The other side of Paradise
SHORT STORIES: CATHY DILLONreviews The Unspoken Truth: A Quartet of Bloomsbury StoriesBy Angelica Garnett Chatto Windus, 304pp, £15
IT’S A nice paradox that fiction can sometimes bring us closer to the truth than fact. In these four autobiographical stories there is an insistent, if quiet, chime of memory and lived experience. Not that Angelica Garnett is afraid of fact: her revealing memoir, Deceived With Kindness(1985) put a slight damper on the upsurge of enthusiasm for the Bloomsbury set that had got going in earnest with her half-brother Quentin Bell’s fascinating, two-part biography of their aunt, Virginia Woolf, published in 1974 – and was set to grow .
As regards this new book, Garnett was recently quoted as saying that while the characters have been given new names and the stories are written in the third person, “they’re completely truthful, they’re all autobiographical and not invented, except perhaps for the little story called The Birthday Party, I mean I’ve just embroidered it a little bit”.
Garnett, now 91, is the daughter of the artists Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister) and Duncan Grant. She was brought up believing that Clive Bell, Vanessa’s husband, was her father and was told the truth only when she was 18. She subsequently married one of her biological father’s former lovers, David Garnett, though they later separated. While to outsiders the charmed lives of the talented, privileged “Bloomsberries” may have seemed enviable, Garnett’s memoir illustrated that there was a price to be paid for their artistic innovation and personal freedom and what one critic has called their “messianic self-importance” – and that it was, to some extent at least, paid by their children. To her, her mother was not just the calm, beautiful, and gifted creature of legend, who managed to combine her artistic career with a colourful yet fulfilling domestic life, but also a needy and self-absorbed woman in love with a bisexual man (Grant).
Is this the model for the mother of young Bettina who is remembered in the first story, When All the Leaves Were Green, My Love?Bettina is split between two worlds – the brown-bread-and-butter world of her nanny, Nan, which is secure and full of common sense but dull, and her Maman’s world – full of silk and sunlight and enjoyment, but one in which “every word meant at least two things and the uppermost one was the least important” and in which she cannot help but detect a subtle but pervasive falseness: “Most things were said as jokes, but there was always a lick at the end like a cat’s tongue, which ruffled the petals inside her, and sometimes jerked something out of her which she wished she hadn’t said.”
Of course she can’t resist the allure: “Nan’s world, as good as it was, was put into the shade by the impure pleasures of the studio where the rewards were so unreal and ephemeral.”
Like Garnett, Bettina has two much older brothers (Garnett’s were half-brothers), one of whom dies while fighting in a faraway war. There is a man who lives with them – a friend of Maman’s, Jamie, with whom she feels a strange connection entirely absent from her relationship with her “father”, Howard. Garnett is very good at conveying the confusion and isolation of this child who senses that there is something amiss but cannot quite figure out what.
And the problem is not just the deception about her parentage but the lack of real nurturing from these dazzling adults, who didn’t cherish her just for herself, but required her to measure up : “As the door shut, Bettina would hear her name mentioned, and the words ‘charming, charming’. What did it mean and why did that word give her a shivery feeling, so that she could never use it herself?”
As the only girl Bettina is indulged but there is no unconditional affection. And when the adults talk about other people, their ability to undermine disturbs her.
“Bettina joined in the family discussions, feeling clever, encouraged to peel people’s reality away from them, encouraged to be not cruel, but unkind . . . And yet there were moments when she was shocked by the unkindness of the others and protested, only to be snubbed by the grown-ups.”
Even when she finds out that Jamie is her father, she is not allowed to let on that she knows, and besides, “ . . . as she eventually realised, Jamie was an unsatisfactory father – perhaps he had never really wanted to be one. His real children were his paintings”.
And so “paradise though glowing and golden, was a lonely place”. Small wonder then that the protagonist, when she gets a little older and shows up as Agnès in the second and main story, Aurore, and even as an older woman, Helen, in the final story, Friendship, is insecure, and has difficulty knowing who she is and what artistic talent, if any, she has.
In Aurore, the young woman, Agnès, spends time in Paris with friends of friends of the family, a young couple, Juliana and Gilles, who provide her with a different example and a respite from her gifted but overbearing family. It is temporary however and she returns to London to try – and fail – as an actress. Years later, when Gilles and Juliana’s daughter, the Aurore of the title, looks like succeeding in the same career, Agnès secretly undermines her – and pays the price for her betrayal in the form of a guilt that she cannot, even as an old woman, assuage.
This main story shows both the strengths and weaknesses of Garnett’s style. There is a wealth of detail and description – of people and places and most of all of the narrator’s thoughts and emotions. Mostly, Garnett’s ability to pin down a feeling – or a room, or a river – is exhilarating, but sometimes, in the case of Juliana, for example, all the observation somehow doesn’t quite cohere into a real character.
The Birthday Partyis a short, vivid vignette in which a woman, Emily, comes to visit a dying artist (Grant?), but fails to break through a barrier that is between them and say what she would like to.
Finally, in Friendship, Helen, an older woman artist living in the south of France (as Garnett herself has done since the 1980s), befriends a younger couple, also artists, whose self possession and determination she envies, even as she questions their odd detachment from their young son – whose isolation Helen understands only too well.
Ironically, it is in her controversial memoir and now in these short stories, plainly informed by her own early experiences – and their reverberations throughout her life – that Garnett has found her own voice, her own artistic expression – and a way of gaining power over them.
Cathy Dillon is an Irish Timesjournalist