She's the best contemporary British writer you probably haven't heard of; that's how I identify Jane Gardam to those readers, and particularly those Anglophiles, who ask me for recommendations. There are many reasons to sing Gardam's praises, among them: her off-the-beaten track subjects; her outwardly polished, inwardly muddled characters; and her roller-coaster tone that speeds from twee to tragic in a paragraph.
But the latest occasion to celebrate Gardam is that, at the age of 81, she's just added another superb novel to her canon. It's called, The Man in the Wooden Hat and it's a companion work to what many Gardam groupies consider her masterpiece, her 12th novel, Old Filth.
"Filth" is a musty British acronym that stands for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong." It was applied, unkindly, to describe public-school educated Brits who scurried to the far corners of the empire to make fortunes and careers they would otherwise have been shut out of in the mother country. The "Old Filth" of Gardam's 2004 novel is Sir Edward Feathers, a distinguished barrister who was born to English parents in Malaya, and later became what was known as a "Raj orphan" when he was sent back alone to England as a child for his education.
Given that early experience of separation, Feathers is, to put it mildly, an introvert. Send him on a solitary walk in his wellies followed by a tumbler of whiskey, and he seems to be miserably contented. The only steady connection in his life was his wife, Betty, who in Old Filth has died of a heart attack while planting tulip bulbs. The Man in the Wooden Hat is Betty's retrospective story of their marriage, and she's every bit Sir Edward's equal in terms of her enigmatic emotions and her tart worldview.
Betty and Edward meet in Hong Kong after World War II. The only child of British parents who died in a Japanese internment camp, Betty is primed to accept Edward's rather stiff proposal. She confesses to a girlfriend, however, that she's not sure she loves Edward, that she foolishly, wants "the moon." Here's what Betty's girlfriend says in reply:
You should want the moon. Don't do it ... Don't go for a forty-watt bulb just because it looks pretty. You'll get stuck with it when it goes out. You are so loyal, and you'll soldier on in the dark for ever afterwards.
In a sense, the bulk of the novel is a nuanced exploration of whether or not Betty's girlfriend was right. The Feathers' marriage has its blips of passion and its long drowsy seasons of companionability. But infidelity and loss and bitter mutual dismay also mark the union.
The overriding sadness of Betty's life is that, because of an early hysterectomy, she can't have children. This is emotional territory that Gardam has visited before, most dramatically in her amazing 1991 novel in letters, The Queen of the Tambourine. There's a scene in that novel in which the prematurely menopausal heroine visits her doctor, and he chirpily asks how she's doing. "Things drying up nicely?" he says. It's a tossed-off remark that I think captures the oddness of Gardam's signature tone — at once witty, yet grotesque.
Together, Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat compose a vivid diptych of a marriage. You don't have to read Old Filth first, though you'll enjoy the plot surprises in this latest novel more if you do.
Both novels, along with other gems from Gardam's backlist, are published in paperback in this country by Europa Editions, a small press founded just five years ago that has been doing the Lord's work in terms of introducing European literary novels, many of them in translation, to an American readership. Europa's sleeper hit last year was French writer Muriel Barbery's wry novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I wouldn't be surprised if The Man in the Wooden Hat sweeps up still more accolades for Europa and for the quietly renowned Gardam.