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Lord Jim at Home by Dinah Brooke review – an upper-class monster - The Guardian

Author: class monster

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/oct/28/lord-jim-at-home-by-dinah-brooke-review-an-upper-class-monster

Image of Lord Jim at Home by Dinah Brooke review – an upper-class monster - The Guardian

Lord Jim at Home probably wasn’t aimed at the faint-hearted even in its year of original publication, 1973, when alarming the audience was at its height as both method and literary goal.Its target social anxieties – slyly presented and self-mirroring – belong to the two decades following the second world war, when the fear of the managing classes was that, given half a chance, whole sections of society would break the social and cultural contract, reject the capitalist project, and enjoy themselves instead.Fifty years later it reappears in a timely edition with an introduction by Ottessa Moshfegh, someone who has done her own share of alarming the audience.Born into privilege somewhere in Cornwall in the 1920s, Giles Trenchard receives a bizarre yet commonplace induction into the upper middle class life of the time.His sense of worth is depleted before he leaves the nursery, by the interlocking efforts of a drunken, bleakly dismissive and mostly absent father and a nanny determined to control his bodily processes.He is expected to struggle towards personal agency but always punished for demonstrating it. He is separated from the mother he adores.He’s forced to eat food he can’t stomach.Nevertheless, he visualises himself as “the Prince”.It’s an emotional miseducation that can be completed only by a public school – in this case Rugby, where, already fragile and floundering, he learns to survive through mediocrity, dissociation and doing as little as possible; while beneath the vague, compliant surface that so irritates his teachers, all the suppressed needs, greeds and ambitions of early childhood still writhe.Inevitably, this contradiction will shape his adult life, which Brooke unrolls across the body of her novel, exactly like one of the fouled nappies the nanny draped across Giles’s face at six months old to teach him right from wrong in the context of bowel movements.In its day, this novel was received as a class provocation along the lines of Lindsay Anderson’s film If….. Brooke’s delivery is subtler but actually more confrontational.Her narrative develops briskly, sometimes without a great deal of signalling; there are constant playful acts of ventriloquism, gleeful switches of register and point of view.When a book explicitly signs itself as a revision of Conrad’s Lord Jim, we know roughly what to expect: we know Giles will fall from grace; what we’re desperate for is the details.When we get them, they’re fully as triggering as we hoped.Until that happens, her characters develop themselves with such deftness, such pictorial flashes of realism, that we forget they’re caricatures – at least for as long as she needs us to. It’s a businesslike kind of Viz for grownups, which she controls with surprising combinations of discipline and brisance.By the late 1930s, Giles is so double-bound that the exigencies of the second world war come as a relief: an uncommissioned seaman on board the Conradian frigate Patusan, he is simply grateful to have someone else think for him, and not to catch fire or drown.He enjoys being one of the blokes.The blokes nickname him “the Lord”.To start with, nothing much happens: the weather’s freezing, the food appalling; they hunt a submarine, catch nothing.Their job, they conclude, is not to fight a war at all. It’s to be together on the ship, as mates.In that sense, His time at sea is Giles’s idyll.And when war finally rolls over Patusan, he’s able to distance himself psychologically, even when his mates are flying to pieces around him.Brooke’s descriptions of battle at sea are so amazingly unpleasant they become anthemic – you can only glory in her skill at a delivery we might call pseudo-comic.Rage comes pouring out, unalloyed and refusing to take no for an answer.After the war, on the beach at home, our hero drifts through the moral and emotional half-light of postwar London, more comfortable with the drinking dens, the constant brief sexual encounters, life as the “unwiped arse of the establishment”, than with the concerns of his own class. By now, a failure at everything, panicked and alcoholic, he’s the most complex of monsters.We can see why he went awol from the life he was expected to have, how he slipped from the status of privileged scion to that of “shadow prince, despised and mocked by everyone”.If he is a 1970s revision of Conrad’s Lord Jim, he also seems at times like a less vigorous echo of Anthony Powell’s rootless Uncle Giles from A Dance to the Music of Time.In her foreword – rather disapprovingly you feel – Moshfegh describes him as “not really a character in any usual sense” because he lacks “the lowest level of agency and self-definition”.We can see clearly how this condition was baked in by his early experience, the product of a methodical process.Perhaps we can’t forgive him for the revenge he takes on that upbringing; perhaps we can. But that we can understand him at all we owe to Brooke’s immoderate talents.Sometimes her subject matter is as genuinely hard to swallow as the food congealing on a seven-year-old boy’s plate – “large pieces of fat, with several veins peeping through” – but the book’s success is its readability in the face of that.

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