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Los Angeles Review of Books: "[Gardam] is the best kind of literary escape: serious, mesmerizing, and deeply satisfying."

Date: Apr 18 2013

By her own reckoning, British writer Jane Gardam is foremost an author of the British Empire, and so Americans already crazed on DOWNTON ABBEY, SHERLOCK, and the BBC 2/HBO miniseries PARADE'S END should be foaming at the mouth for her Raj Orphans, intervening dowagers, cucumber and watercress tea sandwiches, and love unconsummated. She’s well known and well loved in Britain. In fact, she’s the only Brit to win the prestigious Costa Award twice, she’s Booker nominated, and she’s an officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) which makes her not quite yet Dame Gardam, but then again, a lot closer to it than most of the writers you and I know. But for some reason, we’re not connecting on this side of the pond. There have been a few efforts to introduce her to American readers. The New York Times, to its credit, has written rave reviews of her work several times, yet still her sales are low. Why? In 2006, the best The Times could do was to be philosophical about it, suggesting that “some bromide about the literary life being as unfair as the normal one would have to do.” In 2010, The Times turned to magical thinking when it hoped that the release of her 12th novel, OLD FILTH would “break the bad spell” of her obscurity in America. It only sort of did.

But for those of us who looked forward to the release of her latest book, LAST FRIENDS, with the same kind of passionate anticipation as one might for, say, a new Terrence Malick film, the puzzle of her obscurity is the least of our problems. Gardam is 85; our time with her is precious. It’s not enough that her books may well find the audience they deserve in the future — here is an author who should be honored in her own lifetime. And if altruism doesn’t hook you then consider that her books are old-school marvelous — the kind you can deep dive into, forsaking your cell, your kids, and most importantly, your cares for days. She is the best kind of literary escape: serious, mesmerizing, and deeply satisfying. Who, in these times, doesn’t need this kind of palliative? 

One way to describe the novels of Jane Gardam is to say they are a taxonomy of ordinary madness, and by that I mean the kind of madness that does not require a visit to an institution, or at least, not often. What I do mean is an insanity that is a state of being in extreme confusion due to circumstances you don’t understand, can’t control, and can’t possibly have foreseen. Like taking tea in china cups in a trench in a war zone in France, for example. Or showing your loyalty to a parent who is dead by marrying someone you don’t love. Gardam is merciless about it and also funny. She is right up there with J.G. Farrell and Samuel Beckett when it comes to shaking out the varieties of bewilderment, uncertainty, and delusion that rattled the 20th century. And because her characters are loveable and relatable, her books are in some ways more frightening than those of her modernist peers. You don’t really want to hang out with Vladimir and Estragon, whereas Gardam’s heroes are the sort of people you’d adore having to dinner. When they suffer it’s just that much more painful. Here, perhaps, is a clue to why we’re not reading her — maybe we’re avoiding what her books are telling us about the end of an empire. Her characters are kind, well-meaning folk who get progressively crazier as their formerly powerful and shining country goes to pieces around them. Maybe we’re getting a bit too close to the bone here. Words like sequester and terror might float up, or a phrase like too big to fail. Maybe Americans don’t want to go there. 

But we should. She writes the truth, but it’s redemptive, and there’s always a rollicking good story to help you through it. So let’s begin.

QUEEN OF THE TAMBOURINE (1991) is what The Seattle Times calls a “jigsaw puzzle of a novel,” and you could say that its perplexed protagonist, Eliza Peabody, has got a jigsaw puzzle of a mind. The book is epistolary in form; Eliza is writing her way through a period of grief one letter at a time, unspooling an imagination run amuck, trying to reel a sense of order back into her life. Joan, her correspondent, never speaks up, and is said to be, variously, in Prague, Kurdistan, or India. The poignancy and chaos of Eliza’s descent (or perhaps, ascent) into madness (or perhaps, wellness) is offset by the steady pace of the barrage of letters, each one more preposterous and compelling than the last. One letter dated “March marches on” begins, “Dear Old J., Continuum, continuum.” Another, “Joan oh Joan, I scribble in the bed and the white sheets float about the floor.” There is a baby named Mick for Mikhail Gorbachev. A Professor who melts down into a drain. A tree that disappears overnight, leaving a hole “neat as needlework.” And in this oddball way, grief marches on until at last, the suffering soul finds a way to put itself back together again.

Going crazy in the service of saving one’s soul is also a theme in what Gardam calls her most literary novel, CRUSOE'S DAUGHTER (1985). Polly Flint is an orphan gone to live with her maiden aunts in a yellow house on the Irish Sea where “troublesome light flowed in from all sides and down from the enormous sky.” The aunts in this story are kindly, even when Polly rejects their God, but still it is a book about loneliness. So present is the plight of Daniel Defoe’s island-bound hero, Robinson Crusoe, to Polly that, when faced with unbearable war losses, she shelters in his story, writing whole copies of it out by hand and translating it into French and German for no apparent reason — a graphomania of grief. Thankfully, there is whiskey. Also, an indispensably sensible maid named Alice who pries Polly up out of despair and sends her off to teach children about — you guessed it — 18th-century literature, in particular that “great curiosity, the extraordinary masterpiece, the paradigm, Robinson Crusoe itself, the novel elect, fully realized and complete like the child Athene springing from the head of the rough god Zeus.” Polly’s not sure what the ages of her pupils are, but “they had stick-legs with heartbreaking dents in the backs of the knees. Sagging socks. Most of them were rolling in combat on the floor.” There is grace here: the care of children is Polly’s footprint in the sand.

GOD ON THE ROCKS (1978) is arguably the most bonkers of all Gardam’s novels, possibly because a good deal of it takes place in and around a madhouse, or in the parlance of the time between the world wars, a convalescent home for artists. Also starring are a fundamentalist pastor who prefers to preach on the slimy rocks near the ocean, a “barmy” Great War survivor, an ancient doyenne who is “thin as sticks with a little brown head like wood,” and a motley assortment of sex scenes that manage to be both sensuous and grotesque. “ ‘Puckered. Puckered big legs,’ yelled Margaret. Milk fountained all over the trilby on the hook down the wall and on to Margaret’s smocked dress, excellent at the back. ‘All clamped together, rolling, rolling, rolling.’” Margaret is Margaret Marsh, a perspicacious 8-year-old who, by creeping around hydrangea gardens and listening in on the conversations of painters/gardeners/madmen, manages to uncover a half-century’s worth of prejudice and sexual betrayals, not to mention inadvertently assisting the family maid Lydia in setting her mother free of her father’s oppressive religiosity. She does it just by noticing what everyone else is pretending not to notice. God is “on the rocks” in this novel, just like empire is. The wars have done their work; the nutcases and the children are running the show. 

When it comes to style, Gardam is thoroughly modern. Evan McMurray, writing for Bookslut, describes her writing as “carbonated” and he’s right — when she’s going strong she taps out a deceptively cheerful, spritzy rhythm. “Once, a Jamaican beauty, six feet high with teeth like a Bechstein, who could have eaten six Father Garsingtons every day for snacks, gave him a bottle of rum for Christmas.” At the same time, Gardam’s assemblages of sentences and paragraphs are desperately spare — in the style that is usually called “economical.” Her beginnings and endings are not as devastatingly slight as those of Penelope Fitzgerald, whose tiny, perfect novels generally come in at around 130 pages and with wide margins to boot, but in almost every case, what Gardam leaves out is always what is most significant: the rest of a thought, the real name of the father, whether or not there was a witness, what the other person said. She also mixes forms to keep things light: switches point of view in the middle of a section, drops in miniature plays complete with stage directions and scene changes, sets up luxurious, promising romantic tableaux, only to overturn the table, so to speak, and close off the scene just as you’re getting settled in. She’s a voluptuous style tease — absolutely virtuoso, although most of the time she prefers not to show off. This is her writing genius, by the way; she is light on the literary palate, delivering a complex bouquet of emotions and sensations without any waste whatsoever.

I would submit that Charles Dickens will always reign as the king of harebrained plots and oddball behavior, (see forever, Miss Havisham), but that Jane Gardam is his rightful heir. In her novels, as with Dickens, orphans abound, impossible plots twist and turn, and ships sink. Tokens — strands of pearls, postcards unsent, a wooden hat — loom large. Mysterious benefactors materialize, then disappear. Fortunes are lost and then regained. People who want children can’t have them. People who don’t, do. The trilogy of novels that bring Gardam what eminence she does have in the United States are the exemplars here: OLD FILTH, THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT, and this month’s LAST FRIENDS.

OLD FILTH (2004) follows the life of Sir Edward Feathers, a.k.a. Old Filth (Failed In London Try Hong Kong), a gentleman first introduced to us as “spectacularly clean. You might say ostentatiously clean.” Filth is an archetypal Raj Orphan — one of a generation of British children whose parents served the Empire in the Far East and who were sent back to England when still very small, ostensibly to avoid the diseases of the warmer climates. These children were fostered and then educated, first at Eton (usually), then at Oxford (almost always). In Filth’s case, the fostering period was, to say the least, filthy. Rescued and educated by a kindly schoolmaster called simply “Sir,” Filth rises to the lofty role of QC (Queens Counsel) in the litigation field of “Sewers and Drains” — Raj Orphan code for international construction litigation. He marries Betty, a missionary orphan whom he met in Hong Kong, and together they seem “born to become retired ex-pats in Hong Kong, members of the Cricket Club, the Jockey Club, stalwarts of the English Lending Library, props of St. Andrew’s Church and St. John’s Cathedral.” But this is merely the tip of the madness. They are not, of course, the perfect couple. There is Filth’s terrifying childhood to contend with, for one thing. And, the inexplicably constant presence of Filth’s amanuensis and most trusted companion, a Chinese dwarf named Albert Ross (albatross, get it?), adds another layer of mystery. There are more things in Eddy Feathers’s immaculately coiffed head, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT (2009) is, despite its title — which refers to Albert Ross’s hat — Betty’s side of the story. Orphaned when her missionary parents were interned and then executed by the Japanese during World War II, Betty, once Elisabeth Macintosh, meets Filth in Hong Kong and accepts his perfectly charming, if not overly romantic proposal of marriage as a matter of fate: they are two orphans fated to keep calm and carry on the Edwardian values of their parents. The couple doesn’t even make it to the honeymoon. The night before Betty is to be married, she meets one of Filth’s law rivals, the clever and dashing Terry Veneering, and falls for him instantly. It is a passion that will stay with her all her long and faithful married life, underscoring her failed attempts to transform herself from a naïve missionary’s daughter to a perfectly put together British expatriate. Alex Cart, writing for The Guardian, describes THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT as being about “a generation and class of women for whom the certainties and aspirations of the pre-war era — and of their mothers — had disappeared forever.” Betty is a sensitive, creative, and deeply good woman left dusting the damask furniture while an empire falls down around her.

LAST FRIENDS (2013), the new novel, brings together most of the threads by filling out the story of Sir Terence Veneering, Filth’s rival in law and in love. (A short story collection THE PEOPLE OF PRIVILEGE HILL [2007] rounds out the series.) Here, Gardam spins a magical tale of the son of a coal seller and a dancing Cossak. The son, Terry, is the kind of boy who jumps off a ship meant to carry children safely away from the Blitz, thereby saving himself from destruction by U-boat, only to find that both his parents were killed in an air raid. Post these particular traumas, Veneering, like Filth, like so many others, is fostered and then educated by the agents of the empire (including a quick cameo by Sir). One fateful night after the war, he stumbles upon the bombed out offices of Parable, Apse & Apse Solicitors — the business venture of a kindly philanthropist who has taken an interest in Veneering since his strange working class childhood. Veneering comes now into his inheritance and rises to the level of QC in the international litigation field of — you guessed it — Sewers and Drains. Good-looking, emotionally vulnerable in a way that the well-meaning but repressed Filth can never be, and locked in a loveless marriage, Veneering is as passionate about Betty as she is about him.

The almost century-long story of these three well-meaning but luckless expats delivers one of the most satisfyingly tortured love triangles in British literature. They are a madly romantic portrait of the confusion of loneliness, loss, and disbelief that was the true inheritance of children raised to believe the sun would never set on the British Empire. Even the original Raj Orphan, Rudyard Kipling, could do no better.

Despite being the author of a dozen or so of the kookiest, most stubbornly alive characters you’ll meet on the other side of the pond, one of Gardam’s strengths as a modernist is how she handles death. People (lovers, soldiers, parents, aunts, friends, children) die left and right in her books and it’s horrible, and also often funny in that way that makes you feel badly and then all right again. Her treatment of Betty Feathers’s death is a great example. We see it from multiple angles throughout the three books, and each time Gardam imbues the scene with different sad and comic details. In one scene, we see once again the epic emotional miss that is Filth and Betty Feathers. Betty, elegant to the last, dies while quietly planting tulips in the garden of their country house with her husband right nearby: 

She closed her eyes against dizziness […] How long is he going to last? she thought. How he hates death. However, Christ in Majesty opened his eyes and raised a hand not in blessing but holding an enormous gin.

“Gin,” he called down. “Felt like gin.”

In another telling, we discover that what Betty is really doing in the tulip bed is burying the pearls given to her by Terry Veneering so her husband won’t find them and be hurt by them after her death. In a third, it’s just a death — good old Betty, letting go at last with her broad Scotswoman’s rump in the air. These variations on a theme are how Gardam keeps us at once outraged, heartbroken, and inspired to try again. Life is 50 years of war and its casualties. Life is a tulip garden near a country house in Dorset. It’s crazy. And also ordinary. Both. We muddle on. 

Adam Phillips, in his book MISSING OUT, writes that “‘madness’ is also the word we use for a life that has been unlived, or lived in a peculiarly confining way.” Gardam’s concern is with human beings gone mad for having squandered entire lives confining themselves to a truth (God, the empire, the dream of love, the possibility of peace) that does not exist. She serves up a treatment of ordinary insanity that would serve well an American audience hungry to make sense of its own increasingly uncomfortable national trajectory. She can clue us into the everyday effects of losing one’s national dignity or honor or whatever it is that we know we should not be losing, but can’t seem to do anything about. We can learn something from her, even if it is simply how to be less alone. The end of the empire and its wars was never just a British concern, something that happened a century ago. It is happening here, now. It has happened many times to nations, to humans, to folks like you and me. We are in it. And there is one small thing we can do about it. Go read Jane Gardam.

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