Friday, March 14, 2014
The Perfect Stranger - P.J. Kavanagh
The book before 'The Perfect Stranger' was Trollope's 'Phineas Redux' and what I wanted to read next was possibly more Trollope definitely something 19th century so I found myself distinctly out of sympathy with Kavanagh all the way through which in turn has coloured my opinion of the book most unfairly. Basically I couldn't get to grips with this one, in another mood I might have been able to understand the enthusiasm for this memoir, and I did enjoy the first part of it but on the whole it left me cold.
Kavanagh skates over his early youth, briefly describes school (fairly horrible) and stint working in Butlins (fairly horrible), a year at a boys version of finishing school in Switzerland (much better), and then time bumming around in Paris trying to find life (a lot of drinking) before national service in Korea. Korea was the turning point for me, the initial descriptions of national service are amusing and of a piece with the first third of the book - an account of a young man trying to find his way in the world told with humour and intelligence. Kavanagh is shot in Korea, the account he includes in 'The Perfect Stranger' is the one that he wrote near the time aged about 20, it's appropriate but extremely mannered (and nothing at all like the 19th century fiction I'm craving) and then he heads off to Oxford. Whilst there he meets his perfect stranger - Sally Lehmann (Rosamond Lehmann's daughter) it's love but one that's destined to end in tragedy. Sally and Patrick marry and things seem to come together well for them, after a stint in London they move to Java and are building a pretty good life when Sally contracts Polio and very quickly dies. That's where the book ends.
The thing is I can't believe in Sally, in Kavanagh's memory she's far to perfect to be true, she's more saint than living woman and all Kavanagh's talk of overwhelming love made me impatient. As he went on to remarry and have a couple of children it also made me wonder what life was like for the wife who had to live with his memories of this incomparable woman. As I say, in another mood I would have enjoyed this book far more, appreciated the insights Kavanagh had to offer, and felt more indulgent to what I saw as youthful hyperbole but this time round I couldn't quite connect with him.