Men are living for longer than ever and their late-life crises provide a rich seam for the novelist to mine
My charming, beautiful, articulate and witty daughter-in-law, Catherine Ostler, who edits Tatler, had a sneak preview of my new novel, The Misogynist, and told me that it belonged to the genre “Git Lit” — at the other opposite end of the spectrum from “chicklit”. She was too polite, or too mindful of the importance of irenic relations within a family, to call it a “gaga saga”.
The publishers are happy with this categorisation. They put the novel’s protagonist, Geoffrey Jomier, in the company of other “grumpy old men”, no doubt hoping to entice the admirers of Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils, which won the Booker Prize in 1986, or those who have enjoyed the recent novels of Philip Roth. Or Justin Cartwright. Or Ian McEwan’s Solar?
Looking back to the classics, what works were the precursors of git lit? Prince Bolkonsky and General Kutuzov in War and Peace might properly be described as grumpy old gits but they are not major characters in the novel. How old was Bazarov senior in Fathers and Sons? There is the Prince of Salina in Lampedusa’s The Leopard who acts old but was only 52. And Brás Cubas in that classic of ironic pessimism by the Brazilian Machado de Assis, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas: the narrator here was not just old, he was dead.
However, these are exceptions to the rule. In the 19th century, men died at a younger age than they do now, and so there was not much to record about sixty-something-year-olds. And since novels were mainly bought by young women, the older men tend to be cuddly old dads like Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, or ghastly pedants like Casaubon in Middlemarch to compare and contrast unfavourably with romantic juvenile leads like Darcy or Will Ladislaw who would appeal to the said novel-buying young women. As Jomier notes in The Misogynist, 19th-century novelists knew which side their bread was buttered and so, when it comes to women, “portray lovely, clever, witty, charming heroines and spin elaborate narratives around what au fond is their quest for insemination”.
Perceptive critics may see my story about the late-life love affair of a divorced barrister living on the wrong side of Shepherd’s Bush as an aid to the sociological understanding of a new phenomenon — our ageing population. We have never been here before. Jomier, spending Christmas in Venice with Judith, his new love, reads Svevo’s Senilità — As a Man Grows Older — written across the lagoon in Trieste and notes that Svevo’s older man was only in his forties. Thanks to all those well-known factors — healthier diet, medical advances, Viagra — a man’s life may now continue for years, even decades after retirement. What is he meant to do to fill the time? Read? Travel? Garden? Fiddle with an iPad? Fall in love?
The breakdown of Jomier’s marriage 20 years before the story begins has left him pessimistic about finding happiness through the love of a good woman. His heart has been broken by his former wife’s move to a richer, better-looking and easier-going man. That the usurper was a millionaire Swiss-American investment banker with a house in Phillimore Gardens links Jomier’s personal loss with that of a whole class of Englishman — distressed gentlefolk — who can no longer afford to shop in Jermyn Street and the Burlington Arcade and feel that they have been “expelled from those elegant Georgian and Regency streets and squares where Sir Pitt Crawley walked with Becky Sharp” by Arab sheiks and Russian oligarchs.
Who is responsible for Jomier’s banishment to Hammersmith? Jomier blames his wife Tilly who, when she divorced him, was awarded two-thirds of the value of their house in Notting Hill and half his pension fund. But is Tilly personally culpable or are women in general the source of male misfortune? Didn’t Eve, created as Adam’s helpmate, turn out to be a hindrance — the source of all human misfortune — when she ate the forbidden fruit and persuaded Adam to do the same? Have not women since time began manipulated men with the promise of love and sexual ecstasy for their own ends? Even God is fooled by women. David gets the blame for taking Bathsheba from Uriah the Hittite. But Bathsheba surely knew that David could see her naked in her bath. Why else would she take it on the roof in full view of the palace?
What would Bathsheba’s contemporaries — say the members of a ladies’ tablet-reading group in Jerusalem in 1000BC — make of David and Bathsheba’s behaviour? Much the same, Jomier supposes, as members of a women’s book group in Kensington in the 1980s. An affair? Everyone does it. Divorce? With a husband like Uriah/Jomier, understandable. Pinching someone else’s husband? These things happen. Women, in Jomier’s view, always stick up for women when it comes to their relations with men.
However, even if patterns of behaviour from antiquity are readily recognisable in modern times (see Ferdinand Mount’s new book, Full Circle), there have been short-term undulations. Significant changes in manners and morals have taken place in Jomier’s lifetime. In the 1950s, Britain was still a hierarchical society in which one betrayed one’s place in the social order by one’s accent and clothes. Sexual behaviour was severely constricted. Catholic schools taught that those who had sex outside marriage and died unrepentant would end up in hell. Active homosexuals risked jail. Girls played safe when it came to sex: they did not want to get pregnant or acquire a “reputation”. Few of them went to university: most settled for an O Level in Domestic Science. The age-old paradigm of a husband as a hunter-gatherer (even if the hunting and gathering took place at the Pru) and the wife as homemaker was still in force.
Then came the reforms and revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, when the distilled wisdom of Moses, Jesus and all the moral authorities of the Judaeo-Christian tradition was junked in favour of modern prophets — Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer. Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex replaced Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ as bedside reading, and Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care usurped Lord Halifax’s Advice to a Daughter on the kitchen dresser. That connoisseur of fine wines and fine women, Roy Jenkins, “reformed” the laws that governed our sexual behaviour. The very concept of moral authority was ridiculed by the Cambridge satirists. R. D. Laing persuaded us that the bog-standard nuclear family was a very bad thing.
Does Jomier approve or disapprove of these social changes? He debates the question with his alter ego, Dr Jekyll in conversazione with Mr Hyde. But which is which? In Stevenson’s story, Mr Hyde is the dark side of Dr Jekyll — passionate and angry rather than sensible and scientific. But today’s sensible and scientific Dr Jekyll would read the Guardian and favour sex as a recreation from the earliest age. It is the irrational Mr Hyde with his primitive superstitions who bundles sex with marriage, procreation and unromantic love.
Jomier inclines towards the position taken by Mr Hyde. He suspects that feminism has been an own goal for women. Men now get sex without commitment and women, once bankrolled by their husbands, neglect their children to join the army of unisex wage-slaves. Does this make Jomier a misogynist? He is aware that misogyny is one of the Seven Deadly Sins of the secular state, along with racism, homophobia, elitism, smoking, obesity and religious belief. There is a thought police out there looking for offenders among white middle-class Englishmen. Jomier can no longer afford to shop in Jermyn Street. Can he afford to say what he thinks?
Jomier is innocent of faith and fatness and he no longer smokes. But is he a racist? Can one be a racist without knowing it, like the carrier of a disease? What is a racist? How is racism to be defined? Is it a mere awareness of the race or nationality of others? A preference for one race or nationality over another? Jomier likes the courteous Indians or Pakistanis who sit behind the counter in the newsagents and sub-post offices across London and dislikes the West Indian youths who saunter around in flash trainers and baggy trousers and mug and stab and drop chocolate-wrappers and pizza boxes in the street. But Jomier’s prejudices have nothing to do with the hue of human skin. Of all the ethnic groups in Britain, he likes least, the sullen, sarcastic, shaven-headed, white van-driving, uneducated, Sun-reading, indigenous estuary English.
Git Lit historians and anthropologists tell us that there was a time when communities looked to the village elders to make judgments on the grounds that the old were more likely to be wise. For some time now, it has been “youth to the helm”. Focus groups of young people tell politicians what they should do, and we now have a Prime Minister and Chancellor the same age as Jomier’s son and daughter. And all are children of their time. They do not question the post-Christian zeitgeist. The changes in manners and morals that have taken place in Jomier’s lifetime are assumed to be both immutable and good.
But are we better off than before? Is the liberated Briton happier than his or her repressed forefathers? The author hides his hand. Psychologically poleaxed by his divorce, his protagonist Jomier considers these questions but comes to no conclusion. His moral and cultural horizons are now limited to the screen of his Panasonic Viera television. A depressing scenario, perhaps, but as the critic William L. Grossman said of Machado de Assis, the creator of Brás Cubas whose posthumous memoirs I mentioned above, his pessimism appeals to many religious persons, “perhaps because, by destroying so many false gods, he leaves room for none but the true”.
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