The next post will be on or before Saturday November 18th
HOW JOE HURTS MYRTLE
‘I put away my bicycle and slammed the garage door. I was thinking of Myrtle, and I looked up at the sky. There were stars, sparkling. I was feeling happy, and I had left Myrtle feeling sad. Why, oh why? I am an honest man: one of my genuine troubles with Myrtle was that I could never tell whether she was looking unhappy because I would not marry her, or because she was feeling cold.’
Note something remarkable about this passage from Scenes from Provincial Life (1950) by William Cooper (1910-2002). Even if you have never read the novel and aren’t old enough to have seen the excellent 1966 ITV adaptation with Ian McShane as Joe the novel’s narrator, you will get a vivid even if subliminal picture of both Joe and Myrtle from this short extract. There are no adjectives describing either but somehow the humorously understated voice of the narrator and the poignant if debatable sadness of forlorn Myrtle are already established and you can see or at any rate feel the pair of them as clear as a bell.
William Cooper was the pen name of HS (Harry Summerfield) Hoff who published a few novels under his real name, but his big breakthrough came when he turned to this autobiographical work published in the year that I was born. He had read Natural Sciences at Cambridge and ended up a schoolmaster in Leicester, the unnamed city of the novel. Afterwards he worked for the Civil Service where he met CP Snow (1905-1980) of Corridors of Power (1964) fame, and Snow is very obviously fictionalised here as Robert, the Oxford don friend, mentor of both Joe and his best friend the volatile and also gay and Jewish accountant, Tom.
The quote above demonstrates an early example of an unreliable narrator as Joe is not at root an honest man, certainly not towards Myrtle, though neither is he grossly devious. He like Tom is an ambitious novelist in his late 20s and his doting and vulnerable girlfriend Myrtle is a graphic designer aged only 22. Joe lives in comfy digs with a landlady and even though the novel is set in 1939 when WW2 is looming, there is an impressive atmosphere of moral equivocation in the provinces. His landlady vanishes every Sunday on a compulsory long walk with the dog so that a female relative of hers can be visited by a much older chap, where after a short delay they vanish upstairs. Joe and Tom share a cottage where they alternate weekends, Joe having a tender bedroom liaison with Myrtle after lunch and beer in the pub, Tom with a young boy of 17 called Steve who is both an unrepentant liar and who is periodically unsure of his sexuality. Tom who is admirably drawn as brave, warm and loyal as well as impulsive, selfish, contradictory and impossible, keeps trying to bag extra weekends with Steve and has a habit of turning up shamelessly when Joe is ensconced with Myrtle. The 2 relationships make a poignant structural parallel as throughout the novel Joe essentially strings Myrtle along and values his novel writing and his independence more than anything, while Myrtle’s analogue Steve is periodically disloyal to Tom, once or twice dating attractive young girls and predictably driving his older partner mad.
Some of the deliberations by Joe about his deceitful egotism and Myrtle’s artless obstinacy are very funny.
‘How I asked myself can Myrtle love me and not want to read my books? How can a woman separate the artist from the man? The answer came pat. Women not only can: they do. And they have a simple old-fashioned way of selecting the bit they prefer. At the same time, I have to admit that if Myrtle had made the other choice I should have accused her of not loving me for myself.’
Another significant force line here is the fact that Joe, Tom and their don friend Robert are planning to emigrate to the USA in the face of imminent war, not least because Tom is Jewish. This is carefully kept secret from Myrtle until it accidentally spills out when she accompanies Joe to see Robert in Oxford. The constant dramatic motif is that she wants marriage and Joe does not, and both of them are chronically incapable of stating their irreconcilable wishes. Possibly all this sounds a bit small time provincial, even trivial and parochial, but the excellence of this exceptional novel is related to the fact that Cooper works closely around the anguish of Myrtle being unable to articulate what she wants and Joe likewise often feeling painful guilt and utter wretchedness, whilst perennially unable to give up his writerly freedom (when they do at last discuss going to America together, she insists that he must get a job). Below Myrtle’s misery and her poignant readiness to turn herself into a pathetic doormat if so required are economically sketched.
‘“I wanted to say I was sorry for being rude to you earlier this evening.”
I felt a sudden stab of pain as I recognized the words – the apology of one who is in love with one who is loved. How well I recognised it! You apologise to the one who ought to apologise to you – to such straits does love reduce dignity and common sense.’
In another and European context this is faintly reminiscent of the Jean-Paul Sartre trilogy The Roads to Freedom where Mathieu cannot ‘commit’ to a woman in absolute existential terms, though that is where the parallel stops, because Joe as the narrator, despite his lucidity and intelligence, has a definite downer on high culture and at one point makes a dismissive aside about the works of TS Eliot. And while we’re talking of culture and where it is said to begin, one other pleasing focus within the novel is the evocation of Joe’s schoolteaching milieu. As a rule, any novel set in a British secondary school is an anticlimactic and deadly dull disaster, but Joe is not an ordinary teacher and moreover half the time is facing the sack.
‘It may not have occurred to everybody that most schoolmasters are preoccupied not with pedagogy but with keeping the pupils quiet. There are numerous methods of achieving this, ranging from giving them high class instruction to knocking them unconscious.’
Joe strikes an amiable middle ground by skiving as much as possible and getting his 6th form physics students to help him do so. They call him Joe, swear in front of him, tell him their closest secrets and keep look out one day while he shins out of the window to go for a walk. The Senior physics master Bolshaw sited next door is of the opposite ilk, and loudly knocks a pupil down which Joe and the 6th formers are genuinely shocked to overhear. Bolshaw keeps tantalising Joe by implying that if he helps him with some tedious calculations relevant to the book he is writing on astrophysics he will ensure that Joe replaces him when Bolshaw takes over from the asthmatic old head of Physics, Simms. As part of the novel’s impressively lateral nuances, Joe periodically notes the intelligence and even the decency of Bolshaw who most of the time is seen as a bluffing and hypocritical buffoon. In fact, if you were to state what single thing makes this novel head and shoulders above its contemporaries, it is that Cooper via Joe sees his characters always stereoscopically, both in their touching strengths and hideous faults, their occasional joys and their regular agonies, and he does it with extreme economy and a light and graceful yet infinitely instructive humour. I doubt very much Cooper ever read much less subscribed to the aesthetic of the ‘English Chekov’ novelist William Gerhardie (1895-1977) but this gently comic and stereoscopic approach to characterisation was precisely what Gerhardie posited as the wisest and highest possible artistic tactic, being effectively a bird’s eye view = Godly view of one’s fictional art as expounded in his posthumous 1981 work God’s Fifth Column.
The plot might be simple but manages to be infinitely labyrinthine also. Tom calculates that their emigration to the States is being hampered by Joe giving Myrtle false hopes. Hence as Machiavellian strategy he makes a theatrical and absurd fuss of her in front of Joe, and even proposes marriage which Myrtle has the sense to refuse. She meanwhile in order to ruffle Joe and change the power balance has got involved with a crowd led by a man called Haxby who is never centre stage and always just a threatening name. Haxby and Co go in for listening to gramophone records and playing absurd party games, which Joe finds deplorable even though it stings him with jealousy. Next Myrtle acquires a dog and dotes on it in such a bizarrely eccentric fashion that Joe thinks she is losing her wits. As counterpoint to their disarray, Tom postpones his trip to the States and buys a car to take Steve on a trip to Paris. Steve refuses to go or even to look at the car, and Tom’s blustering and agonising anguish is simply but powerfully depicted.
‘Steve did not speak. Tom waited. Steve still did not speak. I saw nothing for it but for Tom to go. Suddenly he let out an indistinguishable cry. Steve and I looked at him in alarm. Tom opened his mouth to speak again and failed’
I won’t give away too much of the over-summatory if niftily wrapped up ending, but will conclude by saying this is an outstandingly entertaining miniature masterpiece, if a slightly flawed one at that. Part of this is because although the novel is miraculously liberal and unfoolable in its attitudes for its day, with scenes of Tom pursuing and openly demanding love of 17-year-old Steve in public places, it also shows a bafflingly naïve or at least questionable notion of what it is to be gay. There is no hint that Tom marrying Myrtle might betray his nature, and indeed both he and Steve end up married to beguiling wives and proud of the fact by the end of the book. Meanwhile Joe when he affably buttonholes the reader with his dry but kindly wisdom is always good value, but on the other hand he is always reminding us he that he is writing a novel and that at times can get archly obtrusive. Most baffling of all is that in his account of his mistreating Myrtle regularly he refers to himself by the quaint anachronism of ‘cad’. Surely other than in derring-do school stories and Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter, that term had well and truly died out by the turn of the 20th century?
That said, this is a superbly entertaining novel, like absolutely nothing else of its day, and if you don’t get round to reading it, you will have missed an exquisitely comic literary treat.
The brilliant 1966 TV adaptation mentioned above was wisely renamed You Can’t Win, which has more of a commercial zing to it than the novel’s tongue in cheek title. I have tried to track down some remnant fragment of it on You Tube, but sadly there is nothing there.