True Filth

Old Filth by Jane Gardam.  Europa Editions.  290 pp.  $15.00.

I wish I could put into words what is so great about Old Filth, which I impulsively bought because I’d read a brief review somewhere.  (That provocative second word in the title is an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong.)  The style is impeccable, never a word too many.  The narrative ranges in time through its protagonist’s whole life, shuttling from early childhood to the day of his death, but there is never a moment’s confusion about where you are, even if you’re not sure why the author keeps shuttling around.

Because she can, is probably the short reason, but I think the larger reason is that there is something so sad in this man’s childhood that, if we read the story chronologically, it would be too much.  As it is, we see the well-adjusted and famously successful man before the dreadful things that happened when he was young.  We don’t see the most dreadful until almost the end.

The book is dedicated “To Raj Orphans/and their parents,” and that term was new to me, though I’ve read the brilliant Raj Quartet.  It refers to children whose parents worked in the Foreign Service and sent their children back to England to be educated by relatives or strangers.  Old Filth—also known as Sir Edward Feathers—grew up in Malaysia—the country he knew as Malaya—until the age of four, then was sent, along with two of his girl cousins, to be cared for by a couple of aunts, who completely abrogated their responsibility and put them in the care of a dreadfully abusive foster mother.  In Filth’s mind, Malaya was the paradise of his youth, because his father—who apparently suffered from shell shock—abandoned him to the care of local women, who treated him as one of their own.  That sensual and loving time was the paradise he lost when he traveled to England.

I’ve often wondered at the strange child rearing practices of the upper classes in Great Britain.  The idea, apparently, was to see that the young people could get along on their own, but the price they paid emotionally was huge.  Filth in particular, though he and his wife had a “happy” marriage, was always careful to keep things within bounds.  They kept separate rooms and separate beds.  He couldn’t bear the thought of having children because his own childhood had been such a nightmare.  He apparently didn’t even know that his wife had wanted them: the subject didn’t come up, or if it did he wasn’t listening.  And if his wife sought affection elsewhere, he so much didn’t want to know that he actually didn’t.  He ignored the evidence right in front of him.

The Filth of the present moment is an eighty year old man who is nothing short of legendary for his work as a lawyer in Southeast Asia and a judge at the English bar.  We see virtually nothing about his actual work, only the awed respect of people who know his reputation.  In the novel’s present moment he is retired, living in a little country place with his wife, then she dies, and he is cast adrift.

Essentially this is the story of an eighty year old man who is set out on his own to come to terms with some wonderfully vivid figures from his past: his cousin Babs, who has became a crazy old music teacher, in love with a twelve year old student; his cousin Claire, who had made a good life for herself but had always had a thing for her cousin Eddie (the young filth); the Ingoldby family who took him in at school vacations and whose son was his best friend; their cousin Isobel Ingoldby, who seemed so mysterious when she was young and gave Filth the most spectacular sexual experience of his life; most of all the wonderful grade school teacher known only as Sir, who accepted all his students just as they were, ran a school where they looked after each other and learned from each other.  If such a place existed, it was a marvel.  I wish I could quote everything Sir ever said, but can’t resist his final words to his prize pupil.

“Present us with a silver cup for something when you’re a filthy rich lawyer, I dare say?  Yes.  You’ll be a lawyer.  Magnificent memory.  Sense of logic, no imagination and no brains.  My favorite chap, Teddy Feathers, as a matter of fact, I dare say. . . .

“Don’t go near Wales.  And keep off girls for a while.  Soon as girls arrive exam results go down.  Passion leads to a lower second.  Goodbye, old Feathers.  On with the dance.”

I’m most impressed by the skill of Jane Gardam, a writer whom I’m ashamed to admit I’d never heard of.  She began as a journalist then took time to raise three children before she set out on her career as a writer in her forties.  She’s won prizes for both short stories and novels, has continued to work into her eighties.  The felicities of style in this book, its effortless rearrangement of chronology, its vivid and memorable characters, its ability to include horrific details without wallowing in them or skimming over them, nevertheless making us see them, are all most impressive.  The best news is that it’s the first volume of a trilogy.  I’ll be reading more.