Unusual and humiliating desires: Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories

Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories. Virago Modern Classics, 2012.

There are more than 60 stories in this wonderful collection, and nearly every one is a gem. I may have to post separate pieces to try to do some of them justice; for now I’ll just give an overview and first impressions, using just the opening story as illustration.

Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75) surely no longer merits the adjectives often used of her in recent years: underrated, overlooked. Several book bloggers whose opinions I value have praised her novels highly. I was given Mrs Palfrey for Christmas, and intend reading it as soon as my backlog has reduced. I picked up the Complete Stories with a view to dipping in occasionally, but found myself hooked from the start, and couldn’t stop until I’d read the lot.

Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories coverThe opener, ‘Hester Lilly’, is the longest in the collection (53 pp.; most are much shorter, some just a couple of pages), and one of the best. It introduces several of the themes and scenarios found in many of the other stories: a bourgeois couple, Robert and Muriel – he’s head of a small private boys’ school, she (like so many of Taylor’s female protagonists) doesn’t work – have a childless, emotionally sterile marriage. Their complacently dull life is wrecked with the arrival of young Hester, a cousin of Robert’s. She’s an impressionable, romantic young woman and has developed a crush on him that he reciprocates. The story shows with forensic acumen the self-destructive impulses that take each character into dangerous, desperate situations.

Here’s Muriel at a dance, dreading the music stopping during a ‘Paul Jones’ circle dance and finding herself without a partner:

She had not learnt how to mind less than as a little girl at parties – the panic of not being chosen, the first seeds of self-mistrust.

Her thin veneer of social sophistication is stripped away to reveal a different person: lonely, frustrated, frightened. Hester, the young house-guest, in her innocence has thrown Muriel’s moral state and her empty marriage out of equilibrium, and uncovered the poisonous corruption beneath the surface.

Despite the suburban, middle-class settings in most of these stories, Taylor isn’t coy or maidenly: as this marriage begins to implode, she shows Robert and Muriel, who is weeping after a bitter quarrel, in this sharply observed scene:

She began angrily to splash cold water on her eyes. When she was in bed, she said shakily: ‘After all, you don’t make love to me.’

He got neatly into bed and lay down, as far from her as he could, his back turned.

‘Do you?’ she wept.

‘You know I do not, and you know why I do not.’

‘If I didn’t like it, perhaps that was your fault. Did you ever think of that?’

The prose is always lucid, her style sinuous and elegant. It’s not extravagant or florid, but the apparent simplicity and understated clarity are deceptive: they convey unerringly a complex of emotions and tensions in these seemingly smug, uneventful provincial households. The dialogue is pitch perfect., as I hope these extracts show.

Here’s Muriel after playing reluctant hostess at the school’s Speech Day:

‘Oh, parents!’ she said later…’Perhaps I just hate them because they have children…’

Her childlessness makes her feel ‘panicky’; she wants ‘to go back, be different, have another chance.’ But life doesn’t offer such bonuses. All she can do is cultivate her prickly outer shell and make people feel as awkward as she secretly does.

In a painful closing scene, Muriel lies in bed with Robert again, this time longing for intimacy, but he ignores her gentle, beseeching touch, his back turned resolutely:

‘I cannot make him come to me,’ she thought in a panic. ‘I cannot get my own way.’ She became wide awake with a longing for him to make love to her; to prove his need for her; so that she could claim his attention; and so dominate him; but at last wished only to contend with her own desires, unusual and humiliating as they were to her.

I commend these stories to you: Elizabeth Taylor is a fine writer.

 

 

 

People should stay in their own homes. Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train

Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train (first published 1926)

 Rose Macaulay (1881- 1958) wrote 23 works of fiction, many of which, like Crewe Train, were light social comedies. Affinities can be seen with many writers of this genre, from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh –  pretty auspicious company. She’s no match for either of them, but at her best comes close.

Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train

My Virago Modern Classics edition

There’s little in the way of plot. The protagonist is a 21-year-old woman named Denham – after her mother’s favourite Buckinghamshire village. She’s described on the opening page as ‘a very self-sufficing and independent child’ – which is putting it mildly: she’s one of the ‘barbarians’, ‘philistines’ and ‘unsociable’ to whom the book is dedicated.

Within the first few pages her Anglican clergyman father dies, leaving her an orphan. After his wife died he’d abandoned the church (he found the duties of attending to his congregation tiresome, with ‘never an hour to [himself]’ – easy to see where Denham got her antisocial tendencies from) and escaped English society by hiding in Mallorca, until the expats and tourists (referred to as ‘born invaders’) found him. From there they headed to even remoter Andorra. Denham is left to grow up more or less feral. Like her father she’s ‘selfish, idle, unsociable’, prefers solitude to company, silence to conversation, her dog and other animals to people (and likes maps, inanimate things, physical activities like ‘boating, fishing and walking’).

When he dies there, her mother’s sister, Evelyn, takes her back to her fashionable Chelsea home where poor, gauche Denham becomes ‘a stumbling débutante’. The rest of the novel relates how she resists ‘the higher life’ that Aunt Evelyn tries to force her to adopt, with varying degrees of success. As Jane Emery says in her introduction to my VMC edition:

It is the story of the trapping of a child of nature by sex, love, marriage, social convention, domesticity, pregnancy, and gossip.

Much more than the two Rosamond Lehmann novels I wrote about last, it gives a jaundiced portrayal of that social world and its viciously back-biting, self-absorbed ways.

The plot is inconsequential, and leads to a narrative with some structural flaws and too much repetition. The romantic interest is neither convincing nor particularly interesting, so I’ll focus on that aspect of the novel I enjoyed immensely – the caustic humour. Through tomboy Denham, often described as ignorant and ingenuous as a 12-year-old boy, Macaulay takes delight in skewering the pretensions and hypocrisies of the privileged literary/publishing and upper-middle-class, ‘fussily conformist’ chattering set in London at the time.

Here’s a typical scene of Denham at one of her first formal dinners:

Denham’s aspirations towards the higher life were earnest but fitful, and meals were, for her, off times. She ate stolidly through them, an indifferent Philistine within the gates, gay, informed chatter frothing round her like a play to which she was not listening.

The parents of the literary young man she falls for, Arnold, see her as ‘an untutored savage’.

She converts to Catholicism with stoical boredom, since Arnold expects and wants it. Religion is an area of life to which she is as indifferent as she is to frothy dinner-table chat. Interesting, given that RM was a devout Anglo-Catholic, and had a life-long affair with a former Catholic priest. She doesn’t necessarily expect us to endorse all of Denham’s sociopathic traits, but depicts her as more admirable in her flight from ‘civilisation’ than reprehensible in her uncouth philistinism.

An illustration of this irreverence towards pretentious social cultivation: when Denham visits her paternal aunt, in the far less fashionable role (compared to swanky Aunt Evelyn) of a Torquay dentist’s wife, she’s assured there’s ‘plenty to do’ there at the seaside resort:

‘We have some very bright evenings [says the aunt]. There’s a nice reading circle, too.’

‘A what?’ Denham was apprehensive.

‘A reading circle. You all study some book together, and meet and talk about it.’

‘What for?’

Two final excerpts which I hope encourage you to ignore the fallow parts of this novel and savour the spiky humour in the numerous fertile ones. Arnold publishes a novel. His addition to the fashionable stream-of-consciousness school of writing isn’t openly condemned by the narrator; she simply quotes a piece and leaves us to snort with derision:

‘My religion, all the novelists, is marriage worth while? Love, dove, shove, glove, oh my love I love you so much it hurts, yes marriage is worth while, oh yes, oh yes: oyez all round the town…’ [author’s ellipsis]

 

There were several pages of this.

‘I suppose,’ said Denham doubtfully, ‘Jane did think like that. I suppose she was a little queer in the head.’

‘If you’ll think it over,’ said Arnold, rather vexed, ‘you’ll discover it’s the way we all think.’

Denham thought it over, then shook her head.

‘No, I don’t.’

…’[I]f one tries to follow the maze of one’s thoughts, one finds they’re astonishingly incoherent.’

‘But not like that,’ Denham obstinately maintained. [my ellipsis]

Macaulay doesn’t expect us to accept Denham as a literary-cultural critic, just an unaffected person with a finely tuned bullshit detector with a ‘free and practical spirit’.

Finally, when Arnold’s novel gets mixed reviews, the narrative voices his self-serving attitude:

One’s bad reviews are written by one’s enemies; this is one of the laws of the literary world. It is less fixed a law that the good ones are written by one’s friends.; after all, why shouldn’t an impartial critic admire one’s book? If he should abuse it, he proves himself not impartial, but praise is another matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The real risk: Rosamond Lehmann revisited

Lehmann The Weather in the Streets VMC cover

Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets, Pt 2

Last time I considered why Olivia persists with a lover (I’ll call him X to avoid spoilers) who always places his wife first. She seems passively, unreflectingly to accept this ambivalent position, because she’s in love with him. ‘The Other Woman doesn’t make too many demands’, she thinks at one point.

Later in the novel she’s warned off X by a close relative of his, who’s found out they’re having an affair: ‘Don’t waste yourself’, she’s told…

It’s hard to sympathise with Olivia’s wilful submissiveness. People who commented on the novel after my first post yesterday tended to be put off by this.

Early in the relationship her interior monologue reveals of her view of X that ‘he’s a bit weak and in a muddle…’

Olivia appears able to articulate in her thoughts the harsh reality of this affair: he’s unworthy of her, and she’ll never supplant his beautiful wife. Then she dismisses such thoughts.

When they’ve first consummated the affair, the lover says approvingly:

“You’re the only woman who doesn’t go on about things. You leave people alone. It’s so refreshing.”

That’s how he talks.

This is how she thinks about what he’s said:

I’ve got everything…He’s my lover…It was enough. Enough belongs to me…Perhaps not possessive like some women, I’d think, smug. Congratulating myself, saying: “I don’t think I’ve ever been very jealous. I suppose it’s not my line.”

That smug complacency passes and she suffers pangs of jealousy about his wife. So why does this apparently intelligent, no longer young and innocent woman put up with a man who seems so transparently to be using her, taking advantage of her compliance?

When he gives her an expensive ring for her birthday, she’s able to see that

It said nothing about us, just brilliant, unimpeachable, a public ring, saying only with what degree of luxury he could afford to stamp a woman.

Ouch. Her acceptance of the situation – of his patronising swagger – is bewildering. Then he gives her a less expensive ring, and she’s charmed, he’s redeemed. He always is. He’s charming. And very rich. Used to getting what he wants. He even utters the ultimate cheat’s excuse, when Olivia challenges him about deceiving his wife: ‘What people don’t know about can’t hurt them, can it? I’m not hurting her as long as she doesn’t find out, am I?’

Olivia says she’d feel worried in his position (or does she mean the wife’s?)

‘I do see how difficult it is for you,’ I said, awfully understanding.

That sounds like self-criticism. She is aware of her illogical acceptance of things. Then his reply:

‘Women are dreadful creatures. They will want to have their cake and eat it too. It’s what they call being honest. If my wife had a lover I hope to God she wouldn’t see fit to tell me so. I call this confession and all-above-board business indecent.’

He talks in clichés, his selfishness is breathtaking. So too, surely, is Olivia’s complicity here? Olivia replies:

‘That’s because you’d feel it was such rotten luck for the other chap to be given away’, I said. ‘You’d mind that almost as much as the unfaithfulness. It wouldn’t be cricket…You don’t like women really, do you?’

‘There’s one or two things I quite like about them,’ he said in that beginning voice, kissing my ear. [My emphasis]

So. Homosexuality ripples through this narrative, as it did Invitation, which I wrote about recently HERE. Could it be that these lovers aren’t quite as heterosexual as they appear?

Shortly before this, soon after that first consummation, Olivia had doubts about whether this was love. She thinks of her closest friends, Anna and Simon:

I love Simon; but that’s different again, never to sleep together, that’s certain…All the same, just then I thought: I love Simon, not [X] – thinking I’d done something against Simon somehow…it was mad of course…

So Simon is gay? At least, unattainable. The lovers spend a weekend in Simon’s country cottage with friends:

Colin and [X] hit it off from the word go…

Olivia’s friend Colin is usually melancholy, but with X ‘His face was alight’ as he frolics in the river, diving from X’s shoulders.

Afterwards, dressing, they stood in the sun by a thorn bush, towels around their waists, lighting cigarettes for each other, slipping their shirts vaguely over their roughened heads, their clear, hard, square-breasted chests – deep in talk, not hurrying, forgetting the rest of us.

This looks very like homoerotic flirtation.

Later, X complacently dismisses the news that Colin is a psychoanalyst (analysis is ‘just an excuse for gutlessness’ in his view). He has ‘too much in the brain-pan, I expect, to settle down’. So it’s not Colin’s intellect he’s attracted to. Olivia’s thoughts on this idiocy:

For the first time I realised it’s no use telling him really what people are like. He doesn’t care to inquire…If I weren’t in love with him, would this matter rather? Might I get irritated? Bored?…[Ellipses Lehmann’s]

Then speaking aloud she feigns happiness with him.

So: she isn’t entirely oblivious of the defects in her anti-intellectual, feckless lover. He may or may not be a philanderer, and a little dim. He may not be entirely keen on women. Why does Olivia stick with him? Is she attracted to men who are unable to reciprocate her feelings? Is this her way of escaping commitment to a banal, conventional partnership with a man?

Another possibility: Olivia is an aspiring writer herself. During the course of the novel, especially when the errant lover goes missing with his wife (or slaughtering wildlife in Scotland with equally boorish gentry), Olivia tries to write again. And fails. She can’t finish anything.

Is the lover then a convenient excuse for Olivia not to try to produce any art herself? She lives in a semi-bohemian world in London, with friends who are photographers, artists, writers and left-wing intellectuals. She likes their company. Appears to aspire to an artist’s creativity.

Perhaps she finds safety in this doomed obsession with X, for whom she neglects her writing. He’s therefore a convenient excuse for inactivity. By committing to him, she’s taking the easier, less risky option. OK, she won’t have domestic bliss, children, a constant partner. But neither will she have to confront the baleful truth if she doesn’t really have the talent to be a writer.

Passivity then as the lesser of two evils. X, the risky, self-centred, dim-witted lover, as a kind of emotional/artistic tranquilliser? A substitute for taking the real risk.

Once again I’d commend blogger Heavenali’s take on this and many more of Lehmann’s works HERE

 

 

 

 

 

 

A suitable marriage within easy motoring distance

Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets (1936; Virago Modern Classics edition, 1996)

 This novel continues the story of Olivia Curtis, whose first ball at the age of sixteen was the subject of Invitation to the Waltz (1932), about which I wrote recently HERE. Now ten years have passed, Olivia has married a disappointing man named Ivor, and separated from him two years before the novel opens.

Like the earlier novel, there is little in the way of plot — we simply see Olivia enter into a passionate, tumultuous affair with a married man (I’ll try to avoid spoilers).

Lehmann The Weather in the Streets VMC coverThe married lover had also appeared in Invitation. His treatment of Olivia can be generous, chivalrous and romantic, but he also makes it quite clear that he loves his valetudinarian wife, a beauty who had miscarried and therefore forbids sex with him, convinced another pregnancy would kill her. This story looks suspicious when we see how things turn out. The man always places his whimsical wife’s needs first, leaving Olivia in pining solitude much of the time. We never gain insight into the wife’s true identity: all is filtered through what others say, especially her errant husband.

My initial problem with this scenario is that I found the man a selfish cad. He justifies his cavalier treatment of the smitten Olivia by saying he’s never promised her commitment, and that he likes to keep things ‘simple’. This he palpably fails to do.

Olivia, on the other hand, seems to lapse into the role of doormat. She indulges all of her lover’s moods, excuses his absences (and worse), and, if anything, shields him from pain and anguish, even when she’s suffering unspeakable hardship. When she undergoes an emotional and physical crisis, she prioritises his peace of mind at her own emotional (and material) expense.

I found her apparently submissive behaviour irksome at first. But at Bloomsbury Bell, blogger Naomi wrote that she too found this passive role reprehensible in a post-feminist world.

She also raises another possibility, one that I find plausible. Olivia enters into this seemingly doomed, dead-end affair to escape the conventional role expected of women like her. Her more beautiful elder sister, Kate, who we saw in Invitation was admired and envied by Olivia, has married (a man pointedly called ‘Rob’) and produced four children – the domestic life is shown to be draining away all her glamour, vivacity and spirit. The sisters’ roles are reversing.

Early in the novel this is revealed as so often with Lehmann in the free-indirect-discourse modernist style that slides into and out of third- and first-person narrative voices: it’s the moment early on when Olivia is visiting her ailing father. Kate is there at their parents’ house too. The mother sides with Kate, because she is more compliant, saying she’ll drink the soup their mother has made, while Olivia refuses it. Mother says to Kate:

“Yes.” Approval and exasperation struggled in Mrs Curtis’s voice. “You’re a sensible girl, thank goodness.”

As children it was always sensible Olivia who had the ‘big appetite’ and Kate was ‘the fussy one’.

‘“And now I gorge,” said Kate languidly…”It’s motherhood.”

They turn to the merits of women not being ‘scraggy’ or skinny, but ‘nicely covered’ , as Kate now accepts she is (my previous post about Invitation pointed out the focus on desirable female appearance and the importance of looks). But she adds, ominously, that ”as a matter of fact, Rob really prefers them on the skinny side.” Her mother dismisses this ambiguous statement as nonsense: ”Rob has far too much sense.”

Mrs Curtis’s manner conveyed an arch benevolent unperturbed reproach: for Kate, cured of that early tendency to tart defiance…had long since turned out entirely sensible and satisfactory. Kate, bless her, had slipped with no trouble into a suitable marriage within easy motoring distance. As the wife of a young doctor with a good country practice, a solid man, a man with a growing reputation…[but now] they were very cosy, very happy together…[ellipses mine].

The narrative focalises on Mrs Curtis here, taking on her voice (though it’s notable that Lehmann never does this with male characters), slipping into ever more fractured interior monologue:

A comfort, yes, a comfort, now that Olivia…now that [her son] James…phases, we hope; phases, of course…above all, now that [husband] Charles…Saved, but a ruin…I know it…Hush…Pass on. [ellipses in the text]

An unattractive model of the trials for women of married life: is this the kind of fulfilment to aspire to? It’s not surprising Olivia rejects it.

Her own marriage ended in disappointment: Ivor seemed a romantic artistic type, but fell short of her expectations. When she meets up with him again by chance when her affair is in crisis he’s superficially caring and attentive, but spoils it all by suggesting they give it another go – a prospect that appals her. Why turn into Kate, or her mother?

So the lover provides all the sex, companionship and conversation she wants. She’s prepared to forgo the usual benefits of commitment — or even of a true meeting of minds. True, she’s jealous of the languid wife, and longs to have a child of her own, but it’s a price she convinces herself she’s prepared to pay.

As she falls asleep in her parents’ house, in her old room, we are given a Molly Bloom kind of interior monologue. She’d never had a lover before, never tried ‘experiments’,

not because I’m cold, only because of love – because I believe in it, because I thought I’d wait for it, although they said schoolgirlish, neurotic, unfriendly…It was because of you [the lover]. I shall tell him all that. I’ll tell him…He’ll say: I feel the same, it’s worth not spoiling…He’ll say: Darling, I’m so glad…If he were here now…I want him here…[ellipses in the text]

As her thoughts shift to unsatisfactory sexual/emotional experiences with Ivor, they drift off towards the lover and his wife, she longs for his letter:

will it be speaking in his voice; saying darling, saying Olivia darling, will you…

Yes, I’ll say…Yes. Anything you say. Yes. [ellipses in the text].

 

I’m not convinced this entirely represents the kind of compromise/escape Naomi mentions in her blog post, though. This sounds like unadulterated, adulterous romanticism. Olivia is in love with love. Maybe not with the man. This attitude, she reflects dimly, is ‘schoolgirlish’, but also in some ways ‘neurotic’. Why ‘unfriendly’? To the betrayed wife? To potential lovers? Or to herself? As she lapses into sleep her thoughts are significantly ambivalent.

Now I’ve gone on too long. I’ll continue next time with some other suggestions about the intriguing possibilities to be found in this fascinating, subtle novel, and its frank, courageous exploration (portrayal?) of a young woman’s emotional and sexual yearnings and confusions. This is not the simple tale the married lover hoped for. Thank goodness.

 

The cruel mirror of opinion

Rosamond Lehmann, Invitation to the Waltz: Virago Modern Classics, 1981. First published 1932

 A novel about a young woman’s first ball? It’s an audacious premise, but Rosamond Lehmann carries it off with aplomb: my initial reaction is to say it’s in the spirit of Jane Austen, who also manages to take us right into the thoughts and feelings of her young women protagonists, with all their confusion, embarrassments, self-consciousness and wavering self-esteem.

In recent years fellow blogger Ali at her Heavenali site has written about pretty much everything Rosamond Lehmann has written, so I commend you to this post on Invitation

Her review is exemplary, so I shall instead turn to an approach I’ve used before: I’ll focus on Olivia’s clothes, appearances and looks, and how people look at her (and how she looks at herself), and the way they function to point up the drama in the narrative (an idea borrowed from the estimable Moira at her Clothes in Books blog).

Invitation to the WaltzOlivia Curtis wakes on her seventeenth birthday wondering which jumper to wear – the crimson, or the fawn? Her confidence is frail; she’s acutely conscious that elder sister Kate is the family beauty, as the mirror shows her:

She cast a glance at her figure in the long glass; but the image failed her, remained unequivocally familiar and utilitarian.

Earlier she’d been optimistic, determined not to lapse into her usual sense of inadequacy in her appearance – determined to ‘glow’. But the mirror refuses to endorse this mood. Still, she’s starting to experience fitful glimpses reflected there of ‘a new self’, an emerging ‘stranger’ – I’m tempted to call her a dowdy duckling growing into – some kind of swan.

She changes. Looks again in the mirror. Stares into it. More flickering optimism…

But soon the impression collapsed: the urgent expectation diminished flatly…Nothing exciting was going to happen. There was nowhere to go: nobody: nothing to do. In the glass was a rather plain girl with brown hair and eyes, and a figure well grown but neither particularly graceful nor compact…But hope had sprung up, half-suppressed, dubious, irrational, as if a dream had left a sense of prophecy…Am I not to be ugly after all?

There it is: as the narrative drops into Olivia’s first-person voice she lets slip that unflattering adjective, negates it (after those adolescent, truculent complaints), hoping to face down her mirror’s effrontery.

This is good writing, and although I’m a man I can feel Olivia’s fierce desire to look mature, attractive and sophisticated, and her disappointment that her looks aren’t yet fully developed.

The theme of Olivia’s appearance is epitomised by the birthday present she receives at breakfast from her parents: ‘a roll of flame-coloured silk’ from which she’ll have her ball gown made. Her pleasure is deflated by her sister:

‘Yes, I chose it,’ said Kate languidly. Her taste was law. ‘What’s the good of putting Olivia into girlish shades? She’d only look sallow and ghastly.’

When the inept village seamstress, Miss Robinson, completes the dress, however, it’s an unflattering botched job. Once again it’s her sister who delivers the brutal truth:

‘Here. You’ve got it twisted.’ She gave a few sharp twitches to the waist and skirt…’It looks all right. Very nice.’

Her lie is transparent, and Olivia’s grief and humiliation are palpable:

But it was not so…Uneven hem; armholes too tight; and the draping – when Olivia looked at the clumsy lumpish pointless draping a terrible boiling-up, a painful constriction from chest to forehead started to scorch and suffocate her.

‘It simply doesn’t fit anywhere…I won’t go looking like a freak. I must simply rip it off and burn it and not go to the dance, that’s all.’

But then Kate points out she’s wearing it back to front. She turns it round:

It was not so bad. It dipped at the back, and there was a queer place in the waist where, owing to a mistake in the cutting, Miss Robinson had had, in her own words, to contrive it. But still, but still…if one didn’t look too closely, it was all right. Certainly the colour was becoming.

Olivia no longer feels a ‘caricature’ of ‘a young girl dressed for her first dance’, and ‘able again to compete with and appreciate others’. Then she looks at Kate, who truly does look lovely, and the doubts return. Kate is hardly propitiatory:

Side by side they stood and looked at their reflections. After a bit Kate said:

‘Thank heaven, anyway, we don’t look alike.’ Olivia ventured:

‘We set each other off really rather well, don’t you think?’ She thought, The younger girl, with her gypsy colouring, afforded a rich foil to her sister’s fair beauty.

The final third of the novel consists largely of dialogue with dance partners and other guests as Olivia’s humiliations continue: the young men are prigs and cads, selfish and heartless; her sister’s betrayals accumulate. But a chance encounter in the garden, where she’d fled the ghastly crowd of privileged, drunken rich boys, with Rollo Spencer, eldest son of the hosts, and then with his kind-hearted father, reveals to her what ‘real people’ are like: not obsessed with themselves and surface appearances.

This is her epiphany: it’s not what the cruel mirror of opinion reflects that counts; it’s ‘kindness, tolerance, courtesy, family pride and affection.’

I’ve started the sequel to this novel, The Weather in the Streets, and hope to write about it at some point soon.

 

 

B.L.Z. Bubb meets Santa: Claus & Claws

Alexander Bell: Claus & Claws: A Christmas Tale (Kindle, 2016)

Claus and ClawsOne summer’s day Santa Claus is hoeing his garden, feeling hot in his red suit, ‘but he had to keep up appearances’. Thus begins this charming retelling of the Santa Claus story, with a hint of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol but with a more steely, less sentimental glint in its eye – more like Wall Street in fact.

After hitting his head in the vegetable plot, Santa undergoes a personality change – he develops a taste for Coke and fast food, and starts to be bossy and overbearing with the genial elves, who are bewildered by his new manner. Rudolf faces an uncertain future.

I shan’t say too much more about the plot, except that Santa’s new friend, Nick Claws, has a particularly sinister, Machiavellian air (hint to children: speak aloud his alias, ‘B.L.Z. Bubb’ with an American ‘zee’). Dastardly Nick encourages his polar friend to adopt an entrepreneurial approach to the usual task of delivering presents to the children of the world. He outsources gifts to a tacky, cheap Chinese outfit. He sacks the elves and reindeer. They won’t even be delivered on the night before Christmas. A new callousness has taken over.

Drastic action has to be taken to save the situation.

This story will delight children of most ages: my ten-year-old grandson loved it – he didn’t get the ‘Nick’ references, but this didn’t seem to spoil his pleasure. Adults will enjoy the gleeful satire on the commercialisation and rampant consumerism of Christmas. I write this after the now annual madness in the UK of a US-style ‘Black Friday’ that seems to last a fortnight.

According to his profile on the Amazon Kindle site, where this e-book is available, Alex Bell has spent many years in marketing: it shows. This story skewers the amorality of corporate practice with wicked glee.

Claus & Claus has some good jokes, too (like Nick’s being described during an excruciating corporate golf match as being a ‘demon’ on the course – how could grandson not get that?! ) It only flags occasionally, and would make an excellent filler of virtual stockings. It’s just long enough at the equivalent of 112 pages to deliver its Scroogean message.

The Empress penguin of the South Pole is delightful: she and her fellow penguins manage to make just standing around on the ice look purposeful. She’s the one who has the vision to perceive what Nick Claws is plotting, using Santa as his dupe: Christmas, she realises, will cause ‘nothing but unhappiness’:

“Santa will be held responsible and his name will be reviled throughout the globe. The custom will quickly die out and cease to exist. There will be nothing to bring joy and happiness in the mid-winter when people need it most, no moment for people to consider their fellows and extend towards them love and humanity.”

Interesting to reflect that this was written before the American presidential election result…

A salutary story for us all.

PS Dec 12: Alex informs me this is now available as a paperback at Amazon.

 

 

The sensuous Celtic type: DH Lawrence, ‘Samson & Delilah’

It’s been a busy time at work, and emotionally fraught (a serious family illness), but I don’t want Tredynas Days to languish. Here then is a short piece based on notes compiled for a course I’m teaching on ‘Sense of Place’: it follows on from several recent posts on DH Lawrence’s letters written in Cornwall,mostly from a rented cottage at Higher Tregerthen, near the village of Zennor, west of St Ives.

Lawrence’s story ‘Samson and Delilah’ tells of a Cornish miner who, like many others in the late Victorian period when tin and copper prices fell, emigrated to America, abandoning his wife and new-born baby. Some 15 Years later he returns to the

Tinners Arms

The Tinners Arms as it looked back in August this year

fictionalised Tinners Arms (called in the story ‘The Tinners Rest’) at Zennor, where his wife is landlady. At first she doesn’t recognise him, but when he insists on staying, and that she is his wife, she calls on some soldiers, stationed there – the story is set early in WWI – to restrain him. He escapes and resumes his attempts to win her over, telling her he has amassed £1000 – a fortune at that time (remember he paid an annual rent of £5 on the Higher Tregerthen cottage!)

Probably written in 1916, it was published in March 1917 as ‘The Prodigal Husband’ in the English Review; a revised, retitled version appeared in a collection of his stories, England, My England (1922 in the US, 1924 in the UK) – Online text here; it was made into a short TV play in 1959 and a short film in in 1985. A longer version was an episode in the ITV ‘Play of the Week’ series in 1966.

img_4302Here at the start of the story the protagonist, Willie Nankervis, arrives in the desolate, economically deprived mining village – a hint at why he left there years earlier – on the Penzance to St Just bus:

Tall, ruined power-houses of tin-mines loomed in the darkness from time to time, like remnants of some by-gone civilization. The lights of many miners’ cottages scattered on the hilly darkness twinkled desolate in their disorder, yet twinkled with the lonely homeliness of the Celtic night… The houses began to close on the road, he was entering the straggling, formless, desolate mining village, that he knew of old.

After ordering drinks at the bar Willie encounters a girl working there; we later discover this is his daughter. Note the characteristic ambiguity in the depiction of the Cornish people (in a letter he’d venomously dismissed them as vermin, insects, in response to what he perceived as their passive acceptance of militarism and ‘King and Country’).

She disappeared. In a minute a girl of about sixteen came in. She was tall and fresh, with dark, young, expressionless eyes, and well-drawn brows, and the immature softness and mindlessness of the sensuous Celtic type…

 

She replied to everybody in a soft voice, a strange, soft aplomb that was very attractive. And she moved round with rather mechanical, attractive movements, as if her thoughts were elsewhere. But she had always this dim far-awayness in her bearing: a sort of modesty. The strange man by the fire watched her curiously. There was an alert, inquisitive, mindless curiosity on his well-coloured face.

‘I’ll have a bit of supper with you, if I might,’ he said.

She looked at him, with her clear, unreasoning eyes, just like the eyes of some non-human creature.

‘I’ll ask mother,’ she said. Her voice was soft-breathing, gently singsong.

Not very complimentary about Willie’s womenfolk, is it. But much of the story is narrated from his skewed point of view – but even his ‘alert, inquisitive…curiosity’ is ‘mindless’, to match the girl’s ‘unreasoning’ gaze. None of these Cornish characters emerges with much dignity. Later the focalisation changes to Willie’s wife. Does she really fail to recognise him, like some kind of inverted form of Penelope, faithless to the returning anti-hero who’d abandoned her and her baby?

The story’s title encourages this interpretation, for it draws attention to the central theme of betrayal by the wife of her husband, who is captured by the military; this act deprives him temporarily of his manhood and independence.It’s about one of DHL’s familiar concerns: the struggle, as he put it in a letter from Cornwall, between the old Adam and the old Eve.

It’s a slight story, but interesting as one of his rare pieces of fiction set in the locale where he spent nearly two years 1916-17. Ch. 12 of his novel Kangaroo (1923) is called ‘Nightmare’, and provides a fictional account of those Cornish years, which culminated in his being arrested with Frieda on suspicion of spying for the Germans and banished from the county. His love affair with the Celtic wildness of Cornwall was over for ever. His ‘savage pilgrimage’ across the world began.

The born-again flâneur, ambulant signmaking: Iain Sinclair lights out for the territory

Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory (1997) is topped and tailed by epigraphs from Huckleberry Finn – the second of which provides the title of this loose collection of nine essays about wanderings in London:

I reckon I got to light out for the Territory…I been there before

Huck is in danger of becoming ‘sivilised’ again as he returns to sedentary, comfortable town life after his picaresque adventures with Jim, and he tramps off into unknown America – the ‘Injun Territory’ – to escape this terrible fate. These words close the novel.

This literary appropriation is typical of Iain Sinclair’s method. But his urban tramps through the streets of his adopted city of London (though he retains a bolt-hole in chi-chi St Leonard’s-on-Sea in Sussex) bear little resemblance in their purpose to shoeless fugitive Huck’s. Still, he’s unashamedly content to adopt the pose of the vagabond fleeing into the (urban) wilderness to liberate himself from modern life’s vulgar depredations. The horror. Unreal city.

I’m afraid it often descends into invertedly snobbish celebration of romanticised East End low-life and rapturous evocations of Elizabethan charlatan magus John Dee – who Sinclair prefers to the grim realities of Thatcherite-capitalist ‘redevelopment’ of 90s London.

My Penguin paperback edition of Lights Out for the Territory

My Penguin paperback edition of Lights Out for the Territory

Yes, it’s deplorable that decent working-class citizens have been ousted by gentrifying, speculator hipsters; but this is a process of change that’s existed in cities – not just London – for centuries. The silk weavers of Spitalfields and the dockers of Alf Garnett’s beloved West Ham are long gone. Sweet Thames, run softly. And the fictitious docker Garnett was a bigot – not one of the admirable Cockney-sparrer rascals Sinclair celebrates.

He writes a bizarre mash-up of Beat-poetry riffs and brusque, verbless Hemingwayesque bromides on urban decay, as he sees it, in the form of exploitative ‘regeneration’ schemes. One suspects he’d like to restore the rookeries and slums that Dickens described with such outraged horror; this might satisfy his misguided desire for Eastender authenticity. Heritage chic.

Let’s try to substantiate this claim. Essay 1, with his trademark punning playfulness, is called ‘Skating on Thin Eyes’. It has its own epigraph, name checking that esoteric magician, John Dee (who often crops up in the text):

the magus dee dreams of a stone island in force, dying in poverty, drunk on angelspeech…[etc.]

 A capital-free jive on the free Capital sets the tone for the essay. This guff by Richard Makin is presumably admired by Sinclair. His own style often stoops to such folly, seemingly not noticing its resemblance to the ill-advised excesses and self-indulgence of Dylan’s amphetamine-fuelled verbal doodlings on the sleevenotes of his early-period albums. There’s also too much Ginsberg, and Blake at his impenetrably weirdest, with a dash of dirty realism.

This first essay begins with a typically portentous mission statement:

The notion was to cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant signmaking.

Meaning what, exactly? He goes on (with ever-increasingly pretentious alliteration) to plot a walk from Hackney, his home, to Greenwich Hill, back along the River Lea to Chingford Mount, ‘recording and retrieving the messages on walls, lampposts, doorjambs: the spites and spasms of an increasingly deranged populace’.

Not very complimentary to Londoners, is it? Maybe he means the despised gentrifying profiteers he despises, unconsciously mimicking their parasitic behaviour while jeering at them and their lego-block houses and grandiose skyscrapers. He’s against everything in the ‘culture of consumerism’ except the arcane and the archaic. He lights out as a King Lud-ite. Moorcock, Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, history, pentacles and Interzone Neoism. ‘The aesthetics of provocation.’ Slogans shouted by the apolitical, no perspective, no prospect.

His style is catching. Not fetching.

He mitigates this cultural-political hypocrisy by adducing the usual dodgy heroes. Apart from visionaries like Blake and druggy De Quincey, there’s a touch of Defoe’s plague journalising, Milton’s epic demons, cut with the situationist-surrealist reinterpretation of the flâneur posited (more subtly) by Benjamin via Baudelaire and Poe, and celebrated in works by expat London tourists from Apollinaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine to Céline, and crazed homegrown punk psychogeographers like Stewart Home and Tom Vague.

Sinclair’s ‘curious conceit’ is expressed in paragraph one:

The physical movements of the characters [he’s just cited his novel Radon Daughters] across their territory might well spell out the letters of a secret alphabet. Dynamic shapes, with ambitions to achieve a life of their own, quite independent of their supposed author. Railway to pub to hospital: trace the line on the map. These botched runes, burnt into the script in the heat of creation, offer an alternative reading – a subterranean, preconscious text capable of divination and prophecy. A sorcerer’s grimoire that would function as a curse or a blessing.

Not only does he seem to take this kind of ley-line mysticism seriously, he expects us, with that hippy-Gothic dog’s-dinner New-Age style, to admire him in the process of transcribing what he calls the ‘pictographs of venom that decorated our near-arbitrary route.’ (Simon and Garfield got there much earlier, and only slightly less embarrassingly, with their ‘words of the prophets’ written on the ‘subway walls, tenement halls’. I find graffiti difficult to admire, no matter how venomously done, how grimy the grimoire.)

Yes, there’s a creative energy here, and he turns some neat phrases – some excellent ones. But one has to endure paragraphs, pages, essays of pretentious tosh like this along with them. And his dislike of verbs renders his prose broken-backed, brandishing its ‘look at me, I’m avant-garde’ eccentricities that are so habitual they become mannerist clichés.

I sympathise with some aspects of his deranged scheme:

Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city; the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself. [p. 4]

 

I too love to get to know a strange city on foot. But Sinclair can’t resist going verbally too far; he doesn’t just crave exploration of the city; he wants to ‘exploit’ it. He doesn’t mean this in a capitalist-developer sense: they are the real villains of the text. No, he means this approvingly. Only psychogeographers tuned in to the arcane-mystical ley-lines, the proverbial beach beneath the street (that the rest of us are too insensitively materialistic or addled to perceive) can fully appreciate this aspect of city walks.

He goes on, perhaps realising how he’s beginning to sound (pretentious):

To the no-bullshit materialist this sounds suspiciously like fin-de-siècle decadence, a poetic of entropy – but the born-again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything.

 And he’s off for another 9 small-print lines of prose, listing the random trivia/effluvia of the street detected by his superior sensory antennae and alchemised into gold by his visionary/literary caméra-stylo. He needed a judicious editor, because this flood of detritus ends up making for the very ‘poetic of entropy’ he’d decried earlier.

Any ‘underlying pattern’ that he claims to discern comes largely from his own febrile imagination. He portrays it in arabesques of prose that derive (as the dérive itself over the asphalted earth does, d’abord, from Debord) from the hallucinatory meanderings of De Quincey and Kerouac, with a pinch of Pynchon (sorry, it’s catching, this verbal gushing). Here’s the closing sentence of the paragraph I quoted from just now:

Walking, moving across a retreating townscape, stitches it all together: the illicit cocktail of bodily exhaustion and a raging carbon monoxide high.

This is the loose, prose-poetry, adjective-heavy kind of outpouring derided by Capote in Kerouac as being not writing but typing. Why must every key word be replicated synonymously? Not just ‘walking’ but ‘moving’. How exactly does walking ‘stitch it all together’, and why (and how) would one even want to try to do so? Seeds sown in the sewer. In what ways is this metaphorically mixed, stitched cocktail ‘illicit’? The prose is itself a cocktail of heady, mismatched, intoxicated ingredients. A good drink spoiled.

What a shame. In many ways Sinclair is on to something. I’m not averse to a psychogeographic dérive: I wrote about one (in Berlin; I can name-drop, too) on the blog some time ago. But don’t blot the copy by expressing it in the kind of psychedelic agit-prop rhetoric that was embarrassing when I was a student in the 70s. Lay the ley-lines to rest (see? It’s still contagious.)

This makes for a dyspeptic reading experience. How else could he justify, on the next page, this vomitorium (in the misconceived sense) about his intended route, part inspired by the quixotic ‘temperature traverses’ across London in the late 50s described by TJ Chandler, which were, he says,

An apparently scientific excuse for a glorious clandestine folly, joyriding the tail of the cosmic serpent. As with alchemy, it’s never the result that matters; it’s the time spent on the process, the discipline of repetition. Enlightened boredom.

Too much boredom, for me, and insufficient enlightenment. Anyone who can cite ‘a sorceror’s grimoire’; a ‘preconscious text’ of graffiti that ‘wink like fossils among the ruins’ and that are like ‘Polaroid epiphanies’; cosmic serpents, ‘botched runes’ and alchemy — without irony, or celebrate the funeral of a psychopathic Kray twin gangster as if it were Gandhi’s, has lost the plot. This is a weird kind of pompous, distorted hipster nostalgia.

By dressing it all up with half-digested geomancy, necromancy, Tarot cartomancy-mysticism, occult paranoia and laudatory, bookish reference to the Dissenters’ cemetery at Bunhill Fields doesn’t lessen the disrespect for the kind of Londoner (they’re called workers) I feel Sinclair would run a mile from if he had to sit and have a drink with them in one of the pubs he professes to admire so much.

Oh dear, I’ve only got as far as Essay 1, and had better stop there for now. I’ll maybe return to this infuriating, intermittently wonderful but mostly dire book later this week, as I have time off work.

Or I might just go off on some purposeless drifts.

 

 

 

 

 

Daddy had a number of guns. Barbara Comyns, Sisters by a River

Barbara Comyns, Sisters By a River First published 1947

Daddy had a number of guns, he kept them in the billiard-room, there was a revolver too, he was always threatening to shoot himself, his creditors or both with it, the big guns, some of them had double barrels to make it easy for bad shots and cross-eyed men, they were intended for shooting game, although quite often they were used on cats and people, towards the end of his life he got obsessed with the idea of shooting my red setter.

Barbara Comyns, Sisters by a River: cover Recently I came upon a blog by ‘Heloise Merlin’, who writes enthusiastically about the weird mix of jauntiness in the narrative voice and the contrasting bleakness of the disturbing events this novel contains.

She rightly (in my view) sees the darkness beneath the ‘quirky humour’ and ‘affirmative attitude’ of that voice’s owner – just look at that opening quotation. I also like her identification of the idiosyncratic orthography [spelling mistakes, dodgy syntax] as that of a psychologically damaged adult, not the child it’s sometimes taken to represent. [The narrator gives several clear indications that she’s an adult, as we shall see – e.g. she reveals she’s married to one of the characters who appears fleetingly in the story].

So that makes sense: some of the lexical slips hint at underlying significances – though ‘Heloise’ doesn’t elaborate on this.

So here are some fairly random examples to illustrate/substantiate these points.

Mary was the eldist of the family, Mammy was only eighteen when she had her, and was awfully frit of her, but Daddy thought she was lovely and called her his little Microbe, I don’t know why, maybe microbes were just coming into fashion then like we have germs now. (p.6)

See what Heloise hinted at? The matter-of-fact ingenuousness of ‘had her’ for ‘gave birth’, the naive speculation about germs and microbes, non-standard spellings and colloquial ‘frit’ all indicate the quirkiness that’s Comyns’ signature tone. But that throwaway ‘Microbe’ reference, this early in the novel, foreshadows the parental viciousness, neglect and abuse that’s to come.

After she had had six babies at eighteen monthly intervals Mammy suddenly went deaf, perhaps her subconscious mind couldn’t bear the noise of babies crying any more…Mammy had always looked and been rather vague, she had a kind of gypsoflia mind, all little bits and pieces held together by whisps, now she grew vaguer still and talked with a high floating voice, leaving her sentences half finished or with a wave of her hand she would add an ‘and so forth’ which was a favourite expression. Sometimes when she was showing visitors round the garden she would suddenly come upon us playing some wierd game, she would look quite startled as if she had never seen us before and say something like this ‘The children, grubby, playing dont you know, such a number of them, I married very young, quite a nice governess’ and hurry her guests away, which was just as well because we had rather abomonable manners…(13-14)

Now the ‘vague’ mother is shown as equally culpable in her neglectful, scornful, hands-off attitude to her children. Her possibly psychosomatic deafness shows that she too isn’t unscathed by her husband’s cruelty and volatility (maybe he hit her and caused her deafness – the narrator is too detached to dwell on this. Her bland aloofness masks the turmoil beneath the narrative surface – but by including these details she hopes we’ll join the dots in a way she can’t endure to).

The following passages I think speak for themselves:

When Beatrix and I were about four, we did a frightful thing, we tried to ride the tame rabbits with the most drastic results, we had seen pictures of children riding rabbits and thought we could do the same, bur we couldn’t and for years people said ‘these are the children who squashed the rabbits.

One evening we elder ones returned rather late after a visit to the cinema, we were all kind of in a coma, degesting the film we had just seen, but we were soon rudely awakened, there was an awful uproar, Mammy was screaming and crying in the morning-room, and Daddy bellowing away like a bull, as we came into the room he hurried out without speaking to us, he locked himself in the billiard-room, always his stronghold during rows. Mammy was in the most frightful state, it was difficult to make out what had happened, she seemed almost crazy, and I felt all sick. (87-88)

 

I hated dancing class so much and had a kind of sick feeling in the pit of my stomach before I went, I called it dancing class feeling, and still have it sometimes, when I’m applying for a job, or getting married and similar occasions. (92)

There’s the evidence of an adult narrator. The juxtaposition of job application with marrying and the dismissive ‘similar occasions’ is chilling. Beneath the jaunty humour there’s a traumatised voice suppressing its pain. The loose syntax – all those dangling commas – dramatically heightens the sense of the narrator’s incapacity or unwillingness to differentiate between experiences that were terrifying or unnatural from those that were perceived as ‘normal’.

[From a chapter called ‘Dampness and Illness’] When we had not got colds there were plenty of things like measles and chickenpox to have, there always seemed to be someone in the family with measles, the Grownups didn’t get ill very often, Daddy did once get a stroke and go stiff all down one side, but he came loose again quite soon, the parrot missed him so much while he was ill it died, and we had a funeral, the next parrot wasn’t very nice, it smelt, Kathleen was supposed to clean it but she didn’t (133-34)

Illness is dismissed with the same airiness as other visitations on the children’s vulnerable young lives. That all are treated with equal (apparent) insouciance suggests a narrator flinching from confrontation with a more ‘grownup’ gaze at these damaging events. By describing the father’s stroke with the same lightness as having common childhood ailments, Comyns shows the emotional numbness that this chaotic upbringing inflicted.

It’s a powerful, dark, bizarre novel. Don’t be taken in by that intrusive, superficial ‘quirkiness’; this is as disturbed and disturbing as any fictional autobiography you’re likely to read.

My piece on Comyns’ Woolworths is HERE

Link to Heloise Merlin’s post HERE

Time is how you spend your love. Zadie Smith, On Beauty

This 2005 novel, On Beauty, Zadie Smith’s third, is mostly very funny and entertaining – but it’s also annoying. I enjoyed the campus comedy aspect: stuffy, over-dogmatic rival Rembrandt scholars flinging invective at each other and anyone else who cares to listen (or doesn’t; they don’t have enough empathy with other human beings to need an attentive audience). They are so entrenched in their antithetical views of art and culture (ie Beauty) that they wouldn’t notice something of real beauty if it came up and hit them in the head.

Zadie S Beauty cover

My Hamish Hamilton hardback edition

This is all great fun, as illustrated by a passage in which Howard Belsey, the white, late-fifties English lecturer at a second-tier university in greater Boston, is dragged to an open-air performance of Mozart’s Requiem. His son Jerome has committed the ultimate betrayal as far as Howard’s liberal-PC family is concerned: he’s become a fervent Christian. It’s Jerome’s intention with this concert trip to restore ‘familial’ harmony, broken down by recent events I won’t go into now.

Howard’s wife of 30 years, Kiki, a large black woman from Florida whose youthful beauty hasn’t entirely gone, struggles to concentrate or interpret (another scene – the Beethoven concert – inspired by EM Forster’s Howard’s End, a novel to which On Beauty is a homage):

The experience of listening to an hour’s music you barely know in a dead language you do not understand is a strange falling and rising experience. For minutes at a time you are walking deep into it, you seem to understand. Then, without knowing how or when exactly, you discover you have wandered away, bored or tired from the effort.

Zadie Smith’s engaging free indirect style and warm empathy with her character are clear here. We feel we are inside this character’s self – but not entirely. I find that second person pronoun intrusive, it strikes a false note. Is this meant to be a universal experience for the uninitiated in classical music, or are we eavesdropping on Kiki’s contending thoughts?

The scene shifts to Kiki’s earnest, fiercely ambitious daughter Zora, about to enrol at her father’s university (she’s a chip off his block: zealously studious but lacking in true conviction or moral sense). She’s listening to audio notes on the music on her Discman (this IS 2005) recorded by a learned professor: ‘she lived through footnotes’ the narrator confides.

This is one of the author’s alternative comic approaches: no attempt here at interior monologue. The narrator tells us what to think, and expects us to share the snide joke. So intent was Zora when younger on a trip in France, the voice continues, on her Paris guidebook to Sacré Coeur ‘that she walked directly into an altar, cutting her forehead open.’ Get it? She didn’t truly perceive Beauty even when it hit her over the head.

This too is funny – at first. Then another awareness kicks in. As a visiting Fellow at Harvard, Smith would have seen many such footnote-addicted, over-earnest students desperate for prestigious internships or careers in fashionable colleges or literary magazines, and prepared to do anything to get them. But this humour is too broad to be ultimately satisfying or taken seriously.

The plot enables Smith to take many more pot-shots at perceived hypocrisy among the liberal Left (the Belseys) and an implausible Trinidadian black neo-con art historian (Monty Kipps). Howard Belsey is anti-aesthetic, insisting Rembrandt was an jobbing artisan turning out low-brow dross for boorish aristocratic patrons, spouting Foucauld to support his half-baked theories; Kipps is just as dogmatically wrong-headed in adopting an antithetical position.

Both generate a lot of funny narrative, but both are cartoons. In this respect Zadie Smith’s characters have more in common with many of Dickens’s than with Forster’s. They verge on being types, mouthpieces for particular theoretical or class or racial groups.

The plotting similarly shows more of a debt to the worst aspects of Dickens: coincidence-laden, over-plotted and programmatic, rather than arising organically out of its characters. The difference is that Dickens more often makes us believe in his characters, or enables us to see depths beyond the obvious surface features.

But there are some brilliant, moving scenes among this less appealing material. I found the section when Howard cravenly ducks out of a funeral service to revisit the locality of his working-class youth in London painfully moving. He calls at his aging father’s grim little house in the ‘ignominy’ of Cricklewood, that part of it which is deprecated as ‘beyond salvation’ by smooth estate agents.

Howard as inverted snob though is able to convince himself that this zone has ‘more charm’ than ‘all the double-fronted Georgian houses in Primrose Hill.’ The narrative veers in and out of Howard’s mind here:

The African women in their colourful kenti cloths, the whippet blonde with three phones tucked into the waistband of her tracksuit, the unmistakeable Poles and Russians introducing the bone structure of Soviet Realism to an island of chinless, browless potato-faces, the Irish men resting on the gates of housing estates like farmers at a pig-fair in Kerry…At this distance, walking past them all, thus itemizing them, not having to talk to any of them, flâneur Howard was able to love them and, more than this, to feel himself, in his own romantic fashion, to be one of them. We scum, we happy scum! [ellipsis and italics in the text]

This is good stuff: the shifting voices and perspectives of Howard and author are deftly handled and make a complex, subtle, unpreachy – and funny – point in ways that I’ve suggested earlier in this post she doesn’t always succeed in doing. Howard believes he belongs among these people:

It was an ancestry he referred to proudly at Marxist conferences and in print…for the most part, however, Howard liked to keep his ‘working-class roots’ where they flourished best: in his imagination.

OK, so here the narrative dips into the slightly sneering critique that I pointed out in the image of Zora at the concert. But then follows a long passage where Howard has a toe-curlingly awful encounter with his father that is one of the most vivid portrayals of the generation gap and father-son friction that I’ve ever read – except perhaps in some Russians like Turgenev, or in Dickens.

It takes just eight minutes for Howard to become incensed by his father’s intellectual crassness – the casual racism, homophobia and sexism of his generation and class.

It’s too long to quote and do it justice here, but this one section alone makes the otherwise uneven, intermittently brilliant novel, worth reading. What raises it above most of the rest of so-so campus comedy in the novel is this chapter’s genuine sense of felt humanity: we can feel with Howard his frustration and annoyance with his bumbling, bigoted father, while simultaneously empathising with the father’s ill-fated attempts to reach out to the son he clearly, deep down, loves. Howard’s petulance and impatience, for once, enable us to warm to him, those of us who’ve had difficult experiences with parents, while recoiling from his snobbery. We don’t condone his anger, but we understand it because we’ve been shown its causes. He wants to be able to love his father, but his intellect prevents him from doing so. His inability to feel is matched by his father’s inability to think.

Perhaps this one passage at the chapter’s end best sums up Smith’s achievement here; the narrator has just pointed out that his father just wants them to share ‘quality time’ watching banal TV shows. This is his way of showing Howard ‘We’re family.’

But Howard couldn’t do this when he was sixteen and he couldn’t do it now. He just did not believe, as his father did, that time is how you spend your love.

Like most of the best comedy in fiction, it’s deepened or enriched by accompanying pathos. This is where Zadie Smith’s literary debt to the great strengths of Dickens becomes glowingly apparent. There’s a good joke about EM Forster near the end of this scene, too. Howard can’t stand him.