Saturday, June 16, 2007
As any reader of these pages will attest, I have always loved books on childhood, adolescence and growing up. We human beings are so like onions in a way, if you will excuse the rather obvious and much used simile. Why? Well, within the human being who is say 75 years old there are many layers – at the centre the mewling child (Shakespeare), and then, added on layer by layer we get the toddler, the young boy or girl, the adolescent, the young adult, the middle-aged man or woman and finally the elderly person. Some of us may be aware of the PAC concept of personality of Transactional Analysis, founded by the late great Dr. Eric Berne. (PAC is an acronym for Parent, Adult, and Child, which he sees as three major aspects of every human being.) So to study our growth and certainly the various crises, minor and major, and even any traumas that may have occurred during childhood is rich and rewarding personal work.
In this post I wish to continue reviewing some books I have read over the years on growing up. The books I have read in this area are (i) The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, (ii) Portofino by Frank Schaeffer, (iii) The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman by Bruce Robinson and (iv) The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini which I reviewed in a previous blog entry entitled “Childhood Three.” Immediately here I wish to treat of The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman by Bruce Robinson.
I came upon this marvellous first novel by Bruce Robinson by sheer chance as I was browsing the shelves of Books Unlimited, my local bookstore here in Coolock, Dublin. It was not so much the title, though that was strange indeed, that caught my eye but rather the very striking cover. The cover is a marvellous picture of a wide-eyed, almost-startled but fully-bemused little boy. It is a riveting picture and would draw anyone’s attention. I did not have to read much from this book to realise that it would be good, and very good at that. This wonderful little book is a marvellous read and covers such diverse issues as growing up, coming of age, the relationship between a young boy and his grandfather, life and death and dying, sex and hate, dog’s meat, shit, pornography, enemas, everything about digestion and excretion, Morse code, puberty, secrets, God and Religion and much more. But mostly it deals with love - that much abused word and the much abused reality it signifies. In sum, it describes a dysfunctional family in 1950s England.
I remember Patrick Kavanagh saying somewhere that life is more tragi-comedy that it is either tragedy or comedy. There is much tragedy in this book, but it is shot through from beginning to end with masterful comedy. One runs the whole gamut of emotions reading it – one cries and laughs by turns. This is also a disturbing book, and we need such books to knock us out of own self-righteousness and complacency by times. It is grotesque in places with dog shit all over the place, not to mention Thomas’s own propensity to soil himself at school. It is good to remember that this first novel is the work of a screenwriter and director who was nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay of The Killing Fields and that he has also written and directed many other films, most notably Withnail and I.
Thomas's father and mother are separated and they wage silent war throughout this brilliant little novel. His grandfather pores over pornography in his attic room and keeps it all under lock and key in filing cabinets. A marvellously rich and moving relationship develops between this young boy entering adolescence and his grandfather who is dying of cancer. One can almost smell the shit and the cancer in this book the writing is so good. I suppose a dramatist and screenwriter would have such a marvellously dramatic way with words.
The old man tells the young boy about his experiences of war and about his first love affair and what life was like for him as a young boy growing up. He tells Thomas about his experiences of making love. Clearly the boy worships his unusual and dying grandfather. We are invited to live with Thomas as he grows older through his adolescent confusion, as he learns to smoke and as he daydreams about his sweetheart, Gwen. We also get a sense of a pre-divorce, old-fashioned, sad and claustrophobic England throughout the book. Who said Ireland was the only claustrophobic country on the planet in the pre 1960 years?
I got this sense from reading the book:- that it is a well-written pacey book which flows quickly like good conversation. In other words the style is that of the stage or of a good drama. The author cuts from scene to scene like a brilliant director keeping us captivated by the images he creates in words for us to see. One reviewer succinctly pointed out that for Robinson the whole task of writing whether it be for stage, cinema or novel is simply to tell a story and tell it well. On this latter point I will be discussing a marvellous book on stories by our very own brilliant Irish philosophy Professor – i.e., Richard Kearney in later posts. The famous Northern Ireland comedian Frank Carson had a catch-phrase: “It’s the way I tell ‘em!” And for Bruce Robinson “it is the way he tells it” that counts.
Let’s have a taste, then, of Robinson’s sweet writing. Here, the boy and grandfather are walking on the beach and the older man has just given the growing boy his flask of alcohol to drink from. Before this the grandfather had been teasing young Tom about his first love Gwen:
“He popped the cork of his VP bottle and took another hit. Handed it to Thomas and this time he didn’t refuse. It tasted divine, hot and fantastic. It tasted of the moment, and this was the best moment of his life. He soared like a giant in the air, drunk on love and red sherry. The sky split again, the sea was silver and gold again, it was heaven, and Thomas was in love with its nearest angel…” (99-100)
Then there is a lot about granddad’s memory of the First World War and not a little about the slaughter of innocent horses, a thing that always obsessed and disturbed me. Robinson writes brilliantly and sympathetically about this:
“There were tanks and horses, Walter told him about the horses, sometimes as many as six, heaving in their traces, dragging eight-inch howitzers through the mud. English horses fighting German horses with no particular difference of opinion, but dying just the same.” (103)
Later we have this marvellously evocative writing:
“The explosion took the head off the horse in front, and behind the white horse was screaming blind, blood hosing out of its nostrils, its face like shattered crockery. A boy from Bow, east London, died instantly: a sergeant in the Scots Infantry died too. And Walter stood there looking at it all, horses dragging dying horses, and the sky full of burning earth. Even as the shrapnel went in he’d been hungry; the passage of the metal through his stomach felt like nothing more than a sudden increase in appetite, not really pain, just sudden hunger accelerating into unconsciousness. And as he fell, in that same piece of a second, shrapnel from the same shell hit him in the head.” (p. 105)
This writing is so potent I feel that I’m getting drunk on it. This passage continues on and leaves us mesmerized, because in it we have the experience of death linked with Walter’s first experience of making love. I wonder did Robinson have that famous French description of orgasm as “le petit mort” in mind as he continues to write this account?:
“And then he was in brilliant sunlight, walking again across the same dusty square in the village east of Passchendaele. She was fifteen with corn-blonde hair that smelt of bacon and apples, and she was pretty as flowers. He knew he was in a dream, and the dream was her laughter in a plait of burning stars and a language he couldn’t understand. ‘Je t’aime.’ Before he left to go up the line he took her a bunch of Michaelmas daisies wrapped in newspaper. They made love at the edge of a wood in a drift of bluebells. It was the first love for both of them, and he knew she was the love of his life. (p. 106)
This is a fine and beautiful novel written in a fine and well-tuned style. It evokes appropriate emotions in the reader and leads from the heights of joy to the depths of despair and back again. Its lucid and potent style is spell-binding and will have the reader crying and laughing by turns. It is a profound and disturbing little book, simple and complex at one and the same time, funny and sad, light and heavy, wise and witty and above all compassionate. The samples of writing style given above are a drop in the formidable ocean of description within the covers of this fine and beautiful novel. His grandfather had left young Tom a message in Morse code which read “Love is the only truth, Tom. I love you.” Robinson continues, “Thomas stood for a long time in the silent workshop, relishing sweet tears. Walter loved him and never let him down. He could feel the love of the old man, and felt more loved than he ever had in his life.” (277) Ten out of ten on all counts.
The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman is a Bloomsbury Paperback, first published 1998.
I have pasted in a picture of the book cover above. Is it not a wonderful photograph? Unfortunately, I can find no credits to either the photographer or the boy in question anywhere on the inside or on the outside the book.