Representing Himself: John Mortimer’s Clinging to the Wreckage

Mortimer, John. Clinging to the Wreckage. 1982. Penguin, 1983.

I found this book on my bookshelf a couple of weeks ago and realized that it must be several years since I last read it. Certainly, when I began reading, nothing seemed particularly familiar. Perhaps I never actually read this book at all before now. The biography section of my book collection lives in the guest bedroom; perhaps this was a book left behind. Whether I came to this book completely fresh or whether I was rereading it doesn’t really matter, I suppose. Whichever was the case, I can say it afforded me a couple of days or so spent in the time of a witty, lively intelligence.

Why do we read autobiography and why do people write it? It’s easier perhaps to answer that question when we are thinking only of biography. We read about people’s lives because we are interested in that particular person or in the particular time and milieu about which he or she writes. Biographers produce biography for much the same reason, no doubt. But autobiography is different. Surely writing one’s own life and publishing it must include at least a soupçon of narcissism. One might write a record of one’s life for oneself as a way of coming to terms with one’s life, as a kind of therapy, but to publish it: that’s another thing entirely. Either way, autobiography must needs be somewhat confessional, an explanation. Or perhaps it is indeed simply a record that the writer thinks may interest others and from which he or she might actually make a little cash. Am I sounding a little cynical, a little envious given that I know that there’s no-one out there remotely interested in what my six decades or so on this planet have to show for themselves? Perhaps. Suffice it to say, I decided I would re/read Clinging to the Wreckage.

The title comes from a remark made to Mortimer by a sailor who couldn’t swim: “‘If you ever find yourself in trouble, cling to the wreckage!’” (npag). Mortimer comments, “I thought I’d been taking [that advice] for most of my life. That kind of understated humour is what we associate with Mortimer. Born just a little too early to be an angry young man but who, according to Emlyn Williams, “‘just got into the New Wave as the Tube doors were closing’” (173), Mortimer had a career as both a writer and a barrister. Clinging to the Wreckage traces his life from childhood to his then present in the early 1980s. His style is, as I said, self-deprecating and anecdotal. I’m tempted to argue that it’s very British in the kind of understatement that actually suggests a certain pride. That meiosis, too, is inherent in his description of his father who although blind continued his practice at the Bar having his wife read all his briefs and supporting evidence to him.

A similar somewhat tactful restraint is also evident in the way Mortimer treats his divorce from his first wife Penelope. He talks of “the cracks [that] spread across the ceiling” and turns his discussion to the various therapists he consulted in the “constant and increasingly hopeless search for a cure” (201). He says nothing specifically negative about his first wife, but here and there are subtle comments such as when he points out how “In her stories Penelope kept her log of these years with wry precision” (149). Penelope isn’t the only Mortimer who handles things with “wry precision.”

She isn’t the only Mortimer either whose fiction is drawn from experience. Actually, could there be fiction if writers had no experience? Could Rumpole have existed if Mortimer hadn’t been a barrister? What I found very interesting was the correlation between Mortimer’s own life and the people and events of Paradise Postponed, his novel and television series, written a few years after Clinging to the Wreckage was published, particularly in his observations of his early dealings with Hollywood.
I was also interested in what he left out. He makes no mention of his adaptation of Brideshead Revisited (1981), which was a major success. Perhaps the timelines of writing, publication, and screening dates did not sufficiently align, or perhaps it’s another example of that reserve that isn’t quite reserve.

So why did I read this book? Because I have enjoyed much of what John Mortimer has written, because I tended to agree with his publicly stated view of the world—I can forgive him for being champagne socialist—because he captures things I remember about the place where I grew up, and even though “the Tube doors” had closed by the time I was in my teens, that “New Wave” was still important to those of us teenagers who considered ourselves intellectual;  because I sometimes share with him the feeling that “‘Make Love Not War’ seems as dusty an apophthegm as some saying of the Early Father of the Church” (11). Because he can use the word apophthegm, a word that spell check is resolutely underlining even as I type.

 

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Making Repairs: Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove

Backman, Fredrik. A Man Called Ove. 2012. Trans. Henning Koch. Washington Square P, 2014.

A few years ago, A Man Called Ove topped the New York Times best seller list. I’m not surprised. This is what I can only call a “feel-good” book. The Ove of the title is planning his own suicide but is interrupted when the new neighbours’ trailer backs up into his flower bed.

A childless widower still grieving his recently deceased wife and a dedicated driver of Saabs; estranged from his friend and neighbour Rune, who was dedicated to Volvos but now has dementia; Ove lives in a town house complex of which, until he was manipulated out of office, he was once head of the residents’ association. He still conducts daily inspections of the complex.

The novel is devoted to interweaving Ove’s developing relationship with his new neighbours and remembering his past.

Don’t be misled by the book’s apparent light-heartedness; this is not a light-weight novel. Backman sets the novel in Sweden, but the world of sub-divisions, bureaucrats, unruly neighbours, rental trucks, changing technologies, and shopping at IKEA is instantly recognisable. As is the world cross-generational incomprehension and of cultural misunderstanding and acceptance. And then there is the cat. Enough said.

Backman’s use of chapters with descriptive summary titles recalls traditional novels such as Fielding’s Joseph Andrews or Tom Jones. Ove may be fifty-nine when first we meet him, but, in many ways, he is almost as naïve as Joseph Andrews. Further, Backman’s handling of free indirect discourse is masterly in allowing us to see things through Ove’s eyes while also invoking a subtle, understanding irony. We understand more than he does. We, like Ove’s new neighbour Parveneh, understand him a little better than he understands himself. This is a book that celebrates the good that is in us all, reminds us of the many faces of love, and argues that life is worth living.

 

 

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Remembering: Lynn Barber’s An Education

Barber, Lynn. An Education. Penguin, 2009.

I thought I had posted about this book when I first read it a few years ago. I was mistaken. Some of you may have seen the film of the same name starring Carey Mulligan, scripted by Nick Hornby, and directed by Lone Scherfig. The source for that film was one section of the book which had its beginnings as a short piece for Granta in 2003. As an aside, I might comment again on how well short pieces as opposed to novels adapt well to full length movies. I still think John Huston’s 1987 movie of The Dead starring his daughter Angelica is one of the most satisfying adaptations I’ve seen. But to return to An Education.

 “An Education” is just one piece in the whole collection of nine essays that together comprise a memoir focussing on highlights of Barber’s life from her childhood to the death of her husband David in 2003. Barber reveals herself as a person able to look at herself in the mirror and be honest about herself, even admitting  at the very beginning that her “memory is not to be trusted” (6). Such candour is refreshing.

Perhaps for most people, the period of her relationship with Simon Goldman (not his real name) may well be the most fascinating because it certainly wasn’t usual for “a conventional Twickenham schoolgirl” to run “around London nightclubs with a conman” (2). I suspect it still isn’t a very common occurrence. Barber’s summation of the effect that relationship had on her is succinct. Simon Goldman taught her “that other people—even when you think you know them well are ultimately unknowable.” While admitting that such knowledge made her a good interviewer, it also made her “too wary, too cautious, too ungiving . . . . and damaged” (55-56).

Barber survived her experience with the married conman, went to Oxford, married David Maurice Cloudesley Cardiff, worked for Penthouse, had two daughters and went on to become an award-winning journalist. She is still working.

What I found most interesting about this book was Barber’s descriptions of her early life, of England in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. How her memories of the copy-typing room at the Prudential Insurance office, High Holborn” (70) resonated with my own memories of a similar place also in Holborn but a few years later. I suppose copy-typists have been replaced by data entry clerks, but I’m sure there are still young people who dread being “swallowed [by mind-numbingly boring jobs]. . . and never seen again” (70).

Barber’s mother taught elocution, and Barber includes many of the tongue twisting exercises she and her mother’s students had to master. Talking well was indeed something highly cherished in fifties Britain. My own school demanded two years of weekly elocution lessons with the result that I can still recite

To sit in solemn silence                                                                                                                                    In a dull dark dock                                                                                                                          Awaiting the sensation                                                                                                                        Of a short sharp shock                                                                                                                            Of a cheap and chippy chopper                                                                                                              On a big black block

with a certain verve; the ragged rascals can still run round the ragged rocks while Peter Piper picks his peck of pickled pepper, and she [who was she?] sells her sea shells on the sea shore. These lessons ended when the speech teacher emigrated to Australia and was replaced by a drama teacher. As Barber points out, for a certain segment of English society when she and I were growing up, the risk of being thought “Common” was one to be avoided at all costs. Therefore, one was expected to avoid drawing attention to oneself and to take every step possible to avoid one’s accent revealing/betraying one’s origins.

Barber’s roots are in that anxiously aspirational background, a milieu that placed “a strong emphasis on caution, isolationism, ‘not interfering,’ thrift, prudery, moral condemnation and deep fear of the unknown which included everything from foreigners to unfamiliar vegetables” (58). Some things have changed. A walk down the aisle of any English supermarket will reveal that the English are becoming familiar with a much larger range of vegetables than the cabbage and potatoes that provided the staple for months on end in the fifties. Some things don’t change, however. Love and loss are still felt as strongly as in the past, and Barber’s essay dealing with her husband’s leukaemia is heart-rending. What also doesn’t change, I suspect, is the effect of our youth on how we view the world. Barber’s background and her relationship with Simon Goldman could have deprived her of the opportunities she actually was able to enjoy. It didn’t,  but as she reiterates at the very end of An Education, it did leave her “a deep unbeliever in the unknowability of other people” (183).

Her tone suggests that she rather regrets that. If so, I’m not sure that she should. Surely, it’s when one realises the unknowability of others that one has to begin the task of knowing oneself, and An Education certainly reveals a woman who knows herself,

 

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The Ambiguity of Grey: David R Gillham’s City of Women

Gillham, David, R. City of Women, Putnams, 2012

Berlin 1943 is a city of women. The majority of the men are involved in the war in some capacity. Sigrid’s Schröder’s bank employee husband is at the Eastern Front while Sigrid works in the Patent Office. There are food shortages and bombing raids. Berliners endure the privations and wonder what they can actually believe. The news from Stalingrad is disconcerting. Neighbour distrusts neighbour. Perhaps the only escape is a couple of hours or so in the cinema. Who knows what release is offered in the darkness?

Gillham’s City of Women is set against this background. From its opening chapter, the novel held me in the way a crime thriller holds the reader. I needed to know what happened next, how everything would turn out. However, this novel far transcends genre fiction. It has its roots in Gilmore’s fascination with a lost Berlin “Inaccessible and forgotten” (387-88) and his discovery that “through fiction . . . [he could] resurrect the entire city, and the people in it” (388).

In some ways, the novel did feel to me something akin to an elegy for the lost architecture of a city way older than the National Socialist Party but parts of which disappeared for good or are buried because of that party. While the characters and events Gillham creates could probably have been set in any German city in 1943, the Berlin he creates is an integral part of the story. His evocation of the city is superb: one feels the cold, smells the dust from the fallen bombed buildings, endures the crush on the tram, and out of the corner of one’s eye sees the Berliners moving nervously through their war damaged city, not meeting each other’s eyes, wondering at the wounded soldiers—could things really be going well—appearing unconcerned and co-operative if stopped by the police, hiding their secrets. In amongst them all are the “U-boats” (107) those without the right papers, dissidents, hidden Jews.

At times, the mood of the novel reminded me rather of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, and I was unsurprised to learn that Gillham’s initial training was in screenwriting. Further, it’s interesting to me at least that when I visualized the events of The City of Women I saw little colour. Berlin and its people as evoked by Gillham were a kaleidoscope of greys, like a black and white movie. The plot, of course, is more developed than that of Greene’s novella, which emerged as a result of his work with Carol Reed on the film. So, too, are the characters. What the two share is the sense of moral ambiguity and shifting loyalties; their endings, too, are thematically satisfying, but in terms of suggesting what might come next, they don’t. Gillham gives us no epilogue, no jump forward in time. The reader is left in the same position as Sigrid. She doesn’t know what will happen next; she knows only that she has made a commitment.

Sigrid is called upon to make decisions, to commit to something more than mere survival, and it is these ethical questions that hold the reader’s attention and lie at the heart of the novel: what will Sigrid do, and why does she do it? What would our answer be to these questions? How do we define love, trust, and betrayal? Gillham doesn’t preach. He doesn’t present us with a didactic conclusion. Rather, he shows us the options. Do we choose action or inertia? Honour or self-interest? How do we tell the difference?

According to an interview Gillham gave to Ashleigh Andrews Rich of The Washington Independent Review of Books in January 2013, http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/features/author-qa-with-david-r-gillham he was working on another novel. I can find no mention of it on Gillham’s own website http://davidrgillham.com, which I accessed today, but I hope it comes out soon.

 

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Pursuing Elsewhere: Ali Smith’s Public Library

Smith, Ali. Public Library and Other Stories. Hamish Hamilton, 2015.

If you are a reader, and I expect you are given that you’re reading this blog, then you are probably intimately acquainted with your local public library. That is to say if you still have one. For many reasons, the public library is under threat in many jurisdictions world-wide. The situation is far worse than I had imagined. In preparation for writing this post, I did a little internet overview of such search terms as “disappearing libraries,” “UK libraries closing,” and “disappearing libraries in Canada.” Try the exercise for yourself. The threads you will follow may well depress you. Here we are in what is commonly referred to as the information age, but in many ways access to that information and the ability to assess the value of that information is actually being curtailed.

I am not alone, of course, in being concerned about the situation, and Ali Smith’s 2015 book Public Library is one response to the problem. It begins with a “true story” (1) in which Smith recounts how she and her editor entered “a building with the word LIBRARY above its doors . . . that looked like a fancy shop” (1). They discovered on enquiry that they were not in a library but a hotel attached to a private club. Follow this link https://www.booking.com/hotel/gb/library.en-gb.html?aid=356994;label=gog235jc-hotel-XX-gb-library-unspec-ca-com-L%3Aen-O%3AosSx-B%3Asafari-N%3AXX-S%3Abo-U%3AXX-H%3As;sid=bb31632db395ef152de64246c0f464b2;dist=0&sb_price_type=total&type=total&#availability and you will discover more.

Public Library is more than a collection of fiction; it is also a collection of reminiscences from other writers about public libraries. These are interspersed among the fiction and differentiated from them by the use of italics. But in many ways, these memories become self-contained stories in themselves: random, individual, and yet as thematically connected as the fiction with which they co-exist. Once again, Smith draws attention to her interest in the challenges offered by any narrative to our expectations of and definition of truth in fiction. Her work is allusive and at times elusive. To relate more closely with the story “The Poet” (59-73), for example, I had to look up Olive Fraser, a poet with whom I was unfamiliar.

The stories depend heavily on the first person, their narrators sometimes male and sometimes female. They deal with memory and change, life and death. As I have come to expect of Smith, she revels in transition, transgression, transcendence. One of the stories is even titled “The Art of Elsewhere” (127-132).

Smith’s Public Library is neither strident nor unsubtle in its wit and critique. Rather, it boldly defends that opportunity to be “elsewhere” offered free by the public library to anyone with a library card. The library offers a haven, an escape, a road to adventure and discovery. Perhaps this is why some of the people who fund them are so reluctant to keep doing so.

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Do Not Pass Go: John Mortimer’s Quite Honestly


Mortimer, John. Quite Honestly. Penguin, 2006.

This is another short book that you might be tempted to dismiss as somewhat lightweight. It is lighthearted, another thing entirely. If you like John Mortimer’s fiction, you will enjoy Quite Honestly. Bishop’s daughter Lucinda Purefoy wants to do good so becomes a preceptor with Social Carers, Reformers and Preceptors (SCRAP). Her first client is burglar Terry Keegan whom she meets outside Wormwood Scrubs on the day of his release from that venerable institution. Terry and Lucinda’s relationship is highly complicated, but the effects they have on each other are quite profound. To say any more would give away too much of the plot, which unfolds through alternating first person narratives told by Lucy and Terry.

While Quite Honestly is a highly entertaining book, it offers more than simple situation comedy. The differing perspectives of Lucy and Terry reveal something of the rifts that remain within British society. Lucy and Terry come from apparently different worlds that see each other but have little understanding of each other. Mortimer places contemporary British society under a Horatian microscope. His satire is not unkind, but it is satire, and the foibles and follies of his characters bring them at times close to stereotypical caricature, but exaggeration is what one expects of satire. Mortimer’s exaggeration is gentle; one senses he has no contempt for his characters’ weaknesses only a wry sympathy.

Mortimer’s writing depends on a subtle wit and a dramatic sensibility. He was, after all, both a dramatist and a novelist. If you think about it, his fiction is scenic, often dependent upon dialogue or interior monologue—the fictive parallel to drama’s soliloquy and aside. I’m tempted at times to assert that in some ways Mortimer’s sensibility is more eighteenth than twentieth and twenty-first century, his work at times recalling the mood of Goldsmith or Sheridan.

I also appreciate Mortimer’s gentle irony in his use of language. Consider Lucinda’s name, for example. Lucy or light, and Purefoy, pure faith. Lucy isn’t necessarily enlightened or completely honest. Then, too, her name recalls that other character who was the brightest and best of all the angels, but pride was his downfall. Maybe this is true for Lucy as well. Then there’s the ambiguity in the title: Quite can be used to suggest complete conviction as in saying that one is “quite sure” about something. But if one says one has had “quite a pleasant time,” the word suggests a certain hesitation, an inability to express wholehearted approval.

Quite Honestly is a novel of shifting perspectives, reversals, and gentle but piercing insight. The ending suggests the possibility of a traditional comic resolution but remains —dare I say it?—quite satisfactorily inconclusive.

 

 

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Not So Tame? Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl

Tyler, Anne. Vinegar Girl: William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shew Retold.  Hogarth Shakespeare-Vintage. 2016.

What has always interested me most about The Taming of the Shrew is that it is a play within a play, a fact that I can’t help but think has a major effect on how we are meant to respond to the story of Katherine and Petruchio. However, that discussion must await another day.

Tyler’s novel begins with Kate, almost thirty, avid gardener, university drop-out, surrogate mother to her much younger sister, Bunny, housekeeper to her widowed father, a professor at Johns Hopkins, and although supposedly hating small children is employed in a pre-school. Professor Battista is somewhat eccentric in his ideas about family life and family management insisting that his family subsist on a diet of meat mash that is reheated every day.

Afraid he will lose his research assistant, Pyotr, because Pyotr’s visa is about expire, Professor Battista wants Kate to ensure Pyotr’s immigration status through marriage. While Kate is trying to navigate her way through this tangle, she is also faced with trying to ensure Bunny is keeping up with her schoolwork and not getting too involved with the next-door neighbour’s son Eddie Vince, who smokes “suspiciously tiny cigarettes” (48) and has already persuaded Bunny to espouse vegetarianism.

Given that we are told by the subtitle what Vinegar Girl is about, the major events of the novel are not excessively surprising. Tyler deviates from her model somewhat by including an epilogue that I found not unsatisfactory.

Is this a worthwhile book? One of my colleagues described it as “light.” It is a light book, but I would argue it is light in the way a beautifully made soufflé is light. It has substance; it leaves the reader feeling satisfied. Yes, the action of the novel verges on the farcical at times, but Tyler is control. She creates characters who even as they are somewhat eccentric are very sympathetic. We like them; well, perhaps Eddie Vince is a bit of a challenge but we forgive him. We recognize the world of a family, a family still suffering from the death of a wife and mother many years ago. We recognize loneliness, longing, and unfulfilled desires as much as we recognize the embarrassing quirks of family members.

I would argue that Tyler’s novel optimistically suggests that self-fulfillment, happiness and love are within our grasp even where we might not expect to find them.

 

 

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