Sunday, 12 April 2009
I must confess that I have not read any of Julie Myerson’s books—fiction or non-fiction. Indeed, I do not own a single book of hers (and I have a few in my collection). That said I have been tempted on a few occasions to buy her books; for example, a few weeks ago I came across one of her early novels, Sleepwalking, which was available for a pound in a second-hand book-sell. While browsing through high street bookshops I have thought of buying some or more of her books, but, immediately after thinking about it, the question pops in my mind: do I really want to spend eight pounds on them; and the answer is in the negative. The storylines of some of her books seem interesting. She has written a work of non-fiction, titled Home: the Story of everyone who Ever Lived In Our House, which was described as a triumph by Philip Hensher. (I live in a similar kind of house, though not as old, and have often wondered about the people who lived in it and the lives they led.) I was however a bit put off to learn that it was not exactly a history of her house; in part it was historical fiction: she gave fictionalized accounts of how she imagined the families, who occupied the house at different times, led their lives. At nine pounds a copy, the book was not exactly cheap.
In case you have never heard of Julie Myerson, please be advised that she is a British novelist, who was once shortlisted for the Booker prize (Something Might Happen). She has published five novels in the last fifteen years, which, while they have attracted lukewarm praise from some critics, have not quite propelled her to the A list. Last month, Myerson revealed, publically (but with great reluctance and trepidation, she insisted), that The Lost Child, her most recent novel, contained a detailed account of her real life son Jake’s addiction to cannabis, and how she was forced to throw him out of their million-pound family home and change locks. It has to be said that for someone who was reluctant to talk about the skeleton in the family cupboard, Myerson did not do too badly: she managed to get on the pages of the literary sections of most of the broadsheets. There she was, in The Times, staring at you from a photograph, looking forlorn and tragic, pale golden locks flowing down to her shoulders, her expression suggesting a deeply private, incommunicable anguish of someone who has had a car door slammed on her thumb. Even the tabloids, not exactly known for their contribution to literature, were expatiating on the subject and inviting comments from their readers (on whose reading lists, inasmuch as they make any, it can be safely assumed, Myerson hitherto had not featured) for their views and comments on whether Myerson did the right thing in chucking out her 17 year old son.
‘This has been a terrible week, today has been a terrible day and yesterday was one of the worst days,’ she said tremulously, on the verge of tears (the very sympathetic interviewer of one of the broadsheets would have you believe). ‘I have done very controversial thing,’ she continued. ‘If you betray your child and throw him out you will get the flak. But I don’t care what people say about me in the press. It is nothing compared with watching your boy walk away . . . It’s really hard to talk about it.’ She then went on to speak volubly and laid it all bare so to speak: the relationship problems between her and her husband (Jonathan Myerson, who is also an artist and once made a documentary that was nominated for an Oscar) who apparently got depressed, the graphic details of how they discovered their son’s cannabis use, the domestic violence and the son perforating her ear drums, the son trying to sell cannabis to her other two children, her own pot-smoking in her younger days—but only on a few occasions (so that’s all right, then)—, the details of her parents’ broken marriage and her father’s rejection not just of her but of her son before he (the father) committed suicide and so on and so forth. If the woman yammers this much when talking is difficult, you wonder what she would be capable of when it is easy. In the end, Myerson professed to have been taken aback by the level of attention she was getting, and said she disliked the denunciations to which she was subjected in some of the tabloids. Did she expect this response from the media? Of course not. ‘I thought the book would speak for itself,’ Myerson said. ‘Reviews would come out, good or bad, some challenging interviews. . . . But I never thought the press would do this to my kids. If I had known, I wouldn’t have published. It’s not fair on my family.’ If you are thinking that this begs the question of why she made the revelations in the first place, Myerson is ready with an answer. ‘There were so many more people suffering things similar to us, we felt we had to raise awareness. People need to go public. I understand why people wouldn’t do this to their child. But I decided I would.’ So, we are to believe that it was the spirit of public service, public education, raising public awareness, call it what you will, that influenced Myerson’s decision to go public about her son’s cannabis use. Myerson says she had to write this book; she did not have a choice; she had to get this out of her system. But it was not just that; she also wanted to raise public awareness. Her son allegedly smokes skunk, which, Myerson and her I-am-hundred-percent-with-Julie-on-this-husband, in an hour long television programme—yes, they allowed themselves, very reluctantly, one would guess, to be filmed, all in the spirit of public service, I shall thank you to remember—informed, their faces longer than the Nile, is much stronger than cannabis. (Who would have thunk the humble dobbie would wreak such havoc on a family?) To make the whole thing spicier, the cannabis-smoking son has been on an interview-spree, refuting almost everything his mother has claimed. He has described her as ‘insane’, ‘obscene’ and an ‘author’! And Bloomsbury , Myerson’s publishers, who had originally planned to bring the novel out in May (which would have received a spattering of tepid reviews without anyone really taking notice, which, regrettably, is the lot of most B-list novelists) decided to rush its publication ahead of the schedule. If you thought that they were driven by the desire to cash in on the publicity generated by Myerson’s revelations and while her (pretty) face was still on the pages of most newspapers, you would be wrong. Nothing could have been farthest from the publisher’s mind. They too wanted to do what they could to raise awareness of the cannabis—sorry, skunk—addiction. In a statement Bloomsbury announced: Given this week's extensive speculation about Julie Myerson's The Lost Child, we felt that it was right to bring forward publication to allow everyone the opportunity to buy her brilliant book and consider the complicated questions it raises.’
The story of the problems of Myerson’s middle class family is not unheard of in this day and age. Whether Myerson and her artist husband did exactly the right thing or whether they could have done something different (from giving the dope-smoking, kleptomaniac teenager the heave-ho and getting on the blower to Random House) will be a matter of opinion. Nothing wrong in Myerson incorporating this traumatic episode from her life into her fiction. (She is an author, remember?). Doesn’t it seem a tad curious, though, that she decides that the most opportune time to raise awareness about the scourge of cannabis smoking by young adults, and its pernicious effect on their parents of artistic temperament, who—what nuisance!—are forced to spend their time (which, otherwise, could be profitably spent going to theatre) looking for therapists, full three years after she gave him the boot, prior to the publication of her latest novel, which, incidentally, contains an elaborate account of the whole thing in one installment? Do I hear someone muttering that this is a nasty little scam worked out by the family and their publicist? That is harsh and cynical—almost as harsh as Jeremy Paxman, who tried to send Myerson on a guilt trip on Newsnight (with his impressive, if predictable, routine of crossing and uncrossing his legs, raising eyebrows till they disappeared into is hair, becoming red faced as though he was either choking on a fish bone or about to have an apoplectic fit, attempting to look incredulous, disgusted, contemptuous at the same time, and—this is the trademark of all Paxo’s interviews—rudely and repeatedly interrupting and not letting the other person finish, all of which has the effect of making you feel sorry for the interviewee). Surely, she wouldn’t do it to her first-born just to sell more copies of her novel (although, the publicity she has attracted, some of which admittedly (and unsurprisingly) negative, will do no harm to the novel’s sell).
Will this, Myerson’s sixth novel, finally catapult her to the A list of novelists? I doubt it.
Blaming is Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel. Taylor was dying when she wrote it, and, according to her daughter, Taylor knew that she was dying. As the cancer eating Taylor from inside grew, so did her determination to finish the novel. There are unexpected deaths in the novel, which dexterously explores the feelings of bereavement: helplessness, anger, guilt, and blaming; and one wonders whether the knowledge that she was not for long for this world was a determinant of the way Taylor, a cheerful personality (according to those close to her) who believed in living life to the last moment, shaped the story and its progress.
Anne and Martha are the two protagonists of the novel, who meet on a cruise. As the only English-speaking people on the cruise the two women form temporary camaraderie people, who have not much in common with one another, form on holidays, and which, Anne is certain, will not blossom into a friendship beyond the cruise. However, the fate has something else in store for her. The lives of the two women, who could not be more different from each other in respect of their attitudes, viewpoints, sensibilities and perceptivity—one, a middle-class, middle-aged, stolid, haughty, and somewhat snobbishly upstage English housewife with conservative tastes; the other, a young, somewhat abrasive American, an aspiring writer with mood swings—, are intertwined by a tragic event. Anne’s husband Nick, who, we are told, is recovering from a chronic, serious ailment, dies suddenly in Istanbul. Stranded and utterly bereft in a foreign land, Anne accepts the succor Martha—who cuts short her cruise in order to be with Anne in these difficult times—provides. Back in England, however, Anne rebuffs Martha’s attempts to get in touch with her, as much for her desire not to want to be reminded of the Istanbul nightmare with which Martha will forever be associated as for her, Anne’s, wish to go on with her quiet, aloof widowhood. However, Martha is not so easily rebuffed; she has a way of getting under your skin. Martha finally secures an invitation and re-enters Amy’s life and, despite herself, Amy begins to warm up to the brash, quixotic and irritatingly intrusive young American, and her lover—the penurious and stingy, almost ungenerous, and outwardly passionless Simon. When Simon is transferred back to the USA he asks Martha to marry him, and she, on an impulse and much against her better judgment, consents. Before leaving for America, Martha visits Amy one last time.
Elizabeth Taylor, together with the other Elizabeth (Bowen), belonged to that category of women writers—Ivy Compton-Burnett, Rosamund Lehman, Olivia Manning, Rose Macaulay, E.H. Young and Barbara Pym are some other names that come to mind—who, for the want of better phrase, can be described as ‘English’. Most of Taylor’s fictional creations belong to the middle or upper classes; and their sensibilities, attitudes, haughtiness, and pretensions are quintessentially English middle-class. They take immense pride in their worlds which rarely extend beyond Home Counties, and generally view anything that does not fit neatly into their ordered, if somewhat limited, repertoire of experiences with suspicion that borders on condescension and distaste. (The reluctance to embrace new with open arms and hearts is not unique to the English Middle Class, though; the attitude of the Working Class towards anything newfangled is one of deep suspicion and hostility.) Amy, in Blaming, is a resentful traveller, the first thing that comes to her mind while walking barefoot in the grand mosques of Istanbul is verrucas. Bourgeois femininity perfuses Blaming as thick, sugary syrup permeates pastry. Taylor, however, never allows her narration to be weighed down either with mawkish sentimentality or crude satire, wherein lies her brilliance. The erudite writing may not induce a belly laugh, but Blaming is strewn with deliciously droll descriptions of English mannerisms, habits, idiosyncratic discourses, priggishness and a highly developed sense of entitlement that will seem whimsical to an outsider. The world inhabited by Taylor’s fictional creations may appear to be outwardly comfortable, even bland, but it is not without its share of intrigue and maliciousness. The cosy housewives, who lead cosy lives and speak précis, grammatically correct English, are capable of impressive deceit, conceit and petty cruelties—all so that they can score petty points over their social rivals. With almost surgical precision and aplomb, Taylor lays bare the frailties and fatuities of the world surrounding her. Most authors, it would be fair to say, draw inspirations from their environs, and it is no surprise that Taylor’s novels (with their astute observations and commentaries relating to the upper and middle classes) mirror the quiet middle-class, if somewhat limited, social milieu she mingled with. Born Elizabeth Coles in Reading, she was educated at the Abbey school (the same school to which Jane Austen, with whom Taylor is occasionally compared, went), and, before her marriage to John Taylor in 1936, worked as a governess and in Boots Lending Library. She lived in Buckinghamshire for almost all of her married life, and, whilst leading a well-to-do middle class life—dallying briefly, like all well-to-do people with conscience, with Communism, and holding lifelong left-wing sympathies—, surrounded (probably) by a happy family, produced a dozen novels, all of which ‘shrewd and affectionate portrayals of middle-and upper-middle-class English life’ (according to an introduction by Virago which reissued a number of her out of print novels a few years ago), at a steady rhythm, over three decades.
A special pleasure of reading Blaming is some or more of the characters, be they the eccentric factotum of Amy or the precocious daughters of her son, James. The conversations of Isobel and Dora, Amy’s granddaughters, are hilarious; they also reveal the keen eye Taylor had for how children talked and behaved. According to Taylor’s daughter, she found children’s conversations interesting and would talk with them for hours. Some of the conversational gems in Blaming were taken from the comments Taylor had recorded from her granddaughters’ conversations (whom she looked after) in real life.
Taylor, although she is rarely credited for it, was a modern novelist. The plot of Blaming, such as it is, can be summarized in two sentences; it is a vehicle for Taylor to explore themes such as guilt, recrimination, and emotional connectedness. Amy is left staggering in the wake of a sudden traumatic event—the event itself, the death of her husband, is elided, as if of no importance other than a catalyst for what then unfolds—that is to have a profound influence on her life, but the adjustment does not influence her moral compass in a meaningful way, does not broaden her horizons. Taylor’s vision is unsentimental and remorseless. At the end of Blaming one is left with a feeling of muted bleakness. This is a splendid, erudite and superbly intelligent novel.