Monday, 28 May 2007

Old Filth

Our Book Group choice for May was Old Filth by Jane Gardam. We all thought we would know what it was about because we all knew what Filth in the title stood for - Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. Obviously it was about a guy who couldn't make a living in the UK, went out East and did well there: it turned out that it wasn't that simple.

The story is based on the life of a famous judge who was deprived of his parents at a tender age: his loneliness, resilience and courage overcoming his unfortunate start in life and his wisdom and compassion as a judge. As the story unfolds the reader sees that he is also blind to others feelings and an emotional cripple to boot.

People are often perceived two dimensionally and the novel gets this over so well: most of the characters don't realize that the highly successful man with an apparently easy and blessed life has actually had unimaginable hardship to contend with.

The humour has a touch of rollicking Tom Sharpe crossed with Marina Lewycka's Short History of Tractors in Ukranian: funny but insightful. There are also many touching observations: for instance, Gardam does ageing very well. She shows how elderly partners can become accustomed (and often unfeeling) to each other, how marriages work and people in relationships become reliant on each other – particularly the successful man's reliance on the 'little woman'.

We all (except our American groupie) said we know at least one Raj orphan: those that were shipped off to school in England as small children. We recognized in the characters aspects and qualities of Raj orphans we know. One of our groupies is up on the psychology aspect of these things and explained that traumatic early experiences either produce an 'anxious' adult or one that only achieves 'distant attachment patterns'. These are manifested in later relationships by either jealousy, never becoming totally attached or managing to achieve real intimacy: Gardam got this just right.

The book was well structured and the time shifts kept the reader interested and tension up, although those who didn't read the book in a condensed period of time found the chronology confusing. Chapter headings were a clue but not always a very clear one: present time, past, present, past. But it may have been Gardam's style - which shifts between several different streams of consciousness and also moves easily between present and past – that confused some.

The coincidences in the story annoyed everybody – not for nothing are they viewed with suspicion in literature: in real life they happen all the time but on paper they seem too pat. Some found the novel a bit shallow and all agreed that the ending – by which time the twist in the tale has been flagged once too often - was a bit disappointing.

Everyone of the group read Old Filth and all thought it well written: 60% enjoyed it but wouldn't recommend it or read it again; 40% thought it was good, by which they meant that they thought it was above average and would read other novels by the author.

Old Filth is a great book for the beach: short, smart, full of pathos and humour. I for one will look for other novel's by Jane Gardam and hope that I shall be writing such clever stuff when I'm aged 79.


History nitpick: Jane Gardam intimates that Rudyard Kipling was anti the colonial life when in fact he was not always critical of the British Empire and everything it stood for (although he was certainly critical of being sent away as a small boy to strangers in the UK). Kipling was a fervent supporter of the Boer War and believed that if the colonies were given independence it would lead to their ruin. It was only after his beloved son was killed in the First World War that his attitude to the Empire changed. His early views are as nothing now compared to his genius.

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