Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Man of Property

The words 'a family saga' on a book cover would normally ensure that I would never read the book. However, a friend over from the Old Country gave me the first trilogy of The Forsyte Saga as a gift accompanied by many emphatic words and gestures to the effect that I must assuredly be damned if I did not read the first novel, and above all Interlude, which follows it. So I did.

The first page corner I turned signalled an entire chapter: 6, "James at Large", because it seemed so technically brilliant. We follow James on a visit to his brother, Timothy's, as he walks with Soames in a park, "the centre of his own battlefield, where he had all his life been fighting", and then to Soames' house for dinner and an awkward conversation with Soames' wife, Irene. In all of this, there's a very artful use of direct and indirect speech, with the former mostly James, the latter everyone else. It keeps a certain impetus, maintains a trajectory from start to finish that pulls you along at the same time as revealing to you that the real action is elsewhere. This impression is very strong during the conversation with Irene. Her reactions are beyond James' ken, and because we are looking through his eyes, beyond ours as well.

This, in fact, is the technique of the whole novel. We are never privy to the force that through the Forsyte family drives - Irene and her lover Bossiney's story is narrated by other voices; the passion is barely glimpsed though its effects are everywhere to be felt. No episode is recounted from their point of view.

They were masters of point of view at this time (the period of Conrad and Kiplings' masterpiece Mrs Bathurst) and the technique is a powerful one. You don't witness the explosion (but then, whoever does?), only its impact on those around. So, yes, I'm very impressed.

Galsworthy is a fine writer and The Man of Property is a revealing and detailed portrait of a group of people and a state of mind. And despite his rather too frequent generalisations about those people and his superior attitude to them (which got on my nerves and reminded too much of French writers and their scorn for the bourgeoisie), he nevertheless finds and elicits great sympathy for them. I don't just mean for the rebels (June and Young Jolyon), but even for the pillars of Forsytedom, such as Old Jolyon and Soames. A great moment that when Soames finds Irene's note in the jewellery box, which he'd been sure he would find empty.

Two curiosities. First, there's an anticipation of the famous Groucho Marx quote, "I would never join any club that would have people like me as a member"? Old Jolyon had joined his club after being refused entry to the Hotch Potch "owing to his being in trade". It continues: "He naturally despised the club that did take him."

Second - the cover of this Penguin edition, which I cannot find on Amazon and can't be bothered looking elsewhere, shows a stately pillar belonging to such a house as Soames might live in. The number on the pillar is 61. Soames lives at 62; the number 61 is never mentioned. I've just looked on Amazon and noted that the cover of volume 3 is a very similar shot, but now the number is 63. Is this an in-joke, or is the universe even more mysterious than I thought it was?

About Interlude tomorrow.

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