Friday, July 20, 2012

A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble

A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble is a book with a hyphen in the title. This is apposite, since it presents a tale of two sisters, Louise and Sarah who, in a short but intense period of their lives, realise that there is an enduring bond between them, even if that bond may be no more than an agreement to compete.

Louise and Sarah have both been to Oxford. Louise is three years older than Sarah, who estimates that her sister is thus also three inches taller than herself. They are both beautiful, desirable young women, clearly drawn from society’s existing elite and destined not to tread beyond the boundaries of their class. Sarah’s first person narrative begins as she graduates, just as her older sister is about to marry Stephen Halifax. He is an awfully sophisticated author – whose books, nevertheless and by common consent, are pretty ropey – who seems permanently to roll in it, where ‘it’ refers to a mixture of money and whatever it is that allows an individual to claim the label ‘Bohemian’. (Being born in Bohemia would not endow that status, of course. We are literary, darling, not literal!) And Louise is twenty-four, for God’s sake, if we still demand His approbation in the 1960s.

It is time she did something with her life, settled down, started a family, at least aspired to the respectable. Sarah laments her sister’s good fortune. For years one side of her assumed future has yearned to attach such trappings to her own life, a standpoint to which she might only occasionally admit in mixed company. There is a gentleman friend, but he has hopped it across the Atlantic for a while to do some research. She wonders if he will ever come back. In matters of the heart, the immediate is always more likely to stir the emotions. Throughout A Summer Bird-Cage the two sisters interact and we hear Sarah’s version of the envy, the bitchiness, the conflict, the resolution, the co-operation, the closeness and distance of their relationship. There are several parties where new people appear to gossip, to speculate or to provoke. Much is learned in these highly ceremonial gatherings about others. And, as far as plot goes, that’s about it. There are some flaming rows, but no-one draws a gun. There is conflict, but no-one’s life is threatened. There’s duplicity, but the greatest sting is committed by a taxi driver who goes off with a whole two shillings of extra and undeserved tip. 

But even as early as the nineteen sixties lovers would sometimes take baths together! Via Sarah’s frailties, imaginings, intellect, prejudice and eventual good sense and loyalty, Margaret Drabble presents a magnificent study in character and the human condition. If the reader were to pass Sarah on the street, not only would she be recognisable, she would immediately demand greeting. “By the way,” the reader might ask her, “did you really feel such resentment at everything your sister…” And no doubt Sarah would reply at length and in detail. In A Summer Bird-Cage the encounters are real. The events are credible. The failings of these people are purely human, rendering them completely three dimensional. Yes, the society they inhabit is rarefied, elitist and limited in its world view, but surely they existed and, via this superb novel, still do.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Thames: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

Thames: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd purports to offer a sister volume to the highly successful London: The Biography. To a point it succeeds, but in general the feeling of pastiche dominates to such an extent that the idea of biography soon dissolves into a scrapbook. The book presents an interesting journey and many fascinating encounters. But it also regularly conveys a sense of the incomplete, sometimes that of a jumbled ragbag of associations that still needs the application of work-heat and condensation in order to produce something palatable. Thus a book that promises much eventually delivers only a partially-formed experience. Ostensibly the project makes perfect sense. London: The Biography described the life of the city, its history and its inhabitants. There was a stress on literary impressions, art and occasional social history to offer context. This was no mere chronicle and neither was it just a collection of tenuously related facts. It was a selective and, perhaps because of that, an engaging glimpse into the author’s personal relationship with this great city. Thames River flows like an essential artery through and within London’s life. Peter Ackroyd identifies the metaphor and returns to it repeatedly, casting this flow of water in the role of bringer of both life and death to the human interaction that it engenders. And the flow is inherently ambiguous, at least as far downstream as the city itself, where the Thames is a tidal estuary. At source, and for most of its meandering life, it snakes generally towards the east, its flow unidirectional. But this apparent singularity of purpose is complicated by its repeated merging with sources of quite separate character via almost uncountable tributaries, some of which have quite different, distinct, perhaps contradictory imputed personalities of their own. Thus Peter Ackroyd attempts by occasional geographical journey but largely via a series of thematic examinations to chart a character, an influence and a history that feeds, harms, threatens and often beautifies London, the metropolis that still, despite the book’s title, dominates the scene. These universal themes – bringer of life, death, nurture, disease, transcendence and reality, amongst many others – provides the author with an immense challenge. Surely this character is too vast a presence to sum up in a single character capable of biography. And, sure enough, this vast expanse of possibility is soon revealed as the book’s inherent weakness. Thus the overall concept ceases to work quite soon after the book’s source. A sense of potpourri and pastiche begins to dominate. Quotations abound, many from poets who found inspiration by this great river, but their organisation and too often their content leaves much to be desired. Ideas float past, sometimes on the tide, only to reappear a few pages on, going the other way. Sure enough they will be back again before the end. Dates come and go in similar fashion, often back and forth within a paragraph. No wonder the tidal river is murky, given that so many metaphors flow through it simultaneously. And then there are the rough edges, the apparently unfinished saw cuts that were left in the rush to get the text to press. We learn early on that water can flow uphill. Young eels come in at two inches, a length the text tells us is the same as 25mm. We have an estuary described as 250 miles square, but only 30 miles long. We have brackish water, apparently salt water mixed with fresh in either equal or unequal quantities. Even a writer as skilful as Peter Ackroyd can get stuck in mud like this. At the end, as if we had not already tired of a procession of facts only barely linked by narrative, we have an ‘Alternative Typology’ where the bits that could not be cut and pasted into the text are presented wholly uncooked – not even prepared. Thames: The Biography was something of a disappointment. It is packed with wonderful material and overall is worth the lengthy journey but, like the river itself, it goes on. The book has the feel of a work in progress. This may be no bad thing, since the river is probably much the same.