by Jane Feaver.
Corsair, 311 pp., £8.99, April, 978 1 4721 5577 1
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Afemale undergraduate,​ newly arrived at Oxford, sees a man at a party. ‘Immediately there is an aura of difference about him.’ He’s ‘exotic-looking’ and stands out from the crowd in ‘an old-man suit’ and crumpled shirt. ‘He reaches for a fag that someone offers and lights it in the big cup of his hands.’ People like him, but are terrorised by him, as is Jane. He calls her ‘Crazy’ Jane, as in Yeats’s poem ‘Crazy Jane and the Bishop’ (her grandfather is a bishop). Men and women alike suffer the man’s contemptuous nicknames – ‘Mad Mon’, ‘Skunk’, ‘Jones the steam’ – his rudeness, his aggression, his unreliability. Women are ‘Bakies’ (from Bakewell tarts). For some reason his brusqueness is perceived – particularly by Jane, but by others too – not as misogyny and contempt, but rather as a form of distinction, of intimacy. He is ‘Ar-da-shir’, as he pronounces it. ‘You can call me Ardu. People do.’ Son of a Scottish mother and a doting Persian doctor father whom he calls, in Scots, ‘Faether’. ‘A man selling honey from the Gorbals,’ Jane thinks. She falls in love with him, and eventually marries him and has a daughter. But she fails to realise that this is a man bent on wrecking his own life – with alcohol, with gambling, with low demands on himself, with all-round fecklessness and a kind of principled non-performance – and who very nearly wrecks hers. In some way they are alike, as she slowly comes to see. Because for all her kindness and tentativeness, she has an unwillingness to compromise; well, so does he. The difference is that her refusal exempts him – she is, to use an archaic expression, setting her cap at him – while his begins with her and doesn’t end.

Crazy, Feaver’s third novel, steers very close to the facts of its author’s life. In defiance of unsolicited advice – ‘Never write in the first person, never write in the present tense’ – from a ‘Bunter-ish’ senior common room type, the novel is written in the first person, in the present tense. Its heroine, ‘Jane Feaver’, is born in the North of England, one of four children of a ‘critic’ and a mother who goes on to take a degree in English and become an admired poet. Her parents split up; both eventually remarry. ‘Jane’, like the real Jane, grows up in Brixton, goes to Oxford, and later works in publishing (for an unnamed but unmistakable Faber, down to the Kundera lookalike chairman, Matthew Evans). After ten or fifteen years, she leaves London and moves to Devon with her daughter, where she begins to write. As Lowell said, ‘Why not say what happened?’ Or, from this book, a nod at Knausgaard: ‘What’s the point in making things up? the Norwegian asks, and at once I want to believe him.’ By itself that’s not worth very much, but Feaver has spun the facts into a terrifying and generous and – actually – beautiful vortex. Nothing feels hidden, but, more important, nothing is pointless or excessive. People and things are included not because they happened, but because they are effective. The book doesn’t shrink down to Jane Feaver or ‘Jane Feaver’, but swells to encompass something I’d term ‘behaviour’. Crazy is not autofiction but a true novel, a dramatic story of fifty years of life that is impressively level, free of blame and accusation and self-pity.

The book is composed mainly of short, shuffled scenes and metallic scraps of dialogue. It works forward and flashes back; it begins, one might say, with the bell that announces the last lap in a 1500-metre race. We are most of the way through the story: daughter at college, man long gone (though continuing to harass her over the telephone). It’s a tribute to Feaver that we aren’t lost for a moment in the many changes of time and place and personnel; also that the book’s many parallelisms and foreshadowings never seem contrived or blatant: the trips to the West of Scotland at beginning, middle and end; a colleague’s wedding and Jane’s own; a birth and an operation; his operation and hers; her experience in the paraliterary professions of publishing and teaching; numerous telephone calls; various literary tie-ups, Hardy and Eliot, Milton and Coleridge, John Cheever and Adrienne Rich, all load-bearing and well-worked; the ministrations of a professional psychologist (‘On a scale of one to ten?’) and those of a well-intentioned amateur (‘She shuts her eyes, as if to meditate. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck,” she begins, speeding up. “Fuck, fuck, FuckFuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck. Fuck. Fuck Fuckfuck,” slowing down. “Shit. Shit. Fuck. Fuck,” like the blades of a helicopter coming to a stand, “fuck.” Her eyes pop open, gleaming. “Try it”’). And sex, sex and gloriously bad sex. ‘It’s over before I know it. “Argh!” He collapses, flumps down on me, and I turn my head quickly to avoid his ear.’

It’s an odd thing to say, on the face of it, but there’s something bracingly impersonal about the book. Present tense and first person, yet it’s not really self-centred. It’s much more we we we than me me me, let alone wah wah wah. This is where ‘behaviour’ comes in, the disloyal or demeaning conduct that’s described (often Ardu’s). Trivial things, in the main, but even the small scenes and marginal figures resound. The children appalled when their mother tells them how their father’s mistress snatched the glasses off his face and snapped them in two. The grandfather’s witless ‘congratulatory’ postcard: ‘Don’t know what they’re doing letting women in.’ The old professor being starved by his family at Sunday lunch because they’ve heard it’ll keep him alive longer. Jane’s doctor father-in-law brutally twisting her nipples when she has trouble producing milk. Again and again we are brought up against the gracelessness of men and women, our apparently inexhaustible flair for giving hurt.

Feaver follows her representative destiny as a middle-class woman in the late 20th century. She records the persistent sense of uncleanness and unworthiness she grew up with, and that continues to haunt her. Once, as a little girl, she is woken by ‘an acrid stench like tarmac, so pervasive that I thought the smell must be coming from inside me, something rotten, some long overdue punishment’. It’s not her at all, it’s the plastic casing of a lamp, but even then she doesn’t escape the sense that it implicates her: ‘The lamp, which had been so perfect, had been grotesquely altered, a palsy down one side of melted plastic that exposed the ugly grey bulb in a kind of curse – a pox on your house.’ Crazy is crammed with instances of flaws, pains, doubts, smells, stains, growths: a don’s ‘pasty shoes’, a child’s face ‘glazed with snot’, the ‘big square pitted tiles’ of a hospital ceiling, a jersey ‘unwashed and thinned at the elbows’.

Prettiness, meanwhile, glamour, sex, independence – these are all unattainable. Jane’s mother cuts her hair, her father forbids the use of mirrors. A commercial haircut at Pratt’s in Streatham is an act of rebellion, a session in a Photo-Me booth a trauma. ‘Grey is the colour of our school uniform.’ Her peers are haunted by the Bomb and dream of the year 2000, by which time they’ll be grown up and maybe even – surely, hopefully? – married. ‘“She’ll end up marrying a man with a beard,” they scoffed, rolling their eyes at me. Just like her dad, like George Harrison. My Sweet Lord.’ The girls cling on desperately to bits of culture, fashion, pop, but they have the sense that it’s all passing them by, like life itself. Humiliation and conventionality and passivity and banality are inculcated into Jane, even by something as trivial as the overbearing watering can on the school crest. (Cheer up, little weeds!) Meanwhile, and more seriously, Jane and her sisters have been raised in a peculiar sort of Aztec creed:

The more difficult and irascible a man is, the cleverer, and the cleverer the better: that was the logic we imbibed. The world revolves and jumps around such clever men, and it’s a kind of thrill to come up against it, to be able to prove, if I’m good at anything, how good I am at appeasing them. It’s in my blood. And I’d been able to watch Mum all those years, to listen and learn from her mistakes, who tried her best but didn’t seem particularly good at it.

All of which reminds me of a distressing line in a Kingsley Amis poem: ‘Me first, Kingsley; I’m cleverest!’

Thus equipped, Jane leaves home. When she first encounters Ardu, he’s like a negative image of Apollo or Zeus: she can barely see him, the dominant figure in the ‘old-man suit’, cupping his hands for a light. This is brilliantly kept up throughout the book; Ardu is either a voice saying disagreeable things down the telephone (while smoking and vaping), or a sort of nimbus or miasma, the Scottish and the Persian in him making a kind of Möbius strip, so that he is never all Scottish and never quite not Scottish. ‘Next to me, the bulk of him, rattling the gear stick, his chubby, decisive hand.’ He awakens associations of power and terrible glamour: Heathcliff, Richard Burton in Look Back in Anger. ‘Ardu,’ Jane writes in her diary, ‘is a figment of my imagination … How could anyone like that still exist?’ It’s not until the very last pages, ‘after fifteen years’, that she begins to show him to scale, and we almost start to see him, comically, mortally, ‘shuffling like an old dictator, dressed in ill-fitting civilian clothes’ at their daughter’s graduation, with trousers ‘turned up at the ankles to reveal a tartan lining like Rupert Bear’s’.

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