Archive for the ‘Marghanita Laski’ Category

Today marks the start of a Mini Persephone Readathon, hosted by the ever-enthusiastic Jessie, and I’m delighted to be taking part.  It’s just until Sunday – hence its “mini” status – so I thought I’d get started right away.

First published in 1946, To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski was published while the war was still fresh in everyone’s minds.  And that memory is important because already routines were beginning to be re-established and conventions once again adhered to, things that had briefly loosened during the topsy-turvy war years and provided undreamt-of freedom for so many.  Sometimes that freedom was productive – as for the men and women whose wartime experiences gave them careers their education or gender never prepared them for – and sometimes it was merely license to misbehave.  And wartime misbehaviour is Laski’s focus.

We meet Deborah Robertson just as her husband, Graham, is about to depart for Cairo.  Married for several years and parents to a young son, they are both upset at the idea of parting, trying to reassure one another of the strength of their passion.  Passion, rather than affection, is certainly the correct word and the shallowness of their relationship is made clear as Graham reassures his wife that he will “be missing you every hour of every day, thinking how bloody attractive you are.”  This is not a marriage of two minds, safe to say.

Before he leaves, Graham idiotically explains to his wife that the affairs he will have out East will only be with women he does not respect and so won’t mean anything and asks her to promise the same for her own affairs.  Deborah, claiming the moral high ground, asserts that she will be comforted by her love for him, will spend her time caring for their son, and will remain completely unchanged by their separation.

Subtlety is not Laski’s strong point (to be fair, she never attempts it) so, unsurprisingly, the rest of the book is about how unfaithful Deborah is and how much she changes.

Bored with her son and country life, Deborah soon seizes the chance to move to London on her own (leaving her son in the loving and much more capable hands of the housekeeper).  And even before she completes her move, she has her first affair.  It is a meaningless thing, done more out of a sense of inevitability than anything, but it sets her on a path that she soon finds impossible to give up.  Her attempts to abstain make her sour and petulant so, she decides, why not have fun.  To be twenty-four, beautiful and free in wartime London is a heady thing indeed.

One man leads to another, then another, and so on.  At first she can pretend love is involved but she soon realises that is not it.  Her relationships have nothing to do with her feelings about the men, except perhaps for what they can give her – beginning with nice meals out, stockings, perfume, small things.  But as she learns her new craft, her ambitions grow.  She looks at her friend Madeleine, far more used to this lifestyle than Deborah and able to attract what Deborah thinks of as “grown-ups”, and “longed to graduate into a class genuinely competitive with her, and yet had no notion of what qualities she lacked that consistently prevented her from doing so.”

Deborah figures out those qualities – with the not altogether willing assistance of a Frenchman whom she has poached from Madeleine – and from there her career as a tart is assured.  The men she sleeps with are barely people to her, only stepping stones on her path of self-improvement.  Her moral qualms disappear alarmingly quickly; it is much nicer to have a new bag or hat or piece of jewellery than anxieties.  And why shouldn’t she be happy rather than anxious or ashamed?  As she says:

“I know it’s better to be happy than unhappy, and not only for me but for my baby as well.  I like this sort of life, in fact, I love it, and seeing as how I’m hurting no one and doing myself quite a lot of good, I rather think I’ll carry on with it.  I’ve come to the conclusion that conventional morals were invented by a lot of unattractive bitches to make themselves feel good.”

Laski is extremely popular with Persephone readers and one of their best represented authors – they have reprinted five of her books now: Little Boy Lost, The Village, The Victorian Chaise-Longue, To Bed with Grand Music, and Tory Heaven.  And I can completely understand why.  She epitomizes the middle brow, writing about seemingly-serious topics in a titillating way with basic, extremely readable prose (Little Boy Lost is particularly difficult to put down).  Would I consider this a significant psychological portrait of a woman experiencing a moral crisis amidst a chaotic, collapsing social structure?  Hardly.  But, despite lacking nuance or depth, it is great fun.  Laski knew what people wanted: a bit of excitement and a touch of the taboo to keep them glued to the pages, confidently smug that they could never be as morally inept as Deborah.  It’s true but that is a very, very low bar to clear.

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I had consciously stayed away from Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski, having somehow got the idea into my head that it not at all something I’d like.  But it is one of the few Persephones my library owns so I decided that one must encourage such acquisitions by actually reading them.  I could not have been more surprised by how entertaining I found it.

The book opens at Christmas, 1943.  Hilary Wainwright, the most emotionally reserved poet I have ever come across, receives the news that his adored wife Lisa was killed a year before in occupied Paris and that his toddler son, John, is missing.  In 1945, after the peace, Hilary is finally able to return to France to attempt to track down his lost son, if indeed the boy is still alive, and it is that journey, both physical and emotional, that the book chronicles.

Pierre, an old friend of Lisa’s, has followed what he thinks is the most likely trail and discovered a boy at an orphanage outside of Paris who he very well thinks might be John.  Hilary goes to the town and, through daily visits with the child Jean, tries to discover if the small five-year old is the son Hilary only met once, the day after his birth.  Jean is an extremely adorable child, denied so much growing up in a war-ravaged country, thrilled by each little treat Hilary can bestow, be it a trip to see the trains pass by or a pair of mittens, and is delighted, most of all, just by getting to spend time with Hilary.  Jean’s surprising openness is harshly contrasted by Hilary’s absolute reserve.

Hilary’s reticence to claim the boy, his need for absolute certainty that this is his son, make this a unexpectedly tense novel.  Since his wife’s death, Hilary has been searching for someone to love while consciously denying himself any relationship where his tenderness would be appreciated.  He has flings with cheap, tawdry women and a respectable but unemotional attachment to a clever, professional woman in London.  It is very clear to the reader that he needs Jean’s love as much as Jean needs his, whatever their biological relationship may be, but it is not quite so easy for Hilary to accept that.  Hilary is struggling not just with the question of is Jean his son, but also if he wants a son, a family, at all, if he is ready to open himself again as he did with Lisa.

The story takes place in a France still shattered by the war and Laski takes great care to detail both the physical and moral struggles being faced.  The conditions at the orphanage where Jean lives horrify Hilary: the orphans don’t have enough to eat or wear, only those five and under get milk, tubercular children are kept in with the healthy ones and though the nuns may hate the situation, at least they know they aren’t facing the horrors of their German, Austrian, and Polish sisters.  To Hilary’s disgust, at the same time as children are going without milk and meat in the orphanage, across town the restaurants are covertly offering black market feasts at outrageous prices.

Of course, in a story set in a once occupied country, there is always the question of what people did during the war.  Most of the characters seem almost tired of the question of who collaborated, but they still certainly remember who did and how (details as benign as serving Germans the best wine rather than something less impressive).  What is more pressing here, creating current tensions and resentments in the town, are those who have extended the moral ambiguity of war into peace, those who cheat and swindle to get ahead of their fellow Frenchman.  That is no longer a means of survival, just a sign of greed and corruption.  As one character explains to Hilary:

 ‘To me, the most horrible thing is hearing everyone excusing themselves on the ground that deceit was started against the Germans and has now become a habit.  It would have been better to have been honest, even with Germans, than to end by deceiving each other and finally by deceiving ourselves.

I consumed this novel in one gulp, pausing only to say ‘go away!’ to people who would dare disturb me while I was reading.  Laski’s writing is gripping and entertaining.  I don’t think it is exceptional art – there’s a certain clumsiness to the plot and none of the characters are particularly developed or compelling – but Laski knows how to engage her audience and tell a story.  I am so glad I picked this up and I’m now eager to read Laski’s other books (one of which, The Village, I already own).

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