Monday, March 30, 2015

Old Filth, by Jane Gardam

I imagine that most compulsive readers worry from time to time that they are going to run out of books to read, or worse, suddenly lose their enchantment with the written word. How wonderful when one discovers a new author, even if she has been around for most of the reader’s life. Through a reader friend who slipped me a piece of paper in a grocery line with a name written on it, I became aware of a marvelous British author by the name of Jane Gardam. Maureen Corrigan of NPR describes Gardam as “the best British writer you’ve never heard of,” so I guess I am not alone in having previously missed out on her long career of writing. As soon as I discovered her, I quickly, and with passionate interest, began to read her. I’ve already read seven of her books, beginning with her Collected Stories, five hundred pages of stories she, herself, selected from the volumes of short fiction she has written over a lifetime. But today I want to focus on her exquisite trilogy, Old Filth, which consists of the title volume, Old Filth, followed by The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends. All three are about British law practitioners who spend most of their lives in what was then called The British Empire. Indeed, filth is an acronym for Failed in London? Try Hong Kong.

Eddie Feathers, affectionately named Old Filth by his fellow barristers and judges, is a Raj orphan—one of many British children sent home from India (or Hong Kong, or some other country in the Empire) to be fostered by family or strangers until they are old enough to enter boarding school. The children are allegedly sent to England in order to prevent them from getting tropical diseases, but often enough the children are miserable in their foster homes, although in some cases, the children come to prefer their foster parents and simply forget their earlier lives with their biological parents. Gardam is a master of the language, and obviously knows a lot about the Raj orphans. Indeed, she dedicates Old Filth to Raj Orphans and their parents.

To me, the most fascinating aspect of the trilogy is that all three volumes include not only the same characters, but the same historical period, roughly from WW I to the end of the 20th century. The first volume is mainly about Eddie Feathers, a.k.a. Filth, and his wife, Betty, and a lifelong enemy of Feathers, Ed Veneering. Both Feathers and Veneering make reputations and fortunes as land attorneys and later judges. There were fortunes to be made in the distributing and redistributing of land and land-rights, mining rights, especially after WW II. The characters of Feathers and Veneering are as different as their histories are similar. Gardam gets at the complexity of her characters in ways few authors can match, and once a character is mentioned by Gardam, the reader can be sure that his or her life will be picked up again as a story in its own right at some point in the trilogy. In the final volume of the trilogy, Last Friends, a rather minor legal figure, Fiscal-Jones, who appears briefly in many of the stories/scenes in the earlier volumes, emerges as the last living member of a group of Raj orphans, and his life story is then meticulously stitched into narrative of the lives of the ‘main’ characters described previously. “Don’t introduce a pistol in a short-story or play unless you intend to bring it into the action later,” is an adage told to writers; for Gardam, it seems to be, “Don’t introduce a character unless you intend to develop him/her at some later point.”

The descriptions of life in Hong kong, and other cities of the Empire are marvelous for someone who knows as little history as I do. And because she takes her characters through their entire lives, the reader gets Gardam’s insights on aging, the end of Empire, parenting (or deciding not do parent), and the incredible changes in daily life over the past half century or so. Gardam is in her 80s, and so lived through the times of her characters, and she continues to enlighten us about those times. She is a master story-teller, on a par I think with the great Alice Munro, and, like Munro, most of her short fiction is dedicated to the apparently ordinary lives of rural North England towns. But, again like Munro, Gardam understands that the inner lives of ‘simple’ folk are anything but ordinary or simple. The complexity of her characters brings them to life in wonderfully rich ways. And while there is much sadness and loss in the lives of her characters, there is also humor and love and loyalty. As Old Filth, Eddie Feathers, lies on his deathbed trying to recall where he is and how he got there, he reflects:
Memory. My memory has always been so reliable. Perhaps too reliable. It has never spared me. Memory and desire, he thought. Who said that: Without memory and desire life is pointless? I long ago lost any sort of desire. Now memory.

Gardam, along with Penelope Lively, Barbara Kingsolver, Lynne Sharon Schwartz (and I’m sure many others), seem intent on reviewing for us the 20th century, looking again at its wars, its poverty and suffering; they give us such complex and insightful perspectives on the politics and events of the last century. They seem to be summing up, and I find their summing-up to be helpful and hopeful. I note that there are still sixteen books of Gardam I have not read, along with some children’s stories (which is how she was first published). I mean to read everything she has written; she is a wise companion to have in life. She tells us what she knows through story-telling, without didacticism or self-righteousness. I am quite certain I would admire her as a person just as I admire her as a writer.

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