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He recognized her despite the uproar, through his tears of unrepeatable sorrow at dying without her, and he looked at her for the last and final time with eyes more luminous, more grief-stricken, more grateful than she had ever seen them in half a century of a shared life, and he managed to say to her with his last breath:
“Only God knows how much I loved you.”
Today has been reported as the hottest day in Sydney for 85 years. I certainly felt it. When I set out this morning the air had been pleasantly cool. One quick deposit of previously reviewed book titles and the collection of this coming week’s novels and I was back outsde, stepping lightly on sizzling concrete.
Absolutely unbearable. While waiting for the bus I began reading Love in the Time of Cholera, a book I am sad to say I am mostly familiar with following its use as a prop in that Kate Beckinsale romcom Serendipity. I felt as if the heat simply dropped, so absorbed was I in the book’s fluid prose. Later when I retreated to my shady bedroom, with my wife curled up asleep beside me in bed, I felt like I was the luckiest man alive.
The story begins with the tragic suicide of a man who refused to grow any older once he had reached his sixtieth year. Though he does not figure in the rest of the story, a narrative that flashes back and forth across the lives of three individuals caught in a strange love triangle, this man’s refusal to grow old reflects the concerns of the novel itself. Whether love, that animating principle that sustains both generation and devotion, is possible in old age?
For fifty-one years, nine months and four days Florentino has remained passionately in love with Fermina. They met while they were both teenagers and conducted a secret affair of the heart through love letters. Florentino is given to over-romantic poetical outpourings of affection, gifts and persistent entreaties for Fermina’s love. For her part, she maintains a degree of reserve in her replies, although she is convinced that she loves him. Even after the affair is discovered, she persists in her shared attraction to the poet, until one day, having overcome many months of obstacles thrown in their path to be together, she sees him in a new light: as a pathetic looking figure, completely dependent on her reciprocation.
She rejects Florentino and instead finds herself courted by Dr. Urbino, sophisticated and possessing of wordly knowledge where her former lover was insular and consumed by an irrational infatuation. Urbino has returned from Europe with the sophistication of a true Parisian, a cultured interest in literature and modern medicine, having aided in the defeat of a devastating cholera epidemic. They marry and raise a family together, discovering an enduring domestic happiness.
Florentino fastidiously preserves his own body to remain in shape for his beloved and is incapable of writing anything but love letters in memory of the woman who rejected him – something of a hindrance when it comes to writing business letters for a shipping company. As the years pass he begins to take a series of lovers, generally widows, with whom he has clandestine relationships, never marrying, never accompanying any of them in public. As he rises up the corporate ladder rumours spread that he is in fact homosexual and with his studied vanity, unusual attention to his health and obsession with sex is seen as an odd character.
When Urbino finally dies, having fallen in an attempt to retrieve a parrot from a mango tree, Florentino presents himself to Fermina while she is still in mourning and presses his suit. Horrified she rejects him a second time, in disbelief that such an unnatural request be made while her husband sits in his coffin waiting for burial.
The death of Urbino occurs at the beginning of the novel, with the three lives of the spurned lover, wife and dead husband poured over for the rest of the book. There is a Proustian quality to the proceedings, with memory the fuel of the narrative. The frailty of the human body is ever-present. Florentino’s romantic obsession is symptomatic of cholera; the aging characters are betrayed by bodily effluvia. At one point someone declares that romantic love in youth is ridiculous – during old age, obscene.
This book remains passionately defiant and wickedly seductive till the last page. Delirious, amoral and bewitching.
He was both veiled and exact. Selective, but not averse to giving a suggestive illustration. “Multiple killers have a thing, a way to kill effectively that they use over and over again. It’s like anything. We all do it. We use what works, and usually it’s the easy way. A killer learns on the job. He gets better at it. But he’ll do it the same each time. These two homicides were different. Different styles.”
I never really take the time to explain why I am a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To me it’s a shibboleth. You either know why, or you don’t and nothing I can say is going to help. But let’s pause for a moment. One of the things about the show that I enjoyed was how much it poked fun at the faux-romanticism of vampire culture, that obsession with vampirism as a metaphor for transgressive sex. The figure of the vampire symbolises the union between sex and death. It is recognizably human, but also monstrous, unclean and threatening. Yet despite its ‘Otherness’ (oh yes I have read many academic papers on vampires – they’re terribly amusing, you should investigate them for yourselves) the vampire is also seen as a romantic figure, sexually attractive because of its forbidden nature.
Along comes Buffy The Vampire Slayer the television series, which presumably attracted fans at least initially who were convinced on some level of the above and only for the show to rubbish that whole notion of vampires. I even recall the protagonist Buffy Summers dismissively stating: “See, this is what I hate about you vampires. Sex and death and love and pain — it’s all the same damn thing to you”.
This brings me to today’s novel, which even in the title marries sex and violence. The protagonist Frannie complains at the story’s opening about her difficulties in teaching her English Lit. college class. Language fascinates her, the shifts and changes in local idioms. New York itself is a heaving metropolis of mutating language, such that she finds herself stopping and querying her own students on what they are trying to say. She has begun work on a dictionary of vernacular phrases, drawing attention to the number of slang words used to describe differences in race and gender, with a particular focus on female genitalia.
One evening in her local bar, she finds herself lost in the basement looking for a bathroom when she happens upon a couple performing a sex act in a secluded space. The man’s face is hidden to her, but she notices a distinctive tattoo on his wrist. He sees her, but does not interrupt his partner, allowing Frannie to watch. Embarrassed she retreats and goes home.
Later that week a detective visits her at home. A young woman has been murdered in Frannie’s neighbourhood. The description matches that of the woman she saw in the bar’s basement that evening. She keeps this to herself, for she has noticed the detective has the same tattoo on his wrist. Frannie rapidly becomes obsessed with the detective, an Irish-American divorcee whose vulgarity disguises a quick wit. With him she feels increasingly uninhibited, their relationship competitive both sexually and in their contest of wills. Has she fallen for a murderer?
Susanna Moore‘s novel prides itself on its uncensored use of language. The dialogue has the same uncaring regard to political correctness as the aggressive sex scenes. This points to the disinterested stance of the academic, seeing the substance of life as simply another stylistic quirk. Frannie is unable to separate her own circumstances from the literary experiments she sets her students. Her growing sense of fear and suspicion regarding Molloy only serves to heighten her attraction to him.
I reviewed a book with similar themes back in August, Dorothy Parker’s The Monkey’s Mask. That book also satirised the disaffected lives of academic theorists by introducing murder to the proceedings, but far more successfully than here. Another point of comparison for me was Anthony Burgess’ The Clockwork Testament, which also treated of idiomatic language overcoming the civilised veneer of collegiate discourse. Burgess was quite funny in his observations though, whereas Moore seems happy to merely present lists of offensive phrases. Parker’s writing was far more comfortable with its eroticism. Moore again seems to be trying to shock. The ‘loving submission’, of Frannie to her lover/potential murderer just removes any interest for me in her eventual fate.
Tiresome, pretentious and nonsensical.
“You are about to see one of Carole Lombard’s best films: Mr and Mrs Smith. It’s the only comedy Hitchcock ever directed.” The angel took a long drink of soda.
“Have some popcorn”
– “No, thank you.”
In the fading light, the angel turned slowly to Ling. For several moments his eyes became enormous, pinwheeling fire everywhere.
“Have some popcorn.”
Well it has been a heavy couple of days here on the blog. Weighty themes, arresting imagery…..teddy bears altered in strange and disturbing ways (seriously, James Ellroy, get help!). So for today I chose Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love. I am a big fan of his whimsical present-day fables and will mention some more about his writing later, but first off – the plot!
Benjamin Gould is a young man in the prime of his life. He loves to cook, in fact his book shelves are filled with recipe books. His kitchen is his true home and he enjoys many different kinds of tea. He’s good with his hands and rather than sulking when things don’t go his way, he will often begin working on a new table, or chair. He’s also a young man who has already endured tragedy, sadness and loss – but he’s happy now, because he’s met the love of his life. The strangely named German Landis is a ray of sunshine, a beacon of warmth and kindness. She inspires him to be a better man, to leave the bitterness of his past behind. One day she suggests they adopt a dog from the pound, but not just any mutt. They should choose the dog that has languished there the longest. Ben enthusiastically agrees and rushes out. This is what life with German is like, spontaneity and good will as natural as breathing.
Unfortunately for Ben, he dies on the way home. Even more unfortunately for Ben, German, even the dog, Pilot, and the angels in Heaven who run the whole life and death game….he doesn’t notice he has died. And from here, things begin to get strange.
The Angel of Death assigns a ghost named Ling to follow Ben and discover why he has not passed on. Somewhere in his mind is the reason for his strange survival. Maybe somewhere buried deep in his past is the secret of immortality, making Ben very important indeed. Important enough to scare the Angel of Death himself near out of his wits. For if humans can suddenly learn how to master their own mortality, maybe that changes everything. Maybe in this upside-down world angels and ghosts have reason to fear humans!
Jonathan Carroll has a gift for making the mundane seem magical. In a story about life and death, angels and monsters, he makes it seem so easy. This book was a breeze to read, a light confection that felt like an old Hollywood romance. Cinema is something of a passion for Carroll, as well as dogs, so I know he’s good people. It reminded me a little of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, where air force pilot David Niven refuses to die and accept his heavenly award, as he has just met the love of his life, played by Kim Hunter. In Carroll’s universe dogs and ghosts speak to one another amiably, the Angel of Death is obsessed with Carole Lombard movies and your past literally can catch up with you. Maybe even ball you out for not being more careful.
The very first scene of the novel is just delightful. Ling, Ben’s ghostly ‘caseworker’, is fretting over a sumptuous feast for German, whom she has also fallen in love with. As Pilot the bemused dog and her only friend looks on, she prepares a breakfast smorgasbord of salmon, eggs Benedict, scones, soufflé, even fine coffee. The woman of her dreams arrives in the apartment, sits down at the table and is completely oblivious to the phantom feast laid out before her. It’s a beautifully sustained sequence.
One of my favourite books is Carroll’s The Land of Laughs, his first published novel. It also deals with memory, loss and death. If you read it you may come away with a newfound interest for pit-bull terriers. Seriously the man loves dogs. Whenever I encounter a book of his on a shelf I snap it up. The Ghost in Love is a treat for anyone looking for a story filled with wonder and whimsy. Enjoy.