Tag Archives: humour

The Love of Singular Men by Victor Heringer 

This novella arrived while I was sick with Covid. I have had a subscription to Peirene for many years, and this novel, translated from Portuguese, set in Brazil, was up to its high standards. I read it within a day, despite having something of an addled brain due to the virus.

I love being able to access fiction from other parts of the world, and Peirene Press have been an important part of my ability to acquire and read translated fiction. You too could subscribe. The Peirene website is here.

The Love of Singular Men

The Love of Singular Men is a short novel – 170 pages – but full of tenderness, playfulness, rule-breaking and humour. The text is sprinkled with illustrations, some line drawings by the author, some photographs, and other material such as a school report card, or the list of things given by one of the characters. Victor Heringer likes to subvert some classic western literary practices. Perhaps the most striking is his public invitation to future readers, asking them to tell him the name of their first love and, if they chose, their own name. The result is several pages of lists from the responses. It’s a moving way of reminding the reader that there is a great deal of love in the world. At one point Victor Heringer provides a list of classmates and their attributes, or a play script, sometimes incidents are related in the traditional manner. 

The reminder of all the love in the world is welcome, for this novel is set in Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s when life was hard, even in the suburbs. The backdrop is of torture and compromise with evil. One day Camilo’s dad brings home a boy about the same age as his adolescent son.

It was only then I saw his head framed by the rear window. The shaved head of a boy as much a boy as me.
But I had a full head of hair and I wasn’t that coffee-with-watered-down-milk colour. I was red in the summer, and greenish white in the winter. His skull must always have been that same mixture of colours. He looked strong; I was skinny, more breakable, lame. But his eyes looked fragile, like the neck of a small bird, or a puppy that finds itself caught in a rat trap. (16)

The Love of Singular Men concerns two adolescent boys. Camilo is the narrator and born with legs that don’t work well. Cosme, about his age, is the boy brought home by Camilo’s father. As the boys grow older, they become close until they become lovers. It is short-lived but determines the course of the rest of Camilo’s life.

I’d like to say I lived two years in two weeks with my Cosme, but no. Two decades. These things don’t happen. We lived fourteen days. I loved every centimetre of him, but not every minute. In all, there were 20,160 minutes, many lost to school and showers, to lunches. When we were together, still others were lost in silence, with the becauses of silence. Was it because of this or that, was it because I had to do my homework, was it because you don’t like me any more? We said we loved each other, but that wasn’t the same thing it is today. (121-122)

The crux of the novel is a murder, almost senseless, very violent. About half the novel takes place years later. Camilo is now an adult and he invites the grandson of the murderer into his flat. He describes his life, empty of friendships and lovers, dominated by his lost first love, and with meaning and purpose removed.

There are so many contrasts in this short read. Love and violence; able-bodied and physical disability; gender; sexuality; class; ethnicity; adults and adolescents. It’s a heady mix, both in content and in the way it is written.

Victor Heringer

Victor Heringer was a Brazilian writer, born in 1988 who died far too soon in 2018, just before his thirtieth birthday. The Love of Singular Men is his first book to be translated into English. Zadie Smith is quoted on the cover:

Upon finishing it you want to immediately meet the young man who wrote it, shake him vigorously by the hand and congratulate him on the beginning of a brilliant career. But Victor Heringer is gone. He left this beautiful book behind.

The Love of Singular Men by Victor Heringer, first published in 2016 in Portuguese. English translation published by Peirene Press in 2023, translated from the Portuguese by James Young. 180pp

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House-Bound by Winifred Peck

I am intrigued by the changes in this country, brought by the Second World War, especially in the lives of women. House-Bound is the second of three books, published by Persephone that I recently bought, and I chose it because it looked at the disappearance of domestic servants and the effects on the households they had previous served. In addition, the Persephone catalogue suggested that Winifred Peck wrote with a lightness of touch that made this an interesting and diverting novel. 

House-Bound

It was as she stood in Mrs Loman’s Registry Office for Domestic Servants that Rose Fairlaw suddenly realised what a useless and helpless woman she was. Up till that moment she had always assumed vaguely that she was a busy and useful member of society. (1)

Rose lives in Edinburgh (called Castleburgh in the novel) during the Second World War. She is middle-aged and in need of maids and a cook to help her run her house. But it is 1941 and there are none to be had at the registry office. They have been called up or gone to better paid situations. Like many well-off women Rose faces having to manage the domestic duties of her house herself. She is struck by the comment of Mrs Loman.

‘Millions of women do just that.’

She announces her intentions to her friend Laura, and to her husband Stuart.

‘But – but –‘ Stuart plunged among a host of objections striding up and down the room. ‘I can’t have you opening the door to tradespeople.’ (52)

Rose has not had any experience of housework or cooking, and protests at the ‘uselessness of people like me’.

‘But you’re not useless,’ protested Stuart. ‘Women like you uphold the standards of civilisation.’ (53)

Rose immediately becomes quite overwhelmed and exhausted by her new responsibilities for the house is old, and although there is only Rose and her husband, he makes no changes to his routines. The registry office sends her Mrs Childe who instructs Rose on how to clean and comes in ‘to do’ in the mornings. Rose is also assisted in her housework by the advice and practical example of Major Posner, a psychiatrist with the American army. He is full of practical suggestions, and occasionally comes by and fixes a meal.

The courage of Rose in taking on the housework is one theme of the novel. It represents a profound social change, for Rose does indeed feel useless, and unproductive at a time when everyone seems busy with war work. The novel’s title, House-Bound, comes to have a literal meaning.

Everything in a house reminds you of something else you’ve got to do. You start up from the hall, and remember you must carry the laundry up, and when you are halfway you see you didn’t dust the chest on the half-landing. And two steps higher up you remember you left the apples stewing and must run down to take them off. And that reminds you that you must telephone to the greengrocer, and while you are doing that you remember that you ought to fill up the salt-cellars, and when you take them to the dining-room you see the flowers are dead, or you didn’t finish polishing the floor that morning. …And of course … none of these things are of any sort of use to the world at all, and yet I suppose they’ve got to be done!

Not only is the work never done, but it is not of use to the war effort. Rose’s predicament throws up questions about the work and conditions for house servants, and how their employment supported women such as Rose in idleness. There is an appalling old relative, Mrs Carr-Berwick, who appears late in the novel when she cannot manage without help and believes herself entitled to it.

A second, and less successful theme of the novel concerns Flora, Rose’s grown-up daughter. She comes across as a dreadful character: moaning, perpetually jealous, and yet with moments of great heroism when she left home to work on ambulances. It transpires that Major Posner, the US army psychiatrist, knew Flora previously and wishes to help her and the family deal with her, for she is indeed a selfish horror. This theme concentrates on accounting for Flora’s attitude and behaviour, providing psychological explanations.

The war brings untold grief to the family, and the house also suffers. Rose has done much soul searching, about war, sacrifice, the work of women, and how useless her class has been. But through her own suffering and courage she finds her way to first adapt and then make a good contribution to the war.

The tone of the book is light, and there is much humour to be found, especially in the relationships between the various characters, all of whom are well drawn, and in the slow realisation of social change that the war brought to such households. 

While reading this I wondered why the housework consisted of so much dusting. And then I remembered that the rooms were heated by coal fires. Someone has to fetch the coal, remove the cinders and re-lay the fire again. I saw it in my own childhood home. Coal fires create dust, which then gets moved from room to room, surface to surface by the activity called dusting. Housework binds you to its routines and requirements. 

Winifred Peck

Winifred Peck

Born in 1882, Winifred came from a distinguished family of writers and thinkers. She began writing with a biography of St Louis, and went on to write 26 books altogether, and House-Bound was the 15th of these. Among her novels were several crime mysteries. She is relatively unread today, but Persephone has republished this one. 

House-Bound by Winifred Peck, first published in 1942. Reissued by Persephone Books in 2007, with an afterword by Penelope Fitzgerald. 304pp

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Heartburn by Nora Ephron

I much enjoyed the collection of essays and journalistic pieces by Nora Ephron published in 2006 under the title I Feel Bad About my Neck. And I was aware of the writer’s career in journalism and in film, especially the screenplay for When Harry met Sally. But I had never read her novel Heartburn. I was a little surprised that it was referred to by Cathy Rentzenbrink in her memoir: Dear Reader: the comfort and Joy of Books. And then I noticed that it had also been chosen by the journalist Dolly Alderton in What Writers Read. You can find the link to the post about these two books here. As Heartburn was so strongly recommended in these two books I felt I should correct my failure to read it. Here are my thoughts.

Heartburn

Heartburn is the ‘thinly disguised’ story of Nora Ephron’s breakup from her second husband, (in real life) Carl Bernstein who was having an affair with Margaret Jay. Nora Ephron was 7 months pregnant at the time. So far, so autobiographical. 

In the introduction to the edition I used, written 25 years later, she complains that people refer to it as a ‘thinly disguised novel’. She points out that Philip Roth and John Updike ‘picked away at the carcasses of their early marriages in book after book’ but were not ‘hit with the thinly disguised thing’. The criticism is mostly applied to books written by women, she observed.

My mother taught me many things when I was growing up, but the main thig I learned from her is that everything is copy. She said it again and again, and I have quoted her saying it again and again. As a result, I knew the moment my marriage ended that someday it might make a book – if I could just stop crying. One of the things I am proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is. (Introduction)

Heartburn is full of pain, hurt, anguish and crying. The narrator is Rachel, a food writer and she tells the reader of the six weeks that followed the discovery of her husband Mark’s affair with an unbelievably tall woman. She has been living in Washington DC, where her husband is a political journalist, but she feels DC is less interesting than her native New York. 

The novel follows her immediate flight to New York from Washington, her return to patch things up, and her eventual permanent removal to New York after the birth of her second child. She is ready to ‘begin to forget’.

The humour in the novel comes from some situations and some comments on the events. We also have some recipes: cheesecake, Key lime pie (which plays a satisfying role in the final scene), linguine alla cecca, Lillian Hellman’s pot roast and an almost sacred but certainly secret recipe for vinaigrette.

The characters in this novel are drawn from 1970s intellectual East Coast milieu: they appear to have a great deal of money, maids and childcare whenever they need it, flying frequently on the shuttle from New York to DC and back again, several properties, psychiatric help and they mix with people in the forefront of national politics and with the journalists who report on all of the above. They are not troubled by climate change, popularism, third world problems, or any of those things that make us so anxious today.

But that doesn’t stop Nora Ephron from finding the humour in many situations. Perhaps the funniest is that her group (an encounter group run by her psychiatrist) is held up at gun point by a man Rachel had been flirting with on the subway. It turns out to be a key plot element as he steals the extremely expensive diamond ring that Mark gave Rachel when their first child was born. It was worth $15,000 dollars and eventually provides Rachel with the wherewithall to leave her marriage. The robbery itself interrupts gentle bickering in the group. Rachel is taken hostage by the gunman with the nylon stocking mask and demands valuables. She digresses from the fact that he was holding her with a gun to her temple to tell us about Mark’s behaviour at Sam’s birth, for two pages. It’s a masterclass in mixing drama and humour and creating suspense as she tells us that when she went into labour she had been afraid that Mark would turn into

the kind of hopeless father who goes through the whole business under the delusion that it’s as much his experience as it is yours. All this starts in Lamaze classes … (57)

There is quite a bit of wisecracking. I wondered how to describe it and was thinking that New York humour would cover it when I read this. 

I’m not exactly a conventional television personality, although I suppose I am somewhat conventional when it comes to public television, which is what my show was on, not network. ‘Too New York’ is what the last network that was approached about me responded, which is a cute way of being anti-Semitic, but who cares? I’d rather be too New York than too anything else. (16)

Risking being accused of antisemitism I can say it is Jewish humour. Fast, verbal, clever and funny. It often involves repetitions of phrases, or reversals of nouns in sentences, or long lists of unrelated objects. For example, her obstetrician asks her, as she is about to leave hospital after the birth, ‘Do you believe in love?’

Sometimes I believe that love dies but hope springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that hope dies but love springs eternal, Sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals love, and sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals good sex. Sometimes I believe that love is as natural as the tides, and sometimes I believe that love is an act of will. Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it. Sometimes I believe that love is essential, and sometimes I believe that the only reason love is essential is that otherwise you spend all your time looking for it.
‘Yes,” I said. ‘I do.’ (165)

Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1941, Nora Ephron grew up in a Jewish family of writers, journalists and scriptwriters. She graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in political science and then tried to get a job as a writer on Newsweek. They did not employ female writers. So she began writing for other journals: New York Post, Esquire among them. Her second husband was Carl Bernstein, whose name will forever be linked to Watergate and the exposure of former President Nixon (see All the President’s Men with Bob Woodward).

Along with her journalism, Nora Ephron became known for her screenplays and later became a director in her own right. Her third marriage, to screenplay writer Nicholas Pileggi, lasted until her death in 2012.

After I had finished Heartburn, I watched the film Sleepless in Seattle (1993), which you may remember ends happily in New York at the top of the Empire State Building. It was written and directed by Nora Ephron.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron, first published in 1983. I used the Virago Classic Edition (from 1996) with an introduction by Nora Ephron after 25 years. 179pp

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At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

I’m doing a fair bit of rereading novels recently, including all of those by Elizabeth Taylor – at a snail’s pace and out of order, but with great pleasure.

At Mrs Lippincote’s is Elizabeth Taylor’s first published novel, and it appears that it was written when it was unclear when the war would end. The war is the background to the events here, but no direct mention is made: mention of ‘for the duration’ is about as far as it goes. Readers at the time would have been familiar with the meagre food (a supper of tinned pilchards on toast, for example) and the countless small deprivations required of everyone. Above all, people found themselves having to live in places they had not chosen. 

At Mrs Lippincote’s

This is a novel about displacement: the title gives us a hint to this effect. Everyone is displaced. Julia Davenant, her husband, son and a cousin arrive to live in the house of Mrs Lippincote, who has rented it to Roddy Davenant. Mrs Lippincote has recently been widowed and now she is living down the road in a hotel with her daughter. The Squadron, its leader, men and wives, are all displaced to this unnamed town. The cousin, Eleanor, writes to Reggy, a former boyfriend who is in a pow camp in Germany. Mr Taylor, known to Julia in London as a maitre d’, has turned up in this town running a club in a bungalow. 

It is also a novel about honesty. Julia, married to Roddy and mother of Oliver, is revealed as uninterested in conventions. She doesn’t care very much to follow normal rules but lives according to her own instincts. 

Julia had a strange gift of coming to a situation freshly, peculiarly untarnished by preconceived ideas, whether of her own preconception or the world’s. Could she have taken for granted a few of those generalisations invented by men and largely acquiesced in by women (that women live by their hearts, men by their heads, that love is women’s whole existence, and especially that sons should respect their fathers), she would have eased her own life and other people’s. (26)

We might feel rather sorry for Roddy in this, for he expected to mould her when he married her. She frequently makes him anxious that she will show him up with by not behaving appropriately. 

Elizabeth Taylor often includes a child in her novels, and she is rather good at them. Oliver is seven years old and rather a precocious child.

Oliver Davenant did not merely read books. He snuffed them up, took breaths of them in his lungs, filled his eyes with the sight of the print and his head with the sound of words. […] With impartiality, he studied comic papers and encyclopaedia, Eleanor’s pamphlets on whatever interested her at the moment, the labels on breakfast cereals and cod liver oil, Conan Doyle and Charlotte Brontë. (14-15)

He had the capacity to enter into a book and live it, so that looking out of his new bedroom window at a girls’ school he can imagine that it is Lowood and that he will have burnt porridge and unclean milk for breakfast. He is able to hold conversations with the Squadron Leader about books, and especially about Charlotte Brontë. In the way of children he can be very literal. 

The Squadron Leader is an interesting character. It emerges that he is perceptive about the men under his command, but that he doesn’t stand on ceremony or masculine bravado. Like Oliver he is a reader and in addition he knits.

Against the different kinds of honesty of these three characters we have Eleanor, Roddy Davenant’s cousin who lives with them. She is in love with Roddy, but when she takes up a job as a teacher and becomes involved with a socialist group, (through the woodwork teacher) she finds it necessary to hide her activities from Roddy and Julia. The reader is continually aware that she thinks she would be a better wife to Roddy than Julia is. Her letters to the prisoner of war are likewise not honest in their motives or contents. 

But the biggest hypocrite turns out to be Roddy, as the Squadron Leader knew. Here is a small example of his dissembling.

Roddy kissed Julia and went off to a party in the Mess – a men’s party, a ‘presence required’ party he explained leaving the house with a look of resignation. Watching him go, she was interested to see, as he turned for a second to latch the gate, the change that had come over him; gone the forbearance, and in its place geniality and a look of anticipation. (127)

Elizabeth Taylor

This was her first published novel, but Elizabeth Taylor was already showing herself to be a very accomplished writer. Look again at the quotation about Julia above. Note the list in parenthesis of things that Julia did not take for granted: that women live by their hearts, men by their heads, that love is women’s whole existence, and especially that sons should respect their fathers. It’s a safe enough list of examples, but through the novel Julia is proved right in not taking each of them for granted. 

Her descriptions of people are always illuminated by small details: Eleanor’s pamphlets, Roddy’s change of demeanour, Mrs Lippincote’s hat, and so on. Humour threads through the novel, humour and wry observation.

And the story is beautifully crafted. Here’s a moment from the first chapter which turns out to be significant but is only given the slightest emphasis. Julia is in her bedroom, surrounded by suitcases on their first evening in the house. She was searching in a trunk for handkerchiefs.

Oh, God! Of course, they were not there. She found, however, some talcum powder and a packet of envelopes which she needed.
As for a handkerchief … sniffing miserably, she had begun to rummage in the pockets of Roddy’s greatcoat. She did this aloofly, for husband’s pockets, since they were the subject of music-hall jokes, were always to be scorned and avoided. He did not apparently, carry handkerchiefs. “Now what are you up to?” he had asked, coming into the bedroom with yet another case. “My dear Julia, this trunk! You dive like a mole and leave disorder in your train.” (6)

Or notice this turning point following a party, which Roddy was claiming was “a damned good party”

“Yes,” she said gravely. She took up some empty bottles and went out. She had been angry with him on many occasions, impatient often, never grave. (85)

The novel ends as Julia and Roddy leave Mrs Lippincote’s house, he has been redeployed by the Wing Commander. The husband and wife’s roles have been reversed; he has been shown to cause disorder, and she is the competent one who will decide how they manage in the future.

At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1945. I used the edition published in 1988 by in the Virago Modern Classic series. 215pp

Related posts

Two Elizabeths, two first novels, a post about The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen and At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, which noted some similarities between these two first novels. (May 2013)

Recent re-readings of novels by Elizabeth Taylor include

Reading Palladium again (September 2022)

Rereading A View of the Harbour (February 2022)

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