Of all the kinds of novel an author can write, probably the hardest is what looks like the most simple: the portrait. The life of an individual man or woman poses a formidable artistic challenge if it is not to mimic biography. How to convey a sense of both utter uniqueness and universal humanity? How to describe the inner life of a mind, or soul, over a lifetime? Very few modern novelists have the skill or the ambition to carry it off.
Jane Gardam is an exception. Sir Edward Feathers, nicknamed Filth (short for "Failed In London, Try Hong Kong"), is a retired judge, an "orphan of the Raj" whose mother died in childbirth in Ma-laya. He is, we are told, a delightful man, loved, admired and much discussed after his retirement by those who believe him to have led an unimaginative and uneventful life. It is not so.
After his birth, his father places him in the care of Malay servants, with whom he has his only experience of being loved. Like Rudyard Kipling, he is then cruelly sent "home", where his experience is one of shattering sadism at the hands of brutal foster parents. Unlike Kipling (whose harrowing story "Baa Baa, Black Sheep" is acknowledged as the inspiration for the novel), Feathers escapes physical damage, but for the rest of his life is unable to manage emotion. "All my life . . . from my early childhood, I've been left, or dumped, or separated by death, from everyone I loved or who cared for me. I want to know why," he says. The novel is an exploration of his life, a detective story with a deep-buried murder at its climax, committed by a child.
Gardam's pared-down style is perfectly suited to describing the thoughts and memories of an emotional cripple. The twin blessings of intelligence and good looks, plus a First in law at Oxford, make Filth seem a success even before his career brings fame and fortune: twice referred to as a "coelacanth" (a fossilised fish), he is a survivor of another era who has lived long enough to understand his essential unimportance. The sudden death of his wife, Betty, provokes a kind of nervous breakdown, unlocking "casements" in his prodigious memory: his close friendship with another schoolboy who was killed in the Second World War; his abortive journey in a convoy out to the Far East to see his father; his time spent guarding Queen Mary. Cruelty and loyalty, ignorance and age, death and dream are superimposed on each other in a montage of small events, resulting in a compassionate understanding of the eternal predicament of old age. Darting between past and present, still hearing his wife's voice on a kind of internal telephone, Filth embarks on a mad journey across England to find his two cousins, Babs and Claire, before ill-health and old age fell him.
"I cannot bear to think of the cruelty at the core of this foul world," says Filth, after making his confession to a priest. Yet there is kindness, too, and a blind justice that suggests our prayers do not go unanswered. Betty's string of fabulous pearls, given to her by her lover, Filth's old rival in Hong Kong, is buried in their garden with the tulips she plants just before dying. Deliberately childless, theirs is in every sense a barren marriage, yet the discovery of the pearls by a child searching for a football is symbolic of the way gifts get passed on unknowingly - just as Claire's son's girlfriend, stung by Filth's casual remark ("What child would want a parent like you?"), names their son after him.
Filth owes his fortune as a barrister to having once been generous to a Chinese war refugee, to whom he gave his father's watch, and who returned after the war in a white Rolls-Royce to bestow his pat-ronage on the young lawyer. All Filth's achievements at the Bar are forgotten and yet we, as readers, know otherwise. When, having recovered from his breakdown, he returns to the land of the Malays, he finds his true "Home" and, one hopes, peace. "Lawyers, I suppose, were children once," reads the monument in the Inner Temple garden, and with Gardam as his recording angel, we grieve for the lonely, damaged boy and honour the man he became.
Jane Gardam, once shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is one of our finest novelists yet her work has yet to reach a wide readership. Like Samuel Beckett, she continually explores the corrosive loneliness of being alive and the courage it takes to continue. Her best works (Crusoe's Daughter, God on the Rocks, The Queen of the Tambourine) examine these themes with a pathos all the more piercing because of the shafts of hope and love that she allows her creations. Readers will relish Old Filth for its compassionate wisdom, its com-prehension of the way we lived then and live now, and for its absolute mastery of authorial tone - the product of a lifetime of experience and craft. It is a Rembrandt portrait of a novel. Don't miss it.
Amanda Craig's most recent novel is Love in Idleness (Abacus)