The Pumpkin Eater – Penelope Mortimer

Sorry to disappear suddenly – I went off to Somerset for an Easter weekend (the most dramatic moment: Sherpa getting stuck on the roof; eventually I pulled her through the bathroom window, with Our Vicar on a ladder and Our Vicar’s Wife & Colin holding a tarpaulin like a firefighters’ blanket).  Now I’m back in Oxford, and eyeing up the growing pile of books I’ve got waiting to review for you.  First up – one of those pesky Penelopes.

I had intended to read Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, as part of my vague project to read more of my unread Persephones, but it clashed with another title on my Century of Books – so instead I picked up The Pumpkin Eater (1962) in this beautiful NYRB Classics edition.  But, oh, aren’t they always beautiful?

I thought the image on the front was simply abstract, until I realised that it was a pram full of faces – Downhill in a Pram by Susan Bower, to be precise.  And that is apt for the recurring theme of The Pumpkin Eater (and possibly my favourite thing about the book) – the number of children the unnamed narrator has.  Cleverly, Mortimer gives us a heroine who has a lot of children – but by never specifying quite how many, we get the impression that they are numbered in their dozens.  People are always shocked by how many there are; her various husbands (she’s not short of them, but at least the number is given: four) baulk at them, and only one name is vouchsafed to us: Dinah.

The novel starts with the narrator in a therapy session.  These recur throughout the novel, and are very amusing (in a dark way), mostly because of the lack of progress that is made in them.  The therapist follows the narrator around in circles, expecting her to feel something about her husbands and children – but she is steadfastly stony-faced.

“And then?” he asked coldly.

“Then?  Well, then I married the Major, but since he was going overseas we went back to live with my parents.  I had Dinah there.  Of course he was dead by then.”

“And did that upset you?”

“Yes.  Yes, I suppose it did.  Naturally.  It must have done.”

He slumped in his chair.  He seemed tired out.  I said, “Look, need we go on with this?  I find it tremendously boring, and it’s not what I’m thinking about at all.  I just don’t think about those husbands except…”

“Except when?”

“I never think about them.”
She has something of a Barbara Comyns heroine about her – that undaunted matter-of-factness – but Mortimer does reveal some of her emotional fragility as the novel progresses, and Jake the current husband is knocked from whatever pedestal her might have briefly mounted.  “One’s past grows to a point where it is longer than one’s future, and then it can become too great a burden,” as she says in the narrative, towards the end.

And then there is the enormous glass tower Jack is building for them in the middle of the countryside.  It’s a curious part of the novel, and I don’t know how we are supposed to interpret it – as Freud would? As Ibsen would in The Master Builder? Or is a tower sometimes just a tower?

But, as with many of my favourite novels, the important feature is voice.  Mortimer does this brilliantly.  We are immersed in the worldview and experience of the unnamed narrator, even without for a moment believing that she could plausibly exist in the way she is presented.  Her upsets and anxieties are certainly real, but the character is more than that – the centrepiece of a black comedy with only a toe in reality.  And, designed that way, it is a glorious novel.

A Couple of Capuchins

Well, hasn’t it heated up? Anything above polar leaves me manically fanning myself and drinking gallons of water, so I welcome the cool evenings. My computer is also heating me up, in as much as it is slower than me in a marathon at the moment… if you’re reading this post, then the unlikely has occurred, and I have battled my way to posting it….!

I’ve had a little pile of Capuchin Classics to review for a while (click here for an interview that Emma, who runs Capuchin, did for Stuck-in-a-Book). First two out of the starting blocks are The Green Hat by Michael Arlen, and An Error of Judgement by Pamela Hansford Johnson…

The Green Hat first. I hadn’t heard of 1920s vogue novelist Michael Arlen (real name Dikran Konyoumdjian) but was swept in by the opening sentence: “What kind of hat was it?” And, more importantly, whom the wearer. In this Green Hat, Iris Storm makes her entrance – watched by the novel’s narrator – as she visits the recalcitrant Gerald March. What a simple way this novel begins, and yet what a whirl it takes one through – from simple domestic beginnings, we are whisked off over the country, through Europe, through philosophy about marriage; pondering on purity; the drama of near-death illness and the wit of the self-reflective. It’s impossible to describe succinctly the plot of The Green Hat, so I shall instead try to tempt you with its style. It’s the sort of novel we are assured that the 1920s are full of, and yet which I have never before read. It is the sort of novel which demonstrates how wrong those ‘writing experts’ are when they say never to use a metaphor where the truth will suffice; never to use five words where three will do, and preferably cut the whole chapter. Arlen luxuriates in his loquacity, and would not be ashamed to say so in words of comparable length.

There are sparks of humour, hyperbolic quips, which make you think he is of the Wodehouse school – then, twisted with a sardonic aftertaste, which brings Wilde instead to mind – and finally he will take the line into an entirely unexpected emotion or thought, which leaves you certain that this could only be described as ‘Arlen’. It is brilliant, and only occasionally wearying – like reading witty treacle.

Of course, all that warrants an example, and I can find nothing to fit – but I noted down this:

‘I said to the taxi-driver: “Hell can know no torment like the agony of an innocent in a cage,” and when he had carefully examined his tip he agreed with me.’

The characters are studies in fashionable absurdity; sincere caricatures. Arlen introduces these figures in a dramatic and unique manner – for example:

Hilary was a man who had convinced himself and everyone else that he had neither use nor time for the flibberty-gibberties of life. He collected postage-stamps and had sat as Liberal Member for an Essex constituency for fifteen years. To be a Liberal was against every one of his prejudices, but to be a Conservative was against all his convictions. He thought of democracy as a drain-pipe through which the world must crawl for its health. He did not think the health of the world would ever be good. When travelling he looked porters sternly in the face and over-tipped them. His eyes were grey and gentle, and they were suspicious of being amused. I think that Hilary treasured a belief that his eyes were cold and ironic, as also that his face was of a stern cast. His face was long, and the features somehow muddled. It was a kind face.

Some will say this is all show, and it probably is. People say true art conceals art, but the 1920s disagree – for a lavish, luxurious, and often hilarious read, but one which holds the emotional and painful experience of Iris, a character with depth behind the decadence – you can do little better than The Green Hat.

Onto An Error of Judgement. Pamela Hansford Johnson is one of those names which has been skirting around my consciousness forever, though never enough to actively seek out one of her novels. Written in 1962, An Error of Judgement is an odd mixture – on one hand it is a slanted comedy of manners, a depiction of an ailing marriage – but at the centre of the novel is a gruesome and senseless murder (described, thankfully, in a brief manner). The narrator, Victor, has a fairly average marriage to Jenny – as the novel opens, he has been to see a Harley Street doctor, Setter, and discovered that nothing is wrong with him: he imagines returning with this news – ‘I saw Jenny running toward me, her face alight with hope and fear. I saw her transformed into Maenad joy when she heard my good news, clutching at me, clawing at me, in the force of her delight nealy spilling us on the linoleum.’ In actuality:…

I put my key in the lock. Jenny came walking towards me.
“Darling,” I cried, “I’m all right! I’m all right!”
“I never thought you were anything else,” she said, replacing my constant image of her by the equally constant reality, “And what did all that cost us?”

Alongside the dynamics of this middle-class relationship, Setter is quite a grotesque character. He confesses to becoming a doctor because of his love of pain – both preventing and inflicting it. The latter temptation he scrupulously avoids, but thinks he might have found justification when a macabre murder takes place, and he believes he knows who did it.

These two strands work alongside each other, in a portrait of moral decisions and human foibles. Varying in scale, they are nonetheless compatible storylines – though perhaps neither are dealt with quite satisfactorily. I finished the novel uncertain what Pamela Hansford Johnson had been trying to achieve, or whether or not it had been achieved. Certainly a thinker, as they say.

Well, this post has taken longer than I’d have thought humanly possible, and my laptop has made every effort to prevent it… so I shall take myself to bed.