Any writer who embarks on a trilogy is either extremely confident or taking something of a risk. The danger is that the reader will have forgotten the first two volumes and will have lost any memory of the story and the characters who now occupy the foreground of what might be a fairly mystifying account. So it is with Jane Gardam’s present novel which forms the conclusion to her foregoing Old Filth and The Man with the Wooden Hat, which featured Terence Veneering and Edward Feathers, lawyers and rivals not only in their professional lives but in most other matters, both trivial and significant. They’re not sympathetic characters, and time and distance have not improved them. Last Friends is concerned with their back stories, which add a further layer of confusion to what is already complicated and at times jauntily improbable.
We are reintroduced to Sir Terence, once plain Terry, the offspring of a Russian circus performer, now bedridden, and Florrie Gibson, dealer in various commodities and generally illiterate. So far so unprepossing. Terry’s rise to fame and eminence encompass the usual rites of passage, but the main emphasis is on the resilience of youth and the compromises of age.
Of the two old adversaries, now pillars of the establishment, only Terry is in the foreground, his being the most significant change of status. Feathers, or Filth, is still protected by his background, while Veneering is a magnet for needy old acquaintances, who persist in contacting him, eager for some sort of invitation. He has none to offer, being untrained in these matters.
Veneering dies first, in Malta, in more or less unexplained circumstances. But before that, they two men have ended up living in close proximity in Dorset. It is left to Filth to make sense of it all — the discarded mistress, Veneering’s escape from the doomed SS City of Benares, their rise to power and their subsequent reconciliation — but by this time he is too old to discern a pattern, if there ever was one.
Recklessly inconsequential, this is not so much a novel as a schema for a novel, one which Jane Gardam has not written. There are glimpses of narrative, but these are insubstantial.We would like to have known more, for instance, about Veneering’s Cossack father and how he came to end up with Florrie, as well as about the various benefactors who paved the way for Veneering’s eventual success. And fall — of course; for this is a story in which everyone is dying. Though it is the way all stories end, here the trajectory is relentless. It is a relief to encounter Dulcie, very old, very decrepit, but emboldened to contemplate a journey from which, we assume, she will not return.
All in all, it’s a mysterious novel. Unsuccessful as it is, it has a power to linger in the memory, and this in itself must be counted a success.