Saturday, May 15, 2010

Memory and Desire

Old Filth 
by Jane Gardam

Memory, he thought. Memory. My memory has always been so reliable. Perhaps too reliable. It has never spared me. Memory and desire, he thought. Who said that? Without memory and desire life is pointless? I long ago lost any sort of desire. Now memory. (Old Filth, p 257)

In the opening scene of the novel we are introduced to an empty chair at a luncheon in the Inner Temple of Barristers. It is the chair once filled by Eddie Feathers, better known as"Old Filth". As a boy he was separated from his parents by death and distance. As a man he was known by his success as a barrister in Hong Kong, thus the nickname "Old Filth" (FILTH being an acronym for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong."). But what of this man who had recently left his peers and his life so materially rewarded by his success? Jane Gardam's novel, Old Filth, tells his story through the memories of a man at the end of his life, a man whose desire has faded as his body has withered. Some moments in the story enchanted this reader such as when Eddie goes off to grammar school a stutterer and is cured by the headmaster, "Sir", who provides a model for Eddie's future education. He also meets the first of the friends that would mean much to his life and his success. While his early friend Ingoldby (what an unusual name, perhaps in memory of the author & poet of the same?) would not survive the war, the Ingoldby family would provide Eddie with the family he did not have as a youth, its characters playing a prominent role in the story. Later friends, notably Albert Loss ( Albert Ross of the Coleridge poem) also are important in ways that are not evident upon their first appearance.
It is the way that Jane Gardam intertwined the memories of Eddie Feathers into a coherent whole that impressed me. Her ability to demonstrate his life and memories of it through the structure of the story, along with her fine writing style, made this a very good read and an excellent novel. It is not a perfect novel and I wondered at the seeming lack of passion of Eddie Feathers in spite of his youthful desire. He seemed to be a man who built his life out of reactions to events, with enough luck and desire along the way to make quite an impact on his friends and his peers. Near the end of the novel he reproves himself, "Life ends. You're tired of it anyway. No memory. No desire. Yet you don't want it to be over. Not quite yet."(p 258-9)
This is a sign of his fading life, but there is a stronger omen in the penultimate scene of the novel as he returns to Hong Kong, perhaps for the last time, when,

"The black night shuddered all around the plane. When he next woke there was a pencilled line of gold drawn round each oval blind.
Dawn already.
"We are in tomorrow," said the girl. "It's the sunrise. A happy New Year."(p 286)

We do not see him waking again, but look back fondly on the story of his life with admiration for the goodness of his memories and desires. This alone made the book a pleasure to read.

Old Filth by Jane Gardam. Europa Editions, New York. 2009 (2004).

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