This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Perhaps as a function of my own journey through middle age, I have become increasingly interested recently in late work. This is the writing that comes when a writer has passed what blurb-composers call “the peak of their powers”, but at the same time diligently distils the curiosities of a long life into fiction.
Often the late work is compressed and succinct — no time to waste! We saw this in the final novels from those once-garrulous American masters Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. The reader, used to being beaten into submission by their storm of words, found a clarity and control in The Actual (1997) or Nemesis (2010) that had once been well hidden.
Ian McEwan said recently that he and Julian Barnes had “agreed that the novella is the form of old age”. Now their fellow Granta 1983 alumna Rose Tremain has signed up too, with her sixteenth novel Absolutely & Forever. Tremain is most celebrated for her historical novels — Restoration (1989), Music and Silence (1999), The Colour (2003) — but at 80, she is now of an age where an historical novel, or at least a period novel, can be set within her own lifetime.
Absolutely & Forever is a charming and winning short novel about a young woman’s coming of age. Marianne Clifford, born in 1944 (a year after Tremain), is fifteen years old when the novel opens, and she is in love. “I’d never imagined that love could make me so totally stupid.” The object of her affections is Simon Hurst, three years older and about to take his Oxford entrance exams.
This is an era of boarding schools and BOAC, of cold collations and thermometers under the tongue. Tremain preserves the innocence of both the period and the narrator beautifully. Marianne loses her virginity to Simon in the back of his baby blue Morris Minor — “I didn’t know if I was crying or just howling out some feeling in me that was stronger than any I’d had, an elemental feeling” — and afterwards tells her parents she’s ill so she can go straight to bed with nobody seeing the blood on her skirt. “And anyway,” she tells Simon, “I am ill. Love is a kind of illness, isn’t it?”
This kind of love certainly is an illness: unformed, obsessive, and destined to derail Marianne’s life for some time to come. When, inevitably, Simon moves on — moves, in fact, to Paris — Marianne flails and spins directionlessly:
“I walked with the confidence of a girl who has formed a coherent idea of who she is and how her life will unfold. But this was really all my plan consisted of: a kind of hologram of me, heading towards some consoling destination of the mind, which, in actual fact, I was unable to name.”
The wonder of Absolutely & Forever (the title comes from Marianne’s declaration of love to Simon, but recurs with a twist near the end of the book) is that, from a story told a million times before, Tremain has made something so bright and full of light. She can deliver an unforced insight into a secondary character with concise perfection, such as Marianne witnessing her widowed father “playing patience in a cheating kind of way, uncovering cards he had no right to reveal”. She can master a set-piece scene, such as the funny and painful episode where Marianne on a ship bumps into Simon’s younger sister, and learns something she can never unlearn.
Tremain is on relaxed form here — she has nothing to prove — and it shows, with room for even the odd in-joke. When Marianne doesn’t know what the Restoration is, the reader thinks: Well, she might have done if she’d read Tremain’s novel about it. Often an essential part of the interest in late work means overlooking the weaknesses of a writer no longer working at full steam. No need this time: Absolutely & Forever is perfection on its own terms.
Lydia Davis’ Our Strangers is technically an example of late work — the author, essayist and celebrated translator is now 76 years old — but her writing remains so individual and idiosyncratic that it has a box-fresh appeal. In a sense this is perverse, because Davis’ fiction has retained a similar style and form since she started publishing more than 40 years ago: a collection of very short, sometimes absurd, often dreamlike, always well-observed stories. Our Strangers, comprising 144 stories in 344 pages, is more of the same — that is, more of the different.
From the oxymoronic title onwards, Davis loves to play the literary imp of the perverse. Her stories confound, surprise and destabilise the reader, and they usually amuse us too. Overheard conversations, tenuous claims to fame, tiny reflections on seemingly trivial points, and new ways of looking at old things make up the bulk of the book. One story, titled “A Matter of Perspective”, reads in its entirety:
“I saw something white moving through the air by the side of the house. I thought it was a large white butterfly fluttering by — a rare white butterfly! But it was only a special delivery letter, coming past the window in the postman’s hand.”
The final phrase, with its precise meter, is more poetry than prose.
Poetry, indeed, recurs in the book, particularly stories that look like found poems, though we suspect that Davis has polished them to a brisk core. A fine example is “Pardon the Intrusion”, which comprises a series of questions asking for help or offering favours, which venture from the oddly-phrased but plausible (“Dear Colleagues, my daughter’s calculator died”) to the downright Seuss-like (“Does anyone have six clean bricks?”).
Others resemble carefully worked haiku (“How long the shadow is, / coming across the counter, / from this grain of salt”) or a blend of sentiment and jokes. “A Mother’s Devotion” reads, “I’d sacrifice my right arm to see him well and happy. Well, maybe not my right arm. But certainly my left.”
There are more traditional stories, too, or at least stories of a more traditional length, but even these exhibit Davis’s love for minutiae, as in “Winter Letter”. A mother writes to her children with breezy enthusiasm, filling the letter with extraneous details and delivering everything from the stasis of a plane flight to an encounter with a raccoon in the same blank style. “Well, you wanted a long letter, handwritten like in the old days, and you got it,” she concludes, sounding like Davis delivering a message to the reader who might question her usual approach.
The overall effect of reading Our Strangers is of spending time inside the mind of your cleverest, most eccentric — and sometimes maddening — friend. Not everything here is valuable, but the beauty of the book is that it won’t take you long to find out, and there’ll be another one along in a minute.
The latest reissue by Faber Editions is Brigid Brophy’s 1953 novel Hackenfeller’s Ape, which was an early example of the people-releasing-animals-from-the-zoo genre, predating both Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary (1975) and John Irving’s Setting Free the Bears (1968). The mode here is more Hoban than Irving: eccentric, spare and touching.
It opens on a “hot flawless Sunday in early September”, where zoologist Professor Darrelhyde is singing opera arias to two Hackenfeller’s Apes — Percy and Edwina — in London Zoo. The apes are unimpressed: “not looking at one another, tensed, and huffy, Percy and Edwina might have been sitting at the breakfast table”.
Whilst he’s happy to sing to them, or declaim the virtues of Mozart and the horrors of Rossini, what the professor really wants is to see the animals mating. “Why didn’t it do what was in its nature to do and also benefit science?” But the apes have no chance to do what one human wants before another one comes along with plans for them.
The mysterious Kendrick introduces himself to Darrelhyde and explains that the apes will soon be removed from the zoo for purposes which it would be unfair to reveal. (That said, the clever negative-space illustration on the cover of this edition gives a broad hint.)
The race is on, with Darrelhyde teaming up with a young woman named Gloria to free the apes before Kendrick can. Along the way they encounter an animal rights campaign, which seems more part of the establishment than a challenge to it, and pursue a story that is half-caper, half-reflection.
Brophy herself was a pioneering animal rights activist, and some of the dialogue is both prescient and a bit on-the-nose. To archaeologists of the future, wonders Darrelhyde, wouldn’t a zoo “seem to them wayward, a folly as inexplicable as the Labyrinth of the Cretans?”
Pairings go hand in hand through the story — the apes and the humans, freedom and captivity, oppression and resistance — and it is not always possible to tell which is which. One thing seems clear: when Darrelhyde tells Edwina, “When my species has destroyed itself, we may need yours to start it all again,” you feel that Brophy reckons they might do a better job of it.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe