THE OLD BOYS (1964)
My previous reviews of William Trevor: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/william-trevor/
My previous reviews of older or classic books: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/reviews-of-older-books/
When I read this book, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…
There may be a considerable delay before I review this book.
THE OLD BOYS
“From Moreton to Evenlode, to Adlestrop and Daylesford. He and Topham minor stopping off to buy sherbet in Chipping Norton. And showing Topham the Slaughters and the Swells.”
Mr Turtle is late for the Old Boys meeting in room 305, caught up, as he is, with a charwoman (not chairwoman!) mopping in the basement when he was meant to be on the 5th floor, and he should not have been in such an Adlestrop of Anxiety, I guess. With a change of narrative viewpoint to Mr Jaraby, the whole meeting — other than perhaps Mr Nox (“He caught Mr Nox’s eye and felt a little jump in his stomach.”) — seems ready to nod through Mr Jaraby as the next President. Mr Jaraby later at home is mentally coercive with his poor wife, but, after all, she did call his cat Monmouth a monster and that he should send it to a zoo. And she did not seem grateful for the head-shaped beetroot he brought home, well, I imagined it head-shaped and that she wasn’t grateful. And she imputes death and decay obsessing her husband when he tells her yet once again of his housemaster Dowse’s sad death, and how what a great beater of boys Dowse was. Not a marriage conversation to envy!
‘We are seventy-two, you must remember that. Communication is now an effort. It is not the easy thing that younger people know.’
“The goodness that is in you will be carried to the surface and fanned to a flame, the evil will be faced fairly and squarely: you will recognize it and make your peace with it.”
Back in 1907 George Nox is a new boy, H.L. Dowse his housemaster, and now ever as plain Nox, Dowse dowsed his night’s evil in the form of warning against the madness engendered by self-abuse, and some said he once castrated another boy to stop him doing it! That last bit I don’t believe, but I do believe the cruelty and fagging in rest of this chapter because it rings true from when I started at senior school in 1959, and I also became a reluctant ‘second row forward’ in rugger, and I hated cricket, too, as well as cross country!
Jaraby was then a prefect to whom Nox acted as fag, till somehow some throwing of a ‘nib’ sort of started, I guess, a chain of events towards Nox breaking a ‘rib’ — one that eventually punctured his lung!
“Mr Sole and Mr Cridley lived at the Rimini Hotel in Wimbledon. They had done so ever since Mr Sole’s wife died two and a half years ago. It was a quiet, somewhat cheerless place, with an automatic telephone in the hall and the smell of boiling meat almost everywhere. It catered specifically for the elderly, and in spite of the implications of its title was little more than a boarding house.”
That seemed at first the most striking literary intrusions in any novel, hilariously quaint as it is, Aickman-like without Aickman bits, two old men like me, listening to a story or a prayer on the boarding-house wireless, with a landlady who has a massive bosom, and they seem caught up with adverts for various devices, as toothpaste for cleaning fag smoke off teeth without any fag! And their talk together is about — and reminiscent itself? — of chain-letters, not chain-smoking, but whose Tontine will it be?
An intrusion, as I say, until I realise (perhaps I should have already realised) that they are two old boys of the same school as Jaraby, and they now visit him and his wife to be given half raw or overdone (not sure which) rock cakes! And it turns out that they actually once shared a chain-letter with the J’s imaginary son Basil, or is it their real son who is persona non grata to his father, if not adored by his doting mother, so which is the mad one, Mr J or Mrs J?
Seems Mr J often often keeps company with a young man, a present or recent pupil of the school, who slept or still sleeps in Mr J’s old dormitory bed! But that may not be true either, if such visits by the young man were told to me by whoever is mad, Mr J or Mrs J? Or even both?
Meanwhile, the two men, with whom we started above, leave to go to Compline … and to continue complaining about the food they get at the Rimini.
Cross-referenced Sylvia Warner Townsend story: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/26609-2/#comment-15633
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“He is like an old, old ghost.”
Turtle, evidently suffering the onset of dementia …meets a younger ‘old boy’ of 40 in the park, otherwise a stranger with whom Turtle has a conversation about birds and cages, and porridge the younger man placed behind the school radiator, and that unreliable weather (like the current heatwave that now affects all the men at the original meeting in 1. when Turtle got lost) is ‘due to bombs’, rather than today’s climate change!!
But guess who that younger man actually was! A plot spoiler to tell you, I guess. He seems to ask the older man for a small loan…
Meanwhile the current president Ponders elsewhere in the heatwave tells his wife about the assumed next president…
‘Mr Jaraby is still full of beans. But he is the kind of man who suddenly snaps in half, like a brittle twig, and then that is that. My dear, you have aged in a more dignified way. Gradual processes are the happier too.’
This book and my review of it both tease and worry one. Brittle and gradual alike.
“The law of averages is only half on our side.”
An insidious character study of Mr Nox, who has accepted his lonely lot in late life without any memories for memoirs to write, or is it his character itself that is insidious? – when hiring a private detective to follow Mr Jaraby around trying to dredge up something incriminatory about Jaraby, thus to stop him becoming President of the Old Boys committee. No motive within Mr. Nox other than to right a perceived balance of wrongs once done to himself. Or simply by dint of sheer malice for its own sake?
“He shredded cabbage and timed its cooking.”
“A prospect is a prospect is a prospect.”
“Warmth, warmth, and more warmth, eh?”
We spend a little senile time with various members of the committee… gentle nudges as to what hilarity we should not divulge to others about ourselves?
‘Joseph Harp, madam, and here with a purpose. Heat exchange expert and installation engineer.’ — whom the two men bring to Mrs Burdock’s as his prospects of such warmth, much to her ungrinning chagrin:
‘It is scarcely a month,’ complained Miss Burdock, ‘since those frightful women came here with corsets. And now a man with central heating.’
‘it’s this hot weather that’s affecting Burdock. You understand how disastrous a run of heat can be for the ageing virgin?’
General Sanctuary who “could quote long passages from all the works of G. A. Henty, and quite often he did.”
‘There is only one man I can call upon. You, General Sanctuary.’ — As our Prime Minister once told him, lying through someone else’s teeth? Up ad down the ladders of self-illusion?
Basil Jaraby (the son) and his budgerigars in the sanctuary of the cages and gadgets he provided them —
“He taught the cleverest one how to walk up and down a miniature step-ladder, and began his taming of another, offering it his finger as a perch….”
“Mr Swabey-Boyns was engaged on a large jigsaw of the Houses of Parliament.”
“Mr Turtle broke his rule and thought about his wife. She had died during the First World War, when he was in France, after they had spent only two days together.”
Confusin of wartime caused her death? Weeping due to his new confusions today,?
Trying to avoid a Random Harvest of memories flashing into his mind one by one?
“The little fat clergyman was always thrashing people when they did or said something wrong in the washroom.”
Who of these old boys remembered that? I can’t remember.
(I am the sort of reader for whom this book was designed, I guess.)
“‘Oh puss, puss,’ cried Mr Jaraby, ‘what disorder is this?’”
“In anger the claws stabbed at the carpet, and Monmouth, baring a massive jaw, snarled at the tufts of wool.”
This chapter is extremely sad but also wickedly hilarious as we continue to witness the backbiting of the septuagenarian Jaraby husband and wife, blaming each other for each other’s insanity, and I even got confused myself who actually blamed the pussy cat and who owned it, as if it is owned by one of them, not both! To spite the other one, anyway? I sometimes have similar quandaries in my own life.
This chapter seems strangely in tune with my reading earlier this morning of a Coverley story HERE, a fact perhaps feeding my own mad illusion that I continue to possess — or to be possessed by — increments of an overseeing wisdom regarding the Jungian literary gestalt and its hierarchy of connections!
Even to the extent, in this chapter, it is said that “Dowse was the wisest man I ever knew” and “No, my puss, it will not do. We must mend our ways. We must bend to the greater authority.”
“Split the produce in half that I may see inside. How else to know if an apple or a grapefruit is worth its money?”
I must remember that when I next buy fruit at a greengrocer!
“He spoke to himself, although his wife was still in the room.”
I must not forget Chapter 7 was mostly about their attitudes to their middle-aged son Basil, even more outlandish than about the cat! How could I have left that out!?
They even read out his school reports!
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“His eyes seemed drowsy, reflected twice in the thick lenses of his spectacles.”
Basil Jaraby visits his parents at last, budgerigar seed on his clothes, and his sad booted self seems to sadly faze his mother as she wonders how her son had been brought to this state and offers him shelter back home with her and his father. He declines as budgerigars and the feral cat would not mix! Yes, an unreadably sad chapter that simply needs reading so as, later, to be able to exorcise it from the reading mind and thus heal old age itself and the legacy of self left to help heal one’s own patchy skills at bringing up children. Or I am only tempted to read this early addled Trevor novel because I am equally addled as its characters! It is an act of SELF-exorcism, if only I shall remember that is why I am reading it. And why I spend most of my days, in recent years, time-effacingly doing these so-called gestalt real-time reviews of fiction make-believe.
“…feverish – could this be psittacosis?”
“The mad think the world is mad. You should know that.”
And inside this no. 9, one realises one knew it already! This book of fiction somehow strives, involuntarily, to transcend all others with its reality of a youngish author’s ready-made, if not premature, senile-dementia! What with 72 year old Jaraby’s idea that he is being stalked in Woolworths by a plump woman who talks to him about being naked. Then Jaraby accosting his and his wife’s shared doctor about her mental health, and talking to him about his son Basil being a near-criminal. Then, through the author’s eyes if not Jaraby’s, we listen to Mrs Jaraby talking about Basil living with them and making things saner and more civilised with his caged birds. Basil had been estranged from his parents for at least 15 years, unless his mother had visited him on the quiet, by the way, Jaraby thinks.
“I love my old souls. Simple fare and a wireless, nothing more they ask for.”
I remember the old days when people about my age now would be happy with a low volume wireless as scarred by static in the background and simple food to eat — and nothing much else to do. Now I spend time reading about them, keeping me happy, too. The image of Turtle’s Mrs Strap in particular has stirred my interest levels today…
“Despite the lipstick that marked her lips far beyond their natural boundaries, her mouth remained pinched and uninviting, metallic almost, as much like the slit of a long-healed wound as H. L. Dowse’s had grown to be.”
And also we can now make sense of the plump woman’s flirting accosting of Jaraby in the greengrocers, as she is a tool of Nox’s Swingler. And of late life romances at matinee afternoons in the cinema. And of Mr Harp, the central heating man who made the two old men at the Burdock boarding house fall in love with the prospect of ‘prospects’ as a then modern sales trap! And much else in short spaces.
“At the School a man once taught the boys in his care that New Guinea was part of Canada, that steppes were steps, that the Danube flowed through Spain. He used no text-books, and allowed only the maps he drew himself on the blackboard. They found him out eventually, but many still carry with them his strange geographical images.”
This is possibly the central apotheosis of the book. The school’s genius loci past and present, the Tragic Tree, The Old Boy’s Day, the cricket match as its centre, not its core, if that makes sense! Conversations of politeness that need its silences repairing from time to time especially when the representatives of the day’s rarer gender attends and fails to understand what ‘wickets falling’ means. Wickets of old age, too. And the middle wickets and pointlessness of being Middled Age. “…it is pleasanter to be over seventy, as it was to be very young. Nothing new will happen to us again. […] The prime of life is a euphemism.”
The headmaster’s call to Grace — alongside the spoon’s clanging thud on the table of my own school’s canteen of yore.
And the plot advances amongst our septuagenarian characters and their own plots, even talk of late life romances.
‘The world is the School gone mad.’ — H.L.Dowse
“‘Those iron window frames, Headmaster!’
The Headmaster, who detested Old Boys for a private reason, smiled.
‘They displease you, Mr Jaraby?’”
Jaraby is candid about the nature of the architecture that the Old Boys association had funded, while Sanctuary is candid about Dowse…
‘Dowse used to tell boys they were going mad. He used actually to recommend brothels to boys who were leaving,…’
Nox gives up his ambitions about being president and thinks of calling off Swingler, while Jaraby dreams in a deck chair about his fag-master of yore. This book has a naïvety charming uncharm.
“‘I wouldn’t like to have it done to me. The heart isn’t the seat of affections, is it, sir?’
‘I’ve heard it said the kidneys are. I think you know more than I do.’”
This is possibly one of the most poignant chapters in twentieth century novels of literature. Or even one of its greatest chapters, full stop. As Turtle reminisces about school prep and queuing for milk or cocoa, and his earlier today standing by the bike shed, a distance from the marquees where cake is served to old boys like him, and he thinks of his friend at school as he also talks to a boy at the bike shed about his friend, and they exchange touching non-sequiturs of conversation that somehow even make sense to the slightly so far demented like me, the boy with a boy’s own imaginative form of brainstorming dementia and Turtle with his own severe senile version. Turtle also mixes an unspoken stream of consciousness as an undercurrent to this conversation, as he thinks of his defiant romance with the Burdock woman.
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A short flash horror of a chapter that it would be best to draw a veil over, if only to avoid a plot spoiler.
“He lost his place a few times and had to keep going back to the beginning of the paragraph,…”
Turtle, and his meeting with the younger Jaraby? Is that right? I’ve forgotten … fittingly! And Turtle’s ancient love life thoughts…his head unretracting…
“Miss Burdock, Mrs Strap: between them, like animals, they would tear whatever was left of him apart. His bones would crack, his flesh would fall away, his blood would be grey, hardened to powder in his arteries. He felt afraid, he thought he might already have gone too far along a destined course and that now there was no chance of turning back. He began to weep, and the man next to him nudged his shoulder, thinking maybe that weeping was like falling asleep.”
Jaraby approaching a younger ‘old boy’ at the dusk-lit dinner in the refectory of today’s Old Boy Day Dinner, before the Mikado starts, a younger man who is a doctor and who may help the shoo-in President Jaraby’s touched’ version of his Mrs Jaraby back home in the previous chapter above…
“‘My dear fellow, a ton of signs. She has invited a near-criminal back to the house after an absence of fifteen years. Between them they will fill the house with birds. She imagines the cat is a tiger. She speaks constantly of the hand of Death. There is madness in her family.’ […] ‘What I would like from you, Mudie, is pills to quieten her. Some gentle sedative she would take every day. I would have to put them in food, she would not cooperate at all. But if I could have something that would bring a little peace to the house …’”
“Familiarity with the plot, however, allowed them to relax, and…”
“… maybe that weeping was like falling asleep.””
— to repeat.
I do not necessarily draw a veil over this extremely short chapter to avoid a plot spoiler as I did before, but because this one is so utterly shocking, with one even wondering whether one can continue reading this book at all, despite its otherwise literary power. Penguin published it, though. Any budgerigars, notwithstanding.
‘I am defied in my own house.’
And, thus, being no longer deified by his wife, Jaraby, is faced with a few events as part of what she might call the natural order. A an autonomously prevailing world of living creatures as gestalt, as it were. Events like death in the audience during The Mikado, the death of his cat and the arrival of his son Basil in the marital home with his menagerie of birds. The details you will have to read for yourself. The natural order of not spoiling a book by over-reviewing it thus remains sacrosanct. But even in the world’s unchaotic natural order or gestalt, things can stillhappen suddenly and unexpectedly, I say. Even to the extent that a reviewer may die within his or her review’s own extant ‘Null Immortalis’?
‘All our conversations are ridiculous. We speak without communication. […] The house might fall about our ears, you would not notice. You cannot erect a shelf or undertake a simple home repair. You trim the garden now and then, but the very floors might rot beneath our feet before you cared. With time on your hands, I would have thought to see you painting skirting-boards and papering rooms; helping me in my daily chores.’
‘I am not an artisan, I know nothing of such things. I cannot drive a nail or saw wood: I do not wish to: I might have mastered the crafts but chose not to. The house is in fair condition; I see nothing to complain at. […] I am in communication with thousands –’
And there are other passages of their conversation — that, incidentally, also feature lettuce and the arrival of their son Basil in the house and the latter’s thoughts about Mr Turtle — that are just as highly hilarious as those above, just as deeply tragic, too, and just as reminiscent of an alternate world where an ageing married couple’s life still subsists there likewise ….but not with such caricatural truths of it? But any echoes between our own world and their Jaraby world might really shake anyone reading this most powerful chapter possibly in all literature — echoes that may be recognisable as even slightly close to a true if mutant reflection of ourselves!
Dr Mudie arrivees at the Jarabys feeling it’s his duty to do so after meeting Mr J at the Old Boys’ Day and to check out the latter’s wife’s so-called ‘madness’. In fact I feel all three Jarabys, including Basil, are quite mad. Full of paranoia …and both overt and covert disguises, and other delusions. I think we all may be mad in reading this book at all! Or we shall be made so by it!
Dr M and Basil, incidentally, turn out to be overlapping now middle-aged old boys from the school!
“Then there was Nox himself. Nox was behaving very oddly. Nox, as Swingler saw it, was up to little good, however you looked at it. Could it be that Jaraby had something on Nox and that Nox wanted something on Jaraby to balance it? In that case, there was something to be had on Nox as well.”
Surveillance at Turtle’s funeral which, as it happened, neither the Burdock nor the Strap woman attended. Basil meanwhile frets over disease in his budgerigars. Who knows what I fret about?
“…Mr Jaraby had a theory that just at the moment of sleep he could turn gently on his side without upsetting his carefully coaxed drowsiness. He had held that theory for many years without ever succeeding in executing it. He lay still; first with his eyes closed and then with them open. It wasn’t the heat at all, he thought: it was this damned business. God knows, it probably wasn’t any warmer than any other night. God knows, probably the sweat on his body was the sweat of worry.”
I know the feeling! (Any Australian peaches, notwithstanding.)
‘I am eaten by doubt. I tell you that man-to-man. I fear that my election will not be automatic. Sanctuary seems unbalanced; Nox is a black trouble-maker.’
‘Yes, yes. Nox is the nigger in the woodpile.’
And spoiler of all spoilers Basil is arrested.
22 – 26
“Come now, how shall we prove we are not dead?”