Tuesday, February 08, 2011

William Cooper's Scenes from Married Life

William Cooper's comedies are little read anymore, or so I presume, as they are out-of-print.  In the '80s, an Avon paperback of two of his novels in one volume was very popular, and that was my introduction to his gently irreverent novels.  Cooper (1910-2002), a physics-teacher-turned-civil-servant, was best-known for five autobiographical novels, Scenes from Provincial Life, Scenes from Metropolitan Life, Scenes from Married Life, Scenes from Later Life, and Scenes from Death and LifeAlthough these novels are light, the heroes were rebellious enough that journalists declared Cooper, along with Alan Sillitoe, Kingsley Amis, and John Osborne, one of the Angry Young Men of the 1950s.  The narrator of Cooper's Scenes books, Joe Lunn, is a likable, preternaturally observant man with a droll sense of humor and puzzling talent for alienating his boss.  In some ways, he reminds me of Lucky Jim.

On the surface these are light novels, and it is difficult to understand why Cooper was controversial.  The first book in the series, Scenes from Provincial Life, was a hit in 1950, but his second, Scenes from a Metropolitan Life, written in the mid-'50s, could not be published till 1982 because of a threatened libel suit by the woman who was the model for the character Myrtle.  So they were originally published out of sequence, with the third, Scenes from Married Life, coming out in 1960. 

I recently read Scenes from Married Life with great enjoyment.  Why was Cooper an angry young man?  There is much talk about sex, work, alienating authority, and the desirability of women's working or not working. I can only think these elements were emblematic of the Angry Young Man label. The narrator, Joe, is a handsome writer, almost 40, who has never married and who works for the civil service interviewing scientists and engineers.  His immediate boss, Robert, is a friend and also a writer; they correct proofs of each other's novels. 

But there is something about Joe that riles up people in authority.  Robert's boss, Murray-Hamilton, has classified Joe as MISC/INEL (miscellaneous ineligible) on an official form, supposedly by accident.   Robert convinces Joe to remain quiet around Murray-Hamilton (and other bosses), because his manner is misunderstood.

This novel focuses on Joe's getting married.   It begins with his accompanying Sybil, his librarian girlfriend, on the bus to her train. Sybil says, "P.S.A." and  Joe is puzzled, looking for letters on a sign. Finally she tells him it means "Pleasant Sunday Afternoon, of course."

"I burst into laughter.  It was appreciative laughter.  Just before getting on to the bus, Sybil and I had been in bed together."

Joe and Sybil have a casual relationship that centers on going to bed. Beautiful, brainy Sybil looks like Marlene Dietrich, but after sex she recites soliloquies from Shakespeare.  

But somehow she is not the one for Joe. And when he meets Elspeth, a much younger woman, at a party, he immediately falls in love.  There is a charming scene in which he drops her on the dance floor and they are attracted as he catches her. And yet he doesn't see her for months afterwards.  Robert's marriage to a young artist, Annette, propels Joe toward Elspeth and the altar. 

The young women are fascinating.  Robert and Joe object to wives in the workplace, but Elspeth and Annette insist on doing what they want.  There is a scene where Joe, Elspeth, and Annette have tea in a cafe near the school where Elspeth teaches in a working-class area of London.  Annette plans to take Elspeth's job at the end of term, when Elspeth steps down, and Elspeth fervently supports Annette's right to work, much to the astonishment of the men.  Annette says she plans to have four children and teach.

Then Joe writes a novel about his happy marriage.  The publisher refuses it  because of discreetly  happy sex scenes;  the  Home Office is battening down on anything that hints at sex.

Obviously this mirrors Cooper's own experiences with publishing.

It's a very funny, very sweet book.  It is not a great book.  The writing is simple, spare, charming, and unmemorable.  But I did enjoy it and hope to get back to the first two one day.

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