I wish that we could all be more like Jane Gardam.
If I see anyone so much as glance at it in the bookshop, I can’t help but gush, ‘Oh I’ve just finished that book and I absolutely loved it. I adored it. It’s so wonderful. It’s just so brilliant.’
They look slightly alarmed. Calm down missy, their expressions seem to say, no need for histrionics.
Sometimes they are so alarmed that they buy a copy (keep the crazy girl happy, she might get dangerous). Sometimes they smile and nod, until I back away. And sometimes they ask me why I love it so much.
But it’s terribly difficult to pin it down precisely. It’s hard to work out quite why Gardam’s writing is so appealing. Is it her sense of humour, her old-fashionedness, her sympathetic characters, her astute observations? Why is it so very funny?
What it all boils down to, I think, is that it is exceptionally honest. Sentences are short, sharp, to the point. Each word is the most accurate, the most fitting, the most perfect word. Her main character, Elisabeth, is admirably no-nonsense. She doesn’t waffle. She sees through difficult situations and gets on with things. And all this pared-down honesty makes it really rather funny.
Take this scene, for instance, in which Elisabeth is getting a haircut in Hong Kong:
The hairdresser preened above her head.
‘Is it for an occasion?’
‘I don’t know. Well, yes, I’m going out tonight.’
The hairdresser smiled and smiled, dead-eyed. Elisabeth had the notion that somewhere there was dislike.
‘Would you like colour?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Would you like to be more seriously red?’
‘No. No, not at all.’ (Am I making sense?) ‘Just wash my hair, please. Take the aeroplane out of it.’
‘Aeroplane out of it.’ Silly giggle.
Elisabeth knows exactly what is going on, exactly what the hairdresser’s thinking, behind her preening and questions and smiles. She can sense the dislike, yet she remains polite; she doesn’t get exasperated, but retains her composure, takes charge of the situation, and issues clear instructions: ‘Just wash my hair, please.’
It’s very understated and I find it very funny. The humour simmers away through the short sentences, a little bubble escaping every now and again but never really having a chance to burst through. It reminds me of having the giggles in a Maths lesson – holding my breath, pinching my arm, trying desperately hard to think of something else, stifling the laughter as much as is humanly possible. But knowing that at some point, it will explode.
And so here is a rather different scene. Much later in the book, Elisabeth has an encounter with her husband’s clerk, who happens to be a dwarf, and who happens to know about a rather incriminating love affair she had just before she married her husband:
‘No! Get out! Go away!’
He took off the broad brown hat and sat down on the red chair and looked at her from across the room.
‘Go away. I hate you.’
He twirled his shoes, regarded them and, without looking at her, said, ‘I’ve come to apologise. I dealt you the Five of Clubs. It was a mistake. I seldom make a mistake, and I have never apologised for anything before, being of a proud nature.’
She watched him.
‘The Five of Clubs means “a prudent marriage not for love”.’
She watched him.
‘I am very much attached to your husband. I saw only your faithlessness. It affected the pack. I was wrong.’
‘You were always wrong. You stole his watch once.’
He became purple in the face with rage and said, ‘Never! He gave it to me when I had nothing. It was all he possessed. He trusted me. It was to save my life.’
‘You are cruel!’
‘Here is a telephone number you must ring. It will be to your advantage.’
‘I don’t need your help.’
He sighed and put out a hand to his hat and she thought, He may have a knife. He could kill me. He is a troll from a stinking pit.
But he brought out of the hat only the pack of cards, looked at it, then put it away.
This time Elisabeth loses her calm. Her hysteria might be childish and over-the-top but it is still honest. Her sentences remain short and to the point: ‘I hate you. You are cruel. I don’t need your help.’
And Gardam manages to balance, perfectly, Elisabeth’s anger with the dwarf’s placidity. Until, that is, he becomes ‘purple’ with rage. Perhaps this is when a little bubble of laughter might escape. The tension builds and builds, and then I find I am in complete hysterics at the climax:
He is a troll from a stinking pit.
Ha ha ha ha ha. (I actually really did just choke quite painfully on some water I was half-way through swallowing.)
Elisabeth is often in situations in which she is confronted by a certain code. The code of the hairdresser, for instance, in which the hairdresser fawns over her – preening, asking so many questions, giggling in a girlish ‘silly’ way. Or the code of the dwarf, ‘I dealt you the Five of Clubs.’ ‘Here is a telephone number that you must ring. It will be to your advantage.’ All very cryptic. All hinting about something that isn’t said, some information that is missing. Whose phone number is it? Why will it be to her advantage? What on earth does he mean by the Five of Clubs? (Well that, at least, he explains.)
Gardam tells us that Elisabeth was at Bletchley Park during the war. She is particularly adept at cracking codes. And it is this knowledge of codes that carries her through life. It enables her to see through situations and people. She can tell that the hairdresser’s smile is fake, ‘dead-eyed’. She cuts through all the questions with her clear instructions. She can’t be bothered with her giggles and preening. And likewise with the dwarf, in spite of being scared of him, she doesn’t indulge his cryptic messages, she merely ‘watched him,’ and then tells him, ‘You are cruel.’
It is as though she cracks their codes and at the same time chooses not to use them. She will continue to speak plain English and just jolly well get on with it.
And there is the honesty. The piercing through all the waffling, distracting codes. Elisabeth doesn’t mess about. She gets straight to the heart of things. And perhaps it is this juxtaposition between Elisabeth’s matter-of-factness and the other character’s complex codes that makes it so very funny.
I read an interview that Jane Gardam did for the Guardian, six years ago. It begins with a story of her childhood dream of being a writer.
‘I just knew I would be a writer,’ she says. ‘It just seemed the only sensible thing to do.’ As a child, she scribbled secret stories which she hid in the chimney in her room. ‘Then I got chicken pox. In those days in Yorkshire, you never had a fire in your bedroom unless you were very ill. They lit a fire. My hand went up and I brought down cinders. Never mind. It wasn’t much good, I shouldn’t think.’
This is so utterly Jane Gardam. She knew she would be a writer because ‘it just seemed the only sensible thing to do’. And when she encounters her first major setback – all her stories going up in smoke – she doesn’t dwell on it, angst over it, pine and long for what has been lost. ‘Never mind’, she says. Better just get on with it.
‘Never mind’ is the philosophy that seems to underlie all her writing. ‘Never mind all this,’ Elisabeth seems to be thinking all the time. ‘Just cut my hair, please.’ ‘Go away.’ ‘Never mind all this fussing,’ she seems to be saying. It’s chin-up, soldier on. It’s very British.
But sadly, it feels like that attitude belongs to a Britain of the past. Wartime Britain. Make-do and mend. It belongs to a grandparent, rather than a teenager. How I wish it could be a bigger part of Britain today! Wouldn’t it be terrific? Wouldn’t we all be terribly brave and good and nobody would read any ghastly misery memoirs?
But there we go. Best not to dwell on it. Never mind. I shall just have to start reading another Jane Gardam novel straight away.