Friday, May 20, 2011

Old Filth for your Friday

I'm currently reading Jane Gardam's Old FIlth (2004), with great pleasure. It's an impressive novel, ranging over the long life of a retired barrister and taking in Raj orphans, contemporary England, lifelong regrets, the difficulties of aging, and more, all assembled through deftly handled episodes, memories, and shifts of perspective--that last technique being used particularly well, as Gardam is continually giving us new tidbits of information about the secrets characters are keeping from one another, and the insights they have (or don't have) into one another's behavior and experience.

The book is also funny, subtly so for the most part, but Gardam does occasionally turn the comedy loose and let it edge toward the ridiculous. The following exchange is a good example. It come early in the life of Old Filth (a barrister who got his name because he supposedly coined the acronym for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong"), when, having been rescued from his brutally inattentive caretakers, he's being bundled off to school for the first time:
A short man jumped out and came jollily to the foot of the garden steps. He was talking.

"--I dare say," he said. "Eddie Feathers, I dare say? Excellent to meet you. I am your new Headmaster and my name is Sir. Always SIr. Understood? The school is small. There are only twenty boys. They call each other by their surnames. I have one assistant, Mr. Smith. He is always called Mr. Smith, my assistant, whatever his real name. Different ones come and go. This Mr. Smith is something of a trial but very good at cricket, which I am not. And so, good morning, Eddie, and these are your sisters, I dare say?"

"C-cou-cousins," came out of Edward's mouth. He liked this man.

"I know nothing of girls," said Sir. "I know everything about boys. I am a very good teacher, Feathers, as your father may remember. By the time you leave my Outfit there is not a bird, butterfly or flower, not a fish or insect of the British Isles you will not recognise. You will also read Latin like a Roman and understand Euclid and Greek."

. . .

"Auntie May," said Auntie May to Sir. "I am Auntie May."

"Ah, the redoubtable Auntie May. You are seeing to the girls, I hear? This would be quite outside my territory. I teach only boys. My establishment is very expensive and very well-known. I am unmarried, as is Mr. Smith, but let me say, for all things good should be noised abroad, that here is absolutely nothing unpleasant going on in my school. We are perfectly clean. There is nothing like that."

"Well, that will be a change for him," said Auntie May. "There's been nothing pleasant here."

"So I understand. Or rather I do not understand for such events are beyond comprehension in a well-run Outfit. There is no corporal punishment in my school. And there is no emotional hysteria. One can only suppose that these things are the result of the mixture of the sexes. I never teach girls."
Perhaps it's simply because I have Charles Portis on the brain lately, but isn't there a hint of the Portisean (Portisian?) solipsistic mania in Sir?

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