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NewPages: "Gardam’s book is full of unforgettable, amusing scenes."

Date: May 1 2013

If you have not read Jane Gardam, you’re in for a treat. Her fans will be delighted that this British writer—the only two-time Whitbread Award winner—has a third novel in her Old Filth trilogy, LAST FRIENDS. Old Filth is Sir Edward Feathers’s nickname, an acronym for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.” Feathers is a judge for engineering and industrial suits in said city. His by-gone era, the Empire’s end, is represented by old people, his friends, and his memories, which are unsentimental although nostalgic. The characters are Dickensian quirky, some even with actual Dickens names. Readers will get more out of LAST FRIENDS having first read OLD FILTH and MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT, though all are companion pieces rather than sequels. The center of the trilogy is Old Filth and his marriage to Betty; the first book is told from his point of view, the second from Betty’s, and this new book from that of Veneering, Old Filth’s professional and romantic rival.

Gardam’s style is unique, often experimental, such as her occasional use of the drama form, appropriate to emphasize the outside view of an isolated, misunderstood character:

Scene 1: Lone Hall, Yarm, North Yorkshire
Set: A room, upper floor of large tumbledown, scarcely furnished house where, at a window overlooking the sea a young man FRED sits uprights at the desk, back to audience, writing a letter. The wide window he faces shows huge extent of racing sky.
Hour: just before sunset
Month: October
Year: say, 1955…
Pan to a dreary jerry-built town built over bomb damage of twenty years before. Trees that once marched along the ridge of the Cleveland Hills are limp and dying and stand out black and tattered, reminders of an ancient domain. Only the sea survives unchanged. It frames the shore of the flat and sorrowful landscape. It swings out. Swings in. For the letter-writer it is silent, and distant.

Fred is Fiscal-Smith, one of the two main characters in this novel. The other is Dulcie, both minor acquaintances of Old Filth, Betty, and Veneering. LAST FRIENDS’ development has Dulcie finally identifying with Fiscal-Smith. Dulcie, the wife of the judge who hired Veneering for Hong Kong and who married Old Filth and Betty, has never considered Fiscal-Smith as part of the group. Fiscal-Smith was Veneering’s boyhood acquaintance in the above-mentioned Yorkshire town, but “the best day of his [Fiscal-Smith’s] life” was when he was asked to be Old Filth’s best man. Although Fiscal-Smith has always been the man “no one wants around,” a skinflint who invites himself to stay with Dulcie after Filth’s funeral, eventually Dulcie misses him as “the last link. The last friend.” Like the story itself, those surviving beyond their generation survive with humor and determination, for instance on Fiscal-Smith’s train north:

In the Flying Scotsman, heading North, not the old patrician Flying Scotsman but a flashy lowlander calling itself so—the seats were lumpy and small. The train was cold. In two other seats at the small table for four there were two laptops plugged in and hard at work. In the fourth seat was an unwashed young man rhythmically nodding his head, an intrusive metallic hissing emanating from the machinery in his ears.

The other major focus of LAST FRIENDS is filling in the up-to-this-novel unknown background of one of the principals—Terry Veneering. The long middle section starts in 1937, during Veneering’s impoverished childhood, and then traces the combination of good luck and good, quick decisions which land him at Old Filth’s elevated level.

Gardam’s book is full of unforgettable, amusing scenes, such as the one in Dulcie’s hometown of St. Ague (where retired Old Filth and Veneering ultimately and ironically find themselves neighbors). Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith are locked in a church in the cold morning hours, draping themselves in clerical robes, oblivious that the back door is open.

In terms of the plot, not only is there not much story, but Gardam also jumps around from past to present, though without losing control. In fast-moving vignettes, she inserts information obliquely, events and people referred to in flashes and moments that stand out glinting in the story. For example, “Sir,” Old Filth’s headmaster, arrives to rescue a teenager with an impossible Russian name, renaming him Veneering after a social climber in Dickens’s work. At the same time, the rescue is also from the boy’s present headmaster with the unfortunate name of “Fondle,” which Sir refers to as a “bad start.” Meanwhile, in passing, Sir reveals that he had to fire his deputy, Smith, from his all-boys school when Smith got married—and we realize that this Smith is the father of Fred, who similarly renamed himself Fiscal-Smith.

This elliptical storytelling does nothing to diminish emotions, as in Veneering’s and his mother’s repeated sad, final waving to each other. In fact, the storytelling does much to prime the reader for the novel’s marvelous ending.

Because LAST FRIENDS differs from the other two in having fewer dramatic events and more philosophy, it may not the best book in the trilogy to start with. However, I guarantee Gardam’s captivating powers throughout.

—Olive Mullet