You know that disclaimer often put at the beginning of films or novels, ‘The plot and characters in this work are fictional, and any relation to actual people alive or dead is coincidental’? (I saw it the other day at the beginning of a Bollywood film about a camera which can see the future, where I thought it was perhaps superfluous… but if you are at a loose end, check out Aa Dekhen Zara, it’s good fun). Well, perhaps wisely, Chatto & Windus haven’t used that at the beginning of Angelica Garnett’s new book The Unspoken Truth: A Quartet of Bloomsbury Stories. You might recognise her name from her autobiography Deceived with Kindness, over there on my 50 Books You Must Read – as Vanessa Bell’s daughter (and consequently Virginia Woolf’s niece) she has a unique and invaluable viewpoint on the Bloomsbury group – one which sees them all as people as well as icons. 26 years after publishing that autobiography, and over ninety years old, Garnett is back with a book marketed as fiction, but just as clearly based in her experiences growing up.
Which, of course, is no bad thing – Garnett had such a fascinating childhood. We get unexpected glances on the legacy of her parents, throughout all the stories – ‘It may seem strange that, brought up in an eminently intellectual atmosphere, I learned only how to feel and not to think.’ These stories are roughly chronological, covering different sections of Garnett’s life. The first is called ‘When All The Leaves Were Green…’ has Bettina as the heroine, and looks at growing up in a bohemian, artistic household, without any companion of Bettina’s own age. It’s a great depiction of Charleston, through the lens of fiction. I love this first excerpt, which brings across the vivid quality of living amongst those who sought beauty so avidly, and lived so vibrantly. It also shows how this feeling for beauty has found its way into Garnett’s writing style. The second excerpt shows more the confusion and isolation which a young child can feel amongst bohemian adults.
In those years the house and the whole of life was bathed in colour: it mottled or streaked the walls and furniture and sang silent but powerful songs from room to room, space to space. In the morning, the pink and yellow curtains drawn across the window mendaciously promising a fine day even when the sky was water-filled, blowing inwards as the breeze explored the room, momentarily filling it with air, and the colours she knew so well answered each other like a game of ping-pong – they glowed and sizzled and almost shrieked with the pleasure – the black, the Indian red, the peacock blue or yellow ochre. She could never think of the house without them: it was as though they had grown there and when, later, she returned year after year, though imperceptibly faded, they rose again and struck their strange chords like a forgotten musical instrument.
When Nan said something, Bettina knew she meant what she said, and nothing else. It was dull, but there was at least no need to worry that she hadn’t understood. In the world of the drawing room or the studio, however, every word meant at least two things, and the uppermost meaning was the least important. Most things were said as jokes, but there was always a lick at the end like a cat’s tongue, which ruffled the petals inside her, and sometimes jerked something out of her which she wished she hadn’t said.The second story, and easily my favourite, is really a novella, at around 150pp. It is the only one where the story never feels dutifully paced, but flows – again, surely autobiographical, but feels more free than the others. It tells of a shy girl who goes to stay with friends of her parents in France, Gilles and Juliana, in order to perfect her French. We feel her discomfort at joining a family and society she does not know, but also the first flourishes of independence, and a portrait if an outsider’s view of a marriage: Gilles returned from London and our life resumed its previous pattern. I began to note the difference between Gilles and Juliana, his rapier-like decisiveness, her slow deliberation. Both witty and cultured, it was Juliana who occupied the centre of the scene, Gilles the wings. When Juliana was talking seriously she disliked interruption, but Gilles always broke in, fired into disagreement or wishing to qualify her statements. His manner was the opposite of hers – quick and concentrated, intense but rather as though, with each sentence completed, he had finished with it. Juliana, on the contrary, talked as though she were building a tangible structure, and when she paused, you could almost see it sitting on the table. I was going to talk about all four stories, but I’m going on a bit… the third is very short, and the fourth is about a friendship that went a bit sour. That will have to do! I think that ‘Aurore’ is the best reason to buy The Unspoken Truth, to be honest, and the other stories – good though they be – are bonuses to me. The long short-story is perhaps the most difficult length to do well, and the most difficult to find the right concentration for, but ‘Aurore’ is successful. It doesn’t feel like an abridged novel or an extended story, but rather the right content for its length.
As I said at the beginning, The Unspoken Truth is clearly heavily autobiographical – but it isn’t clear where the line is drawn. Anybody reading this book, even if they hadn’t heard of the Bloomsbury Group, would realise it is autobiographical, because the structure so clearly cries it out. So linear, and chronological, with arbitrary incidents introduced and never mentioned again; characters who come in for a paragraph or two, and fade away – all the sort of anecdotes which make sense in an autobiography, but not really in fiction. But somehow this isn’t just another autobiography – given the label ‘fiction’, Garnett flies in a different direction from Deceived with Kindness. Not compelled to give an overview of the famous names she mentions, The Unspoken Truth has richer writing, more introspection, a greater use of imagery. It’s not always wholly successful, and where it lags it doesn’t have the excuse that an autobiography does, its chronicling responsibility – but for the most part, these stories are quietly beautiful, and add another new dimension to an understanding of Garnett’s extraordinary family.