Saturday, January 23, 2021


Regular readers of E&I may be aware that I don't post with great frequency about contemporary fiction. Of the 141 works of fiction listed on this blog's Book Index only 56, or 40%, were first published after 1950 (which is stretching the definition of "contemporary" quite a bit). This is not because I don't read contemporary fiction. I regularly scan book reviews, make lists, and seek out new works. Almost inevitably, though, I am disappointed by the quality of the writing. Reading 18th- and 19th-century novels may have spoiled me for modern prose.

These thoughts are occasioned by my encounter with Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet (Knopf, 2020), which imagines the impact of the death of the eleven-year-old Hamnet on his mother Agnes and his father William. [1] The year is 1596; four years later, his father will appear as the Ghost in his new play The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke (the names Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable; the Ghost is that of Hamlet's father, also named Hamlet).

Opening page of The Tragedie of Hamlet from actor David Garrick's copy of the Second Quarto (1605). Image source: The British Library

O'Farrell's novel has been highly, not to say extravagantly, praised. It won the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction (the jury called it "truly great") and was named by the New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of 2020, only half of which are fiction. It was also the first book mentioned on the The Guardian's Best Fiction of 2020 list and was tied for fifth on LitHub's Ultimate Best Books of 2020 list. The only dissent from the near-universal commendation came from the Man Booker Prize judges, who omitted it from their 2020 longlist.

In Geraldine Brooks' New York Times review she wrote that you do not "go after the private life of the Bard of Avon with a casual regard for English prose." Well, here are some passages from the first pages of the book, whose narrative text begins on page 5:

  • Hamnet "sighs, drawing in the warm, dusty air" (p. 5). But when you sigh you breathe out, not in. ("A long deep and audible exhalation" is how "sigh" is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.) "Hamnet draws in the warm, dusty air and sighs" might work; the reverse doesn't.
  • When in the next sentence Hamnet steps out into the street, "the noise of barrows, horses, vendors, people calling to each other, a man hurling a sack from an upper window doesn't reach him" (p. 5). And yet when he enters his grandfather's house next door, he hears "the creaking of beams expanding gently in the sun, the sigh of air passing under doors, between rooms, the swish of linen drapes, the crack of the fire, the indefinable noise of a house at rest, empty" (p. 6). So within the space of a few sentences Hamnet is described as both utterly oblivious to the world around him and extraordinarily sensitive to it.
  • About "the crack of the fire": On the first page we are told that "it is a close, windless day in late summer" and on the second page that "the heat of the day" is making Hamnet sweat so heavily it runs "down his back." On a swelteringly hot summer afternoon would a fire be kept burning, and would it have been left untended in an empty house?
  • And "the sigh of air passing under doors, between rooms, the swish of linen drapes": if the day is windless, would a breeze be moving audibly through the house and stirring the drapes enough to make them swish? And as we will soon learn, Hamnet's grandfather is a leather tanner and wool merchant who is in financial distress; would his house have linen drapes, or would he be more likely to use the materials at hand? Just asking.
  • The sounds of the empty house are described as "indefinable noise," although we've just read a detailed list of the specific sounds Hamnet detects (in what way, then, are they "indefinable"?). On the same page its smell is described as "indefinably different" from the rooms where Hamnet lives with his mother and sisters. Leaving aside the rather uninspired repetition, are we perceiving Hamnet's thoughts, and if so, would an 11-year-old boy in the 16th century really think that sounds or smells were "indefinable"? (Apart from the unlikeliness of "indefinable" occurring to an 11-year-old boy, according to the Shorter Oxford the word doesn't even come into use until a century after Hamnet is born.)
  • Speaking of repetitions, in the first pages we read the phrases "the noise of barrows" (p. 5), "the noise and welter of the courtyard" (p. 6), "he makes this noise" (p. 6), "the indefinable noise of a house" (p. 6), "the noise of a bird in the sky" (p. 7), "a noise, a slight shifting or scraping" (p. 9), and "he hears a noise. . .the definite noise of another human being" (p. 11).

    Repetition can be an effective fictional technique: the word "fog" occurs 22 times in the first chapter of Dickens' Bleak House, along with "foggy" and "fog-bank," as the murky case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is introduced:
    Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds. . .

    Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth. [2]
    In Hamnet the repetitions of "noise" in the opening pages are (I'm guessing) meant as a deliberate contrast with the last words of the chapter: "there is nothing: only silence" (p. 24), which echo the last words of Hamlet in Shakespeare's play: "the rest is silence." But earlier in the chapter when Hamnet was listening for an answer to his calls, he was keenly aware of all the faint sounds in his grandfather's empty house. He is listening just as intently now: why does he hear "only silence"?
  • "Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre" (p. 9). After five pages written largely in free indirect style, as though we are listening to Hamnet's thoughts, this is an abrupt intervention from an omniscient narrator. One, moreover, born after the mid-20th century when "epicentre" was first used to mean "the centre or heart of something," according to (yes) the Shorter Oxford, which also tells us that the word "epicentre" was coined (by the Irish seismologist Robert Mallet, says Wikipedia) in the late 19th century.

    The use of "epicentre" could be a deliberate signalling to the reader that the narrator shares our time frame rather than that of the characters. This is a variant of a technique called "the intrusive narrator," and is used, for example, by Michel Faber in The Crimson Petal and the White (2002), set in Victorian London. From that novel's opening:
    Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them.

    This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you've read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.

    When I first caught your eye and you decided to come with me, you were probably thinking you would simply arrive and make yourself at home. Now that you're actually here, the air is bitterly cold, and you find yourself being led along in complete darkness, stumbling on uneven ground, recognising nothing. . .

    Apart from the pale gaslight of the streetlamps at the far corners, you can't see any light in Church Lane, but that's because your eyes are accustomed to stronger signs of human wakefulness than the feeble glow of two candles behind a smutty windowpane. You come from a world where darkness is swept aside at the snap of a switch, but that is not the only balance of power that life allows. Much shakier bargains are possible. [3]
    Hamnet is similarly written almost entirely in the present tense, but unlike Faber's novel it is almost entirely in free indirect style. O'Farrell does not seem to have intended to employ an intrusive narrator, but rather to immerse the reader fully in the characters' world and thoughts. This is why I find an anachronism like "epicentre" so jarring.

I recognize that my comments on these examples—all taken from the novel's first chapter—will exasperate or infuriate many people. They will think I'm nit-picking: what does it matter if O'Farrell's writing is at times unwittingly anachronistic, dully repetitious, disconcertingly inconsistent, or simply wrong? They are welcome to find her novel, as the cover blurbs describe it, "a thing of shimmering wonder" (David Mitchell), "beautifully imagined and written" (Claire Tomalin), "finely written" (Sarah Moss), full of "flawless sentences" (Emma Donoghue), or "one of the best novels I've ever read" (Mary Beth Keane).

But for me details matter, especially in historical fiction, and most especially when they are so carefully specified and emphasized by the author. And as regular readers know, I'm one of those unfortunates for whom lapses like the ones I've listed are so grating they render imaginative entry into O'Farrell's fictional world impossible. [4]

  1. As O'Farrell explains in her Author's Note, "Most people will know [Hamnet's] mother as 'Anne,' but she was named by her father, Richard Hathaway, in his will, as 'Agnes,' and I decided to follow his example." I wonder whether a woman wouldn't more likely be called by her preferred name in the records relating to her adult life and death than in her father's will; certainly the few other documents that exist indicate that she was known as Anne.
  2. Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Chapter I, "In Chancery."
  3. Michel Faber, "The Crimson Petal and the White, Episode One," serialization in The Guardian, 31 May 2002. For a brief discussion of the intrusive author/narrator in Faber's novel and its antecedents in Fielding, Eliot, and other writers, see John Mullan, "Book club: Follow my leader," The Guardian, 17 October 2003.
  4. For more evidence, if any is needed, see "On ignoring the big picture for the nagging detail" (on Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) in my post on Nick Hornby's "Stuff I've Been Reading."

Monday, January 11, 2021

Helen Walker

Helen Walker as psychologist Lilith Ritter in Nightmare Alley.

After seeing Helen Walker's performance as the twisted psychologist in Nightmare Alley (1947) I wondered why I had never heard of her before. So last week we embarked on a Helen Walker film festival, watching four movies from the middle and end of her too-brief career.

Image source: Classic Movie Favorites

Cluny Brown (1946), screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt, based on the novel by Margery Sharp; directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

The final film completed by Ernst Lubitsch before his death, Cluny Brown features his trademark lightness of touch as well as typically risqué dialogue, this time featuring plumbing as a metaphor for sex.

As the plumber-heroine Cluny, Jennifer Jones displays an unsuspected flair for comedy and a British accent that often vanishes completely, while as Adam Belinski, a penniless Czech refugee from the Nazis, Charles Boyer offers his usual suavity. Both have wound up at the country estate of Sir Henry (Reginald Owen) and Lady Alice (Margaret Bannerman), where Cluny is a new serving maid and Adam is the guest of the family's son and heir Andrew (Peter Lawford). (Lady Alice finds Adam's name hard to remember, because "so many foreigners do have foreign names, don't they?") Though both Adam and Cluny have been given places of a kind, they are both fundamentally out of place: he is separated from his homeland, and she from the work that she most enjoys. As he tells her, "Wherever you're happy—that's your place."

Helen Walker plays the Honorable Betty Cream, Andrew's presumptive fiancée, who has been invited to the house for the weekend by Lady Alice to try to patch things up with Andrew after a row. Andrew is sincere but a bit dim, while Betty is self-possessed, coolly witty, and gets some of the better lines.

After Betty's screams rouse the house one night and Adam is discovered coming out of her bedroom it precipitates a crisis that results in Andrew finally proposing to Betty (though it's really the other way around) and having it out privately with Adam. Right afterward Betty surprises Andrew taking something from a drawer:

Betty: Why, Andrew Carmel, are we starting out with a secret? Is this the kind of marriage we're going to have?
Andrew: Darling, trust me. Please trust me.
Betty: Darling, if I trust you now I'll always have to trust you. And I won't. Now what have you got behind your back?
Andrew: I suppose you think it's rather foolish of me to lend the professor 50 pounds. [Andrew, of course, is getting rid of Adam.]
Betty: Foolish? Give him 100 pounds, 200, 300.
Andrew: Oh, now, wait a minute. I'm very fond of the professor, but after all, walking into your room like that. . .
Betty: Thank heavens he did. If I hadn't screamed last night, we wouldn't be engaged today. You always behaved so well, I might have died an old maid.
Andrew: You're so right, Betty. We all behave too well. We never do the wrong thing at the right time. I've said it before and I'll say it again: what England needs is more Belinskis!
Betty: I think one is quite enough.

Cluny Brown may not rank with Lubitsch's greatest work, but it is a charming and affectionate send-up of British manners and mores, and its oppositions are never simple ones. It makes me wonder why both Jennifer Jones and Helen Walker didn't get to play more comic roles.

Image source: Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans

Call Northside 777 (1948), screenplay by Jerome Cady and Jay Dratler, adaptation by Leonard Hoffman and Quentin Reynolds, based on articles by James P. McGuire; directed by Henry Hathaway.

Based on the real-life wrongful conviction of Joseph Majczek and Theodore Marcinkiewicz for the murder of a Chicago policeman in 1932, Call Northside 777 has a semi-documentary style enhanced by filming in many of the actual locations involved. James Stewart plays P. J. McNeal, a character based on Chicago Times reporter James P. McGuire, who is sent by his editor to interview Tillie Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski), mother of convicted cop-killer Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). Although she earns her living scrubbing floors, she has carefully saved her money for over a decade and has placed an ad offering a $5000 reward for information about the true killers. Although initially skeptical, McNeal gradually becomes convinced of Wiecek's innocence, but faces obstruction by the police and justice system as he pursues the case.

Helen Walker plays McNeal's loving wife Laura, who urges him to continue investigating the case despite his initial skepticism. When we first see her she is fixing a late dinner for McNeal; as he eats it he works on a jigsaw puzzle that she's started. While the jigsaw puzzle is perhaps too obvious a metaphor, their interplay over the pieces nicely encapsulates the mutuality of their marriage. It's not a large role, but she makes it memorable.

In Call Northside 777 Helen Walker embodies the supportive Good Woman (in the typology proposed by John Blaser in "No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir"). But as Nightmare Alley proved, she could also brilliantly play the femme fatale, as she did in her next major role.

Impact (1949), screenplay by Dorothy Reid and Jay Dratler, directed by Arthur Lubin.

The plot of Impact turns on false identities and misidentification: a hitchhiker speeding in a stolen car on a dark mountain road dies in a fiery crash, and everyone believes that it's the car's owner, San Francisco automotive magnate Walter Williams (Brian Donleavy), who has been killed. Just before the crash, though, Williams was assaulted by the hitchhiker and left for dead. Dazed, he climbs unnoticed into the back of a moving van that stops at the accident scene; he wakes up in a small town in Idaho. (Larkspur, California stands in for the nonexistent "Larkspur, Idaho" in the location shots.) There Williams discovers his "death" and realizes that his wife Irene (Helen Walker) and the hitchhiker (Tony Barrett) were lovers who had plotted to murder him. 

He meets a struggling gas-station owner, Marsha Peters (Ella Raines), and—his former life shattered—decides to stay on and help her as "Bill Walter." Eventually, though, he reveals his true identity, and at Marsha's urging returns to the Bay Area to clear his wife of murder charges—only to find himself imprisoned, accused by Irene of killing her lover. Now Marsha must try to prove his innocence. . .

One of the eerie things about Impact is how elements of the story echo events in Helen Walker's life. On January 1, 1947, she was driving at night in a borrowed car from Palm Springs to Los Angeles on Highway 99 (now Interstate 10). Outside Palm Springs she picked up a hitchhiking soldier, Robert Lee, and near Beaumont two other hitchhikers, Philip Mercado, an 18-year-old student, and his friend Joseph Montaldo. About 15 minutes later, "her car hit a dividing island in the roadway on the eastern outskirts of Redlands and turned over six times while rolling and skidding 600 feet," according to an LA Times report [1]. Investigators estimated that the car was traveling at 80 miles per hour, and a later civil suit brought by one of the passengers claimed that she'd been driving over 90.

Lee, sitting in the front passenger seat, was killed. Mercado and Montaldo, riding in the back seat, were thrown from the car and, though severely injured, survived. Walker herself suffered a fractured pelvis and collarbone, and several broken toes; she spent a month in the hospital. The Redlands policeman who pulled her from the wreckage said at the inquest that he smelled alcohol on her breath. She was charged with manslaughter but exonerated when it could not be proven that she was driving under the influence.

After Impact Helen Walker's career faltered. In 1950 she married furrier Edward Nicholas du Domaine, but the marriage was not a happy one, and lasted only two years. Perhaps she should have listened to her instincts: she told a the writer of their LA Times wedding announcement that "the first time I met him I hated him." [2] She testified to the judge in the divorce proceedings, "My husband resented my career, my friends in the motion picture business and everything else about me. In fact, he made me drop my friends and give up my contracts." [3]

Her career never recovered, although from the evidence of her next significant film her drinking may have played a role as well.

The Big Combo (1955), screenplay by Philip Yordan, directed by Joseph Lewis.

In The Big Combo, Walker's strong features look heavy, bloated, and in many shots (thanks in part, perhaps, to her deliberately dowdy hair, makeup and costuming) she looks much older than her 34 years. She plays Alicia, the sequestered wife of mob kingpin Mr. Brown (Richard Conte, from Call Northside 777). Alicia has been cocooned in comfortable ignorance, but once incorruptible cop Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) discovers her sanitarium refuge and undeceives her about Brown's murderous brutality she is convinced to give evidence against her husband.

The Big Combo is notable for its stunning, deeply-shadowed black-and-white cinematography by John Alton and its relentlessly grim atmosphere of darkness, violence and sex. Diamond's fury towards Brown is fueled in part by his jealousy of Brown's relationship with society girl Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), whom Brown apparently holds in sexual thrall. Brown disposes of anyone who might testify against him, including his second-in-command Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy, from Impact), while Diamond's girlfriend, burlesque dancer Rita (Helene Stanton), is riddled with bullets by Brown's henchmen Fante and Mingo (early-career roles for Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman) during a botched attempt to assassinate Diamond. The movie ends in a showdown between Diamond and Brown with Susan in the middle, facing a fateful choice about which man she will help.

After The Big Combo Helen Walker's acting career wound down with appearances in a few episodes of crime and Western TV shows. She died of cancer in her Hollywood home in 1968 at the age of only 47. But she deserves to be remembered for her best films, and especially for her indelible femme fatale performances in Nightmare Alley and Impact.

  1. "Actress Hurt as Car Upsets, Killing Soldier," Los Angeles Times, 3 January 1947, p. 2.
  2. "Actress Helen Walker Will Wed in Palm Springs," Los Angeles Times, 28 April 1950, p. A1.
  3. "Actress Says Mate Resented Career: Divorce Granted Helen Walker from Furrier on Testimony He Made Her Drop Contracts," Los Angeles Times, 10 June 1952, p. 2.