Monday, September 23, 2013

Reading On The Road

Meaning, what one might read on the road, not the famous Kerouac opus from back in the day. Which, btw, I have never managed to read. Which admission says more about me than about Kerouac, I think.

We are in Paris now - having spent our first week in Marseilles and Avignon - in a small 6th floor apartment at 115 Rue Monge, in the Latin Quarter. We are not far from Rue Mouffetard, where Hemingway used to hang his hat; way back in the day. The apartment is accessed by one of those narrow spiral staircases that seem to exist nowhere else but in Paris; or by a tiny elevator, barely large enough for two small people - which is what we are.

Down below us, at street level, is a Moroccan restaurant, Founti Agadir, where last night, our first in Paris, we overdosed on lamb, couscous, and Moroccan red wine. And then spent an understandably restless evening. While we believe in moderation in all things, including (as Oscar Wilde once said) moderation itself, that notion kind of got away from us last night. It was too much of a very good thing.

I had hoped that the trip to exotic locales would inspire me to write, but that hasn't happened. Except for a cluster of short emails to friends and family, letting them know where we are, and that we are well. For the first few days I also did not read very much. I brought two books with me. One is a history of postwar Germany, which is laden with useful facts that I am trying to work into the fourth Stride novel. It has so far been unopened.

The second book in my carry-on is a collection of short stories by one of my favourite writers, William Trevor. I am partial to short stories. My other favourite short-story writer is the late John Updike, and there was a time, not so long ago, when I would have said he was my favourite. But tastes in reading are prone to shift, if not actually change. Lately, William Trevor has moved to the top of a short list. The collection of stories I brought with me - After Rain - dates from 1996. There are twelve stories altogether, all of them brilliant. Trevor has the ability, rare enough, to encompass complete lives in amazing detail and with a great economy of words.

Trevor is 85 now, and has enjoyed great success as a writer. He has won the Whitbread Prize three times, and was nominated five times for the Booker Prize. He has been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. Although he is, as he says, "Irish in every vein", he was knighted in 2002 by Queen Elizabeth for "services to literature".

Although not a "crime writer" or "mystery writer", two of the stories in the collection noted above would easily qualify as superior crime fiction, a judgement based mostly on Trevor's insights into the characters he portrays.

A Bit of Business is the story of two young hoodlums, Mangan and Gallagher. Gallagher, the lesser of the two - "a pock-marked, sallow youth" - is known as "Lout" - "the sobriquet an expression of scorn on the part of a Christian Brother ten or so years earlier". The setting is an unnamed city in Ireland. The two engage in a series of break-ins, coinciding with the Pope's visit to the city. They know that many of the homes will be empty, the mostly Catholic families taking the opportunity to see the Pope in person. In the last home they invade, they are surprised to find an elderly man, a Protestant friend of the Catholic family, is housesitting. They overpower the old man, tie him to a chair, gag him and blindfold him.

In the aftermath of the robbery, each of the youths wishes he'd had the nerve to kill the old man, to make certain that he would never be able to identify them. Mangan revisits the moment that he wrapped a necktie around the old man's neck and pulled it tight, and knows that he only had to hold it like that for a minute longer and the old man would be dead. But he couldn't do it. Gallagher, who discovered the old man in the family room watching the Pope on TV, regrets that he didn't smash his head in. Both are humbled and angered  by what they consider to be a personal failure.

The day was over; there was nowhere left to hide from the error that had been made ... Privately, each calculated how long it would be before the danger they'd left behind in the house caught up with them ... The two youths walked the way they'd come that morning, both of them wondering if the nerve to kill was something you acquired.

Gilbert's Mother is the chilling story of a divorced woman, Rosalie, who lives with her only child, her son, a young man now twenty-five, named Gilbert. Gilbert has been "different" almost from birth:

When Gilbert was two there had been an intensity in his gaze that Rosalie considered strange. Staring at the leg of a chair or at his own foot, he managed not to blink for minutes on end. He made no sound, and it was this she found unnerving.

Gilbert's life is troubled and complicated from the age of nine, when he first underwent psychiatric evaluation. He has problems at school. He runs away from home, and more than once. His bizarre behaviour, and his mother's inability to acknowledge it, or deal with it, brings her marriage to an end. After her husband leaves, she arranges her life to accommodate Gilbert and his strange behaviours.

The story opens with the murder of a young woman on her way home from an evening spent watching television with a girlfriend. Rosalie knows in her heart that Gilbert killed the young woman. She does not doubt it at all. The night after the murder, she knows that she should call the police, but her maternal instinct, her bizarre devotion to her monstrous son, prevents her doing that:

She might dial 999 now. Or she might go tomorrow to a police station, apologizing even before she began, hoping for reassurance. But even as these thoughts occurred she knew they were pretence. Before his birth she had possessed him. She had felt the tug of his lips on her breast, a helpless creature then, growing into the one who controlled her now, who made her isolation total. Her fear made him a person, enriching him with power ... She did not want to sleep because sleeping meant waking up and there would be the moment when reality began to haunt again. Her role was only to accept: he had a screw loose, she had willed him to be born. No one would ever understand the mystery of his existence, or the unshed tears they shared.

Two brilliant crime stories by a master of prose who would likely never claim to be a crime-writer. But who can match the very best of those writers who do make that claim.

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