Dashiell Hammett: The Glass Key (1931) and Heisler’s The Glass Key (1942)

Ned Beaumont is a tall, thin, moustache-wearing, TB-ridden, drinking, gambling, hanger-on to the political boss of a corrupt Eastern city. Nevertheless, like every Hammett hero (and like Hammett himself), he has an unbreakable, if idiosyncratic moral code. Ned’s boss wants to better himself with a thoroughbred senator’s daughter; but does he want it badly enough to commit murder? If he’s innocent, who wants him in the frame? Beaumont must find out.

I have read everything Raymond Chandler has written. He used to be one my favourite authors. This might be the reason why I neglected Hammett for so long. Maybe I thought he would be too similar and that this would influence my reading.

The Glass Key was my introduction to Dashiell Hammett and although it did remind me a bit of Chandler, they are still quite different. Hammett is at the same time sparser and coarser.

At the heart of The Glass Key lies the question “Who has killed Taylor Henry?”. Taylor Henry is the son of the influential politician Ralph Henry. In an attempt to appear cleaner than he is, the corrupt politician Paul Madvig tries to associate himself with Henry. And he is in love with Henry’s daughter Janet. When Taylor is found dead, rumors start to circulate that he might have been killed by Paul. None of these people are really main characters, the central figure and exemplary tough-guy, is Ned Beaumont. He is a sort of assistant to Paul Madvig and tries, like a PI, to investigate the murder. He visits bars and clubs and people. Gets beaten up and is held captive. Women literally throw themselves at him. This all leaves him quite unfazed. No matter how much you beat that guy up, how often you threaten him, how many times you flatter him or try to seduce him, you will not get much of a reaction but a very short reply. This is as tough as tough-guys go.

The interest, at least for me, did not lie in the solving of the murder. I couldn’t care less. The appeal of this book, is the character of Ned Beaumont, this monosyllabic guy who doesn’t even flinch when he is beaten to a pulp. The other appeal is the world and the atmosphere this novel depicts.

The world of The Glass Key is a world of corruption, prohibition, easy women, hard men, bars and secret joints, bribery and violence.

And of course one has to mention the dialogue. You couldn’t find any more sparse and caustic dialogue in any novel.

Ned Beaumont advanced into the room where Lee and the Kid were.

The Kid asked: “How’s the belly?”

Ned Beaumont did not say anything.

Bernie Despain exclaimed: “Jesus! For a guy that says he came up here to talk you’ve done less of it than anybody I’ve ever heard of.”

“I want to talk to you,” Ned Beaumont said. “Do we have to have all these people around?”

“I do,” Despain replied. “You don’t. You can get away from them just by walking out and going about your own business.”

“I’ve got business here. “

After having finished the book I realized that I had the movie. It is part of a collection of Film noir movies that I had ordered before Christmas. I immediately watched it and liked it a lot.

The story is told differently. More chronological and Janet Henry’s (Veronica Lake) role is much more important. A few names have been changed. There is a club owner who is Irish in the book. He is Italian in the movie which was probably more in line with the depiction of wise guys as they populated the film noir. What I truly liked about the movie is Veronica Lake. Since I have seen L.A. Confidential (one of my favourite movies) in which Kim Basinger is compared to Veronica Lake I always wanted to see the real one. I think she is really special.

Don’t ask me whether I prefer the novel or the movie. I enjoyed reading and watching at the almost same time. It was as if the characters had stepped out of the pages at the end of the book and come alive.

I am really pleased I found the trailer which is not usual for every old movie.

Philippe Lioret’s Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas aka Don’t Worry, I’m Fine (2006)

What if the person you feel closest to would disappear one day without leaving a note? Just like that, without real reason, without explanation. Would you survive to be ripped apart like this?

When Lili returns home from a summer camp and hears that her twin brother has disappeared, she is devastated.  Lili cannot believe it. Her parents tell her that he had a fight with their father and left in anger, just taking his guitar.

Lili cannot understand. He would never leave like this, not call her, not wait for her. She breaks into pieces, doesn’t eat anymore, let’s herself die until she is finally brought to a psychiatric hospital. But that doesn’t help, it is making it even worse. Only when her brother finally sends a post card, telling her not to worry and that he is fine and travelling from one town to the next, she slowly returns to life.

Bookaroundthercorner reviewed the novel by Olivier Adam (not yet translated) on which the movie Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas is based and mentioned that the movie was as good as the novel. After having read what she wrote I had to see it.

It isn’t easy to write about this movie without spoiling it. Let me just tell you that this must be one of the most moving and touching movies I have ever seen. It is heartbreakingly sad and the ending is not at all what you would expect. It is very well acted. The music is perfect and pulls your heartstrings. It is sad and at the same time it looks at life in a middle class French family, the boredom and the routine but also the dreams hidden under the surface, the clumsy way of communicating and the incredible choices everybody makes. This is a movie that will make you question yourself. What would you have done, how would you have acted and reacted. Each and every one of the four main characters at the core of the story must make decisions, decide whether or not to speak.

Like in most French movies there is also a love story and it is also very touching. As sad as it is, there is a lot of beauty in this movie.

I have to admit that this movie got me all teary eyed which is something that doesn’t happen very often.

The title song of the film has been composed by the French duo AaRON here is their website. In the movie it is said to have been composed by Lili’s bother.

Mélanie Laurent, as Lili, is a really good and very cute actress and also Kad Merad as the father is very convincig. This is the second time I have seen Julien Boisselier in a week (the last time in Les femmes de l’ombre that I didn’t like) and both times I found him very good..

Erri de Luca: Tre cavalli aka Three Horses (1999) The Scent of Earth, Sage and Flowers Pervading a Story of Love, Pain and War

Three Horses

From Argentina to Italy, the intense, metaphysical and poetic story of a gardener in love, by Italy’s most prominent writer. “A MAN’S LIFE LASTS AS LONG AS THREE HORSES. YOU HAVE already buried the first.” Somewhere along the coastline of Italy, a man passes his days in solitude and silence, tending a garden and reading books of travel and adventure. Through these simple routines he seeks to quiet the painful memories of the past: a life on the run from Argentina’s Dirty War; a young bride “disappeared” by the military; a terrifying escape through the wilds of Patagonia. Yet everywhere he turns, new life is pulsing, ready to awaken his senses, like the force that drives his fruit trees into bloom. People and events from the past and present migrate into patterns assigned by a metaphysical geometry. A woman of the world reintroduces him to love. An African day laborer teaches him the meaning of gratitude. In this intense narrative, every acute observation, every nuance, becomes a means of salvation. Using a language that is both gripping and contemplative, Three Horses is an unforgettable tale.

Imagine the smell of warm earth, the scent of sage, the intense aroma of mimosas. These are evoked like musical themes in this beautifully sensuous novel that reads like a hymn to beauty and pain. But Three Horses is about much more than this. It introduces us to one of the most endearing narrators. A while back Litlove had a post on favourite male characters. If I had read Erri de Luca’s  Tre cavalli at the time, I would have mentioned the narrator as one of the most appealing characters of all time.

I only read second-hand books. I lean them against the bread basket, I turn the page and it stays like this. This is how I chew and read. (…) Like this, at lunch time, I sit in the bistro, always on the same chair, I order soup and wine and I read.

I liked him from the start, this taciturn, profound reader, quietly eating, turning the pages but still open to everything around him. Open to life, and every little sign of it, even open to love, despite what he has been through. A man like a tree, deeply rooted in earth, poetical and down-to-earth at the same time. Through him, we catch glimpses of a painful past, a lover killed by the military junta in Argentina, thrown from a helicopter into the sea. Is this why he only reads novels with a watery theme?

You are also drawn into a war because you are ashamed of staying out of it. And then grief snatches you and keeps you there as a soldier of rage.

The narrator is back in Italy. He is a gardener and to touch the earth, to smell the richness of the herbs, sage, thyme, rosemary keeps him alive.

The sauce and a handful of oregano already announce the summer. I take a pinch and inhale it to awaken my senses.

This novel is so beautiful it is hard to describe. The narrator meets Làila and falls deeply in love. He meets Selim, a man from an unnamed African country who tells him to read the future in the ashes of burned laurel leaves. Everything is connected. Selim sells the mimosas that the narrator offers him, he sells the thyme and the rosemary. He pays back in kindness and friendship and even more if needed.

The gentleness and the tenderness of the narrator is overwhelming. He is a good man, a man who is trustworthy. A man who has the gift of being able to be a true friend. A reader who believes humans are changed through books much more than through the things they experience. A listener who lives life with all of his senses.

The days go by like this. In the evening, at home, I crush raw tomatoes and oregano over drained pasta and I nibble cloves of garlic in front of a Russian book.

Despite this gentleness he is capable of violence, he was a soldier, he killed people. He would even be able to commit a murder. Would he kill for the woman he loves? Or would someone else kill for him? Would that make him less of a murderer?

I’m often drawn to slim novels, novels that have been written by writers who are also poets. This is one of the most intense I have read in a long time. It has a floating quality, still it is very effortless to read, you could read it in one sitting but that would be a shame. It is too beautiful to rush through.

I was many times reminded of the poems of Octavio Paz.

Làila listens to me and she is so close to my ear that she manges to breathe islands into it.

De Luca writes about the relationship of Italy and Argentina in his foreword. Until 1939 Argentina let 7 million immigrants enter the country. Over half of that number came from Italy. You can easily hear the Italian influence on the Argentinian Spanish. It’s much softer and closer to Italian than any other variety.

De Luca is one of the very great Italian storytellers. His books are translated in many languages but only a very few are available in English.

The quotes are translated from the French as I read the novel in its French translation Trois chevaux.

For those of you who understand Italian I attached this homage. Those who don’t understand it can still try to feel the rhythm of his language. This is pretty much the rhythm of the novel.

Historical Novels

100 Must-Read Historical Novels (Bloomsbury Good Reading Guides)

I always thought that I didn’t like historical novels or that it was at least a genre that I hardly ever read. Still, when I came upon this little book (it’s a very small size) on amazon I was curious and as it was one that you can open and browse (as you can when clicking on the picture) I had a look and was astonished how many of them I had read or knew. I found Pat Barker’s Regeneration in it as well as Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower. Willa Cather is mentioned alongside with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. I was so curious that I finally had to order it and I am glad I did. It’s a great little book.

100 Must-read Historical Novels describes 100 books in detail, with a brief introduction to the author and  a summary of the book. Other books of the author are mentioned as well as books that are similar and movies based on the book.

In between the entries on the authors are book lists with themes. You can find a list of books on World War I and its aftermath, a list with books on the American West, a list with historical novels on Asia, a list with historical fiction for children, novels on ancient Greece and Egypt, The Renaissance, The Middle Ages and so on and so forth.

I picked two lists as examples and reproduced them for you:

Black History Fiction

David Dabydeen, A Harlot’s Progress

Barbara Hambly, A Free Man of Colour

Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes

Toni Morrison, A Mercy

Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress

Caryl Philipps, Cambridge

William Styron, The Confession of Nat Turner

Margaret Walker, Jubilee

Writers’ Lives

Andrew Taylor, The American Boy (Edgar Alan Poe)

Julian Barnes, Arthur & George (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

Anthony Burgess, Nothing Like the Sun (William Shakespeare)

Frederick Busch, The Night Inspector (Herman Melville)

Tracy Chevalier, Burning Bright (William Blake)

J.M. Coetze, The Master of Petersburg (Fyodor Dostojevsky)

Michael Didbin, A Rich Full Death (Robert Browning)

Helen Dunmore, Counting the Stars (Catullus)

Carlos Fuentes, The Old Gringo (Ambrose Bierce)

Tom Holand, The Vampyre (Lord Byron as one uf the undead)

Michèle Roberts, Fair Exchange (William Wordsworth)

Steven Saylor, A Twist at the End (O.Henry)

C.K. Stead, Mansfield (Katherine Mansfield)

Colm Toibin, The Master (Henry James)

Of those mentioned here I have Colm Toibin’s The Master and A Mercy on my TBR pile. I did start The American Boy but never really got into it but Devil in a Blue Dress is a favourite.

I realize that my understanding of historical novels was slightly narrower than what is shown in this book and maybe that was based on a misconception. A historical novel had to be set before the 20th century. That’s why I wouldn’t have considered Pat Barker to be a writer of historical novels. According to Nick Rennison, the author of the book guide, he applied the same rule that Sir Walter Scott once applied. In order for a novel to be called historical, the events that are described must have taken place at least 60 years prior to the year in which the writer lives.

My favourite three historical novels (in a narrow sense) are: Françoise Chandernagors L’allée du roi aka The King’s Way, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

I know that many of you love historical novels. Which would be your top three?

Anne Tyler: Back When We Were Grownups (2001)

The first sentence of Anne Tyler’s 15th novel, Back When We Were Grown Ups, sounds like something out of a fairy tale: “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Alas, this discovery has less to do with magic than with a late-middle-age crisis, which is visited upon Rebecca Davitch in the opening pages of the book. At 53, this perpetually agreeable widow is “wide and soft and dimpled, with two short wings of dry, fair hair flaring almost horizontally from a centre part”. Given her role as the matriarch of a large family–and the proprietress of a party-and-catering concern, The Open Arms–Rebecca is both personally and professionally inclined towards jollity. But at an engagement bash for one of her multiple stepdaughters, she finds herself questioning everything about her life: “How on earth did I get like this? How? How did I ever become this person who’s not really me?”

Did you ever have the feeling you are living the wrong life? You should be somewhere else and someone else? I think this did happen to me in the past a few times and this may be one of the reasons why I could relate so well to Rebecca, the main character of this novel. This was my first Anne Tyler novel and I liked it a great deal. It’s a marvelous novel. Warm, rich, touching. It’s not a novel in which there is a lot of action, not at all, there are a few intense scenes the rest are flashbacks, thoughts, feelings. Back When We Were Grownups explores if there are signs that we live the right life, if there are signs that we could read before things happen, “Prophetic Moments”, as Rebecca calls them.

Or is it just like Poppy, her late husband’s great-uncle states:

“And that’s where he and I differed,”  Poppy said. “Because I was always telling him, ‘Look,’ I said. ‘Face it,’ I said. ‘There is no true life. Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be. You just do the best you can with what you’ve got,’ I said.”

During a picnic with her family Rebecca all of a sudden has this strong feeling of being at the wrong place. She is a fifty something widow, mother and grandmother and professional hostess. The house she has inherited from her husband, a grand old mansion, is used as a place where people can celebrate parties, weddings, birthdays. One of her daughters is a chef and does the cooking.

Rebecca looks back on her life and the turning point, the one moment that made her embark on this life that she has suddenly become so unsure of. When she was still a young woman, studying for a degree, dating a fellow student, Will, she was invited to a party at the mansion she is now living in and meets the older son of the family. He sees her and chooses her immediately, as his companion and as the mother for his three little daughters. His wife abandoned him for a dubious career as a singer and the poor man struggles to keep his girls happy. When he sees Rebecca she strikes him as someone very cheerful, which she wasn’t, as she thinks looking back. Two weeks later they are married. She has left her highschool sweetheart and moves in with this older man and the three little girls. They have a daughter of their own and organize parties at their house. Six years later he dies suddenly.

Rebecca wonders if she shouldn’t have stayed with Will, pursued her studies. At present she lives with her husbands 99-year-old great-uncle. The old man is somewhat demented but still appears very intelligent and articulate, just very forgetful. His wish is a birthday party for his hundredth birthday. Rebecca is afraid of all the effort this will require and doubts he will even remember it the next day but someone says that he will still enjoy it while it lasts and so she gives in.

The birthday party is really the culmination point of the novel. It’s a wonderful final scene, very rich and full of life. The old man enjoys every moment of it and describes to those gathered around him with great minutiae every instant of this memorable day.

He must be nearing the finishing line now; he was dressing for the party (“…the crackly  feel of starched shirtsleeves when yu slither your arms inside them…”) And anyhow Rebecca was enjoying this. It was sort of like a report on what it was like to be alive., she decided. let’s say you had to report back to heaven at the end of your time on earth, tell them what your personal allotment of experience had been: wouldn’t is sound like Poppy’s speech? The smell of radiator dust on a winter morning, the taste of hot maple syrup…

This is one of the best and most touching scenes in a novel that is full of wonderful moments.

But before we arrive at Poppy’s birthday, we follow Rebecca as she tests the possibilities she might have missed. She contacts Will after all these years, gets some books from the university.

This is a novel about possibilities, lost dreams, second chances, family and love and ultimately about chosing the right path and belonging. I really loved this book. I liked Rebecca and many of the other characters, especially Poppy, the great-uncle. I liked how it shows that choosing a partner also means choosing a life and that maybe sometimes when we feel we are just drifting we are actually just sliding along because we are on the right path. Back When we Were Grownups also takes a very close look at parenting and step parenting. Rebecca never makes a difference between any of her girls.

I always like novels that explore alternative life styles or unusual families and big old houses. Rebecca lives with her late husbands great-uncle, every Thursday the whole family gathers at her place, every evening she is on the phone with her best friend, her brother-in-law. She is surrounded by people and life, still there are these moments for which I loved the book even more:

And anyone would agree that “Stardust” was a melancholy song. So that was probably why, in the middle of “How Old Are You?” she felt an ache of homesickness in her own house.

Did you read any novels by Anne Tyler? I got Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (said to be her best) and The Amateur Marriage that I would like to read next.

If I had to compare her, there are some recent authors who came to my mind, Rachel Cusk and Ayelet Waldman and maybe Rebecca Miller.

Literature and War Readalong February 25 2011: How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston

This is just a quick note to remind you to make sure to get your copy of Jennifer Johnston’s WWI novel How Many Miles to Babylon? in time, should you want to read along this month. This is the second novel in the Literature and War Readalong. It is, like Strange Meeting, a very short novel, only 160 pages. The story adds another twist as the protagonists are Irish. Jennifer Johnston has been quoted saying that she had a passion for WWI but that it was also a substitute for her. What she really wanted to write about were the Troubles.

I found these interesting quotes on contemporarywriters

Prohibited friendship is also at the heart of How Many Miles to Babylon? The first-person narrator is Alec Moore, an only child and heir to the Big House; his ‘private and secret friend’ is Jerry Crowe, a village boy he has known since childhood. In 1914, fighting together near the Belgian border, the friends’ loyalty is tested by a brutal enforcement of class divisions and a code that brooks no sentiment or mercy. Johnston is adept at suggesting her characters’ interior lives through image and symbol, and invites her readers to join the dots between what is said and felt, as in this incident, related by Alec, at his parents’ dinner table: ‘[My mother] looked at [my father] with contempt and said nothing. I blushed and looked down, away from them, at the smooth glowing silver neatly ordered around my plate. A griffin raised its talon in an angry gesture on the handle of each spoon and fork.’

The First World War is a ‘passion’ for Johnston, one she initially used as a metaphor. ‘When I started writing prose, I had it very seriously in my mind that I wanted to write about the Troubles … yet I couldn’t face taking them head-on. So I started to write about the First World War…  how people try to keep their lives normal, their feet on the ground, even though terrible things are going on’ (The Irish World, 24 October 2007).

I hope many will feel tempted to join me in reading and discussing Jennifer Johnston. Should you not have read anything by this wonderful Irish writer, this is a good opportunity.

Ed Harris’ Pollock (2000) The Man Behind Drip Painting

Who was the man behind the term Drip Painting, also part of the so-called Action Painting? Did you ever wonder? Before I watched the movie Pollock I was always awed by his paintings, their power, their originality and how easily we could attribute them to the painter. Now I am infuriated. What an asshole.

Be it as it may, this is an excellent movie, showing the struggles of a painter against the backdrop of New York’s art scene in the 40s. We see all the important people of the time, Peggy Guggenheim, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner. During that time, important art mostly came from Europe. If it hadn’t been for de Kooning and Pollock, the American art would never have become as important as it finally did.

If it hadn’t been for Lee Krasner, what would Pollock have become? Nothing, I would say and that is what infuriated me. The guy was a mean alcoholic who went on drinking sprees that lasted days and maybe weeks until he woke up somewhere, anywhere, shivering, sweating and without any specific memory of what had happened. Into this mess enters Lee Krasner, a young g aspiring painter herself, immediately she sees Pollock’s genius and does everything to help him. She moves in with him, takes care of him, phones and invites journalists and galleries and rich people.

After a few years they get married. In order to help him stay sober, she convinces him to move to the country where they seem to be happy at first. It is here that he develops his art and goes from abstract expressionism to action painting and later explores the technique of drip painting for which he is so famous. It is fascinating to watch him paint and Ed Harris does an extremely good job.

Unfortunately Pollock doesn’t realize how blessed he is and after being sober for two years he starts to drink again. Only worse this time. He also begins an affair with a much younger woman. After a day of heavy drinking he drives her and her best friend to a party and crashes the car on the way home. Pollock and the friend die.

We never really get know why he is drinking. He just does. And the more Lee Krasner tries to keep him away from it, the more he drinks. It’s common knowledge that no alcoholic will just change because you threaten to leave him. You have to do it. She never does. It doesn’t mean he would have stopped if she had left but to simply threaten him didn’t change one thing and she suffered as well. Apart from a fascination and admiration for his painting, I have no clue what she saw in him. We don’t see them in many intimate moments. They never seem to talk. The Pollock we see in this movie may have been a great painter but he as a very unlikable, selfish character.

Lucky for Lee Krasner she wasn’t in the car, when he crashed it. She lived another thirty years and did her best work after his death.

I really admired her for saying no to his plea to have a child. She correctly saw that this would leave her in charge of two people. Apart from that most of the time they were broke as it took quite a long time until his art was recognized for what it was.

Pollock is a very esthetic movie with a great score featuring jazz from the 40s, Benny Goodman, Billy Holliday, which makes for great atmosphere. All in all it’s extremely well done, highly watchable and interesting.