The Light Years

the light years

Reading the Obituries recently, a macabre habit I only indulge in when someone has been excessively interesting, I stumbled across Elizabeth Jane Howard, writer of a recently-Radio 4-serialised clutch of novels and sometime partner of that disreputable old soak, Kingsley Amis.

Well, I’ve picked up enough about Mr K. Amis to know that any partner of his would be no wilting violet, and was fascinated to read about their relationship and her support of Martin, Kingsley’s child from a previous relationship. She was a bit of a warrior queen, all arched cheekbones and haunted brows. Here they are, looking moody and clever:


For the first and possibly last time I recommend anything by Martin Amis and CERTAINLY the last time I hope to recommend anything in the Daily Mail, this article is well worth a read for its insight into an extraordinarily literarily dense domestic set-up. This bit is particularly delightful:

Their approach to the daily business of writing formed a sharp contrast, one from which I derived a tentative theory about the difference between male and female fiction. Kingsley was a grinder; no matter how he was feeling (hungover, sickly, clogged, loth), he trudged off to his desk after breakfast, and that was that until it was time for evening drinks.

Jane was far more erratic and mercurial. She would wander from room to room, she would do some cooking or gardening, she would stare out of the window smoking a cigarette with an air of anxious preoccupation. Then she would suddenly hasten to her study, and you’d hear the feverish clatter of her typewriter keys. Very soon she would cheerfully emerge, having written more in an hour than my father would write in a day.

Of course it all went thoroughly sour – Howard was, as Martin says in the article, ‘a self confessed ‘bolter” and did a runner on Kingsley after 15 years. Kingsley wouldn’t speak to her ever again, and even turned down a deathbed reconciliation. On her death, the papers were packed with how Howard had been wrongly underappreciated and labelled just a ‘woman’s writer’ so, obscurist and feminist as I am, I set upon the first of five novels about the Cazalet family, The Light Years, set in 1938. The Cazalets are a fairly sprawling upper middle class family, with two elderly parents who get little air time, three children and a growing troupe of grandchildren. We join them in the run up to the Second World War, as anxieties start to grow, but this is a story about the individuals in the family rather than the war itself. They’re an agreeable rabble, almost universally likeable despite a liberal daubing of flaws, and Howard is particularly charming in the minds of the children to whom she gives very convincing voice.

It is, however, light. Very light indeed. It is no Amis. I read another book while halfway through it because, frankly, I was bored. This nice family going around, with their little intrigues and family politics … fine. And yet, and yet … somewhere, somehow, something happened. It didn’t change its (deceptively?) simple narrative style and tone, but it got a tiny, tiny little bit darker, a little more complex. The state of innocence began to act as a backdrop, a counterpoint, for a changing world. Or perhaps I’m overanalysing and I just settled into it like a slouchy, leaking beanbag.

Imagine my surprise when, not having thought myself enthralled by the whole thing, I found myself buying the next novel in the series, and starting it, immediately. This isn’t really something I do. But hey. You can’t read to better yourself all of the time. So two fingers up to you, Kingsley. The Old Devils might be a finer work than The Light Years, but I’ve not read a second book of yours.


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