Sunday, March 22, 2009

An Avenue of Stone

We drove 200 miles to our favorite town of bookstores, hoping it had recovered from last year’s flood. The first thing we did was walk along the river. The river is usually the scene of readers, ducks, dogs playing frisbee, canoeists, runners, artists, strolling lovers, and workers rejuvenating themselves on their lunch breaks. Now much of the riverbank is fenced off, and we walked quite a way to find access. Cranes and bulldozers stand minatory among the sandbags, defacing the landscape with their crude reds and yellows. The flood destroyed several buildings, among them the Art Museum, and, since FEMA money can't be used to rebuild on a floodplain, we suppose they're working on a new levee. The river is very high, even with the bank, as you can see from the photo above.

The rising water also threatened the library last summer. Employees and volunteers saved rare books by passing them from hand to hand up the stairs. The library survived.

We sat down to admire the blue water and beautiful spring sunlight. I finished Pamela Hansford Johnson’s An Avenue of Stone; this unforgettable novel is a masterpiece, the second of a trilogy, which can stand alone. In this brilliant novel, set at the end of World War II, the narrator, Major Claud Pickering, an art historian and writer, describes the volatile relationships of his stepmother, Helena, amidst the deprivations of rationing and the disintegrating class boundaries of the postwar society.

The novel begins with Helena's ramblings about class.

“As a class,” Helena said, “we are doomed...”

Helena, a former chorus girl who married into the upper class and has established herself as a glittering hostess, loves to talk about the rebellion of the proles. As the novel begins, the sixty-something Helena is entertaining guests with outrageous complaints about the collapse of society, illustrated by exaggerated anecdotes about rude bus conductors and insolent shop girls. After her second husband, Lord Archer, dies, leaving the majority of his money to Helena’s daughter, Charmian, and, shockingly, to his former lovers, Helena can no longer live on the grand scale to which she is accustomed. She is persuaded to let her hunky chauffeur go and move into an apartment with Claud and Charmian. Helena, unused to living without admiration, becomes vulnerable to a kind of asexual love affair with Johnny Field, an irritatingly self-denigrating young man, whom Claud introduces into the household, assuring her that Johnny needs rest and “does nothing but read.”

At first she uses Johnny as a lackey to pass appetizers at parties and install linoleum at her cottage , but later she is fascinated by him and insists that she can't live without him. Claud and Charmian can't bear the situation and move out. Johnny the unlikely gigolo, is, surprisingly, a magnet to older women. One of Lord Archer’s former lovers, Mrs. Olney, a lamp shade maker, also tries to lure him to live with her.

Claud’s observations of this unlikely triangle are the center of the novel. But his wry observations keep him in the forefront, and it is for his voice that we read. This very slightly reminds me of Anthony Powell's novels.


Ellen said...

I believe there was passing from hand to hand to save things inside St Paul's during the blitz. It was bombed more than once (deliberately). I liked the photo again.

I'm not surprized Hanford Jones reminds you of Powell. He writes of the upper class milieu from a jaundiced perspective.


Mad Housewife said...

People can be amazingly brave and cooperative during disasters. All those volunteers during the blitz... And I don't like the look of that river now, honestly. No news about more flooding, but the river is even with the bank, right behind the duck. Click on the picture and you'll see what I mean!

Pamela Hansford Johnson can be Powell-ish at times, thoughher main characters are not usually aristocrats. Claud, the narrator, is the son of a thriller-writer, and Helena marries a lord after his death. It's a clash-of-the-class society. Only Claud and his half-sister, Charmian, are truly sympathetic.

Anonymous said...

Hello Mad Housewife. Just loved your critique on the Helena Trilogy. I too am quite besotted with PHJ's books. I have a tatty copy of This Bed Thy Centre (her first novel) and already have a copy - If you haven't got /read it, would you like it? I would love it to go to someone who likes her writing, rather than re-cycle it.

Mad Housewife said...

Anonymous, thank you for your kind offer! Yes, I am besotted with PHJ, too. I already have a copy of This Bed Thy Centre, but somebody should want it.

I wish more of these books were in print: The Unspeakable Skipton and An Error of Judgment are, to my knowledge, the only ones out there.

I'm glad you read her books, too. She should be much better known. I can just see the Helena trilogy adapted for Masterpiece Theater.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever read Susan Hill? PHJ was instrumental in her becoming an author and they were friends.

She writes extremely good too - she's well worth a try if you haven't already.

I have a copy of every PHJ's books, even 'Blessed Amongst Women', which I haven't read yet, but am saving for some reason!
Nice of you to reply to me though; I will find a home for This Bed Thy Centre.

Mad Housewife said...

Thanks for the recommendation of Susan Hill! As for PHJ: I haven't heard of Blessed Among Women. I'll look for it.

Anonymous said...

Hello Mad Housewife - Seeing as you seem to read everyone and everthing that I do - have you found Sue Gee yet? I think you will like her.

Mad Housewife said...

I haven't read Sue Gee but have faithfully recorded her on the TBR list. Thanks!

sixflags said...

You have some nice reading suggestions here! I stumbled upon your site by accident but am always looking for good reading recommendations.