August 23, 2008
Linda Grant: The Clothes on their Backs
Being the obsessive type that I am, I ordered all the Booker longlisted titles on the evening of the announcement (other than the two I’d read previously). When they arrived, I saw that ten of the eleven were still in their first printing, and industry sources tell us that most of the books had sold poorly until then, some (such as Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog) having shifted just a few hundred copies. I noticed one exception: Linda Grant’s The Clothes on their Backs had been reprinted twice since its publication six months earlier. Clearly it exceeded its publisher’s expectations. Good: because it also exceeded mine.
I admit that when I started The Clothes on their Backs, I was feeling jaded about the Booker longlist experience, and to some extent just wanted to get it over with. Linda Grant’s novel changed that, and gave me the sort of pure reading pleasure that I haven’t had since, oh, July. What I welcomed most was that – at last! – here on the longlist was a book which had strong explicit themes and subject matter, vivid characters, good dialogue and a web of interesting storylines. All in all, what we expect from a fine example of a traditional literary novel (and I mean no faint praise by that).
The structure is neat, starting us off near the end of the story and then weaving back and forth through the linked lives of the characters until we end up where we began. The narrator is Vivien Amory, née Kovacs, a middle-aged woman, living in London (“I accept this city, with all its uncontrollable chaos and dirty deficiencies”), of Hungarian stock, who is attempting to get to the bottom of the discord between her uncle and her father.
My father was terrified of change. When change was in the air anything could happen, and he already suffered from an anxiety: that any small disturbance in his circumstances would bring everything down – the flat, the wife, the job, the new daughter, London itself, then England, and he would slide down the map of the world, back to Hungary, clinging on uselessly, ridiculously, with his fingers clutching the smooth, rolling surface of the globe.
Her uncle Sándor could not be more different: “a monster, a true beast,” Vivien’s parents warn her; “the face of evil,” the newspapers say, whose CV would list jailbird, pimp, slum landlord and more besides. Now we’re talking. Vivien meets Sándor, and my heart sank a little when Grant used the hackneyed device of Vivien extracting Sándor’s past by transcribing his dictated memoirs. Fortunately, this is not the beginning of a book-long entry into wartime Hungary. Grant’s skill here is not to dwell on the stories of Sándor’s past – and that of Hungarian Jews generally – but to ration them, and thus to avoid diluting their force.
Sándor plays down the effect of life under the Hungarian Fascists, the Arrow Cross – “I was one of the ones who didn’t change. I began as a businessman and that’s how I continued” – and makes the case that life in anti-Semitic wartime it was, for most of the people, most of the time, literally business as usual. But there are stark memories which cannot be effaced.
After the quarantine camp, they were all taken for a bath, the first in over three years, and their clothes, the ones they had left home in, were boiled and ridden of the millions of lice that had taken up residence there.
In clean clothes they felt suddenly reborn. They examined their rags for signs that they had once been human beings. Might this flap be a lapel, and was this an indication of a pocket? A piece of cloth bore faint traces of once having been tweed. This man’s trousers had once been exhibited in the window of a fashionable department store in 1937, with a ticket indicating a high price. But though the slaves were clean and dry, they were also starving. They ripped grass from the earth and ate it. Men were writhing and dying in their boiled clothes.
It is the connection between life in Hungary and life in Britain – a journey made in some cases with only the clothes they stood up in, “the clothes on their backs” – which animates the novel. Vivien’s parents have become cowed by their past: “Don’t ask questions,” Vivien’s father tells her when she watches news of Sándor’s trial. “No one ever had a quiet life by asking questions, and a life that isn’t peaceful is no life at all.” Sándor has come out fighting, not always to his or others’ benefit (“‘Truth?’ cried my uncle. ‘Miss, people who like to hear the truth don’t know nothing about the truth. Truth would make them sick if they knew it. Truth isn’t nice. It’s for grown-up people, not children’”). The two brothers seem together to make a whole, like the completeness Vivien experiences in adolescence by discovering how to change her appearance. “I found myself in two halves, the interior and exterior of my own head.”
Vivien’s story is a clamour of details, here there and everywhere, and at times it seems there are too many elements in the mix, some of which are not fully explored, such as Vivien’s widowhood and abortion. (I mention these as examples which are raised early in the book, and so shouldn’t constitute spoilers.) In the end I felt this fluid approach was justified, as James Salter wrote of his magnificent Light Years:
The only things that are important in life are those you remember. … It was to be a book of pure recall.
So for Vivien, the everyday things – including “the clothes you wear … they change you from the outside in” – are more pressing and worthy of notice than the increasingly distant memories of her very brief marriage. In addition, most of the scattered aspects are revisited with sufficient frequency (“Who can really remember pain? It’s impossible, you don’t remember it, you only fear it returning”) to make it clear that they do form part of a larger pattern. If the story is how the past leads to the present, then it is important to bring to life that present.
I am unsure whether I really can’t think of anything I disliked about The Clothes on their Backs, or if I was just relieved to like it after finding so much mediocrity in the rest of the Booker longlist. It’s one of those books which makes me frustrated at my own inability to convey why I got so much out of it: suffice it to say that I feel I haven’t touched on half the qualities – did I mention the just-so humour in the dialogue? – and ideas – how extremism evolves to fit its society, for example – in the book. Vivien, in a youthful attempt to become a newspaper literary critic (“No one had ever defended literature so honourably from its own practitioners”), is told by the books editor:
Listen, dear, all we want to know is what the subject is, a bit of an idea about the plot, who the characters are and whether the author has pulled off what they set out to do.
Oh. Right. Give me a minute.