Goodreaders on The Summerhouse Trilogy; More Noir

Lat week when I wanted to check certain details about The Summerhouse Trilogy but didn't have access to the book, I looked around on the web a bit for reviews or summaries which might help. I didn't find any, but I ended up looking through all the reader comments at Goodreads. Most were positive, and at least one reader says that she reads the book every year. But the negatives...well, they say much more about the reviewer than the reviewed.

Some seem not to have paid very close attention, as the full story is not "retold" in the three sections, but rather revealed gradually and cumulatively. Unless my memory is wrong, which it could be, or I missed something, the most startling bit is not revealed until the third section. But these folks didn't get it. Or maybe they're just that jaded:

I could have done without the third re-telling of the story.

I had hoped this final chapter would shed some light on things, but it really didn't. I wish I had given up after the first chapter spent time with a book I enjoyed.

And these two people, especially the second, seem to be the sort for whom anything not of the present day and culture is for precisely that reason dull and irrelevant:

Depressing first section in a supposedly funny British satire on trite callous middle class values.

Gah. This book did not age well at all. It was awful and prehistoric.

I don't see exactly how "callous" comes into it. I do have some sympathy for those who found the book dull, as much of it is subtle and without visible drama. Several readers complained about Margaret, the miserable girl of the first section--"a dishrag," one said. That's not unjustified, but it's an aspect of Margaret's problem. Still, these three apparently would have preferred a romance or thriller: 

A perfectly adequate, well written, thoroughly dull book. Not even hashish, sex and suicide could save this book from the monotony of the characters.

I am still reading this book, which is a book club nomination. It is awful! The characters are extremely unlikeable (except for Aunt Lily, and that is only because she is intoxicated most of the time and wears garish clothes). Even the dog has no name. It is the most uninspiring, slow moving, non-interesting book I have read.

Blecchhhh! I can't believe I finished reading this book, or that anyone would think it was interesting enough to make a movie out of! I hated it to the very last page.

At least that last one did push through every hated page.

This one I rather liked, and would suggest to the reader that she keep thinking about the book:

The author is an English Catholic whose work I’ve seen compared to that of Flannery O'Connor. She does not provide a nice, tidy, Christian ending or even tidy Christian answers. If I had read this book in my youth, I think I might even have interpreted it as anti-Christian.

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Detour is an excellent example of the noir genre, apparently considered one of the classics. It has a pretty simple plot, which makes it different from many of its type. A famous story has it that William Faulkner and another writer working on the script for The Big Sleep were puzzled by a plot point and asked Raymond Chandler for clarification--and he didn't know, either. 

A young man and a young woman are working together as a night club act in New York. They plan to be married, but the young woman leaves for Hollywood, hoping to become a star, and the young man stays behind. (It isn't entirely clear to me why he didn't go with her, but never mind.) Later he decides to follow her after all, and begins hitchhiking across the country. He gets as far as Arizona when he gets a ride from a man in a big expensive car. Thus begins the detour. 

Detour

It's a low budget movie, starring people I hadn't heard of before (Tom Neal and Ann Savage), and it's not much more than an hour long, but it really works. 

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I'm often struck in these older films by little things indicative of the degree to which many things have changed since the films were made. Many big things are striking, too, of course, but I mean the almost trivial ones. When was the last time you heard someone say "Give me change for a dime"? Or one which I think I may have heard as a child or a teenager, but which has disappeared for very good reason: "That's white of you." I mean that it's disappeared as a compliment. You may still hear it today, but if you do it will be  as an insult. 

Before the young man leaves for California, he calls his girlfriend. Remember long-distance calls? His brief New York-Los Angeles call costs him five dollars. That's eighty-two dollars in today's money, according to this site, which says that the dollar has lost 94% of its value since 1945. That sounds like a catastrophe, doesn't it? 

Another phrase you don't hear anymore: "sound as a dollar."


Alice Thomas Ellis: The Summerhouse Trilogy; A Couple of Noirs

I'm going to be more brief than this book deserves, because it's been several months since I read it and I want to refresh my memory about certain things, but I've just moved to a new house and almost all my books are still in boxes awaiting the resolution of questions about bookshelves. And I have no idea which box this book is in.

I think it was Charlotte Bronte who said of her sister Emily's creation, Heathcliff, that she was not sure that the creation of such a being was morally justified. I had a somewhat similar thought about Lili, the central character in this book. When I say that she is central I don't mean that she is what we usually call "the protagonist," that it is her fate which mostly concerns and engages the reader. But she is central in that she is the agent whose powers of action cause so much else to happen, or, more importantly in this case, not to happen: this is the story of a wedding that does not take place. And she is in a sense more than the others: not only her human self, but the expression, at least, of a powerful, mysterious, and fundamentally unholy force. If "strong female character" is one of your criteria for value in fiction, you'll certainly get your money's worth from this novel. 

In fact it is effectively an all-female cast of characters, though not all are strong. There are men present, but they're more or less stupid, unfortunate necessities. The book is not so much a trilogy as a trio of novellas (or three very long chapters) telling one basic story from the point of view of three different women. The three narrators are all very much a part of each other's lives, and the contrast between what each sees and assumes about the others, and the others' inner life, is striking--as striking as it probably would be in life. It's a technical tour de force, the points of contact among the narratives polished and precisely fitted. I recall one brief incident in particular, involving a dog's attention to a woman's foot, which is very different and rather more significant when seen for the second time and from a different point of view. 

The first section, The Clothes in the Wardrobe, takes us into the mind of Margaret, a young woman who is about to be married. The marriage would be against her will except that she doesn't seem to have much of a will. She has suffered a romantic and religious trauma which has sent her into despair, including the specifically theological sense of that word, resigned and indifferent to the pressures exerted by her mother and the suitor, a boorish older man, Syl. Significantly, Margaret's narration begins with a description of Lili. 

The second book, The Skeleton in the Closet, is the viewpoint of Syl's mother, Mrs. Munro, a somewhat embittered older woman who doesn't think a great deal more of Syl than does Margaret. Alice Thomas Ellis is not the only novelist to give us strikingly different views of a character from outside and inside, but the movement from the first section to this one is a particularly effective turn. Margaret has had much to say about her future mother-in-law, most of it negative and also inaccurate, and we are a little surprised--well, at least I was--to find her so different, and so much more sympathetic. She thinks Margaret is making a mistake. But she is as weary of and resigned toward the troubles of others as she is of her own.

The Fly in the Ointment gives us Lili as she really is and not as we have been seeing her through the eyes of Margaret and Mrs. Munro. She is among other things the sort of person who is often described, with a touch of envy, as a free spirit, or, with a touch of dread, as a force of nature. She is also more or less amoral in many ways. But it is she who not only sees the disaster into which Margaret is sleepwalking but acts to prevent it. I think I can promise you that you won't forget what she does.

When I finished this book I made this comment in an email to a couple of friends:

My reaction is a kind of astonishment, not 100% positive. I read the last paragraph, closed the book, and said "Golly, what a book." Not "golly" but "gah-LEE," the "golly" of someone coming out of a storm shelter after a tornado and taking a look around. 

This was a reaction not only to the closing incident but to the whole thing, superbly executed by an intelligence that sometimes seems a little malicious. The atmosphere is so full of feminine resentment, suspicion, and struggle that I found myself wondering if this sort of thing is what goes on in the minds of most women most of the time. There is an almost cold, almost merciless quality about Ellis's intelligence and wit (there is a fair amount of humor here). I keep the word "almost" because there is more than cold clinical skill at work. The quality which makes me think "merciless" is an unflinching willingness to see these people as they truly are, to let them, so to speak, get away with nothing. And in the end there is mercy, though it comes in such a manner as to lead one to the old question about good coming from evil. This is a religiously grounded work, but, like Flannery O'Connor's and in some ways even more so, hardly comforting. At least two reviews that I came across used the words "witch" and "witchy" of the author, and I can see why. 

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For various reasons, none especially good but some better than others, I've gotten almost entirely out of the habit of watching serious movies. My Criterion Channel subscription has gone mostly unused for months, and I've wondered whether I should keep it. But they're calling this month "Noir November" and are running a number of noir titles which piqued my interest. 

The 1942 adaption of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key is a good one, starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. I admit that I have a thing for Veronica Lake. After watching it I would have immediately picked up the novel, because I want to know whether the somewhat happy ending is Hammett's or not; I suspect not. But that book is also packed away.

The plot is complex, as one expects of Hammett, and the film is more genuinely dark than some of its kindred, especially in the sequence where the hero, Ed Beaumont, is held captive and beaten repeatedly by thugs. It's rare in these movies to see a depiction of the effects of violence that's remotely plausible. Beaumont is beaten almost to death, and we believe it. Far from bouncing back with a band-aid or two on his face, he spends a significant amount of time in the hospital. I have a vague childhood memory of William Bendix as a likeable cloddish sort of guy in a TV series called The Life of Riley, so it was a bit of a surprise to see him as a malicious brute. 

I also watched Call Northside 777 and This Gun for Hire. The former is not really noir, but it features Jimmy Stewart as a reporter trying to exonerate a man convicted of a murder he didn't commit. The latter stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake again, so is automatically appealing to me. It's based on a Graham Greene novel, modified for an American audience in the midst of World War II, and maybe a notch below The Glass Key as a film--less plausible on the whole, for one thing--but still very worthwhile for those who like this sort of thing. And anyway, Veronica Lake. 

VeronicaLakeImage swiped from this site which sells prints. I'm not usually drawn to the Hollywood Blonde types, but there is something about her that charms me. 


Vatican II; Sherwood; Trump the Jerk

Continuing the discussion of the success or failure of Vatican II, from this post: Ross Douthat (as quoted by Rod Dreher, because I can't view Douthat's entire New York Times column) asserts that the council was and is a failure on its own terms. The measures intended to invite and draw "modern man" to the Church have been accompanied not by growth but by decline, as measured by membership and activity, at least in Euro-American civilization. That's a plain fact. Whether the decline would have been greater or lesser without the council can only be speculative. I'm sure that question has been studied and answers attempted, but it's the sort of thing where sociologists can probably make either case, depending on what questions they ask and how, and on their own predilections. (Is sociology a science? Not really. Statistical methods are no doubt mathematically sound, but they don't choose or interpret their own data.)

In that post I linked to this one by Larry Chapp which goes ferociously after the follies that came and have continued, following and often in the name of the council. Let's call that Chapp 1, because there is also Chapp 2, which says that the council was "a success, in spite of the many deviations from orthodoxy and sanity that followed in its wake."

Success or failure, then? It's largely a matter of the time frame in which one makes the judgment. Douthat is looking at the time from the end of the council till now, and in that frame it is certainly true that the council has not succeeded in making the Church any more of a factor in modern life than it had previously been. One could argue about whether it is less so--I think it is--but it is clearly not more so. "Modern man" in the mass has only drifted, or in many cases run, away from Christianity at large and the Catholic Church in particular. In fact it is not at all fantastic to foresee, a century or two from now, the reduction of the Church to a few tiny bands of holdouts, as in Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World, at least within that part of the world which was once known as Christendom.

The argument of Chapp 2 is really twofold. The first part, that the council has been a great success, is really not based on a measurement of success in the terms Douthat examines (in fact Chapp agrees with Douthat's assessment in that respect) but on the assertion that many or most of the council's changes (the actual changes, not those speciously done in its name) were for the better--the vernacular liturgy, for instance--and are now taken for granted. Some of those, the liturgy in particular, are, as we all know, still very much debated, but I agree with Chapp that they were good. It's only an accident of history that I appear to be a "conservative" Catholic; I've always said that if I had been an adult Catholic at the time of the council I would almost certainly have sympathized, at least, with its aims and the documents produced by it.

The second part of Chapp 2's argument is that the council will in time be truly successful, contributing powerfully to the long-term health of the Church and the effectiveness of its mission. Chapp 2 accepts that these things can take quite a long time--centuries--to work themselves out. I certainly hope so and am willing to believe it, but none of us will be here to see it. (I personally, as I lamented in that other post, cannot look forward to anything but continued intramural strife.) Chapp presents a picture of a renewal which he believes the council intended, and which he believes may yet come, and I very much share that view and that hope.

As for the present, though, Chapp 1 presents a grim and discouraging picture, not nearly as positive as Chapp 2. For me the grimmest single item in that piece is the mention of the progressive party, encouraged by Pope Francis, as viewing the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as an "interruption" of the council's work. This view represents nothing less than the abandonment of authentic renewal and the re-energizing of the destructive forces which would turn the Church into something like liberal Protestantism, a voice of solicitous approval for whatever is demanded by and for the therapeutic mentality.

Philip Rieff saw this very clearly at the time the council was actually in progress:

What, then, should churchmen do? The answer returns clearly: become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution--under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic.

Some of the psychobabble I've seen attributed to the "synod on synodality" supports--no, expresses--that view.

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The emergence of the very well produced cinematic work for which the term "television series" is inadequate is, like craft beer, one of the compensations for living in a culture which seems to be falling apart, both in an organizational sense and in the sense of mental breakdown. I've just finished watching a new one from the Brits, Sherwood. It falls into the pretty conventional category of "crime drama," but a very very good one. It's set in a place referred to bitterly as a "former mining town" in Nottinghamshire; both Sherwood Forest and an archer are involved. 

The story takes place in the present day but has deep roots in the mining strikes of the 1980s. I don't know very much at all about those, but I know the British left hated and still hates Margaret Thatcher as much as the American left hated Ronald Reagan, so I don't necessarily take the show's view of those conflicts as the last word. But I don't doubt that they were as bitter as portrayed. 

It's a very complex story, very well done, on a level with Broadchurch, among the best in this genre. Maybe no single character is quite as memorable or as memorably performed as those portrayed by David Tennant and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch, but anyone who watches a lot of British TV will recognize many faces, if not the names that go with them. It's available on Britbox via Amazon. 

*

Donald Trump is a jerk. That's been pretty obvious all along. His presidency had some very good results (and some very bad ones), but his basic and base nature didn't improve. He did not, as some hoped, rise to the office. What his supporters liked to dismiss as "mean tweets" were often expressions of a really deep ugliness. He's now vilifying Ron DeSantis, a popular conservative  who actually cares about and is skilled at governing, because, as Rich Lowry says, DeSantis is in his way:

Trump will have no compunction about crushing the future of the party to maintain his grip for another two years and possibly beyond.  

It's grimly appropriate, I guess, that a nation in such decline as ours, committed to narcissism as a way of life, would have two presidents in succession who are men of such plainly bad character, each in his own very special way.