If you read my recent appearance on Danielle’s blog, taking you on a tour around my bookshelves, you might have noticed this picture:
Being observant people, you will have spotted all sorts of things. Half the Queen’s head, on my breakfast tea mug, perhaps. David’s eye (David being the teddy bear), maybe? A little bit of Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, if you’re very astute. But what you won’t have missed is that book slap-bang in the front of the photo – one which scarcely seems to accord with my reading tastes. It was, in case you hadn’t guessed, a choice for my book group.
Could there be a less promising cover? A louche man in a trench coat; a cover design which combines the worst excesses of ClipArt with the block capitals of a child learning to write; worst of all, the tagline (which mercifully you wouldn’t have been able to read on Dani’s post): ‘The famous novel of the drivingly ambitious, sexually ruthless Joe Lampton, hero of our time.’
It sounds absolutely ghastly, doesn’t it?
It’s fair to say, dear reader, that I approached Room at the Top with some trepidation. Yes, it was given to me (so it’s on the Reading Presently list) but by a man who, inexplicably, had about two dozen copies in his garage, and I don’t think had read it.
But – but – as with A Confederacy of Dunces, another book group choice, I misjudged it. Although Room at the Top isn’t in the same league as John Kennedy Toole’s superb novel, every moment of which I relished, it’s certainly much, much better than I’d dreaded from the cover, tagline, blurb…
I think Room at the Top compares interestingly with Francoise Sagan’s Sunlight on Cold Water, which I savaged recently. Both novels are about men sleeping with various women, falling in and out of love at the drop of a hat, and trying to discover their futures – but somehow Braine’s was engaging, while Sagan’s was an overly-introspective bore. If I were to describe the plot of Room at the Top in detail, I really don’t think it would appeal to many of my readers. A recently demobilised soldier works his way through fairly menial financial jobs, feeling bitter about the rich and lustful about their daughters. He falls in love; he falls out of it. He seeks parent-replacements. And he has a fair bit of sex.
So why did I like it?
Basically because John Braine can write well. He’s in that school of writing which I always think of as the Orwell-school, simply because he was the first author I read from that stable. The similarities aren’t in topic or genre, but in the use of language. Orwell has a prose style that is somehow both beautiful and plain. Sentence by sentence, it seems serviceable, even a little utilitarian, but it builds up into a richness which is hard to pinpoint. At its best, every word is just right – without the elaborate tapestry of a Woolf or even an Elizabeth Taylor, or the entrenched humour of a von Arnim or Austen. Of course, the only excerpt I noted down is rather more ornamental than most of Room at the Top, but… well, here it is. Lampton is visiting the bombed-out house where he and his parents had lived:
I stepped forward into the bareness which had been the living-room. I was sure about the cream valance, the red velvet curtains, the big photograph of myself as a child which had hung over the mantelshelf; but I couldn’t be quite certain about the location of the oak dining-table. I closed my eyes for a moment and it came into focus by the far wall with three Windsor chairs round it. […]
The walls had been decorated half in fawn and orange paper and half in imitation oak panelling. The paper was reduced to a few shreds now, the imitation oak panelling was pulped with dust and smoke and weather. There had been a pattern of raised beads; I struck a match and held it close to the wall and I could still see some of the little marks where as a child I’d picked the beads off with my fingernails. I felt a sharp guilt at the memory; the house should have been inviolate from minor indignities.
My predominant impression is that John Braine was too good a writer to write this sort of book. He was one of the Angry Young Men, but the anger in Room at the Top feels rather tepid – and as though it has been put on for show, trying to join in with the big boys. Lampton rails against the corporate system for a bit, and talks about ‘zombies’ in all areas of life – people from his despondent hometown who hopelessly go through the motions of living. But I never really felt that his heart was in it. What Braine chiefly wants to do, it feels, is write a good novel – regardless of the topic or the didactic rage of Angry Young Men. Well, this was his first – I have no idea how his other novels turned out. Perhaps he took the unassuming beauty of his prose and turned it to topics I’d find more palatable. Perhaps not. Either way, Room at the Top was a very pleasant surprise.