Last weekend I found myself by chance outside the 50p bookshop in Notting Hill, and though I didn't have a lot of time I rushed down to the basement and seized a couple of books. One was a Beryl Bainbridge, of which more later perhaps, and this was the other.
I've had some mixed experiences with Penelope Lively -- I've loved several, been underwhelmed by a couple, and really did not like her Booker-winning Moon Tiger. Luckily this one, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 1984 -- it lost to Hotel du Lac (and I think it's a better novel, but I'm not keen on Brookner) -- came into the first category.
Briefly, this is the story of Mark Lamming, a middle-aged, middlingly successful biographer. Happily married to the literal-minded hyper organiser Diana, he is working on a biography of a well-known, long dead writer Gilbert Strong. But when he visits Strong's house in rural Dorset to investigate an attic full of papers, he finds to his consternation that he is falling in love with Strong's young grand-daughter. Carrie, who has had a shockingly neglected education and been dragged round the continent by her feckless mother, is contentedly running a garden centre with her gay business partner Bill and finds Mark's sudden passion for her puzzling and embarrassing. But on a trip to visit her mother in rural France, things start to develop in unforseen ways.
Though that's more or less the plot, it will give you no idea what this book is actually about. It's so perceptive and so subtly witty that for me it was a total joy from start to finish. Mark, who recognises his passion for Carrie as less like love and more like a "sudden involuntary seizure", is quite aware of the inconvenience of it from the start:
there she was sitting at the kitchen table eating bread and cheese, the orange socks on her feet and a streak of dirt down one cheek. At the same moment as Mark entered the room, saw her and experienced that universal thrill that is compounded of panic and exhiliration in equal proportions, it came to him that he was, quite simply, suffering a form of illness. He was temporarily disabled; there should be some kind of treatment for men of his age and situation thus stricken. It should be possible to go along to some professional but understanding bloke in a consulting room and say, 'Look, I have this tiresome problem; I'm a busy man and I've fallen in love with a girl with whom I have nothing in common and I happen to love my wife anyway and I can't afford the expenditure of time and emotion'. And the chap would nod and reach for a prescription pad and say 'There's a lot of it about at the moment. Take these three times a day -- they usually do the trick'. And that would be that.
His attempts to communicate with Carrie, with whom he has absolutely no common ground, are painful, touching and funny in about equal parts. A small breakthrough occurs when she expresses a wish to take a book to read on their drive through France and he finds her a copy of Emma in her grandfather's library. Although she manages to lose that copy and also the one in French she buys to replace it, the book is quite a revelation to her, and Emma's epiphany towards the end of the novel surprisingly coincides with one of her own.
When he's not agonising over Carrie, Mark is agonising over the biography, on which he has been working for years without ever really feeling he's got to the bottom of Strong. In fact he begins to feel that Strong is deliberately holding out on him, refusing to divulge information that would enable Mark to complete the book. But a sudden insight into one of Strong's early novels sends him racing off to Somerset where he meets the ancient Major Hammond, who proves to have known Strong in his childhood. As a result, a whole unknown chapter of Strong's life suddenly reveals itself and forces Mark to rethink the man whose life he has been totally absorbed in for so long. He also starts to feel a surprising affection and respect for the Major, with whom he drinks whiskey, plays backgammon, and listens to 1930s dance music on the ancient radiogram:
Love is the sweetest thing/The only and the neatest thing...
There hung in the room an atmosphere of unspoken recollection, a hint of passions long dried out like rose petals but to which a faint scent still clung, a whisper of the girl and the song and the moonlight. Mark, infected, was filled with indefinable yearnings that seemed to have little to do with love or anything pertaining thereunto. He felt a sense of loss that was general rather than specific, a grief that was not entirely unpleasurable at departed emotions, at the scheme of things, at the passage of life.
Beautifully written, delightfully observant, very funny about academics, their quirks and obsessions, and in the end strangely moving -- what more could you want? Highly recommended.