On a list of my top reading interests, the lives of kooky geezers in a fading English village don’t rank high. But all it takes is a page or two of Jane Gardam to force a reconsideration. Her prose is so perceptive and fluid that it feels mentally healthful, exiling the noise and clutter of your mind as efficiently as a Schubert sonata. She could make actuarial tables pleasurable.
Gardam, whose first books, a novel and a collection of stories for children, were published when she was 43, is now 84, and LAST FRIENDS is the final installment of a trilogy that began with the highly regarded (by me and plenty of others) 2004 novel OLD FILTH. An acronym for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong,” it’s a nickname borne by Sir Edward Feathers, who serves as both an archetype of the “funny new-old world” of the postwar years, when England steadily lost hold of its status and worldly possessions, and as a lovably peculiar figure who struggles as an old man to sort out who he was and what his life has meant. By the end of that first book — spoiler alert! — Old Filth is dead, but one thing you pick up quickly about Gardam is that for her no story is ever really over. Old Filth still inhabits THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT, the second part of the trilogy, which appeared in 2009, as well as this new book.
In fact, LAST FRIENDS starts with Old Filth’s memorial service in London, where two old friends who were never really friends see each other for the first time in years. Dulcie, the widow-matriarch of St. Ague, the town Filth retired to, encounters a lawyer named Fiscal-Smith, who invites himself to return to Dorset with her and stay for a while. Try as she might, Dulcie just can’t shake him, until their time together is curtailed by a hilarious misadventure and then a sour parting, at which a wounded Fiscal-Smith declares, “I make no difference to anyone.”
Fiscal-Smith is a perfect Gardam creation, a supercilious prig who becomes more winning as you get to know him. “Born to be a background figure,” he’s the oddball hanger-on who craves acceptance and can never quite grasp why nobody likes him. There’s a youthful version of him in every John Hughes movie, and many other stories too, but I don’t know if I’ve ever met one who has carried this stigma into advanced age and almost turned it into a virtue.
After Fiscal-Smith exits in a huff, Gardam abruptly switches time and place to fill in the back story of Terence Veneering, Filth’s longtime professional and romantic rival in Hong Kong and later his neighbor and chess buddy in Dorset. If there’s logic to how Gardam has structured this, I don’t get it — but the truth is, it doesn’t matter. Her effortless command of character and narrative sweeps you right along. The story of little Terry growing up in Herringfleet, a fishing village turned industrial town, is a richly imagined set piece that’s also quite an affecting portrait of ordinary English life in the years leading up to World War II. Terry barely gets out alive before the town is destroyed by German bombers, the first of his many fortuitous breaks.
And yet, midway through the novel, I started to slip from Gardam’s spell, as she moved between the story of Terry’s youth and Fiscal-Smith’s meanderings. Then Dulcie returns to the picture, and we’re knocking around back in Dorset, which has been ruined by “rich weekenders” who “came looking for ‘The Woodlanders’ of Thomas Hardy and then cut down the trees.” The clarity of the prose never falters, but the storytelling slackens. If you’re new to Gardam, this probably isn’t the book to start with, but if you’re a fan you’ll most likely forgive the imperfections or even read happily through them.
It’s hard, in any case, not to be charmed by a writer with Gardam’s substantial gifts. Among other things, she provides an unsentimental but oddly hopeful vision of old age. Yes, there’s ample regret and sadness and the ever-present fear of losing one’s marbles before the body gives out. But Gardam’s old fogies aren’t mere fossils. “So idiotic at my age,” Dulcie tells herself, “but I must reflect upon the future. ‘Reflect,’ perhaps the wrong word. It has a valedictory connotation. But I am not too old to consider matters of moral behavior.” As they struggle to maintain old ties and assert themselves in a world that has blown past them, these “last friends” are still very much alive.