Old Men Don’t Forget

The Misogynist by Piers Paul Read and Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

Books Literature

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.

One of the best sections is Jomier’s brief courtship of an attractive, pleasant and much younger woman who has openly signalled that much older men are her thing. Read turns their dates into something both hilarious, almost farcical, yet truthful. 

In a Roth novel the young lady would be penetrated in a few paragraphs, but despite having gone to the trouble of arming himself with Viagra, Jomier just realises that it’s too much trouble and too futureless to proceed. It makes you proud to be British.

Although this is also the familiar vein of the Hampstead dinner party/adultery novel (albeit in West London), where action is minimal, and contemplation and observation paramount, Read has played a blinder.

Funny, sharp, with the inevitable Catholicism discreetly and intelligently arranged, and a beautifully concealed twist at the end, this is the mordant novel of fin de millennium London that Martin Amis could have written in The Pregnant Widow, but didn’t. 

Perhaps because Read has been a little out of fashion lately, not subject to the primping and constant fawning by the press that Amis enjoys, he’s got hungry and been absolutely ruthless with himself and his prose and succeeded in making the novel taut and Jomier appealingly grumpy:

Jomier also dislikes the theatre. As actors prance around on a stage, it strikes him that they are having more fun than he is: why, then, is he paying them?

The delightful fruit of a master.

Matterhorn is as different as it’s possible to get from The Misogynist. It’s a first novel, but one that took some 30 years to write. Karl Marlantes served as a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam and Matterhorn has become a big hit in the US. 

The best prose accounts of Vietnam, for my money, are the non-fiction ones, Michael Herr’s Dispatches or Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army, but Matterhorn is clearly going to be at the head of the pack for some time when it comes to fiction.

There tends to be a great similarity in war stories from the Iliad onwards. You know some of the characters are going to die, that you spend as much time fighting your own side as the enemy and that war is typically horrible and futile, but occasionally fun (for some). 

The basic story of the almost 600 pages of Matterhorn is the establishment of a Marine Fire Base, named Matterhorn, near the North Vietnamese border, created at great cost and effort, but then swiftly abandoned on the whim of rear-echelon commanders. The North Vietnamese Army gratefully takes over the bunkers and the Marines have to retake Matterhorn, again at great cost and effort.

Marlantes is a competent writer but not a great one and the book’s main problem is that it’s too long. Any book that opens with a diagram of “The Chain of Command and Principal Characters” probably has too many characters. Those are the weaknesses — the strengths are Marlantes’s ability to conjure up the grind and misery of everyday life in the jungle (he has the ultimate leech story), the camaraderie and self-sacrifice of the grunts, the adrenaline of combat and to depict the posturing and plotting of those in charge of prosecuting the war. He has also skilfully miniaturised the Vietnam War into one sentence:

Then attackers and defenders joined together and bellowing, frightened, maddened kids-firing, clubbing, and kicking-tried to end the madness by means of more madness.

A ruthless editor could have made this a masterpiece, but it’s still very good and, as they say, if you’re only going to read one novel about the Vietnam War you can’t do better than Matterhorn.