I enjoyed Old Filth a lot. It has everything I like in a novel: thoughtful, often elegant prose, artful (but not gimmicky) construction that allows the gradual unfolding of plot and character, heartfelt emotion conveyed without sentiment, a story that ranges across time and place. It does all the right things, and does them well–and yet now, thinking back over the book, I’m uneasy by just how ‘right’ it felt. Is it possible that the novel made it too easy for me to like it? Deft, pointed, dry as it is, is it also, in a way, formulaic? Not as a mystery novel or a romance is formulaic, but in a specifically literary fiction way, and a very British literary fiction way too? The evocation of Britain’s fading imperial past, the old judge with his upright bearing like a last symbolic remnant of its problematic dignity, the indifference of his young associates to the complexities of his personal history, the staunch wife with her own, never fully specified side of the story (she gets her own novel, later), the eccentric family, London during the wars: how much of this is really very new or different? Perhaps I read Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand too recently (and Old Filth is the earlier novel), but even the shades of Kipling seem, in retrospect, a little too easy, a little too familiar. Of course I liked it: it was practically custom-made for readers like me. Not (as the saying goes) that there’s anything wrong with that…but somehow realizing how nicely the novel fits into a certain niche thins it out for me, in retrospect.
Yet I did like it; I admired it, even. The writing is persistently satisfying. Gardam finds and places details so that they surprise our attention; her people, especially Old Filth himself, are made admirably distinct through deft touches rather than extensive exposition. Old Filth–properly Sir Edward Feathers–is a wonderful mix of acerbic intelligence and suppressed humanity; the early episode with his old rival Veneering is deliciously comic. The cuts between time frames are occasionally disorienting, but the gradual accumulation of knowledge about his difficult past adds poignancy to the story of his old age, poignancy that is deliberately enhanced (a little too deliberately?) by the sniffing carelessness of the current Benchers. ‘Pretty easy life,’ they mutter, looking at him as he seems to doze after lunch in the Inner Temple; ‘Nothing ever seems to have happened to him.’ The novel is built on the dramatic irony thus introduced, as we come to know the inadequacy of this summation. ‘Nothing’ is not the sum of anyone’s experience, and yet how easy it is for them to underestimate him. The novel eloquently substitutes, for that casual ‘nothing,’ a complicated blend of suffering and happiness, work, sickness, friendship, passion, violence and humor. It ranges widely; it is engaging, often amusing, often moving. The only false note in it, I thought, was the melodramatic story of Filth’s abusive foster mother and its traumatic outcome: this is used to provide a unifying thread for other aspects of the plot as well as to develop the central problem of his emotional detachment (“You became no good at love,” his cousin tells him). Again, this is all artfully handled, but it didn’t seem necessary to me to give him such a past. It’s a concession to the idea–rejected so beautifully by the novel in its other aspects–that ordinary life is “nothing.”