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Jane Gardam's Old Filth is a book to love. The title perfectly demonstrates the impact that changed perspectives can have on our judgments of other people. To bear the name "Old Filth," as Sir Edward Feathers does, would seem to be shameful, but in the sometimes topsy-turvy manner of English exaltation, it is actually an honorific, or at any rate has become one by the time the book begins. It is, moreover, an invention of its bearer, a joke made by the protagonist in the prime of his life - the time of his life that we see very little of, perhaps because it's so easy to imagine and recreate. In his prime an important barrister who, for sound reasons, decided to relocate his practice to Hong Kong, Sir Edward slapped himself with an acronym: Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. There's an irony in the fact that Sir Edward hasn't failed in London at all (although this doesn't emerge until the end of the novel, and is easy to miss). There's mystery, too, because of the occlusion of Sir Edward's maturity; in the novel, he is either an ingenuous, vulnerable, but stout-hearted youth or an octogenarian legend. We don't see him become rich and famous. It is suggested that he owes his success to a lucky shipboard encounter followed by well-honed diligence. Business as usual. Asked to consider writing his memoirs, he demurs: "I've grown my image, Veneering. Took some doing. I'm not going to upset it now."
Jane Gardam has thus combined two types of novel: the coming-of-age and the valedictory. It could easily be two or three times longer, but Ms Gardam doesn't seem to be nearly as interested in telling a story as she is in showing a man in life. If he is momentarily undone by a memory, it is not necessary for us to know what he's remembering in detail. The success of Old Filth owes in no small part to the author's commanding sense of what she can leave out, what she can invite the reader to fill in - if desired. She gives as a Filth so objectively, physically real that we simply hang on to him, and wait for muddles to clear up, as they usually do in this book.
I don't know how to avoid calling the novel an intensely British work of art. Stiff upper lips and reserved demeanors are much in evidence, as Filth and many of the figures around him suffer horribly loveless childhoods. They are "Raj Orphans," the children of British civil servants who were bundled back to England, and pre-school foster care, in order to ensure their health - or so it is said. To ensure that they will grow up as Englishmen and -women would be more like it. Separated from parents who continue on the other side of the world, they develop an awful detachment, but are always on the lookout for family love. Teddy (Filth as a boy) thinks that he's found it with the Ingoldbys, through a chum at prep school, but the link turns out to be tenuous, and it is sundered by World War II. And his success as an attorney is given a distinctly English air of malgré soi: it is predicted by Sir, the head of Teddy's prep school, upon his departure for public school:
Yes. You'll be a lawyer. Magnificent memory. Sense of logic, no imagination and no brains.
This is not an insult. Filth is not an imaginative man; he's strong because he's not distracted by an imagination. "No brains" is a code for cleverness, for doing anything but what one has been asked to do. In addition, Filth is not a particularly libidinous man, nor does he desire more than comfort and and a certain degree of deference. Men like Filth do not make a habit of turning up as the leading roles of literary novels. One might praise Jane Gardam for having made a richly interesting character out of an industrious barrister, but, again, I think that that would be beside the point. If anything, she might have wanted to show that an extraordinarily uncertain childhood and youth could nonetheless fail to deter a man with the proper gifts from a satisfying career. Filth is decent but not noble, unself-sacrificially faithful to his wife, and not above sniffing out the odd main chance. The rigors of his early years teach him to behave himself. If he is by no means a mediocrity, he becomes a paragon with decidedly Gilbert-and-Sullivan insouciance - if insouciance can be said to accompany hard, hard work.
To allay your fears that such a man could never interest you enough to get through a novel about him, read the following three paragraphs from the middle of the book. The boy has been tossed onto a turning point by a whim of his very distant father's. This man, who has seen Eddie only once since his son's voyage Home, thinks that he would be safer in Singapore, with him, and he arranges for Eddie to be evacuated. Eddie is deeply humiliated by this; he is seventeen, only a few months shy of his majority. He argues against the plan but does not revolt. He waits out the decision at the home of his aunts, nominally his guardians but also distant relatives whom has seen only once in his life. They are breezy golfers who call themselves "Les Girls" but who inhabit an opulent Edwardian home (the upkeep of which will chill Filth when he infers its source).
He stayed on, apparently invisible, for a week. And then for several weeks, while he waited to hear from school about the Oxford interview. There was no reply to his letter to his father and, though he often wondered if today there might be a cable, none came. He spent the days mugging up for the possible Oxford interview - there was a good public library in the town - and thinking unhopefully about life. From his bedroom window, steamed with delicious heat from a Victorian iron radiator, his dreams merged into other bedroom windows. One, that mystified him on the edge of sleep, was an unglazed slit with the glack knives of banana plants against a black sapphire sky. This dream always woke him.
His Bolton bedroom now was rich in Lancashire splendour, the carpet pure olive-green wool overflung with white roses. The heavy curtains, interlined for the black-out, were damask within and without. The eiderdown was of fat rose-pink blisters and beside the bed was a lamp with pink silk and bead fringes. The wallpaper culd have stood by itself, thickly embossed with gold, and the blankets were snowy wool, and satin-bound. "You are in the best spare," said Muriel. "The wardrobe may be a Gillow." "Now put the fire on if you need it," said Hilda. "Both bars. We have to go out now."
Going out was their refrain. Eddie's life was beyond their interest. They dwelt like Siamese twins in each other's concerns and in the present moment. Every morning they came down to the breakfast room talking before they saw you but telling you their plans. Their eyes were always blanks. They were always in one of a number of uniforms but always the same as each other. There was the Red Cross officer with stripes and a cockade; the WVS plum and dark green; a scarlet and grey ensemble reminiscent of the North-West Frontier; and a white and navy serge with wings on the head indicative of some variety of military nurse. They left the house every day by eight-thirty and were never home till supper. On Sundays they were up betimes for the eight o'clock Communion, and later sat knitting gloves and listening to Forces Favourites. there was a nice medium sherry before a heavy supper each evening. The midget-maid crept about doing wonders with the chores and a muscular woman came in for the rough and a man for swilling down the yard. Each day Eddie ate his lunch alone at one end of the the mahogany dining table, also a suspected Gillow, laid up with lace mats and shining silver. He received no mail and the phone never rang for him.
This is one of the most brilliant passages that I have encountered in recent fiction, infusing as it does Edward's "invisibility," his lack of available emotional connection, with the melancholy of the meaningless plethora of his aunts' well-upholstered lives. The writing is brisk, but it knows when to linger, and it's both elegiac and very drily funny. Old Filth is an extremely delightful read.
As the reference to Gillow furniture suggests, Ms Gardam's writing may be "too English" for American readers. American publishers who have failed to promote her fail to do us justice. Old Filth is the twelfth novel to come from the only writer who has won the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel twice. Let's hope that it will be Ms Gardam's breakthrough on this side of the pond.
Copyright (c) 2006 Pourover Press