Sadness is what I got from Life after life (Doubleday, 2013). For all the joys of reading and writing (the flash and filigree of her prose, the dazzling one-liners and glorious tangents) that are Kate Atkinson‘s stock in trade, compassion and an undercurrent of sadness are never far from breaking through, even in – nay, especially in – the Jackson Brodie sequence of books. They are there in pretty much all the surprises sprung on us here.
Although not devoid of the quality, Life after life isn’t as much fun as her previous novels and that’s not just because Ursula Todd, her main character, keeps dying (or as “the black bat” descends) as the spelling out of the crucial role of simple contingency in human affairs – the what ifs and what if nots (when the snow storm hits, how deep it lies, falling in love, pregnancy, a falling wall’s reach) – is cascaded out.
It’s that Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors spread over a lifetime with serial mortality added rather than Groundhog Day. The rubric ‘What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?‘ from the back cover (and something her favourite brother Teddy says) does not really apply to Ursula Todd’s many lives, though she does discuss reincarnation with her therapist and the book is pretty much book-ended with two episodes set in Germany in 1930 – a dimension I’m not going to expand on here – which rather beg that question. The what-ifs are intriguingly personal, familial and global.
The powerful core of this splendid book is a tale of Londoners living through (or not, as the case may be) the Blitz. This – the people she shares a house with, the people she works alongside in the rescue squads, the aftermath of the raids – is going to stay with me a long time. We arrive there through various twists and turns of fate in what starts out (after the false starts of early death) as a conventional upper middle class home counties family saga with an acknowledged touch of the E.M.Forsters. For me this dragged a bit until the appearance on the scene of Lizzie, the aunt who’s mad, bad and dangerous to know, who brings with her a sprinkling of scepticism and the Atkinson prose sparkle and then we’re well and truly off. The family dynamics over the years are beautifully portrayed.
In previous novels of Kate’s you could almost pick a bon couple of mots or a witty one-liner off practically every page for quotation, but as I’ve said, in respect to the subject matter, such delight is not exactly falling off the trees here. But it’s there, nevertheless, along with her penchant for invoking Eng-Lit – she does not talk down to her readers. Dickens, Jane Austen, John Donne, John Keats, even Charlotte Brontë’s dog, all get a mention, and there’s a nice running trope about the moon Keats and other poets saw. In one particularly unfortunate life of Ursula’s, she marries a monster – “She had married a Casaubon, she realised” – and in failing one tragic morning, even she has “… to admit that the egg she presented for Derek’s breakfast was a sad sight, a sickly jellyfish deposited on toast to die.” And if you like the idea of someone confusing a quote from Pindar with something found in Pinner, Middlesex, then you’ll love the child’s confusion of Nietzsche’s notion of Amor fati – the acceptance of fate, the embracing of fate, as her therapist tells her – with being fat. If not as profuse as previously, it’s still there.
If I do have a problem with Life after life it’s a small annoyance. I think Kate Atkinson has always enjoyed playing with the idea of the novelist as participant in the action of a book, making her presence known, and at least with the stop/start again structure here it’s obvious. But I have to say I am disappointed with the hints, the deja vu and second sight moments, the “little flicker in time” here, the “Oh, Ursula said. I’ve been here before” there, that Ursula experiences in the course of her lives and which strike a false note with me. If it’s a nod and a wink it’s an unnecessary one.
But back to the sadness I started with. At the age of 57, in 1967, the Ursula who survives longest gets to review the satisfactions and disappointments of her eventful yet ultimately unfulfilled life. It’s a lovely chapter; it sings. The social changes she has seen and played a small part in are factored in alongside what has been lost, what gained, what needn’t have happened, what’s still to be done. I made a note of a quote – I’m not sure if it came from here (the book’s gone back to the library) – but it fits: “She made fast her heroine heart.” Reading that testimonial now, 46 years on from when it’s set, was an overwhelming experience. And a huge achievement from the pen, or word processor, of our Kate. From whom one last quote, that took me straight back to her marvellous Human croquet where a wych elm is almost a character in its own right:
She thought about Dr Kellet and his theories of reincarnation and wondered what she would like to come back as. A tree, she thought. A fine big tree, dancing in the breeze.
Sadness compounded. As it happens 1967 was the year Tim Hardin‘s first two albums (Tim Hardin 1 and, er, Tim Hardin 2) were released. I’ve been listening to a compilation which – sadly – doesn’t include his most optimistic and well-known song – If I were a carpenter – but does contain some of the finest (and shortest) odes to melancholy of the past half century. The yearning of Black sheep boy is just the starter, the exquisite ache of How can we hang on to a dream hard to bear at times. Sometimes all you need is two minutes. I wish a few more could learn that lesson. Why, only this week it was pointed out to me that it only took Fats Domino 1 minute 47 seconds to walk to New Orleans.
Meanwhile, back at the reading group I was in a minority of one when it came to Kingsley Amis‘s Lucky Jim (1954). I think it’s the third time I’ve read it and it still has me chortling out loud (and will do again, no doubt). The others (all women) all more or less hated it while (some of ’em) giving grudging credit to its language and comic timing. OK, he wouldn’t get away with the women these days but it’s one of the great comic novels. You can’t take away from timing and the precise wit. Prime scorn, here exercised at the right targets and some of the best drunken literature – “He was already beginning to feel a little splendid” – to be found anywhere. Who has not encountered the equivalent of a Beesley – “bringing out the curved nickel-banded pipe round which he was trying to train his personality, like a creeper up a trellis” – or suffered ” … the familiar mixture of predicted boredom with unpredicted boredom …”
What a difference two or three strategically placed words can make in “The amateur violinist nodded the top half of his body and, supported by the local composer, burst into some scurrying tunelessness or other” while who can deny “how inefficient a bar to wasting one’s time was the knowledge that one was wasting it“?
And who could possibly argue with this classic statement of political reasonableness?:
If one man’s got ten buns and another’s got two, and a bun has to be given up by one of them, then surely you take it from the man with ten buns.
That’s a rhetorical question.