D J-Taylor

Physical and spiritual decay

The most striking thing about Piers Paul Read’s early novels was their characters’ susceptibility to physical decay.

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The Misogynist

Piers Paul Read

Bloomsbury, pp. 257, £

The most striking thing about Piers Paul Read’s early novels was their characters’ susceptibility to physical decay.

The most striking thing about Piers Paul Read’s early novels was their characters’ susceptibility to physical decay. The bloom of youth barely had time to settle before it was overrun by maggots. Thus, coolly appraising his mistress’s somewhat faded charms, Hilary Fletcher in The Upstart (1973) notes that marriage and children ‘had loosened her bones and skin and clouded those once fresh eyes with the film of age.’ Harriet, it turns out, is all of 26. Strickland, the barrister hero of A Married Man (1979) has an even worse time of it, what with the smell of his wife’s wind and ‘the liverish early morning odour from her mouth’. Clare, alas, is a long over-the-hill 32.

Read’s insistence on the inexorability of human decline was a necessary preamble to his single great theme. This was not simply the vanity of human wishes, but the working out of divine providence. For The Upstart and A Married Man were Catholic novels, as astringent and remorseless in their way as anything by such previous exponents of the form as Evelyn Waugh and R. H. Benson. The human activity that went on in them, you inferred, had very little significance when set against the much more serious destinies that lurked around the corner. Fletcher, waiting to have tea with his wife and children, while reflecting on his inevitable death, believes that ‘between these two appointments there is nothing of importance’.

All this — Fletcher’s quietism, the average human existence seen as a kind of tedious sideshow — gestures at the great dilemma of the Catholic novel: a dilemma rendered all the more acute by the fact that most of its practitioners would deny that it even exists. To Read, the paradox of his work — a scrupulous realism suddenly undercut by irradiations of divine grace — is not a paradox, it is merely evidence of God working his purpose out. The Upstart, for example, grinds to a halt when Fletcher, a vengeful vicar’s son who has systematically ruined the lives of the aristocratic family in the great house next door, wanders into a prison confessional and repents. No point in the non-believer complaining that the scene is psychologically flawed, that nothing in Fletcher’s history gives it plausibility. God works in mysterious ways, you see, and the literary critic can only nod his head.

If The Misogynist’s Catholicism takes a certain amount of time to declare itself, then the physical decay is more or less its opening gambit. It could hardly be anything else, as this, broadly speaking, is a novel about late sixty-something angst. Jomier, its male lead, is an embittered ex-barrister, whose wife has divorced him for a plutocrat and whose merchant banker son, though dutiful, regards him as a failure. The one bright spot in his life is his daughter Louisa, now married to a wealthy Argentinian and living in distant Buenos Aires. Conscious of his mediocrity, but cannily self-sufficient, Jomier is a great one for spreadsheets, minute financial calculations and (a tribute to his professional beat) argument for argument’s sake, and while one sympathises with him in his predicament — growing old in a Hammersmith terrace with the clamour of London resounding in his ears — one sympathises even more with his absconding wife.

Things pick up no end when, as a much valued spare man on the West London dinner circuit — on this evidence slightly superior to an Arctic ice floe in terms of comfort and amenity — Jomier is introduced to the (relatively) lissom, yoga-teaching and hard-up Judith. Suppers, highbrow films and earnest conversation soon give way to equally earnest sexagenarian sex, set down with all Read’s customary attention to detail (‘Her lips are not as plump and cushioning as those of a younger woman; he can feel her teeth beneath her skin’ etc) and a Yuletide visit to Venice. Sadly, Judith turns out to be a corking bore on the good brave topics of global warming and meat-eating as well as faintly irked by her paramour’s heroic efforts with the expenses:

The provisional figures for the stay at the Hotel Palazzo Solaia now stand at 2,111.59 Euros for Jomier and 1,091.59 Euros for Judith. Working on the premise that Christmas dinner in a good restaurant would have cost 120 Euros a head at the very least, Jomier knocks 300 Euros off the 420 Euros, Judith’s share of the bundled Christmas dinner, welcome pack etc, but divides the 863.18 Euros for miscellaneous extras by two. This he considers generous…

Sharply written, mournfully acute on the horrors of 21st century London, and unquestionably Read’s best novel since A Season in the West (1988), The Misogynist is also rather an odd book. Part of the oddity lies in Jomier himself, in his innocuousness, his second-rateness, his self-justifying stinginess (see in particular the computation which establishes that Judith is costing him £300 a year in Viagra.) Again, Read would probably deny that this is a drawback. Jomier — peevish, ghost-haunted, selfish — is l’homme moyen sensuel personified: who could be more in need of God’s grace? Much more of it, though, lies in the novel’s eerie resemblance to other exercises in this line by Justin Cartwright. Like Cartwright, Read specialises in present-tense staccato (‘Jomier broods. He broods about the present. He broods about the past’), in grand-sounding but debatable statements about human motivation (‘Women are all over their husbands and boyfriends until they have had children’) in frequent, self-pinioning questions (‘Can one be a racist without knowing it, like the carrier of a disease? What is a racist? How is racism to be defined?’)

The difference between them is, of course, that spiritual dimension. Throughout Jomier’s Viagra-sustained couplings with Judith, the experienced Read-fancier will be waiting for the Catholicism to kick in. By about half-way through the wait becomes unbearable. Will an angel with a flaming sword descend on Jomier’s head as he marches gamely to the door of his beloved’s Wandsworth semi? Will a modern-day Father D’Arcy drag him into a pew at Farm Street and urge him to recant? In fact, the initial twitch upon the thread comes on the Venice holiday, when, coming out of a midnight mass, Judith clutches his arm and insists that she ‘had the feeling the whole thing was genuine.’ Then comes a much more serious jolt — the news that kind, God-fearing, Catholic convert Louisa, by far the nicest character in the book — is suffering from a potentially fatal blood disorder. Jomier knows what he has to do:

He can make deals. If God will save Louisa, he will have his quid pro quo. Jomier will love, believe, repent and forgive.

God saves Louisa, but he does so, alas, by uncovering yet more deceit and treachery in Jomier’s past life. By deflecting this away from the real culprit — his ex-wife — Jomier makes that vital step towards redemption. And this, it seems to me, is the difference between the Mark I Read of Monk Dawson (1969) and The Upstart and his latest incarnation. Hilary Fletcher walked into a confessional, had his sins expunged and his torment soothed. Jomier has his daughter restored to him at the expense of his pride. If some of Read’s early novels seemed bleak in their conclusions about human frailty, then this is bleaker still. Brooding, candid and unsparing, it is a welcome return to form.