Old Filth, by Jane Gardam

Although always scrupulously clean, Sir Edward Feathers, a retired judge, is called Filth by his colleagues (an acronym for “failed in London; try Hong Kong”) in tribute to his successful career as an advocate in the Far East. Old Filth is so colorless as to seem invisible, literally so in some scenes. Since the death of his wife, he has the chilliest of connections to the people around him, not even knowing the name of his housekeeper. Events conspire to make him reflect upon his life and reconnect with people from his past. Filth is a Raj Orphan, not a term I'd heard before though I knew that those who worked for the Raj, the British Empire in the Far East, usually sent their children back to England by the time they were five, both for schooling and to avoid disease.

The story moves back and forth across the events of Old Filth's life, with the occasional foray into the point of view of another character. While I am easily irritated by this kind of non-linear structure in the hands of less adept writers, with Gardam I was never in doubt as to the who, when and where. Writers hoping to accomplish such seamless transitions would do well to study how Gardam manages her jumps in person, time and space. Like Old Filth himself, the prose is deceptively simple, concealing gems of lovely description, sparks of satire, and deep emotions. Of his wife Betty, Gardam says, “Her passion for jewelery was Chinese and her strong Scottish fingers rattled the trays of jade in the street markets of Kowloon, stirring the stones like pebbles on a beach. ‘When you do that,' Old Filth would say—when they were young and he was still aware of her all the time—‘your eyes are almond-shaped.'”

I very much enjoyed this book, a selection for one of my book clubs, despite a couple of quibbles. I didn't much like the interpolation of a few scenes of dialogue formatted like a script. The first one in particular does not tell us anything that the prose scene afterwards does not cover. However, some members of my book club liked these scenes, pointing out that they reinforce the way Old Filth lives his life as though playing a part on the stage. I also thought the climactic revelation was unnecessary and not worth the build-up. Most of my book club agreed, though some thought we needed the revelation to truly understand him. Perhaps. But I wonder if the whole of the life, presented so brilliantly throughout the book, doesn't give us all the understanding we need.

What with the recent deaths of Ted Kennedy, Trevor Stone and Mike Seegar, as well as others in my more immediate circle, I have been thinking a lot lately about the shape of a life, the whole of a life, which we cannot see until it is finished. I recently finished a biography of Dylan Thomas by Andrew Lycett, an excellent book, well-researched and very readable. I like to read biographies, but sometimes find them depressing because of the way they condense a life. There is too short a time between the dreams and aspirations at the beginning to the disappointments and compromises at the end. In our own lives, in real time, we have the breathing room to come to terms with our limitations (self-imposed or not) or perhaps to forget our early visions, Wordsworth's splendour in the grass. Reading a biography, however long one lingers over it, one moves too quickly over the ground for such comfort, flips through the photographs too rapidly. And, of course, particularly so with Thomas's life, with its squandered promise and early death.

Making allowances for the difference between a real person and a fictional character, I had a different response to this account of Old Filth's life. Initially I found this cold, reticent man unattractive and even uninteresting. However, discovering the circumstances of his birth, the joys and trials he encounters during his life, and the way he responds to them made me understand and appreciate the man he becomes and reminds me to look more often for the complexity behind the sometimes simple masks of those around me.

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