So who cares about all these Raj orphans anyway? I mean, other than Jane Gardam and Rudyard Kipling?
They make an interesting subject around which to weave a plot and some character psychology, but their real significant, I think, is in their being what I called last week a “casualty of Empire.” They are a breed of tiny, utterly innocent soldier: damaged in service of the state, and therefore somewhat glorious, and in that service entirely by chance and through no fault of their own, like some unfortunate draftee. Filth grows up as the kid version of a Tommy shell-shocked from the trenches—never quite right, and perhaps deserving of a vague kind of respect, especially if he keeps his own stiff upper lip and continues, sideways, now that Empire is over, his own version of service to the Crown. Just as Pat Ingoldby told him:
“[T]hey didn’t moan because they had this safety net. The Empire. Wherever you went you wore the Crown, and wherever you went you could find your own kind. A club. There are still thousands round the world thinking they own it. It’s vaguely mixed up with Christian duty. Even now. Even here, at Home.”
So as Gardam weaves most of the 20th century around the coelocanth that is her special subject, there is always a feeling that he is not just a witness to history, not just a party to it, but his entire life is constructed by the fortunes of his “Home” country. His birth in a place like Malaya completely contingent on Empire. As is his journey Home and dreadful upbringing—and thus nearly his whole psychology. The choice of his wife is similarly contingent, between its relation to his psychology and the fact of Betty’s existence itself depending on Empire. And his whole career is made possible by the fallout from WWII and the dismantling of the Empire. Even his retirement is dictated by it, his function dissolving with Britain’s hold on its colonies.
But is Filth’s suffocating closeness to history really due to his state-fostered orphanhood? Gardam can do this, it seems, with more than just Raj orphans. The protagonist of Crusoe’s Daughter is also a child raised without her parents, first because her ship’s-captain father is away all the time, leaving her with an alcoholic and promiscuous guardian (but who, in this case, is at least for the most part kind) and then when he dies and she passes to the care of her mother’s sisters. Her aunts, like Filth’s, are not exactly adept at caring for a young child but they don’t stint on Polly and do what they can to bring her up well.
So it’s not history writ large that takes Polly from her parents—nothing special or glorious about her sort of orphanhood—and history can’t really be said to affect her any more than it does your average Briton of the time. She writes letters to a young poet who will die in the Great War. She sees the love of her life return from that war traumatized and changed. While Polly has stayed on in the north of England, her girlhood friend cuts her hair and takes to nursing and the rest of London life between the wars. The factories grow, new neighborhoods are built, the empty marsh disappears. She sees German Jews eyed with suspicion, interned, their property forfeit. And that’s just it: Polly has, at most, an average relation to history, but even that is exhausting.
After all, none of this really has anything to do with Polly, who much of the time studiously avoids the outside world in favor of re-reading Robinson Crusoe over and over again. She’s an outside observer—or at least that’s what she wishes she was. History keeps creeping in to hurt her all the same, and her long, slow decline into middle age is a sign that growing up with her aunts (themselves locked in their own particular point in history) did not teach her how to live inside a changing world.
Rudyard Kipling’s short story “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” was published in 1888, and its origins are, sadly, autobiographical. It tells of young siblings Punch and Judy, who live a happy, near-carefree life in India with their young, loving parents—until it’s time to go Home.
First the idea of going Home must be introduced. Neither Punch nor Judy (several years younger) really understands—and certainly they don’t understand they will be left there. The story is told from Punch’s perspective, and he doesn’t really understand “Mamma’s passionate appeal to him never to let Judy forget Mamma,” though he promises to do his best on this front. When Papa and Mamma have actually left the two children at Downe Lodge, the foster home where they will spend the next several years, Punch and Judy are bereft.
When a matured man discovers that he has been deserted by Providence, deprived of his God, and cast, without help, comfort, or sympathy, upon a world which is new and strange to him, his despair, which may find expression in evil-living, the writing of his experiences, or the more satisfactory diversion of suicide, is generally supposed to be impressive. A child, under exactly similar circumstances as far as its knowledge goes, cannot very well curse God and die. It howls till its nose is red, its eyes are sore, and its head aches. Punch and Judy, through no fault of their own, had lost all their world. They sat in the hall and cried; the black-haired boy looking on from afar.
Claire, who is young and impressionable—and easier to forget Mamma—quickly becomes a favorite of foster mother Aunty Rosa, who frankly despises Punch and makes him into a household scapegoat. The formerly spoiled young Sahib now finds himself caned for no offense at all, berated with Aunty Rosa’s twisted religion, known as “Black Sheep” in the household, and, over time, convinced that even his parents will hate him and punish him when they finally return. After Uncle Harry, his foster father and the fairer of the two guardians, dies, Punch’s despair is complete—even as Judy spends her time with the family of the house, sitting on Auntie Rosa’s lap to have her hair brushed.
As time went on and the memory of Pap and Mamma became wholly overlaid by the unpleasant task of writing them letters, under Aunty Rosa’s eye, each Sunday, Black Sheep forgot what manner of life he had led in the beginning of things. Even Judy’s appeals to “try and remember about Bombay” failed to quicken him.
When Punch’s mother does arrive years later she sees right away what has happened. When “she drew him to her again…[h]e came awkwardly, with many angles. ‘Not used to petting,’ said the quick Mother-soul. ‘The girl is.’” Later, at bedtime:
“Oh, my son—my little, little son! It was my fault—my fault, darling—and yet how could we help it? Forgive me, Punch.” The voice died out in a broken whisper, and two hot tears fell on Black Sheep’s forehead.
“Hush, Punch, hush! My boy, don’t talk like that. Try to love me a little bit—a little bit. You don’t know how I want it. Punch-baba, come back to me! I am your Mother—your own Mother—and never mind the rest. I know—yes, I know, dear. It doesn’t matter now. Punch, won’t you care for me a little?”
But once away from Aunty Rosa, life improves so quickly for Punch and Judy. Punch’s Mamma is right when she writes his father that she “shall win Punch to [her] before long.” But the horror of “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” isn’t in the beatings or the exquisite psychological torture practiced on poor Punch. The narrator, at the end of the story, contradicts Punch’s claim that it’s “as if she had never gone.”
Not altogether, O Punch, for when young lips have drunk deep of the bitter waters of Hate, Suspicion, and Despair, all the Love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge; though it may turn darkened eyes for a while to the light, and teach Faith where no Faith was.
This is also the message Gardam has adopted for Filth. Nothing—not even the resolution of the mystery that absolves Filth of a foolish childhood guilty, not the love of a woman who stays with him until death, not the care of a friend who would never let harm come to him—nothing stops Filth’s fear or his dread of being alone.
Filth himself engages with history from a conservative, though self-effacing, perspective. “Lost. Over. Finished. Dead. Happened.” He may be bitter, at times, but he also recognizes he’s an old man now, that his time is past. But the Filth books are far from nostalgic for Empire, just as Filth himself is conflicted about it. The books are, in large part, an elegy for one particular casualty of Empire: the Raj orphans.
As the British sent hundreds and thousands of officers and civil servants to India and the other colonies, so too went wives and families. Marriages contracted, babies born, and eventually they would all reach the magical age at which it was quasi-officially time to send them “Home”—that is, back to Britain, a place they had never been. As babies and toddlers, children would remain in the bosom of the family, if looked after by an ayah or amah. But somewhere around age five they would have to go Home, either to family who agreed to take them in or to foster families, many of which existed semi-professionally for this purpose.
After years spent abroad, with little to no contact with parents, children often became adults with various emotional problems. Old Filth outlines, in several places, several different possibilities. When missionary Auntie May shows up to tell Filth’s father that it’s time to send little Teddy Home, the elder Feathers remembers how he was one such Raj orphan himself, and what it meant for his personal relationships.
“He seems well and happy,” he said. “I have never seen the need for him to go Home. It’s not the law.”
“You know perfectly well that it is the custom. Because of the risk of childhood illnesses out here. You went Home yourself.”
“I did,” said Alistair. “So help me God.”
Auntie May on the whole agreed with him. She’d seen great damage. Some children forgot their parents, clung to their adoptive families who later often forgot them. There were bad tales. Others grew to say they’d had a much better time in England away from their parents, whom they did not care for. There were children who worked hard at growing solid and boring, and made marriages only in order to have roots of their own at last. They never told anything. And Auntie May had never been sure about the ferocity of Eastern childhood diseases. But in this case there was no mother.”
As a teenager, Eddie spends all his holidays with the Ingoldbys, the family of his best school friend. The mother of the family is wonderful, “[c]alm and dreamy, often carrying someone a cup of tea for no reason but love.” When Eddie praises his mother to his friend Pat, he finds she too is a member of a previous generation of Raj orphans, and dealing with it in her own way.
“She’s not bitter at all. Nobody liked her. Her parents sound awful if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“You’ve had Aunt Rose and the footman? They were all barmy, if you ask me. Raj loonies.”
“She seems to feel—well, to like everybody, though.”
“Oh, no, she doesn’t. They were brought up like that. Most of them never learned to like anyone, ever, their whole lives. But they didn’t moan because they had this safety net. The Empire. Wherever you went you wore the Crown, and wherever you went you could find your own kind. A club. There are still thousands round the world thinking they own it. It’s vaguely mixed up with Christian duty. Even now. Even here, at Home. Every house of our sort you go into, Liverpool to the Isle if Wight—there’s big game on the wall and tiger skins on the floor and tables made of Benares brass trays and a photograph of the Great Durbar. Nowadays you can even fake it, with plenty of servants. It wasn’t like that in my grandfather’s generation. They were better people. Better educated, Bible-readers, not showy. Got on with the job. There was a job for everyone and they did it and often died in it.”
“I think my father will die in his. He thinks of nothing else. Sweats and slogs. Sick with malaria. And lost his family.”
The elder Feathers does, indeed, die in his job, but before this Filth reunites with Babs, his cousin and foster sister. The two of them spent their childhood, along with Babs’s younger sister Claire, at the Welsh home of one Ma Didds, alcoholic and child abuser. And though Filth spent his holidays with the Ingoldbys, his nominal guardians in England in his older years were two maiden aunts, strange and awful women. At a chance meeting in a cafe, Filth tells Babs that “[t]hey are psychologically deaf.”
“They’re just reacting against your pa,” she said. “Don’t forget they were all Raj Orphans themselves. They say it suits some. They come out fizzing and yelling, ‘I didn’t need parents,’ and waving the red, white and blue. Snooty for life. But we’re all touched, one way or another.”
“I don’t think it suited my father,” said Eddie. “He’s gone entirely barmy.”
“Yep. I heard. You know, my lot and Claire’s are still in India, and I never give them a thought. Not after ten years.”
Eddie realized that since the Ma Didds’ horror he had never given a thought to either Babs or Claire. Not a thought.
Decades on, after “Betty had grown expert in her replies” to those who asked about her and Filth’s childlessness, she would tell people:
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think either of us was very child-minded. We knew nothing of children. We’d never had brothers or sisters ourselves. Poor Filth was a Raj orphan, you know. My parents died very young, too. We were ignorant.”
For Betty, this is a sad lie, but for Filth it is the truth. He wanted only Betty, not children, and he spent his life terrified that she, like everyone else, would leave him. He makes it a condition of their engagement that he does not believe in divorce. “I’ve been left all my life,” he tells her. “From being a baby, I’ve been taken away from people. Raj orphan and so on. Not that I’m unusual there. And it’s supposed to have given us all backbone.” It does, but as Filth says, “[i]t did not destroy me but it made me bloody unsure.”
Jane Gardam told the Daily Mail in 2005 that she was very much concerned with the Raj orphan phenomenon when conceiving the novels. She was inspired by another Raj orphan who was a writer himself: Rudyard Kipling.
Jane read his story Baa Baa, Black Sheep, an account of Kipling’s own experiences when he was sent to Britain from his birthplace in India.
“I couldn’t bear to be in the same room as that book; it was horrifying,” says Jane.
“Before that, I’d always thought it was rather smart to be a Raj Orphan. They seemed slightly superior, and very confident; it was only later I realised how terrible it was.
“It was accepted as quite normal to send your children overseas for years, but it was absolutely barmy,” she continues.
“I wanted to show what it does to a child ? and how it shapes the grown-up he or she becomes.
“In many ways, Filth becomes a quintessential Englishman. Savagely separated from everything he loves, he is successful in everything except his own emotional responses.
“In lonely retirement, odd things happen to Filth. He finds himself befriending his neighbour, a rival lawyer, and the lover of his dead wife; and he drives across England to visit the two female cousins with whom he shared his orphan years.
“He is looking for a place where he can belong, and the resolution to a terrible secret that we don’t learn about until the end of the book.”
I’ll take up Kipling’s “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” later this week. I hesitate to diminish the power of that story or the effects of this practice on Kipling’s generation, but at least they did have the “club” mentioned above.” Filth’s tragedy as a Raj orphan is doubled, with him one of the absolute last. Only a matter of time until his kind are forgotten, and cursed to live to see—and see the justice of—the end of everything he and his family had sacrificed a normal life for.
The coelocanth that is Sir Edward Feathers does more than just look full and lovely on the page. The fact of his being a coelocanth gives him the ability to reflect back to the reader a wide slice of history—and the reflection is from a surface that many readers will be familiar and comfortable with because it is like a pure Englishness outside of time, a reflection that doesn’t go blurry or wobbly because we know where we stand with coelocanths. They have been around for a long time.
When Feathers dies, basically in the present time, he’s nearly 90 years old. That means his life, and the books about his life, have coincided with a great number of historical events both familiar and unfamiliar. The late Empire in Southeast Asia, the interwar period back Home, WWII in Europe and Asia both, and everything that happens afterward: the slow rebuilding of Europe, with much new rising from the ashes, and the rapid expansion of money and power in the East, where Filth can still make a fortune though everything is already changing. Filth, never changing, is the perfect filter for all this upheaval.
Of course, this is painful for Filth himself. The world he grew up in is long gone, and the world he built an adulthood in is fast crumbling. After his wife’s death, driving across England to visit a long-lost cousin, he has an onrush of the grumpiness of elderly people driving mixed with a much more profound sense of complete loss of his place in the world:
Seemed to be a great many foreign buggers driving the lorries, steering-wheels left-hand side where they couldn’t see a thing. Matter of time no doubt when they’d be in the majority. Then everyone would be driving on the right. Vile government. Probably got all the plans drawn up already. Drive on the right, vote on the left. The so-called left, said Filth. Not Mr. Attlee’s left. Not Aneurin Bevan’s left. All of them in suits now. Singapore still drives on the left, though they’ve never heard of left. Singapore’s over, like Hong Kong. Empire now like Rome. Not even in the history books. Lost. Over. Finished. Dead. Happened.
This last, “Lost. Over. Finished. Dead. Happened.”—how easy to ascribe it only to elderly grumpiness, to say it’s little more than a plea from an octagenarian to “get off my lawn!” It is that, to be sure, but it also carries an awareness that Filth has truly seen the end of a major era of history, an era that created him, set him on an unpleasant path in its own service, and then dumped him back to a “Home” that was never home, that he never understood or felt a part of. His home was wiped off the face of the earth by history, just as his wife—the only other thing he had close to a home—had been wiped off the face of the earth by mortality.
And, the corrolary question: why should anyone care? This question comes because I am a reactionary. So put off by the legions of readers who complain that a given book is bad because its characters unrelated or—worse—personally odious, I hypercorrect against caring for characters at all. Caring for a character is an emotional investment, after all, and hyperrational me tries to ward this off, warning that feelings will not help me think logically or reasonably about a book. But what a strange predicament, to attempt hyperrationality in consideration of a medium designed to produce emotional response. Give over, nicole, and admit that Jane Gardam got you, which is okay because that is just what she was trying to do.
Well, I’ve answered the second question; now back to the first. Filth is most succinctly and most aptly described as a “coelocanth,” but this doesn’t tell you much just yet so I’ll start more basic. Edward Feathers, aka Eddie or Teddy, born to British parents in Malaya, was left by his father in the care of a native servant girl after his mother died in childbirth. Raised among native toddlers, he played in the dirt, spoke Malay, and had almost no contact at all with his father. Reaching the magical age at which Anglo-Imperials sent their children “home” to avoid disease and get education, a missionary lady saw him to a foster mother in Wales. Thus begin his first exile from Asia and the real tragedies of his Raj Orphan childhood, which is worth a post in itself.
He comes out of this childhood ready to enlist and fight in the second World War, only to be thwarted by his father before he reaches the age of majority. At 17, Feathers begins a voyage of the damned: an ocean trip from England to Singapore, with stops in Africa and Sri Lanka. By the time they reach the latter, Singapore has fallen to the Japanese and Feathers must begin the long trip back, very sickly by this time and accompanied by many sick and dying refugees. He ends up spending much of the war studying, setting out in his career as a lawyer just as the peace begins to settle in. Fortunately, for times are undeniably tough, he reconnects with a former shipmate, a mysterious young (and now wealthy) Chinese man who whisks Feathers off to Hong Kong, where his career really takes off. And that’s where the name comes in: Failed in London, Try Hong Kong. Filth.
None of these things are Filth; these are the things that happen to Filth—and create him. He is deeply, unmistakably alone. He is quiet and diffident. As a child, he stammered, and though he “overcame” it for the most part, it has a tendency to return (or at least a continual need to be quashed). He is impeccably dressed and brushed, always. He always knows just the right thing to do, if not say. He is completely devoted to his wife Betty, with whom he has not shared a bed in decades. The two of them cry together when, from their retirement in Dorset, they watch on television Hong Kong being handed over to the Chinese. A coelocanth: he should be extinct, but somehow he goes on, noticed every once in a while as an impossible anachronism.
Filth is not a particularly good man, nor particularly bad; he is only full. His fullness is developed and revealed gradually, in both Old Filth and, as I suggested last week, in The Man in the Wooden Hat. Gardam tells a positively ripping story, but I’m beginning to wonder whether her real genius isn’t for character. Or at least in the way she brings the two together; nothing is incidental. The characters who appear, relatively speaking, on the sidelines are also full: we just can’t see parts of them. I don’t pretend to understand even half the motivations of Isobel Ingoldby, who appears throughout both books as a secondary character, but I know there is a fullness to her hidden from Filth and Betty’s story.
If I feel like I still haven’t told you anything about anything here, I will assign that too to Gardam’s genius. The real problem with talking about characters is that if they are really this good, I can’t tell you anything about them. You simply have to read the novel to meet them the same way I did.
I’m going to do everything backwards with Jane Gardam. You’ll have to forgive me as I am a bit out of practice. The Man in the Wooden Hat was published in 2009 as a followup to the 2004 Old Filth, which tells the story of Sir Edward Feathers (aka Old Filth) from his mother’s pregnancy through his own memorial service—roughly speaking, the story of the twentieth century. The Man in the Wooden Hat retells much of that story, filling in gaps, leaving gaps of its own (many of which are filled in Old Filth), and focusing much more of its time and energy on the period of Filth’s marriage to Betty, his companion of many decades.
The earlier novel’s main focus, timewise, is on Filth’s childhood and old age, with many reminiscences about adult and married life, but not much actual time-in-the-novel spent there. The Man in the Wooden Hat takes the converse approach, again, roughly speaking, and it’s likely for that reason that the Washington Post blurb on the Europa Editions cover calls it “[a]n astute, subtle depiction of marriage.” But the more specific billing on the front flap is not, I think, quite right: “Old Filth was Eddie’s story. Here in The Man in the Wooden Hat, the story of his marriage is told from the point of view of Betty, a character as vivid and enchanting as Filth himself.”
This gave the impression, at least to me, that I was in for a bit of a he-said-she-said—with the implication, probably coming just from my own head, that Betty’s would be the “real” story, the second novel a sort of corrective to the first. Not only is it not a corrective, and not presented as such, but I don’t think it’s properly Betty’s story either. Both books are about Filth; both include Betty as the lead actress; the second features her more and lets the reader know who she really is—but in doing so, continues to highlight who Filth is as well.
An example is in order. This one is not at all irrelevant to the novels, or to Filth and Betty’s marriage, but it’s not something I care to write about in particular so I don’t feel it gives much away here. The Feathers’ marriage is childless—not a thing which typically goes unremarked. Not least when Betty’s obituary comes out and notes there were no children of the union. So, why not? Every indication in Old Filth is that they simply did not care to have them. Perhaps they could not conceive and didn’t care. Perhaps they could not conceive, cared for a while, and got over it. In any case, it is presented through Filth’s lens as a point of agreement. We may suspect, and I surely did (knowing, especially, that a whole other book had been written from Betty’s perspective), that Betty might have had a different story here, but there is not much hint what it was, and I wonder whether my suspicion wasn’t based more on gender norms than anything else.
In The Man in the Wooden Hat we get the answer. Betty is pregnant soon into their marriage, but miscarries. Worse, after the miscarriage it becomes clear that her time in a Japanese internment camp has permanently damaged her fertility; she has a hysterectomy before the age of thirty and is emotionally devastated. Betty, you see, not only wanted children—she wanted lots of them, enough to fill up a house in a Victorian novel. Ten, at least! And she was mad for children. Filth is quick to assure her that he is not at all disappointed their life together will be childless—he, in fact, never wanted any to begin with, only her.
So, do we find more of “the real story” in The Man in the Wooden Hat? Yes, undoubtedly. Do we find “Betty’s side” to their marriage, in this particular? Yes, again undoubtedly. But we also find the truth of Filth’s side—which we emphatically did not know in Old Filth. There, the couple’s childlessness is presented as “okay, but probably not really okay, but we don’t know how or for whom.” For all we knew at the time, it could have been Filth who was disappointed at missing the pitter-patter of little feet, even if he did get over it. Instead, we find that he actively did not want them, intentionally withheld information from Betty about his own questionable fertility, and proceeded to practically celebrate their now-enforced child-free lifestyle while she was mourning the dream-life she’d always wanted. And there’s quite a “why” behind Filth’s carelessness of children, which, I think, is ultimately more important than the particular child question here, and which I won’t get to just yet. But the point is that it’s the revelations about Filth that are still more compelling. The True Story of Children is a comment on the Feathers’ marriage and enlightens us as to Betty’s character—but her character is still new. The same True Story of Children also enlightens us about Filth, with whom we’ve already spent a whole book and for whom we now have much more to weave into a coherent tapestry of a life.
All this is a long way of saying that I, at least, felt like for as much as I learned about Betty from the second book, I learned at least as much about Filth, and those revelations were so much more striking because I had more of a feeling that I already knew him.
…of the blogging variety, that is.
If you don’t follow me on Twitter or keep up with BookRiot, you may have thought my long-dormant blog meant I wasn’t writing anything at all. Several weeks ago I began a series on the site, “Read This Then That,” pairing contemporary novels with classics. The match-ups so far:
- What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha and The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. These two have been frequently compared, and when I re-read the Greene, Beha’s novel seemed even better than it already had in comparison.
- Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. How a children’s book can lead to massive quarter-life crisis—and what that says about children’s classics and those who cling to them.
- Billy Lynn’s Long Haltime Walk by Ben Fountain and Israel Potter by Herman Melville. I suppose I should be impressed with myself that I didn’t head for Melville until the third edition in the series, but of course I had to go for one of his strangest and least-known works. I still think the comparison is an apt and original one.
- Boleto by Alyson Hagy and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. Two stories of a boy and his horse—and as superficial as that sounds, they really do have a lot in common.
- Old Filth (and The Man with the Wooden Hat) by Jane Gardam and Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling. My current Raj orphan obsession was fertile material for this series, with the phenomenon lasting as it did over a period of generations, and now being reexamined in a postcolonial light. Still, the fit of Gardam’s Filth books with early Kipling is almost uncanny.
- Glaciers by Alexis Smith and Mary by Vladimir Nabokov. At first I thought this was one of the more tendentious comparisons, relying as it does on the delicate thread of theme—and delicate themes at that, memory, dreams, and nostalgia. But sharper focus on the plot—a cloudy, unimportant thing in both novels—reveals other similarities as well, in the stories of intellectual loners living in transitional locations, quietly drifting among their “peers.”
I promise this work hasn’t been keeping me away from bibliographing, and it won’t in future. And do let me know if there’s any contemporary work you particularly think I should read!
I’ve reached the end of the year, and I’ve been so shamefully bad about blogging for the past several months that, as a punishment to myself (not to you!), I will not be doing the usual year-end round of bibliographing charts. Perhaps they will be a birthday present to myself in a couple months.
For now, instead, I will devote the end of the year to two things: a list (as part of the same punishment), and several posts on some of the best things I’ve been reading recently: the works of Jane Gardam.
Today, the list. These are, subjectively and somewhat arbitrarily, the 10 best things I read this year, in no particular order.
- The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. Several years late reading this one, but it was well worth it (and thanks to Richard for another excellent readalong experience). Roberto Bolaño, where have you been all my life?
- Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Before reading Fellow-Townsmen, a pleasant little novella, earlier this year, my only previous experience with Hardy had been Tess of the d’Urbervilles, mere mention of which is still enough to raise my blood pressure over a decade after reading it. But Far from the Madding Crowd gave me the heart to give Hardy another go, which he seems to mostly deserve.
- Adam Bede by George Eliot. Middlemarch may be the “better” book, but again, Adam Bede was a heart-opener of sorts. In this case I had had fond memories of Eliot’s masterwork, but beginning with her first novel helped pave the way for a deeper understanding of Middlemarch when I re-read it a few weeks later. And it’s an excellent story in its own right.
- What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha. Someone said not long ago on Twitter that we may have reached our quota on raves about this book by now, but I’m not so sure. Expect more in future, though I’ll spare you for now—except to say: read it!
- Crusoe’s Daughter by Jane Gardam. I’m going to try to keep mum on Gardam until I’m really ready to talk about her. Except…
- Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam. …I read so many good books by her this year. Read them all!
- All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. My first McCarthy, and not my last, this was a beautiful book. Bleak and beautiful.
- Wuthering Heights the Emily Brontë. This just can’t help being on a winning list in any year I happen to read it. I’ve lost count of re-reads at this point but it never fails to completely absorb—and reveal more secrets.
- Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett. This was a relatively “light” book, airy and fast and witty and not exactly earnest. But it was a completely turn-on to Compton-Burnett, and I like my light and airy with a bite.
- Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling. My current Raj obsession is not the only reason I loved this early Kipling; he is simply a master storyteller, and I love stories. His humor, both light and black, is just the kind I enjoy most, and he may not be what you think he is at all.
This was a strange year for me, aside from writing less. I seem to have read far more contemporary—or almost-contemporary—fiction than usual. In my top 10 (really top 11) above, I have no fewer than three novels by a single woman—and those contemporary as well. And my top-10 list is more than half written by women.
In some cases, the books I read by my favorite writers simply weren’t my favorite books. This year’s Conrad and Stevenson were just not their best. And Jane Gardam really was a discovery of the kind readers like me wait years for—finally, someone still writing who I really, really care to read! The same goes for Cormac McCarthy and Alyson Hagy, though I’m less driven toward those two.
And I left out from this list a few Latin American works that I truly enjoyed, aside from the Bolaño: Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, and Machado de Assis will all get more attention in future, though Cortázar is not quite to my taste. Good, most assuredly, but not quite to my taste. I also had an interesting time reading a couple novels of the Iraq War, Fobbit and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, both of which I hope to write about in a larger context relatively soon.
Before I look too gushy, let me also list the worst of the year—the airing of grievances!
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. If you’re new here, you may not know that I hate Tolstoy. Or that I still read thousand-page novels by people I hate. Here’s just a little bit of why.
- The Distracted Preacher by Thomas Hardy. Hardy had me, he finally had me, with The Madding Crowd, but then he lost me once again (though not permanently).
- The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. I think I liked this novel the first time I read it, many years ago, although now I have a hard time conceiving why. Like Tolstoy, I see Greene here toying with his characters. If all goes well, I’ll have much more on that at some point.
- Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. It feels unfair to put this on a list with the other three, because it doesn’t really rise to their level. It was actually enjoyable to read, for the most part. But if I do write about this one, expect it to be complainy.
Ava Bigtree is the undeniable star of Karen Russell’s 2011 novel Swamplandia!, and with good reason. She narrates at least half of the book, and her painful move toward acceptance of her mother’s death is clearly its centerpiece theme. But Swamplandia! is also a novel very much concerned with work. As a sort of veil of feminine mystery is lowered over Swamplandia! itself and Kiwi literally disappears from its realm, he seems to drop under the surface of the novel as well despite the fact that his story takes up the other half of its pages. And Kiwi is the biggest nexus between the novel and work.
Ava Bigtree’s older brother Kiwi never loved Swamplandia! and the cult of the Bigtrees the way she did; he wished they lived on the mainland so he could go to a real school and then college and have a good, white-collar job—not dress up as fake Native Americans to impress dopey tourists. And now that their mother has died, their grandfather has been sent to an assisted living facility, and their father has clearly abdicated all attempts at keeping a normal life going for the children, Kiwi emigrates.
On the mainland, he goes to work for The World of Darkness, the grotesque theme park that has ruined Swamplandia!’s business and attracts seemingly even more grotesque tourists. As an immigrant, he realizes that he doesn’t speak the language of his fellow employees, who quickly take to calling him “Margaret” because of his geeky social ineptitude. He is quick to find out that his SAT-word flashcards are not doing him any good in this environment, and he does his best to blend in, though he is constantly messing up. Just as Ava is back home re-learning how to live without their mother, Kiwi is doing the same thing; he’s simply decided to do so in a new home.
Kiwi doesn’t lose his desire to better himself, to go to real school, college, get a better job, and support his family back home (he sends his pathetically small earnings back to Swamplandia! whenever he can, wishing he could make a dent in the family’s gigantic debt). In this way his story takes on the tropes of the immigrant who will go to great lengths for a better future in a new home, and especially in America, after hard work. Kiwi will do anything to erase his family’s mistakes from his own future, no matter how long it takes.
Shifts were nine hours, and the hours contracted or acordioned outward depending on several variables that Kiwi had cataloged: difficulty of task, boredom of task, degree to which task humiliates me personally. For a while all Kiwi had to do was vacuum in the anonymous many-peopled solitude of the front hallf, but then he screwed up that sweet gig. Kiwi made wide orbits with the industrial vacuum cleaner, which trembled and belched in repose like a rodeo bull; on the first day of his third week he ran over his own shoelaces with it and broke it in a way that he couldn’t ignore, hide, or repair. Fuck-fuck-fuck, Kiwi thought—his fluency in mainland expletives had made huge leaps in just two weeks.
One of Kiwi’s work friends advises him to just tell their boss—“[J]ust tell Carl. He’s not going to fire you.” Carl is Kiwi’s first real contact with the world of lower-middle management, and he can’t quite understand why a man with a graduate degree spends his time “reading fantasy books with orcs and orc princesses on the cover” and assigning people like Kiwi to do work like they did at The World of Darkness. But this is part of the brilliance of Swamplandia!: Carl’s patheticness is undeniable but not over-the-top, and Kiwi’s confusion and bemusedness are real, not put-on or the products of long suffering. Russell is clear about the all-around absurdity of the place, which permeates every aspect of The World, without ever getting into nastiness or ill-feeling for anyone from the lowliest janitor to the highest-level corporate functionary.
Kiwi’s penance was to work overtime picking up the wetter, less decipherable pieces of trash with his glvoed hands. The World’s lasers moved in green helixes all around him, a lonely geometry that traveled up and down the entrance to the Whale’s Gullet. Cleaning the family toilet was, by his inexact estimate, one million times more degrading than any of his Bigtree duties on Swamplandia! Worse than putting out popcorn fires, worse even than the buckskin costumes and the jewelry. He was trying to flip the clown-nose plunger inside out with his shoe.
Kiwi perseveres, quite amazingly, and ends up with his own strange form of the American dream: his picture plastered all over the local news after he “saves” a girl in the wave pool (he’s been promoted to lifeguard despite his earlier problems at work), which leads to both some action with the girl and another promotion—both of which have their upsides and downsides. He goes to classes at night to get his GED and struggles to make friends with people who grew up in normal homes and who don’t share any of his real interests. And in the end he saves the Bigtrees in a more amazing way than he ever expected he would.
That is not to say that Russell paints, by any means, a picture of hard work leading down a straight and narrow path to redemption and riches. But Kiwi’s great rebellion against his father is to be responsible—incredibly, improbably responsible—and as a young teenager with no skills and no friends his only way to do so is to humiliate himself with honest but filthy work. He can’t afford to be a romantic and an idealist like his father; he has his sisters to think about. So he gets down to business, no matter how nasty it is.
Earlier this week, BookRiot posted my first official contribution to their site, an examination of What Happened to Sophie Wilder and its relation to Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Please check it out if you haven’t and let me know what you think! There will be more to come every couple weeks—and on my quest to pair classics with contemporary literature, I’ll surely need some really excellent contemporary literature recommendations.
Don’t worry, bibliographing will not suffer. At least not more than it already has! I’ve got some good stuff coming your way now that I’ve broken out of Pastors and Masters a bit, and I’m still looking to do an Ivy Compton-Burnett group read at some point in the next few months.