How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.
To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.
Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.
The Remorseful Day – A. E. Housman
“There is absolutely no plan to it,” Charles Bukowski once claimed speaking about the process of writing, “it’s just me, the typewriter and the chair”. In reality, this was not strictly true says David Stephen Calonne in his new critical study. “Writing was for him,” explains Calonne, “a kind of ritual accompanied by four necessary accessories; alcohol, classical music, the sound of the typewriter, tobacco.” Toward the end of Bukowski’s life the list was extended by the addition of cats – the “smart/spontaneous, self-/absorbed, naturally poised and awesomely/beautiful” creatures – who not only lay at his feet while he wrote but also often made into the writing. They teach us humans, Bukowski observed in a poem called Exactly Right, a “grand lesson in persevering”. A worthy lesson indeed but one Bukowski didn’t need tutelage-in having spent years at his typewriter trying to make it. And when he did finally make it, he made it all the way to the prestigious Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where his literary archive is now kept alongside William Shakespeare, Galileo, Geoffrey Chaucer, Langston Hughes, Jack London et al. “To many it is a matter of some pleasurable amusement,” says Calonne at the end of the book, “that Bukowski’s literary legacy is now housed in this cathedral of culture which is located not far from his own preferred temple – the San Anita race track where he spent so many happy days and evenings.” This would no doubt be a source of some amusement to Bukowski himself, who has also recently made it to the literary (web) pages of The Daily Telegraph.
In this slight but expansive 170-odd page book Calonne covers every aspect and angle of Bukowski’s life, from his childhood to his old age, from his friendships to his relationships, from his work to his leisure, providing a wonderfully complete overview of this enigmatic barroom-bard whose life, at least in theory, seems full of contradictions. Bukowski wanted literary success but hated fame; was brutish but frangible, forthright but guarded, sensitive but apodictically chauvinistic. And yet, toward the end when age had finally bestowed its wisdom and the bravado had dissipated somewhat, Bukowski unclenched revealing his “tender emotional nakedness,” which began to mark his work. To illustrate this ostensible shift Calonne quotes from Bluebird, a poem which very clearly bridges the gap between Bukowski’s “outer image and his wounded heart”. It is all there in the artless sincerity, when Bukowski says: “there’s a bluebird in my heart that/wants to get out/but I’m too tough for him/I say, stay in there, I’m not going/to let anybody see/you.” But – perhaps faced with his own mortality – Bukowski knew that he had to let us see him, this bluebird, which he had kept hidden for so long. Subsequently, his late style was defined by an “increased attention to death, to his literary heroes, to his cats, to a new metaphysical, stripped-down and often tender lyricism”. Calonne also notes that during this particular time Bukowski kept heed of world news and current affairs, commemorating events such as the 1992 LA riots in his work.
Never a political writer, however, Bukowski preferred to concentrate on what he knew best, drinking, women, the racetrack, love. In one of his two essays on poetry, Basic Training, he says he always endeavoured to hurl himself towards his “personal god: SIMPLICITY”. But it was sheer determinism that proved to be the sulphur in his blood, the superhuman resilience to incalculable personal and professional rejections. Bukowski would often say that it was, in fact, his father who made him a writer because he first became interested in literature as a means of escape from the harrowing reality of his early domestic life. “His literary style was forged in the crucible of his youthful anguish,” writes Calonne, “as he would learn to handle words as if they were fists, pounding back at the injustices he had endured.” This bravura would eventually evolve into “his characteristic sarcasm, tough guy persona and his combination of courtly style with rough house antics”. Calonne adds that Bukowski’s way of coping was by “rebelling, revolting against everything, with a bit of charming humour thrown into the mix.” Again, this would become a defining trait, running through his uberous canon, adding to it a touch of impertinence and wisecracking which is distinctly his own.
Bukowski started out with poetry, short fiction, essays and reviews but by the 1970s his champion and friend John Martin suggested he tackle a novel. “Bukowski took immediate action,” writes Calonne, “he sat before his typewriter each evening precisely at the time he used to begin work at the Post Office: 6:18”. A mere 19 days later he had finished a book, which was published on 8th February 1971. Post Office has been translated into over 15 languages and remains one of Bukowski’s most popular works. This is partly because it has wide-ranging themes, depicting everyday working class life in a distinctively “scatological, sexual and colloquial style,” which Bukowski fashioned after one of his literary heroes, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It is also a work that clearly sprung from the vantage point of experience. “The book telescopes various periods of Bukowski’s life,” Calonne explains, “returning to the early 1950s, when he worked as a mail carrier; snarling dogs, sexual encounters with lonely women; the struggle to memorise postal codes.” It is not entirely clear, the biographer suggests, whether Martin approached Bukowski to write full time or vice versa but the leap toward a literary career came just at the right time as Bukowski’s absenteeism from work and association with underground newspapers had not gone unnoticed by his employers at the Post Office. In many respects, Bukowski’s writing was more auspicious or at least more constant than his personal life. Here too, Calonne has every angle covered, chronicling his subject’s romantic inconcinnities with objective sympathy.
Calonne’s book is meticulously researched and assembled from select excerpts of Bukowski’s saporous letters, poems, novels and other elements of autobiography he left behind. The biographer has extensive knowledge of his subject and beyond, which he uses to construct multiple interpretative frameworks to present Bukowski’s work, his dualistic German/American identity and his place in today’s literary landscape. Unrefined, voluble and ventripotent, with “beer-maddened” breath, coarse canescent hair, speck-brown eyes and a face like a cribriform plate, due to severe adolescent acne, Bukowski was never a typical man of letters. But by his fortieth year, says Calonne, he “had found his genius and marked out his literary territory,” and thus “the terror of existence” became him subject. Literature for Bukowski was always directly related to “his own experience of living” and in a way it led to his innovative and idiosyncratic style. “It is a miswriting of literary history, for example,” says Calonne, “that the ‘Confessional poets’ – Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton – are given sole credit for the invention of a new mode of self-revelation, which dealt with the most intimate, hidden and painful aspect of the psyche, when actually Bukowski was doing this form the outset.” Calonne is clearly passionate about his subject and it shows as the book comes wonderfully together to illustrate a man’s life through the biographer’s lens of skill, humour and insight.
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Publication Date: August 2012
Paperback: 224 pages, 30 illustrations
Two walking cobwebs, almost bodiless,
crossed paths here once, kept house, and lay in beds.
Your fingertips once touched my fingertips
and set us tingling through a thousand threads.
Poor pulsing Fete Champetre! The summer slips
between our fingers into nothingness.
We too lean forward, as the heat waves roll
over our bodies, grown insensible,
ready to dwindle off into the soul,
two motes or eye flaws, the invisible…
Hope of the hopeless launched and cast adrift
on the great flaw that gives the final gift.
Dear Figure curving like a question mark,
how will you hear my answer in the dark?
The Flaw — Robert Lowell
Lawrence Durrell was a prolific and protean writer. Unlike many of his contemporaries his livelihood depended exclusively upon his literary undertakings. Not only that, Durrell laboured in a variety of genres – criticism, translation, philosophy, satire, travel writing – to be able to sustain himself in “exotic squalor”. He also wrote poetry. And one of his biggest regrets, which he voiced throughout his life, was his failure to establish himself as a credible poet through the work which he regarded as “closest to his heart”. Yet the prodigious corpus he produced as a poet demands that he should be regarded as one. Durrell was a towering visionary philhellene who has left an array of ideas that have shaped not only literature but how it is read. His tremendous gift should have made him a beacon of English writ, but instead this tireless craftsman has been invidiously overlooked. Durrell was one of few major 20th century writers without university training, who aspired to the profession from the vernal age of eight after reading Charles Dickens and subsequently spending the remainder of his childhood “madly scribbling”. Following a rejection by Cambridge and a miscellany of jobs – a nightclub pianist, a photographer, an estate agent – Durrell decided to try and live by his pen. And I for one am very glad he did.
Durrell’s Collected Poems were given to me by a friend, and as we sat in the pub flicking through the compendium I felt myself beset by a sensory fever incited by Durrell’s words. His poetry shines with the shellac of a virtuoso modernist endowed with an enviably pitch-perfect ear and a knack for intense sensuality. Most of the verses describe sexual couplings, amatory intrigues and the complexities of the human condition in startlingly vivid, baroque syntax and febrile imagery. Reading his poetry one gets the distinct impression that Durrell was retooling convention, or at the very least bending it to his will. Poems such as Strip-tease reveal him as an apostle of the avant-garde, exemplified in the closing lines when talking about the “girls” he says: “So swaying as if on pyres they go/About the buried business of the night/Cold witches of the elementary tease/Balanced on the horn of a supposed desire/Trees shed their leaves like some of these.”
The greatest of Durrell’s distinctions is his originality, and his work should stand as an archetype for future poetic exertions. His observations, aphorisms and ideological pronouncements are abundant and judicious. They are also superlatively poignant. Yet Durrell shies away from romanticism. In a poem called Plea, for example, he refers to love as a “cruel apprenticeship” and concludes that “Pleasure is greatest pain so dearly bought/And love unfaithfulness.” In another poem, Repeat, he speaks along the same lines: “I would be rid of you who bind me so/Thoughtless to the stars: I would refrain and turn/Along the unforgotten paths I used to know/Before these eyes were governed to discern/All beauty and all transience in love.”
But Durrell could also be consummately quixotic. In Echo dedicated to his wife Nancy Myers and his new-born daughter Penelope, Durrell ostensibly celebrates the symbolist ideal. “Nothing”, he writes, “is lost, sweet self/Nothing is ever lost/The unspoken word/Is not exhausted but can be heard/Music that stains/The silence remains/O echo is everywhere, the unbecoming bird.” Similarly in another poem to his wife: “We have endured vicissitude and change/Laughter and lanterns, colours in the grass/And all the foreign music of the earth/Starlight and glamour: every subtle range/Of motion, rhythm, and power that gave us birth.” Despite the romantic nature of the two poems, Durrell somehow manages to strip his work of cloying sentimentality, yet he also, and more importantly, strips it of rhetoric and ridged precedents in order to present his ideal of a heraldic reality that is in keeping with his own defiant nature. Some of his best poems are the most seemingly labile, often set in symbolist Greece and full of mystic lyricism, references to the bucolic landscape, the sea and “foreign music of the earth capable of turning a key…in the heart”. His fascination with the Mediterranean is prevalent in much of his work; the campestral setting almost always the central point, the pivot, along with its “cities, plains, and people”. Another of Durrell’s fascinations was the Greek poet Constantine P Cavafy, who is a spectre – ironic, pained – in the sensibility of much of Durrell’s verse. In an eponymous poem dedicated to his hero, Durrell writes: “And here I find him great. Never/To attempt a masterpiece of size/You must leave life for that. No/But always to persevere the adventive/ Minute, never to destroy the truth/Amid the coarse manipulations of the lie.”
Another figure of great importance to Durrell was Henry Miller. The two were lifelong friends, maintaining an epistolary correspondence for over 40 years. In a paean called Elegy on the Closing of the French Brothels Durrell reminisces about their time together in Paris and nebulously mirrors Miller’s pleasure without compunction. He writes: “Of all the sickness, autumnal Paris/This self-infection was the best, where friends/Like self-possession could be learned/Through the mystery of a slit/Like a tear in an old fur coat/A hole in a paper lantern where the seeing I/Looked out and measured one/The ferocious knuckle of sex.” Durrell has a gift for dramatic traction and for combining irony and vulnerability, which strikes at the centre of human emotion. But, on occasion, he can also be obscure, fragmentary and opaque. He does, however, make up for his shortcomings with a number of rhapsodic verses which utilise modernist devises with alchemic valour.
His love poems, which pepper the collection throughout, are among my favourite. They reveal Durrell at his best, as a man of many passions, a lover of numerous women and someone who bravely unveiled and refracted his life on the page. Durrell’s poesy, magisterial in range, contains a great many influences from spiritual philosophy to Elizabethan dramaturges, and enjoys a synergy between fiction and reality: one knows when reading his work that every line has origins in some truth or emotion once felt. Love’s Intensity, one of my favourite poems in this vein, is of simple structure and arrangement but reveals Durrell as a spirited assertor of the soul. It seems to be at once joyous and melancholic: “In all the sad seduction of your ways/I wander as a player tries a part/Seeking a perfect gesture all his days/Roving the wildest margins of his art/I would drink this perfection as a wine/Leash the wild thirst that binds me more than taste/Hoard up the great possession that is mine/Not squander as a drunkard makes his waste/I will be patient if the world be wise/And you be bountiful as you are curt/Until a song awakes those distant eyes/And all your weary gestures cease to hurt.” Another favourite is Return. Here, Durrell reminisces about the past with eloquent intensity: “There is some corner of a lover’s brain/That hold this famous treasure, some dim room/That love has not forgotten, where the sane/Plant of this magic burgeons in the gloom/And pushes out its roots into the mind/Grown rich on the turned soil of days that passed.” Many of Durrell’s love poems are distinguished by a literal view, which is continually merging into the most rapturous or passionately abstract. His divergent voices testify to the endless experiments and the complexity of his poetic expression, to his talent as a modernist, and more importantly to his status as a poet.
Durrell’s multifaceted career and his genre-transforming prose represent the diversity of his contribution to literature. They also point to the fact that he was perhaps one of the first English writers to speak for the post-war generation, chastened and perplexed by a collapse of order and reduced to mindless boredom by decades of chaste parlour prose. Born in India in 1912, the first son of an engineer, Durrell developed his sense of the exotic through his Anglo-Indian upbringing. Yet according to his biographer Ian MacNiven, Durrell also thought of his self-elected lifelong exile as a “psychic burden” and of himself as “the lonely colonial child shadowed by the cosmopolitan writer.” He had a complicated relationship with England, where the family relocated after the premature death of Durrell’s father in 1928. In the early days, Durrell published a few poems between bouts of “drinking and dying”, and in 1935 an acutely autobiographical novel about life in Bloomsbury called Pied Piper of Lovers. That same year Durrell married Myers, the first of his three wives, and moved with his entire family to Corfu, where he wrote his second novel, Panic Spring, published in 1937 under a pseudonym of Charles Norden. His first book of real significance, however, materialised through his correspondence with Miller, who helped him get it published in 1938 by Obelisk Press. Reflecting on that period, Durrell said that The Black Book had a “special importance because in the writing of it I first heard the sound of my own voice.” By 1941, at the outbreak of World War II, Durrell was on his way to Egypt, where he served in Cairo and Alexandria as a British press officer. Exhausted by her husband’s philandering, his avuncular and long-suffering wife left him, making way for Durrell to openly cavort, and eventually marry several other women. It was in Egypt that he began working on the Alexandria Quartet, inspired by the decaying splendour and the seedy café nightlife of the once magnificent city and all its denizens. The Quartet is Durrell’s most remarkable accomplishment, eminently deserving of the Nobel Prize it failed to win. But his poetry is also an achievement of some import, and one which has been overlooked for far too long.
Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles is a book about “the mysteries of childhood” and one which could not have been written by a more appropriate contender as the phrase, in the singular, has frequently been used to describe Cocteau himself. Born on 5th July 1889 in Maisons-Laffitte, Yvelines, a small village a few miles outside Paris, into a wealthy and politically influential family, Cocteau left home at the age of 15. His father, a lawyer and an amateur painter, shot himself in his bed when Cocteau was nine – a tragedy which is thought to have kindled Cocteau’s perfervid fascination with death. Speaking about it at the end of his own life, Cocteau said that his father had killed himself “for reasons that are no longer relevant” even though they continued to plague him. At the age of 19, Cocteau published his first collection of poems, Aladdin’s Lamp. Three years later, another anthology, The Frivolous Prince, followed. Cocteau quickly became a mastodon of the corpuscular literary scene of 1920s Paris, mingling with the likes of Marcel Proust, Andre Gide, Maurice Barrès and Jean Hugo. He wrote more than 50 books in his lifetime, but Les Enfants Terribles remains at the pinnacle of his oeuvre. Penned in just 17 days, the book captures the “legend of eternal youth” and its inevitable tragedies which, as Cocteau says, “bare no relation to one’s preconceived ideas,” because “one is always bewildered by their simplicity”.
The story of Les Enfants Terribles – inspired by a real life tale of a “family closed from societal life” – revolves around a brother and sister who inhabit a world of their own, a fantasy world with its own rules, created to alleviate the monotonous languor of everyday realities. Elisabeth and Paul’s psychological pulsations, partly responsible, for their alienation from the world at large are established early. A mother crippled by some paralytic illness, a woman who “only four months ago had been young and vigorous” but now at the mere age of 35 “longed for death,” a woman who “had been bewitched, spoiled and finally deserted by her husband.” Cocteau illustrates the situation further: “For three years he [the father] had gone on treating his family to occasional brief visits, during the course of which – having meanwhile developed cirrhosis of the liver – he would brandish revolvers, threaten suicide, and order them to nurse the master of the house; for the mistress with whom he lived refused this office and kicked him out whenever his attacks occurred. His custom was to go back to her as soon as he felt better. He turned up one day at home, raged, stamped, took to his bed, found himself unable to get up again, and died; thereby bestowing his end upon the wife he had repudiated. An impulse of rebellion now turned this woman into a mother who neglected her children, took to night clubs, got herself up like a tart, sacked her maid once a week, begged, borrowed indiscriminately,” and finally died.
Right from the outset Les Enfants Terribles emanates an “atmosphere of perpetually impending storm” when Paul gets struck by a “marble-fisted blow” of a snowball, hurled in play by Dargelos, the subject of Paul’s infatuation, which leaves him incapacitated and revelling in the “sweet delights of sickness and perpetual holiday” under his sister’s care. Elisabeth, the “ministering angel” hastily reveals herself to be an enclave of jealousy, malevolence and lust looming over the household like a “Byzantine Empress”. One very quickly realises that the relationship between the siblings is not as straightforward or orthodox as social mores prescribe, and tentatively reels on the verge of incest, their incongruous love never consummated but paramount. Elisabeth is a domineering soubrette, a hurricane to Paul’s harmony, manipulating and conniving in her efforts to keep him all to herself and to comminute anyone who gets in her way. Paul’s quixotic nature paints him as a biddable naïf determinedly under his sister’s spell. The two together, live in “The Room” perpetually playing “The Game” according to unwritten, recherché rules known only to them. The siblings, the “twin seraphs”, curiously united by a familial intimacy verging on romantic love, do not know the meaning of “embarrassment in the presence of each other” and their shared space is “a masterpiece of their own being” in which they live, dress, wash together as if “twin halves of a single body.” Left largely to their own devices, after the death of their mother whom they had treated “with scant consideration, but nevertheless they loved” Elisabeth and Paul entice outside spectators into “The Game”. Gerard and Agathe get whirl-winded into the snare and the love-hate sibling relationship kept under a strict “seal of secrecy”. “The Room”, their room, becomes like a “gypsy camp” and the brother and sister who once “adored” and “devoured each other” begin to drift apart, except Elisabeth refuses to let go until the two of them can meet elsewhere “where flesh dissolves, where soul dissolves, where incest lurks no more.”
Cocteau’s ability to capture the reader’s attention and direct it to the idiosyncrasies and psychological antecedents behind the events in Les Enfants Terribles underlines the book’s intrigue and the writer’s brilliance. But, in his early years, as the epitome of moderne amid 1920s bohemian circles, Cocteau experienced an unexpected but rapid fall from grace and was dismissed as a social chameleon, a crude dilettante and an uncommitted aesthete. He was deemed frivolous for diversifying into poesy, painting and cinema . Andre Breton regarded him with particular animosity and along with his Surrealist companions attempted to sabotage Cocteau’s artistic endeavours. Cocteau himself did some collateral damage too by spreading himself too thinly. It wasn’t merely his poor health, aggravated by decades of opium abuse and subsequent detoxification, it was also the fact that he continuously put himself on the line, at once consumed by the world and consuming others to gain greater acclaim and clout as an artist. Thus, he lived in an eternal state of identity crisis and by his own admission continued to experience anguish and turmoil, from as early as his father’s suicide up to the tragic and premature deaths of his closest male paramours.
Cocteau’s literary undertakings were inexorably influence by his mercurial disposition and unremitting fatalism. They also exhibited his profound leanings toward death, morbidity and violence, engendering many paternal phantoms and references to suicide. This is particularly true of Les Enfants Terribles which also reflects his idealism and captivation with the cult of youth, his need of fantasy at once unnerving and enthralling like the escapist machinations of Paul and Elisabeth. The element of melodrama in Les Enfants Terribles is handled with considerable acuity, and the alluring horror which pervades the ingenuous self-destruction of the siblings is led gloriously to a ripe climax. The book entails copious cross references form William Shakespeare to Lord Byron to Sigmund Freud, all of which coalesce masterfully to make a very poignant point, namely that love is wayward, cruel, uncompromising and in the extreme: fatal.
Walking in the rain, cowering under a decrepit umbrella I inadvertently caught glimpse of A Single Man in the bookshop window. Having previously read the book and recently seen the film I started thinking about the latter’s unfulfilled promise and that perhaps it is impossible to credibly enact heartbreak. Irrespective of this, Colin Firth did a stellar job playing George Falconer, an impeccably well-groomed and dapper 58 year-old English professor, domiciled in Los Angeles, mourning his recently deceased lover, Jim. Christopher Isherwood opens the book with a somewhat unconventional gambit, an evocation of an ethereal atmosphere relayed by some omniscient narrator. “Waking up begins with saying am and now,” he explains, “That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognised I, and there from deduced I am, I am now. Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home.” The voice is resigned and detached, much like the protagonist is from his immediate environment made unfamiliar by the absence of a loved one. Staring at himself in the mirror George renders himself a “live dying creature… a prisoner for life,” with a face frozen in an “expression of a predicament”. And yet despite his grief he follows his infrangible routine, ensuring the crispness of his white shirts, the spotless shine of his bespoke shoes and the immaculately calculated creases in his trousers, for these are all the inane appurtenances that keep him trudging on. That and the memories.
“It was then [during breakfast], while they were drinking their second and third cups of coffee, that they had their best talks,” remembers George, “They talked about everything that came into their heads—including death, of course, and is there survival, and, if so, what exactly is it that survives.” George is overwhelmed by such recollections throughout the book until they prompt him to “damn all life.” And yet he goes on with his daily routine, trapped in a place where convention and otherness coexist in beautifully counterfeit harmony – a pristine Californian suburb, with lovat-green lawns and aureate cardboard housewives – observing the world through his horn-rimmed spectacles in a seemingly removed, sardonic and curious manner. George appears aloof, uninterested and unperturbed yet under the perfectly-turned out exterior he is making arrangements to sever his life, because he is grieving, because he is frustrated with the lack of political rights of “persecuted minorities,” because he belongs to one and like “everyone with an acute criminal complex” he is “hyperconscious” and angry with all the unjust “bylaws, city ordinances, rules and petty regulations.”
A Single Man is semi-autobiographical as was most of Isherwood’s work and charts a very specific period in America, that of the Cuban missile crisis and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The changing social mores are often relayed in a negative light through George’s cynical internal monologues and a feeling of “a sort of vertigo” he experiences whenever he is caught up in the whirl of it all. As a University Professor he feels obligated to support these social and political vicissitudes yet inwardly he despairs. “Oh God, what will become of them all?” he says surveying his students, “What chance have they? Ought I to yell out to them, right now, here, that it’s hopeless?” But George knows he can’t do that, because “absurdly, inadequately, in spite of himself almost, he is a representative of the hope. And the hope is not false. No. It’s just that George is like a man trying to sell a real diamond for a nickel, on the street. The diamond is protected from all but the tiniest few, because the great hurrying majority can never stop to dare to believe that it could conceivably be real.” Still, the pessimistic Professor makes his feelings clear during a lecture to a plenum of gormless, docile, homogenised drones. A single one of whom, Kenny, enthralled by George’s spiel, latches-on to the wizened bard and pursues him in hope of enlightenment. In truth, there is no point to Kenny and his attempts to rescue George are as authentic as his phoney Californian tan.
George is resolute in his decision to end his life. He carefully sets out his funerary attire and places a note by the tie instructing whoever finds his body to tie it in a Windsor knot, forgetting that the remnants of his face will be impossible to piece together after he fires a pistol into his mouth. What follows is a rather exasperating episode of a man attempting to kill himself. Throughout the book George has several, mostly meaningless encounters. One with his student Kenny; another with a nameless stud straight out of a 1960s Levis ad, who murmurs something idiotic about the dreamland that is America; and lastly and most interestingly with a fellow Brit and former lover, Charley. A divorcee with kohl-black eyes, a marzipan complexion, moiré-like flaxen hair spiraling like a pineal nimbus skyward, Charley flitters in her Mary Quant dress like a sad and aging beauty queen. After an extended boozy dinner and an impromptu jig in the backdrop of period-perfect Italian furniture the two lay on the floor reminiscing. While George grieves his recently deceased lover, Charley reflects on a love lost long ago, a love she has harboured for George since their early days back in London. Her plangent disposition and a dram too much gin results in a temerarious attempt to evoke the past. She “kisses him full on the mouth,” as George is leaving andgets rebuffed. “Do women ever stop trying?” George wonders, “No, but because they never stop, they learn to be good losers”.
I remember watching the film and thinking it was style over substance and would have had even less of the latter had it not been for the performance of Firth. I’m not a fan of the man (who could take him seriously after the Bridget Jones franchise?) but he does do that very English air of resignation incredibly well. While he hardly traverses the emotional spectrum to emerge and a method actor, this film is probably one of the best he’s ever done. And yet I doubt there has ever been an English teacher quite as dashing in literature or indeed in life. I remember my own: he sported purple socks, had hirsute ears, halitosis, imbibed great quantities of Irish coffee and was intolerably verbose. Not quite the matinee idol a la Frith. But life is no matinee, with its waters “swarming with hunted anxieties, grimjawed greeds, dartingly vivid intuitions, old crusty-shelled rock-gripping obstinacies, deep-down sparkling undiscovered secrets, ominous protean organisms motioning mysteriously, perhaps warningly, toward the surface light.” I have read, understood and misunderstood a lot of books, have done things on my own, have loved, failed, been afraid and felt lost. But above all, I have hoped, perhaps sometimes subconsciously, that my existence has some intrinsic value. Yet, despite wanting to disagree with Isherwood I can’t when he says one’s life, as one’s body is like “garbage in the container on the back porch” because before too long “both will have to be carted away and disposed of.” That’s the truth of it – the real truth – somewhat different from a matinee but life is never really one of those.