Friday, February 25, 2011
Book Review - Old Filth by Jane Gardem
Jane Gardam is not only one of England’s best writers, she one of literature’s best writers. It’s a mystery to me why her books, which are so popular in Britain, are, for the most part, ignored in the US. She’s won scores of literary awards, including the Whitbread for The Hollow Land and Queen of the Tambourine, and her novel, God on the Rocks was shortlisted for the Booker. True, she draws her material from the manners and one-time class system of Britain, and a way of life that’s foreign to most Americans. But other writers, most notably, Anita Brookner, draw from the same material, and they are just as popular on this side of the Atlantic as in their own homeland. If there’s any fairness in life and in literature, and unfortunately, I don’t believe there is, Gardam’s fifteenth novel (I think it's her fifteenth), and no doubt her masterpiece, Old Filth, should have made her name a household word in the US as well.
Don’t let the title throw you or put you off this marvelous book. “Old Filth” simply means “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong,” and it’s the nickname the legal profession bestowed upon Sir Edward Feathers early in his career. And telling you this is not a spoiler since Gardam reveals the meaning of “Old Filth” on the very first page of her extraordinary novel.
Sir Edward, who was, according to Gardam, inspired in part by the life of Rudyard Kipling, is an orphan of the Raj Empire. Kipling was born in India, but sent “home” to Britain when he was seven, and boarded with a family in Southsea. In the six years he lived there, Kipling wrote, he endured cruelties that left him half-blind, just as one who has experienced a nervous collapse. In Gardam’s novel, Sir Edward was born in Malaya to a mother who died three days later of puerperal fever. “Eddie” was nearly abandoned completely by his malaria-ridden, alcoholic father, Alistair, who left him to be raised by the daughter of his wet nurse. It was a Baptist missionary who finally persuaded Alistair to send Eddie back to Britain, as was the custom in those days, in order to keep the boy safe from tropical diseases and to ensure he obtained the best education possible. Eddie and two female cousins find no warm welcome in Britain, which is still reeling from WWI, and they end up in Wales, the foster children of the dour Ma and Pa Didds. Gardam tantalizes us until almost the book’s end and withholds a tidbit of information about a devastating event that happened to Sir Edward at Ma and Pa Didds’ home. The wait, however, is worth it, as is everything else in this once-in-a-lifetime book.
We first meet Sir Edward when he’s eighty, a new widower (his wife died while planting tulips) and retired to Dorset. In an opening scene, about one-page long, and presented in dialogue, “Old Filth” is characterized and established as a character by his fellow jurists. Sir Edward has just gotten up from his chair and left his table at the Benchers’ luncheon room in London’s Inner Temple. Several jurists who remain at the table begin to discuss the departing figure, saying he looks familiar. It is the Common Sergeant who knows why. “It was Old Filth,” he says. “Great advocate, judge and – bit of a wit. Said to have invented FILTH – Failed in London Try Hong Kong. He tried Hong Kong.” After some random conversation, the other jurists go their way, and the Queen’s Remembrancer returns the conversation to Sir Edward, “But it was good to see the old coelacanth.” To which the Common Sergeant replies, “Yes. Yes, indeed it was. Tell our grandchildren.”
Hmmm, we wonder. So Sir Edward Feathers was someone to talk to one’s grandchildren about. What did he do? And a “coelacanth,” in case you don’t know, is a prehistoric fish, once thought to be extinct. Sir Edward, however, is only eighty! I know eighty-year-olds who run marathons or hike in the Alps. But, back to Gardam’s fabulous book.
After the above opening scene, Gardam delves right into her story and begins to tell us just who “Old Filth” really is and why he’s so interesting to those who know him and those who know “of” him. The chronology of the book moves backward and foreword, detailing “Old Filth’s” very young years in Malaya, his time with Ma and Pa Didds in Wales, how he learned to hide his misery and excel at school, his successes in Hong Kong, his marriage to Betty, his very unlikely late-in-life friendship with fellow lawyer, Terry Veneering, a man Sir Edward hated in his younger years (yes, the name was borrowed from Dickens and Our Mutual Friend, but it’s apt); and finally his retirement in Dorset. Along the way, we find out that Sir Edward was a man of secrets, not so much secrets surrounding others, but secrets surrounding himself and his own inner life. Those who picked up Old Filth thinking it to be a comic novel will find that it is, instead, tragicomic. There are scenes of high hilarity, to be sure, as when Sir Edward tells his late wife’s former lover that Betty had always been “very faithful,” but they are tempered with just as many bittersweet scenes, and the combination of the two make this book one of the most truly human and moving I’ve ever read, and for me, the book establishes Jane Gardam as one of the very best writers in the English language.
If the scene in which Sir Edward books a room in the garish hotel that has replaced “The Old Judges’ Lodging” doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, I think you’re probably immune to tears. When this ramrod-straight, highly disciplined man of the “stiff upper lip” generation sees his wife’s obituary during breakfast he “wept silently behind his hands, sitting in this unknown place,” the only person in the dining room at the time. Rather than shedding only a few discrete tears, Sir Edward weeps on and on. The staff clear the table and change the cloth, saying not a word.
There’s another scene in which Betty Feathers’ “lost” string of pearls is “found” that was, for me, almost as moving as the scene above. The “string of pearls” scene shows what a deft, understated, and wonderful writer Jane Gardam really is. She can handle complex emotions crisply, with very few brushstrokes, so to speak.
It’s obvious that while Sir Edward is, indeed, the very picture of the typical “Raj orphan” in that he, like the other “Raj orphans” doesn’t even know where “home” lies, and, though he had a terrible start in life, he manages to grow and prosper at school and learn the very British way of “keeping a stiff upper lip,” at least on most occasions, he is also, to Gardam’s enormous credit, so much more. Behind that ramrod straight back and stiff upper lip are all the feelings of any other “normal” human being as well as a few emotional horrors that most of us are fortunate enough not to experience.
It is Gardam’s characterization of Sir Edward that lifts Old Filth out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. It’s also what keeps the book from falling into a clichéd retelling of the life of a British subject born in the Far East. This tragicomedic book is like no book I’ve ever read before. It’s fresh and original and truly wonderful. Yes, on the surface, Sir Edward is the typical “Raj orphan,” but he is also his own man; his life is a life fully lived, and the appellation “Raj orphan” doesn’t begin to do him justice. As we read on, we see that it is, instead, a grave disservice, for “Old Filth” is not the elderly, desiccated carnival caricature one might expect, and the reader quickly comes to care very much about Sir Edward Feathers and his life. Gardam is well known for marrying quirky eccentricity and psychological authenticity, but nowhere has she done it better than in the character of “Old Filth.”
Gardam unfolds the life of Sir Edward in beautiful scenes that really come to life. (Gardam says this is “to flick open shutters on the past,” which is much more poetic than what I wrote.) When she writes of the “molten-silver disc of the Indian Ocean beneath a beating sky,” we really see the ocean and feel the sun and heat; when she tells us about the time Sir Edward ate thirty-seven bananas on a Freetown beach while waiting for a boat to take him to Singapore during the war, our own stomachs begin to feel the weight of all those bananas, just as Sir Edward’s did. In short, Gardam’s portrait of Sir Edward is rich and full and robust and enormously sympathetic.
Old Filth is also a powerful indictment of Imperial Britain, the “stiff upper lip” attitude, and those parents who made “Raj orphans” out of their children. “They say it suits some,” says one of Sir Edward’s cousins, one of those “Raj orphans” who was sent to Wales with Sir Edward. “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.”
It’s clear Sir Edward has been touched. It’s also clear that he needed his parents, or someone who would stand in for them. For all of Sir Edward’s “stiff upper lip,” he’s remains, to the very end, a babe-in-arms.
Recommended: Definitely. Readers will love Old Filth, and those who want to be writers need to read the work of Jane Gardam. She’s nothing less than extraordinary.
Note: Edited to change "Gardem" to the proper "Gardam." I really have no excuse for misspelling an author's name, especially an author whose work I love. Thank you to the reader who pointed it out to me.