May 2012 Archives

Dan Rhodes' Little Hands Clapping

| 0 Comments | 0 TrackBacks
lhc.jpg
All of Dan Rhodes' fiction has in common a predilection for the odd, grotesque and macabre, and he is at his most grisly in 2010's Little Hands Clapping. In the opening chapter we are introduced to a grey old man who sometimes wakes up in the night to find a spider making its way towards his mouth. The old man chews and swallows the spider, then contentedly goes back to sleep.  Although Rhodes continues to refer to him simply as 'the old man', we learn that his name is Herr Schmidt, and that he is the resident curator of a museum of suicide in a town in Germany. This is not a museum that teems with visitors, and the old man likes it that way; he prefers to do as little as possible and takes no pleasure in anything except for the occasional cakes made by his employer, who is known only as 'Pavarotti's wife' on account of her being married to a man who uncannily resembles the late opera singer. The old man rarely speaks and, when cakes or spiders are not forthcoming, barely even eats, living on a meagre diet of cheese and crackers.

Of the trickle of curious visitors that comes into the museum, some arrive with a specific purpose in mind, one that is at odds with the designated aim of the place.  Pavarotti's wife intended it as a place that might discourage potential suicides, but its success in achieving this objective is far from definitive. According to one press cutting about the museum, it is 'incoherent and insensitive', though the same article describes it as 'a handy advice shop for the emotionally fragile.' At any rate, fairly regular suicides take place within the museum and, in a sinister supernatural detail, it is at the exact moments when people kill themselves in the building that a spider creeps into the old man's mouth.  It is in these deaths that the wider plot of Little Hands Clapping is grounded; Herr Schmidt has developed a professional relationship with a local doctor, Ernst Frölicher, who retrieves the corpses from the museum.  If the old man has strange eating habits, then these are more than matched by those of the doctor, who keeps four chest freezers full of cadavers in his garage.

The peculiar mixture of horror, comedy and pathos that Rhodes deploys comes to a point of intersection in Doctor Frölicher, whose cannibalistic habits are somewhat anomalous with his virtuous character. Frölicher makes a point of drinking fair-trade coffee and tries to keeps his freezers full so as to increase their efficiency.  His taste for human flesh is not a perversion, but an addiction; he assumes that all doctors must try it at some time but, having sampled a kidney early on his career, he is unable to quit - although some of the offal is now reserved for his dog. He connects the habit to his strict ethical code by treating his unorthodox disposal of the bodies as a means of protecting the museum and its management from disgrace.  The old man has no comparable ethics. He too wishes to conceal the suicides from Pavarotti's wife, but this is neither to protect her nor to subvert her work, but simply so that the responsibilities of his job are kept to a minimum.

The old man is a flat character, a straightforward villain  Indeed, Rhodes' characters are often pawns, whose frequently tragic destinies cannot be changed.  He never comes across as an omnipotent narrator, however; it is as though he is merely the storyteller, who narrates events as they happened.  This has been a constant in his work, which has often tended to eschew familiar locations in favour of more unknown places that can more easily be mythologised.  Although he is a British writer, he has set only one of his novels in the UK (Gold, whose action takes places in a quiet Welsh village), and a number of his short stories are completely devoid of any sense of place at all.  Little Hands Clapping is set partly in Portugal, but predominantly in the German town that is home to the suicide museum.  No distinctive details are assigned to this town, making it impossible to locate, and impossible to determine whether it is supposed to be based on an actual location.

However, one actual place alluded to in the novel functions as its cultural, even if not its geographical, setting.  This is the town of Hamelin, best known for the legend of the Pied Piper who was called in to rid the place of rats but, following a dispute over remuneration, also lured away all of its children. Indeed, Robert Browning's interpretation of the legend provides Rhodes with his title:

Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering,
And, like fowls in a farm-yard when barley is scattering,
Out came the children running.

Hamelin makes an appearance in the novel as the birthplace of Pavarotti's wife, who was so disturbed by this story that she felt the need to do something positive - hence the founding of her museum.  Upon first glance, this may appear to be just one more of Rhodes' throwaway comments about a character's eccentricities.  But, in the context of this particular novel, it has deeper meaning, aligning Little Hands Clapping with the folktale tradition that is implicit in his earlier work.  By including the reference to the Pied Piper legend, Rhodes situates his placeless narrative in the same folkloric world; his Germany is the same Germany as that of the Hamelin of that legend.

It has the same black humour, too. Browning's version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin is at once playful and dark, telling the story of the ensnared children in language that skips like those children's little feet.  Rhodes uses comic rather than poetic language to produce his tone, but the resulting effect is similar.  The grey old man is a kind of inverted Pied Piper, and all the more sinister for his muteness.  While the Pied Piper legend tells of children being led away from their town, Little Hands Clapping tells of people being drawn towards the suicide museum.  But the darkly capricious style is not quite sustained for the entire length of the novel.  As it draws towards its climax, the uneasy humour descends into outright farce, reaching its nadir in an episode in which Frölicher's dog throws up a human penis.  One of the reviews of the suicide museum that are quoted in Little Hands Clapping describes it as, 'A curious mixture of stark, disturbing realism and high camp.'  This can almost be taken as a description of the text in which it is embedded.  Some of the events in the novel may seem to be absurd and unrealistic, but the book is consistently realistic in its portrayal of human feeling.  This earths the more outlandish elements - though not fully, leaving the novel teetering just over the edge of plausibility and confirming it as a modern and macabre folk tale.

Review by Alan Ashton-Smith
debeauvoir.jpeg
The collected love letters in Simone de Beauvoir's A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren chart not only the passionate, tumultuous affair between the two writers, but also the social, political, and cultural changes from 1947 to 1964. When I picked up this book in a used bookstore, I thought that it would make a great coffee table book--one that could start engaging conversations and be read from time to time by guests or myself. This, however, was not the case. Once I started reading, I found myself caught up in the developing love relationship between de Beauvoir and Algren and intrigued by the recollections of day-to-day activities among the intellectual sphere in France and also abroad. As an English major, I have read de Beauvoir's more "academic" texts, but my time spent with A Transatlantic Love Affair provided me with an intimate portrait of a major literary figure that was refreshing. The nature of these letters, primarily love, provides a portrait of de Beauvoir that is not talked about in classrooms. The letters are prolific in their information, but much of what de Beauvoir writes can be categorized into three groups: her feelings for Algren; literature, theatre, and art; and the political, intellectual, and cultural atmosphere of France and abroad.  

Any romantic relationship, especially a "transatlantic" one, evolves over time, and de Beauvoir's letters intimately capture all the little moments of her relationship with Algren. The love relationship between the two was almost immediate; after just two months de Beauvoir ended her letter writing, "I am your wife forever." Despite their initial infatuations with each other, de Beauvoir comments quite frequently in the first letters about not truly knowing Algren. This shifts a few months later, when de Beauvoir writes, "I feel now, instead we are getting nearer and nearer through these letters." The reason that this collection of letters is so difficult to put down is two-fold: first the letters transcend and act as a mirror to our own personal love stories or the ones we hope to have, and second the letters reveal a poignant narrative of a relationship between two artists.  

Indeed, the intense desire to love and be loved that de Beauvoir relates in her letters to Algren makes the letters more of a love story than one would expect from reading only one partner's letters. Each letter contains quotable passages that would illustrate this, but the following highlights the intricate prose and also the crystallization of their bond: "Something happened when we said good bye in New York, and it was the beginning of love. But something happened too when I found you again in the Wabansia home and I stood quivering in your arms, and it was the fulfillment of love." The relationship between de Beauvoir and Algren shifted over time and eventually the letters she writes to him begin to change in subtle, but distinct ways. Because the letters of Algren are not included in this book, it is hard not to feel more sympathetically towards de Beauvoir, especially towards the end of the collection. Algren is definitively the one who ends their relationship in 1964, but their correspondence does not end bitterly. The last letter de Beauvoir writes to Algren is hopeful, she writes she is travelling to the States in 6 months and that she will "find" him. Despite the tinge of promise in the last letter, the ending of their relationship and subsequently the ending of their exchange of letters are heartbreaking. De Beauvoir never did "find" Algren, and the last letter in the collection is the end of their correspondence. 

The title of the collection of letters speaks to the love that is found in each of the letters, but, in truth, there is a lot more than love embedded in de Beauvoir's writings to Algren. De Beauvoir writes about the present turmoil and also about the war years, women's issues, and the differences between American and French culture. Simone de Beauvoir was part of the "intellectuals" in France, and in her letters she meticulously records the political atmosphere and the cultural changes occurring in France and Europe. When de Beauvoir and Algren start their correspondence, the political situation in France is tumultuous. The letters provide a portrait of the struggles between the Communist Party and the Popular Republican Movement: "two blocks in France now, just as outside: USA or USSR, De Gaulle or Thorez, a kind of civil war." The letters span a period of twenty years, and the letters act as a memoir of sorts of the life of an activist. At one point she writes about a radio engagement where she and Jean Paul Sartre spoke against de Gaulle: "I don't think we'll go on a long time; they will fire us, but it was pleasant to be able to say in so loud a voice what we thought." 

Perhaps the most rewarding part of reading de Beauvoir's letters is getting a behind the scenes view of the literati. De Beauvoir had an extremely close relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, among other French authors, musicians, actresses and actors, and philosophers. De Beauvoir writes about Sartre's work and the reception of his plays by the public and by Sartre himself. Through the letters, we get an inside look at Sartre and his work and also de Beauvoir's. One of her projects during her relationship with Algren that she writes about is her famous work The Second Sex. I had read The Second Sex in a course, but reading about her process of writing it in the letters made that text even more intriguing. In the beginning of 1948, a year before it was published, she writes, "I came back to my essay about women. I told you, I have never felt bad for being a woman, and sometimes I even enjoy it, as you know. Yet when I see other women around me, I think they have very peculiar problems and it would be interesting to look at what is peculiar in them." In everything that de Beauvoir writes about in her letters about The Second Sex, one gains a perspective that lends to a more thorough reading of that seminal text. 

I could continue writing about all the topics that can be found in the many letters Simone de Beauvoir wrote to Nelson Algren, but part of the joy of reading the letters is discovering the little secrets about de Beauvoir and her life. These letters are a snapshot of a side of de Beauvoir that is not found in biographies or her academic writing. Her love letters to Algren are a captivating portrayal of a love story--the full spectrum, from a passionate, romantic love to a compassionate, platonic affection--and her activities and intellectual thoughts. While that information seems to be inconsequential, compared to her love for Algren, to de Beauvoir, every sentence in her letters is alluring and fascinating. Reading these letters, one truly does feel as if one is a confidante of de Beauvoir and privy to her dearest and most private thoughts. 

Review by Sheri Gitelson 


About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from May 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

April 2012 is the previous archive.

June 2012 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.