Charlotte Wood, The Weekend

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020. First published in Australia by Allen & Unwin, 2019

An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick… WB Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’

During this pandemic it’s become apparent that there aren’t many terms for people in the final years of their lives that don’t sound patronising or demeaning: the elderly (like the infirm: a category of useless outsiders, surplus to societal requirements). Older people. Older than normal people, is the implication.

Older women in fiction are even scarcer than the men. They often serve as slightly comical or absurd, often acidic commentators on the antics of the more interesting younger people around them – like the battleaxe in Downton Abbey whose name I forget, or the dowagers in Victorian novels who view the perceived shortcomings of the ‘girls’ of marriageable age in their social circles with disapproval.

Fiction writers tend to be more interested in younger people – those who are still useful to society, of breeding age or raising their young, holding down jobs and contributing to the economy – or, if they’re not, finding ways of dealing with this. They have agency.

There are notable exceptions to this tendency. Elizabeth Taylor, more recently, Elizabeth Strout. I’m sure you can think of many more. Devon-based blogger Caroline focuses (among other subjects) on older women in fiction in her Bookword blog (link HERE), and is doing her bit to shift the balance in our perception of this demographic.

Charlotte Wood, The Weekend front coverI was inspired to read Australian author Charlotte Wood’s recent novel The Weekend by a review at Lisa Hill’s ANZ Litlovers blog last December (link HERE) and a follow-up post in May 2020, about the Yarra Yarra writers festival (link HERE). Like a less sentimental Golden Girls, it deals with the bonds and tensions between three women in their early seventies. She does this with frankness, insight and quite a bit of humour. She doesn’t idealise these women: they’re all flawed in their own ways. But they’re all interesting, vulnerable and utterly convincing as characters.

Every Christmas they would gather at the beach house of Sylvie and her partner Gail. This year it’s different – Sylvie has died earlier that year, and Gail has cleared out their city house and gone to Ireland, and invited Jude, Adele and Wendy to do the same for the beach house, taking anything they want to keep for themselves. Sylvie’s death prompts intimations of mortality and decline in all of them.

Fissures in the three women’s friendship appear right from the start. Even though they’ve been close for decades and know each other better than their own siblings, ‘strange caverns of distance between them’ are revealed.

Jude, an elegant ex-restauranteur, is judgemental, bossy and spiky. She’s been conducting an affair with a married man for forty years, and there’s little sign he’ll ever commit to her.

Adele is an actor noted for her glamour rather than her talent, and the acting parts have dried up along with her looks. She’s become desperate to revive her career, and begins to humiliate herself as the weekend proceeds. Some of these scenes are almost painful to read.

Wendy is an intellectual, a published feminist. She’s also adrift, having lost her much-loved husband, and her direction and purpose in life. Much to the annoyance of Jude, she’s brought along her incontinent, bewildered old dog Finn, whose dementia foreshadows perhaps the fate of these women. Jude insists he stays outside the house, convinced he’ll soil the expensive white sofa she’d given to Sylvie, and is intolerant of his senility.

This hostility reflects the occasional attitude of much of wider society towards older people in the community. They’re an embarrassment, and best kept out of sight. The kindest thing, Jude believes, would be to put the old dog out of his misery. Why don’t we do this for people, is the inference she’d probably not acknowledge.

There’s not much in the way of plot, although it’s not surprising that startling secrets spill out that threaten the fragile equilibrium of this friendship. It’s unclear until the end whether life-affirming connections that hold the women together will prevail against the rifts that open up between them, or whether their weekend will end in acrimony and disaster.

I realise I may have made The Weekend sound a bit depressing – it isn’t. There’s some cracking dialogue and wit in the narrative, and the prose is unfussy and sprightly. Right at the start, when Jude is thinking about her lover’s unsuccessful attempt to elicit her sympathy for a relative of his who’s died (she feels more inclined to spit on the floor than to hug him), she admonishes herself not to be so ‘hard on people’. Then:

Jude hated other candles being lit next to the one she secretly thought of as Sylvie’s, in the cathedral she had stolen into once or twice. Sometimes she blew the other candles out.

I like the way Wood has Jude ‘steal’ into the cathedral, and vindictively blow out the other candles – she doesn’t even seem to have lit one for Sylvie herself! Her acerbity conceals an almost-lost capacity for affection.

Later, Adele reflects painfully on the way that Jude would never praise her acting performances or the plays she appeared in. Instead she ‘demolished the various elements’ of the production, because:

Jude was like a reverse Midas, walking through your life pointing at the things you cherished, one, two, three, and at her touch each one turned to shit.

It was said of Jude she ‘didn’t have friends, she had subordinates.’ But that was when she was younger, Jude has begun to realise. Now she has nothing except her part-time, absent lover.

None of this is spelt out; my extracts indicate how Wood carefully presents the minds of her characters in turn through free indirect thought, with all their evasions and elisions, as they contemplate the actions of others and their own inconsistencies.

Wood’s capacity to splice barbed revelation with humour is one of the highlights of this novel. Like the moment where Wendy looks at Sylvie’s (probably unread) copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. She recalls how they all liked talking about death when they were younger, especially Jude:

Back then Jude talked about her image of death; a white, curved place of stillness and a kind of holy silence. She made it sound like the damned Guggenheim.

Wendy goes on to think of her unsympathetic daughter’s friend, who’d set herself up as ‘an end-of-life doula’:

What’s that, Wendy had said, palliative care without the qualifications?

Hadn’t this woman heard of feminism, she wonders. She can be spiky too.  And of course she’s also pondering the way her own feminist career has run its course – she’s becoming another ‘paltry thing’. But all of these women are finding ways for their souls to ‘clap hands and sing’ – and refuse to slouch into senility.

 

 

William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows

William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows. Vintage Classics, London, 2008. First published 1937

Bunny (nickname of Peter) is a timid boy aged eight, who cries easily, is bullied by the local lads, and is wary of his bossy big brother, Robert, who’s thirteen. He’s sent on an errand to the local shop:

Mrs Lolly was middle-aged and sagging, like her porch. She kept a yellow pencil in the knot at the back of her hair…[She] added up figures on a paper bag. When she stopped and looked at him blindly, Bunny saw that her eyes were full of arithmetic.

William Maxwell, cover of They Came Like SwallowsMaxwell’s short novel is all written as well as that. This first section is narrated from Bunny’s point of view, reflecting his devotion to his mother, love-hate relationship with Robert (an age gap of five years is a lot at that age), and his father’s severe aloofness.

It’s set in Illinois in 1918, and the post-war Spanish flu is spreading. Bunny falls seriously ill with it. As the novel progresses, with a second section narrated from his big brother’s viewpoint, and a final section focusing on the father, others fall sick, and the serenity of the family is shattered.

It’s a beautifully observed, deeply moving account of the dynamics of this small family. The other significant member is the beautiful aunt Irene, bohemian and exotic, adored by Bunny. Her marriage is on the rocks, and she’s torn between letting her feckless husband have another chance, and doing the sensible thing.

This is the third Maxwell novel I’ve read; two of them brilliantly portray the inner lives of boys – this one and So Long, See You Tomorrow – link to my post HERE. The other, The Château (link HERE) was less compelling: I found it a little over-written. Maxwell is at his best when he keeps the prose low-key, as he does in Swallows, while developing scenes with some unbearably powerful emotion in play.

The title is from Yeats’s poem ‘Coole Park, 1929’, a stanza of which serves as the novel’s epigraph. One line describes ‘a woman’s powerful character’ – Bunny and Robert’s mother, the keystone of this fraught family, would fit that description.

 

Paltry things: Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (Virago Modern Classics, 1982) First published 1971

Elizabeth Taylor’s approach in Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont seems austere and economical in comparison with Rebecca West’s baroque and intricate portrayal of an upper middle class family in decline (The Fountain Overflows), which I wrote about yesterday, who revels in the eccentricity of her adult characters and the almost feral preciousness of the children.

I’ve come to Elizabeth Taylor later than most, it seems. This novel has been so widely reviewed and discussed (list of links at the end of this post) I shall limit myself mostly to just one character in order to show some of the subtlety and unsentimental sympathy the author shows towards characters who she might, given her leftist leanings, have found uncongenial, even repulsive. This is the generosity of spirit of a truly humane artist.

Mrs Palfrey cover

My VMC edition was a Christmas present from Mrs TD

When Laura Palfrey arrives at the unprepossessing hotel to spend her declining years (she and her only daughter don’t get on), she feels like a prisoner when first confined to her cell. From her window all she can see is

a white brick wall down which dirty rain slithered.

The weather and slowly, inexorably passing seasons feature largely in creating mood, as here. The pathetic fallacy doesn’t grate, because it’s clearly refracted through the depressed sensibility of the protagonist. The artist’s own distinctive stylistic touch is seen in that artfully delayed verb, with its connotations of disgust.

Mrs Palfrey’s loneliness is reflected in the jaded residents she meets there. Status is measured by the number of visitors they receive – for all have become adrift from life, mostly forgotten by family and friends (it’s ‘a genteel antechamber to oblivion’ as Robert McCrum memorably calls it in his piece on the novel in his 100 Best Novels column in the Guardian).

The first resident she meets is the scary, cantankerous Mrs Arbuthnot, ‘bent with arthritis and walking with two sticks.’ Asking if is she’s coming to watch ‘the serial’ on tv, this woman ‘looked as if she might have smiled if she had not been in so much pain.’ So immediately we see the reason for her rude abruptness, and although it’s hard to condone, it’s possible to understand it.

Mrs Palfrey got up quickly, and she blushed a little as if she were a new girl at school addressed for the first time by a prefect.

Not a prison, now, but an infantilising, faction ridden school-like institution, with only one escape route (‘The Claremont was rather like a reduced and desiccated world of school’). Taylor in this encounter shows how the dynamics of relationships develop, and how characters’ foibles and inner nature are revealed throughout the novel – with subtle perception and minimal exposition.

Although she realises this woman is a bully, Mrs Palfrey’s insight, conveyed so ambivalently, shows her pathetic gratitude, tempered by humiliation.

A few days later Mrs Arbuthnot condoles spitefully with Mrs Palfrey when her vaunted grandson, the only relative who might visit her and prove she’s not abandoned like the rest of them, fails to materialise. Mrs Arbuthnot clearly doubts he exists, and fails to buy Mrs Palfrey’s excuses for her lack of visitors, gazing at her malevolently. Mrs Palfrey’s inner response is telling:

They were such very pale blue eyes as to make Mrs Palfrey uneasy. She thought that blue eyes get paler and madder as the years go by. But brown eyes remain steady, she decided, with a little pride.

Once again she shows a measure of spirit in the face of malice – but does not condemn her tormenter.

Later, when her new friend Ludo comes to dinner with her at the hotel and flinches under Mrs Arbuthnot’s artless probing – she rightly suspects he’s not really Mrs Palfrey’s grandson, with the instinctive rancour of a disappointed outcast who recognises another (Mrs Palfrey) when she sees one – he exclaims what ‘wicked old eyes’ Mrs Arbuthnot has. Mrs Palfrey says: ‘She is often in great pain.’

Her refusal to judge is rare in this infernal hotel, and redolent of the humanity with which Taylor portrays these sad, abandoned characters.

At bedtime after this encounter, Mrs Palfrey ‘slept well all night, and her lips were level, as if she were ready to smile.’ But the narrator follows Mrs Arbuthnot into her lonely bedroom. She’s in too much pain to sleep, her ‘rigid limbs’ a ‘torture’ to her.

Her interior monologue shows how desperately anxious and depressed she is. Her husband, like those of all these faded women, would have assertively complained to management about their shabby quarters. With ‘ghastly clarity’ she realises her constant complaining is directed ‘only to underlings like herself, who could do nothing.’ Whereas her husband would go ‘straight to the fountain-head’, she is afraid of it. Her raw, fearful vulnerability is painful to witness.

Her dejection is exacerbated by her growing realisation that she will soon be too ill to be allowed to remain at the hotel. ‘We are not allowed to die here’, Mrs Palfrey tells Ludo in one of the most memorable lines in the novel (and which he gleefully steals for the title of the novel he’s writing about the place).

Mrs Arbuthnot foresees her future: her incapacity will inevitably mean a nursing home or geriatric ward (and soon her incontinence brings this about.) ‘Or going to stay with one of her sisters, who did not want her.’

‘Can’t die here,’ she thought, in the middle of the night…One might go on and on, hopelessly being a nuisance to other people; in the end, lowering standards because of rising prices…Down the ladder she would have to go.

She reflects jealously on how happy Mrs Palfrey looked at dinner with Ludo, ‘their eyes on one another’s faces, like lovers’. She’d eavesdropped on them with ‘ears sharpened by malice’.

Mrs Palfrey is a dark horse, she thought. At this unintended little pun in her mind, she tipped her head back against the pillow and grimaced, by way of smiling.

Her ‘casual cruelty’ (as Paul Bailey says in his tender homage in the Introduction) serves to protect her from the ‘not always casual cruelty of others.’ Even a vindictive woman like Mrs Arbuthnot is shown as vulnerable and human – and sharing in humanity’s suffering.

An aged man is a paltry thing, said Yeats, a tattered coat upon a stick. It’s not so often we see such a sympathetic, clear-eyed portrayal of women growing old in literature. Ageing deprives these characters of dignity and, most of them, of hope. It’s to Elizabeth Taylor’s immense credit that she’s able to show an element of both in some of their bleak lives.

It’s not as sad or grim a read as these notes might suggest. There’s humour. Geriatric, unredeeming gallows humour, perhaps, but it’s there. That Palfrey pun adds pathos to Mrs Arbuthnot’s twisted, painful animosity.

Max at Pechorin’s Journal gives his customarily perceptive account, followed by a list of links to other blogs. I’d highlight the following, who’ve written about numerous other Taylor works (so far I’ve only posted here on the Complete Stories):

Jacqui Wine’s blog

Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Ali at Heavenali

Caroline at Bookword.

Simon at Stuck in a Book