AUGUST 29, 2011
Illustration: © Joan Breckwoldt
“WHAT SHOULD I READ?” It’s a question that anyone with even a modest presence in the book trade has heard more than once. I hear it from well-read friends who tend to want something other than genre novels, who crave characters that live identifiable lives. Some have a taste for historical novels or books set in countries other than ours, but they all want to be taken to a fully imagined place that they can see in their mind’s eye. They usually agree with Emily Dickinson: “There is no frigate like a book.”
I spent 2008-2009 as a fiction judge for the Los Angeles Times book prizes, my second tour of duty. I read or at least sampled 125 books each year. When the Los Angeles Review of Books asked which I might recommend that may have passed readers’ notice, I settled on work by Jill Ciment and Jane Gardam.
Ciment’s Heroic Measures was a runner up on the best fiction list for 2009. In it, Alex and Ruth Cohen, a New York couple in their seventies, live in a fifth floor walk-up in the East Village. They’ve been there forty-five years and the stairs seem to get higher and steeper as the years pile up. They’re hoping to sell and buy something with an elevator. Alex is a painter of moderate but real reputation. Ruth is a retired schoolteacher who likes to re-read Chekhov stories. One of her favorites is “The Lady with the Dog.” The Cohens, who have no children, dote on their aging dachshund, Dorothy.
The point of view shifts subtly among the three of them. Putting Dorothy’s internal voice into the mix might sound a bit precious but Ciment has a light touch. I found myself curious about what each, even the dog, was thinking. At the peak of my interest, Ciment told me. It’s an uncanny narrative skill.
Alex and Ruth are old lefties. Alex has acquired and decided to illuminate the pages of his FBI file, though not quite like a medieval manuscript or a book of hours. “In place of crosses and saints, martyrs and angels, [he would] paint A-bombs, Mousketeers, two-tone refrigerators, Khrushchev, and portraits of him and Ruth.” Ciment, who teaches English at the University of Florida in Gainesville, is married to the artist Arnold Mensches, who is known for the collages he created out of his own FBI files. He’s about thirty years older than Ciment, who had been his student.
Heroic Measures takes place over the weekend that the Cohens are to show their apartment to potential buyers. Dorothy, who (in dog years) is about the same age as her owners, has developed a paralysis. Also, a possible terrorist has left a jack-knifed truck with a possible bomb in the Holland Tunnel. The media goes nuts and the city all but shuts down. This, of course, will have consequences for the real estate market. Without other news to report, the journalists of New York are asking poll questions along the lines of “Do you think terrorists take drugs? 78% yes, 20% no, 2% not sure…”
Perhaps because Ciment produces rounded characters with a minimum of information, all of them-even Dorothy-feel surprisingly alive. I don’t know what dog thoughts are like or if they’re formed in anything resembling sentences, but Ciment makes Dorothy seem as if she learned how to think from Alex and Ruth. Dorothy’s not crazy about the veterinary hospital she finds herself in and can’t understand why she’s been left there.
The Cohens have regular ethnic dinners with Alex’s dealer, Rudolph, and his wife, May. They’re wealthier than the Cohens and that’s always difficult. Ethnic dinners in the East Village are one of the few places where interesting dinners are cheap. Alex is worried about what he’ll do with all the paintings now lodged in the apartment when they move. He’d like to give them to a museum, of course, and failing that find storage for them. Rudolph has been his dealer for decades, although the lucrative times are in the past. He’s taken with Alex’s illuminated FBI files and thinks they could catch on.
Alex and Rudolph’s long alliance is built on sales and the tides of reputation. They try to enjoy one another, but their dealings, no matter how personal they might seem, always dance on the precipice of money. When Alex was riding high, Rudolph in effect worked for him. Now with his career winding down, Alex exhibits at Rudolph’s sufferance. At first Ciment circles Rudolph before she pins him down. It’s the only time she seemed tentative about a character, as if she were trying on hats. It’s a momentary lapse that serves to remind how effortlessly everyone else, Dorothy the dog included, is introduced.
The book has a small gallery of real estate buyers and sellers, veterinarians and their deputies, waiters, cab drivers and denizens of the East Village. You’ll recognize them all even if you haven’t spent much time around Tompkins Square Park.
A long marriage is also at the core of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth (surely her masterpiece) and The Man in the Wooden Hat, (both Europa). The second book shifts point of view in order to complete the earlier book. The considerable pleasure in that strategy is that I hadn’t realized Old Filth needed completion and correction until Gardam, who had already taken hold of my imagination, spun me around like a literary dreidel. The Man in the Wooden Hat was also a runner up in the Times prizes for 2009.
Gardam, who has written many books, is well known in her native Britain where she’s been honored — the Whitbread prize, twice — and has a steady audience. She deserves to have an American readership as large as, say, Julian Barnes or Anita Brookner.
Like them Gardam has a distinctly English voice. Old Filth (FILTH is an acronym for Failed In London, Try Hong Kong) is the story of Sir Edward Feathers, a son of empire, unhappily born in Malaya. He becomes a war orphan and is sent home, as the English have always put it, for his education. Eventually he returns to the Far East where he makes his name and reputation. We meet him in his retirement, living in Dorset, heavy with honors and remembering his marriage to the late Betty.
Betty’s memory of the events told in Old Filth is the core of The Man in the Wooden Hat. Betty sees things differently. She keeps her secrets and Edward is none the wiser. Like her husband, Betty was born in the Far East and spent a portion of her childhood in a Japanese internment camp in China. As a young woman, she knows that she doesn’t want a conventional marriage, like her mother’s. She does want children. Betty gets a version of her mother’s marriage but the time spent in the camp with its deprivations forecloses the possibility of children. For all that, she finds a measure of serenity, if not quite vivid happiness.
Her faithfulness, unquestioned by her husband, was compromised only once, when on the brink of her marriage she was involved with one of Edward’s enemies, one Terry Veneering, the surname borrowed from a tedious arriviste in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. The affair was the most dangerous of Betty’s secrets. A colleague of Sir Edward’s, the dwarf Albert Ross, who all but worships Edward, also knows about Veneering. What Betty doesn’t quite see is that if Albert used his information about her long ago indiscretion, his power over her would be gone. They’re stuck in an endless pas de deux. After Betty’s death, Sir Edward and the wretched Veneering become neighbors and finally unlikely friends as Old Filth becomes a story of last things. It also makes The Man in the Wooden Hat something of a necessity, though I didn’t realize it on first reading.
Gardam well knows that long marriages grow and evolve, with moods full of pleasure and disappointment, none of which can be fully understood until the passage of time allows for a looking back. The joys and betrayals that have simmered below the surface for decades never really go away. Such marriages replay the past. In the first years, careers, children and real estate might dominate. And then, imperceptively at first, pleasures and difficulties seasoned by memory create an accommodation that was always there.
Both Gardam and Ciment tell stories that have been told before. Even though English fiction is well populated with figures like Edward Feathers, Gardam’s grace makes him singular. Similarly, American fiction set in New York is an industry itself. And yet, there’s no one quite like Alex, Ruth, and their Dorothy. Like Edward and Betty Feathers, they are original creations made in vivid though unadorned prose. It’s what novelists mean when they talk about voice.
Gardam’s books taken together bring to mind Evan Connell’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. These are four books of different worlds: Connell’s are set in Kansas City during the thirties, and Gardam’s in the Far East and Britain as the empire is dissolving. Connell’s novels are much more widely known and appreciated; Gardam’s deserve to be. Published over the last decade or so, these novels are the work of a first rate novelist in her eighties at the top of her game.
These authors are as different as the U.K. and the U.S.. Gardam, through English eyes, puts her characters on continents not their own and lets them long for Britain and at the same time reject it. The Cohens, probably descendants of immigrants, have traveled but are really only comfortable on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. When they finally move, it’s to a nicer flat, a few blocks away. Surely without consciously meaning to do so, an aspect of the national character of both countries is evoked. Gardam’s characters feature an articulate Englishness that can feel naturally achieved and that can mask normal fears and uncertainties. Ciment’s Americans have a vulnerability that covers a toughness of which they seem mostly unaware. Alex’s illuminated FBI files are one example.
Good novels can support different readings. The long marriages in all three books interested me. Someone else might well focus on the remnants of Empire in Gardam or the evocation of dogs or the customs of the New York real estate market in Ciment. W.H. Auden, who contemplated the value of criticism in The Dyer’s Hand, wrote that one of a critic’s functions is to “introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.” These three books are grand undertakings. Consider yourself introduced.