Friday, March 14, 2014

The Perfect Stranger - P.J. Kavanagh

I'm not a disciplined reader, actually I'm not really a disciplined anything, but just because I know this about myself it doesn't mean I particularly like having it highlighted. 'The Perfect Stranger' was a postal book group book that (moment of shame) I was late reading and late sending on. Now I love that postal group, I'm committed to the idea of it, I've discovered some great books through it, and there was a sneaking feeling that a bit of reading discipline would be a good idea. Regardless I'm consistently late in getting to the book and this one was no exception, the reason is the same every time - whilst it may be a book I want to read sometime it's almost never the book I want to read next.

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.


  1. I read this when it first came out and recall Sally being unimaginable because so perfect too. Sally's death seemed to ruin Rosamund Lehmann's life. She dedicated her remaining years to mourning and to desperate spiritualism, alienating many of her contemporaries with her single minded dedication to contacting Sally somehow. The death of a child is hideously painful of course so one can sympathise with her.
    Many widowers turn to first wife worship eg Thomas Hardy who was both unkind to and neglectful of her when alive. I too wonder how the living second wives put up with it.

  2. I guess because divorce is now more common than death as a way of breaking up a marriage (a good thing really) I'd never given it much thought before, but heavens - you wouldn't want to be a second wife in those circumstances. I was aware of Lehmann's reaction to her daughters death through the last books she wrote, and I absolutely get it where the death of a child is concerned but in this context it was all just a bit much for me.

  3. I suppose we are too cynical to believe that some people are naturally virtuous; people like that never make a parade of their essential decency, they will never say 'I am a good person' or 'Just follow my example, won't you?' As for saintliness, it may be rare but it does occur - read the biography of Jeanne Jugan, the lively young girl from Brittany who founded the Little Sisters of the Poor. Sally in P.J. Kavanagh's memoirs is a young woman with no other side to her than the one she presents to everyone she meets. That is the way the poet remembers her and I think we ought to accept his version of events. It's curious that Sally never says much in the book. When I interviewed P.J. Kavanagh in 1974 I did ask him about this. He said, 'When I came to write the book, I couldn't really remember anything she said.' I suspect some of her character is to be found in the young woman who appears in his first novel, 'A Song and Dance', which won the Guardian First Novel Award. As for P.J. Kavanagh's later life, he married again and had two sons, both of whom I met as happy little boys. Did any poet write so memorably of fatherhood as P.J. Kavanagh? His sons were the centre of his life. Rosamund Lehmann's experiences after his daughter's death led her into spiritualism. As a Christian I believe spiritualism leads us away from God and towards the dark arts; in Scripture it is described as an 'abomination'; but no one could doubt Lehmann's anguish at Sally's death. We remain close to those who have died through the agency of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity and a real and comforting presence in the lives of Christians.
    Jack Haggerty, Glasgow

  4. In my above comment I ommitted the fact that P.J. Kavanagh's first wife Sally (christened Sarah Jane) was the daughter of Wogan Phillipps, 2nd Baron Milford (1902-1993) the only member of the Communist Party ever to sit in the House of Lords. He married Rosamund Lehmann. My words 'his daughter's death' referred to Wogan Phillipps. New readers ought not to be put off from reading The Perfect Stranger, for it is a joyous and life-affirming book. There was a long-waited sequel, if that is the right word, Finding Connections, in which the poet goes in search of his extended family in Australia. Do read Kavanagh's Collected Poems, for he writes of his beloved Gloucestershire, of his two small sons as they grow up, and of his love for poets such as Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney. P.J. Kavanagh wrote three memorable novels, A Song and Dance, A Happy Man and People and Weather as well as two exciting historical novels for children. His prose writings for the Spectator and the TLS were published in two books by Carcanet. He edited an anthology of G.K. Chesterton and wrote an introduction to the nature writer Margiad Evans who lived near Elkstone, Glos. Kavanagh wrote nothing that wasn't touched by his magic.
    Jack Haggerty, Glasgow, Scotland

  5. It's a couple of years since I read this book, and all I really remember about it now is not loving it, but as it was a postal book group choice the person who had chosen it, and a lot of the other readers loved it. Different things work for different people. I'm really grateful for all the extra information you've provided, and will explore some of those avenues in due course. I'm familiar with Lehmann's work, including her later books which are clearly marked by losing her daughter, though it's even more years since I last read them. That turn to spiritualism after the loss of a loved one is quite common I believe, and though for different reasons, I agree it's something to be wary of - I don't like seeing vulnerable, grieving, people taken advantage of.

  6. C.S. Lewis published an anonymous book after the death of his wife Joy, 'A Grief Observed'. It was later published under his own name. Joy made him promise that he would never visit a 'spiritist', or spiritualist as we say now.
    Many sincere mediums have an occult gift. (Occult means hidden.) They seem to know things they couldn't possibly know without supernatural help. Many of them talk about God.
    Scripture says that the devil can appear as an angel of light. And he can quote Scripture to suit his own ends. He did when he tempted the Lord jESUS in the desert.
    Sadly they ignore the clear warning of Scripture. I was converted from a position of absolute atheism (every bit as certain as Richard Dawkins) after reading a biography of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones by Iain H. Murray.
    The conversion experience took place over an 18 month period. I listened to the online sermons of the Doctor and read books by Biblical scholars such as Tom Wright, the former Anglican bishop of Durham.
    But my greatest discovery were the Puritans - John Owen, Richard Sibbes, Richard Baxter, John Flavel.
    My other great discovery was the Banner of Truth Magazine and publishers.
    My young brother has just died so I know about the silence that follows grief.
    Without the friendship and guidance of the Holy Spirit I would be lost.
    Listen online to Arthur Pink's sermon, The Nature of Apostasy, and to John Piper.

  7. I'm currently suffering from a bout of bronchitis so I'm a bit under the weather which is making me slow to reply to comments - but I do want to say, I'm sorry to hear you've recently lost your brother. That's a terrible thing to deal with.

  8. Bronchitis is serious. I have had pleurisy three or four times and it comes with bouts of coughing. I will pray for your complete recovery and for no more chest problems this year.
    An awfully good book is Iain Murray's Evangelical Holiness, published by the Banner of Truth. It is short, unencumbered by jargon and written by a man who has long experience of the care of souls. And Mr Murray knows his theology.
    I am reading Iain Murray's wonderful biography of Arthur Pink for the fourth time. It has been necessary because I have just finished John Dominic Crossan's The Violence of Scripture and it has left me confused.
    Crossan is an ex RC priest and New Testament scholar. But for all his cleverness (and he is immensely clever) he has nothing to say to souls seeking the Lord.
    Crossan's theology is post-modern, subtle, moral. And wrong.
    Pink, who can be frightening at times, is a wonderful pastoral teacher,
    When you are better listen to Pink's The Way of Salvation on YouTube.
    I am a former Catholic and have many Catholic friends. But the very reformed Pink preaches as no priest I have ever heard.
    Get well soon.

  9. Once again I have come to the end of Iain Murray's strange life of A.W. Pink and was left pondering Pink's conclusion that Christianity is in ruins. He died in Stornaway in 1952.
    You may enjoy watching the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas on YouTube, one of my favourite theologians, neither a fundamentalist nor a liberal. He wrote an engrossing autobiography, 'Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir' and a surprising new book, 'The Work of Theology' with references ranging from Simone Weil to Don De Lillo.
    For a New Testament scholar with a very acute mind and an endearing sense of humour, check out James F. McGrath on the Patheos blog. He is a scourge of the worse aspects of fundamentalism and is at ease talking to atheists and don't-knows.
    I love the human voice and have just finished Whitney Balliett's 'American Singers' (1988, Oxford) with essays ranging from Ray Charles and Tony Bennett to Mabel Mercer and Julie Wilson. I read it alongside Richard Stirling's refreshingly honest and affectionate biography of Julie Andrews.
    Do you like the fiction of Elizabeth Taylor?
    She is my favourite post-war English novelist, though Henry Green, Sylvia Townsend Warner, William Golding, Iris Murdoch, Naipaul, Stanley Middleton, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Forster, Margaret Drabble, Alan Garner, Anthony Powell, J.F. Farrell, Beryl Bainbridge, Alice Thomas Ellis, Penelope Fitzgerald, Penelope Lively, Sillitoe, Barstow, Ruth Rendell, Braine, early Bragg and the neglected James Hanley all run a close second.
    I like novels which take me away with them. Sjon's 'From the Mouth of a Whale' is set in Iceland in the year 1635 and is like going on an adventure holiday in the depths of winter.
    Jacqueline Yallop's 'Kissing Alice' (2009) is a find, turning as it does on the discovery of a first edition of an illustrated William Blake.
    I see there is a new biography of Blake in Waterstones, and new essays by Anne Dilliard.
    Yesterday in a second-hand bookshop I came across two books on Trotsky, one by Ronald Segal and the other by Francis Wyndham.
    Wyndham's book carries many compelling photographs. Trotsky hoped for asylum in Britain but was turned down in spite of having the support of Bernard Shaw. Opposition to Trotsky settling here came most fiercely from Churchill and Ramsay Macdonald.
    On Friday I visited Glasgow's best gin joint with a sister who was up from Cheltenham. After one of their botanicals we had early dinner, real Italian.
    Jack Haggerty.
    Publish Preview

  10. In my roster of postwar English fiction writers I ought to have mentioned Kingsley Amis for Lucky Jim and The Old Devils, John Wain for Hurry On Down and A Winter in the Hills, and Jack Trevor Storey who never wrote a dull sentence.
    How could I have forgotten Doris Lessing? The film of her novel, Memoirs of Survivor has been released on DVD, starring Julie Christie.
    And then there is Paul Scott for his great novels about postwar India. There was a marvellous and much travelled writer, John Gale, who worked as a journalist for The Observer and who wrote a haunting first novel, The Family Man, and an autobiography, Clean Young Englishman, which spoke for a whole generation.
    I might also have mentioned R.C. Hutchinson who is as good as Graham Greene in his best novels.
    And I forgot Bruce Chatwin and Julian Barnes, surely the best writers of my own generation. Rereading Flaubert's Parrot sent me back to Madame Bovary, Sentimental Education, Salammbo and the little read but delightful Bouvard and Pecuchet. Chatwin's On the Black Hill takes you to another place and time, and catches some of the flavour of the writing of the Powys brothers.
    P.D. James deserves a place in the best of the postwar English novels, particulary for The Black Tower. So does David Storey for his tour de force, Radcliffe.
    And I also return to Raymond Williams and his first novel Border Country, which you can still pick up in any secondhand bookshop where there are old Penguin paperbacks. (There's a good selection of Penguins in a bookshop run by a friendly man in Henrietta Street, Cheltenham, my first port of call when I visit the Regency town.) But Raymond Williams takes me over the border to Wales and that's another tradition entirely.
    I recommend Caradoc Evans as one of the best of the Anglo-Welsh writers; begin with his stories, My People. Gwyn Thomas wrote many fine books and you can watch him on YouTube in a series of lively documentaries he did for BBC Television. His travels take him from the industrial Welsh valleys to New York. You can see him being interviewed by Michael Parkinson. Anthony Hopkins played Gwyn Thomas him in a very witty and explosive BBC drama which I watched again on YouTube a couple of years ago.
    Just yesterday on the Patheos blog I discovered a new American writer, Lisa Mladinich, author of True Radiance, a study of women and spirituality. You can see Lisa being interviewed on YouTube, talking about her own conversion in 1992. A most refreshing personality.
    Patheos also hosts a number of pagan blogs. I like Asa West's Shekhinah Calling blogs. One on Sigil Magic and Writing is worth looking at. Asa wants to reclaim witchcraft with a Jewish twist - it couldn't be further away from Lisa Mladinich's Roman Catholicism.
    Bekinah Evie Bel has a blog on Patheos called Heath Witch Down Under (she is Australian and a devotee of Wicca).
    Patheos is committed to 'hosting the religious debate' and I find something new there every time I go on. Alone among my Evangelical friends, I believe paganism ought to be recognized as an authentic world religion. Of course I want to win them all for the gospel of Jesus Christ, but that is for another day.
    With all good wishes, Jack Haggerty.