D. J. Taylor’s Books Reissued As E-Books & Musings on Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage

Back in print as an e-book.

Back in print !

D. J. Taylor, a brilliant novelist, biographer, and critic, is one of my favorite writers. His historical novel, Derby Day, was nominated in 2011 for the Man Booker Prize, his biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Award in 2003, and his elegant counterfactual novel, The Windsor Faction, won the Sidewise Award for Best Long-Form Alternate History in 2014.

Orwell by d. J. taylor {8EFA7CA0-FADC-4538-A57A-2DE04BA35866}Img400But you all know that. I have written about it before.   Anyway, here is an announcement:  several of his books have  been  reissued as e-books by Open Road Media.  The three aforementioned are available, as are  several of his earlier books, including the novels Real Life, English Settlement, Great Eastern Land, The Comedy Man,  and Trespass; a biography of Thackeray; and a collection of stories, After Bathing at Baxter’s.

I have yet to read his early books, but I did like his 1999 novel, Trespass, which pays homage to H. G. Wells’s delightful satire, Tono-Bungay.  Tono-Bungay, invented by the hero’s uncle, is a harmless concoction sold as a  pep drink through brilliant advertising.  (I wrote about Wells’ book at my old blog.)  Taylor nods to the brilliance of Wells in his comical story of the rise and fall of George Chell, whose life has been nomadic since his eccentric entrepreneur uncle was ruined by a financial crash six years ago. As he muses on his uncle’s past, he also analyzes his own rise from working-class Norwich to the City in London to the financial crash. The past and present chapters alternate, usually with a Q&A chapter between.”

And, by the way, Taylor’s new collection of short stories, Wrote for Luck,  was  published last winter by Beggar Galley Press, a small press in the UK.  It is not available in the U.S., but you can find  used copies on the internet.

Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage.  Years ago an archaeologist friend recommended Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold, a novel whose heroine, Frances Wingate, is an archaeologist. This became one of my favorite books, and when I reread it nowadays, Frances reminds me slightly of the classicist  Mary Beard.

I have read  Drabble’s books multiple times.  Not, however, her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage, which was published in 1962. summer bird-cage margaret drabble db977f612f2e6c4597777305751444341587343When I went back to it recently, I had mixed feelings.  Much of it is delightful, but it is also a bit dated.

It is a strange little comedy.  Sarah, the witty, thoughtful narrator, has been teaching English conversation in Paris. She is going home for her older sister Louise’s wedding. She doesn’t like Louise, who is beautiful, snobbish, moody, and often unkind.  Yet Sarah, who has recently graduated from Oxford,  has had enough of Paris, and doesn’t know what to do next.

Sarah’s voice is charming and comical.

I hadn’t really been doing anything in Paris.  I had gone there immediately after coming home from Oxford with a lovely, shiny, useless new degree, in a faute-de-mieux middle-class way, to fill in time.  To fill in time till what?  What indeed?  It was quite pleasant, teaching those birdy girls, but it wasn’t serious enough for me.  It didn’t get me anywhere.

I read this in graduate school, and we all chortled over it.  Would we ever have jobs? We found Drabble hilarious.  But one of my friends, who was going on for a Ph.D., thought A Summer Bird-Cage was anti-feminist.

I wouldn’t go that far, but today Sarah’s scorn of “academic women” seems a little jarring.

When her roommate says parties are tiresome, Sarah thinks,

As she said that, I suddenly glimpsed in her the traditional university woman, badly dressed, censorious, and chaotic.  I didn’t like what I saw…

Oh, dear.  I do know what she means.  I used to think my women professors were hired because of their eccentricities and lack of style. I long ago repented of that view, but perhaps this is simply how the young think.

A Summer Bird-Cage Margaret Drabble 41xhpFHPI0L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_I still find Sarah’s lack of direction vaguely charming, because women’s personal lives are often more important than their  jobs.  But the novel is not just about Sarah’s youthful squandering of time.  It is also about  her love-hate relationship with her doppelganger, Louise, who is fashionable, brilliant, and beautiful, but really quite disagreeable.  Louise snubs her guests, and when Sarah points out that Louise is wearing a dirty bra under her wedding gown, she doesn’t care. She goes off joylessly to Italy with her unlikable, but very rich, writer husband.  Her reasons for marrying him?  You’ll find out.  She is blatantly having an affair with his best friend, an actor.

Meanwhile, Sarah moves to London with Gill, an artist friend, and gets a job at the BBC.  The job means nothing to her:  she is more interested in parties.  She is observant and witty and vaguely looks forward to marrying her old boyfriend, who is at Harvard.  She doesn’t know quite else what to do.

But we finally learn that Sarah isn’t without direction:  she hopes one day to write a novel as funny as Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.  And we know Drabble succeeds.

In general I prefer Drabble’s later novels, but if you want to read a great ’60s comedy, try Drabble’s third novel, The Millstone, which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. The  scholarly heroine, Rosamund, approves of the sexual revolution, but she hasn’t yet experienced it personally. When she takes a break from her academic research to lose her virginity, she has the bad luck to get pregnant.  She decides to raise the baby on her ow,.  This slight book is comical, moving, and beautifully written.

D. J. Taylor’s Trespass

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor, an English writer, is very popular with American critics.

He was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize for his 2011 novel, Derby Day.  He also won the 2003 Whitbread Biography Award for his biography of George Orwell.

I just finished Taylor’s brilliant 1999 novel, Trespass, which is set in the 1950s through the ’70s, and tells the story of the rise and fall of George Chell, the hero and narrator.

Or is he the hero?

TresspassHe has lived “a vagrant life” since his eccentric uncle’s financial crash six years ago. He is, with the help of a freelance writer, writing a book about his uncle, who died shortly after the collapse of his financial empire.  As he muses on his uncle’s past, he also analyzes his own rise from working-class Norwich to the City in London to the financial crash. The past and present chapters alternate, usually with a Q&A chapter between.

In the prologue he tells us:

Some instinct took me east.  Not to Norwich, where I’d grown up–which would have been a rather symbolic admission of defeat–but to the coast.  Enough money had survived the bust to allow me a competence, and for a couple of years I lived a frugal, solitary kind of life in bed and breakfasts and cheap flats.  The oddest things kept me in one place or sent me on my way again:  the way a cat sauntered across a farmyard in the early sun; the slant of a line of trees from a railway embankment.  I couldn’t explain these sensations, or the contradictions they produced–the wish to settle down countered by the need to be moving on…

George’s sense of place is vivid:   place defines his struggles with the  English class system (about which I am certainly not qualified to write).   During his childhood in West Earlham, his single mother, suspicious of church, school, and most of their neighbors, hates to dole out money for gym shoes, believes that charitable societies are a racket, and thinks tinned salmon is the thing to serve to her friends at high tea:  crab is ostentatious, and frankfurters are simply low-class.  His mother, who, George tells us, has no sense of narrative, will tell George nothing about his father until he reads a sentimental novel and asks her when “Father” will return.  (She says he’s dead.)  She has nothing to say about his uncle, either.

After George loses his first job at a newsstand, he is banished to London, where he works indifferently at various numbers-crunching jobs.  In his spare time, he reads a lot and explores London with a friend.  But his sex life with various women is terrible:  he insists on marrying Carole, a woman with whom he fights constantly and is obviously incompatible. He describes their honeymoon as “a fortnight of low-spirited sight-seeing and dismal semi-intimacy.”  (All too easy to imagine, isn’t it?)

His life changes dramatically when his uncle, a former toy salesman, becomes a City tycoon through a complicated financial scheme and takes George under his wing.  George doesn’t quite understand the scheme, nor does anyone else.  His funny, charming uncle is faintly reminiscent of chacracters in H. G. Wells’ comedies about class and money.

His uncle says,

What do people want, George?  Money, of course.  But they want security as well.  Now how do you get security?”  And he paused for a moment to look reprovingly above the tops of his eyeglasses.  “In my day it used to be savings. But what good’s savings with all this inflation, eh?….You want a guarantee on your money, that’s what you want.”

George lives very high for a while. He is briefly entangled with the very upper-class Helena, a lovely, rich ditz, who is very, very funny.   Later, after the crash, he befriends the freelance writer, Frances, who helps him with the book:  an eccentric, well-educated woman, she conducts many interviews on the phone, reads books about Iris Murdoch, and is obsessed with Mr. Archer, the strange owner of the hotel.  But romance is not a possibility.

It is a stunning, very dark, often comical, novel about “trespassing” in different strata of society.  Taylor’s style reminds me of Anthony Powell’s, laced with H. G. Wells.

P.S. In recent months, I have blogged about four of Taylor’s brilliant novels, The Windsor Faction, a counterfactual history about what might have happened in World War II if Edward VIII had not abdicated the throne in the 1930s; Derby Day, a historical novel about the Epsom Derby; Kept, a kind of prequel to Derby Day; and Ask Alice, the story of a Midwesterner who runs away to England and becomes an actress and society hostess.  Taylor is an eclectic writer:  his style is flawless, and it changes with genre;  he can write Victorian English in his pseudo-Victorian novels, or lucid contemporary English.