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The Confidential Agent ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Confidential Agent ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The hero/protagonist of Graham Greene’s novel The Confidential Agent is referred to only as “D.” That’s how confidential he is. He’s a middle-aged man (think Charles Boyer), a foreigner, travelling in Britain, and he’s not there to see the sights, either. He is a lecturer in the Romance Languages, a scholar and peace-loving man, but things haven’t been going so well for him. His country is at war, he’s been in prison for two years apparently because he was on the wrong side, and his wife was shot and killed by the enemy. He’s in Britain to negotiate a coal deal with the owner of a huge coal-mining conglomerate, a certain Lord Benditch. His side must have the coal to have a chance of winning the war. If the enemy gets the coal, D.’s side is certain to lose. Well, guess what? There’s another “confidential agent” from the other side, known to us as “L.” who also wants the coal. Will “L.” kill “D.” to keep him from getting the coal, or will “D.” kill “L.” to keep him from getting it? It’s a cat-and-mouse game from the beginning. D. is badly beaten (although it doesn’t seem to stop him) and his papers that establish his identity are stolen, and this is just the beginning of the obstacles that are placed in his way.

We realize early that the business about the war or D.’s side needing the coal doesn’t really matter. We learn nothing of the politics of the war or who is fighting whom. This is only a device to propel the plot. Don’t waste any time or expend any brain power trying to figure out the war.

Of course, there always has to be a “femme fatale” in a story like this. In this case she is the daughter (what a coincidence!) of Lord Benditch, the coal magnate, and her name is Rose Cullen (think Lauren Bacall). She seems to know D. and to know the importance of his mission, but where do her loyalties lay? Is she to be trusted? After a while she claims to be in love with D., in spite of their age difference and also in spite of his not being very lovable. Can D. make a go of it with Rose Cullen or he is only deceiving himself? Will they have a future together after the war business is settled, or is she only sucking up to him, seeking his vulnerable side to knife him in the back? In a story like this, you can never be sure.

We are told that Graham Greene wrote The Confidential Agent in 1939 in a matter of a few short weeks, fueled by Benzedrine (whatever that is), and that he wrote it for money. After it was finished, he was so unhappy with it that he wanted to disavow it and publish it under a pseudonym, but it was published under his own name and it turned out to be well-received by critics and the reading public alike. It’s rather formulaic, a “thriller” (in other words, “light” reading), but it lives up to its subtitle: An Entertainment.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Elephant

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Elephant ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Beverly was having a bad summer. If I didn’t dislike her so much, I would feel sorry for her. Her face erupted into a berry patch of pimples as soon as she turned sixteen. Then she failed her driving test, not once but three times. This is especially humiliating for her because all her friends have their drivers’ licenses. When you’re sixteen, nothing is more important than getting “the license.” She’ll probably kill herself if she isn’t able to pass the test before she starts the eleventh grade.

And then, of course, she fights with mother. Every day they argue and bicker. You’d think mother would know better but she is worse somehow than Beverly. When she gets started she just won’t stop, as if she’s really enjoying it. Sometimes I just go out to the back yard to get away from them.

What do they fight about? Anything and everything. Beverly’s skirt is too short, her lipstick too dark. She didn’t vacuum the hallway and she forgot to send grandma a thank-you note for the birthday money. She put the glasses away with splotches on them. She put the stamp crooked on the envelope. She went out with a boy that was too old for her—he was at least nineteen but might have been as old as twenty-one—and thought mother would never know. (She always knows.)

My parents were going to be gone for three days. Mother’s niece was getting married in a neighboring state. She trusted to leave me alone for that long, but not Beverly.

“I want you to keep an eye on her for me,” mother said.

“I’d rather not,” I said.

“You can help me out here if you only will.”

“I’ll stay as far away from her as I can and pretend she doesn’t exist. How’s that?”

“I just want you to tell me if you notice anything out of the ordinary.”

“Like what?”

“She has any unusual visitors or she goes out late at night after you’ve gone to bed.”

“You expect me to stay awake all night and watch her?”

“Within reason. Don’t be obvious about it.”

“Do you also have her watching me?”

“Of course not. You’re a responsible boy and she isn’t. I’ve trusted you since you were eight years old.”

“Why don’t you just drop her off at the county prison on your way out of town? They’ll keep an eye on her for you.”

Mother had hired a painter to paint the upstairs bathroom. He was going to do the painting while she was gone, so she also wanted me to “keep an eye” on him to make sure he did what she was paying him to do. She was always naturally suspicious of anybody she thought might be in a position to take advantage of her.

Mother and father left early in the morning before I was awake, but I was up by nine to let the painter in with his ladder and buckets and point him up the stairs to the bathroom he was supposed to paint. I was hoping he would work quietly and leave me alone and not have any questions that he thought I might have answers to. I would just give him the standard don’t-ask-me-it’s-not-my-bathroom line of reasoning.

A couple of hours after the painter arrived, Beverly finally rolled out of bed and came downstairs. I was lying on the couch in front of the fan reading The Scarlet Pimpernel.

“Who’s that man?” she asked.

“What man?”

“The man in the bathroom upstairs.”

“I didn’t see any man in the bathroom upstairs. I think you’re hallucinating.”

“I nearly died. He saw me in my shorty pajamas.”

“Are you sure you didn’t plan it that way?”

“I had to run back to my room and get my robe.”

“You’ll have to use the downstairs bathroom until he’s finished,” I said. “It’s supposed to take two days.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You didn’t ask.”

About the middle of the morning I went upstairs to see how the painter was faring. I stood in the bathroom doorway quietly until he stopped what he was doing and looked at me.

“Anything wrong?” he asked.

“No. I just wanted to make sure you have what you need.”

“I do.”

“My parents are out of town.”

“Oh.”

“My mother told me to check with you and make sure you have what you need.”

“I’ll be out of your way as soon as I can.”

He was in his twenties, muscular and on the short side. He wore a spotless white T-shirt with no sleeves and white pants. Even his work boots were white. I noticed he had a Marine Corps insignia tattooed on his bicep.

“You were in the Marines?” I asked.

“Yuh,” he said.

When he didn’t say anything else, I went back downstairs to get something to eat. Beverly was sitting at the table, polishing her fingernails. She looked different, somehow. She had taken the curlers out of her hair and had on a red blouse and her white pedal pushers instead of the usual ratty jeans and T-shirt.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked.

“None of your business,” she said.

I fixed myself a sandwich and sat down at the table across from her.

“Did you see him?” she asked.

“Who?”

“The man painting upstairs.”

“I saw him. What about it?”

“His name is Finch.”

“How do you know that?”

“I was talking to him.”

“What about?”

“I’ve seen him before. At the bowling alley. It turns out his family owns it.”

“Owns what?”

“The bowling alley.”

“I didn’t know you were a bowler.”

“I’m not. I was there with somebody else.”

“Who?”

“After I’m done doing my nails, I’m going to go talk to him some more.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Only you would ask such a stupid question!”

“You’re going to flirt with him, aren’t you?” I said.

“This is one of the reasons,” she said, “why you’ll never have a girlfriend.”

“I don’t want one if they’re all like you.”

“You don’t know what instant sexual attraction is like between a man and a woman.”

I could see myself writing it down in a little notebook: instant sexual attraction.

“He’s a man, all right,” I said, “but I don’t see a woman anywhere.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to even begin to understand. You’re only in the ninth grade.”

“You’d better stay away from him and let him do his job. He doesn’t need to be bothered by a pest like you.”

“Why don’t you just mind your own damn business?”

“Why don’t you just shut up and go to hell?” I said.

When I went to check on the painter in the middle of the afternoon, he had taken off his shirt and was working bare-chested. Beverly was sitting on the side of the tub with her legs crossed smiling at him.

“What’s this?” I said as I push the door open.

“The wall’s wet!” the painter said. “Don’t let the door touch it!”

I grabbed the door before it made contact with the wall.

“You dope!” Beverly said. “Why do you think he had the door pulled shut in the first place?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I wasn’t thinking.”

“That’s the trouble with you. You never think.”

“No harm done,” the painter said.

“What are you doing in here?” I asked Beverly. “You’re bothering him.”

“I was just keeping him company,” she said.

“It’s no bother,” he said. “It makes the time go by faster when I have somebody to talk to.”

“I took you for the taciturn type,” I said.

“Nobody knows what that means except you,” Beverly said.

“I know what it means,” the painter said.

“Weren’t you supposed to go to the store this afternoon?” I asked Beverly.

“It can wait until tomorrow.”

“Don’t you have some work to do downstairs in the kitchen?”

“Don’t worry about me,” she said. “I’ll be down later.”

A little while later the painter, again in his shirt, told me he was leaving for the day and would be back to finish up at nine in the morning.

For supper we had corn dogs, pork and beans and store-bought cupcakes. After I ate one corn dog, Beverly asked me if I wanted another one.

“What do you have to smile about?” I asked.

“Was I smiling?”

“Most of the time you look like a rain cloud.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Does it have to do with the painter?”

“Could be,” she said, thinking she was teasing me, not knowing that I really didn’t care.

“Did he ask you out on a date?”

She blushed and covered her face with her hands.

“Does he know you’re a minor?”

She looked at me and frowned. “Why do you always have to ruin everything?” she said.

“What did I ruin?”

“You always have to say something ugly. Just like daddy.”

“I just asked a simple question.”

“Well, don’t!”

“Mother’s going to call tonight to see how things are going. Do you want me to tell her that you and the painter are…what is the word?”

“Tomorrow when he’s finished painting, I’m going to leave with him.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s going to take me away from here.”

“Is that what he said?”

“Not exactly, but I know he will when I ask him.”

“Have you lost your mind?”

“No. I can’t stand another minute in this place! I have to get out of here or I’m going to go crazy!”

“I think you already are crazy!”

“When mother calls, don’t tell her what I said. I want them to find out I’m gone when they come home. Maybe then they’ll be sorry they were so mean to me.”

“You can’t just run away with a strange man you don’t even know! You’re in high school!”

“Don’t try to discourage me,” she said. “I’ve already made up my mind.”

“It’s your funeral,” I said.

We didn’t say anything else about it and after we were finished eating she went upstairs to her room and closed the door.

The next morning she was up before I was, dressed, and I could tell she had spent a long time at her dressing table fooling with her hair and getting her makeup just right. At nine when I heard the knock on the door I went to let in the painter.

He was still clean, compact and tidy, but today there was something different about him. He wasn’t alone. He had a small boy with him.

“This is my son,” he said.

“Hello,” I said.

“I had no other choice but to bring him with me to work today. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” I said.

Beverly was standing behind me and I knew what she was thinking: a little kid thwarted her plans for romance and escape. She came around from behind me, though, all smiles.

“You didn’t mention you had a son,” she said.

“It never came up,” the painter said.

“I guess this also means you have a wife?”

“Never married.”

“So it’s possible to have children without being married, isn’t it?”

“It happens all the time,” I said.

She took the little boy by the hand. He was holding a small stuffed elephant that he dropped to the floor.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Dill,” the boy said.

“That’s a nice name.”

“Thank you.”

“Have you had breakfast?”

“No.”

“Would you like some scrambled eggs?”

She let the boy pick up his elephant and then she led him by the hand into the kitchen. She didn’t look at the painter again for the rest of the day or ever again. She was over him. Just like that. We’ve all seen it happen before.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Vertumnus ~ A Painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

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Vertumnus by Guiseppe Arcimboldo

Vertumnus by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Giuseppe Arcimboldo was a painter of the late Italian Renaissance who lived from 1526 to 1593. He was known for his imaginative portraits made up entirely of objects: fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish or books. His most famous painting is Vertumnus, a portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II imagined as the Roman god of metamorphoses in nature and life. The fruits and vegetables symbolize the abundance of the Golden Age that had returned under Rudolf’s rule. 

Bette Davis

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The Hudson Sisters

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The best time I had with Joan Crawford was when I pushed her down the stairs. ~ Bette Davis

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West of Sunset ~ A Capsule Book Review

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West of Sunset ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

More than any other writer of his generation, F. Scott Fitzgerald (born 1896) chronicled the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age. He wrote four solid novels (one of which, The Great Gatsby, is an acknowledged masterpiece) and dozens of short stories that appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire magazine. In the 1930s, motivated by the need for money (his daughter at Vassar College and his wife in a mental hospital), he went to Hollywood to lend his talents to writing screenplays for the movies.

West of Sunset by Steward O’Nan is a fictionalized (a novel based on real events and real people) account of Scott Fitzgerald’s time in Hollywood. Once in Hollywood, Scott installs himself at the Garden of Allah, an aggregation of villas built around a Moroccan oasis presided over by the mysterious star of the silent screen, Alla Nazimova (whom he never sees). He immediately begins hobnobbing with the famous: Humphrey Bogart and his booze-addled girlfriend (soon to be wife) Mayo Methot, Robert Benchley, Joan Crawford, Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, Dorothy Parker and her husband and writing partner Alan Campbell, and on and on. Will his reputation as a successful novelist get him special treatment in the movie industry? Not on your life—his role as writer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is largely that of studio hack. He’s given assignments that other writers have had before him or that are taken away from him and given to somebody else before he has a chance to make a difference. In a year or so, he garners only one screen credit (Three Comrades), but works (uncredited) on scripts for other movies, including, The Women (which he despises), Marie Antoinette, A Yank at Oxford, Rebecca and Gone With the Wind (which he fully expects to be a piece of crap and a huge flop).

In Hollywood Scott enters into an adulterous love affair with Sheilah Graham (real name Lily Shiel), a transplanted British girl from humble beginnings who learns all the refinements she needs to become a successful Hollywood journalist/gossip columnist. Sheilah knows about Zelda, Scott’s wife, the fragile Southern belle who has suffered from mental illness of one kind or another for her entire adult life, and knows not to expect anything from Scott. (If nothing else, she’s a realist.) Scott and Zelda also have a college-age daughter, Scottie, who doesn’t get along very well with her volatile mother. Scott and Zelda have “grown apart” during her years of hospitalization, but he tries to remain true to her in his own way and spends his vacations with her in her uncomfortable presence. Of course, Zelda and Scottie know nothing of Scott’s love affair with Sheilah. Where is all this going to end? Is he going to ask Zelda for a divorce so he can marry Sheilah? Don’t count on it.

Like many writers and creative people, Scott has a “drinking problem” that at times he doesn’t seem to be able to control. He drinks when he knows he shouldn’t, which is the hallmark of the alcoholic. He just can’t seem to function without the booze but, paradoxically, he can’t function very well with it. His drinking causes him to get fired from at least one movie writing assignment, after which he is forced to look for any work he can find to meet his debts. He ends up taking a hack job for a “B” picture for Paramount. Not an enviable position for a man of his talent or stature. As he enters his forties, the prime of life for most men, his health suffers from his excesses and we know, if it’s not readily apparent to him, that he doesn’t have long to go.

Scott’s conventional love affair with Sheilah Graham is the least satisfying aspect of West of Sunset. I found crazy Zelda much more interesting than prissy Sheilah. The scenes where Scott spends his uncomfortable “vacations” with Zelda and his daughter Scottie are some of the most compelling in the novel. The Hollywood movie lore of the thirties is fun (the one scene early in the book with Ernest Hemingway seems pointless), and dialogue with Bogie and Mayo around the pool at the Garden seems authentic. (As well as we know Bogart from the screen, we can easily imagine him saying lines such as, “Here’s to our future ex-wives.”) Any die-hard movie fan will know Mayo Methot from the movies she made for Warner Brothers in the 1930s. The way she appears in her movies is exactly the way she comes off in the book. (How many wives did Bogart have after Mayo?) If you are a fan of Fitzgerald and have a particular interest in his private life and in 1930s Hollywood in general, you will find West of Sunset a satisfying reading experience, well worth the time.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

A Holiday at Mentone ~ A Painting by Charles Conder

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A Holiday in Mentone by Charles Conder

A Holiday at Mentone by Charles Conder

Charles Conder (1868-1909) was an English-born painter who emigrated to Australia at a young age and painted pictures that are distinctively Australian in character.

Conder’s 1888 painting, A Holiday at Mentone, depicts a beach in the Melbourne suburb of Mentone where dressed-up people are engaged in seaside activities in the brilliant noonday sun.

The Garden at Sainte-Adresse ~ A Painting by Claude Monet

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Claude Monet ~ The Terrace at Sainte Adresse (1867)

The Garden at Sainte-Adresse by Claude Monet

French Impressionist painter Claude Monet lived from 1840 to 1926. He painted The Garden at Sainte-Adresse  (La terrasse à Sainte-Adresse) in 1867 while spending the summer in the resort town of Sainte-Adresse on the English Chanel near Le Havre, France. The painting is currently owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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