Sunday, 17 April 2016
I"d never heard of Elizabeth Harrower until recently I came across something online that made me think, 'I have to read this book!' A long-neglected Australian writer, she sounded like someone who might have been rediscovered by Persephone Books. A flip through the introduction only confirmed that: 'She is acutely observant of the mores of London in the late 1950s, of tearooms and restaurants and trips to the theatre; and, as ever, of the intersection of class and power.'
If only I could remember the website where I read the original review ... because over the last few days, I keep thinking, Why on earth am I persevering with this! It is sapping - draining - life-destroying. And 80% of me is bored and the other 20% is thinking what a very clever writer Harrower is. (She is now 88, but gave up writing in the 1970s, )
At first, I was reminded of the L-Shaped Room ... Clem is a young law student, studying by correspondence course, giving French lessons in the evenings and living in a chilly attic bedsit. She is an outsider. 'At home the single aim was to present a front of expensive elegance, whereas in London it was obligatory to show what one was and did: this uniform reserved for genuine socialists, this for hereditary shoppers in Harrods, and so on ...'
Clem is competent, focused, independent - until her landlady takes on a troubled but charismatic young man as a window-cleaner/caretaker. Christian is a failed actor, feckless, dishonest, unreliable, alcoholic, embroiled in an appalling co-dependent relationship of jealousy and neediness with frumpy, uneducated, working-class Olive. One of his pie in the sky fantasies is a job in Paris, so Clem agrees to give him French lessons ... and is drawn into the chaos of his life. He is a leech. Clem wants to save him. He is un-saveable. Not worth saving.
And as a reader, you're bored - exasperated - thoroughly fed up with this unpleasant character's company ... and yet I've kept on reading. Which is why I think Harrower is so clever, she has let Christian make some kind of claim on me as a reader, just as he makes claims on Clem.
I'm now 50 pages from the end. I don't know how it will end. There could be violence - murder - she could destroy her life and marry him - she could get a grip and walk away ... I don't really care because she has exhausted my patience. I feel a bit besmirched as if I've spent too long in bad company and want to shrug off their tentacles.
And yet I carry on reading. Without pleasure - or much interest - yet unable to find the willpower to call it a day. I can't remember ever feeling so manipulated by an author. I've been consoling myself, thinking, Well, I'll finish this, but I'm never reading another ... then found this review of The Watch Tower ... 'This novel gripped me like a nightmare.' 'One of Australian literature's most malicious villains.'
And part of me is saying, Don't even think about it. And yet I know I'm going straight from here to the library catalogue ... The battered reader, like a battered wife going back for more?