Sunday, May 03, 2009
It was a good year for fiction, 1939. It saw the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, The Day of the Locust, some of Dorothy Parker’s stories, Finnegan’s Wake, Angela Thirkell's The Brandons, and the charming How Green Was My Valley, which I recently reviewed here (how’s that for variety?). I am now enthralled by Howard Spring's 1939 masterpiece of pop fiction, My Son, My Son, which is scarcely mentioned anymore. This spellbinding novel examines the effect of a successful writer’s poverty-stricken childhood on his later relationships - especially the bond with his golden, tragically ruined son, Oliver.
Spring’s plain style and chronological storytelling create an unobtrusive framework: nothing distracts from the dry, articulate voice of the narrator, William Essex, a successful writer who has climbed up from poverty and now unflinchingly and unsentimentally scrutinizes his past relationships. His early experiences are Dickensian, without the verbal flourishes and the exaggerated comedy. During his childhood, his mother took in washing: when Bill picked up the laundry bundles, boys taunted him and often beat him up. At 12, Bill meets a kind, intellectual minister, Mr. Oliver, who employs him for the next five years and teaches him to read. When he commences work as an office boy, he meets the most important, faithful friends of his life: he rooms with the O’Riordans, who read Dickens aloud after dinner, and their son, Dermot, who is an Irish radical patriot who has never been to Ireland, an artisan who dreams of making furniture as beautiful as that of William Morris.
Some elements of My Son, My Son are autobiographical. According to Wikipedia, Howard Spring’s mother did take in washing after his father’s death, and at 12 he left home to work for a butcher; later he found a job as an office-boy, and eventually became a journalist for the Manchester Guardian and wrote novels.
Whether the rest of the novel is autobiographical I couldn't say. Bill ruthlessly marries for money, Nellie, a conservative baker’s daughter and excellent housewife, and after they inherit her father’s business, he writes: he starts out by selling sensational stories to magazines and progresses to novels and plays. Then, inspired by seeing Dermot's beautifully-crafted wooden toys for his son, he suggests that they collaborate in the toy business. They make a fortune, while at the same time perfecting their respective arts, writing and furniture-making.
These two successful men have realized their dreams. Yet they want their sons to help them fulfill their fantasies. We helplessly watch Bill interfere with Nellie and spoil their golden son, Oliver, a ne’er-do-well, who receives every material thing he wants, becomes an accomplished liar and cheater (even stealing a book from his best friend, Rory, Dermot’s son, and later from an office), and lacks his parents intellectual and moral qualities. Nellie attempts to intercede, but Bill wants to provide Oliver with the perfect childhood he never had. Dermot is more faithful to his vision: he marries Sheila, a soulmate who shares his love of Ireland, and his son, Rory, is unspoiled, though Dermot raises him as a radical and perversely ships him to Ireland when he is in teens.
After Nellie’s death, Bill's efforts to provide Olvier with the perfect life intensify . He excuses all of Oliver’s peccadilloes, but they finally fall out over a woman, Livia, a shallow, mixed-up, talented musician/designer who flirts with father and son and agrees to an engagement with Bill. As she is much closer in age to the beautiful Oliver than to Bill, it is clear that Bill is making an error. Oliver moves out and refuses to see his father because of the engagement. And the tragic loss of his son is the greatest grief of Bill's life.
My Son, My Son is also about fathers and daughters, politics, and war. This well-written, well-plotted, fast read of a novel creates a believeable world and is one of the most memorable I've read this year.
Posted by Frisbee at 11:06 AM