Perhaps the word "misanthrope" has been overemployed as a title and that's why Piers Paul Read chose The Misogynist for his new novel (or perhaps he opted for it as a sly counter-pyschological provocation to lure in the swathes of female readers Read suggests are out there).
Geoffrey Jomier, Read's protagonist, didn't strike me as especially rigorous in his dislike of women. A retired barrister, who didn't make it as far up the legal ladder as he would have liked, Jomier is grumpy and divorced and in his long hours of leisure spends much time re-examining his relations with his ex-wife and ex-lovers. But his bile is spread out fairly evenly over the mass of humanity and both genders. "No sooner has Jomier arrived at the shooting lodge than he wishes he was back home. What is a house party but a protracted dinner party — the dredging of the mind for something to say not just in the evening, but at breakfast, lunch and tea?"
Read is soon to hit 70 himself and his new work might be deemed "git-lit", a sortie for the captiousness of old age, but it's also part of a recent trend that reflects the increasingly punishing lifestyle inflicted on those who live in London (Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December is another example of this). Jomier "feels aggrieved that the English have been expelled from those elegant Georgian and Regency streets and squares where Sir Pitt Crawley once walked with Becky Sharp; that the only English to remain are the collaborators with the colonists, the acolytes of Mammon."
As you read Jomier's musings, you almost feel tempted to shout out as if at a pantomime that it is possible to live comfortably in London without having to live as centrally as Notting Hill or Chelsea and that there are one or two good schools in the capital apart from Westminster and St Paul's and their hefty fees. Read doubtless knows this, but The Misogynist is an elegy for the English middle class who until the Eighties boom hit did have the option of a nice house within a 40-minute walk of Oxford Circus.
The plot of The Misogynist can be easily summed up: old git meets old bag. Jomier, living on his own, meets an old acquaintance who was nearly an old flame. Read's description of their courtship and relationship is a skilful and witty exercise in making the mundane matter. The novel is an excellent medium for pondering on how we should live our lives, and this is Jomier's main preoccupation. Retired, he sits at home, trawling through his journals and his carefully itemised accounts, and they serve as aids in his ruminations on his past relationships and his attempts to assess his performance in life, the conflict of the genders, his children and the "what-ifs".
Some familiar literary flavours are to be found here. Jomier's anti-social attitude chimes with some of the anti-soirée themes of Larkin's poetry. Jomier's isolated and incessant picking at his past has a soupçon of Beckett, and the awkward adventures with women, something of Amis père et fils. Read has produced one of the best portraits of old age, and one somehow more plausible than the often superhuman vigour of Bellow's and Roth's old rogues.