My unintended run of 1960s novels continues. Margaret Drabble’s second novel The Garrick Year was received in 1964 with reserved praise; Kirkus Reviews compared its wit to Muriel Spark, their reviewer finding it “happily and surprisingly” stronger than her first, “only be faulted in that it is perhaps of greater competence than consequence”. It’s true the plot doesn’t go far – events are minimal, consisting largely of the thoughts of Emma Evans about the limited social occasions she has access to – but that’s kind of the point. Her life has been interrupted, aspirations put on hold for the sake of her husband’s career.
Bright young Londoner Emma, on the verge of returning to work with a prestigious job as one of the first woman newsreaders, reluctantly agrees instead to accompany her thespian spouse to what she considers a provincial theatre – meaning bordering Wales – for festival season. The theatrical chaos of his life as an actor has not quite yet started to grate. Off they go, babies in tow, to a rented apartment near The Garrick Theatre in Herefordshire, which did once exist, but disappeared in a particularly tragic blaze almost half a century prior to this story’s setting, when eight little girls lost their lives after costumes caught fire during a fundraiser concert.
He heads out to rehearsals and she stays at home, mulling over lost opportunities and suspected infidelities, soon beginning a defiant dalliance of her own with the play’s producer. The real drama, of course, happens off stage as the play schedule draws to a climax, having driven everyone involved a little loopy, a familiar state to anyone who has worked at a festival.
My own plans have taken an unexpected direction this year. For a little while, it looked like I was going to be spending time in Accra until along came a job opportunity in a new direction – more on which, another time. Still, I’m glad to have picked up Ayi Kwei Armah’s 1968 novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Alive, a portrait of post-colonial Ghana through the eyes of a bus ticket inspector navigating his working day and the dirty city with existential horror. Fans of James Kelman's social realism might also enjoy this West African writer.
Morale utterly worn down, he rebukes himself for earlier naivety and hope. “Was there not something in the place and about the time, everything, in fact, that sought to make it painfully clear that there was too much of the unnatural in any man who imagines he could escape the inevitable decay of life and not accept the decline into final disintegration? Against the all too natural, such struggles – could they be anything but the perverse attempts of desperate hedonists to perpetuate their young against the impending rot of age?”
The poor man is plagued also by passengers boarding the bus before buying a ticket, at whom he rages. Picking up a cedi banknote among the takings, he draws it to his nose, “so rotten that the stench of it came with a curious, satisfying pleasure”. Excruciating physical tension builds when characters exchange cash for services.
“He took the note, unrolled it this time, and pressed it flat against his nostrils. But now his satisfaction was mixed with a kind of shame. In his embarrassment he turned round, wishing to reassure himself that the bus was empty and he was alone in it. A pair of wide-open, staring eyes met his.” Amidst a backdrop of economic inertia, money is not just dirty, but vulgar.