outrage, not helped by the laid-back hipster tone which suggests none of it matters anyway. The wit and (sometimes) the skill are there, but the reader gets battered something awful. Not always though. “Cemetery-Going” is a poem that rings true for me, maybe because it matches my own graveyard experiences. And I give credit to Kennedy for his very nuanced “We’re Nice to Each Other After the Trauma”, a reflection on how people felt in Christchurch after the 2019 massacre. It’s insightful and better than most editorials on the matter.

And what of those “magical realist short fictions” gathered together under the title “notes towards a definition of essential work”? Some are sardonic tales of break-ups and improbabilities in unreal settings. “The Planned Obsolescence Rhapsody” is as obvious a tale as its title – a long joke about deliberately making things that don’t last. “Official Printer to the Government” tells us that bureaucrats quickly become executioners. In another ecological ram-raid, “Early Evening at the Coal Plant” eventually equates coal with people making biological weapons. The title story of this section “Notes Towards a Definition of Essential Work” suggests burglary is as honourable as barbering or any other sanctioned occupation – which, come to think of it, is more an anarchist concept than a Marxist one. At least some of Kennedy’s prose productions are as enigmatic as a Kafka sketch.

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I’ll begin by admitting a prejudice. I first looked at the cover of Rebecca Hawkes’ Meat Lovers and then flicked through the text, noting two art works. Cover and artworks are by the poet herself – and with their naked human beings and fantastical beasts, I saw them as quasi-Hindu images, especially the cover with its blue goddesses sitting on a holy cow. “Is this going to be a work of belated hippie-ism?” thought my suspicious mind.

Then I started reading the poems and at once realised how wrong I was.

Meat Lovers is not only the fruit of close and critical observation, but is also one of the most forceful and accomplished debuts I’ve ever read. Hawkes is an inspired and skilled poet and Meat Lovers is both intoxicating and challenging. The blurb tells me that Hawkes grew up on a Canterbury sheep and beef farm and the country scene is one of her main preoccupations, but this collection is no pastoral idyll. Having been deeply immersed in farm life, Hawkes often presents it with merciless reality.

The collection is divided into two parts. “Meat” deals mainly with the animals that become meat, and “Lovers” deals mainly with the poet’s emotional and love life, with some lesbian overtones. Put together, the title “Meat Eaters” is ironical as the poet’s ongoing carnivore-ism is paired with her deep knowledge of how messy the production of meat usually is.

In the “Meat” section we encounter, among other things, sanitised and wrapped meat in the supermarket and the lure of nearby sweets; childhood memories of the tar on the road to school; the awful demands made by a pony club; the tailing of lambs ; following her mother through a blizzard for special farm work; coming across a lamed sheep and trying to put it out of its misery by killing it; contemplating killing a kitten from a feral pack; and assisting in the slippery blood-wet birth of a calf. In all these cases, Hawkes presents specific details of discomfort. Her wonderful fecundity of imagery is built on real things, not on abstractions or fancy. The effect is visceral. We are placed so close to the things Hawkes describes that we feel the sweat, smell the smells and hear the baaing and snorting.

There is compassion for the animals, but no sentimentality. In “Flesh tones”, the poem about tailing lambs “The lambs hop back into the flock to greet their mothers. They are the future of meat.” In “The Conservationist”, concerning feral felines, a feral kitten is “this soft furred vermin / flawless awful / psychopath in waiting”. There may be tenderness towards animals, but the slaughterhouse is never far away. The poem “Waif & stray” has her feeding and nurturing lambkins who have been separated from their mothers, and for a moment feeling sentimental “But for now… It is just her & the lambs / while all things birth & butchery happen somewhere else.

While such scenes dominate the collection’s “Meat” section, Hawkes does play some different tunes. The sequence called “Hardcore pastorals” romanticises a little as Hawkes wittily deifies a cow and reveals her sapphic longings. “Petri dish of lab-grown meat” gives us a possible meat utopia, but implies a complex and justified irony by measuring the natural against the synthetic. And “Noonday gorsebloom” is, quite simply, a masterpiece of identity, shape, imagery and history – the type of poem that should appear in all future New Zealand anthologies of poetry.

By now you will have noticed how enthused I am by Meat Lovers – but here I have to put the brake on a little. For whatever reason, I did not find the “Lovers” section as engaging or skilful as the “Meat” section. This is not a prejudice against the subject matter. Hawkes does not stick completely with the vagaries of her love life, although she does chronicle, in “I can be your angle or yuor devil” [misspellings intentional], what appears to be an affair that went badly wrong; and she does reveal some of her interests in “Lesbian vampire film theory”. She also, in “Denying that it was a phase”, gives us some social satire. It is essentially about growing up a bit, when she went to “a dismal fetish ball” and “it turned out celebrating hedonism was / quite boring actually. The display / of everyone’s subversiveness / in uniform corsetry.” How conformist the non-conformists often turn out to be.

None of this rattles me, but the poetry in “Lovers” is limper, less forceful and lacking the energy and dense imagery of “Meat”. It’s almost as if it were written by a younger and more callow poet.

Having said this, half a book of brilliance is still a work of brilliance. Vivat Hawkes!

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.     

“RENEE MAUPERIN” by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt (written and first published 1864); and “GERMINIE LACERTEUX” by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt (written 1864; first published 1865).


 

            America has its Pulitzer Prizes, established in 1917. Britain has its Booker [or Man Booker] Prize, established in 1969. New Zealand has its Ockham Books Awards, amalgamating two different national book awards that were set up in the 1960s. But, well ahead of the Anglophone countries, France has had its Prix Goncourt since 1903; and established in the same year was a rival to the Prix Goncourt, namely the Prix Femina.  In an age where there are now dozens of book awards worldwide, the Prix Goncourt and Prix Femina are still going strong.

I mention all this because, without the Prix Goncourt, the men who gave their name to it might well be forgotten. Think French novelists in the 19th century and you think Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Hugo [if you can stand him], George Sand, de Maupassant, Zola, Huysmans and, in the field of pop novels, Sue, Dumas, Loti and Verne. But the de Goncourt brothers? Um… aren’t those the guys the prize is named after?

So a little introduction to them. Edmond de Goncourt (1822-1896)  and his younger brother Jules de Goncourt (1830-1868) were the sons of a high-ranking army officer with pretensions to aristocratic status. Their parents left them a legacy large enough to ensure that they didn’t have to work for a living and could devote their lives to research and writing. They were unique among literary siblings in that, despite their 8-years age difference, until Jules’ death, everything they wrote, they wrote in collaboration. Neither of them married though both took mistresses – in fact sometimes sharing the same mistress. Though progressive in some of their views – save for the antisemitism they shared with many of their contemporaries -  they were obsessed with the 18th century and first made their name with books about 18th century art (Watteau, Fragonard etc.) and the morals and manners of Revolutionary and pre-Revolutionary France. They were very sensitive about criticism of their work and were prone to getting into squabbles with critics and other writers who disagreed with them. Apparently in France, even now, their most-often-read work is their nine-volume diary, published by Edmond in the 1890s (Journal – Memoires de la vie litteraire). It gives interesting details about the literary life of France between 1851 and 1896, but it also chronicles all the de Goncourts’ quarrels, feuds and bitcheries with other authors.

Yet these brothers, with nostalgic tastes and pretensions to aristocratic status, were very advanced in their aesthetic when it came to their novels. Stendhal and Balzac, despite the melodrama in which both sometimes dabbled, were concerned with the psychology of their characters, although Balzac was moving in the direction of categorising social classes. Loosely speaking, they could be called Romantics. The de Goncourt brothers were seeking Realism, with a tendency to dwell on the lower classes of society. In a way, their Realism was a bridge between the Romanticism of Balzac and the deterministic Naturalism of Zola, which again had its tendencies to melodrama. Like Zola, the de Goncourt brothers were into “documenting” physical facts of life, carrying notebooks around with them, and jotting down things they saw and heard in the streets. Very progressive, and yet, withal, social snobs. [Which reminds me irresistibly of Modernist, but incredibly snobbish, Bloomsbury in the 1920s.]

Now why, you ask, Dear Reader, am I banging on about Edmond and Jules de Goncourt? This is all part of my bibliophilic neurosis in catching up with books that have sat unread on my shelves for years. I own copies of [English language translations of] two of the de Goncourts’ best-known novels, Renee Mauperin and Germinie Lacerteux, the latter often being cited as their most popular and most-often-read novel. So at last I got around to reading them and here are my comments thereupon.

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I have rarely read a novel as broken-backed and fragmented as Renee Mauperin. At first it seems to be shaping up as the light-hearted story of the eponymous Renee. When we meet her she is a vivacious and spirited young woman chafing at polite conventions. Is this going to be a novel about her winning her way through to greater freedom, like a proto-feminist? In her first of many arguments, she protests at the constraints laid upon young women thus:

We must say ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘No’, ‘Yes’, and that’s all! We must always keep to monosyllables, as that is considered proper. You see how delightful our existence is. And for everything it is just the same. It we want to be very proper, we have to act like simpletons; and for my part I cannot do it. Then we are supposed to stop and prattle to persons of our own sex. And if we go off and leave them and are seen talking to men instead – oh well, I’ve had lectures enough from mama about that! Reading is another thing that is not at all proper. Until two years ago I was not allowed to read the serials in the newspaper, and now I have to skip the crimes in the news of the day, as they are not quite proper.” (Chapter 1)

Renee’s parents are nouveaux riches middle-class people who have made their way up from the lower orders, own a mansion outside Paris, and are eager to make profitable marriages for both 20-year-old Renee and their older son, the lawyer Henri. Snobbery and the desire for status are rampant. But Renee is adept at turning away suitors with her cheerful and flippant witticisms. M. and Mme. Mauperin discuss their ambitions for their unmarried children in a familiar setting:

M. and Mme. Mauperin were in their bedroom. The clock had just struck midnight , gravely and slowly, as though to emphasise the solemnity of the confidential and conjugal moment which is both the tete-a-tete of wedded life and the secret council of the household – the moment of transformation and magic which is both bourgeois and diabolic…” (Chapter 5)

So far, the novel is almost like something out of Jane Austen. Mme. Mauperin is concerned and upset and in a tizz about how they will get Renee married, while M. Mauperin – who is much loved by Renee – is more relaxed and unworried. This is more-or-less the same as the roles of Mr and Mrs Bennet when they worry over the marital prospects of their daughters, especially witty Elizabeth Bennet.

At which point the de Goncourts’ novel begins to fall apart. Not only are the authors addicted to writing in very short chapters, but they insist on also having longer chapters that rather gracelessly give us full back-stories of any new characters that we meet in the novel. It is a sorry case of tell-not-show. Thus Chapter 2 gives us the whole back-story of M. Mauperin and how he earned his money; Chapter 6 is a self-contained description of a smooth society priest the Abbe Blampoix; Chapter 8 is a character study of Renee’s lawyer brother Henri, his opportunism and ability to switch his political views depending on the company he is in; Chapter 20 gives us the story of Mme. Bourjot, who plans to marry her daughter off to Henri; and Chapter 35 tells us the whole history of a very minor character, who appears very late in the novel, M. de Villacourt, a ci-devant aristo who has come down in the world and is determined not to let his family name be bought by an haut-bourgeois. It was common for the wealthier middle-classes to pay to have their family names changed to aristocratic titles.

Read as separable essays, there is much to be said for these back-stories. Indeed the self-contained description of a self-satisfied society priest is slyly very funny: 

The Abbe Blampoix had neither benefice nor parish. He had a large connection and a specialty: he was the priest of society people, of the fashionable world and of the aristocracy. He confessed the frequenters of drawing-rooms, he was the spiritual director of well-born consciences, and he comforted those souls that were worth the trouble of comforting. He brought Jesus Christ within reach of the wealthy. ‘Everyone has his work to do in the vineyard’, he often used to say, appearing to groan and bend beneath the burden of saving the Faubourg Saint-Germain, the Faubourg Saint-Honore, and the Chausee-d’Antin… He was tolerant and intelligent, could comprehend things and could smile. He measured faith out according to the temperament of the people and only gave it in small doses. He made the penances light, he loosened the bonds of the cross and sprinkled the way of salvation with sand. From the hard, unlovely, stern religion of the poor he had evolved a pleasant religion for the rich. It was easy, charming, elastic, adapting itself to things and to people, to the ways and manners of society, to its customs and habits, and even to its prejudices. Of the idea of God he had made something quite comfortable and elegant.”  (Chapter 6)

There is also much historical interest in the presentation of Henri Mauperin: “Henri Mauperin was a young Doctrinaire. He had belonged to that generation of children whom nothing astonishes and nothing amuses; who go, without the slightest excitement, to see anything to which they are taken and who come back again perfectly unmoved.” (Chapter 8)

The de Goncourts are clearly implying here that real idealism had been squeezed out of young French arrivistes by the battering of recent history. By 1864, when the novel was written, France had already gone through a revolution and a radical republic, the dictatorship of Napoleon, the restoration of a reactionary monarchy, the second revolution of 1830 and the 18 years of the bourgeois monarch Louis Philippe, another brief radical republic, and then Louis Bonaparte’s coup which made him the Emperor Napoleon III. After all these changes, what could young people believe of governments and parliaments? Better, like Henri, to just look out for your own advancement. Blasé cynicism is the order of the day.

One could say that the novel is held together by the authors’ satirical critique of bourgeois manners, gossip, shallow morality and pursuit of status. Occasionally an older man called Desnoisel, sometime companion of Renee, spars verbally with complacent businessmen who complain about the ungrateful lower classes. Says Desnoisel naughtily in one such encounter: “…you see we have had a revolution against the nobility; we shall have another one against wealth. Great names have been abolished by the guillotine and great fortunes will be done away with next.” (Chapter 31)

Yet for all this, the novel still does not hold together. Renee is lost in these stand-alone episodes and explanatory chapters about other people, and she does not develop credibly as a real character. After a major family tragedy ( I will not go into the details), she sinks into deep depression, sickens and eventually dies. In the midst of this process, we are told:

 Gradually the ways, tastes, inclinations, and ideas – all the signs of her sex, in fact – made their appearance to her. Her mind seemed to undergo the same transformation. She gave up her impetuous way of criticising  and her daring speech. Occasionally she would use one of her old expressions, and then she would say, smiling, ‘That is a bit of the old Renee come back’.  She remembered speeches she had made, bold things she had done, and her familiar manner with young men; she would no longer dare to act and speak as in those old days.”    (Chapter 56)

The stuffing has been knocked out of her and she has advanced to nowhere.

I have the awful impression that the de Goncourts hastily devised the final death scenes and sorrow to wrap up a novel which had got out of control.

 

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Written in 1864 and published in 1865, Germinie Lacerteux plunges us into the world of the poor and abused, far from the world of Renee Mauperin. It is essentially the story of the progressive degradation and eventual destruction of a poor woman.

A country girl from a poor peasant family, Germinie Lacerteux comes to Paris aged 14. She has been physically abused as a child, and in Paris she is abused by her first employer: “Cursed, scolded and bullied by the proprietor, who was used to abusing his maids and who was annoyed with her for being neither old enough nor ripe enough for a mistress…” (Chapter 3) Shortly after which, while others are out of the house “Joseph was busy sorting dirty linen in a small dark room. He told Germinie to come and help him. She went in, screamed, fell down, wept, begged, struggled, called desperately… The empty house remained deaf.” (Chapter 3) She is raped. The result is a still birth some months later.

Soon things look up for her. She becomes the personal maid to snobbish, haute bourgeoise, but essentially kindly  Mlle. de Varandeuil. In a cruel world, young Germinie for a short time finds consolation in religion, but more than anything she craves for real love and affection. We are told that this is made difficult because she is unattractive with “broad, sturdy, emphatic cheekbones, freely sown with small-pox marks” and “an almost simian character to the lower part of her head, where a big mouth with white teeth and full, flat, crushed-looking lips smiled in a strange and vaguely irritating grin.” (Chapter 5). When she is not at work about the house, she makes friends with a silly gossipy woman Mme. Jupillon. She looks after Mme. Jupillon’s adolescent son “Bibi” Jupillon. In due course she becomes fixated on “Bibi”, follows him, wants his affection. Finally – now aged about 30 - she becomes pregnant to him… and her baby daughter is delivered in a foul hospital, described in detail by the de Goncourts, where she just avoids contracting puerperal fever. “Bibi” accepts the child but the baby girl becomes sick and dies.

“Bibi” deserts Germinie.

Germinie, when not tending to her employer’s needs, takes to drink in a big way… then “Bibi” returns to her as he has a complex plan to exploit her for her money. So desperate is Germinie for human affection that she falls for him again, becomes pregnant again, is deserted again, drinks herself silly again when her employer is away, and has a miscarriage. And in all this her employer is completely unaware of her life outside her home. As the de Goncourts remark: “It was a miracle that this disordered and agonizing existence, this shameful broken existence did not break out. Germinie let nothing of it appear, she let nothing of it rise to her lips, she let nothing of it be seen in her face, nothing appear in her manner, and the curse-ridden base of her life remained still hidden from her mistress…. She led two lives. She was like two women, and by dint of energy, feminine diplomacy, with a coolness that was always present even in the muddiness of drink, she managed to keep those two lives separate, and remain in Mademoiselle de Varandeuil’s presence the honest, sober girl she had been, emerge from her orgy without carrying the trace of it and exhibit when she had just left her lover a modesty like that of an old maid disgusted by the goings-on of other servants.” (Chapter 36)

By the time she definitively separates from “Bibi”, her hunger for love, for human warmth, has become psychopathic, indeed nymphomaniacal.  This woman who has already endured rape, a miscarriage, the loss of a baby and a still birth now basically wants sex – rough sex if possible – to at least let her believe she is both alive and connecting with someone. “At every moment there rose from her whole being the fixations of desire, to fill her with that mad, unending torment, that migration of the senses to the brain; obsession – an obsession which nothing can drive away, for it always comes back, a lewd violent obsession swarming with images, an obsession which brings love in contact with all a woman’s senses, brings it into her closed eyes, rolls it round her head, hawks it hot around her arteries.”   (Chapter 48)

She falls in for a while with a slick libertine and roue Victor Gautruche. Their sexual activity is presented with a masochistic explicitness that would never have appeared in a contemporaneous novel in Victorian England. With Gautruche “ between these two human beings there would be terrible, desperate, deadly love-making, savage ardours and indulgences, raging orgies, caresses full of the brutality and fury of wine, kisses that seemed searching for the blood under the skin like the tongue of a wild beast, annihilations which engulfed them and left them nothing but the corpse of their bodies.”    (Chapter 52)

Gautruche, solely for his own comfort, wants to make their relationship permanent. Germinie, already betrayed and abused by men, turns him down and walks out on him, saying that the only person who has ever really cared for her is her employer, Mlle. de Varandeuil, who still has not the faintest idea that her valued servant lives a different life in her own time from the life she lives at her domestic work. Germinie now hits rock bottom. Desperate for rough sex, she solicits any available man on the streets, not asking for pay. Finally, worn out by drink, anguish and (presumably) rough and random sex, she contracts pleurisy and dies. She is buried in an unmarked paupers’ ditch in the Montmartre cemetery.

Her story has covered many years from adolescence to early middle age.

After Germinie’s death,  Mlle. de Varandeuil discovers for the first time that Germinie has stolen from her, was in debt, and has led an orgiastic life. At first Mlle. de Varandeuil curses Germinie for her deceitfulness. But then her mood softens and she visits Germinie’s grave.

The novel ends with a truly noble, third-person oration, about the fate of the poor – possibly the best thing in the novel.

Remember, this consistently bleak and in many ways depressing novel is widely regarded as the de Goncourts’ best, and certainly most popular, novel. Why? I can only assume that its frankness about sex, its consistent sympathy for the abused Germinie, and its very simple, chronicle-like plot have made it widely readable. The book is on the side of the wretched of the earth. Also, its fame was boosted by Edmond de Goncourt’s turning it into a stage play, which performed well, and Zola later called it the novel that spurred him onto his own literary career. Some have suggested that it gave Zola the idea for his Nana.

But there are problems. As was apparently the case in most of their novels, including Renee Mauperin,  the de Goncourt brothers structure Germinie Lacerteux as a series of very short chapters, sometimes no longer than a page or two. We are in effect seeing a series of vignettes. This is very good when the collaborative authors are producing convincing physical descriptions of the seedier quarters of Paris; but it also means there is not the continuity of thought or psychological development of character that could be found in longer episodes. The life of Germinie is seen in snapshots.

Worse, and again as in Renee Mauperin, the de Goncourts have the awful tendency to tell rather than show. In long paragraphs of analysis, they explain Germinie’s states of mind rather than dramatising them.

There is an apparent awkwardness to the novel’s opening, which is an uncharacteristically long introduction to Mlle. de Varandeuil, how she only just survived the revolution and how she gradually became an “old maid” up to 1830s when Germinie became her servant. All very interesting historically, but hardly relevant in relation to the novel’s main character Germinie. Only at the very end of the novel do we see what the de Goncourts are up to. The novel’s conclusion brings us back to Mlle. de Varandeuil and her feelings about Germinie. In effect, the authors have made Mlle. de Varandeuil their neat bookends. But that opening is still very inept.

An obvious problem for readers is the credulity of Mlle. de Varandeuil. How is it possible that, over many years, the employer, constantly in contact with her maid, could not have had the slightest inkling that Germinie was leading a double life? The answer textbooks give us is that the story is based on fact.  Germinie was based on the de Goncourt brothers’ own maid, Rose Malingre,  who stole from them and whose wild life they knew nothing about until she died. And Mlle. de Varandeuil was based on an aunt of theirs. Alas, while this is true, it still plays unconvincingly in the novel. It might be based on the truth, but it lacks verisimilitude. Sometimes raw truth does not work in fiction.

And the very worst characteristic of the novel Germinie Lacerteux? As later the novels of Zola sometimes did, the de Goncourts really turn their main character into a “type” or a “case” – an example of the oppressed and mistreated working class, degraded by abuse. Does Germinie never think beyond her desperate desire for affection which turns toxic? Is there nothing more to her mind than what the authors neatly explain for us? It would appear not. She is a cipher, constricted by the limits the de Goncourts have imposed upon her.

And now, dear brother, let us turn our microscope upon another specimen

 

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            The de Goncourt brothers wrote a total of six novels. But on the basis of two of their best-known novels, what is a fair assessment of their work? In 2006, a rather tart article in the British Guardian dismissed their novels as “unreadable and forgotten” and went on to say that only their gossipy journal is worth reading. This is too harsh. Despite the messy structure of Renee Mauperin and despite the superficial characterization of Germinie Lacerteux, both novels show sharp flashes of wit, certainly give us a vivid view of both middle-class and proletarian class in mid-19th-century France, and carry the stamp of authenticity in their descriptiveness. Perhaps this means that they are mainly of historical interest. But they are still readable.

 


Photograph taken in the 1860s by the famous pioneer photographer Nadar of the actress Gabrielle Rejane in the role of Germinie Lacerteux.

Something Thoughtful

 

JUSTICE FOR THE RICH

If you don’t mind, I’ll give you a very quick synopsis of a notorious American court case. You might have heard of it as it has been discussed in detail on many platforms, including a long documentary series and now a long fictionalised series.

Michael Peterson was a successful author and journalist, some of whose books had been highly praised. He and his wife Kathleen apparently lived an ideal life in their mansion in North Carolina. Their children (biological and adopted) swore that their parents were very much in love, their marriage was perfect and their father was the ideal father. In 2001 Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a staircase, surrounded by pools and splatters of blood. Michael Peterson was the only other person in the house. He rang emergency begging for help as his wife had fallen down the stairs. But first investigators and police were sceptical. The wounds on her head suggested she had been beaten with lethal force. So Michael Peterson stood trial for murder.

Peterson was able to afford a large defence team, headed by a very determined lawyer David Rudolf. Rudolf and his second Tom Maher wanted to focus on the material facts of Kathleen’s death, arguing that Kathleen had died of an accidental fall, and both wounds and blood patterns left on the wall were consistent with this scenario. But prosecution, led by the DA Jim Hardin, were able to bring in their own experts to swear otherwise. And the prosecution had some of their own lethal weapons up their sleeve. One was that some years before, when Michael Peterson was living in Germany, he had been the only person in a house when another woman had, apparently accidentally, fallen down a staircase to her death. The judge allowed this matter to be entered into evidence when characterising Michael Peterson. More sensationally, however, the prosecution were able to prove, from postings on Peterson’s computer, that Peterson had led a double life. He was addicted to very explicit homosexual pornography and he had frequently used the services of male prostitutes. The prosecution’s second Freda Black was able to use this information as evidence that Michael Peterson had a motive to kill his wife. She forcefully presented this secret life to the jury as evidence that all was not well in the Petersons’ marriage.

After a very long trial (it lasted over 60 days) the jury found Michael Peterson guilty of murder. He was handed the maximum sentence – basically incarceration for life. But his defence lawyer David Rudolf filed many appeals. After some years, he finally struck gold when he was able to prove that one of the prosecution’s expert witnesses (in the matter of blood-splatter patterns) had falsified evidence. Peterson was not entirely off the hook, however. There were further hurdles to jump before he was free. He pleaded to the lesser charge of manslaughter. In fact he served only eight years in prison, and the rest of his sentence was served as "home detention" meaning he was free to live in his home town and swan around freely, even if he was still officiially a prisoner. 17 years after the death of Kathleen, he was at last cleared of all charges, thanks to his manslaughter plea. Not exactly the harshest of punishments.

How do I know all this? Because I watched on Netflix every episode of the French documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s series The Staircase. (It screened in France under the title Soupcons – Suspicions – a nod to the fact that little was certain in this case.) The Staircase was aired in the USA in 2004, after Peterson’s first conviction and the first appeals. It was then screened again in 2018, with additional episodes on later developments after Michael Peterson was released. I suggest that Netflix decided to revive this series now because a rival platform is currently presenting a fictionalised version of the case, also called The Staircase, starring Englishman Colin Firth as Michael Peterson and Australian Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson, both doing very good American accents.

So why am I banging on about this?

Two things.

First, while watching all of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s documentary series, I was aware that the series was almost entirely seen from the defence’s point of view. Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s crew were embedded with David Rudolf’s team, were allowed to film the deliberations of the defence, including the strategies they deployed and rehearsals of the theories they would present to the court. They were also able to film the reactions and ideas expressed by Michael Peterson’s sons and daughters. (For the record, both of Kathleen’s sisters and one of Peterson’s daughters came to loathe Peterson after they learnt of his “secret life”; but all his other children stood loyally by him.) The only time we saw the prosecution making its case was when they were in the courtroom addressing the jury. This bias meant that it was easier to present the prosecution as playing to prejudice – for in their out-of-court deliberations, the defence frequently expressed the theory that the prosecution was introducing all the details of Peterson’s surreptitious sexual activities simply to prejudice the jury and paper over the otherwise feeble evidence the prosecution had. Maybe they were right in this theory… but maybe not. So I am concerned with the lack of balance that is often seen even in detailed documentaries that purport to be giving us an impartial story. Interesting further note - Jean-Xavier de Lestrade is hopping mad that the fictionalised version of this story reveals that Peterson had a "relationship" with a woman who was one of the documentary crew filming him - a fact not noted in the documentary itself.

Second, and far more important, as I watched the documentary series, I was aware that there were a total of eight people on Michael Peterson’s defence team – researchers and experts as well as the lawyers leading the case. Think carefully about this. There were eight professional people hired, full-time, over a 60-day trial, not to mention all the weeks before the trial when evidence was being gathered and a case was being made. Professionals do not come cheap. To employ such a team, Peterson must have paid not tens of thousands of dollars, but many hundreds of thousands of dollars – and maybe much more than that. Even if his employed team failed to secure an acquittal, the defendant had to be very rich to have them on his side. In fairness, I note that David Rudolf worked pro bono in his later filing and presenting appeals after the first trial was over, showing how concerned he was by the case. I also note that in one point in the documentary, Michael Peterson himself remarked that poor people on trial got a raw deal as they would not be able to hire such a defence team as he hired. By the later years of his incarceration, Peterson himself had no further resouces to pay for a defence. Even so, this does support the theory than in many jurisdictions, only very wealthy defendants can get a dedicated and first class team on their side. This is justice for the rich. I can’t remember the wit who defined a court-case as “a contest to see who has the smarter lawyer”. Maybe it was said by Ambrose Bierce. Anyway, it could just as easily be re-framed as “a court-case is a contest to see who has the deepest pockets.”


 [Photo of Michael Peterson with lawyer David Rudolf at one of the later appeal hearings]

Monday, May 9, 2022

Something New

We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books. 

“FRENCH BRAID” by Anne Tyler (Chatto and Windus, $NZ35); “ELIZABETH FINCH” by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, $NZ40; “THE DARKEST SIN” by D.V.Bishop (Macmillan $NZ35)

            When you read just the first chapter of Anne Tyler’s French Braid, you know at once that she is digging into familiar territory.  As in her A Spool of Blue Thread, the only one of her novels I have previously reviewed on this blog, and as in many of her other 22 novels, the much-acclaimed American novelist is concerned with the nature of family, the way its traditions, attitudes and assumptions are carried on, and the toll that time takes. And of course most of it is set in Baltimore, Tyler’s home town.

            In 2010, Serena and James, a cohabiting couple, are returning by train to Baltimore from Philadelphia, where James has been introducing Serena to his family. As they talk, they reveal the different types of families they come from. Serena’s family is small. James is from a large family and has many siblings. Serena feels that those with more children judge negatively those who have few children. Serena feels unhappy that James has made it clear to his family that they are sleeping together. Serena follows a different form of etiquette and prefers to be discreet about such matters. Much as they are in love, they clearly have different scales of value. And then there is James’ astonishment when Serena see a man she thinks might be her cousin, but isn’t sure… leading James to think that Serena’s family must be rather broken if she doesn’t even know her own cousin. For in some ways Serena’s extended family is broken. This leads Serena to think “Oh, what makes a family not work?

            All this is conveyed by Anne Tyler – with her usual close observation of small but important things; with her excellent use of dialogue – in the first 20 pages of the novel. It might lead us to believe we are about to read the story of Serena. But no. She disappears after the first chapter and reappears only towards the very end of French Braid. Instead, Tyler gives us a generational story in the seven following chapters, that begins in 1959, long before Serena was born, and ends in the present – a story covering over six decades. It digs into the family that produced Serena, but does not in any way focus on her. She is simply a minor player in a large cast of characters.

            Did the family really “not work”? Not in any drastic way. French Braid is structured to show us that smallish things can alter the course of a family. In 1959, Mercy and her husband Robin take their three children, teenagers Alice and Lily, and 7-year-old David, on a holiday by a lake. Level-headed Alice is upset when 15-year-old Lily, unknown to her parents, loses her virginity to an older boy who then scarpers. More upsetting for the whole family, young David almost drowns when his father tries to “man him up” by making him swim when he obviously can’t.

These events aren’t discussed again, but they clearly influence how members of the family think and react to one another in the years that follow. Alice is a little prim and self-righteous, with a steady marriage. Lily goes through a number of marriages and some affairs. As he grows up, David keeps his own counsel and when he gets to college age he stays away from the family as much as he can. Mercy (what a name!) is the matriarch who steadies the family, sort-of loves her husband and never leaves him. But she nevertheless becomes a little estranged from him, focuses on her painting and prefers to live in her separate studio than in the family house. There’s an implied, but never stated, repugnance to macho behaviour like throwing a kid into a lake.

And so it goes on through the next couple of generations as children and grandchildren appear. Children and grandchildren and in-laws and cousins inherit or modify the type of assumptions and behaviours that have been initiated by the original nuclear family – Mercy, Robin and their three children.  Late in the novel, middle-aged  David compares families to “French braid”, an old-fashioned women’s hair-do which is crimped and which ripples out when let down. “That’s how families work”, he says, “You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.”

If I have one small criticism of this novel, it is the profusion of characters that necessarily appear. Frankly, as French Braid moved through the years, I often forgot which named character was the daughter or son or partner or spouse or cousin or friend of whom. There are plenty of them.

Despite that, French Braid is not a takedown of families. As always, Anne Tyler is aware of the inevitability and necessity of families; and on the whole this extended family are a very average bunch – no extremes, no great scandals.

And there is, as a bonus, Tyler’s acute ability to conjure up the small things that made each decade unique – the type of fashions people followed or took for granted in clothes and meals and furniture and house design. She knows her territory thoroughly. Now aged 81, Tyler was born in 1941 which is about when the fictitious Mercy and Robin married. Tyler is not writing an autobiography, but she has lived through the world her characters inhabit.

 

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I’ll begin this review with a funny story – or at least still funny to me.

About 35 years ago, my wife and I decided to take a holiday, with some of our youngsters, in Papamoa. The only accommodation we could find at a reasonable price was a motel, which happened to be run by Evangelical Protestants and was often used for Christian gatherings. In their advertisements, they said specifically that alcohol was not to be consumed on their premises. Nothing daunted, we smuggled in two bottles of wine and had the pleasure of consuming them surreptitiously in our room, against their rules. What made it funnier was that the book I read on that holiday was Gore Vidal’s novel Julian, about the Roman emperor known to Christians as “Julian the Apostate”. He was the emperor who, in his brief reign in the mid-4th century (the 360s), tried to revert the Roman empire to paganism after Christianity had been legalised and was rapidly becoming the empire’s dominant religion. So I was being offensive to our hosts on two fronts.

Anyway, the patrician-born Vidal’s novel didn’t change my views in any way. Vidal presented Julian as a sane, philosophical chap who was pitted against fanatics. With only one or two exceptions, Christians were presented as uncouth, lower-class, superstitious yobbos; pagans as broad-minded, well-read, tolerant and level-headed. In effect, Christians were a bad lot because they came from the lower classes, unlike those sophisticated upper-class pagans. To me it sounded awfully like Bloomsbury snobbery, even if the author was American.

Now what has this to do with Elizabeth Finch, latest novel by prolific novelist, essayist and one time Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes?

Simple. Elizabeth Finch is basically a polemic thinly disguised as a novel, where Julian Barnes is more essayist than novelist. And its centre-piece is an account of the emperor Julian. The basic thesis – a somewhat fashionable theory at the moment – is that polytheistic religions are more tolerant than monotheistic religions, because polytheism allows for the worship of many separate gods; whereas monotheism insists on a very specific definition of one god, and in the process takes to persecuting those who refuse to adhere to this one god. I do wonder if this theory is more inspired by the current aggression of much of monotheistic Islam rather than by the historical crimes of Christians – persecutions, pogroms, inquisitions, crusades etc. I also find it hard to believe that polytheism is all that peaceable.

The nearest we now have to a large polytheistic religion is Hinduism, although – and I say this with a close, personal knowledge, given that there are Hindus in my extended family – most Hindus I know are likely to say that what we Westerners regard as their “gods” are really different manifestations of the one Godhead. As for polytheistic tolerance, consider Hinduism’s continuing caste system, severely limiting paths of life for millions of people, not to mention the many wars that have been fought over the centuries among Indians. More to the point, was ancient pagan Rome really all that tolerant of other faiths? Ask the Jews who died at Masada. Consider how long the gods of Carthage were tolerated once Carthage was crushed. And do note that the empire was made by sword, spear and slaughter, often involving the extermination of whole nations. None of which gets Christianity off the hook (I do detest tu quoque arguments) but which does show that polytheism doesn’t necessarily mean tolerance and peace. Basically, I think a theory about the tolerance of polytheism is really a stick with which to beat Christians, administered by people who believe in no gods anyway.

But to get back to Julian Barnes’s essay-novel.

It is told in the first person by a chap identified only as Neil. In his thirties, he takes a course of lectures on Culture and Civilisation. The lectures are given by an older woman called Elizabeth Finch, whom the narrator admires intensely. For him, she is the perfect teacher, getting her students to think for themselves, challenging their suppositions, and steering them towards open-mindedness and tolerance. In some respects, though, as Barnes presents her, she’s a bit of a fantasy figure. Too perfect, I’d say, always (as Neil says on Page 176) “speaking almost in written prose, having no perceptible gap between brain and tongue”. And it sounds it. The supposedly extempore utterances in her lectures are more like prepared and rehearsed scripts. To make matters worse, the only student we are told challenges her is clearly a philistine dolt, easily put in his place. Frankly I don’t believe in her.

All this we are told in Part 1. When Elizabeth Finch dies, Neil inherits her papers, and it is in Part 2 that we get the whole thesis about Julian the Apostate, who was much admired by Elizabeth Finch and who is therefore admired by the narrator Neil. In fairness to Julian Barnes, though, I have to note that Barnes’s interpretation of the emperor is far more nuanced than Gore Vidal’s version was. He says all the admiring things about Julian’s tolerance and culture, but he also notes the brutal way in which Julian waged war, his own superstitions and his proclivity for sacrificing thousands of bulls and other beasts in his pagan rituals. On Page 95, Neil gives an alternative history about how wonderful European culture and enlightenment might have been if Christianity had been stifled. But then on the next page (Page 96) Neil remembers Elizabeth Finch’s warning that you never can trust human impulses (greed, lust, aggression etc.) and a non-Christian Europe might also have been dismal.

The final Part 3 has the narrator trying to plumb what exactly the true nature of the late, wonderful Elizabeth Finch was – What sort of person was she? What sort of life did she lead? – as she kept very much to herself and gave little away.

I make it clear that Elizabeth Finch reads well, its prose is urbane and sometimes witty and the disputes and polemic are engaging. But do remember that it is as much essay as novel.

 

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Mere months ago, I introduced you to D.V. Bishop’s Renaissance Florentine detective Cesare Aldo in his first novel City of Vengeance , which was first published last year. Now hot on its heels comes the second in what is clearly going to be a series, The Darkest Sin. D.V. (David) Bishop is a very industrious guy. Not only does he write expeditiously but he writes at length. Both his detective novels so far are complex, multi-character tales running to about 400 pages.

To recap. Cesare Aldo is an officer of the court in 16th. century Medici Florence – in other words, a police detective. He is a robust and hardy man, a former mercenary soldier, but he has one awkward secret. He is homosexual in an age when his orientation is both illegal and severely punished, so he has to be incredibly discreet on that front. Cesare is not quite a superman – he often has to take hard knocks – but he is incredibly perceptive about people’s motives and, like most detective heroes I guess (Sherlock Holmes, Jules Maigret, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolf) he is, in the end, always right. We’d be damned annoyed if he didn’t eventually work out who the guilty party is. Fear not. He does.

Here’s the set-up of a story which takes place in one week in 1537. The naked corpse of a man is found in a convent. He has apparently been stabbed to death, with multiple wounds and a surrounding pool of blood. How was there a dead man in a convent in the first place? Why was he naked? And who could possibly have killed him there? It gradually dawns that one of the nuns must be guilty. The abbess? The prioress? The apothecary? The almoner? The sacristan? Or any one of the novices or the women seeking shelter in the convent? There’s a power-play going on between the abbess, who wants her convent to remain open to the world and still administering charity to the poor of the city; and her deputy the severe prioress, who wants the convent to be “enclosed”, meaning shut off from the world and becoming a place of prayer and contemplation only. Oh yes, and there are also the matters of powerful men in the city who have little interest in religion, but much interest in compromising documents that may be hidden in the convent; and the woman hiding in the convent to avoid an arranged marriage; and the prioress’s mentally-unbalanced younger sister.

This is the major thread of plot in The Darkest Sin, but D.V.Bishop once again introduces a second plot. A junior constable of the court, Carlo Strocchi, is trying to track down the man who stabbed to death a known extortionist at dead of night, and then threw him off the Ponte Vecchio into the Arno. Inevitably, Cesare Aldo gets involved in this mystery too. For the record, Carlo Strocchi is a very likeable young man, and I hope he appears in future Cesare Aldo books.

So far, dear reader, my synopsis has taken you much less than halfway through The Darkest Sin, and obviously I will finish synopsising here. Blowed if I’ll be the killjoy who spoils a good detective story by giving away too much. There are many twists to the tale, including sudden revelations about who is related to whom and who is being blackmailed by whom and they are there for you to find.

David Bishop once again shows great skill in reproducing the realities of the Renaissance city in both its power but even more in its sordor, with a supporting cast of bullying police officers, a domineering and largely corrupt bishop, habitues of a bordello and a dirty low-life winery. He is very precise in delineating the norms of a 16th century convent and – very creditably – he does not resort to caricature. Something sinful or sensational has happened in the convent, but [most of] the nuns are presented as credible people, with many level-headed and thoughtful women among them. And the nuances of Cesare Aldo’s homosexuality are presented with fitting care. On the whole, I found the more complex tale that is The Darkest Sin even more engaging than City of Vengeance.