Tuesday, July 12, 2005

how they lived

In the past few weeks, I finished reading novelist Paul Watkin's memoir of being educated in English public schools (private, fyi), Stand Before Your God: An American Schoolboy's Education in England; David Sedaris' essays on his family, Dress Up Your Family in Denim and Corduroy; and Beverley Nichols book, the first in a trilogy, on creating a new garden at an old English Georgian country estate in the 1950s, Merry Hall.

Watkins was the son of Welsh parents who immigrated to the United States. He writes that at the age of seven, he was taken to the Dragon School, without much understanding that his father would leave him there. While pointing out some of the cruelties and hardness of such a schooling, he doesn't much whine about them. Rather, he accepts it all as he go through the Dragon School and later Eton. He learns to survive. He returned to America for the holidays, but found that he was an outsider in both cultures. Early on, he retreats into a fantasy world, the start of what became a great need to write and create stories.

Sedaris guts his family -- there is no other way to put it. All families are peculiar, and he gives us blunt portraits of his parents and his siblings as well as himself. He writes about his late mother, portraying a particularly lively person, and one senses that her vividness, her sharp attitudes, her sense of action and humor were all traits that he appreciated. He is a very funny writer who appears both small and fearless at the same time.

Reading Nichols reminded me of the neighbor in one of those Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy movies (the movie where she defends a woman who shot her husband and he is the prosecutor). There is a bachelor neighbor who comes in and spouts a mile a minute what was considered to be facile and clever and silly things, while playing the piano. He is cocktail party witty, which of course, was the 1950s way of portraying a particular kind of bachelor -- the gay man who is the ironic, disinterested observer of the war between the sexes. After WWII, Nichols bought an old country estate, and the book sets out how he tore out the overgrowth from the previous owner and restored a proper garden. The danger of his writing is that he is so lithe and silly that it is easy to became exasperated with his tone. He is vicious about the women in his life, particularly a couple of locals who overreact to his garden plans. He has a great portrait of the old gardener who was truly a master of the craft, and he provides glimpses of the whimsical and necessary choices that he made for creating the new garden. There is one section urging the reader to create a woods, saying that it takes about ten years to start seeing the result. Yes, I could create a woods...hmmm.

1 comment:

lemming said...

There's much to be said for the community built by the English public school system, though obviously plenty to be said against it. Sounds avery interesting novel - "To Serve Them All My Days" is one of my favorite reads.

Sometimes Sedaris is wonderful and at other times it feels to me that he's repeating himself. Why I enjoy this in music and not in reading I cannot say, but there it is. :-)

Love your description of Nichols.