The Dead of August was the first novel by Cacoyannis, his second being Bowl of Fruit (1907), which I read first. Are you with me? I’m just checking to see if you are awake.
In Bowl of Fruit (1907), the protagonist paints artwork exactly like Picasso. Not Picasso-like, but as if he were Picasso, channeling him, as it were. He then writes a book exactly as if Kafka had written it.
In The Dead of August, I feel like Cacoyannis is channeling Iris Murdoch. It is an Irish Murdoch book, not Iris Murdoch-like, but as if Iris Murdoch had written it. If you have read much of Murdoch, and then read The Dead of August, you will see what I mean.
It is basically the story of a marriage, as only the British can write them, all mixed in with characters that only appear in British lit, never in American novels, everything just the slightest bit off center, just the mere hint of surreal.
Told in the first person voice of the husband, we learn of this cultured, educated couple (with their scarily intelligent son, who may actually be much brighter than either of the parents), who each have a literary career. The wife writes quasi-porno books, under the guise of radical feminism, collections of stories, the first book being about 12 couples, in each of which the female is named Susan and kills her lover.
The title of the book is “Susan’s Phallacy”, and all the women, in all the different stories, are all called Susan. The all get involved with psychopathic men, with whom they all then behave in pretty much the same provocative way — as they have to, and ultimately share the same unpleasant fate, which they also have to, I suppose, or this whole “fallacy” thing wouldn’t work.
James, the husband, writes obituaries for a tabloid newspaper. His obituaries are quite popular, and he has made a name for himself in literary circles. Now, as a Yank, I don’t quite understand this, because American obits are:
John X. Doe, 92, of Shreveport LA. died April 30th 2013. “Johnny” Doe, son of Irving and Dorothy Doe, loving husband of Irene Smith DOE, passed away on April 30th at his home in Shreveport, LA after a long illness. He is survived by his wife Irene, and two sons Abraham and Joshua. He is also survived by six grandchildren and three great grandchildren, all living in the Shreveport area. Services will be held this Tuesday at Jones and Sons Funeral Home.
Apparently, the obits that James writes are for minor celebs and are artfully crafted pieces fictionalizing their lives, making them better and more important than they actually were.
The wife seems to become unenamored of James, the reason for which is never clear to me, and James becomes convinced she is having an affair with his editor. He is requested to visit a reclusive painter and stay for a week or so, after which he is to write a 900 word obit for a ‘happening’ to be held at a London artsy fartsy gallery.
I probably don’t even have to tell you what the happening was, do I.
The couple eventually divorces after separating and reconciling and separating once again. I never really understood why they divorced. but then, I never really do understand other people’s relationships and what makes them tick or not tock. I also don’t care a whole lot about the dynamics of other people’s relationships, so a whole book about the dynamics of people who do not actually exist does not hold a great deal of breath-holding interest for me. But that’s just me. Doesn’t make it a bad book; it makes me an imperfect reader.
Interesting book, cleverly, if not almost brilliantly written, but for me, maybe a third longer than I was interested in this marriage, or this guy’s life and thoughts. You know, there really are only a handful of stories in this world, and it is only the artfulness of how they are told which distinguishes them from each other.
So final analysis: very British, very Murdoch, very BBC-type drama, with a quirky humor to it.