Saturday, November 21, 2009

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

I'm happy to have stumbled across Jane Gardam's work. Her writing is the kind that never fails to keep me engaged and is the hardest, I think, to accomplish. Gardam novels boast character development that is substantial but not heavy-handed, deep feeling that never turns saccharine, awareness of the extraordinary details of ordinary life, and just the right amount of sardonic British humor.

Old Filth (an acronymic nickname for "Failed in London, try Hong Kong") is a retired solicitor who has lived most of his life in Hong Kong with his wife, Betty, and has returned to England to spend his golden years. This is the story of a man's life, but Gardam only tells us the beginning and end. She alternates chapters between Filth's childhood in British-controlled Malaysia as a "Raj Orphan," modeled after Rudyard Kipling semi-autobiographical short story "Baa Baa Black Sheep, and his current state as an 80 year-old widower (Betty dies suddenly while gardening).

But Old Filth is really a story of a man's learning to love. Filth's mother died in childbirth and his father is mad. After being sent "Home" (an ironic term, since Filth has no real home anywhere) to avoid tropical disease, the boy is tossed among relatives and guardians who are at best distant, absorbed in their own troubles, and at worst abusive. "All my life...I have been left, or dumped, or separated by death from everyone I loved or who cared for me." Filth makes one emotional connection with a school friend, Patrick Ingoldsby. He falls in love with all the Ingoldsbys and is devastated when he realizes that he can never truly be part of the family, or any family for that matter. After Pat dies in World War II, Filth keeps everyone around him at a distance, even his wife. He and Betty sleep in separate bedrooms, since double beds are "for the bourgeoisie," he abhors the idea of having children, and he refuses to even recall his own maid's name, despite the years she has worked for him. Filth, as Gardam portrays him, is an extremely lonely man who cannot, or is loath to, connect with his fellow human beings.

Filth is a dynamic character, but Gardam keeps his transformation believable. Whether because his wife's death exacerbates his loneliness or reminds him of his own mortality and need to touch the world before he leaves it, Filth does begin to reach out slightly by the novel's end. But these gestures are subtle, never out of sync with the graceful balance of emotions Gardam has constructed here. Filth remembers his maid's name. He visits his neighbor for weekly chess games. He becomes less cantankerous, but 80 years of emotional lameness cannot be cured in an instant, and Gardam doesn't try to fool us that it can.

Which is why her twist ending is grossly out of place in this otherwise beautifully nuanced work. I won't divulge any secrets for those who wish to read the book themselves. I'll only comment that Gardam mars an excellent piece of fiction with the kind of lurid plot details that characterize ten-cent drugstore novels. It's an unnecessary addition and an unwelcome one, but I won't let it ruin my deep appreciation for what remains a captivating and touching read.

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