Brother of the More Famous Jack

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Brother of the more famous Jack

by Barbara Trapido


This book was winner of a Whitbread Special Prize for Fiction way back in the very early 80’s.   I’ve only just read it, and yet the catchy unforgettable title, has been with me since the mid 90’s.  My first book group read ‘The Travelling Hornplayer’ by Barbara Trapido and everyone kept saying, you really should read ‘Brother of the more famous Jack’.   Well, now I have.

It is the story of Katherine who is interviewed by Jacob Goldman ‘a powerful left-wing philosopher up from the east end’ for a place at a London university in his Philosophy course – and how she becomes involved with his family.  Indeed, how Jacob really takes Katherine under his wing so to speak.    My book group agreed, as we talked about this book, that this sort of special relationship between a professor and his student, is probably nowadays less likely (e.g. would face more scrutiny).   And yet, even though you sense Jacob’s infatuation with Katherine, indeed his whole family’s infatuation with her and her with them, it feels very normal.   The idea that another family other than your own can change the course of your life is very appealing.

Katherine and the Goldman family are the stuff of fiction, of course they are.    Does anybody in the antipodes really know a family like the Goldmans and the very fecund Jane, wife to Jonathan, not to mention their precocious off-spring?  Perhaps…   it doesn’t matter.   I loved them.    I’d forgotten how satisfying a novel can be, and how delicious it is to be lost in another family, and to not want a book to end.    Perhaps I’ve been reading to review too frequently recently, and this has spoiled my enjoyment.   Reading ‘Brother of the more Famous Jack’ was for pure pleasure and for the fun of discussion with one of my book groups.  I imagined they would all love it like I did.   And for the most part this was true, but one of my book group friends prefers non-fiction, and she usually gives novels about the first chapter to grab her, or she abandons them.    She is English, she is discerning, and she is well read.  Ah, I imagined, she will love this novel.   Not so, she only got to page 50 and hated all of the characters, especially, as far as she was concerned the unbelievable Katherine, and too, the ghastly Goldmans – she didn’t believe in them and she certainly didn’t like them.

Ah, but I really loved them, even if I didn’t always like them. This is what a good writer does.   She (or he) persuades you to believe in their characters, even if only for the 200 or so pages of their existence.    Somehow, with her first novel Barbara Trapido does this remarkably.   Mostly I found the characters hugely endearing (even when annoying) and the conversations and insights, at times, acutely funny.    You sense that Trapido knows the world she is writing of, extremely well.   The whole shambolic academic snobbery, layers within layers; the English class system.   Trapido, it says, was born and educated in South Africa but now (1982) lives in Oxford.   I sense she is in this regard, both an ‘outsider’ and an ‘insider’ making her observations so acutely funny.

Laugh out loud examples (for me) as Katherine negotiates her new world and new perspectives, aware of the differences between herself and the Goldman’s are:

Katherine is being seduced by an old friend of the Goldman’s, John Millet.    “I had cried into my pillow the night my mother called John Millet queer, but I perceived a world of difference between that and Jacob’s calling his house guest an old faggot.”

Katherine in a relationship with Jacob Goldman’s son, Roger…

“I painted disloyal portraits for him of my mother in her emerald crimplene trouser-suit, reclining in her fringed garden seat with the latest Nevil Shute.  I told him that my uncle collected George Formby records.”

“You wouldn’t know he was Jewish,’ my mother said, ‘would you?’  She said this by way of complimenting me on the quality of male I had at last reassured her by pulling in.

And, when Roger heads to Africa to teach in a country high school, and Katherine’s mother says this:

“I’ve got nothing against Jews,’ she said. “It’s such a pity he has to be in Africa when you could do with his company.  Aren’t there enough blacks for him in England?’

And then too there is the very sad stuff when Katherine leaves the Goldman family to live in Europe and meets the handsome feckless, Italian, Michele – “Michele didn’t drive a Fiat.  He drove an open-topped MG.   This was not because he was an Anglophile – far from it – but because he was an oddball who liked to be different.  It was a piece of understated showing-off which I found most appealing.”     Michele offers her a Mink coat in exchange for an abortion.    Katherine becomes a mother, briefly.

And then she returns to the Goldman family, altered, grown-up, sad, and they too have changed or has just her perspective of them altered?

We find out nearer the end, why Jane the lovely fecund Jane, keeps having babies.    We see Roger in a new light and we see Katherine emerging as a new sort of women, one who wants to work (hand-knitting garments) to help support her novelist husband.      Trapido in this novel explores the role of the modern women; Jane and all her babies (because she can afford it!); Katherine who plans to run her own business, and Rosie, the almost overlooked daughter of Jane who marries right outside the family ‘genre’ so to speak, because she recognises she doesn’t have the brains or intellect which her family (snobbishly) venerate.

And in the end, it’s just such a jolly good read, which is what a good book should be.

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Tolstoy and the Chambermaid

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Tolstoy and the Chambermaid

Forty years ago, I was the chambermaid reading War and Peace in the beautiful Haukeli Mountains in Telemark, Norway.  It’s quite a big book really, and the reason I became absorbed was two-fold.   First of all, I couldn’t speak Norwegian very well, and the book became my companion on my work breaks, something to engage in when I couldn’t hold a conversation.    Secondly, I had purchased a number of literary classics on my classic Kiwi “OE “ while living and working in London, Newcastle, Manchester, and Edinburgh –  as part of my literary self-education.  Now here I was in Norge reading Tolstoy surrounded by snow, metres deep on the sides of the road … the perfect setting.   Even you might say, as close to Russia as a Kiwi girl could imagine being at that time in my life.    A couple of years later, I was on a train in Finland that stopped right on the Russian Finnish border and we (my now husband and I) were arrested for taking photographs as we walked towards the Russian border.   And that is still as close as I have been, but I do dream one day of actually getting there.

I fell in love with Vagslid, a most enchanting area which includes the Vagslid Vatn (lake) and beautiful mountains.   I learned to ski here, at first unable to even stand on skis on the flat, and then eventually able to set off alone, to traverse the frozen and snow-covered lake, to climb and ski to places with magical names like Fossen, Langasae, Åmlinuten.        I was a chambermaid and a waitress and Norway was newly rich.   I knew very little about waiting tables but I knew how to make hospital corners when making beds.  I’d learned this the previous winter in Edinburgh working at the North British Hotel during the Edinburgh festival.   But I didn’t need to know so much about hospital corners in Norway, as they had duvet (dyne) bedding which back then was quite a novelty for me.   My Norwegian language skills developed in an ad-hoc way with quite a lot of Danish imellem (in-between).   The wife of the manager of the hotel was Danish and many of the young women who worked alongside of me were also Danish – I assumed we were all talking Norwegian! My very first Norwegian phrase that I learned to say off by heart,  was Vil du være så snill å våkne meg i morgen which translates as “Would you be so kind as to wake me in the morning” (travelling as I was sans alarm clock and possibly back then, sans watch).

I plan some day to re-read War and Peace because it is such a long time since the first reading in my very early 20’s.  I’m sure that a re-reading will reward.  My hope is that I am en-route to Russia when I do this so that I can inhabit not only the pages but the real landscape.     I’ve just been reading a book to review which is based in my favourite city, Wellington.   Someone I was talking to recently, said that they love Wellington because you are constantly in touch with and aware of the elements.  The book that I was reading milked all of these elements for atmosphere and to convey somehow the mental collapse of one of the characters.  I liked the weather, perhaps even more than I liked the characters in the book.  But it struck me that as readers we inhabit so many physical landscapes in our imagination and when we encounter a landscape we know, it is doubly exciting, if done well.

Here is a recent photo of the snow at Vagslid where I spent three winters and one summer, the first winter by myself and the next two winters and one summer with John.   We have some terrific photos of our own, but mostly they are old-fashioned slides which we need to convert.

Together our greatest skiing triumph was the return trip through mostly virgin snow from Vagslid to Saesnuten and back (if I recall correctly approximately a 40 kilometre round trip). Here is a poem I wrote inspired by Vagslid.

Cross Country

From Hogmanay to Hauklisetter
the Telemark Waters once liquid
solidify
I learned to ski, instead
of love
Carol King’s earth moved
Under my feet, the frozen
possibilities
assumed a shape, snow on
ice, ice on water
Boats upturned lay lost
til summer
Fossen was a destination
and destiny
a frozen fragment
I followed reindeer
tracks, when I
might have followed you

And here is, a photograph of my battered copy of ‘War and Peace’ a Christmas present to myself as you will see from the inscription I have written, in Edinburgh, Christmas, 1972.

This was my very first Christmas without family, and as I seem to recall, without flat-mates either, as I think they’d all escaped back to the Scottish Highlands or Europe for the festive season.

Tolstoy was my consolation and he travelled with me to Norway.   Thinking of War and Peace I was reminded of the amazing spirit of the Norwegian  people recently when they gathered in Youngstorget Square, 40,000 of them, to sing ‘Children of the Rainbow’ to celebrate multiculturalism in defiance of Anders Behring Breivik.