Friday, 30 November 2012

The Garrick Year - Margaret Drabble

I've bought up a few old Margaret Drabble titles over the years, all in slightly trippy old Penguin editions, but I've never actually got around to reading one of them before.  The one I really wanted to read was The Millstone, since I've heard complimentary comparisons to one of my favourite books, The L-Shaped Room, but it was 1964 that needed filling on A Century of Books, so I picked my second choice - The Garrick Year.  Cup-mark and all (not my doing.)


What drew me towards The Garrick Year was its theatrical setting.  As I've mentioned over the years, I am fascinated by the theatre and love reading about it in fact or fiction.  One of my Five From The Archive posts even covered the topic.  So I was keen to see how Emma and her actor husband David would get on when they move to Hereford for the opening of a new theatre.  And then it all went rather wrong.  No, not the plot, but my enjoyment of the novel.  Partly this was because of my reasons for reading it - I love to hear the theatre praised or teased, but treated always with affection, and even a little reverence.  Because that's how I feel about it, I suppose.  Emma, however, just mocks it completely.
For those who have never heard actors discuss their trade, I may say that there is nothing more painfully boring on earth.  I think it is their lack of accuracy, their frightful passion for generality that rob their discussions of interest.  They were talking, this time, about that ancient problem of whether one should, while acting, be more aware of the audience of the person or person with whom one is playing the scene: I must have heard this same argument once a fortnight over the last four years, and never has anyone got a step nearer to any kind of illumination, because instead of talking rationally they just wander round the morasses of their own personalities, producing their own weaknesses for examination as though they were interesting, objective facts about human nature.
I don't think I realised quite how much I do revere the theatre, until I bristled at this sort of blasphemy!  And, oh, what a cow Emma is.  I know some say it shouldn't matter how likeable a character is, but I always maintain (as others have said before me) that it does matter if the author clearly sets up a character to be likeable, and fails.  And, after all, I often like books because they have charming characters, so why shouldn't it work the other way around?

I have to confess, I had a problem with Emma as soon as she admitted preferring London to the countryside.  But things get worse than that.  Emma is one of those miserable people who moans all the time about everything, but does nothing to change her life.  She has no paid employment, and whines about looking after their two children - which would be fair enough, if she didn't have a full-time, live-in nanny.  Quite what she does with her day is unclear, but later she manages to fill the hours by thoughtlessly embarking on an affair with the producer of the theatre.  She appears to have no concern at all for her marriage vows, having declared earlier that the only reason she hadn't committed adultery was that she hadn't had the opportunity.

There isn't much plot or narrative drive in The Garrick Year.  It's mostly Emma's introspective, self-pitying waffle.  Thankfully it's at least well written, which is the only reason I persevered with what is, in fact, a slim novel.  Although Drabble isn't quite as good a writer as I'd expected - I'd argue she's not as good as Lynne Reid Banks - but it isn't clunky or cliche-ridden or anything like that, and she creates the background characters rather well: among them is Sofy, an ambitious young actress whose talents (if any) do not lie in the direction of acting, and I rather enjoyed any moment that Emma and David's young daughter was on the scene - she could be quite funny.  In terms of structure, Drabble went (I am sorry to say) for one of those last-minute-big-events which seem the last ditch effort of a novelist who knows their novel hasn't been very exciting yet - you know the sort?

Perhaps I'll enjoy Drabble more when her topic is different, or her character less selfish and awful. I wondered, while I was reading this, whether it might be her second novel - and, lo and behold, it was.  It has neither the inspiration of a first novel, nor the assured confidence of a later book - so hopefully I just picked up a dud, and there will be plenty more to try later.  I do recognise that she is a good writer, and I'm not giving up on her yet.  Any suggestions?

23 comments:

  1. I not read Ms. Drabble, and am less likely to read her now. So no suggestions from me, alas. ;-)

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  2. I remember The Millstone as being marvellous and quite like L-shaped Room indeed, although I haven't read it for years. Tell you what: I'll add it to the Month of Re-Reading in January, and let you know then. Apart from that, she is a writer of ideas and sometimes I feel she does come off as a bit whiffly, but I remember The Peppered Moth being good.

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    1. Thanks, Liz, I look forward to your thoughts on rereading The Millstone - I'm definitely still going to give it a go at some point.

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  3. I've only read one Drabble - That was 'The Radiant Way' and I can't remember enough about it to recommend or otherwise!

    I do remember seeing her on a train though - I'm pretty sure it was whilst we were on holiday in New York! Small world eh? She was with Michael Holroyd her hubby, and David Swift (Henry from Drop the Dead Donkey etc, and brother of Drabble's first husband Clive Swift!(actor in Keeping up appearances etc). They looked as if they were enjoying themselves.

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    1. Drabble and Clive Swift is a curious thought!
      I have seen her myself - she quite often comes to the Bodleian, although I have only seen her once.

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  4. Oh dear, now I feel guilty, because I was one of the people who mentioned this in your Five From the Archives post! I think it's the only Margaret Drabble that I enjoyed, and I rather liked the irreverent tone. And I know Emma is annoying on occasions, but nobody treats her seriously,people judge her purely on her looks. David spends a lot of time ignoring her, and seems to expect her to uproot herself and move at the drop of a hat. She's bored... (so were Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. And while I don't condone her behaviour, she's no worse than the men in her life.

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    1. Don't worry, Christine! I'm glad to have been able to form an opinion about Drabble, and equally happy to change it later...

      Interesting to say that she's no worse than the men - I thought David was a little less awful, but I agree that practically nobody comes out of the novel well.

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  5. I read all of Drabble in the 60s and 70s and then gave up on her as I found her writing became more and more mannered. I tried re-reading some of her earlier ones last year but found I was no longer in sympathy with them, if I ever was!

    Do try margaret Forster, a contemporary of Drabble and, in my opinion, a much better writer. I have been re-reading her and will be writing about her soon

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    1. Right-o! I do have a few of Forster's dotted around my shelves, but none from more than about 10 years ago, I don't think.

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  6. Isn't breastfeeding one of the things that she does all day? However, I much preferred The Millstone and The Waterfall - still own my original 1960s copies -

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    1. Nope, she decides halfway through the novel that she hasn't got time any more (!) and goes over to formula, which the nanny administers!

      Thanks for another recommendation for The Millstone :)

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  7. I read The MIllstone again last year but couldn't get past the heroine being such a passive drip; which was pretty much what I thought about her when I first read it in the 1970s.
    Much preferred The L-Shaped Room. Fond memories of not being allowed to watch it on television because it was 'unsuitable.'

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    1. Haha! Well, I adore The L-Shaped Room (read three times, and love more each time) so I doubt it would compare in my mind, but I'll give it a go. The film, on the other hand, was only ok, to my mind. And why make her French?

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  8. I read The Garrick Year back in the 60s and (being only 16 or 17 at the time) found it racy and fascinating! The theatre background would have been one of its attractions for me. I seem to have lost my copy and I've been wanting to re-read it this year as one of my daughters has been a "trailing spouse" with a new baby in Stratford and I do very much recognise that theme of alienation/resentment. Drabble herself had been an actor with the RSC so some of the themes of this novel must arise from her own experience and realisation that it wasn't going to be her lifelong career. Must hunt a copy down as memory is shaky after 40+ years!

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    1. That's an interesting perspective on it, thanks. Maybe I just wasn't the right reader for the book - turns out theatre is a sacred cow for me!

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  9. I picked up The Garrick Year after reading an essay titled "The Two Emmas" by Roger Angell in The New Yorker--and Jane Austen's Emma is my favorite book. Link:http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/06/08/090608fa_fact_angell

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    1. I will bookmark that to read - I wonder what they will have in common!

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  10. Hello, Simon. I read Margaret Drabble's early novels in the 60s, and I did enjoy Jerusalem the Golden, The Waterfall, The Millstone and The Garrick Year at the time, but I doubt if I'd re-read any of them now. After that, I think her books became turgid and pretentious and lost all connection with real life. I can only assume she wrote 'The Garrick Year' in reaction to her marriage to Clive Swift, from whom she separated! I completely take your point about her "heroine" in that book....Her sister, A.S.Byatt, at her best, is a much better writer, I think.

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    1. I am definitely getting the sense that I shouldn't touch her more recent novels with a barge pole! And yes, if her marriage was anything like the one in this novel, I'm not surprised they separated (!)

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  11. I've liked a fair number of ner books, but lately I am reassessing how much I like her. Having said that, I really loved Seven Sisters and think it is Drabble at her most enjoyable. I actually recommend this one to people generally, not just to those who want to read Drabble.

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  12. I didn't really read your review back when I made the earlier comment because I knew I was going to read the book. I knew you weren't a big fan of it so I tried to figure out while I read the novel what your beef might have been. I guessed correctly that you would be at least superficially annoyed by the London v. countryside angle. Drabble certainly does take a heavy hand to that doesn't she? I think I saw Emma as less selfish than you did. Her husband's complete unwillingness to consider her own career aspirations was perhaps the most selfish thing in the book. The adultery of course, is a different thing entirely. And I think both parties were pretty guilty, but even then Emma never "consummated" her adultery while her husband did.

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    1. Thanks for coming back and adding a comment! I do take your point, they're both bad (there's no innocent victim here)... I wonder why, except for narrative purposes, Emma took her husband's decision lying down? She doesn't seem like the kind of woman who would slavishly do what her husband wishes - it would seem to me more in character if she'd just said "Screw you, I'm staying here and doing my job."

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