One gets to a certain age, knows the kind of books that you like to read, have discovered lots more interesting authors to explore and cogitate upon and you start to think you have got this reading lark well and truly licked. Surely can't be many more surprises waiting? As usual I was wrong.
I belong to an on-line reading group and over the last few weeks The Unbearable Bassington has been popping up - this happens on a regular basis here. A sort of on line serendipity but hardly surprising as we are all a group of kindred spirits and if a book is recommended by one, pretty sure a large proportion of members will enjoy it. I had been lurking for a bit reading all the comments about this book and Saki and keeping quiet as I know nada about both, but in the end so much chat about it I decided I had to get hold of a copy. Simon of Stuck in a Book knew that his local bookshop in Oxford had an old 1947 edition (year I was born - shock horror) and he bought it for me and posted it and it arrived on Wednesday (by way of a thank you I sent him a duplicate copy of The Luck of the Vails by EF Benson so honour was satisfied) and really that was the morning gone as I opened the first page and read this:
"Francesca Bassington sat in the drawing room of her house in Blue Street regaling herself and her estimable brother Henry with China tea and small cress sandwiches. The meal was of that elegant proportion which, while ministering sympathetically to the desires of the moment, is happily reminiscent of a satisfactory luncheon and blessedly expectant of an elaborate dinner to come"
It is the Edwardian era and Francesca has a son, rather inaptly named Comus by his long dead father, and she doesn't know what to do with him. He is charming, witty and fun and totally unfitted for any profession in life save that of man about town, but alas there is the problem of an income and the knotty problem of how to fund his lifestyle. His mother and he have become estranged over the years, both of them loving each other, but the misunderstandings between them both too deep to be bridged.
Comus has a friend, Courtney Youghal, a rising star in the House of Commons, dashing and handsome and he and Comus both decide to court Elaine de Frey, a wealthy young heiress who would make a marvellous political wife for Courtney and a life support for Comus. Elaine rather yearns towards Comus but his habit of borrowing money off her and his careless attitude towards her likes and dislikes make her decide upon Courtney as the better of the two and Frances is bereft and angry with her son blaming him for his one chance of matrimony and financial security. "The castle of hopes was a ruin, a hideous mortification of dust and debris with the skeleton outlines of its chambers still standing to make mockery of its discomfited architect.............Comus watched her without a trace of embarrassment or concern at her mortification. He had come to her feeling rather sorry for himself and bitterly conscious of his defeat and she had met him with a taunt and without the least bit of sympathy"
By this time I had the powerful longing to give Comus a good shake and tell him what a layabout and idiot he was, but there was no need as from this stage on it becomes clear that Comus knows what he has done and the future, or rather lack of it, that lies before him. His uncle Henry has a job for him in West Africa and it is there that he is to go. The life of parties, banquets and balls is all that he knows and now it is to be taken from him.
Up to now The Unbearable Bassington had been full of brilliance and style, each paragraph a witty and pointed bon mot, all positively Wildean. There was a glittering quality about the writing which began to pall on me slightly as I felt that every single line had been taken out and polished by the author so that it was perfect with nary a flaw, but after a while I realised that this layer of layer of artificiality was just that and it was there for a purpose. We know that this mad Edwardian merry go round was to come to an abrupt end, this gilded existence would vanish and that many of the useless, careless young men would end up as cannon fodder in the Great War to come - Comus escapes this but his fate is almost as pointless and the contrast between the end of this book with the previous portrait of gaiety gives it a depth and poignancy that had me in pieces.
It is easy to despise Comus and his lack of depth and moral fibre and so when we realise that he truly loves his mother and will miss her when he leaves, and she him, it has a tremendous effect. He leaves and suffers a feeling of desolation and loneliness "For a moment he could almost capture the sensation of being once again in those haunts that he loved; then he looked around and pushed the book wearily from him......one person in the whole world had cared for him, for longer than he could remember, cared for him perhaps more than he knew, cared for him perhaps now. But a wall of ice had mounted up between him and her and across it there blew that cold breath that chills or kills affection....in his unutterable loneliness he bowed his head on his arms...."
When reading these last pages I had a lump in my throat and then a choked up feeling and I found my eyes were full of tears and the page blurred in front of me. The brightness, charm and epigrammatic style of Saki's writing had given place to a simplicity and sadness that knocked me sideways. It reminded me of something and I racked my brains until I remembered when I had felt like this before. It was the last chapter of Ishiguro's the Remains of the Day when the narrator, the butler, the perfect servant, had gone in search of the housekeeper (I am sorry her name eludes me) who he had loved but who he had kept at a distance unable to break out of his rigid formality. Up until this moment the entire book was written in this hidebound style, unable to relax even in his thoughts and then, and then, just before the final few pages when he is rationalising the fact that she has decided to stay with her marriage and his hopes are dashed and he is explaining it all to us, suddenly he stops and addresses the reader 'but why am I pretending like this when my heart is breaking?' The entire narrative style had led up to this moment, this breaking through, this opening up of his true feeling and when it happened it was totally heart stopping. I remember exclaiming out loud at this sentence and then finding I was in floods of tears and even now if I recall that moment I well up. I remember mentioning it to my daughter Helen at the time of reading and before I could go into explanation she knew exactly which sentence it was and it had had the same effect on her too.
I seem to be rambling a bit here, but you are all used to that by now so no apologies from me - I just wanted to use the Ishiguro to explain how much I appreciated this story and what an impact it had on me. It is only 150 pages long and can be read in a couple of hours and it is a gem and another author who I have discovered later on in my reading life.
I do wonder what else lies ahead and what future discoveries are still awaiting me......
The illustration above is the new edition which has been republished by Capuchin Classics. Do check out their website and look at the eclectic and interesting mix of past and present books. I have several of these in my possession and have reviewed Green Dolphin Country by Elizabeth Goudge, The Green Hat by Michael Arlen, Two People by A A Milne and Mr Perrin and Mr Trail by Hugh Walpole, the latter two new reads for me and both quite marvellous.