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old filth

14 june 2012

Old Filth is a very conventional English novel told in postmodernist narrative. Though I suppose that's a sort of pleonasm: postmodernism depends for its existence on a keen sense of convention. The Raj story, the old dears pottering around story, the marriage with more than meets the eye story, and the story of a great success with a blasted childhood behind him: it's like Kipling or Orwell meet Mapp & Lucia meets "The Dead" meets Citizen Kane, with bits of Penelope Fitzgerald and The King's Speech thrown in for good measure. (And if you object that a 2004 novel can't have incorporated a 2010 film, well, that's postmodernism too :) And all at once, in story-lines and streams of consciousness that interweave and suddenly switch places à la Tom Stoppard.

And for all that, it's a very straightforward story. It's a man's life, from start to finish, with all the characters he's encountered, and all his regrets: I watched Jim Broadbent do something similar in Any Human Heart on TV recently, with less wit and less narrative energy. Jane Gardam's prose is spare, and her technique of winding together strands of memory very skillful. One of the best exchanges of dialogue consists of the protagonist Teddy Feathers (not yet Old Filth) talking at cross purposes with a commanding officer during the second World War, managing to needle his superior while never quite saying anything actually insubordinate. It's a lovely passage of dialogue, especially for revealing the verbal ingenuity of Feathers.

Teddy grows up to become Sir Edward, "Old Filth" (not an allusion to any personal dirt; he's nicknamed after the mot Failed In London Try Hongkong). He is supposed to be a brilliant lawyer, though we never see that brilliance (hence the even greater effectiveness of having him sometimes, and quite ingenuously, reveal that verbal brilliance in ordinary conversation). The story stretches almost 90 years, from his birth in Malaya to his "Raj orphanhood" in Wales, his schooldays, and his retirement to Dorset. The timelines intersect, cross, and sometimes merge, as I've noted, and the reader gets pulled along alternately by the appeal of wanting to know what will happen in one timeline as Gardam drops it to pick up another.

Filth has appeared again in Gardam's story collection The People on Privilege Hill, and in a novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which appears to be not so much a sequel as the same story from a different perspective. It's the bane of my reading life that I keep getting a little peek into one elaborate fictional world after another, and have to keep moving along for want of time and patience. But Old Filth alone is well worth the peek.

Gardam, Jane. Old Filth. London: Chatto & Windus, 2004.