The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton



  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics (July 5, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590179714
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590179710


In an ambiguous future when death has become all but extinct – save for accident and old age – Katherine Mortenhoe is dying. She has weeks to live, her doctor’s estimate about four at best.

Her decline will be particularly awful. Beginning with seizures and shaking, confusion and double-vision will follow, then incontinence and the inability to walk or care for herself.  But the final indignity is yet to come: smarmy Human Destiny TV executive Vincent Ferriman will not rest until he’s blared Katherine’s last days for the entertainment of a fascinated public hungry for novelty.

DG Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is at once a prescient work of fiction anticipating the era we live in, one obsessed with voyeuristic sensationalism, and an exploration of one man’s choice of humanity over fame and fortune. A young, up and coming reporter named Roddie, hired to shadow Mortenhoe and equipped with a camera installed behind his eyes, recognizes the beauty inside a middle-aged woman haunted by the specter of her own death. As they meet and become acquainted, he sees in her strength a humanity forgotten by a society in which death has lost its power to inspire fear.

Following her around becomes a quest of sorts. Growing more ill, she comes to depend on him. In turn, a sense of protectiveness spills out of Roddie. As what he sees is transmitted to the control room where Ferriman’s men edit and broadcast it, Roddie is forced to decide where his ultimate loyalty lies – with the expensive cars and instant fame celebrity brings, or in nursing a woman no longer able to control her bodily functions as she rapidly descends into death – from the glamorous and sexy to the messy reality of the end of a life.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is a lovely, lovely book.  It’s a story about living and dying, about regrets and the unfortunate tendency of humans to forget mortality and believe themselves invincible. It asks the question: what would you do if you found out you were dying, where would ultimate meaning be found, and how and with whom would you choose to spend your last moments?

There’s loads of symbolism in the book, from the prefix “mort” – meaning death – in Katherine’s name to the all-seeing eye in Roddie’s head that allows him not just to transmit but to penetrate the soul of another human being. It explores relationships, separating the superficial and fleeting from the truly deep and meaningful. Compton skewers celebrity and avarice, voyeurism and the danger of a society that loses the understanding of what humanity means.

Absolutely breathtaking. Yet another worthy classic brought back into print by NYRB editions.





Agostino by Alberto Moravia




  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics; Main edition (July 8, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590177231
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590177235

Alberto Moravia (1907-1990), the child of a wealthy family, was raised at home because of illness. He published his first novel, The Time of Indifference, at the age of twenty-three. Banned from publishing under Mussolini, he emerged after World War II as one of the most admired and influential of twentieth-century Italian writers.

  • NYRB ed. bio


I have dozens of NYRB editions I’ve never read, proving I’m better at collecting and hoarding than reading. Mostly I buy them at Half Price Books – which somehow manages to snag an extraordinary number of them, most mint unread – though occasionally I spring for full price at other stores and on Amazon. I love their covers, and the range of works and authors is staggering. They’re magnetic; I cannot not buy them.

Yes, it’s a compulsion. But admitting it makes it better, right?


Shuffling through my collection looking for something short enough to finish in the course of a lazy Sunday afternoon, I ran across a NYRB title by Italian author Alberto Moravia. It was short, at 102 pages, and the cover blurb was appealing, if a little discomfiting.

Agostino is the story of a 13-year old boy’s budding adolescence and sexual awakening, as well as the simultaneous and horrifying realization the madonna-figure mother he adores is also a sexual being.

“All of these gestures, which had once seemed so natural to Agostino, now seemed to take on meaning and become an almost visible part of a larger, more dangerous, reality, dividing his spirit between curiosity and pain. He repeated to himself “She’s only a woman” with the objective indifference of a connoisseur. But one moment later, unable to bear his mother’s unawareness or his own attentions, he wanted to shout, “Cover yourself, stop showing yourself to me, I’m not who I used to be.”


An only child, Agostino has been spoiled by his widowed mother’s attention. While he’s always perceived her as beautiful, coming into adolescence he notices her curves and pretty face are feminine and attractive, and not just to him.  When a handsome man begins spending time with her, he witnesses his formerly strong, independent mother becoming not just silly and girlish but seductive and sensual, adding to his sense of shame and embarrassment.

Escaping the sight of his mother and her lover, he turns to a group of boys whose rough behavior both shocks and attracts him. Though they ridicule and attack him, the hurt is less terrifying than dealing with what’s going on at home :


“He was not so much frightened as bewildered by the boy’s extraordinary brutality. It seemed incredible that he, Agostino, whom everyone had always liked, could now be hurt so deliberately and ruthlessly, a new behavior so monstrous it was almost attractive.”


The more he associates with them the tougher he becomes, yet he never quite loses his core self, never succumbs to the almost evil and definitely menacing natures of the other, wilder boys. His outside hardens, but inside he’s the frightened little boy who needs his mother. It’s a massive internal struggle, a necessary rite of passage from childhood through to the loss of innocence.

Agostino is tortured and unhappy, restless and alone. No matter where he goes, he feels out of place. At 13 he’s a child, yet not, at  the same time. Alberto Moravia writes with great immediacy and passion, earning the empathy of the reader. One cannot help but feel for Agostino in his plight.


“Who knows if by walking straight ahead, along the sea, on the soft white sand, he wouldn’t reach a land where none of these awful things existed. A land where he would be welcomed as his heart desired and be able to forget everything he had learned, and then relearn it without shame or offense, in the sweet and natural way that had to exist … “


It is, as I wrote earlier, a discomfiting book.  I couldn’t help sometimes finding it so, no doubt because I’m the mother of two boys. While not a prude, there are some things I’d rather not think about, and this novel manages to hit a spot I’d prefer to leave be.  Knowing and accepting your children experience such awakenings is one thing, being hit in the face with it is quite another.

I don’t want to give the impression this is a graphically sexual book. It is not that. It addresses the issues without flinching, but things are kept at arm’s length. There are no inappropriately sexual scenes, no graphic nudity or incestuous innuendos. Not at all. What I see in it that provokes distaste lies solely in me, not in the book. Perhaps it’s a puritanical streak, I don’t know. It just is.

Agostino is beautifully written, and clearly shows what a brilliant writer Moravia was.  I’d read more of his books, no hesitation, and NYRB has published both his novels Boredom and Contempt.

Next time I’m at Half Price Books who knows? Maybe I’ll pick them up.

And two or three other NYRB titles… Just maybe.