Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

"A Summer Bird-cage" by Margaret Drabble (Penguin, 1967)

A book of its time, set in the early 60s I think - there are several instances of "being gay". I presume we're supposed to dislike Sarah, the main character, immediately. The voice isn't entirely convincing at the start. Would someone with a good Oxford first in literature use the word "time" quite so many times as is done in the following? Or maybe it's deliberate

I felt that it was time I stopped wasting time. I don't know why I hate wasting time so much.
I hadn't really been doing anything in Paris. I had gone there immediately after coming down from Oxford with a lovely, shiny useless new degree, in a faute-de-mieux middle-class way, to fill in time. To fill in time till what? What indeed?

She talks like this - "I met an absolutely wonderful man called Martin who worked in a bookshop, and he spoke such wonderful French that everyone thought he was, he could talk as quickly as they do and without thinking" (p.48). She sounds more convincing in dialogue (which on p.62 is laid out as in a script). She's in the year after Uni - just come down from "Ox". She's wary of the concept of marriage and doesn't want to have babies. Maybe that's how the New Woman thought then. She has firm views about herself -

  • "How or why can a person appear so little to be what they are? I cannot understand it: how should I, when my every instinct is for self-revelation (p.126)"
  • "I lack constancy to any image: I am constant only to effort" (p.161)
  • "Whenever I think how utterly awful it must be to have a baby I think of her" (p.179)
  • "You can't be a sexy don. It's all right for men, being learned and attractive, but for a women it's a mistake. It detracts from the essential seriousness of the business" (p.184-5)
  • "I must confess, at the risk of sounding a fool which I am not, that when he said darling to me the word hit me in the stomach: it isn't a word he uses casually, and he had said it with real intimacy, which is so rare that it brings the tears to my stupid eyes whenever it is proffered" (p.47)
  • "I feel like someone living in a paper house surrounded by predatory creatures. They believe the house is solid so they don't attack, but if I were to move they would see the walls flutter and collapse and they would be on me in no time" (p.80)
  • "I've too much wit and too little beauty, so I lose" (p.186)

Each encounter provokes a self-reassessment. Of her sister Louise she says "the humiliating period after she had cast me off and before I learned to appear to have cast her off I remember very clearly" (p.101) and "In the end she taught me the art of competition, and this is what I really hold against her" (p.103). Rivalry turns eventually to sympathy, or at least a realisation that they think similarly about marriage and having babies. One day she meets her cousin Daphne by chance - "Daphne is somehow a threat to my existence. Whenever I see her, I feel weighted down to earth" (p.114). She meets a man called Jackie at a party

there was a time when I would have cried really, I suppose, for attention, but this time I simply couldn't help it. More honourable, in one way, but more degrading.
'Most girls cry after parties,' he said, suddenly, as the car started forward in the dark.
'Do they?'
'Most of the sort of girls that I take home.'
'What sort are they?'
'You would be offended, wouldn't you, if I said your sort?'

then later in the discussion

to being high-powered I hoped I did belong, and he had caught me in a pattern of behaviour that I would like to hold to (p.96)

On p.93 we get the revelation about the nature of Louise's marriage. Around p.164 Louise reveals herself as a social snob - marge and Polytechnics are anathema. She says that her husband is "an articulate snob. He doesn't understand, he sneers" - not the first time in the book that a pot calls the kettle black. Towards the end, realisations come thick and fast.

  • "I had the extraordinary conviction that my emancipation from her was drawing near" (p.167)
  • Backstage, life seems more real - "Whatever it lacked, it had life in excess, dirty, exaggerated life" (p.176)
  • "I saw for her what I could never see for myself - that this impulse to seize on one moment as the whole, one aspect as the total view, one attitude as a revelation, is the impulse that confounds both her and me, that confounds and impels us" (p.206)

I liked the bit at the end of chapter 10, when the hands of a three-year-old girl crept up her skirt. And I like the last image of the book.

Sarah did a degree about books, and her sister married an author. She writes "Only a real idiot would use the thought of a library as an image of the womb" (p.185), says "Beyond anything I'd like to write a funny book. I'd like to write a book like Lucky Jim" and also says "I think you're the only person I know who married for money. I know they're always doing it in books but I thought it was just a novelist's convention." (p.195). The writing's wobbly in places, though that can usually be blamed on the narrator. In "I didn't hear much about it either. I was rowing at Henley. But Daphne told me there was a great row" (p.158) I wonder if the repetition of "row" is deliberate. "literally" is used quite often by the narrator - "I felt, literally, small" (p.91). "I had never, literally never, heard such words" (p.165); ... "could you literally buy everything you see?" (p.173)

Early on we're told the other characters' names, ages and connections. A few of these characters provide insights

  • Tony says "All really selfish people think they're tender-hearted, because they get hurt so often. They mistake the pangs of wounded pride for the real thing" (p.46)
  • "She lacked an instinct for kitchens and gas-meters and draughts under the door and tiresome quarrels: and, lacking instinct, she had to live on will. Willing to get up, willing to go to bed, willing to eat or sleep or love" (p.71)

The narrator makes brief appearances - "I still remember the way she said that". Chapter 5 begins "I now find myself compelled to relate a piece of information which I decided to withhold, on the grounds that it was irrelevant, but I realize increasingly that nothing is irrelevant." On the next page it says "It is only now, at the time of writing (or rather, indeed, rewriting) that it occurs to me ...". On p.207 the narrator arrives and stays - "As I sit here, typing this last page". At the end I still wasn't sure whether the narrator thought she was older and wiser than the girl in the story.

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