Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam

Point of view.  This novel raises questions for me about point of view; questions that I’ve never consciously asked about a novel before.  

It seems simple.  Point of view is the method by which an author shows us the world she has created; it is the “eyes” through which we see the fictional world.  In third person point of view the author is omniscient; she can tell the story in the third person as though she is a neutral observer but she knows what a character or sometimes multiple characters are thinking.  And once she tells us what a character is thinking we see the situation from that character’s point of view.

In Old Filth Jane Gardam told the story mostly from the point of view of Eddie Feathers.  But not entirely.  Occasionally she would enter the mind of Eddie’s wife Betty.  And occasionally she entered the mind of other characters, such as Eddie’s cousin Claire.  But most of the story is the story of what Eddie saw and experienced and felt. 

The Man in the Wooden Hat is sometimes called a sequel to Old Filth but that is misleading.  It is more like a companion volume; it is a story that involves many of the same time periods and the same characters that we met in Old Filth, but told from a different point of view.  It fills in some of the gaps in Old Filth.  The principal difference is that the point of view in this novel is Betty’s, and most of the gap stories are Betty’s, although sometimes we get the point of view of Eddie and even of Veneering.  It would be easy to say that these two volumes are the story of a marriage, one told from the point of view of the husband and the other from the point of view of the wife. 

But it isn’t that simple. 

When I was a child, my sisters and cousins and I used to ask our grandma to tell us stories about when she was young.  Sometimes she would tell us a story and then, a couple of years later, tell us the same story.  And sometimes the details changed.   It would be essentially the same but would be different in some way. 

“But grandma”, we would say, “last time you said that you did such and-such on your way to the big event but this time you told us you did something different.”   Well, she said, I must have remembered wrong the last time and it doesn’t matter anyway.  But it mattered to us.  We couldn’t understand why she didn’t always remember things the same way.  And how were we (or she) to know which memory was correct?   And maybe she was just flat out lying one of those times (always a possibility with my grandma, but that’s another story).   

I had that same experience while reading The Man in the Wooden Hat.   There were events in this novel that were the same events told to me in Old Filth and they were told both times from the point of view of Betty.  They were the same … and yet they weren’t. 

For instance, in Old Filth there is a scene in which Betty and Eddie are setting out for London to sign their wills. The scene is told from Betty’s point of view.   Betty is ready and waiting for Eddie in the hallway, sitting on the red oriental chair that she calls a throne.  Eddie is puttering around upstairs getting ready.  The phone rings and it is Veneering calling Betty from overseas.  He asks where she is and what she is wearing, specifically if she is wearing the pearls he gave her or the pearls that Eddie gave her and wondering if Eddie could notice the difference.  Then he tells her that his son has died.  This is a shock to Betty.  But the conversation ends and when Eddie comes downstairs and asks who was on the phone she says it was no one important.

This exact scene is recreated in The Man in the Wooden Hat. It is again told from Betty’s point of view.  It is the same and yet it is different.   In both scenes Veneering tells Betty he is “in Orange Tree Road” and Betty points out that he is in Hong Kong.  In Old Filth he doesn’t correct her.  In The Man in the Wooden Hat he corrects her and say “no, Singapore”. 

In Old Filth he asks her if she is wearing “the amethysts” and she tells him not to be absurd, that it is 9:00 in the morning.  Then he asks her about the pearls.   In The Man in the Wooden Hat he only asks her about the pearls. 

In Old Filth she asks him if he is alone and he tells her his wife is lying down.  Then he abruptly tells her that his son is dead. The conversation ends.

In The Man in the Wooden Hat she doesn’t ask him if he is alone and he doesn’t mention his wife.  He asks her if she got his note.   She says yes.  Then he starts going on about how he didn’t mention that his son (who was in the army) had gotten a medal for bravery and then finally he tells her that his son is dead.   And the conversation ends.

Most of the dialogue is, however, exactly the same.

As my grandma would say, the differences don’t matter.   And she would be right, the differences don’t change the essential story.  

But why did Gardam decide to do this?   It was an interesting choice, partly because it is not immediately apparent what we are supposed to take from this.  If both of these scenes had been written in the first person the reader might think it was an old lady telling the story two times in old age and remembering things differently each time.  Remembering different details.  There was nothing particularly contradictory about the two versions, but each had different details.   Some of the details that are missing (like the amethysts) aren’t explained in either novel (that I can remember) and some of the additional details seem important for the second story because the relationship between Betty and Veneering’s son is much more developed in the second story.  But it still seems an odd way to tell a story in the third person. 

This isn’t the only example in the novel of things that are the same but not the same as in Old Filth.  And sometimes the differences are more important. Take the story of how the red throne was acquired.  In Old Filth Betty remembers that she bought the chair in a shop in Bangladesh.  “Yes I’ll take it”she remembers saying.  But in The Man in the Wooden Hat we are told a different story.  The story is told by Betty to her friend Amy, in a letter.  The place is still Bangladesh (or East Pakistan as it was then) and she and Eddie see the chair in a shop while on their honeymoon.  She wants it but he points out that they don’t even have a home yet.   She realizes it would be impractical but then he, impulsively, goes back into the shop and buys it and says they’ll simply send it to his chambers in London until they have a place to put it.

And then she tells Amy:

And this, not the great rope of pearls he gave me, and not the ring and that, not the moment he saw me in the Baxter butterflies, was the  moment.  Well, I suppose when I knew I loved him.

This does not seem like something that a woman would forget at any time.   So why did Gardam write it a different way in each novel?

And yes I do believe these differences are intentional, I don’t believe that she just forgot about details that were in Old Filth.  She had a reason for writing it this way, I’m just not sure what it was.

But one thing occurred to me.  Maybe we are wrong about who is telling the story.  Maybe the storyteller in each case isn’t omniscient about anyone other than Eddie in Old Filth and Betty in The Man in the Wooden Hat.   Maybe what we think are Betty’s views in Old Filth are things that Eddie thinks are important and maybe the views of Eddie in The Man in the Wooden Hat are really how Betty imagines Eddie is.  And the truth is somewhere in between. 

The Betty and Eddie in The Man in the Wooden Hat are the same and yet different from the Betty and Eddie in Old Filth.  They even have different names – they are referred to more often as Elizabeth and Edward.  In  Old Filth there is much more emphasis on her relationship with Veneering and less on Veneering’s son.   This makes sense because Eddie is afraid that Betty will leave him, but he isn’t afraid of Veneering’s son.

Whereas the glimpses we get of Eddie’s mind in The Man in the Wooden Hat  are much nicer than he is in Old Filth.  This makes sense because Betty thinks there is “nothing unloveable” in Eddie.   His biggest flaw is that he is a workaholic.  He doesn’t ask her about herself.  But he is also generous to Betty at times and he is mostly concerned that she not leave him.  He spends much of the early book trying to do things that will keep her with him. 

In this novel we find out that many things that we might have assumed were Eddie’s fault in the marriage really weren’t his fault.  It is not his fault that they have no children.  It is not clear that it is his choice that they mostly sleep separately.  He didn’t create a terrible marriage that drove her to have an affair with Veneering.   He tried to tell Betty about the key issue in his past (the issue that is explored in Old Filth) but she won’t listen to him at that moment.

Interestingly , Eddie become less likeable in Part Five, after Betty is dead.

There is also a certain mystical element to this story that I keep thinking is somehow tied to this point of view issue.  In Old Filth we are told that Betty didn’t care for Eddie’s friend Albert Ross, but in The Man in the Wooden Hat their relationship turns out to be more complicated than that.  Albert Ross is all-seeing and all-knowing in this novel (the perfect omniscient narrator, in fact) and he shows up everywhere. 

And sometimes it isn’t clear that he is actually there.  Does he really show up in Betty’s apartment after her operation?  She can’t find the card that he left on the table when he left.  I assumed that she didn’t really see him from the train window near the end of her life.   And this made me also wonder about the voices that Eddie heard in Old Filth.  They often didn’t seem to be Betty and now I wonder if they were meant to be Albert Ross.  I think about this but I come to no conclusions.

But I liked this novel.  I really like the way Gardam writes.  I like her allusions.  One of my favorite passages was her description of the moment that Filth and Veneering saw each other again after years and years apart.  They are old men now.

Feathers, expecting Achilles, saw a little old man with a couple of strands of yellow-grey hair across his pate, bent over with arthritis.   Veneering, expecting the glory of Agamemnon, saw a lanky skeleton that might just have been dragged dripping from the sea full fathom five and those were certainly not pearls that were his eyes.

Yes, I liked this novel.  I didn’t, however, like it quite as much as I liked Old Filth.   Part of the reason was that I just couldn’t quite get my head around the point of view problem.   And I admit that I was very confused by the ending in which a character who predeceased Filth in Old Filth outlives him.  That really bothered me although, again, I don’t think it was a mistake.  I just don’t understand it.   It made me want to go back and read Old Filth again, but three times in just a few weeks is too much even for me.