Faithful in the Dusk

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley
    Cape, 281 pp, £16.99, February, ISBN 978 1 78733 111 2

The autumnal title of Tessa Hadley’s new novel, almost in the resigned mode of Barbara Pym, is both truthful and deceptive. Relationships of love and friendship with deep roots in the past are thoughtfully examined, but the occasion is a drastic severing, placed on such an early page as to be exempt from any embargo on the revelation of plot. Zachary Samuels, who runs his own London art gallery, collapses at work and is suddenly dead. His wife, Lydia, both spiky and dependent in temperament, is bereft in the most obvious, even primal way, but the blast damage spreads outward. Christine, the central figure of the novel and Lydia’s closest friend since their schooldays, thinks: ‘Without Zachary, our lives are thrown into disorder. Of all of us, he’s the one we couldn’t afford to lose.’ There’s poignance in that tangled first-person plural, stricken of its power to bind a group.

Her own husband, Alex, was, similarly, Zachary’s oldest friend, though in a more withheld masculine style, with the added complication that the two pairs of characters became acquainted in a different configuration: Lydia had become obsessed with Alex (who taught her and Christine French, when the language was still required for an English literature degree). Zachary and Christine had formed a tentative couple, whose ease with each other could be scaled down into friendship with no great sense of loss. It was Alex who first praised Christine’s art, but Zachary who urged her to take it seriously, to make it her life, something that when it emerges makes one of Christine’s first reactions to the news of his death seem less melodramatic. She turns the key in the door of her studio and locks herself out, almost for the duration of the novel, of the room where she has in some ways been most alive, ‘where the shapes of her work waited faithfully for her in the dusk’.

While Christine turns away from art, Lydia and Zachary’s daughter, Grace (who is studying the subject in Glasgow), turns towards it, though in a macabre, resolutely untranscendent form, wanting to model her father’s death mask. She settles in the end for taking a photograph of him in his coffin, and uses an old camera and an obsolete process (wet-plate collodion) to match emotional difficulty with technical challenge. In the immediate aftermath Alex, a poet turned teacher, finds the wrong words: ‘Dearly loved, he said, and couldn’t finish. – Shut up, Alex, Christine said shakily. – You sound like a headmaster.’ Later he finds the right ones:

I would be inclined personally to take his death as yet more evidence of the supreme shitty law of life that takes away the best and lifts up the worst. Yet somehow because it’s Zachary, he won’t let me do that. I keep on feeling his resistance, and his force for good, and his belief in it. And yet I don’t know how I’m feeling it, because he’s gone.

After he has spoken, Christine sees images on television of refugees trying to board lorries at Calais, and one man spreadeagled on top of a train. She is given the thought that it would be indecent to allow herself to make any connection between private losses and public horrors, since ‘their world was privileged even in its grieving.’ I say ‘is given the thought’ rather than ‘thinks’ because this seems as much as anything to represent an authorial anxiety, the fear of swelling the corpus of the much mocked ‘Hampstead novel’, in which the states of mind and heart of comfortably-off people are taken rather too seriously. Later in the book she treats the theme more generally, in a way that might seem less stilted in a Chekhov play: ‘Is it drawing to a close, do you think? Our bourgeois sensibility. All our sadness and our subtlety, our complicated arrangements. Our privilege of subtlety and irony is at an end.’ These are tiny defensive flinches, not false notes but false harmonics, misplaced worries. Bereavement isn’t an afternoon in the sun, and a novel only attracts the modifier ‘Hampstead’ when it’s bad. There’s plenty of mileage left in sadness and subtlety.

It’s Christine who has the chore, or terrible honour, of tidying the bedroom where Zachary spent his last night.

she picked up his things one by one, glad to be alone with them: the book with its marker a third of the way through, the stale glass of water, its sides furred with bubbles, the Fitbit he had neglected to wear – he couldn’t resist a gadget. Morocco-leather slippers, backs trodden sloppily down, lay where they’d fallen when he last kicked them off, holding the shape of his feet, darkened with his sweat; picking them up tenderly, she arranged them side by side. He had liked to prowl around at home in his slippers, heavy-footed and at ease, unbuttoned, domesticated, leaving a trail behind him of half-drunk cups of strong black coffee. All these objects ought to compose him

– as, in a novel, of course, they can and do.

Those Zachary-impregnated slippers have an afterlife, when Lydia finds them tucked tactfully away in the drawer of her bedside table, already brittle from lack of use. She holds them against her cheek and smells ‘the faint leftover odour of his feet, earthy and boggy, with a tang of the eucalyptus he used in the shower’. Christine sees both herself and Lydia as having a camouflaged autonomy in their marriages. Neither had a conventional personality, ‘they called themselves feminists, yet both had chosen patterns of relationship with men which looked almost like their mothers’ marriages, dependent and sheltered; they lived their secret lives inside the strong shell of their husbands’ worldliness and competence.’

Christine’s relationship with Alex is one of contentment edged with niggles that are trivial but indicative. On the first page of the book, enjoying a warm summer’s evening, she is listening to music that he has chosen, wanting him to identify it but unwilling to give him the satisfaction of superior knowledge. In some respects he’s stubborn and impervious, refusing to acknowledge that she’s taller than him, even when they’re standing right next to each other in stockinged feet. Yet he also knows her deeply, and can muster that knowledge for her benefit. While they wait for the taxi that will take Christine to the hospital where Zachary lies dead, so that she can be company for Lydia, Alex overrides her desire to turn off the CD and presses her to listen to it.

It seemed artificial and forced, waiting until the music was over. Her thoughts were racing and she couldn’t hear it, hated its offer of complexity and beauty. Then she began to yield, under the steady weight of his hands, to the violin and piano and cello as they went hastening to their finish. They unlocked something clenched inside her … Now this moment felt ceremonial, and her consciousness hushed and paused.

All this nuance of intimacy and chafing is lightly packed into the book’s first half-dozen pages, anticipating Christine’s later description of her marital history with Alex: ‘as time passed Alex’s force had melted something resisting in her, so that she had taken on a new shape, fitting against his.’

Alex takes it on himself to drive overnight to Glasgow to give the dead man’s daughter the news in person – unthinkable to contemplate doing such a thing by phone, as Lydia would have done if he hadn’t intervened. The circumstances aren’t ideal: he finds Grace in bed with a man, who presents a sleeping back raw with acne. Alex waits for her to wake up. When she does, unsurprisingly, she scrambles away from him, her T-shirt not covering her nakedness. Alex has time to notice, disconcertingly for the reader if not for him, that ‘her dark pubic hair was just like Zachary’s.’ His strong affection for her is filtered through a particular set of ideas about assertiveness and vulnerability, attraction and protectiveness:

Her beauty wasn’t the type Alex desired in women, too forceful; she’d had this force ever since she was a tiny girl, and it had always roused some pain of protection in him, afraid for the consequences of her bluntness and lack of inhibition. He was relieved that his own daughter Isobel was reserved and feminine, knew how to take care of herself.

This is a rich tangle of ideas about women and independence, with an undefined femininity seen as closer to self-sufficiency than a more assertive style of occupying space. Christine’s idea of camouflaged autonomy seems to be something of a shared ideal, or shared illusion.

Lydia is less intellectual and academic: she did bar work while Christine worked towards a PhD (on Christina Rossetti). When the two of them were roommates she read as constantly as Christine, surrendering to narrative but still somehow capricious: ‘she closed the books mostly without comment, or with a snap judgment uttered with finality: dull, or excellent. Christine would pick up the book and puzzle into its pages, worrying over so many words. – But why is it dull? – The heroine had such a silly name.’ Lydia is the most obviously self-absorbed character in the book but also the hardest on herself. As far as literature goes she may have joyfully let her analytical skills go after her last exam, but she has her own shrewd sense of things, and of the change that attended the end of her formal education. ‘Dissent and scepticism had been easy while they were held tight inside its frame – now something more was called for, and she dreaded testing her reserves of imagination and energy, finding them empty.’ Her obsession with Alex, though not much more than a game when it began, became all-governing, though her eventual marriage to Zachary was reassuringly free of excessive feeling. Her creative energy has gone mainly into self-presentation, and a dramatic dress sense that makes people take her for some sort of celebrity, even on that awful day in the hospital.

The two overlapping sets of couples allow Hadley to examine shifting dynamics over long stretches of time. Even-numbered chapters interrupt and contextualise the present-day narrative of the events that follow Zachary’s death, diving back into the past. Christine and Lydia discovered an affinity at school when they seemed to be the only people appalled by the phoniness of Founders’ Commemoration Day. Other girls who believed everything the school told them misbehaved far more; their own behaviour was closer to ‘the subversive earnestness of true dissenters’, a phrase that offers a tidy nesting of the desires to belong and to reject, to live by a rule of resisting rules.

Alex and Zachary’s public-school friendship was a simpler defensive alliance, a pact between boys whose parents (Zachary’s Jews from the Ukraine, Alex’s exiles who left Bratislava in 1968) had gone against their own progressive political ideals to install their sons at the heart of English privilege, to ‘inoculate them against exclusion’. The medical analogy lets slip the fact that in order to achieve an eventual integration they are being exposed to a dose of rejection. They’re miserable, but understand the need to protect their parents from the fact of their unhappiness, and become a two-person society, required to ‘make up to each other, at school, for the loss of everything’. Zachary’s cheeriness allows him to mask his true feelings at home. If Alex’s low spirits are more evident then they don’t strike his parents as odd, since from an exile’s perspective his ‘pinched misery’ counts as normal adjustment.

Sexual possessiveness is one of the oldest themes in literature, and a sturdy motor of plot, but for characters born around 1960, like the quartet in Late in the Day, it must have lost at least some of its galvanising force. At one point in the 1990s, after all, they came close to having sex as a group. Zachary and Lydia had just opened the first show at his gallery, converted from a disused red-brick Huguenot chapel in Clerkenwell whose parish rooms become their living quarters. The sense of celebration in a space without personal memories, only provisionally installed, combines with dope and champagne to dissolve boundaries between the couples when everyone else has left – though ‘they may have been exaggerating their drunkenness, clearing a way through to what happened next.’ They’re sprawling on cushions when Alex starts kissing Christine on the neck, a safely marital gesture, then turns to Lydia and does the same, as if out of a sense of politeness and fair play. Again there’s the suggestion of a conspiracy of desire: ‘Both the women made sleepily responsive noises, to convey they were only half conscious of what was happening.’ Then Christine turns to embrace Zachary, crossing over into new territory, though of course they have previously been a couple.

Interviewed in the 1980s, Iris Murdoch was asked if her novels could accommodate characters for whom sexual love was not a philosophically momentous business. She said not. Asked whether this was a matter of moral disapproval or because her plots required extremes of motivation, she replied: ‘Both’. That’s unlikely to be Hadley’s position, either as a moralist or as a constructor of plots. The foursome in the new gallery is narrowly avoided, by Zachary’s catching sight of Isobel standing in her nightie at the bottom of the stairs – perhaps the only stock moment in a freshly and fully imagined fiction. Yet the apparent freedom to explore bodies without consequence doesn’t appease the imperatives of desire in the book.

Alex is aroused, immediately afterwards, by reality rather than fantasy: Christine’s hair ‘was falling down from where it had been pinned, her make-up was smudged under her eyes, her face was blurry and dissolute with tiredness and drink, she was thoroughly desirable in that moment of their married love.’ If there can be such a thing as an expressive asyndeton – the suppression of a conjunction, in this case the expected ‘but’ after ‘drink’ – then here it is.

To his credit, Alex doesn’t see marriage simply as an exercise in harmony. When he and Zachary shared a flat after Alex left his first wife, he felt uncomfortable because their living arrangements were ‘too frictionless’ in a way that masked an inhibition about real sharing. When they got married, Christine fought against him under the surface, aware that he disregarded her opinions, and manoeuvring to put herself in the right without betraying hostility, using pleasantness as a weapon in a way she sees as characteristically female. ‘He wasn’t indifferent to her moods or her feelings, only her ideas’ – a rather forlorn assessment of a happy marriage. In early days she fought him ‘for her life’, demanding that he recognise her intelligence as equal, even if afterwards she couldn’t remember why it had seemed so important. ‘Marriage simply meant that you hung on to each other through the succession of metamorphoses. Or failed to.’ Perhaps it is the Proteus myth being lightly invoked here, though it was only after Proteus had exhausted his transformations and been captured that he could be made to tell the truth. At the beginning of the book, just before she learns of Zachary’s death, Christine feels as though ‘the long years of their familiarity had grown across her throat like a membrane, so that she couldn’t easily speak [to Alex]’. Later Alex sees her afresh, without the blinkers of intimacy, registering ‘her eccentricity and awkwardness, her dreamy vagueness, and something liberated in how, reacting to events and people, she came out with her startling pronouncements, her raw pained judgments of value and responsibility’.

Hadley moves between the characters’ perspectives in a style whose equivalent in cinematic editing would be the dissolve rather than the cut. The transitions are often elusive, leaving perceptions suspended without an obvious perceiver, and sometimes there seems to be an omniscience waiting in the wings (though an intermittent omniscience would need to be called something different). Sometimes one point of view is modelled inside another, as when Christine, waiting for Alex to return home after a long drive, imagines how his behaviour, when he does arrive, will cut across her imagination of it.

The more a homecoming was anticipated, the more disconcerting the actuality was prone to be, she knew that: the arriving one walked into a shape prepared for him, not actually his own … the reality of him would be an affront: he wouldn’t fit into her preparations or even notice them, would arrive burdened with purposes of his own, breaking into the tension of her waiting.

A lovely effect, perfectly calculated to convey what a long relationship involves, the partial living through another person’s mind.

The success of this technique is dependent on the point of view having definite edges, something Hadley doesn’t always regard as a priority. A later passage seems to recapitulate the device of a nesting perspective, when the two couples were visiting Venice and Christine knew that Alex was chafing at

the round of churches and art galleries and idle pauses. He looked at the paintings absorbedly, and remembered them as exactly afterwards as Christine did, as well as having a better grasp of the political and social history behind them; when he turned away from looking, though, it was as if he closed a book and didn’t want to speak about it. Speaking was crass and everyone’s responses were predictable, he winced at them, and despised the guides with their unstoppable bland flow of knowing. Abruptly he’d seen enough: he’d leave the others to it and wait for them downstairs, or in a cafe. His patience, at the time they took, was ostentatious.

At some point during these sentences Christine’s presiding mental presence leaks away. When she’s next mentioned, lower on the same page, it’s from an external perspective, as someone who speaks ‘with steely cheerfulness’. The point of view drifts rather than shifts with purpose. The lack of definition between points of view is at odds with the way scenes are sometimes cut arbitrarily short, before the characters’ interplay has run its course, something that draws attention to the executive decisions of a writer who, most of the time, would prefer to be undetectable.

A change in novelistic point of view is a definite event, if not a dramatic special effect then something like a key change in a song, losing power when it becomes routine. When, say, Christine is described from outside (‘her awkward thinness, her quick attention and talk’), and then Lydia from Christine’s point of view (feeling with relief that the candour she has acquired after living in New York ‘was only another subtle layer of Lydia’s performance’), the topology of perspectives is precarious, a double bubble that is highly likely to burst. In any case, when points of view proliferate the psychological space available to the reader is whittled away rather than opened up.

Christine, Alex and Lydia: those are obviously the main points of view. Zachary contributes occasionally to episodes in the past. The daughters, Isobel and Grace, have their own sections. Alex’s son by his first wife, Sandy, is introduced in a way that suggests he will play a major part (his thoughts are passed on before he’s described from outside), but spends most of the book on the bench. That’s more than enough viewpoints to be getting on with, even so. It’s fair that there should be some chiding of Christine’s assumptions, as there is of Lydia’s apparent worldliness, but odd that it should be channelled by way of Lydia’s parents. ‘Christine was in awe of Lydia’s parents because in those days she romanticised the working classes, so they thought that Lydia’s inseparable friend was stand-offish. And certainly didn’t think of themselves as working class.’ These feelings are likely to be known to Lydia – wouldn’t it be more effective to route them through her?

When Alex accompanies his mother, Margita, first to Prague then Bratislava after the collapse of the Soviet Union, his point of view also loses its edges. Hadley gets a chance to display her virtuosity, adding apartments in Bratislava holding out against the affluent new reality, ‘lit by forty-watt bulbs, decorated with sample squares of carpet nailed to the walls, faux-bronze reliefs of Bohemian castles’, to the other environments she brings to life, such as a soulless flat in a Venetian palazzo done up for tourists and a tatty pub in the 1990s, where ‘mirror glass behind the bars replicated over and over, like infinite riches, the glitter of bottles and labels and coloured liquors, the cut lemons and maraschino cherries, the packets of peanuts on their card.’ Yet Alex’s interiority gets lost somewhere in the evocation of the new Slovakia. His Slovak, remembered from childhood, is good enough for him to understand that Margita is making him out to be a university lecturer rather than someone teaching English part-time in a language school. When they’re alone he asks if she’s disappointed in him. ‘What was he talking about? He’d got the wrong idea completely. What did she care about whether he was some kind of big success, admired by everyone? That was his own business. Hadn’t she had enough disappointment with his father?’ And with that disobliging and even hostile reply the scene ends, not with a dissolve but a cut, though it seems exactly the wrong moment to leave a major character’s feelings in doubt.

A shared point of view presents an opposite problem, by virtue of being almost the opposite of a point of view. Isobel, Christine and Alex’s daughter, starts dating a man in the course of the book’s action. He’s a young fogey called Blaise – there’s some dry comedy to be had with Christine’s dismay about Isobel’s apparent capitulation to his opinions and values. No fighting for her life there. The relationship seems dogged by bad luck, the dropping of a glass, confusion about meeting places, but they don’t give up. Finally there’s a meeting with a larger agenda lurking: ‘they both intended – without either of them hinting it or even suggesting it by a significant look – for it to be the first occasion they slept together.’ The shared point of view acts as a sort of busybody chaperone here, suppressing the tension that Isobel and Blaise must individually be feeling, neutralising rather than sharpening their emotions. Yet only a few lines later there’s an exemplary moment of point-of-view writing, with Isobel’s assessment of Blaise as having the self-sufficiency of a much older single man – ‘already he’d started collecting things and knowing about them’, a more deadly verdict on the page than it is for the character through whose mind it passes.

At a time of estrangement between Alex and Christine, Alex appears at their home, pleading for admittance, convinced that she’s listening just behind the door. He’s sure he can hear her breathing. Then the viewpoint switches to Christine and gives her account of the same evening: she was sitting ‘in her usual place on the sofa, arms hugged around her ribs, listening out for his step on the stair – so that she wasn’t really on the other side of their front door when Alex was so sure he sensed her closeness.’ This is the opposite of a point of view, information that no one inside the book has or needs to have. If it wasn’t flagged up the reader who spotted the discrepancy, perhaps on a second reading, would feel rewarded for alertness, but it has no value in itself. In a written point of view partial ignorance is constitutive of the perceptions being modelled. It’s an extra dimension rather than a deficiency.

There’s just one moment in the book where its theme (the shifting balance of relationships) and its method (shifting points of view) coincide. This doesn’t reflect any limitation on Hadley’s talent: the two fluctuating dynamics don’t connect and can only distract from each other. They belong to different zones of the book, one a choice of material and the other a decision about technique, both part of the machinery of the novel but as independent in their workings as the gearbox and steering wheel of a car. At the time of Lydia’s passion for Alex, she tried to entice him in every way she knew, but if anything put him off. When he visited the house she shared with Christine, he took more interest in her artistic roommate, happening to see some pencil drawings in her room and looking at her properly for the first time: ‘her stiffness and thinness, her evasive look, her dark-blooded lips in their asymmetrical smile so wary and withholding’. Then one day he and Lydia bumped into each other on Malet Street. It was disorienting for Lydia, who constantly visualised Alex’s presence, to have him there in plain sight, and her vampy reflexes failed her. It wasn’t exactly a conversion moment for Alex, but he was in no hurry to go home to his frictionless male household. It’s the first time the pair of them have been on the same page, in emotional terms, and so it’s only right that their points of view should share a sentence – ‘He liked Lydia better without her playfulness, her flirting; she was flustered because their meeting had taken her by surprise’ – a moment of truce and compatibility brokered by a semi-colon.

*

It’s worth comparing Late In the Day with Hadley’s first novel, Accidents in the Home, published in 2002, which starts with that retro flourish, a family tree. This one doesn’t denote epic sweep but a sprawling modern family. Graham Menges fathers six children with his three wives, the last three when he’s in his fifties so that they belong to a different generation. The book’s structure is episodic, to the extent that it resembles a tightly knit set of short stories, ranging backwards and forwards in time (some sections seem to betray their origins as stories by ending with a braided finality that can seem overdone). As in Late in the Day there is a pair of adult friends who met at school, Graham’s daughter Clare and Helly, with Helly, like Lydia, having the monopoly on glamour (‘grievously good to look at’, she’s an actress whose career peaks with an advertisement for ice cream). Clare’s share of the book is more modest than Christine’s and she disappears for whole sections. One self-contained episode centres on her half-brother Toby, living post-graduation with his mother, Naomi, who has turned her back on relationships with exploitative men and started a relationship with an exploitative and even abusive woman. Toby’s point of view, half-touching and half-exasperating, as he fails to assert himself in any context, is followed more consistently than is usual with Hadley. ‘Toby had been invited, without quite realising it, to a sort of prayer-meeting’ – two young men had stopped him and asked him how he felt about consumerism and materialism, and he had given them his phone number as a way of getting rid of them without seeming rude. His history explains this odd porousness – he was seriously ill for a couple of years, so that his education was disrupted and his social skills suffered – but it’s still a quietly daring decision to allow the reader to be steered by such muted perceptions.

Late in the Day is preoccupied with shifts in relationships over time, but at the beginning of her career as a novelist Hadley was sceptical about the possibility of processing experience into any sort of coherent pattern. One layer of life lies on top of another, oil on water, or simply replaces the one beneath. In one section Clare’s younger sister Tamsin is damaged and destructive, fifty pages later she’s the only sane member of a disordered household, someone the reader is forced to side with, thanks to the high entertainment value of her dialogue, though perhaps struggling to establish the chronology of these very different, equally convincing incarnations.

Toby goes travelling, yet finds himself confronted on his return with ‘the surprise of sameness’, as familiar people and places rapidly overwrite his intervening experiences. In another sort of book a preference for evasion over confrontation would be held responsible for the things that go wrong, but here neither method of dealing with conflict brings any guarantee of understanding, and evasion may be what keeps families together. Toby is back in familiar surroundings, though not exactly at home. It’s his stepmother Marian’s house, but Tamsin (his half-sister – this is where the family tree comes in handy) warns him that it’s more like ‘some weird sort of women’s refuge. Seething with evening primrose oil and female angst and synchronised menstruation and all that. We have refugees. First Naomi moved in with us, then Clare.’ It’s understandable that Marian would take in her daughter (that’s Clare), more unexpected that she should make room for Naomi, the woman her husband (you remember Graham?) left her for.

Toby, who videotapes family gatherings partly as a way of absenting himself from them, imagines that he can actually see the interactions of this household, ‘something flowing round the table, like a slight distortion in the tape: a stream flowing between the three women, a stream of kindness, of sympathetic intuition, of wishing one another well.’ But videotape has its limits. Marian feels ‘like a dumb imposed-upon hen’. She has a moment almost of double vision, ‘a dark flash exploding on her inner eye right in the middle of all the peace and pink-shaded light’. It’s a flashback to another kitchen a quarter of a century ago, in which Naomi sat, unable to meet her eyes, glowing with helpless involuntary youth and beauty. Somehow Marian was possessed by an envy that was like sexual desire, feeling vicariously Graham’s ‘baffled devouring need to press this perfection to your breast, to penetrate it, to break it open’.

Instead she threw the heavy chrome pasta machine that was a (ludicrous) Christmas present from Graham as hard as she could at Naomi’s head. The two scenes and sets of emotions refuse to be reconciled. It’s ancient history, and no longer matters now that Marian can have the luxury of thinking charitably that Naomi is ‘still sometimes pretty’. Yet she knows the episode reveals a truth about her, however impossible to integrate with other aspects of herself. The ‘howling thrashing screeching frightful creature’ that emerged back then isn’t dead, just buried under the concrete of everything steadying that has happened since. The different parts of the extended family come to resemble a network of underground tunnels, where voices (and indeed minor explosions) carry but are muffled by distance and intervening rock. The lack of formal unity isn’t a defect but part of the point. Here and there in her splendid new novel Tessa Hadley loses sight of the illumination that can be contributed by areas of darkness.