Sue TownsendSometimes I think that books can never mean quite as much to me now as they did when I was twelve years old, lying on my bed, reading half of the weekend, or late into the night — even pulling out the proverbial flashlight to do so. Growing up an only child, books were intimate companions. They were how I discovered a vast world. We lived in a small English village; there wasn’t even one shop in the place. We did have a blacksmith. Every week a van passed by selling pies, milk and soft drinks. When I opened a book, I could be in Tolkein’s Middle Earth, or in America, where the Hardy Boys were solving another mystery… or I could be in the world of Adrian Mole, that adolescent just a couple of years my senior, living less than an hour’s drive away in the city of Birmingham. This was the fictional world I chose to live in more than any other. I read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ and its sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, approximately 24 times. Sometimes I’d literally reach the end and immediately go back to the beginning.

I never thought much about the books’ creator, Sue Townsend. It must have — if only briefly — struck me as pretty clever that a woman was able to so convincingly inhabit the body of a teenage boy. But so gifted was she that she more or less ceased to exist to me. There was Adrian’s voice and no other.

Sue Townsend passed away April 10.

That a woman who struggled so much of her life because of illness, physical disability, single-motherhood and grinding poverty was able to create books beloved by millions says an awful lot about her strength of character, but I think it would be wrong to view her success in purely individualistic terms. She never forgot her experience of poverty; never ceased to observe and critique the system that had exacerbated it; never lost her deep sympathy for the communities that continue to live this reality right up to the current day. She was a tireless critic of Thatcherism and its legacy — the meanness, the degradations inflicted on the labouring classes, the loss of social cohesion. Her success proved that a social conscience and a deep skepticism about power and the State can inspire deeply convincing and savagely witty accounts of the human condition that become, for the reader, just as real as the read world itself.
Her forays into journalism were serious and relevant. The Guardian recently republished this gem: “How the welfare state left me and my kids scouring the streets for pennies.” This brief overview of her life is almost as moving.

RIP: Sue Townsend. She truly meant the world to me.

 

BonjourTristesseI think the quality I most admire in much of the French literature I’ve read is cruelty. From Baudelaire to Camus to Houellebecq, when the French take up the pen, it’s rarely to flatter readers. Françoise Sagan, on the basis of this, her first novel, is no exception to the fine tradition of misanthropy and cynicism that pervades prose from the Hexagon.

Bonjour Tristesse was written when Sagan was only eighteen. The novel’s leading antihero, Cécile, is seventeen. She is on holiday in the French Riviera with her father — a widower and a playboy. This being France, the holiday is a very long one — about two months. Part of the appeal of this book is realizing just how exciting a leisure-filled life can be!

The basic plot is pretty simple. Cécile’s father has been seeing a young woman—just the latest in many such affairs, we learn—called Elsa. All of a sudden an older, sophisticated woman called Anne appears on the scene—the father’s former flame, we learn. Anne manages to woo the middle-aged playboy away from Elsa, and Cécile is none too happy about it, being very possessive of her father, and unwilling to countenance the notion of a mother-figure entering her life and bossing her around. She deviously plots against Anne… with tragic consequences.

Re-reading this for the third time—cripes!—I realized just how heavily it had influenced me, years ago, when I started writing my own novel, Blind Spot. On this reading, it was a little unnerving to realize I had forgotten a significant plot feature that I—well, sorta partially stole. (The car crash. And some of the underlying causes of it. I won’t say any more!)

It’s interesting to view this novel historically, seeing how its 1954 publication date places it squarely in the epoch that the French call « les trente glorieuses » – the happy days of post-war capitalism (which, we are told, have most definitely ended, never to return). According to the dust jacket of my Pocket edition of this book, Sagan was the living incarnation of this epoch’s cardinal virtue : « le culte du plaisir. » Just as importantly, she (Sagan, and, in my reading, Cécile) also heralded the cult of youth. What is it that propels so many people forward, causing such emotional damage to others, if not the notion that there is no future, and that youth is a seemingly eternal good?

There is a beautiful and revelatory conversation between seventeen year-old Cécile and forty year-old Anne that renders this theme quite transparent :

« Anne, dis-je brusquement, me croyez-vous intelligente? »
Elle se mit à rire, étonné de la brutalité de ma question :
« Mais bien sûr, voyons ! Pourquoi me demandez-vous cela? »
–Si j’étais idiote, vous me répondriez de la même façon, soupirai-je. Vous me donnez cette impression souvent de me dépasser…
–C’est une question d’âge, dit-elle. Il serait très ennuyeux que je n’aie pas un peu plus d’assurance que vous. Vous m’influenceriez! » 
Elle éclata de rire. Je me sentis vexée :
« Ce ne serait pas forcément un mal. » 
–Ce serait une catastrophe » , dit-elle.

« Anne, I said abruptly, do you think I’m intelligent? »
She started to laugh, surprised by the bluntness of my question.
« But of course, heavens! Why do you ask? »
–If you thought I was an idiot, you’d answer the same way, I sighed. You give this impression often of being ahead of me. »
« It’s just a question of age, » she said. « It would be tiresome if I didn’t have just a little more self-assurance than you. You’d be influencing me! »
She burst into laughter. I felt perplexed.
« That wouldn’t be so bad. »
–It would be a catastrophe, she replied.

This is a quite beautiful book–melancholy and poignant. It’s the perfect companion to, say, The Elementary Particles, by Michel Houellebecq, which just as cruelly announced the end of les trente glorieuses as Bonjour Tristesse marked its beginning.

Top image : Jean Seberg as Cecile in the film adaptation of Francoise Sagan’s, Bonjour Tristesse.

Hedge Fund-Hong Kong

In recent years there has been a growing curiosity about why, in 2008, so many financial assets went up in smoke. Consequently it seems that the cultural marketplace is now more receptive to books, films, magazines—even theory—attempting to shed light on the mysterious workings of money markets. David Graeber provided a radical anthropological examination of some of the underlying issues in his book, Debt: The First 5000 Years. The Brooklyn magazine, n+1, conducted a series of very candid interviews with a hedge fund manager, and the result became Diary of a Very Bad Year. Even Margaret Atwood joined in with her witty tome, Payback. And few in North America, anyway, can have failed to see the ubiquitous posters for the new Scorsese-di Caprio collaboration, The Wolf of Wall Street.

Money has never been so big! Debt is, perhaps, even more popular!

Seeing fertile territory here, three Frenchmen have teamed up to bring us a gripping new graphic novel, part thriller and part explication of a very complicated world. Hedge Fund: Les Hommes D’Argent is volume one of a trilogy by illustrator Patrick Hénaff, author Tristan Roulot, and story consultant and co-creator Philippe Sabbah, released here in Quebec this month.

What I admired most about this work was its refusal to glorify its protagonists, while simultaneously acknowledging the intoxicating mix of risk, power and massive rewards that entice some of the world’s smartest and least scrupulous people to embark on careers in high finance. On the very cover, Hedge Fund announces an utterly different aesthetic from the posters for The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese’s hero is smug and handsome, foregrounded against a backdrop of revelers, many of them half-naked women. The protagonist of Hedge Fund, by contrast, is seen utterly alone in silhouette against a row of computer terminals, and beyond, innumerable tiny sparks from the windows of Hong Kong officer towers.

Hedge FundFranck Carvale is something of an everyman. When we meet him, he’s trying and failing to earn his stripes as a purveyor of high-priced insurance products. We learn that back home in France his father is embroiled in legal wranglings over 30,000 euro. Franck is essentially couch-surfing in a tiny apartment belonging to Kate, a rich former lawyer who has dedicated herself to working for a noble cause—developing prosthetics for children who are victims of landmines. At night, Franck goes out with his friend, Alex, and the duo attempt to woo beautiful air stewardesses from Cathay Pacific. Invariably they are passed over in favour of much richer men.

It’s quickly established that the financial markets of Hong Kong are fuelled by machismo and competition. At one point, a young trader called T-J has sex with a woman in front of a cheering audience. The woman is pressed over the hood of a Ferrari. The Ferrari, it turns out, belongs to an older, senior trader called Andrew Campbell. His resulting fury leads to a longstanding rivalry with T-J, which Franck is later able to use to his advantage.

Yes, this is a world of fast cars and casinos and expensive escorts. But the plot transcends mere surface glamour. It is also very interested in the workings of the system. Enter the shadowy figure of Bilkaer, an old, powerful trader who plucks Franck from relative loser-dom, polishes him up (new suit, new knowledge, new contacts) and propels him toward success. In so doing, he provides in dramatic fashion a clue (to the rest of us) as to how this seemingly abstract business actually works. His early monologue about the world of speculation is one of this book’s many gems :

Imagine une cour de récré. Il y a un gamin qui collectionne les billes. Il les a toutes, sauf une, la plus rare : la bleue ! Et il est prêt à payer un prix fou pour l’avoir, mais ceux qui l’ont ne veulent pas s’en séparer… Toi, tu la lui vendrais bien, cette foutue bille bleue, mais tu ne l’as pas. Par contre, tu sais de source sûre que le marchand de jouets va en recevoir toute une cargaison dans une semaine. Et à ce moment-là, elle ne vaudra plus rien.

On ne peut pas vendre quelque chose qu’on n’a pas. Mais on peut vendre quelque chose qu’on a emprunté. Alors tu vas trouver quelqu’un dans la cour qui va te prêter cette bille bleue, juste pour une semaine. Et là, tu vas la vendre plein pot au collectionneur… Une semaine plus tard, tu l’achètes pour trois fois rien au marchand de jouets et tu la rends au gamin qui te l’avait prêtée. Tu auras alors réalisé un énorme profit en vendant quelque chose que tu n’as jamais eu… Remplace les billes par des actions, et tu as compris le principe de la vente à découvert, la clé de voûte de toute spéculation à la baisse. Pigé?

Imagine a playground. There is a kid who collects marbles. He has all of them, except one—the rarest : the blue one! And he is prepared to pay an obscene price to have it, but those who have the blue ones don’t want to part with them… You [Franck], of course you’ll sell it to him, this fucking blue marble, but you don’t have it. However, you know from a credible source that the toy market is going to receive a shipment of blue marbles in one week. And at that point, blue marbles will become practically worthless.

You cannot sell what you do not own. But you can sell something that you have borrowed. And so you’re going to find someone in the playground who will lend you his blue marble for just a week. You sell this for a big price to the collector… A week later, you buy a blue marble for next to nothing on the toy market and you give back to the kid the blue marble that he lent you. You’ve made an enormous profit out of something you never owned… Replace marbles with stocks and you’ve understood the principle behind short selling, the key to all speculation on falling assets.

With telling explanations like these, the contributions of Philippe Sabbah–a banking expert–ensure Hedge Fund is so much more than a thriller.

Books about money are almost as difficult to pull off as, say, films about computing. An unschooled audience can feel deterred by the apparent insider knowledge required to fully appreciate the plot. But that’s never the case here. We come to better understand the system, which in no way devalues our investment in the plot, which is considerable.

Hénaff’s illustrations zero in on fraught moments—the heat of an argument, the smile of triumph on a trader’s face—while also pulling back often enough to allow us to appreciate the setting: the Hong Kong waterfront, a cavernous nightclub, a sterile airport lounge. Author, Roulot, understands the need to make the characters more than simply pawns in some kind of manic chess game, and so provides numerous illuminating details. When we first meet him, Campbell is distraught that his beloved Australian rugby team has been massacred by the hated Springboks, the national team of South Africa. «Fifteen years ago we wouldn’t have even let them on our fields, your team of Nazis!» he yells at T-J.

In this highly cosmopolitan tale, at each turn of the page the stakes get higher and higher—and Franck’s connection to productive reality becomes a little more tenuous. Without ruining any of the plot, I think it’s fair to say that by the time we see him jetting off to New York at the end of this volume, we’ve witnessed something quite spectacular. Franck’s ascendancy is based not simply on greed and ambition, but on faithfully playing his part in a system that requires profit to be made regardless of the human consequences.

Blind Spot cover

Click to enlarge

This has been a particularly exciting week in the life of my novel, Blind Spot. The super-talented Michel Vrana, who also created covers for Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues and for Jian Ghomeshi’s 1982, has produced what is in my opinion a fabulous design.

I’d always felt that the cover should depict a car crash, and furthermore, that it should be pretty clear that the crash was the result of a collision with a train. So I hope I’m not being hyperbolic when I say it was a stroke of genius for Vrana to take the railway crossing sign and blow it up like a giant X — symbolic of a warning, an error, or even an overturned cross.

*

For obvious reasons (!) I’ve been thinking a lot about covers lately… My personal favourite book cover of all time is the one for The Great Gatsby. I can’t  think of any cover quite like  it, having the power to live on in a reader’s memory forever. Those eyes and lips, seemingly floating in an early night-time sky, are forever entwined in my mind with the novel itself. This Atlantic article makes it pretty clear that F. Scott Fitzgerald himself felt similarly. “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me,” Fitzgerald wrote to his publisher. “I’ve written it into the book.”

It’s perhaps fitting that Gatsby’s cover remains the most iconic, born as it was when mass marketing was hitting its stride. Many other famous books, Lolita, for example, have been approached in numerous different ways by designers with very different sensibilities. This is probably more the norm for the book world. A story is as open to as many different visual “identities” as there are people reading it. Here are a few modern takes on Nabokov’s controversial classic. I like the way the designers feel in no way encumbered by the story’s most obvious thematic.

Besides Gatsby, the other covers that are most memorable to me are the ones for J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, and Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.

Blind Spot is out September 2014  from NeWest Press. It’s already available for pre-order at evil Amazon.

Miall-authorphoto-1The exceptionally talented photographer, Owen Egan, who recently had a great pic of Arcade Fire’s Win Butler published in Rolling Stone magazine, took this photo of yours truly doing my best latte-sipping liberal routine.

The coffee is from Myriade in Montreal. So is the muffin. The shirt was given to me by my beautiful wife. Without her I’d still be wearing sweaters three sizes too big.

Blind Spot, my novel, is out in September from NeWest Press.

Quebec flag

I have lived in Quebec since 2007. Here are some things that I don’t understand. Still.

1-Why are we asked so often for our Social Insurance Numbers?

In Alberta, where I used to live, people generally are paranoid about giving their social insurance number to anyone except an employer who is offering full-time work with benefits. But in Quebec, you’re asked to produce it at the drop of a hat. Even our Hydro-Quebec bill—that’s POWER to you non-Quebeckers—asks for it. It states: “If you haven’t done so already, please provide us with your social insurance number (SIN). Note that if the survival of someone in your household depends on the use of an electrical device such as a respirator, you are responsible for notifying us at once.”

Those two sentences constitute an entire paragraph. Following each other this way, you’d think the sentences have some kind of constructive relationship. But I cannot for the life of me figure out this relationship. I read: “We need SIN; somebody might die.”

2-Why not give just a little more notice before ticketing and towing your car in winter?

The entire snow removal process, while fast, has a bit of a deranged vibe, even at the best of times. Once when I lived in Villeray, the distinct orange signs, indicating that you must move your car, went up AFTER I left the house at approximately 8am. I had a long day at work, a drink after work (le cinq à sept is an important Quebec tradition) and then I returned home at about 9pm. My car was gone. Where did it go? The City of Montreal had towed it, of course! They needed to make way for the snow ploughs. While I do applaud the efficiency of the snow plough fleet (even if they have to kill the odd pedestrian to get the job done) the haste is disconcerting. I have actually called the City of Montreal to ask how much notice is required before ticketing and towing. The woman wasn’t sure at first, then she eventually said: four hours. I said that’s it? What about people with jobs who cannot stand at their window monitoring the street all day? The woman proceeded to bludgeon with me with City Logic. We need to move snow; you need to move car.

3-Why do we need to keep proving who we are?

My wife recently obtained her learner’s permit, the prerequisite to eventually getting a driver’s license. At the venerable SAAQ, the bureaucrat said that a health care card (government issued), a passport (government issued) and a permanent resident card (government issued) were insufficient proof of identity. Her Record of Landing (government issued) was not in order, according to this bureaucrat, because it was a mere photocopy. Ah-ha, but the copy had been signed by a government official. The bureaucrat asked what government official? My wife replied, “A police officer.” The bureaucrat laughed at this, saying “Nobody cares about the cops. What do they know?” Only an immigration officer could possibly vouch for the authenticity of a copy of a Record of Landing. He thereupon decided that a brand new piece of ID must be issued on the spot. This was a new, special piece of ID, separate from a permit or license, indicating to the SAAQ that you are entitled to enter the SAAQ to pick up pieces of ID from the SAAQ.

4-Why do so many official documents expire?

Your health care card in Quebec expires after five years. Likewise, your OPUS card to ride the Metro must be replaced after five years. Your permanent resident status—which permits you to pay Quebec tuition rates—expires if you leave school and enter the workforce for a year or two. So in all of these cases—and doubtless more that I haven’t thought of—you need to keep marching into offices to prove you are who say you are. (Thank goodness for the dozens of pieces of ID you’ll be armed with for this purpose!

5-Just where exactly are you supposed to go to the doctor?

In Quebec, health care is “sectorized.” This means that even though there might be a very nice doctor living over in say, Hochelaga, you don’t have the right to go there, because you must go to the doctor in the part of town dictated by the government. Don’t try any funny stuff! I once called the Info-Santé line to ask where I should go to get an appointment with a doctor. I was told I couldn’t get an appointment with a doctor; however, I could have an appointment with a nurse for a general check-up. OK, better than nothing, I said to myself. So I skipped along merrily to the clinic I was told to go to in Verdun. I had a check-up with the nurse. I asked if I could get my ears seen to (they get blocked up sometimes, it’s gross, I won’t linger on this point). The nurse said, no problem, go back to reception and ask for an appointment with the Ear Expert. I skipped back merrily to the reception thinking “This is a breeze!” Ah-ha! Just when you get over-confident, that is when they stomp you. The receptionist asked me for my address. I dutifully complied. She said, “You must go back to Pointe St-Charles where you live in order to get medical attention.” I pointed out that the government Info-Santé help-bot had sent me to this very clinic. No, that didn’t work. I told her I had just seen a nurse down the hallway—mere minutes ago! No, that didn’t work either.

Here are five more!

–Why is the government-run liquor chain, SAQ, cutting its number of locations despite an increasing population?

–Why do Metro drivers close the train doors without checking if everyone is on board first? My wife and I have both witnessed heart-rending moments in which the doors slam shut separating mother from children. It is terrifying!

–Again with the Metro: why is the cheap student rate only valid for people twenty-six years or younger? The STM must be aware, no, that many students are older than twenty-six?! And generally, the older you are as a student, the more broke you are!

–Private schools. Good grief are there a lot of private schools in Quebec for a province that considers itself to have a strong social democratic tradition. These schools can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $15,000 per year. I’m not aware of any other province so committed to maintaining a multi-tiered education system: one for the poor, one for the middle class, and one for the elite.

–Céline Dion.

That sums up my list. Quebec is a wonderful place with millions of wonderful people in it, and I’d imagine that my list of weird/annoying things would be just as long or even longer if I lived in any of the other provinces.

Vive la différence!

Rocky 1976

The first Rocky film was being made when I was a mere fetus. I’m only bringing this up because when you’ve only discovered the Rocky films at the age of 38, it’s rather tempting to watch the whole series for insights into just how much the world has changed over the course of your life. With a whole new spin-off film franchise in the making (no, not the fight-of-the-fossils flick, Grudge Match, but the forthcoming Creed, in which Rocky will train the grandson of his first boxing adversary) this temptation is likely only to intensify.

Rocky’s release in 1976 came at a rather dark time for America. As noted in this article, the combative but optimistic spirit of the civil rights era had all but completely fizzled out and an awful backlash had begun. A new political type was emerging: the resentful working class white male. Rocky himself is not this type; he cannot be resentful because, of course, he has a heart of gold, and is utterly committed to the ethos of individual achievement. Nevertheless, in the film’s long and unvarnished shots of gritty Philadelphia, you can see the conditions that might give rise to a certain hopelessness or anger. If you don’t somehow transcend this, the film suggests, you really are a loser and a bum.

No matter what criticism can be directed at the first Rocky or its sequels – the racism, the neo-liberalism, the naked patriotism, nostalgia and manipulative sentimentality – it would be hard to argue that these films aren’t important. It would also be hard to argue, I think, that there isn’t a heckuva a lot of talent on display here. Stallone’s screenwriting, at least in the first two films, is absolutely top-notch. The acting, not only Stallone’s but also that of all supporting stars, is naturalistic and compelling. You’ve also got to respect Stallone’s audacity. Having successfully found a studio to buy his screenplay, he insisted that only he – a total unknown – play the lead, otherwise, it was no deal. We’re talking about a man who was at the time so poor that he had to sell his beloved bull mastiff for fifty dollars.

There is a rather compelling parallel here between the rise of the fictional Rocky Balboa and the rise of Stallone himself. This probably explains why scores of tourists every day run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and pose with the Rocky statue. Genuine rags-to-riches stories are hard to find and they don’t get much better than this.

When Rocky opens, we see our soon-to-be-hero, almost thirty, struggling against another pugilist in a small, grubby cigarette-smoke filled arena. Even though he wins the fight, the general consensus is that he’s a has-been, no longer taking on any real contenders. He’s also broke. He makes only forty dollars from his night’s work. His real job, if it can be called that, is helping an unscrupulous loan shark collect on debts.

About an hour passes and everything reinforces our initial impression that Rocky is not only a bum and a loser but also quite thick. However, one thing he most certainly isn’t is a quitter.

Rocky fancies the woman working at the pet store where he goes regularly to buy food for his pet turtles and fish. Despite the woman, Adrian, delivering about one nervous word to every fifty of Rocky’s, a romance blossoms. Adrian still lives with her brother, Paulie, one of the oddest characters I’ve ever seen in American film. Paulie is a drunk, he’s lazy, he treats his sister deplorably, and yet he’s there, with all his flaws, totally irredeemable, in all six films. He is the resentful working class white male type that Rocky never could be. I think it’s fair to say that characters like Paulie’s are rarely portrayed in film at all, let alone as unsympathetically as this.

It is, of course, rather obvious that Rocky is going to make good—that’s the whole premise upon which the film has grabbed our hearts. Yet Rocky is one of those rare films in which the fact of its happy ending at no point diminishes the intrigue of every scene. Simply watching melancholy Rocky in his squalid home talking to his fish and turtles has more entertainment value than all of the Fast and the Furious films put together. At one point, Rocky grabs the fish bowl and places it next to the terrarium so that his animal friends won’t be so lonely. Like so many moments in this film, the poignancy makes you want to cry.

When eventually Rocky gets his break, it’s from Apollo Creed, a veteran heavyweight who doesn’t have any viable opponent for the time being. So he schemes up the idea that he’ll fight a total unknown in Philadelphia on the bicentenary of America’s founding. That unknown, of course, is Rocky—his face and profile appealing to Creed as he flips through a guide of potential contenders.

This plot contrivance is the franchise’s most brilliant move, and it has to be said, nothing in the following five films can quite match it. Creed himself gives away the whole theme: it’s a shot at the American Dream. Despite these being lottery-style odds, the film still makes Rocky’s break seem inspiring to us, because, you see, he still has to work hard to cash in on his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There’s a lot of skipping rope, a lot of running, a lot of weights, a lot of sparring – not to mention the quitting of smoking cigarettes – to be able to stand a chance on the Big Night.

When Rocky was released to widespread critical praise and public adulation, it seemed that a new type of leading actor had emerged. Sure there had been actors who had carried movies with an impressive physical presence (Marlon Brando, most famously), but never before had an actor been defined first and foremost for his athleticism. Stallone, quite simply, became ripped. No actor had ever been ripped quite like this. Furthermore, he claimed to represent an old fashioned kind of masculinity, one that was reputed to be disappearing. He said to the New York Times:

”If macho means I like to look good and feel strong and shoot guns in the woods, yes, I’m macho…I don’t think that even women’s lib wants all men to become limp-wristed librarians. I don’t know what is happening to men these days. There’s a trend toward a sleek, subdued sophistication and a lack of participation in sports. In discos, men and women look almost alike, and if you were a little bleary-eyed, you’d get them mixed up. I think it’s wrong, and I think women are unhappy about it. There doesn’t seem to be enough real men to go around.”  New York Times.

There is a fantastic scene in which a swooning TV reporter comes in with a cameraman to record one of Rocky’s stranger training routines. He quite literally punches animal carcasses hanging from hooks. “Do you know of any other boxers who pound raw meat?” the TV reporter asks. Without even a hint of irony, Rocky replies, “No, I think I’m the only one.”

Rocky is not aware of how silly this sounds but more to the point, because he’s a real man, he doesn’t even seem to be aware of, let alone question, his sexuality. Of course he’s desirable, but to even think so would be vain. He loves his wife: that is all. And he is a fighter, that’s all he ever was and will be. This definition of masculinity, with Stallone as the standard-bearer, narrows even further as the 70′s give way to the 80′s and Arnie, Van Damme, Segal, etc. join the pantheon of the blockbuster bruisers.

But Stallone mapped this territory first, and Rocky is not a combat-robot, or simply a muscle-bound jock with an unbeatable work ethic—he feels like somebody who might have actually existed in a given neighbourhood at a given moment in time. And so his rise to the top really does seem—even if farfetched—nevertheless plausible, and it is earned. As viewers, we cannot help but cheer for him.

I can’t imagine there are many readers out there who, like me, were Rocky virgins up until the year 2014, but just in case there are, I’m not going to give away the ending of Rocky I. But I’d be remiss to not point out that after the Big Fight, one of the first lines out of Rocky’s mouth, as his beloved Adrian rushes into the ring to embrace him, is “Where’s your hat?” (Her posh hat fell off in her mad dash through the crowd). It’s thanks to lines like this that Rocky makes for such great viewing. You always think you know what to expect, because the story line is predictable, but Stallone’s writing is weird enough and specific enough to consistently serve up memorable, unrepeatable moments.

And there’s the rub. Stallone did attempt to repeat the magic of Rocky. Again and again. And so we have Rocky II (1979), Rocky III (1982) Rocky IV (1985) Rocky V (1990) and finally Rocky Balboa (2006). Stallone directed all of them except the first and the fifth one, and penned every screenplay. This is quite a body of work. In that 1976 interview, he articulates the kind of legacy he hopes for:

“I want to be remembered as a man of raging optimism, who believes in the American dream. Right now, it’s as if a big cavernous black hole has been burned into the entertainment section of the brain. It’s filled with demons and paranoia and fear.”  New York Times.

In Rocky II, we quickly learn the cautionary tale that fame and money can quickly be frittered away. Rocky’s rather pathetic attempts to do commercial endorsements are a failure. Out of financial obligation he must accept the challenge of a rematch with Apollo Creed. Drama, soul-searching and gut-checking ensue. We’re on very similar territory here to Rocky I, only with fewer memorable moments.

Rocky III introduces us to that 1980s icon, Mr. T. By this point, Rocky is filthy rich and wearing nicely-tailored suits. Early on, the ever-shiftless Paulie asks him for financial help. Rocky gives him a stern lecture about how “nobody owes anybody anything.” When he climbs into the ring with Mr. T, known here as Clubber Lang, he is soundly pummeled into defeat. But we viewers know he’s had a lot on his mind. His beloved trainer has succumbed to a heart attack. What follows is yet more soul-searching and gut-checking—even more than in Rocky I or II—because now Rocky is exploring the meaning of “believing in yourself.” Can he beat Clubber Lang in the rematch? Not without a stirring pep-talk from beloved Adrian, and not without the wisdom and advice of Apollo Creed, who is now a friend, not an adversary. There’s a strange moment when Rocky goes to Los Angeles to train in Creed’s gym. Everyone in the gym is African American and, as to be expected, that seething ball of white rage, Paulie, doesn’t like it. Rocky admonishes him. “Well maybe these guys don’t like you either.”

Rocky IV is barely worth discussing. I am pretty convinced that everyone involved, Stallone included, must have snorted wheelbarrows full of coke before making it. Yes Stallone is still very ripped, but he’s also become a caricature of himself. He’s pitted against a seemingly superhuman enemy from the Soviet Union who, to make things really high-stakes, outright KILLS Apollo Creed in the ring. Rocky of course must get vengeance. He travels to Russia, which actually just looks like rural Minnesota or something (presumably because no one could be bothered to actually location scout in the Evil Empire) and, well, look, this paragraph is already longer than I had wanted. If you have to skip one Rocky film, make it this one.

A little bit of Rocky’s mojo returns for the fifth installment. An up-and-comer called Tommy Gun seeks out Rocky as a trainer. But then an unscrupulous manager, who must surely be modeled after Don King, lures Tommy Gun away with the promise of lotsa money, not to mention women with large breasts and bad make-up. Rocky V has a pretty kick-ass ending, which basically sends the message: “the old dog still has a few tricks.”

Which brings us to Rocky Balboa, which, we are to believe, is the final film in the series. It is easily the saddest, and for that reason, perhaps the most interesting film outside of Rocky I. His wife now dead, Rocky gets platonically involved with the woman he gave a scolding to when she was just a girl in the first film, telling her not to be a slut. Philadelphia by this point looks almost post-apocalyptic. His new woman friend lives next to a house that’s been gutted and boarded up. The street corner is desolate. Rocky’s son is miserable at his job and tired of living in his father’s shadow. Thanks to a computer simulation that enacts a hypothetical fight between Rocky, star of the 1970s and 1980s, and Mason Dixon, the current champion, public interest in Balboa is reignited. People want to know, is Mason Dixon a champ of the same calibre as Rocky?

Rocky 2006

This is where Stallone decides that even though he appears to be taking this film very seriously (unlike the coke-binge/MTV-video style of Rocky IV) he is prepared to throw in the towel when it comes to plausibility. George Foreman famously won his last heavyweight title aged forty-five, but that’s still a far cry from the travesty that viewers are asked to swallow here. Stallone looks every bit his sixty years. His face is as craggy as Mars. Sure he can bulk up like a prize bull who eats steroids for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but the notion that he can even last three rounds with Mason Dixon is outright preposterous.

But we get the sense that Stallone doesn’t care. He wants the perfect sentimental ending. He’s still got just enough of the old writer’s instincts to shoot for symmetry and so Rocky Balboa climaxes much the same way Rocky I climaxed. But it doesn’t work. From 1976 to 2006, everything has changed. Where before the American Dream seemed attainable, by 2006 we’re almost sneering with derision that anyone still expects us to buy this crap. I did admire the way that Stallone was prepared to show us what a shithole so much of urban America has become, but if anyone is looking for a “take-home” message here, it would basically be: quit while you’re ahead.

Come-Barbarians

Come Barbarians started life named The South of France. With a title like that, you could be forgiven for expecting humorous observations about obsessive artisan cheese-makers, reflections on tending a herb garden in a hot, dry climate, and odes to breathtaking mountain views of sky and sea. Something like Peter Mayle’s famous Year in Provence, perhaps…  Let me tell you — warn you — dear reader, you are not in for a book like that!

The title change was a very good idea, because Todd Babiak’s fifth novel is a no-holds-barred-thriller that doesn’t simply use France as a fancy backdrop but instead probes the country’s seamy and corrupt underbelly.  When it opens, I found myself experiencing a profound feeling of disorientation. That’s appropriate for the premise: our protagonist, Christopher Kruse, has just lost his daughter to a fatal car accident and his wife, Evelyn, has gone missing. A sense of mystery hangs over these pages, like fog in the tight streets of a medieval town. What the hell has happened?

This is the burning question that propels the narrative forward, and boy does it rip, TGV-style, all over France. Kruse, it appears, has been cuckolded; Evelyn was embroiled in an affair with an aspiring leader of France’s notorious right-wing party, the National Front. That leader, like Kruse’s daughter, is also dead. And Evelyn is suspect number one for his murder.

Kruse’s search for Evelyn is also a search for the truth. It gets him deeper and deeper into interconnected webs of deception, manipulation and political skullduggery at the very highest levels of government, but nothing ever stretches the limits of believability. It does, at times, test the reader’s stomach for violence and brutality. There is an act of torture about halfway through the book that will not help with your insomnia. DOES ANYTHING GOOD EVER HAPPEN IN MARSEILLE?!

Babiak’s book comes at a curious time for those of us who grew up as francophiles. France is still the most heavily-visited tourist nation in the world, for obvious reasons (the Louvre, Avignon, Normandy, the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Mediterranean – all in the same country?). Sensible Americans envy its world class health care system. And France’s citizens are mostly — and again to the envy of so many — still quite svelte, unlike those flabby and beer bloated hooligans inhabiting the country just the other side of the English Channel. And France’s literary culture still generates considerable excitement and notoriety. Writers like Michel Houellebecq have become national heroes/villains.

But… but… as Babiak’s book so adroitly makes clear: there are two Frances. There is the France of “The South of France,” and the France of Come Barbarians, set, by the way, in the early 1990s. This France is well on its way to becoming the France of today, even less mythic, more conflicted, which passes laws prohibiting public sector employees from wearing the hijab or turban and, tiresomely, inspires a new government in Quebec to attempt a similar act. Each version of France fascinates, intrigues, and enrages those who take the time to get to know it.

In short, France cuts a pretty arresting figure on the narrative scene.

As for Babiak’s prose, it is tight, like an electrical wire. It primarily serves the plot, but like any good power-line, it hums along and goes everywhere: from a nondescript hotel in the ‘burbs to a gendarmerie in an ancient cobblestone town to a crowded political forum. The following brief but telling scene, I think, gives a pretty good insight into the kind of master craftsman’s touches to expect:

The ugly courtyard in front of the Sorbonne was deserted. He could see his champagne breath as he exited the taxi, whose driver was from Afghanistan and longed to be in London or New York, where a man could go from poor to rich in only a year or two. He could not marry and raise a child in this country of whores and faggots because a man does not own his wife and child in France–the state owns everything. La France, yes? La? Even the men are womanly. It is illegal to touch your own wife, to smack your own child if he is misbehaving. What sort of life is that, Monsieur?

Kruse did not give the driver a tip.

CanLit’s detractors sometimes claim our books are too nice, polite and reserved. No one is going to say that about this book. Come Barbarians, like France, compels our attention, throwing dirty punches one second, and charming us with wit and sophistication the next–and never apologizing  for holding us unflinchingly in its callused grip.

saturn-baby

[A short story I finished toward the end of 2013.]

Mom and Dad’s new apartment was in NDG on the third floor of an ugly yellow building right by the train tracks. When her parents first moved in, Thea had resolved to visit at least once per week, as a sign that she was not bothered by what had happened to them, but a month had gone by and she hadn’t visited at all. Of her sister Mathilde this was expected, but not of generous and dutiful Thea. Her father phoned late on Thursday night and complained. He said he totally understood that she must be very busy, what with art school, part-time work, friends, etc., but still, not to visit your parents for a whole month…

Thea made her first visit the following Saturday. There was a wiry, grimy guy in the building lobby mopping the floor, and instantly she knew he was going to talk to her—she could tell just from the way he gave her that sly smile.

“I love your beautiful summer dress,” he said.

Thea looked down at herself, at the summer dress that was the object of his admiration. Then she looked up at the guy, and was about to say something, but he interrupted her.

“It’s not any girl that could wear that dress like you do.”

“Thank you,” she said, reluctantly granting him half of a smile.

“Who are you visiting?”

“My parents,” she said.

He set down his mop in the bucket and moved toward the console where there were two rows of buttons to buzz the twenty-four apartments in the building.

“I’ll buzz them for you,” he said. “What number?”

She was hesitant. Now he would know too much about her.

“Number fourteen,” she said.

He pressed on the buzzer. Her father’s voice crackled through. She said, “Hi!” and he said, “Come on in, Thea!” and the manager pulled open the inner door, bowing his head as he did so, as if she was royalty and he was the loyal subject.

The next weekend, she visited again. She took the train to Vendome and started walking toward the ugly yellow building. Sure enough, just her luck, there was the manager. He was outside with a pail of yellow paint, trying to cover up a tag that somebody had sprayed onto the wall. The tag said THUG. There was no way up to her parents’ second floor apartment without first subjecting herself to the manager. Maybe she could call her parents from the nearby cafe and ask them to meet her there? She felt stupid, standing here prevaricating. She launched herself in the direction of the building entrance at a brisk pace. As soon as she was level with the door into the lobby, the manager’s head turned.

“The beautiful girl!” he declared.

He put down his pail of paint immediately. Thea nodded at him perfunctorily and moved on. She headed inside and was at the buzzer console within seconds. The manager was now holding the outside door open and looking in at her. She buzzed number fourteen and waited.

“It’s too cold today for that beautiful dress of yours,” said the manager.

“It did turn cold,” said Thea, despising her civility.

“You should be a model with a dress like that,” said the manager. “I am telling you. I know a photographer in the business.”

What was he talking about—you should be a model with a dress like that? Either a person is a model or they are not.

“Sure, thanks,” she said.

“I think you look more like your father,” said the manager. “Can I say that?”

He was taking off his grubby hat, as if expecting to be talking for a while.

“People say that,” said Thea.

Speaking of her father, why was nobody answering the buzzer? She pushed on the button again.

“Do you smoke?” asked the manager. “If you’re waiting, we can have a smoke.”

Thea did in fact smoke, but she wasn’t going to let the manager know. She made a mental note, now every time I visit this building I cannot be seen smoking.

“I don’t smoke,” she said.

“You’re a good girl,” said the manager.

A shudder went through her so hard she had to try and camouflage it as a cough. She was only twenty-four, for God’s sake. Someone of the manager’s age should get back to painting his fucking wall!

“Nobody home?” said the manager, after a short silence.

“I guess not,” said Thea.

She buzzed a third time.

“What does your father do?”

“He had an art supplies store,” said Thea.

“And now what?”

“He ran a business making greeting cards,” she said. “They were the most beautiful cards in the world.”

“What happened?”

“I can’t wait around anymore,” Thea suddenly declared.

“I’ll tell them you came,” said the manager. “There must have been some misunderstanding. Nobody should be making a beautiful girl like you wait.”

She phoned her parents that evening. It turned out that her father had thought the plan was to meet at two o’clock on Sunday, not two o’clock on Saturday. He had been out grocery shopping with Mom when Thea visited.

“Just our luck!” Dad said.

“I’ll come tomorrow then,” said Thea.

“Sure,” he said. “Only Mom won’t be here.”

“Why not?”

“This whole confusion over your visit threw her off… She’s agreed to some extra work tomorrow. She didn’t realize you’d want to try and visit again!”

“What kind of work?” Thea asked.

“Just a little sideline to her regular job,” Dad replied.

“Tell me!”

“She’s cleaning a house in Westmount.”

Thea said nothing. She was finding this hard to picture, her proud mother on her hands and knees, scrubbing a tub.

“How’s your job search?” she said.

Her father’s tone brightened.

“I just scored a job on the West Island in charge of shipping-receiving for a paint company,” he said.

“That seems appropriate!” Thea said, encouragingly. “Do you like it?”

“Didn’t start yet,” Dad said. “No matter. Until things turn around, it will be OK.”

The next day, Thea headed back to Vendome. Outside there was a fine, persistent drizzle. Members of the grim-faced crowd dispersed into the residential streets or into waiting buses. She approached the ugly yellow building cautiously. It was as quiet as a mausoleum.

Inside apartment fourteen, her father showed her the small improvements that had been made since last time—a new shelf in the kitchen and a mirror in the hallway so you could check your appearance upon arrival and departure. For a couple of seconds, in front of the mirror, Thea suddenly noticed that her father had a little paunch sticking out over his belt. He had always taken care of himself, so this new development was troubling.

“Let’s have a sit-down lunch,” Dad said, turning away abruptly from the mirror, as if he too had noticed his transformation.

Thea was hungry, having eaten nothing more than a piece of toast before going to the university studio to work on her mid-term project. The table was already set. There were boiled eggs, bread, a bean salad, and two large fried chicken breasts. Thea could not remember her parents having ever served take-out chicken before.

“Where did you get the chicken?” she asked.

“There’s this new place called Chick-King. Two words, Chick and King. I got this on special for only nine bucks!”

He was wearing an ironic grin.

“Sounds great!” said Thea.

“Let’s sit down and eat it while it’s still hot.”

While they were eating, Dad told Thea about how useless the building manager was. There had been an agreement that, before Mom and Dad moved in, the manager would paint the walls of the apartment, but when they showed up on moving day, not a lick of paint had been applied.

“The manager says, ‘Oh, don’t worry. I’ll paint it tomorrow.’ Your mother says that’s unacceptable. We decided to do the work ourselves. We went to Home Depot and bought paint and rollers and started work. We finished the job by the end of the next day—at close to midnight. We had headaches and our eyes were stinging from the paint fumes. But guess what? We gave the manager the bill for the paint but he still hasn’t paid us!”

“I can’t believe it,” said Thea.

“Every time I see him I remind him about the money. And every time he says, ‘Tomorrow, I promise.’ But tomorrow never comes! The current excuse is that the expense needs to be approved by the building owner who—just our luck!—happens to be in Florida. I said to the manager, ‘Surely the owner can approve this expense from Florida. You’re aware of this invention called the telephone?’ But the manager swears to God he has no clue how to reach the owner in Florida. No clue!”

This monologue had given Thea time to clean her plate. Having fallen far behind, Dad turned his attention to his own plate, sinking his teeth into the chicken with rather a famished-dog look. Thea went to the washroom. She sat for a while on the toilet seat, needing a breather from Dad. Eventually she stood up and flushed, but the plastic toilet handle broke off in her hand. Oh please…

“Dad, we have a problem,” she said, re-entering the living room-slash-dining room.

She showed him the toilet handle in the palm of her hand.

“This happened just now?” he said.

“It just came off in my hand,” she said.

“You managed to flush everything down OK?”

“Yes, I did.”

“We need to fix this,” said Dad.

Thea felt her chest tightening. His use of the word we bothered her. It wasn’t her fault the handle broke.

“The useless manager should fix this,” she said.

“The manager!” Dad exclaimed. He got to his feet and went to the washroom. He kept on talking as he inspected the problem, but his words came out constricted as he leaned over and his paunch pressed against his belt. “The manager is about as useful as… as… Well, you shouldn’t expect too much from him. No matter. This is an easy fix. We’ll go to Home Depot and—”

“Spend more money that won’t be reimbursed?”

“We will be reimbursed,” said Dad, standing up straight again. “The colours of the walls is one thing, but a working toilet is non-negotiable!”

She looked at him, at the tiny red veins in his nose that in recent years stood out more distinctly, and at his eyes, with pupils that had always seemed a tad small to her—small and lost in a haze of blue-grey—and she wondered if this face was going to seem, over time, even more fragile.

“Get your coat on,” he said. He was now talking pretty much incessantly in his cheerful, anxious way. “I know what we need to buy. It costs next to nothing.” Their footsteps echoed against the stairwell. They reached the front door. Sure enough, the manager was outside, standing under the awning with a cigarette. The smoke had that particularly pungent smell it always has in the rain.

“Happy Sunday!” the manager said, with a sudden smile, nodding to Dad, and glancing only for a second at Thea.

“It would be a happy Sunday if our toilet didn’t just break,” said Dad.

The manager frowned. His forehead made a lot of very fine wrinkles—at least six of them in a neat row.

“How did that happen?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said Dad. “It’s cheap crap like everything else.”

“I can fix it,” the manager declared. He reached out for the plastic toilet handle, which Dad was holding up with his thumb and forefinger, as it were a lab specimen. “I will go to Home Depot right now and get a new one.”

“That’s funny,” said Dad, pulling the toilet handle out of reach. “We were on our way to Home Depot because I just assumed you wouldn’t help.”

The manager glanced quickly at Thea again. Then he looked at his cigarette, which had been been smoked down to a stub.

“I am always here to help,” he said.

Dad shook his head disbelievingly. He handed over the toilet handle. The manager took it, looking resentful.

“I will come to fix the toilet before four o’clock,” he said.

When they returned to the apartment, Dad was in high spirits.

“A small victory against management,” he said. “Let’s have tea and—hey, let’s do some painting!”

Thea found herself rebelling against the idea of painting with her dad. She had more than enough painting in art school. But when she murmured even the slightest disagreement—a vague complaint about needing to get back to the studio—her father waved his hand in the air dismissively and ordered her to fetch the easels out of the storage down the hallway. The easels were a joke. Her easel had been purchased for her when she was a child, so it was way too small. And his easel had a damaged leg that he hadn’t fixed and so had to be propped against the couch. They faced the window that overlooked the street. Beyond de Maisonneuve was a row of trees by the train tracks, drooping like exhausted guards.

For a while Thea sketched the outline of everything she saw, conscious that her job was simply to keep Dad happy and to wait with him until the manager came back. She had no illusions about being able to finish anything worthwhile. She wondered if keeping Dad happy was in fact the whole point. What was art if not an exercise in pleasing others? She then thought about how she would appear to the manager when he arrived. He’d probably get that sly smile on his face; he’d find it cute that she was painting with her Dad.

She wanted to abandon the work right now. Just set down her pencil and say, “Look it’s not working out and I am late to get back to the studio.” It was already after four o’clock. She must have let out a deep sigh involuntarily. Dad said, “Is everything OK?” She said of course everything was OK. He didn’t peek at her paper because that was the rule. You couldn’t look unless you’d been invited.

What she had on the page was a fairly accurate sketch of everything alongside de Maisonneuve, right up to the big office building. The last tree before the building was not like the others—it wasn’t one of the city-stunted trees, but instead, about four times the size, standing away from the train tracks. The more she looked at the tree, the more it looked to her like a monster, a monster in the form of a Weetabix. The monster was opening its big mouth and was about to devour the next-door building. No one was going to see the form of the monster hidden in the tree unless she painted it properly.

She worked quickly, so that the monster would fully emerge in time for the building manager to see it. When she was finished, she had a garden-variety urban landscape into which the Weetabix monster had appeared—a creature from another realm. She had given him the eyes of Saturn Devouring His Son. She had thought the painting would be funny but it wasn’t funny at all.

She stood up and looked out the window.

“Finished?” asked Dad.

She laughed somewhat nervously, unclipped the painting from the easel and turned it toward Dad.

“It’s… it’s awful, Thea,” he said. “I mean that in the nicest way. How did you see that, how did you see that in the tree?”

He too looked out of the window, as if not quite able to believe it. Then he looked again at the painting. Her arms tired eventually of holding it, so she set it down on the kitchen table.

“Well, I’m not showing you what I did,” said Dad. “I’m no good at this. I need to leave this to the professionals.”

Thea tried half-heartedly to dissuade him from tearing up his painting, but he pronounced it a failure. He had attempted to turn the outside into a landscape with far more colours than it really had, searching for all the shades of green and grey and ending up with a weird tapestry that was closer to wallpaper than painting.

It was five o’clock when they finished their second teapot of tea.

“The manager has screwed us again,” said Dad. “He’s not ever going to show up is he?”

Thea felt strangely deflated, like a kid in class who tells a clever joke at the teacher’s expense but the teacher never hears it. She left her painting on the kitchen table, a decision she almost immediately regretted. A few weeks passed and eventually she called to ask if Dad could drop off the painting when he had a free moment.

At the end of the semester, her class put on an art show. She had been out drinking until late the night before and had brought home an American boy. Waking up late, she showered and put on the only dress that she could guarantee was clean—her summer dress. Fresh flakes of snow started to meander downward as she hurried to the gallery. Several landed on her black peacoat and turned immediately into a patch of dampness. She slowed down just before arriving, not wanting to burst in like some eccentric. A couple of her classmates were coming down the stairs. She apologized for her lateness and then pitched in to help set up. Everyone was rather on edge because a graduate student had laid claim to the entire far wall of the gallery, saying he’d been promised access to this space weeks ago for a show of his own. He was a photographer who had enjoyed some success in the fashion industry; the success, everyone knew, had gone to his head, making him an asshole.

Thea hung “Nature versus the City” with her four other paintings. When other students asked about it, she said, “My intention was to portray exactly what I was feeling at the time.” Five o’clock came around, the hour when their liquor permit kicked into effect, and a box of red wine was opened up. Thea drank her first glass very quickly. She couldn’t remember if, while drunk last night, she’d told the American boy about this show. Hopefully she hadn’t, because his smell and his smirk this morning had reversed her earlier opinion of him.

At six o’clock, the gallery was close to full. Friends and family had wandered in, cold and wet from the street, and were glad to have red wine and warmth. Thea knew she wouldn’t see her own parents because they were both working late. Because she was still feeling quite sick, she stood apart from everyone else, guarding her paintings, her smile straining like that of a bored retail clerk. She had been looking forward for weeks to unveiling “Nature versus the City,” but now the few comments of praise she received meant nothing to her. What did she work for—praise? That seemed awfully shallow. She didn’t want to talk; she didn’t want to mix and mingle. The idea came to her to leave and go to bed early.

Just as she was thinking she might literally fall asleep on her feet, the building manager walked in. He was unmistakable, dressed in a big, dirty parka, which he declined to take off when the coat check girls asked him.

It took him only a second to spot her.

“That summer dress!” he exclaimed. Then, perhaps sensing his eyes had gone too quickly to her figure, he looked up to her face and said, “Thea, right?”

She nodded.

“From number fourteen!” he exclaimed.

“It’s my parents who live at number fourteen,” she corrected him.

He made an exaggerated sad expression.

“You never visit anymore,” he said.

“I’m busy,” she said.

She stepped a little to the side so that he would have an unobstructed view of “Nature versus the City.”

“This is a fantastic coincidence,” he said.

“What brings you here?” she asked.

“My friend I told you about—the photographer. He’s here. I’m lending him an old lampshade that I found in the basement. He wants to use it for a shoot. Hey, you should meet him!”

Thea glanced over anxiously to the end of the gallery that had been screened off. She hadn’t seen the photographer emerge from there in quite a while.

“Maybe later,” she said, hating the regression to her usual politeness.

“Come on—he could use you for a shoot! I’m sure of it!”

A voice in her head was shouting at him, look at my fucking painting, you dolt! Do you think I want to be a bimbo in a photo? She gulped back another glass of wine.

“I need to stay here, Mr. Manager,” she said. “Please don’t introduce me to anyone. I’m here with my paintings.”

She couldn’t remember having ever pulled off such a sarcastic, cutting tone. The manager raised his eyebrows as if she was crazy—and maybe she was.

“OK, OK, no problem,” he said, and made a big deal of taking two steps backwards. “I was just trying to be nice and make an introduction but…”

She didn’t catch the rest of what he said. He disappeared behind the screens. He never did see her painting.

Top image: Saturn Devouring His Son. Francisco Goya.

caucasus-lermontov

Lermontov died in a duel just over a year after publishing A Hero of Our Time (1840). For we readers, this is the kind of timing of which legends are made. Imagine if Paul McCartney had died in a fist-fight after writing Live and Let Die, or if Marlon Brando had been fatally wounded by a pit-bull after appearing in On the Waterfront. For Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time stands as the brilliant legacy of a creative mind snuffed out prematurely.

The very title can be considered to be, in the narrator’s own words, “malicious irony.” The novel’s protagonist, Grigory Pechorin (named after the northern Russian river, the Pechora) is manipulative, deceitful, course, and often outright villainous. He frequently sabotages and sometimes even destroys the lives of others, including friends and lovers.

It’s easy to see this is as a precursor to so many of the famous Russian masterpieces of the 19th century, especially a book such as Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But it would be wrong to read this purely for a literary history lesson. This is quite simply an astounding work, ingenious for its construction and flawless in its execution.

There are five story arcs here told by three different narrators – one unnamed, who opens the book, Maxim Maximych, an army captain, who picks up the narrative very quickly afterward, and Pechorin himself, who relays the bulk of the dramatic narrative through to the book’s conclusion. So in a way, we approach Pechorin a bit like a plane breaking through the clouds to get to its destination: we begin at a distance, we get closer, and ultimately we get very close indeed.

Of the five narratives, I enjoyed the first, Bela, and the last, The Fatalist, the most. But this book shouldn’t be confused for a collection of short stories. I do think A Hero of Our Time must be read in sequence: the logic of following the prescribed order is to gain insights en route to the final part’s considerations of some Truly Big Questions – and to bear such weight, we need to live with Pechorin for a while.

In Bela, Maxim Maximych tells the story of his encounter with Pechorin. The events take place in the Caucasus – the Russian empire’s frontier, a rough and wild place. Pechorin falls for a beautiful woman named Bela, and schemes up a cunning way to win her over. It turns out that Bela’s brother Azamat covets the horse of a local trader, and Pechorin says he’ll steal the horse in exchange for Azamat’s sister. (Yes, a horse ends up getting “traded” for a woman – this isn’t exactly a pleasant read for a 21st century reader.)

But here’s the thing: Pechorin sets in motion this awful sequence of events, which ultimately ends fatally for Bela, without having ever really been in love. Before Bela’s demise, she becomes quite devoted to Pechorin, but this only hastens his sense of boredom with her.

Pechorin is a restless figure – seemingly never satisfied, always seeking new adventures, pleasures and schemes, and openly scorns or considers himself unfit for conventional life. In this respect, Lermontov has presented a very modern figure; Pechorin reminded me a little of David di Meola in Michel Houellebecq’s seminal novel 1998 novel, The Elementary Particles – insofar as we’re dealing with somebody almost entirely unmoored from any kind of moral structure.

In The Fatalist, Pechorin takes a break from his sophisticated games of plotting and scheming. What unfolds instead is the tale of a drinking game, rather like Russian roulette, and its aftermath. Pechorin believes that the man pointing the gun at his own head will not survive, and bets against him, believing he has seen some physical sign of doom on the man’s face. This raises questions about fate and predestination — the subjects of the drinking conversation all night.

After the events of the party (no spoilers here!)  Pechorin departs, and we are treated to the following paragraph – a meditation on the rapid decline of fatalistic thinking in society generally:

I walked home through the empty back streets of the village. A full red moon was just showing over the broken line of buildings, like the glare of a fire. Stars shone calmly in the deep blue sky, and I was amazed to think that there were once wise men who imagined the stars took part in men’s pretty squabbles over a patch of land or somebody’s ‘rights.’ While in fact these lamps, which they supposed had been lit for the sole purpose of shining on their battles and triumphs, still burn on as bright as ever, while they, with all their passions and hopes, have long since vanished, like a fire lit by some carefree traveller at the edge of a forest. Yet what strength they derived from this certainty that the heavens with all their countless hosts looked down on them in silent, but never-failing sympathy. And we, their pitiful descendants, drift through the world, without beliefs, pride, pleasure or fear, except that automatic fear that grips us when we think of the certainty of death. We can no longer make great sacrifices for the good of mankind, or even for our own happiness, because we know they are unattainable. And as our ancestors rushed from illusion to illusion, so we drift indifferently from doubt to doubt. But, unlike them, we have no hope, nor even that indefinable but real sense of pleasure that’s felt in any struggle, be it with men or destiny.

I admit, I was pretty shaken by these words. I had to stop and read them again. And again. And then I read them aloud to my wife.

All in all, this book’s mix of nastiness, violence and vice, combined with beautiful insights, popping up in the most unexpected of places, like an obelisk rising from a swamp, kept me utterly enthralled.

The translation I read was Paul Foote’s – the Penguin Classics edition. Thanks, Nick Glossop of the Paltry Sapien, for lending it to me.
Top image: Tiflis, 1837, A painting by Mikhail Lermontov

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