Relativity

Sometimes I suggest to psychotherapy clients that one mark of maturity is the ability to hold two conflicting beliefs in our head without feeling too uncomfortable. In the literary world I was more used to hearing strongly held opinions, even though I knew that sometimes people didn’t believe what they wrote.
In 1957 Penelope Mortimer, a novelist remembered for being married to the creator of Rumpole, gave Aubade a scathing review in the London Sunday Times. Never mind that she was careless enough to misquote one of my sentences, and wrote another sentence that made no logical sense. It stung. Fast forward 31 years, and a reviewer in the London Sunday Times gives a reprint of Aubade a favorable review: “It therefore treats very closely the concerns of adolescents, yet is maturely sophisticated in style and structure.”
In 1958 my agent Julian Jebb told me that Aubade wouldn’t be reviewed in the BBC’s highbrow weekly magazine The Listener, despite the literary editor being gay. Or perhaps because the literary editor was gay, and didn’t want to be seen promoting a novel with a gay theme because he was of necessity professionally closeted. It’s even possible he wanted to do his part in protecting me: the publisher Victor Gollancz thought it would be unfair to me to publish such a book at my age. Not that a stubbornly independent boy like me would ever have accepted help, or even admitted that he needed it.
Again, fast forward to 1989, and in The Listener Paul Binding gives the reprint of Aubade a very favorable review. I especially liked his focus on the new Introduction I wrote: “He has written for this edition an introduction scarcely less absorbing and revelatory than the novel itself. Kenneth Martin has a long memory, and his account of his London experiences is acid, poignant, honest, illuminating.”
What to think of such disparities? I suppose one lesson for a writer is to stick around. But I wouldn’t count on it. As I matured in the time of the Angry Young Men when middle-class Oxbridge graduates carefully adopted working class accents—sloppy journalists called me an Angry Young Man, but one reviewer congratulated me on not being angry—Noel Coward was two dirty words, despised for his facility and lack of seriousness. Today he’s acknowledged to be a master of his trade, but I pay no attention, because I’ve internalized those early judgments. Growing up, the last person I wanted to be compared to was Noel Coward.
These days my head buzzes with competing voices, imperfect memories, thoughts I’d rather not have. In the past those voices may have driven some mad because they made us doubt our comfortable selves. Maybe now we can welcome the clamor as a sign of maturity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s