Archive for July, 2021

The Lightning of August

July 31, 2021

Latin America not only has a history of dictators, but an entire genre of dictator novels, from Miguel Angel Asturia’s The President to Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat. In The Lightning of August, Jorge Ibarguengoitia offers us a different viewpoint, that of General Jose ‘Lupe’ Arroyo, whose attempts to gain power have a tendency towards catastrophe, none of which, in his telling, are his own fault. The novel holds the heroes of the Mexican revolution up to the light and finds them wanting: rather than heroism what we see is self-interest, back-stabbing and military incompetence. In making Lupe the narrator of his own story, zealously defending his own actions, Ibarguengoitia mines a rich vein of ironic humour.

As the novel opens it is clear that Lupe has some score-settling to do, targeting, in particular, the memoirs of a fellow general:

“I want to make it perfectly clear that I was not born in a dirt-floor hut, as Fatty Artajo claims, and my mother was not a prostitute, as some have hinted; nor is it true that I never entered a school room.”

Such asides occur throughout the novel and, such is Lupe’s propensity for presenting himself in an unfailingly favourable light, they often have the effect of seeming more believable than his own version of his life story. This, and his not unrelated inability to back down, are his defining characteristics. We see the latter in effect early in the novel, alongside the bad luck that will dog him throughout. Lupe is appointed Private Secretary to the newly elected President, Marcos Gonzalez – but Gonzalez manages to die while Lupe is in transit to his new posting, and before officially taking office. When Lupe does arrive, Gonzalez’s widow tells him her husband’s final words were, “I want Lupe to have my gold watch,” but the watch is now missing. Lupe immediately blames the only other visitor to Gonzalez’s death bed, Eulalio Perez, whom he promptly pushes into an empty grave at the funeral. The next day, however, Lupe and his comrades, plotting to seize power, are outmanoeuvred and Perez is named Acting President. Though his fellow Generals beg him, Lupe refuses to consider apologising, even when he returns to his hotel room to find a note from Gonzalez’s widow to say she has found the watch:

“I decided that even if Perez hadn’t stolen the watch in question, the punishment was well deserved anyway because he’d been a dishonest man all his life.”

The real power, however, lies with Vidal Sanchez. When Lupe complains that Perez is incapable of organising an election, Sanchez retorts, “Where did you get the idea anyone gives a damn about a free election?” The novel goes on to recount the lead-up to the election. Sanchez forbids the military from belonging to any political party, but Lupe and his friends think they have outwitted him:

“While it would appear the party’s sole assets were two remarkable orators… it would actually boast some twenty thousand fully armed and equipped troops.”

However, Sanchez promptly resigns his post so he can stand for election.

The approaching election is more about military manoeuvring than campaigning for votes. Though often bordering on farcical, the novel also highlights an atmosphere of fear, for example when the generals are meeting and find their telephone lines cut:

“People I’ve told this story to invariably ask why we were so frightened. They don’t realise that anyone who gets involved in politics has to be prepared for the worst.”

The generals work together but have little respect for each other – one is even known as the Jinx and, when, in perhaps the novel’s most farcical episode, attempts to roll a train carriage full of dynamite towards the enemy repeatedly fail, Lupe has an idea:

“And then it occurred to me that the best idea might be to let it go with the Jinx on board. Maybe he’d take his bad luck with him.”

Lupe is similarly scathing when it comes to their presidential candidate, Juan Valdivia:

“The fact that Juan Valdivia was incompetent had been fully demonstrated. What I can’t understand is not that the troops realised he was a bungler, but that we hadn’t discovered it before we made him Commander in Chief of the East Army of the Restoration Forces.”

The Lightning of August is history as farce, demonstrating that the fate of a country often relies on the whims and flaws of those in and with power, and that political rhetoric is frequently used to excuse personal ambition. That Lupe himself reveals this in the story he tells is a masterstroke, his apparent openness uncovering his own delusions.

A Perfect Cemetery

July 27, 2021

There is so much to admire about Charco Press, who have opened up a new world of Latin American literature to an English-speaking audience over the last few years, that perhaps not enough is made of the fact that they, beyond the risk of publishing previously unheard-of authors, have more than once done so with a commercially precarious collection of short stories. This has brought us Margarita Garcia Robayo’s Fish Soup, Rodrigo Fuentes’ Trout, Belly Up, and now, Federico Falco’s A Perfect Cemetery, translated by International Booker Prize winner, Jennifer Croft. The collection grabs the reader’s attention from the opening sentence of the first story, ‘The Hares’:

“The king of the hares finished his coffee, put out the furs and set his cup down on a rock that was still hot.”

The juxtaposition of the strange, dream-like ‘king of the hares’ with the ordinary everyday act of drinking coffee is a feature of Falco’s writing throughout. The story begins like some ancient tale, with an altar of bleached bones and the hares circled around the king, “ears pricked, the slits in their noses probing the air.” When the king ventures into town he is spotted and chased, only escaping via the river. But a visit from a young woman, Cristina, suggests a more a more contemporary backstory from the moment she calls him Oscar. Falco provides enough detail to convince – for example, the names which feature in Cristina and Oscar’s conversation – without ever explaining, leaving the story suspended between the fantasy world of its opening and the ordinary world of its end.

The fantastic and the ordinary also battle it out in the title story as architect Victor Bagiardelli is hired to design a cemetery for the town of Colonel Isabeta. He is immediately determined to create the perfect cemetery:

“In his mind’s eye he could already see the new cemetery. The site could not have been better – he would never encounter its equal.”

Bargiardelli sees himself as an artist – “as though commanding an orchestra he began to conduct the movement of the bulldozers” – and refuses to compromise his vision despite the mayor’s concerns over the budget. Bargiardelli worries about the entrance gate, which the blacksmith will not show him until it is finished, and finding an oak tree big enough for his centre-piece, whereas in the mayor’s opinion “it is insane to pay that much for a plant.” Single-minded as he is, Bargiardelli must navigate the living as well as the dead: the mayor’s 104-year-old father whose deteriorating relationship with his son colours his view of the architect; and the mayor’s secretary, Mis Mahoney, whose advances he ignores to focus on his project. Whereas ‘The Hares’ feels as if a novel may lie behind it, ‘The Perfect Cemetery’ in lesser hands would have been stretched to novel length.

The same is true of ‘Forest Life’ which begins with a father trying to persuade the local undertaker to marry his daughter, Mabel:

“She knows how to sew, and she can make a good dinner, and she can clean…”

When this is unsuccessful, he tries again in a restaurant – “I’m giving her away” – but to no avail. What seems cruel proves to be a sign of their close relationship: their house is about to be taken from them as the forest around it is cut down and her father can see no other way to safeguard their future. Eventually she marries a Japanese man, Sakoiti, who pays for her father to go into a retirement home. He is polite and kind, even when it comes to sex:

“Are you comfortable? Are you relaxed? You can concentrate on how it feels, I’m going to give you pleasure…”

However, her father seems unable to leave their old life behind, and Mabel struggles to embrace her new one. A culture clash of a different kind takes place in ‘Silvi and her Dark Night’ when the teenage Silvi, whose mother administers the last rites to those in need, loses her faith. At the same time, she falls for one of a pair of young Mormon men going from house to house:

“She couldn’t take her eyes off Steve’s hands, Steve’s fingernails, Steve’s knees bent beneath the fabric of his trousers, his firm muscles, the taut grey seam.”

Her mother fears the Mormon’s have ’brain-washed’ her but in fact they are made uneasy by Silvi’s repeated attempts to convince Steve she loves him. What is in some ways a simple coming-of-age story becomes a spiritual battle ground, not least because Silvi’s growth will be spiritual if not religious.

As with the other stories in A Perfect Cemetery, ‘Silvi and her Dark Night’ demonstrates Falco’s skill with unusual relationships. All the stories contain characters who are devoted to another, whether that devotion is reciprocated or not. This, Falco seems to suggest, is where the complexity and wonder of the world lies. This is another excellent collection from Charco, and one can only hope that more of Falco’s work will follow.

Taratuta / Still Life with Pipe

July 25, 2021

The Latin American Boom is most closely associated with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortazar, but if there were a fifth member of that illustrious, though not necessarily united, grouping, it would be Chilean Jose Donoso, who also wrote a personal history of the movement. And yet Donoso’s work is now entirely out of print in English, and any reader who decided to take an interest in him would find they had acquired an expensive hobby. The two novellas Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe are among his later work, originally published (in one volume) in 1990, and translated by Gregory Rabassa in 1993. Both are, in different ways, about artistic creation.

Taratuta explores a theme of central concern to the writers of the Boom period, the relationship between history and fiction, though Donoso takes what might be termed a post-modern approach, as is common in his later work. Not only does he feature as the narrator of the story, but, in it, he grapples noy only with an attempt to turn a minor historical character, Taratuta, into fiction, but to verify that character in fact. He first encounters Taratuta in a biography of Lenin – he is the lover of a wealthy young woman who must marry another (as she is still a minor) so that the fortune she has inherited can be pledged to the Bolshevik cause. Even his name, however, is uncertain:

“By what authority does Walter state that Lodzinski was the person’s surname and not Taratuta or Moskovsky as others assert, or Kammerer, which was the name he adopted when he finally retired to San Remo?”

“What is the truth?” he asks himself, while at the same time sensing “the basis for a tremendous serial novel.” Ironically it is not the difficulty in getting to the truth that initially stops the narrator going any further, but the fact that Taratuta seems too perfect for fiction:

“…he belonged more to literature than to life, adorned as he was with novelistic attributes so that neither his deceptive revolutionary fervour nor his debateable loyalty to the Party succeeded in bringing him back into the world of real people for me: he stubbornly remained a character, not a person.”

When he writes an article about Taratuta, however, he receives a letter from a young man in Spain with the same name – “Did he dare think that somewhere in the world he had relatives with that name?” – but a reply is returned unanswered. Of course, that is not the end of the story, as coincidence will ensure that they meet later when the narrator is in Spain, with the ensuing relationship influencing the young man more than Donoso’s story.

If Taratuta feels, at times, by its very nature, a story still in the process of being written, poking fun at the life of a writer, Still Life with Pipe is a more focused satire of the visual arts. Its narrator, Marcos Ruiz Gallardo, sees himself as “a person of greater culture”, head of the Association for the Defense of the National Artistic Heritage – which, in the story’s opening sentence, we learn has just been dissolved in some acrimony. The real story begins when he plans a clandestine night in a hotel with his fiancée, Hildita. The hotel room itself is not a success – Hildita, he discovers, is aroused only by their previously secretive and hurried love-making (“she liked in it in the dark, with clothes on… and trousers only halfway open in case somebody came in…”) but in the town they come across the ‘Larco Museum’, filled with paintings by the (previously unknown to them) artist, Larco. Gallardo is not impressed:

“Everything seemed atrociously ugly to me, with dirty grays and browns and decomposed shapes that I had to put back together again, all far removed from the precepts of beauty that our association prized.”

The caretaker, who says he travelled with Larco everywhere, tells them stories of the painter in Paris and offers to sell them Still Life with Pipe but Gallardo regards the paintings as “devoid of merit.” Only later does he begin to worry:

“…what if that painting turned out to be a work of art, a painting worthy of a museum, the work of a genius that I wasn’t capable of appreciating because of my ignorance…”

Gallardo returns, going on to be offered the painting again, but when the caretaker says he seems to like it he cannot help but comment that “It’s poor in colour.” On a further visit the caretaker offers to give him the painting but he refuses claiming, now that he has involved the Association in ‘saving’ Larco’s work, that “it belongs to the national artistic heritage.” (Gallardo’s desire to own the painting but inability to take ownership suggests the ambiguous relationship with art the story is highlighting).

The target of Still Life with Pipe may seem an obvious one, but Donoso executes it with flair (the inclusion of Gallardo’s relationship with Hildita is a particularly amusing touch) and still manages to surprise us as the story heads towards its conclusion. Although these two novellas are not regarded as among Donoso’s major work, they demonstrate a writer of great skill and humour who deserves to be rediscovered.

Forty Lost Years

July 20, 2021

Rosa Maria Arquimbau was a Catalan writer whose career was disrupted by the Spanish Civil War and the years of dictatorship which followed. Born in 1909, she began publishing short stores as a teenager, and worked as a journalist during the early 1930s while also writing novels and plays. Politically active, she was driven into exile after the Republican defeat and publication became increasingly difficult, particularly with the banning of the Catalan language. Forty Lost Years is one of two novels she published in the 1970s as restrictions eased. The novel opens with the declaration of the Catalan Republic in 1931 and covers the forty years of the title to the time of publication.

The central character is Laura Vidal, a seamstress from a poor family, who is fourteen when the novel opens, slightly younger than the author. Though an obvious comparison for the novel is Merce Rodereda’s In Diamond Square, which has also been translated by Peter Bush, Laura reminded me much more of the protagonists of another writer who wrote about the experiences of young women struggling to survive in the thirties, Irmgard Keun. If anything, Laura is tougher than Keun’s narrators, as is quickly evident:

“…I never cried, not when I was a kid, not even when I got a slap for doing something naughty. I never ever cried.”

Like them, she has a lust for life, and, though she sees herself as a “skinny kid”, wears bright red lipstick out of her family’s sight, and dreams of buying high heels. Above all, she longs for freedom:

“I wanted to grow up once and for all and be a woman. To be able to do whatever I wanted. And not to have to ask permission to do everything. To be free.”

Unlike her friend, Herminia, however, her ambition is not to marry and have children, but to set up her own fashion house. Where Kuen’s characters can be cynical regarding men, they still face the danger of falling in love; Laura’s approach is practical rather than romantic: “I think trial marriages should be allowed;” she tells Herminia, “besides, why can’t women have the same freedom as men?” When she attracts the attention of a married man, Tomas, (it is now 1934 – the years passing can often be measured by the political events in the background) she is again practical (“Letting him love me, I reckoned, wouldn’t be so hard”) and allows him to sleep with her:

“After the first few, quite unpleasant moments, I decided it was overrated, and not worth the fuss.”

However, she continues the affair, allowing Tomas to pay for a flat for her so she can move out and start her dress-making business. In her view, “Morality was exclusively followed by the poor because they had no choice.”

When the civil war begins, conditions in Barcelona deteriorate and food becomes scarce. Laura is helped by a ‘patrol gang lad’ who brings her potatoes and flour but when he asks to marry her, she tells him, “Let’s keep things simple, kid.” Eventually she leaves Spain, as so many did, for France, with Herminia and her sister, Engracia. (Plans to emigrate further to Mexico are hampered by officialdom halfway and, for a time, she is stranded in Morocco). In France she once again enters into a practical arrangement with a man:

“I got on with Francesc. I mean we got on in a special way. He seemed to need my affection, and I needed his flat.”

It is not that Laura uses the men in her life – her relationships do not feel cynically one-sided – but she is ruled by her head rather than her heart, seeing them as contracts where both parties benefit. It is Engracia who becomes cynical – after he first husband dies, she marries a wealthy man twenty years older. Laura values her freedom too much, telling Tomas on her return to Barcelona, when he asks if she has a boyfriend:

“I don’t and have not wish to have one, provided I can work and earn my own living.”

Even when she does fall in love with a young journalist, who does not feel the same, her will power is such that she carries on regardless of how she is feeling. “It took all my strength,” she tells us, “to get over being ditched.” By this point she is a successful fashion designer and businesswoman, but we sense that the ‘forty lost years’ are not only those of Spain’s suffering, but of her own lack of emotional fulfilment.

Forty Lost Years may only be 140 pages long, but it has the feel of an epic, covering not only the turbulent history of Catalonia over that time, but the astonishing journey of its central character from little more than a child to a successful, independent woman. Laura’s determination to survive, and remain free, is inspiring, but also touches on the personal sacrifices that she must make. There have been fifty lost years as we have awaited for this wonderful novel to be translated into English.

August, October

July 17, 2021

Spanish author Andres Barba’s breakthrough with English-speaking readers came in 2017 with Such Small Hands, but Lisa Dillman had already translated two earlier novels into English for Hispabooks, Rain Over Madrid and August, October. In August, October we see the same concern with the innocence and cruelty of childhood though in a more conventional coming-of-age story, despite being written two years later. Tomas is fourteen and holidaying with his parents and younger sister, Anita, by the sea, as they do every year. This year, however, Tomas is no longer a child, but, as Barbas makes clear, not yet an adult:

“His face had grown sharper, his lips had stopped being so fleshy and gotten thinner…his cheekbones protruded, too, as did his chin, which, together with his round, childlike eyes, gave his face a frightened-boy look.”

Barbas perfectly captures the confused emotions of adolescence, for example his desire to call his Aunt Eli a ‘sick cow’ – an urge that is “too new and compelling to go unheeded.”

“He wanted to be risky, to jeopardise everything.”

This impulse can be seen when he stays under water even as he knows he is running out of air, losing consciousness when he finally makes it to dry land. It also plays a part in the encounter which will change his summer, with a group of local, working-class boys:

“He knew he had to strike first; it didn’t matter what happened after that, he had to strike first.”

A brief scuffle with one of the boys follows but, just as quickly, they invite him to go swimming with them at the docks. Tomas becomes part of the group, though at the same time he is aware that they are different from him:

“They couldn’t have been more then fourteen, yet they were older than him, as old as fossil fish, as survival, as torture or neglect.”

Spending every day with the boys, his relationship with his family changes, he becomes “sullen, presumptuous, independent” and his parents and sister fade in importance – “they were sort of distant irritating figures.” He is most intrigued by the way the boys talk about sex, in a “clinical, neutral way” –

“They didn’t brag, but nor did they skip over embarrassing, even sordid, details.”

However, an incident with Frani, one of the girls the boys hang around with, leaves him feeling humiliated.

At the same time as Tomas is having deal with the reality of sex rather than desire as an abstraction (at the beginning he fantasises about “an indistinct amalgam of imaginary bodies”), he is also having to come to terms with death, which proves just as difficult, when he is told that his Aunt Eli is terminally ill:

“Because if sick-Aunt-Eli was still a decontextualised concept – something almost abstract, distended by incredulity despite the fact he’d watched her deteriorate that summer – then deathbed-Aunt-Eli was a flat-out fiction, like a room with no joists, one that was impossible to enter.”

Tomas’ two worlds collide when he is out with Anita and spots Frani and the girls with another girl he doesn’t know:

“… she looked slightly older, or bigger boned, but her movements were more childlike and uncoordinated. It took him nearly ten minutes to realise she was retarded.”

Frani sends the new girl, Marita, with a message and we see how uncomfortable Tomas is with the cruel humour of the girls, particularly in the company of his sister. Tomas spends time away from the boys, taking his turn sitting with his aunt in hospital as she dies. When he returns, he sees them differently, “subtler, shrewder, more sombre.” It is a warning of what is to come. On the final night of the holiday, Tomas decides, “I’m going to fuck tonight” but the gang can’t find the girls – only Marita. In what follows Tomas finds himself far away from the person he was at the beginning of the novel.

Tomas’ August ends with a guilt that haunts him when he returns home. “I’m not a good person,” he tells his sister, “I’ve done very bad things.” Sex itself disgusts him, as when a girl in his class develops feelings for him:

“It wasn’t specifically Lourdes’ desire he found so unpleasant but desire in and of itself, any desire for bodies on top of one another.”

Finally, in October, his shame prompts him into action, but is there anything he can do which will alter the way he feels? August, October is not as original as Barbas other work – there are echoes, for example, of Alberto Moravia’s Agostino – but what raises it above the average coming-of age story is the deftness with which Barbas portrays the moods of adolescence, the shape-shifting not only of Tomas’ identity, but of how he sees others. As with all his books, it warns us of humanity’s latent cruelty which can so easily consume us and which we must constantly guard against, though it is not without hope of forgiveness.

The Clerk

July 5, 2021

Argentinian author Guillermo Saccomanno’s The Clerk (translated by Andrea Labinger) presents us with a world that is both instantly recognisable and eerily dystopian. At night, the streets are filled with “gang members, the homeless and cloned dogs,” the skies are patrolled by helicopters, and it’s not unusual to hear distant explosions. The clerk is the most ordinary of ordinary men. He works in a place where dismissals are announced via loudspeaker and the latest victim is then surrounded by security staff and escorted from the building. He lives in a flat which smells of “fried food, tobacco, dirty clothes.” His wife, a woman with a cigarette permanently attached to her mouth, intimidates him (“When she gets riled up, she ends up hitting him.”) He sleeps on the couch in the fetal position. His children are feral. And yet he feels that he retains the potential to be extraordinary:

“If the proper circumstance presented itself, he could be someone else.”

Despite his anonymous and inconsequential life, “he’s convinced that he’s better than the others” though he worries that:

“There’s still the possibility that, after exerting so much effort to make himself appear like a man incapable of killing a fly, he’s really become that man.”

His chance to prove himself comes when, working late, he encounters the boss’s secretary and escorts her home through the dangerous streets. His romantic imagination is enflamed: when she tells him she’s a “refugee from a shipwreck” (an emotional shipwreck), he immediately conjures up the following fantasy:

“If he were involved in a shipwreck, aboard a boat with room enough for only two passengers, and if he, the oarsman, had to deal with the dilemma of choosing the survivors, he would choose the young woman without hesitation, and, if necessary, he’d beat the other shipwreck victims on their heads and faces with his oar.”

The sheer number of clauses in the sentence indicates how far his imagination has wandered from reality. When he discovers that the person who has left her in this state is the boss he immediately assumes “she was duped”:

“The boss sweet-talked her in that half-paternal, half-fatuous style of those who know their own power. He must have hinted at a promotion.”

They spend the night together and a burning love and a burning jealousy develop in the clerk. This love, he feels, is the catalyst which will change him, the passion which will motivate extraordinary deeds. Yet, the jealousy means he cannot entirely trust her. Even as he declares his love for her:

“He sees her sitting on his boss’s lap, telling him about this lunch, about his profession of love. She imitates him. They both burst out laughing.”

In his confusion, the clerk shares his story with a co-worker, a man he has always been suspicious of as he carries a notebook in which he makes occasional entries (“he imagined that there must be something directed against him in these pages”). The clerk’s office mate shares his dreams too, and seals their confessions with an embrace:

“With their arms flung around one another, they cry. But they don’t cry for the same reason.

“The clerk cries out of fear.”

The clerk’s office mate is “deeply into Russian literature” and we may recognise the clerk from Gogol and Dostoevsky, a poor man in a soul-destroying job who believes that greatness lies within him. (Saccomanno also quotes Kafka in the novel’s epigraph: “…so extreme an experience of solitude that one can only call it Russian.”) But his life is not the romantic dream he longed for; “Falling in love,” he realises, “is a sickness.” His actions become less rather than more heroic. Not only does his jealousy remain, but he begins to doubt whether the secretary is quite the person he thought she was (after their first encounter he thinks, “We’re all someone else”, an early warning that he may not be the only one whose inner and outer lives contrast).:

“How can you love someone you fear, he wonders. Because, he realises, she is possibly more frightening than the boss.”

He takes her to a kick-boxing competition – a sport in marked contrast to the meek manners of the clerk – which she relishes:

“She doesn’t root for either one: all she wants to see is blood.”

It becomes increasingly clear to both the clerk and the reader that the women he thinks he loves may be someone else entirely.

The Clerk is a novel about dreams. At the beginning the clerk is subservient and weak but still holds onto the belief he can be better. He dreams of a heroic love in the same way his office mate dreams, Lennie-like, of building a cabin, owning a small farm and living off the land. But, in the world he lives in, a sadder, crueller version of our own, there is no place for such dreams. The Clerk is exquisitely, if bleakly, imagined; the life Saccomanno creates for the clerk feels as lived in as his overcoat in this vivid, hopeless fable.

Lost Books – My Last Duchess

July 2, 2021

Iain Crichton Smith is not unusual among writers in being defined by his first novel, Consider the Lilies, set in the time of the Highland Clearances, which made its way, perhaps fittingly given the years Smith spent as a teacher of English, into the Scottish curriculum (though less frequently taught now, his short stories remain among the Scottish Text choices). The contrast between that regularly reissued debut and his later novels, most of which have never been reprinted, is, however, stark. Of course, Smith did not primarily see himself as a novelist – according to Angus Calder, he spoke of writing novels “to fill the gap between poems.” Despite this he wrote ten (and two in Gaelic), of which My Last Duchess, published in 1971, is the third.

My Last Duchess is the first, but not the last, of Smith’s novels to deal with a man in crisis. Mark Simmons finds himself, at 42, a failure: his job as a teacher at a college is not the university post he longed for, the book he has been writing for many years is still unfinished, and his wife, Lorna, has left him:

“There had been Lorna and before that there had been his parents and now there was nothing but the statement, ‘I have nowhere to go.’”

The novel opens with what we might take as a last desperate gesture, a visit to an author he has long admired (ironically, or perceptively, one whose name was made with their first novel which they have never equalled) in the “expectation of a monologue dense with wisdom and knowledge of life.” He is, of course, disappointed, sitting in silence as he listens to the writer and his son:

“Who are these guiltless people, he wondered, what sinless world, cold as stainless steel, have they emerged from, fully formed? They speak with conviction of the profoundest matters and what they do not speak of they consider unimportant.”

Mark spends the night in a hotel room and, as he thinks back, we begin to see the tensions in his marriage. At the centre of his relationship with his wife, which we later learn began when she was a student of his, is his need for superiority (“She never read much and nothing very deep”), but with this comes a pressure to succeed, as well as a worry that, with her insight into other people, “in her own wandering disorganised way she might not be brighter than himself.” A meeting with an uncle of hers early in the marriage demonstrates the difference between them: Lorna sees the man as an individual who was once kind to her; Mark sees only his politics. At this point in the marriage she can tell him:

“Anyway your book will be good and they’ll make you a lecturer or something fabulous like that.”

As the years pass, this looks less and less likely. The next morning, in the present, he retreats further into his past, taking a train to the city and the university he once attended:

“What could he find in this place? Himself? Penetrated through and through by self-disgust he waited as for some saviour, as if out of the library directly ahead of him there should emerge a figure who might tell him that his life had not been wasted, that art and poetry were in fact still present even in the middle of this desperate winter, and that the lighted windows were sending out meaningful signals into the darkening evening.”

He visits the family where he once lodged, and the home of a woman he meets on the train, searching for comfort and understanding. “You’re very unhappy,” she tells him at the end of the first part.

In the second part we learn of Mark’s early life, and of his marriage to Lorna. We see Mark develop a contempt for those around him – Wilkinson, his superior at the college (“incomprehensible”), Lorna’s friend Mrs Carmichael (“to him she represented the bourgeois”), and her attempt (with Lorna) to help a hermit in the village:

“If he’s a real hermit he shouldn’t want you and in any case how do you know you’re making him any happier?”

A change occurs when Mark meets a young writer, Hunter, who has worked in city slums – in Mark’s eyes he has “gone into the inferno with no weapons but his concern and courage.” But as Lorna tells him: “You don’t want to help anyone. You just want a thrill.” Not only does Lorna’s belief in Mark dissipate, so does his belief in himself.

My Last Duchess can seem dated at times – particularly with references to contemporary culture such as Dixon of Dock Green and Monty Python, as well as an advert spotted at a book stall for John Updike’s Couples – but the issue it faces – how the dreams of our youth interact with the reality of our middle-age – is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. Smith manages to simultaneously sympathise with Mark and shine an unforgiving light on his flaws. Unlikely now to be reprinted but available as an e-book, the novel remains worth reading for Smith’s ability to see Mark’s journey through to the end without ever entirely losing hope.