Sunday, November 28, 2021

"Short of locking up her sons": VIOLET TREFUSIS, Pirates at Play (1950)

Elizabeth suddenly stepped out of the train, unorthodox, hatless, her golden hair like a nimbus about her head. Vica and Guido gave an involuntary gasp as the light fell full on her face, but whereas theirs was sheer gratification, Mamma's gasp, on the other hand, was one of sheer dismay. Short of locking up her sons ...

Lady Canterdown (family name Caracole, pronounced "crackle") has determined to send her lovely daughter Elizabeth to Florence to expand her horizons, despite the valid concerns of Lord Canterdown:

'Well, look what happens to Liza in Taunton, let alone Florence! The other day I left her sitting in the car when I went into the Bank. What did I find when I came out? Two strange young men under the car, which had nothing whatever the matter with it, and a third lighting her cigarette. She's a public nuisance, is our Liz.' He chuckled proudly as he stuffed his pipe.

Lady Canterdown's old friend, the Princess Arrivamale, has recommended the home of the Count and Countess Papagalli (such dignified designation being given him because he has the distinction of being the Pope's dentist). The Count and Countess have one daughter, the dark, gorgeous Vica (surely it's pure coincidence that her name is only one letter off from "Vita" and her description fits Vita Sackville-West to a T), and five brothers, each more lovely than the next except for poor Amerigo, who because he's shorter than his beautiful brothers gets labeled a "dwarf" and compensates by playing the clown (Amerigo's treatment by his family is jarring, but Elizabeth is charmed by him and other characters point out the success that petite men of the past have had with women, so all is not lost for him). 

Elizabeth sets off and immediately conquers Florence, and when news arrives back home that she has, predictably, become engaged to an Italian, her handsome brother Charles follows, and himself gets entangled. Thus, in typical Violet Trefusis fashion, what we have is the coming together, in daft but glamorous fashion, of two luxuriantly beautiful families.

Pirates at Play has some of the usual flaws of Trefusis' rough-and-ready novelistic style. She challenged herself here with a few more characters than she could effectively manage, so some flipping back and forth was necessary for me to remember who was who. She sometimes describes in amusing detail characters who then barely appear in the rest of the novel—see for example the long but entertaining digressions on the Caracoles' "Madamzell" and Valka, the Princess's companion, despite the fact that they really don't figure in the plot, and a similar dramatic (and hilarious) impression made by the servant Bandini, whose dislike of Valka goes beyond the pale:

Bandini gave her a look which could have caused any less leathery heart to quail. He loathed Valka with a sinister subterranean loathing, as unventilated as the catacombs, but none the less deadly. He was a Neapolitan, and many were the secret devices he employed to bring Valka to a really sticky end. He had examined all of them, but had a sustained penchant for leprosy. He had in his possession a rag, which, he had been assured, had formed part of a leper's clothing and which was powerless to convey the disease to anyone but the appointed victim. Many's the time it had been pressed into Valka's hand, when she had asked for something 'to clean her odds and ends with.' He could wish the effects were a little more expeditious, ma pazienza! That innocent-looking blister on her fourth finger, for instance? He couldn't take his eyes off it.

And then he more or less vanishes from the remainder of the novel.

There are some predictable references here, as mentioned in my review of her earlier novel Tandem, of "dagos", but since Trefusis' sympathies clearly lie with her eccentric Italians, I wasn't terribly bothered by that. There's sadly a use of the "n" word too. And there is a distressing reference to the Princess's husband's apparently nearly pedophilic preference for very young girls. It's impossible to tell just how young we're talking about, as the Princess is an older woman so by "mere children" she could well mean 20-year-olds, but at any rate the Prince's predatory behavior is unlikely to provoke the giggles today it must have been intended to provoke in 1950.

But Violet makes up for these weaknesses with her usual flair for description and for characterization, and her delightful sense of humor, particularly where it comes to sex and romance. Elizabeth's Italian fiancé, for example, speculating about what she will expect of him in terms of fidelity:

Even now, he didn't know quite how he stood with her, how much she was a victim of her youth, Italy, the spring? He had kissed her more than once; skilfully, not too passionately. She had appeared to like it, but that was nothing to go by, he had kissed dozens of English girls. they had all liked it, and had seemed to attach little or no importance to the gesture. Where did they consider love-making began and flirtation ceased? How much passion was compatible with matrimony? How long would Elizabeth expect him to remain faithful to her?

And there's the tale of the Caracoles' Aunt Sybil, which highlights the hypocrisy of the family's traditional morality:

'Well, she's had as many lovers as anyone in Italy, I should think, though she did wait until she was thirty, before she started: she said she was willing to give respectability a chance. But none of the chaps she fancied proposed, so, on her thirtieth birthday, she gave a party, in the course of which she announced that she was about to take a lover, so that the members of her family who proposed to cut her should know exactly where they stood. Since then, she has never looked back. Apparently the chaps who did not fancy her as a wife were mad keen to have her as a mistress. The family was shocked at first, then, they shut their eyes, Aunt Syb gave such amusing dinners, to which people literally fought to be invited. Besides, her lovers were always jolly distinguished - one was a Prime Minister - in the end the family decided it was an honour to be related to Aunt Sybil.'

This novel and Hunt the Slipper (1937) were the Trefusis novels chosen for reprinting by Virago in the 1980s and 1990s, though by my count Violet's earlier Echo and Tandem are just as good (and the latter possibly better). Despite its idiosyncrasies though, Pirates at Play was a delightful frolic for me. If you're willing to just go with its flow, not worry too much about some occasional confusion, and bask in the glow of Violet's eccentric characters and turns of phrase, you'll likely find yourself savoring a sparkling, vivid Florence that you've certainly never visited yourself, however much time you may have spent in the earthly city of the same name.

I still have three more of Violet's novels in English to be getting on with, so I'll be boring you more about her soon enough...

Friday, November 19, 2021

"It is very awkward to feel you have driven someone to her death": IVY COMPTON-BURNETT, Daughters and Sons (1937)

"I think it is such a good idea to give a dinner, when you have been supposed to be dead," said Miss Marcon to her brother, as they walked up the Ponsonbys' drive. "It takes away the general sense of guilt. It is very awkward to feel you have driven someone to her death, and going to dinner with her is especially different."

Oh my oh my. I know that Ivy Compton-Burnett is not everyone's cup of tea, but if I were going to urge a reluctant ICB reader to sample just one of her novels, here is the one I would choose. I picked it up (along with another ICB, A God and His Gifts, which I'm looking forward to soon) for the ridiculous price of $2.50 at Second Story Books in Rockville, Maryland (near DC) on our recent trip (there were a couple of other ICBs I already had, if anyone else wants to make the pilgrimage to Rockville), and spent every possible second of our resting time in the hotel with it firmly grasped in my hot little hands.

The Allison & Busby edition I read describes this as "one of the lightest and most comic of her novels", which I believe is indeed true, but of course one must factor in that this is Dame Ivy we're talking about, so it's still marvelously dark and cynical, with deliriously tyrannical adults and gloriously subversive young 'uns. The Ponsonbys are a classic ICB family, ruled over by 85-year-old Sabine, who could give the Wicked Witch of the West a run for her money:

Sabine never spoke against her daughter-in-law, though she was incapable of seeing her the fitting mate for her son, and had no scruple in speaking evil of the dead or evil of a mother to her children, indeed seldom spoke anything but evil of any human being.

Sabine is ably assisted by the widowed John, her egomaniacal novelist son (whose career and financial situation are in considerable decline) and Hetta, her daughter who just might outdo her mother for sheer self-absorbed malevolence. And there's John's poor children, some now in their twenties but still treated like infants.

ICB fans will be more or less acquainted with the kinds of conversations and events that fill the novel, but there are a couple of particularly striking things that I loved here. Foremost is the fact that Dame Ivy gives us not one but two women writers as characters--one John's daughter France, who must hide that she's written a successful novel to protect his fragile ego, and one a family friend, Charity Marcon, a biographer whose description of her writing process is rather unforgettable:

"I have been up to London to get the book I am writing, out of the British Museum. I have got a lot of it out, and I shall go again presently to get some more; and when I have got it all, there will be another book." She slung a strap of notebooks off her arm, and advanced to the fire with the smooth, unswaying motion of a figure drawn on wheels. "So many people were there, getting out their books. It doesn't seem to matter everything's being in books already: I don't mind it at all. There are attendants there on purpose to bring it to you. That is how books are made, and it is difficult to think of any other way."

Is this perhaps ICB's version of the famous quote to the effect that scholars are just a library's means of reproduction? 

We also get to meet no fewer than three more or less unfortunate governesses here--one perhaps more unfortunate than the others in winding up married to her employer. Although they don't all feature with equal prominence, the point gets made about the positions of these poor women. Jane Eyre never faced anything quite like the Ponsonbys.

One of the most fascinating things about ICB (and yes, I do really need to read the bio of her to find out more about this) is how she was so driven to spend her entire career writing and re-writing these wonderful subversions of Victorian familial tyranny. It would be very hard indeed to sympathize with most of her tyrants, as many writers would be tempted to make us do--they really are deserving of all they get, while the young characters are allowed to be charming and likable even in their oppression. And yet, it does make me wonder if a part of the message (intended or not) of Dame Ivy's novels is that we might wonder if Sabine and John and Hetta weren't similarly subversive and hopeful before being beaten down by their own tyrants. Must read more about her soon, to get a better sense of the tyrants in her own life (who clearly seemed to have failed in beating her down)!

Friday, November 12, 2021

"My postwar face": MONICA STIRLING, Ladies with a Unicorn (1953)

"And then I was in love with Franchot Tone. I wrote to him and he sent me a signed photograph. Of course, I must say I'd enclosed a stamp. I can't tell you what looking at that photograph did for me. Then later on there was a boy at our A.R.P. post who was awfully witty if one hadn't read Oscar Wilde. But the first time he kissed me was a shocking disillusion. Not at all what Franchot Tone had led me to expect.''
Peggy obviously shot out this nonsense rather as a pursued octopus shoots out protective fluid.

Yes, I'm continuing my Monica Stirling odyssey, this time with one of her most successful and well-received novels, set amidst the glamour of the 1950s movie industry in Rome. Here we meet four women, three "of a certain age", all bearing in one way or the other the scars of World War II, and one a lovely young starlet of 18, soon to star in the latest film by Count Anton-Giulio Sarmento, who, though he barely appears on stage in the novel, is undoubtedly its main character (and the unicorn of the title).

Monica Stirling (author pic found
by Kim Kaso, thank you Kim!)

The novel is narrated by Françoise Joubert, an award-winning composer of music for Anton-Giulio's films. Widow of a Resistance fighter, and once a bright young thing herself, Françoise is now constantly aware of her stiff, unemotional face—her "mask"—the result of multiple plastic surgeries following horrific injuries in an air raid. Her telling of the story of a few months in Rome is wry and wise, though perhaps neither so wry or wise about the feelings she hides from herself.

The novel opens with Françoise contacted out of the blue by Peggy Latour, a beautiful former schoolmate who was never really a friend, but who wants to use their connection to get close to Anton-Giulio:

But as the steaming day slowly came to the boil I was gradually overcome by the masochism that obliges me to confront prewar acquaintances with my postwar face.

Peggy is entertaining but shallow, unsatisfied in her marriage to a wealthy Frenchman whose real life has turned out to be far tamer than their wartime experiences together. He spoils her, however, and allows her free use of his money, and she has decided that by financing Anton-Giulio's next film her life will become rather more eventful. She has also come under the influence of Princess Valeria Girafalcone, a cousin of the film director and a flamboyant "grande-dame" who believes that all women should be practically obligated to have lovers and lead decadent lifestyles.

Françoise in turn soon meets and befriends the lovely, naive Anna-Maria Minsell, the unknown daughter of a Soho organ grinder who will star in Count Anton-Giulio's latest film. The four women interact in various ways, with varying degrees of friendship, jealousy, resentment, and protectiveness, and most often on the topic of Anton-Giulio himself, toward whom each feels possessive and romantic, until finally, in the end, we find which way the wind is blowing from that quarter.

And that's that really. In some ways, it's the fluffiest, frothiest of novels, revealed almost entirely in dialogue—rather like Ivy Compton-Burnett adapted by Vincente Minelli. When I first read it, I thought the novel was irresistibly charming and entertaining but ultimately just a bit of romantic fluff. But when I started going back over it, reviewing the passages I'd marked and the notes I'd made, I realized yet again that Stirling is more subtle than I'd given her credit for. War and Peace this most definitely is not, but as in The Boy in Blue, which I reviewed a while back, it offers some surprisingly powerful juxtapositions between the glamour and frivolity of the characters' present and the traumas of the past. Françoise's frozen, emotionless face may be the central symbol, but there is also, quite strikingly, the scene in which Anton Giulio takes Anna-Maria for a drive along the Appian Way, telling her about the film industry's exciting history and its scandals:

And then they reached the Ardeatine Caves and Anton Giulio forgot the cinema.

This was the place where only a few years ago, well within Anna-Maria's present stretch of memory, the Nazis brought three hundred and twenty-two Roman hostages, kidnapped at random, to be packed into the caves and shot and left, the whole and the maimed mixed in a bleeding shambles, to gasp and die in blackness behind the hastily sealed entrances.

Whew! A real event, by the way, not fiction.

And even in the first conversation between Peggy and Françoise, we get some vivid details of wartime France (perhaps from Monica Stirling's own recollections), a war that ended less than a decade before:

"Was it ghastly?"

I remembered the sunlit summer of 1940, the crowds rushing from Paris, as from a fire, to join the snake-like lines of mattress-topped cars that drove slow, slower and slowest of all just before their closely packed passengers scattered into ditches where the dive bombers still found them. I remembered Nice with its sea and sky and palm trees still as bright as new travel posters and its sidewalks crowded with the most typical of twentieth-century tourists: displaced persons. I remembered the sensation of living in a dull fear-encircled vacuum and the incredulous joy with which I greeted my husband when he arrived hollow-eyed from his narrow escape and long hitch-hike across two countries. I remembered Lyons in the unheated winters, the wind scything between the cliff-like gray houses and inserting itself into the city's labyrinth of passageways. I remembered the turnip meals, the recurrent colds and chilblains, the disinclination to wash in icy water, the sordid temporary lodgings and false identity cards, the drearily uncomfortable atmosphere, and the exhilarating meetings with friends who had also escaped arrest. And then I remembered my husband's arrest and the nightmare that followed.

"Yes," I said, repudiating stiff upper lips, "yes, it was ghastly."

Admittedly, for some the style, relying so much on conversations between the women and on recollections of the past, might feel too uneventful, but ultimately I found it a rather poignant, delicate concoction, like a hothouse flower in perfect but slightly ominous bloom, and I have to say it is now my favorite of Stirling's novels.

French edition

I now have only two Stirling novels left—
Some Darling Folly, reputed to be, like Ladies and Boy in Blue, among her best, and Sigh for a Strange Land, about refugees from unrest in Eastern Europe (presumably the Communists cracking down there in the 1950s, though the precise location doesn't seem to be revealed). There's also one more story collection, Adventurers Please Abstain, which if it lives up to her other collection will be special indeed. I have qualms about finishing with her work, as she has been such a special discovery for me, but how can I resist?

Saturday, November 6, 2021

"She lost her petals one by one": VIOLET TREFUSIS, Tandem (1933)

The charming family was dressed in every hue under the sun, but they were so small they could not look vulgar, any more than birds of the Isles look vulgar. At a distance they all looked the same, but some were prettier than others. The mother was ravishing, for instance, with eyes that took your breath away; so large and exotic were they. You thought: Oh! Poor things! How will they ever get through the winter? And the pathos of the entire family struck you. It was like watching a migration across an autumn sky.

Having happened across Echo, the second novel by Violet Trefusis, a few weeks back (review here), I seem to have been fated to explore her work further. A recent thrift store trawl resulted in my acquisition of the bio of her by John Phillips and Philippe Jullian, as well as a volume of her letters to Vita Sackville-West. A long-intended ILL finally resulted in me getting hold of this, her third and perhaps rarest novel (perhaps best too, but let me ramble a bit before I get to that). And getting swept along by kismet, I then picked up from the library Diana Souhami's dual bio of Trefusis and her mother, Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter, which, being by Souhami, will undoubtedly be superb.

Tandem was the first of Violet's novels in English--living in France for much of her life, she wrote four of her eight novels in her adopted language. It focuses on two sisters in a family of Greek origin but living in France, and according to Trefusis' ODNB entry by Clare L. Taylor, the sisters may have been inspired by Violet's friends, Anna de Noailles and Princesse Marthe Bibesco, also novelists (Taylor refers to them as sisters, but they seem in fact to have been cousins, if Wikipedia can be believed).

The novel opens in 1892 with Pénélope and Iréne, as young girls, discovering, with their widowed mother Madame Demetriades, the Villa Ivanhoe in rural France (observed in their arrival, in the passage above, by the villa's gardener), into which they soon move. We see a bit of their childhood--Pénélope clever and charismatic, Iréne less brilliant and self-assured but possessing her own charms--and we meet their older sister Marguerite, who "looms like a monolith" next to her petite, pretty sisters and mother and who garners little attention (she's soon married off to a politician and scarcely appears again, poor thing). And there's also Tante Eugénie, really only a distant cousin, but "majestic" and "stately" as well as wise and formidable, too important in their lives not to be an aunt, and her "irresponsible, impish, brilliant, incorrigible" husband Alexis, whom the girls adore.

We soon leap forward to 1900, when Madame Demetriades is the host of an exclusive salon in Paris, which boasts among its attendees the likes of Claude Debussy and a young Marcel Proust. The Dreyfus Affair is raging, and is one of the most impassioned topics of discussion. During this social whirl, Pénélope and Iréne soon make illustrious aristocratic marriages, and in the subsequent sections of the novel, we follow each into her married life. 

Pénélope, already a bestseller with her debut novel, marries Sosthène de Mayeuvre-Chanville, second son of a duke, a dull but stabilizing influence with a challenging mother. She also develops a rather surprising attachment to his brother Chrétien d'Acre, whose reputation as a womanizer and cultural Neanderthal she unexpectedly discovers is a plot to allow him to be left in peace by his family. They live initially at Palombre, the family estate, but soon Pénélope spends most of her time in Paris, becoming a cultural icon with a considerable reputation as a lover, though the reality is rather less romantic. 

Iréne, in a rather parallel development, marries English nobleman Francis Gottingale and lives with him on his family estate, the wonderfully named Test, along with Francis' rather awful cousin Nancy and his grandfather, the temperamental octogenarian Old Nick, who only speaks to his family via his beloved cats. Iréne's familial temptation comes in the form of cousin Gervase, but she suppresses her feelings for the good of all.

In the shorter final sections, one sister will perish and the other will survive well into the mid-20th century, into an imagined future lacking World War II but including, by the 1960s, helicoptor taxis to whisk one to one's destination. Perhaps just as well that there's little of that sort of speculation...

There is little enough plot beyond the sisters' development and the compare-and-contrast of their respective lives in England and France. But oh, what a thoroughly fun, glamorous read it is! It drags just slightly in the middle when Iréne's early days at Test are told via letters and diaries, with a little to much focus on broad and rather dull generalizations about the English. But Trefusis soon hits her stride again, and I just ate it all up.

If Trefusis is not a great writer in terms of plotting and profound significance, she certainly is great in other ways--in vividly evoking a place and time, and in lush, clever descriptions and unexpected metaphors. And she certainly knew the Paris she describes so vividly, so it's worth reading Tandem just for the vicarious travels it offers the reader. Here's our first description of the city in 1900:

It was freezing. People's noses were like irrelevant red berries stuck between their pasty cheeks. Ladies vainly endeavoured to protect their complexions by holding their muffs up to their faces as they hurried along the Quais, where the wind was at its most merciless, while the tassels on the plane trees made one think of desiccated cherries. … The men in charge of the bookstalls beat themselves despondently, hopping first on one foot, then on the other; they had done practically no business for several days. One bookstall with nothing but daffodil-yellow bindings made a patch of false spring in the universal greyness. Notre-Dame loomed across the river, its flying buttresses spread with the rhythm and symmetry of perfectly timed oars. The Seine rolled swollen waters round the great cathedral; into what massive Northern myth could this not be twisted, in which goddess turned to stone and god to river? All this majesty was pecked at, mocked, interpolated from the opposite side of the Seine, where the bird-fanciers confronted the booksellers with their twittering wares. Cage upon cage was stacked in front of each doorway, beginning with homely hens and mounting skyward with such birds as starlings, Australian thrushes, cardinals, to end in a piercing treble of parakeet and Java sparrows.

And for those who love fashion or decor, here's a description of Madame Demetriades' Paris salon:

She had had recourse to one of the pioneers of the Modern Style, recently imported from England, for the decoration of her salon. It was accordingly painted a swooning green and was surmounted by a turquoise blue frieze, against which the celebrated William Morris peacocks disported themselves. From every doorpost, dado, cornice, the straight line had been triumphantly banished, the vegetable kingdom with its undulations and fluencies had been the sole inspiration of this tentacular room in which everything drooped, writhed or clung--chiefly clung. The door was framed by two gigantic lilies; one sat on cyclamens upheld by wrought-iron stalks; tables shaped like water-lilies bore cups shaped like smaller lilies; lofty lamps wearing colossal shades, said to resemble sea anemones, lit up etchings by Helleu, Seymour Haden or Whistler. The mantelpiece was in white and yellow tiles, and the irresponsible flames reflected themselves in brass bellows, poker and tongs, masquerading as iris, sunflower and dahlia.

Trefusis also has a playful sense of humor, as in Iréne's description of unflappable Brits:

They relate the most extraordinary occurrences as though they were quite natural; for example: Lady B., the mother of three daughters, the eldest of whom is just "coming out," attends lectures on Buddhism by a hypnotic Hindu, she decides to join the Hinda and be converted to Buddhism. One morning Lord B. finds on his writing-table a letter, brief but to the point: "I have gone to join Buddha. Farewell for ever." "Who the devil is Buddha?" is Lord B.'s only comment. The audience looked by no means impressed. One lady remarked: "Very hard on Angela, just as she's coming out. Who is going to take her to balls, I wonder?"

The description of the decline of the Villa Ivanhoe's original owner is also poignantly hilarious:

The years passed. Madame de Monblason cannot be said to have died. She drooped, she wilted, she lost her petals one by one; then one day her heart politely stopped beating.

This is a novel I'll return to now and again just to savor its elegant escapism. And of course, in keeping with my particularly OCD personality of late, I now have Trefusis's four other novels available in English (two of the French ones have never been translated, drat it!) lined up for reading soon. Broderie Anglaise has maintained a certain level of fame as Trefusis' version of the famous love triangle with Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Hunt the Slipper and Pirates at Play were both reprinted by Virago at one time. And finally, no idea what to expect from her final novel, From Dusk to Dawn, an aristocratic farce written when Trefusis was dying, to distract her from the pain she was experiencing. So, undoubtedly more to come!

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

"No memories are clearer ... than those one has invented": MONICA STIRLING, The Sniper in the Heart (1960)

Presently I said, "Now what do we do?" As I did so a memory stirred in me: a black-overalled school-girl, I was arguing with other black-overalled schoolgirls about love. Suppose you loved someone who killed someone what would you do? Despite the religious scruples supposed to burden us, the most common answer was help him hide the body. I hadn't imagined I would ever be given a chance to test this. Like many fairy tales, it proved true.

Here I am, continuing my Monica Stirling odyssey (see previous posts here). This is the sixth of her books I've reviewed here, the fifth novel (the seventh she published, out of eight), so forgive me if you're getting bored, but I am deep in my infatuation.

This one seems a bit of an enigma in her body of work. She was perhaps channeling Graham Greene a bit, creating a love story / semi-thriller set in an unspecified Latin American country in the throes of revolution. Vittoria is a young Italian photographer who gravitates to the world's trouble spots, snapping photos to sell to various news magazines. As a result of this, we get occasional bits of jaded dialogue along these lines: 

"I've never been here before", I whispered, "yet it seems familiar."

"Weren't you here for the last revolution?"

"No. That was the year I was in Indo-China."

She arrives in this unstable country and encounters a man from her past--Manolo, a wartime resistance fighter she idolized in her childhood, who also happens to have been the lover of her grandmother, the bold, dynamic woman who raised Vittoria after her mother's early death. She remembers--or, as it emerges, misremembers--him vividly, and they fall instantly and torridly in love (I know, I know). Manolo is involved with gunrunning, and Vittoria gets swept up as well. There is some Didion-esque commentary on U.S. and other international involvement in the revolution, and some danger, suspense, and tragedy.

Implausible as this love story might be (not to mention unsavory, with Manolo now in love with the granddaughter of his ex-lover, whom he once helped with her homework...), it does give Stirling the opportunity to explore one of her favorite themes--the ways in which we're haunted by our memories, accurate or not, à la Patrick Modiano. A central example, from which the novel's title is taken, is the firm memory Vittoria has always had of Manolo telling of his childhood, selling lottery tickets in a cemetery. But no, in fact:

"Paquito, the boy who sold lottery tickets in a cemetery, was a character in a film."

You must have heard me describing it to Isabella one evening late, when you were half asleep on that little stool of yours."

"What was it called?"

"The Sniper in the Heart."

Similarly, his bricklayer father turns out to have been someone else entirely:

I had not thought of Giuseppe for years: one of the night people, young and burly, constantly worrying about his wife, who was pregnant and longed for anchovies with peppers. Before the war Giuseppe had been a bricklayer. Dismissing a picture of Manolo's father with a trowel in his hand, I accepted the fact that no memories are clearer, more vividly coloured, than those one has invented.

One feels that the whole romantic element of the novel was constructed to allow Stirling to examine how Vittoria gets caught up in the limbo between her childhood adoration of Manolo and her actual affair with him as an adult. And if only she had come up with a less distressing history for the pair than his affair with her grandmother and helping with her homework!

Monica Stirling with photographer Lee Miller, Paris, 1945

The novel as a whole, too, is outside of what seems for me to be Stirling's most brilliant skill--sophisticated European glamour haunted by the traumas of war. It's well done, of course, as Stirling is nothing if not an elegant, intelligent writer. But it ends up not completely working either as a glamorous romance (a revolutionary capital is not Paris and the romance is a bit creepy) nor as a thriller (the details too vague, the story too short and simple to really develop tension) nor even as a character study (neither romantic lead is very compelling or fascinating, and we're lacking the vivid supporting actors who usually strengthen her novels).

What raises Sniper at least a bit above a mere unsuccessful experiment, however, is as usual Stirling's extraordinary perceptiveness and the sense that, even if she's not always perfect in telling her story, it comes from her own passionately lived experience. I can hardly speculate as to whether Stirling herself ever actually participated in gunrunning in Latin America, but based on this novel I wouldn't dare bet against it, so vividly does she portray the thoughts and anxieties involved:

Moonlight picked out the barrels of their revolvers. I felt rather as I had once done in Africa, in an aeroplane clearly about to make a crash landing on to an exiguous jungle air strip: a moment's internal panic, then a complete lull of all emotions, followed by acknowledgement, curiously dull and unsurprised, of the fact that here, here and now, was the exit towards which we are all travelling.

And one is indeed rather curious from what personal knowledge Stirling wrote the paragraph which opens this post!

I wrote last time about the somewhat excruciating love scenes in Stirling's debut novel, Lovers Aren't Company, and I have to say that I still think she's not at her best writing love scenes (at least not sincere ones--those based, perhaps, on her own experiences?), but I should also acknowledge that with the significant caveat of the lovers' past history, she has at least improved significantly here:

Neither Manolo nor I gave a thought to the song's hero, the young man strait-jacketed by a uniform, dragged from home, hungry for love even in the guise of Lili Marlene. Long ago we had thought of him; now we thought only of long ago. Attentively impervious to the music, our minds were invaded by sounds long silent, military boots clumping over cobbled streets, words like the barking of dogs, schnell, achtung, verboten; by lights long extinguished, rays from military torches reaching, like God's finger in old engravings, after fugitives tumbling across the coffee or rose-coloured tiles of rooftops where lines of washing offered ghostly company; by civilian glances long vanished, the welcome in Isabella's face as she turned to greet Manolo, her eyes still young enough to be incandescent, the gentleness in his as he stood, a hand on my shoulder, helping with my homework.

"Long ago we had thought of him; now we thought only of long ago." That's pretty darn good, you must admit.

As a now-devoted Stirling fan, I found The Sniper in the Heart occasionally poignant, good fun and fairly addictive reading, but it's by no means the highwater mark of her work, at least as far as I'm concerned. However, of the three novels I have left to review, two of them seem to be right square in the middle of her wheelhouse--sophisticated tales of postwar Europe--so expect more high points to come. I also have another story collection to go, Adventurers Please Abstain, which could be a treasure itself. Looking forward to sharing them all with you, though I am also now beginning to have the anxiety and melancholy I always feel when I approach the end of a first read of a favorite author's work. As Kate Bush would say, oh the thrill and the hurting...
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