New York Review Books, which is doing some of the most interesting publishing today, has launched a blog that should be worth keeping an eye on: A Different Stripe. As it happens, the last book I finished was an NYRB Classic and a curious specimen. Here’s a review/reflection.
Caroline Blackwood’s taut, efficient Great Granny Webster (1977) is a novel with a void and a chill at the center. Autobiographical to an unknown degree, it is narrated by the great-granddaughter of the title character. About the narrator’s great-grandmother, grandmother, and aunt, we learn a great deal, none of it favorable. About the orphaned narrator herself we know little more than her appalled apprehension of her female forebears. The book is in some ways reminiscent of Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood–notably in the perspective it adopts of the preternaturally observant orphan imprisoned in a a secondhand family of unsympathetic relative strangers–but substitutes a vague air of disaffection for the young Mary’s sense of persecution and injustice. Unlike McCarthy’s book, it purports to be a novel, but reportedly lost the Booker Prize by the tiebreaking vote of Philip Larkin, who admired it but bestowed his favor elsewhere because he suspected Blackwood of having written nonfiction.
The novel doesn’t so much unfold as unfurl, swish, swish, swish, in three rather static character studies followed by a brief coda that brings us graveside to descend into the vertiginous pitch-dark slapstick on which this odd reading experience ends. The first and dominant portrait is of Great Granny Webster herself, with whom the fourteen-year-old narrator is deposited to convalesce following an illness. In a great, grim house in a suburb of Brighton with a single servant, Great Granny Webster lives as a kind of carefully preserved monument to thrift and propriety, the embodied inverse of plenty and pleasure–“fiercely joyless,” the narrator calls her.
And yet–is Great Granny really altogether without her charms, however unintentional?
…sometimes after meals had been served she would wait for the crippled figure of Richards to go limping out of the room, and she would suddenly start to make a few bleak and deadpan statements without appearing to expect any answer. I had the feeling that if I had not been with her, she would still have made the same remarks aloud to herself.
“Now-a-days,” she would suddenly say, “people have been spoiled. They don’t want to be servants any more. It’s all the fault of the war. It’s this last beastly war that has given them all such a taste for working in munitions.”
She would take some saccharine from her silver sugar-bowl and drop it carefully into her tiny china coffee-cup and stir it slowly until it dissolved. She never took more than one frugal little tablet. She often told me she could not abide waste.”
“I know exactly how to answer them, when now-a-days they ask me how I would like to be their servant!”
She would pause dramatically, like an actress who expects to be clapped for her line. Her pursed little discontented mouth would give a twitch, the only movement it seemed able to make that faintly resembled a smile.
“Poor silly things! I know exactly how to answer that! If I ever had to be their servant–I would only be the most excellent servant!”
Something in this, and in other details about the matriarch Webster, I found oddly disarming. And at the end of the narrator’s eight-week stay at Hove, she startles the narrator at the train station by recalling her grandson, the narrator’s father, dead in the war, with real emotion. The narrator’s response: “Goodbye.” She’s fourteen, so this is understandable. What’s less so is how untouched by this show of feeling her mature, retrospective account of her great-grandmother is–so invested is it in the picturesque extremity of the bleakness it paints.
In their own distinct ways, the portraits that follow–of the narrator’s suicidal, fast-living aunt Lavinia and her unpicturesquely insane grandmother–are also sad descriptive tours de force. The sketch of the grandmother comes secondhand from the tales of an old school chum of the narrator’s father. While we hear almost nothing of her mother, her father is the painfully missing piece whose absence exacerbates all of the characters’ worst tendencies and miseries. He’s doubly a cipher, not only absent but mysterious to the narrator–specifically in the attachment he demonstrated to Great Granny Webster, who, in the explanatory narrative the narrator would like us to believe, is the ultimate agent of all the dysfunction besetting the family.
She doesn’t quite fit into that narrative, however, just as in the queasily comical horror of the final scene, she exceeds the space–in the ground and in the ceremony–allotted for her:
And then there seemed to be too much of Great Granny Webster to be emptied into the ground. There was something almost obscene in the sheer quantities in which she was emerging. I had expected that the clergyman would just take one handful of her ashes and throw them into the grave as a symbol. But instead he kept impatiently tipping the urn and his frozen face looked exasperated at the way that her white powdery substance would not stop flowing out.
Blackwood was a talent, no doubt, and Great Granny Webster is a bracing read in its chilly way: remorseless, fiendishly precise, generously larded with memorable scenes and characters, and frequently funny in an awful way (see especially the Lavinia chapter). The funeral scene on which it ends introduces into the mix lasting, intertwined notes of comedy and despair. By emphasizing the narrator’s undying dread of the woman being put to rest it raises the possibility that what seems the book’s cold climate belongs more precisely to the narrator.